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From bad lad to sad dad;Parenting

Nobody attending a parenting group led by Albert Ford need fear a smug lecture from a self-satisfied super-dad. This is a man who makes no secret of his own failures.

He began taking drugs as a boy in New York in the mid-1950s ("Buying heroin was like buying a Mars Bar"), and continued through high school, the air force and Vietnam.

It took him years to break the addiction, and one of his three brothers died from an overdose. But he knew he had to stop when he was arrested four times in three months.

His real problem, he says, was emotional. "If your dad never touched you or spoke to you and your mum was emotionally confused, you have a problem."

His father was a lorry driver, and all he says about him is that "it's hard to imagine what happened in his childhood".

Ford himself did a spell driving lorries, but in the Seventies he came to England and made hippy leather goods. Graduating from a market stall to a leather shop in Oxford, he built up a manufacturing and wholesaling business, "pushing leather bags all around the world and neglecting my children".

Then, a couple of years ago, with one divorce behind him and another on the way, he sold everything, bar one shop, and took a fresh look at his life. "One day my therapist said 'How is that inner child feeling?' And I closed my eyes and went back to when I was three years old and I started to cry. I didn't stop crying for four or five months. I used to sob myself to sleep.

"I asked the therapist how much longer this was likely to go on, and he told me that when it had happened to him he had taken a cushion and done all the things to that cushion that hadn't been done to him as a child.

"I was selling dolls in the shop, and I took a doll and named him Albert. I took this doll everywhere."

Realising the extent to which he had neglected the two children from his first marriage (he is estranged from them now, but speaks of them with great pride), he joined a parenting course. It didn't save his second marriage, but he now feels closer than ever to his two younger children.

Today he feels sufficiently at peace with himself to counsel drug addicts and their families at a local drop-in centre, and run drug rehabilitation and parenting workshops for inmates at Bullingdon prison.

"If you want to see some battered boys - battered and confused - that's the place," he says. "But with a few exceptions, there's nothing wrong with them. They're just bruised and confused."

At every turn he sees lives destroyed by parents who don't know how to be parents. The parenting groups are drawing in mothers, he says, but nobody is going after the fathers.

"Men have sat in circles and talked for millions of years. But now we just sit in office blocks, or go to the pub and talk bullshit. When Dad has a problem, where does he go?"

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