Friday, 31 July 2015

Who wants to be a godparent?

From giving silver christening cups to keeping up to date on WhatsApp, Thomas Blaikie takes a wry look at this honorary role

Written by Thomas Blaikie
What are godparents for? The question is prompted by the recent royal christening of Princess Charlotte, where she was equipped with five of these items. Her brother, Prince George, has seven, but then he is heir to the throne. Technically, godparents are supposed to keep a strict watch on the child’s spiritual development, setting passages of scripture to be learnt by heart, etc.

These days, in our more secular times, they are often close friends of the parents, who ideally have better access to One Direction concerts, The Lion King or the latest Hello Kitty products than the home circle affords. Thus also the iron destiny of inheritance is bucked. But godparents are not necessarily the child’s legal guardians. It is usual for a girl to have two godmothers and one godfather and for a boy the other way round. Any more, unless you are royalty, might look rather common, quite frankly.

None of Princess Charlotte’s godparents are royal and only one has a family connection. James Meade is a friend of Prince William’s from Eton. At his prep school he disliked football and was mad for beagles. He sounds all right. The Queen’s godparents were almost entirely older members of her family, including three grandparents, as was the custom at the time of her birth. With her grandfather, George V, the relationship was not especially godfatherly. She made him play ponies with her. An equerry found the King-Emperor on all fours on the drawing-room floor being whipped round the room by the tiny princess. Her grandmother, Queen Mary, on the other hand, liked to take her to improving exhibitions and concerts. But the Queen Mother later wrote that these outings were dreadfully boring for the little girl.

Despite the modern tendency, demonstrated emphatically by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to eschew the family as a source of godparents, there is still the expectation, reflected in press coverage, that certain venerable aunts and cousins will receive the honour. When Princess Anne was not asked to be a godmother to Prince Harry, it was widely assumed that this was the reason for her conspicuous veering in the opposite direction on the day of the christening.

Nowadays parents of a newborn often find themselves inundated with requests to be godparents from a bizarre medley of perhaps unattached individuals. If accepted, these people jolly well better buckle to. There’s a fair amount of duty involved in godparenting, with the rewards far away in the future. At one time it was thought important to procure very grand godparents, often excessively remote connections of the parents. These people produced self-aggrandising christening cups of silver, with their titles and degrees in large letters. And then were never heard of again. My father had two such godfathers.

On the other hand a cousin had, as a godmother, Her Majesty Queen Mary who was a success, visited often, gave a beautiful dolls’ house as a christening present, and £6 every Christmas for the godchild and her siblings. She apparently liked babies and once admired the ‘little pink bottie’ of one.

Proper, functioning godparents (or trying to be) abound. I am a godfather times two. One is married now and fond of motorbikes. Luckily he is also a musician, which is more up my street. We don’t live in each other’s pockets but it is a pleasurable duty to follow and support his endeavours. The other is a little girl, too young for outings to the offices of The Lady. For her recent birthday she requested (not from me) an enormous bean bag whose colour appalled her mother. We drank consoling champagne while it was extracted from its box.

My friend Miss Mulholland is a fairy godmother of a kind: ‘When a godson was in trouble at school for ducking out of cross country, I sent a monetary reward for use of initiative.’

Another, Miss Hallifax, was a similarly liberating influence: ‘When I heard that my goddaughter was doing her homework on a Sunday, I said to her, “Six days shalt thou labour… the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord…” It’s the only biblical thing I ever said to her. She’s 32 now and I’ve taken her to the theatre most birthdays since she was eight.’

The writer Peter Parker has a lively relationship on WhatsApp, an internet messaging service, with his 13-year-old godson. ‘I’m glad you’re doing better at school,’ Parker said in a godfatherly way. ‘Thought I might as well,’ was the godson’s laconic reply. From the other side, as it were, the artist Dexter Dalwood once dropped in on his godmother, who lived in Soho in the 1970s. She had a male friend with her who addressed the adolescent Dalwood as ‘Duckie’. ‘I’d never been called “Duckie” before.’ Steven Spielberg, the film director, is more on the hellfire and brimstone model. He sent Drew Barrymore, his goddaughter, a quilt for her 20th birthday with a note saying, ‘Cover yourself up.’ This was after she’d posed for Playboy in 1995. Even Lady Gaga is shaping up as godmother to Elton John and David Furnish’s two sons, Zachary and Elijah.

Often godparents have been an absolute lifeline when all else has failed. In difficulties, the perspective of someone who is at one remove from the family can be invaluable. In happier times, too, there are outings, treats, present-buying, surprises and a general broadening of horizons on both sides – yes, it’s a special and rewarding relationship.

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