About 18 months ago, I heard a song on the radio which reminded me of a particular day in 1967. It was the day in which my family went to Dunstable Downs for a picnic, followed by a visit to Whipsnade Zoo.
There’s nothing unusual about that.
Except, on this occasion, the song penetrated my ears in such a manner as to make the memory more vivid, conjuring me onto the back seat of a Morris Traveller heading south along the M1 towards the exit to Dunstable. Dad was driving, mum was in the passenger seat, and Marianne & I were in the back with our dog, Lassie, sitting between us. 1967 was still halcyon days for the M1: potholes, traffic cones, tailbacks, mysteriously pointless lane closures belonging to some unimaginable dystopian future.
The song All You Need Is Love came on the radio, and I was singing along with it, trying to invent different vocal harmonies. (This was an ambition consigned to failure given that The Beatles generally mopped up all the worthwhile harmonic opportunities for every song they ever wrote, but I was dissonantly determined.)
We were a normal family on a normal family day out. The kind of family you used to see on TV commercials for Kellogs Cornflakes.
The lucidity of this memory must have opened a long-disused channel in my mind. It set off an avalanche of echoes from childhood:
I was back in my bedroom at 19 Church Lane, Leamington Spa with the Airfix model aeroplanes (badly constructed) suspended from the ceiling.
There I was in the garden, hand-taming a robin which had chosen this area as his territory. Come the Spring he was joined by a female, so dad bought a nest-box from Tropical Aquarium Pet Supplies and fixed it to the top of one of the washing-line posts. The robins obligingly took up residence and raised their own family. What a privilege! I used to get up early each morning to watch them go about their business, making their nest, rearing their young.
And then I was being dropped off at Warwick School by dad (also in the Morris Traveller). I would frequently be plagued by the fear that he might die in a car crash, and that would be the last time I saw him.
And there was Whitehaven, our temporary home in Chalfont St. Peter during The Great Winter of 1963, where dad was teaching me how to play chess.
And so it went on.
These memories were precious, had to be precious. Why else would they have been autonomously, faithfully preserved in high-resolution 24-bit colour?
They needed to be shared. I had to say something to my parents.
This was going to be difficult because I’d been ostracised a year previously for saying the wrong thing. Mum had wilfully (to my mind) misunderstood a usage of the word ‘sorry’, and my punishment was permanent exile. (This is the usual penalty imposed upon those who express an opinion different from their own, however slight that difference might be.)
It’s a shame, because ‘sorry’ is a remarkably useful word for resolving a conflict. When you apologise to someone, they quite often reply with something like this:
‘Well, it isn’t all your fault. I was as much to blame for doing XYZ’.
You meet each other half way, sharing responsibility for the impasse, and the whole thing just …. dissolves. You’re implicitly agreeing that the relationship is worth a lot more than a comparatively trivial disagreement. It’s easy! It’s hard to understand why the word is so anathema to some people.
But anyway, given that I was forbidden to contact them by phone, I sent an email instead:
Dear Mum and Dad,
I hope you’re both well.
I just wanted to say how I have hundreds of treasured memories of childhood within our family. I adored you both, but never had the ability to express as much. Whenever I saw the parents of other children, it used to make me so glad and proud that it was you who were my parents.
There are too many memories to mention – a holiday in Wales with Nana & Auntie Lily, Dad putting up the Robin’s nestbox or helping me catch a Solar eclipse, wrestling with Dad on the lawn, Mum helping me with poetry homework, a picnic on Dunstable Downs. There are loads of them!
I can still vividly remember how unsettling it was when Dad went to Scotland on business. I was terrified that something would happen to him (like a train crash or something), and was so relieved when he finally came home. In fact, now I think about it, I was forever worrying about losing either of you.
I’m truly sorry about how things went so wrong when my mind fell apart. I would love to go back in time and change things, and it destroys me to know that I can’t do that.
I don’t know if I’ve expressed myself very well here. Probably not! But I just wanted you to know that what you did is fully remembered and appreciated. I hope we can repair things one day but, even if we can’t, all these memories are alive and intact.
All my love, Tony.
It had taken a long time to compose that email. I’d tried to express what needed to be said whilst ensuring that it didn’t contain anything potentially inflammatory. My parents possess hair-trigger mentalities, and it’s quite hard to anticipate what might activate their rage.
I wasn’t expecting a reply, nor did I need one. The act of transmitting it into the electronic aether was enough to give it a kind of immortality which a mere private thought was unable to achieve. (now there’s a sign of the times – the ‘Send’ button on Yahoo Mail has acquired a symbolic significance equivalent to, say, a Tibetan Prayer Wheel).
But dad did reply, a few days later, also by email. The subject line was: A somewhat lengthier response.
When you’re familiar with someone’s style of self-expression. you can work out their emotional position from surprisingly few words (four, in this instance!). It was obvious that the message’s contents were going to be unpleasant. And, as anticipated, his reply was the familiar refrain of accusations and lies. Especially lies. Breathtaking lies.
Even so, I tried to disregard the tone of his message, and sent three further emails. He didn’t reply to any of them.
I eventually realised that my original email had been unintentionally provocative. All of the ‘memories’ which I’d mentioned had happened in the years before they’d acquired New College School. This had been wrongly interpreted as a criticism of that decision. (Yes! It really is that hard to avoid pissing them off!)
So I decided to just let it go. The door had slammed shut again. It’s happened so many times to Marianne and I, that we’ve finally become resigned to it. It’s difficult to accept that one’s own parents are cruel, narcissistic, inhuman people, but what else can you do? That’s what they are.
However, a few months later an unwelcome piece of information came my way. There’s an active community of New College ex-pupils on one of the social media platforms, and they occasionally have a school reunion. At one such event, a member described my parents as ‘warm and loving’ (those words may not be exact – they arrived in my face second or third hand).
My parents are NOT warm and loving. What they are is proficient in presenting two distinct faces to the world. What they are is obnoxious to their own children (not to mention a number of selected relatives).
And worst of all, they justify their behaviour with the most spectacular lies.
There are two principal techniques for lying, as far as I know, and my parents are peculiarly skilled at both.
The first method is the obvious one – you simply negate any truth which you find inconvenient. (Mum, in particular, has no problem with rewriting history for the purpose of presenting herself as virtuous. Her appetite for meting out moral judgments upon others requires her to make extensive use of this approach.)
The second method is more sophisticated. It’s a popular technique so there’s probably a technical name for it. Dissimulation? Cherry-picking perhaps? I’ve no idea what it’s called, but it works as follows:
You take a lengthy, possibly complex narrative, and extract only those elements which support the impression you’re trying to project. This leaves you with a handful of truth-particles which may now be strung together and offered as a full account of the matter.
It’s an incredibly poisonous form of lying because it’s so difficult to refute. Each element of truth, falsely presented, exists inside a much larger molecule of reality. It necessarily requires a considerable amount of work to construct a defence against this kind of deception, and to present the true picture. (Maybe that’s why barristers are paid such stupendous hourly rates.)
In fact, the only way to defend yourself is to write out the entire story.
Hence the blog!