Category: family life

Swimming Against The Stream

5 April, 1982, is a day I shall always remember. All afternoon the TV news showed huge crowds waving hundreds and hundreds of union jacks at departing battleships bound for the South Atlantic. The British Task Force was setting off to recapture the Falkland Islands, seized by Argentina just three days earlier. We watched in stunned silence, hardly able to believe our eyes. The speed and scale of it was overwhelming. Oh well, I said in a loud voice to no one in particular, they must know what they’re doing.

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In the kitchen, a pan crashed to the floor. My mother had heard me. She hurtled into the lounge in her apron and in no uncertain terms proceeded to read me the riot act. Her actual words are now a blur but that righteous anger of hers brings a blush to my cheek to this very day.  I can still see my kids on the floor where they were playing, open-eyed and open-mouthed, their faces turned up to watch and hear their grandma – kind, gentle, sweet-natured grandma – tearing into their dad as if he was still a small child himself and one who had been brought up to know much better than to spout such stupid nonsense.

My mum began to hurl imprecations at my head like the Fury in a Greek drama, o ye gods, how on earth could I have forgotten that the Americans had promised they would mediate between us and the Argentinians at the United Nations? Surely I could see that this ridiculous trumped-up farrago of force and hubris was designed to pre-empt negotiations which might yet save lives? This was just another shabby deal behind closed doors, a dirty conspiracy between the hawks in the States and Whitehall, yet one more lost opportunity to employ ‘jaw-jaw not war-war’ … her words return to me in fragments … ‘that man Haig’ … ‘she wants her way, they’re all terrified of her‘ ‘the old, old story’

Once my Mum got going like that, there was no stopping her.

Oh, I try but I can’t really reply to her. There are things I could say in defence of the British action, if only I could think of them, but I’m entirely absorbed in how my kids are reacting to this new and unexpected experience. Their eyes skitter between grandma and daddy, taking in her beautiful anger and my sheepish submission. My cheeks are still burning, more than thirty years later, but now it’s pride and gratitude that lights them up.

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I’m so glad they got to see her like that, in her true colours, flying before the wind of her indomitable human conscience. Whenever she disagreed with something you said, she would use a phrase which she got from her dad who must have heard it from one of his own forebears, a phrase that has always stayed with me … Never, she would say, never in the memory of man

Mum believed that the United Nations was at the summit of all human striving for a better world. She agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the price of freedom was eternal vigilance. And there was no one more vigilant than she, especially when others were climbing on a bandwagon going the other way. That April afternoon, amid all the bunting flying and ships’ horns tooting, never in the memory of man was her contrary clarion call.

And now it was a touchstone my own children would inherit.

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When Two Tribes Go To War

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I follow several blogs and reckon you could put most of them into one of two categories – those that want to celebrate the world and those that want to reform it. My parents died before the internet really took off, but my father would have been a celebrator and my mother a reformer. I find myself torn between those positions, as I did when they were alive, piggy-in-the-middle trying in vain to mediate between them.

Their big disagreement was about human nature. Dad reckoned it was fixed and you couldn’t change it. Mum thought there was no such thing, that we were all just products of conditioning by society. He thought she was an impractical idealist. She thought he was a blinkered cynic. They would argue long into the night, carrying on a war of attrition and driving one another into more and more entrenched positions. Dawn often broke before they would agree to an exhausted truce and rally their spent forces for another battle the following night.

As you might imagine, I don’t enjoy conflict. I prefer to sit on the fence in most arguments, acutely aware of the merits on both sides. This can infuriate those who seek yes-no answers to black-and-white questions, but I have come to see my indecision as a positive quality. I don’t occupy fixed positions and I don’t just go along with majority viewpoints. Listening to your parents argue night after night is a royal pain in the neck but it can help you develop a truly independent state of mind.

In a way, of course, they were both right. Only by stepping out of the ‘mind-forged manacles’, to use William Blake’s phrase, can we discover who we really are and what we might become. And what I am – at least, what I hope and believe I am – is someone who loves the world so much, he wants to make it better.

So is my blog a celebration or a call to arms? The answer, of course, is both. It is only through appreciating the best in life that you can begin to identify the worst. The difficult bit is finding a language that can encompass both good and evil. You can make a start by admitting that you couldn’t recognise the one without the other …

Taking A Back Seat

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Beyond The Gilded Cage may not have won the playwriting competition – OK, it never even made the shortlist! – but it has the minor distinction of being the first play I ever finished. Starting a dialogue comes easily enough when the discordant soundtrack to your childhood is constant parental bickering – all the books tell you that drama needs conflict, so it’s ta to Ma and Pa for plenty of that! – but fictional endings come harder when disagreements in real life are never really settled.

Anyway, that’s my excuse. Deadlines help, of course, they always did. One long boring car journey we decided to start writing down everything my parents said, so we sat on the back seat scribbling like crazy while they came up with pure comedy gold … “You’re getting far too close to that cyclist!” … “What cyclist?”  We ended up with pages of this stuff, driven on by the delicious prospect of reading it  aloud to everybody when we got to our grandparents’ house. A performance deadline, no less, and we brought the house down! If my mother and father had ever seen eye to eye, perhaps I wouldn’t still be scribbling crazy dialogues I can’t seem to finish.

There’s something of my parents in Sarah and Patrick, the central couple in my play, but whether I manage to bring them together convincingly at the end is anybody’s guess. Still, the books on playwriting tell me that farce is close to tragedy. If you’re interested, click on beyond2 and a Word document should load up after a few moments.

Full Circle

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… and when the child awakes, the fun begins again. I find myself clowning around with my grandchild just as my granddad did with me. The guy was hilarious, bless him! One time he comes to visit and presents us with a big box of Quality Street chocolates. We open it eagerly and start to unwrap the sweets, only to find he’s carefully wrapped up lots of silly little things like pebbles and nuts and bolts. When we express disappointment he keeps calling us greedy. We’re almost finished laughing when he brings out the real chocolates in an old brown paper bag and starts eating them himself, which absolutely kills us kids off.

Another time we – my brother, sister and I – are walking down a country lane with him and he points up at a wooden notice by the side of the road with the message illegible because the paint is peeling off.

“Know what that is, don’t you?” he asks.

We shake our heads.

“That,” he says with a straight face, “is a notice for people who can’t read.”

The three of us laughed so much, we fell into a hedge,

It was granddad who told my mum, his daughter,  about the man outside the League of Nations building after World War I – see my earlier post entitled Homage. And I suppose this present post is a homage to my granddad for filling our lives with hilarity. We never stopped laughing when he was around. If I can give my own grandchildren something of that, I will die happy …

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A moment of calm … my grandchild asleep in her pushchair, sunlight pouring through the back windows, Gregorian Chant low in the background … what more could I want?

When I was teaching, a favourite lesson was to ask the class to sit in silence and write down anything that came into their heads – observations, stray thoughts, whatever – and then to turn the notes into a poem called Now. I would work alongside them on my own poem, which gave a valid reason for silence – teacher at work, do not disturb! I would encourage them to read their own poems by reading mine, first or last depending on their response. Private reading in the library only worked when I was reading too and could glare balefully at them over my glasses for disturbing me …

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Homage

My mum was an idealist. She hated cruelty, elitism, xenophobia, greed and selfishness. She would always argue from the heart, her moral values needing no appeal to evidence. She knew what was right and could never understand why others might not share her passionate beliefs in universal  liberty, equality and fraternity.

I recall many occasions when she was surrounded by others trying to make her see how impractical her ideas were – human nature being what it is, they would tell her, not everyone is as good-hearted as you. Wrong, she would reply, what about the man who walked up the steps of the newly-opened League of Nations building after the carnage of World War I – the war to end war, their watchword – what about him? The man who chained himself to the railings, unfurling a banner whose words went around the world: “I ——– (name), from ——– (country), hereby renounce my nationality and proclaim myself The First Citizen of the World” That man, she would say before leaving the room with all the dignity she could muster, is the person I admire.

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Bless you mum, long gone but never forgotten, I wish more people thought and felt as you did …