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THE FAMILY TREASURE-HOUSE

The Times, 10th June 1996

 

No sooner does the Leader of the Opposition 'admit' he has occasionally smacked his children, immediately pundits wonder if this heralds the end of civilised family life as Clare Rayner has come to define it, or (on the other hand) a sensible return to basics. There are protests from people who defend the rights of the child at all cost, yet fail to define as one of those rights protecting children from themselves and their peers. Fuss, fuss, fuss. Of course, all Mr Blair's shocking confession did was remind that most sensible parents sometimes sensibly chastise their naughty offspring, as a part of normal domestic life. Why, the only difference between me and Tony Blair is that I feel not a shred of 'remorse', and I would call myself a good parent and a family person, just like him.

But what does that mean? An invaluable American book of themed quotations, published in 1977, introduces 'Family' thus: 'The institution of the family is inseparable from the marriage rite and all that it entails; the relation of husband and wife results from marriage and is fundamental to the institution of the family; the parental care and direction of children, as well as filial respect and obedience, are aspects of domestic government ...'.

Outdated platitudes, or nuggets of wisdom? Despite the narrowness, the key words are there to be extracted: 'rite', 'entails', 'institution', 'respect', 'obedience', 'care', 'direction' and 'government'. Solemn terms, yet you cannot separate any discussion of Family (however you define it) from an acknowledgement of the sober responsibilties inherent within such language. Nothing changes that. Communism sought to destroy the ideal of the familty, like the idea of God - and failed on both counts. Marx's excoriation of the 'disgusting...bourgois claptrap about the family and education ...the hallowed co-relation of parent and child' seems pathetic now. Families ran to each other when the Berlin Wall came down.

Like it or not the family is the bedrock. Aristotle described the tribe or village growing out of an association of families, just as later the city grew from a cluster of villages. Rousseau held the traditional human family to be 'the most ancient of all societies and the only one which is natural'. Freud saw the family as a 'natural group formation' - never mind what goes on within it. Throughout history writers, philosophers and politicians have agreed that the bonding together in family groups is both instinctive and necessary to human welfare - and therefore essential to the health of a society. The family is the microcosm.family

Until, perhaps, our lifetime. In 1982, Pope John Paul made his first visit to this country and attempted to raise a bulwark against chaos: 'Treasure your families', he said, ' the future of humanity passes by way of the family'. Once again the abstract was raised as an object of veneration, to a predictable murmur of protest from the liberal-left, just as in the sixties. Then fashionable gurus like R.D.Laing identified family life with mental breakdown. Latin: famulus, a servant, linked the institution with oppression. For feminists the family was synonymous with tyranny over women, whilst the rhetoric of rightwing politicians invoked a golden age of 'victorian values' - as if the stuffiness, hypocrisy and squalor of Victorian family life was a novelist's invention.

I remember meditating on the prescript, 'Treasure your families', and wanting it to be possible - as you might want to hold still a dandelion clock in a gale. But all the little seeds whirled in the air, each one representing real people I had written about in my years of journalism: poor families in mean streets; frustrated families in towering estates; Chinese, Asian and Rastafarian families; families with servants in stately homes; violent families; bereaved families; one-parent families; fighting families; ecstatically happy families; criminal families; quiet, caring, shy families; families where nobody touches; deeply damaged families; clever, funny, privileged families.... So you ran about helplessly, chasing meaning. Yet still believing.

I suppose it is time to state my interest here. I like family life therefore I believe in the family, for all its problems of definition. I invoke a cosy 'fifties image of Mum and Dad and two kids in clean clothes, sitting in their neat flat having sausage, peas and chips at a clean kitchen table, before the homework and the knitting, with the polished Ford Popular outside - and I won't have it mocked, dammit, because it is a picture of my childhood. Without complacency I 'admit' I had a good family life (with all the ordinary problems) and married somebody also from a secure family, and so whatever happened (some more ordinary problems, plus some extraordinary ones) the urge to create a stable home for our two children was at the centre of my being. It was beyond money, career, education, or sophisticated rebellion: it was utterly primitive. Family created me; I am Family.

So far, so ordinary - and lucky. You can test the cleverness of Tolstoy's famous comment in Anna Karenina by attempting it in reverse. 'All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'. If you say that all unhappy families resemble each other but each happy family is happy in its own way, it works - but only for an instant. As Tolstoy knew from his own experience, the varieties of human anguish and cruelty far outnumber the inventory of happiness: joy is quiet and lives in one place, but misery rages noisily down all the corridors of the world.

For many children family life means pain; or grudging walks in the park with Dad and his new girlfriend on Saturday; or blows and worse from Mum's boyfriend; or shrieking rows; or bullying; or indifference. For them the grand sentiments are irrelevent - and insulting. Why should you honour your father and mother if those two individuals are rotten specimens who don't care about you? How can you treaure the family when yours consists of fighting factions yoked together by the tie of blood - which, as the story of Cain and Abel shows, may be thicker than water but has a lower boiling point?

But it is precisely because family life falls short of perfection that the ideal of family life should still be clung to. IS clung to. We would be foolish to attempt a copy of a Raphael or Leonardo Holy Family, because the failure would make us down paints forever. No, but we do have to go on making the careful childish drawings which try to represent the pattern and the beauty we know is there: a messy, human striving for perfection of line, which goes on and on.

No amount of statistics about young people choosing to stay single will convince me that given the choice and chance, the overwhelming majority of people would not want companionship and continuity, as well as the mutual responsibility of living in a mini-community - which is family life. The teenage girl dreaming of Mr Right shares this with the toughened divorcee contemplating the second time around. You may pour scorn - but it will not stop the single mother, alone in the evening with her child asleep, from thinking wistfully that it would be good if someone loving were there to have a laugh with. AND, most important, to share the duties.

Nor should it. It is easy to let 'reality' blind us to the possible; a few short steps from lying in the gutter staring at the stars, to being angry that they are out of reach, to denying the stars are there at all. Family life is not perfect, except for a minority. But it is better than loneliness. And if you bother to visit your grandfather, or go to your child's school play when you'd rather go to the pub; if you worry simply because your partner worries...then what you are doing is celebrating family life. At its heart is a giving, a willingness to put self last. At its centre is neither marriage nor gender, but rules - accepting a long-term duty which will not always be easy.

So yes, we do treasure the family...and why? To keep the dark at bay. To feel as you grow old this person (or people) you love will still be there, accepting you and gladly receiving all you have left to give. When I was in my twenties I understood Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd, when she rejected the prosaic proposal of Gabriel Oak: 'And home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be - and whenever I look up, there will be you'. Sergeant Troy, free and irresponsible, seemed much more attractive.

But now Gabriel Oak's need is my need, and I find myself surprised at how its realism actually unites morality with - yes - romance. It is that need that draws us to nest in rows, separated by thin walls, hoping to be tolerated and loved forever - and to go on reproducing ourselves in family patterns, handing on some misery (perhaps), but untold happiness too.

 

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