A FAMILY AND A QUARREL
Sing, Muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles,
the accursed wrath that brought countless sorrows
to the Greeks ...
Homer, The Iliad
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing …
Pope, The Rape of the Lock
For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind.
Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen
I always thought I would write about our family. I was ashamed of this impulse when I was younger because I intended to be a ‘real’ writer, and I had been told that writing about yourself was the sign of an amateur. The idea that ‘everybody had a story in them’ amused a teacher at my grammar school in Bermondsey. She laughed. I laughed too.
I had other inhibitions. As the academic in the family, learning from books as well as life, I tried to be judicious. ‘You think you know everything,’ someone, in a rage, would say. ‘All you know is what you’ve read in books.’
In some of the books I read people interviewed the older members of their families and wrote down their memories. When I tried to do this I felt guilty. None of the aunts and uncles and cousins minded talking to me – they liked it. But my interest seemed to me exploitative, my polite questioning nothing but a cover for the betrayal that would follow.
I puzzled over these feelings of guilt. I wondered about shame and laughter. I decided I was probably fearful of what I would find out and anxious about other people’s reactions to what I might disclose. All families had secrets. Secrets were surely the first rule of family.
Later there came a larger puzzle. When I made my forays, writing down the stories I was told, it never occurred to me – and nobody pointed out – that my conception of family was one-sided. At that time I thought only about my father’s family. The aunts and uncles were his sisters and brothers and they lived in the same street as us in South London or very nearby: Arthur and Edie, Tom and May, Nellie and Harry, Lou and Reggie, and Vi, a war widow. I had no corresponding impulse to write about my mother’s family as a family I belonged to. They were not English, they did not live nearby, and I felt no affinity. Their names – Evangelos and Evangelia, Toni and Pericles, Poppy, Spirithoula, Fotini – belonged in their world far away in Athens, not mine. The strangeness of this did not strike me until my father died in 2006 and my mother, who had lived in England for fifty years, briefly contemplated returning to Greece and living there.
It was a shock to think she might go home as if she no longer had any reason to stay. Had she only been passing through (spilling six children on the way)? The resentful about-to-be-abandoned child in me wanted to know if that was allowed. What did family mean if she could leave us so easily? What had she been doing in my life? The question demanded attention although it felt dangerous and wrong to ask. I was warned off by my mother herself who, told I was writing about the family, gave me a long look and pointedly remarked, ‘Say anything bad about your mother in Greece and nobody respects you.’ Loosely translated, that was an absolute prohibition.
There are so many reasons for not writing about family; there is so much, it would seem, that is best left unspoken. And yet it is the primal subject. We know who we are by finding out about our families. ‘Everyone does family history nowadays,’ writes Alison Light in her wonderful reconstruction of her family’s past, Common People, the History of an English Family. Everyone has a story. The television series Who Do You Think You Are? invites celebrities to discover their ancestors in the archives. Like Light, they look at the generations that have gone, drawn by the fascination of the past and ‘people we can never know’.
The people we can never know will never know what we write about them and we may make what use of them we please. Writing about the living is another matter; they will be sensitive and have opinions. Siblings, even more than still-living parents, are likely to view the memoirist in their midst with reservations.
Not Speaking is the title of this book in acknowledgement of the pressures that remain and the taboos that exist. It also carries the meaning, ‘not on speaking terms’, a state of affairs very common in families. Mostly it signifies ‘that which was unspoken’, meaning not only secrets and shared but forbidden knowledge, but also a deep level of non-articulation that could be traced back to (or find its excuses in) barriers of language and culture. Literally and metaphorically it often seemed in our closely-bonded and quite talkative family that people did not speak each other’s language, a pattern established by our parents: our father did not understand Greek; our mother, when she married, had no English.
When my father died my sense of self slipped a gear. I believe something similar happened to my siblings. For all six of us his death altered the internal balance of the family. It took away some restraints and introduced new demands. We all mourned a loved parent but for the youngest, Athena, called Tina, who had latterly absorbed our father into her domestic life, it was an overwhelming loss. She wanted him buried near the woods on her land. Keeping him close was one way of dealing with the feelings, but there was more to it than that as she, and we, gradually realized.
Tina was haunted by a doubt she hardly dared utter. When she overcame her fears and took steps to establish the truth, she discovered that our father was not her father, a state of affairs also not uncommon in families.[i]
But he was her father, the only father she had ever known, and loved, and we were her siblings, the older brothers and sisters in the family to which she belonged. At one level, knowing the truth changed nothing, or so Tina said, and we said. Except that at another level, where deeply buried lies and secrecy had governed her life, the truth changed everything.
‘I can’t believe none of you knew about this,’ she said. ‘I can’t believe none of you told me.’
It was a difficult and painful period. Little was said. Not speaking was designed to shrink the problem. Instead, it compounded it.
And then, in 2014, a great quarrel erupted among the siblings. It was apparent that sentiments about belonging, assumptions about what might be demanded by one of another, the unspoken expectations that had seemed to knit us, no longer held. Choosing not to be connected, not meeting, not keeping a part of the self ready for a sister or a brother’s call was alien to our family myth as I understood it. It would have had no traction had our father still been alive.
The spirit of discord – Eris in Greek myth – rampaged amongst us and I found myself asking more dangerous questions. What was ‘our family myth’? What did it mean? When and where had it begun and what or who was it for? What was I – wishing to be a peacemaker in the quarrel – trying to save? I thought about the different languages of knowledge and feeling. I wondered about truth and love.
As family life came to resemble a Greek drama and people behaved in mystifying ways, I opened the Iliad. ‘Declare, O Muse! In what ill-fated hour / Sprung the fierce strife …’ is how Homer launches the story of the Trojan war (in Alexander Pope’s translation). The first word, in the original Greek, is ‘menin’, variously translated as wrath, rage or anger. In Greek myths wrath in men is often caused by wounded pride; in the Iliad, Achilles sulks in his tent, angered by Agamemnon who is also angry. The Muse begins with the anger of Achilles, ‘the accursed wrath that brought countless sorrows / to the Greeks ...’
Our war was very like the Trojan war, I thought. Like the Greeks assembling in support of Menelaus whose beautiful wife Helen had run off with Paris (or, had been seduced and captured) and who then quarrelled amongst themselves about the best way to achieve their ends, we were failing to find a solution to a difficulty concerning a woman: our mother. Or (depending how you looked at it and in what ill-fated hour you thought it all began) we were refusing to collaborate in what had previously been a shared project. By 2014, for reasons that were political and personal (the Greek crisis, the death of her last surviving sister in Greece, the birth of twin grandsons in London) it was clear that our mother had no intention of living anywhere but in England. Exactly where she lived, and under what terms, had become an issue.
Many factors fed the rivers of wrath that followed a decision made by Nicky, which is not the same as saying he started it. Nicky saw the matter as a refusal of co-operation: he had worked hard and found a solution to the little local difficulty; others didn’t see it that way. He felt misunderstood, misrepresented, shamefully exploited, let down and unappreciated. ‘I hoped for a little co-operation, that’s all,’ he said, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in anger. Meeting resistance, encountering stubborn opposition, he withdrew to his tent in St John’s Wood, barred the door and declared his perfect willingness never to speak to his brothers and sisters again ‘for two hundred years’.
The stalemate that ensued, the directionlessness of the quarrel, was as unfathomable as most of the goings-on in large families and at the same time predictable, a series of variations on familiar themes. Like the Greeks encamped for ten years outside the walls of Troy, we alternately mounted offensives and ignored the war, and were by turns serious and frivolous, tragic and comic. Along with heat and passion and grievances, there was a degree of levity, a flippancy, that was surprising to outsiders but reassuring to me. This was the family style. When we stopped making bad jokes and laughing at each other there would be cause for alarm. A year went by. Another year began. I hoped Nicky would soon see the funny side.
I opened The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope’s mock-epic in mock homage to the Iliad. The Rape of the Lock offered laughter as the antidote to anger when ‘mighty contests’ rose from ‘trivial things’. Since the trivial thing in the poem was a quarrel that started with the cutting of a lock of hair in a country house, I thought Pope might be able to help me out. Hair and houses were my theme. In The Rape of the Lock two families, the Petres and the Fermors, had previously been great friends, but Arabella Fermor failed to be amused when Lord Petre came up behind her and cut some of her hair. By making ‘a jest’ of the quarrel, Pope hoped to ‘laugh them together again’. Nobody should get so exercised about a lock of hair, even if, as Pope wrote of the moment the curl was cut, ‘Fate urged the sheers.’
In our family fate urged the sheers and locks were cut in Nicky’s salon in Mayfair and in our youngest brother Michael’s salon in Marylebone. Nicky’s celebrity, his ‘glamorous lifestyle’, had coloured all our lives. Paradoxically, inside the family it was a sort of secret, resolutely unspoken even when the Daily Mail had a several-page spread detailing his sexual peccadilloes, and someone – most likely me – was being asked to read the story aloud (out of earshot of our father) because our mother’s command of English prose did not extend to print. ‘Don’t tell your father,’ she would say, the newspaper open on her lap. After 2014 she started saying, ‘I’m so worried about Nicky. He misses all of you!’
As hairdressers, Nicky and Michael were both prize-winners, leading theorists and exponents of methods and styles, renowned throughout the industry and beyond. Tina had originally been a partner in Michael’s business and continued to be associated with him. There was some rivalry between the salons, and there had been episodes of not speaking, but the mighty contest that began in 2014 went on for longer, showed no sign of being resolved, and involved everybody else.
Like my elder sister Linda I wanted not to take sides. I wanted to understand from the quiet of the library rather than the heat of battle the forces that shaped the quarrel. Books told me there was nothing new under the sun: men and women had trodden these routes already and left their signs. Books reassured and comforted.
Pope said of Homer – who began it all: story, myth, western civilization – that he ‘created a world for himself in the invention of fable’, he ‘opened a new and boundless walk for his imagination.’ When we write and read, tell and listen to stories, we create worlds. Our mother used the word ‘stories’ to mean ‘lies’. ‘Stories,’ she would say, and sniff, not believing someone’s version of events. ‘It’s all stories. Take no notice.’ She loved to dwell on her own stories, telling them with vivacity. Frequently the telling would end with a rhetorical flourish. ‘Was I right or wrong?’ she would demand. ‘Right or wrong?’ There was only ever one answer, just as when she said something especially harsh about a person or an occasion and you protested she would say, ‘Why shouldn’t I say it? It’s the truth.’
The Greek word for story is ‘mythos’. It is translated as story, report, tale, and legend, and anything delivered by word of mouth. ‘Mythos’ gives us ‘myth’, ‘mythic’ and ‘mythological’. In her widowhood, our mother’s vitality and youthfulness acquired mythological status in the family. She was a survivor, fiercely individual and self-willed. Although family was her universe and she did everything she could to bring peace and harmony, the seeds were sown and the fates were at their business. She believed in fate. Like Homer she belonged in an oral rather than a written tradition, but she would say that everything was written in a book and whatever happened had been pre-ordained.
When I was a child I wanted to write about our family because I thought it was special, I was special, and that there was something quite extraordinary about the life I lived. Shakespeare reminds us that we remain children ‘in some kind’, and this is perhaps especially true in all that concerns us as siblings. He also suggests that we need to grow up, learn to take seriously what’s missing and value what we have: ‘For what we lack / We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still / Are children in some kind.’ King Theseus of Athens speaks these lines at the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen. The noble kinsmen of the title are cousins whose shared values and equal merits have created an intense bond. They passionately adore each other (each perhaps seeing an idealised version of himself) and as passionately fall out. Jealousy is the poison. Emilia says, ‘Men are mad things’. Shakespeare shows that what they share is stronger throughout than what divides them: what they have, what they want, and what they have to lose are the same.
Everybody has a story and all stories are special to the people they concern. No two stories are the same; no two versions of the same story are the same. The person named – Achilles, Theseus, Michael, Tina, Nicky, Mum – and put in a story becomes instantly a creature of fable. That’s the trick that Homer started.
[i] I have the Archbishop of Canterbury’s authority for saying this. On 8 April, 2016, Justin Welby announced he had discovered that the man he thought was his father, whose name he carried, was not his biological father after all. This news came, he wrote, ‘as a complete surprise.’ He then went on to reflect as follows: ‘My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships … is far too normal.’