A Formal Apology to Members of My Immediate Family

We were a gang.  And a gang is a very great thing when you’re growing up.  When you’re one of five children, there’s no shortage of co-conspirators for whatever trouble you happen to be planning.  Brothers and sisters are an audience.  They’re your biggest fans and your harshest critics.  Sometimes simultaneously.  And they’re always there – both when you want them and when you don’t.  It’s non-negotiable.

I’m the eldest.  Not by much, but in terms of family hierarchy, being the eldest really matters.  When you’re the eldest, you’re the family icebreaker, that one that crashes into your parents and softens them up so that those who come after you can have an easier time of it.  It was a role I took on less from a sense of duty and more as a matter of destiny.  It was no easy thing.  And although they benefited from me breaking down our parents’ spirit of resistance, I don’t think my brothers and sisters have ever bothered to thank me.  Which, if I’m being totally honest, is fair enough. 

I have four siblings – two sisters and two brothers and there’s only about six years between us from start to finish.  Which is a lot of kids in a very small amount of time.  We were close in every respect.  To drive the point home, our parents dressed us in matching outfits.  We looked like cult members.  Technically, we could have formed a basketball team or a band but, instead, we specialised in getting on each other’s nerves.  We were good at it.

Come to think of it, I bear most of the responsibility.  As an adult, I’d like to think that I am thoughtful and kind to others, empathetic and a good listener.  That may be or may not be true.  But is most definitely true is that I didn’t start out that way.  That’s because, as the eldest of five, I was the tormentor in chief.  It’s not something I’m proud of.

There’s less than a year between one of my brothers and I.  Indeed, we’re the same age every year for four days.  When we were growing up, these four days were known as ‘the silly season’.  It’s fair to say that we completely lost our minds as we tortured each other in a bid for supremacy.  But aside from those four days, my brother is a remarkably relaxed and a (mostly) reasonable person.  Which means that whatever I said to inspire him to anger and punch a hole in my bedroom door must have been pretty terrible.  I don’t even remember what it was.

I wish that were the worst of it.  When we were growing up, we had a wood heater.  Essentially, it was a black metal box with a window at the front.  It was located in the living room where (admittedly) we spent most of our time and was the only form of heating in a six-bedroom house. 

The house was designed so that the master bedroom was at one end of the house, and all the other bedrooms were at the opposite end.  Even better, the house was divided into two, with a door separating one half from the other.  Closing the door meant that fifty per cent of the house was entirely deprived of heat.  To make matters if not worse then definitely colder, my father insisted the door remained closed at all times to keep the cold out.  In winter, those bedrooms were very, very chilly.  You know you’re in trouble when the bottom bunk in your bedroom is occupied by a family of penguins.

The wood heater was an amazing thing.  If you were on the right side of the door, it could really punch out a decent amount of heat.  The golden rule in our house is that you could never stand on the hearth to be closer to the heater.  Naturally, this meant that we all stood on the hearth whenever we could to defrost ourselves after emerging from our bedrooms.  But then I took it a step further.

One day, I decided to put coins on top of the wood heater whilst it was in full flight.  I then told my youngest brother that I’d found some spare change and he was welcome to it.  He didn’t need to be asked twice.  He raced in and scooped those coins into the palm of his hand, only to discover that they were nearly hot enough to melt.  The sound of yelping and scent of sizzling flesh followed. 

Sometimes I preferred psychological to physical torture.  Meal times with five kids are a stampede.  The call would go out and there would be the thundering of feet as various family members ran on the kitchen bench to get a plate.  The task, then, was to assess which plate had the most food on it.  My youngest brother – his hand still recovering from being scalded by a twenty-cent coin – would go to reach for a plate at which point I would express surprise that he hadn’t chosen the biggest meal.  He’d pause, reassess, then reach for another one when I would, again, express surprise.  This would go on for some time.  Put simply, I was horrible.

That’s just the tip of a very ugly iceberg.  I have no idea why I was so mean to them.  They’re all great people and they made life infinitely better just by being themselves.  When I think about Christmas, birthdays or long, languid summers, I think of them.  There’s a point when you’re growing up, when things switch and your siblings go from being adversaries to friends.  I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but I’m glad that it did.  It’s a connection that, like family itself, is non-negotiable.  To Cam, Beck, Sarah and Lachlan, I’m completely sorry and I promise to do better.  Starting….now.

A Remembrance of Things Passed Out The Window

I’m under a lot of pressure.  For the past few years, my father has busied himself by compiling his memoirs.  It’s an epic exercise that makes Marcel Proust look like a lightweight.  The first volume concluded just before I was born – a period which my father has described as the ‘happiest years’ of his life.  As the designated bookend to a period of sheer, magnificent bliss, it’s hard not to take that description personally.  It makes me feel like I’m the comet that drove the dinosaurs to extinction.  But that was just volume number one.  There’s been so much more since.

Since the first volume, my father has produced further, more specialised instalments of his life story.  These might loosely be divided into ‘work’, ‘travel’, ‘travel through the former Soviet Union’, ‘travel down to the shops for milk and bread’ and, finally, (and I sense with some degree of reluctance if not outright trepidation) ‘family’.  It’s not that the earlier volumes didn’t feature his family; it’s that most of those mentioned had long-since departed, meaning that the laws of defamation don’t apply.  Which, given the manner in which my father writes, is a good thing.

But the further down the rabbit hole he ventures, the more he is willing to experiment.  Perhaps in a futile bid to avoid controversy, he has requested contributions to the latest volume from each of his five children.  The lobbying has been intense.

 Try as I might, I cannot convince my father that there is a difference between being retired and being in full time work.  So far as he’s concerned, my failure to prepare an account of my life is a result of pure intransigence.  In the interests of time, I asked whether a drawing would suffice, but this was rejected outright and it was noted with some degree of passion that my earlier artistic efforts defied interpretation, which is why they had all been disposed of in the compactor.  I was aware that my father had thrown out the drawings of my youth and, to this day, the groaning sound of the compactor as it crushes household waste, haunts me in my dreams.

It wasn’t just me that had failed to deliver.  My siblings had (wisely) kept their thoughts to themselves.  Until now.  In the most recent round of interrogation, my father pointed out that both my sisters had handed in their contributions.  I immediately felt on the back foot.  To make things worse, he suggested that they had provided definitive accounts of some of the most significant, character-shaping events of our collective childhood, including the brown lolly debacle of 1985.

My parents were masochists.  In fact, I suspect that’s true of all parents, at least to some degree.  As for mine, they chose to wallow in the unique form of self-flagellation that is travelling with a large number of people in a confined space.  They would describe these catastrophes as ‘family holidays’.  They are better described, I feel, as manifestations of complete insanity.

There are very few rules in life that are sacrosanct.  Don’t stick cutlery in an electrical socket.  Never stage an invasion of Russia during winter.  And never, ever, take a family of seven away in a caravan.  No good can come of it.  Ever.

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.  Which probably refers to how long it felt it was taking as opposed to its overall significance.  All seven of us were travelling around the US and Canada in a mobile home.  This was not a trip that measured success in terms of how long we spent in any one place but, rather, how much distance we could travel in the limited time available to us.  Which means that rather than spending several weeks in America, it would be more accurate to say that we spent time driving over the top of America in a box with wheels.

According to my father, he bought us a bag of lollies everyday as an act of charitable beneficence.  He most likely reasoned that if our mouths were fused together with sugar, we’d be incapable of asking ‘are we there yet?’ more than four thousand times a day.  It was a plan that came unstuck with ‘the brown lollies’.  I’m not sure what it was – a mistake that saw sugar swapped out for used motor oil or some kind of curse, but the brown lollies tasted wrong.  Given that they were plainly defective, we asked that these be replaced.  My father refused, saying that there would be no more confectionary of any kind until all the brown lollies had been consumed. 

As the eldest sibling, I took the hit.  I munched, chewed and chowed-down on as many of those putrid brown abominations as I could without lapsing into a coma.  When it became apparent that this would take weeks, I then resorted to throwing them out the window whenever my father wasn’t looking.  It was like dropping breadcrumbs.

In my own mind, I was the hero; the one who selflessly sacrificed himself so that his brothers and sisters could have access to better quality confectionary sooner.  But, with the benefit of a lot of time, my father now remembers things differently – according to him, it was me that chose the brown lollies to begin with.  Suddenly, the request for my life story seems less about building a family history as it does the collection of evidence.  Memory is, it seems, an elastic thing.  But being told that the great brown lolly debacle is all my fault has left a bitter taste in my mouth, much like the brown lollies themselves.

The Great Profanity Calamity

It’s so awkward.  You’re sitting with family members, having a pleasant time with music gently playing in the background before you’re unexpectedly deluged by f-bombs as the singer launches into a mode that can only be described as ‘nuclear gutter-mouth’.  When did singing and swearing become so hopelessly entwined?  Indeed, a cursory glance (a term which seems oddly apt) at the popular hits of today confirms that many artists have a vocabulary consistent with having been raised at sea.  It wasn’t always this way. 

Radio was once an expletive-free zone.  If John Denver’s house had a swear-jar, I’ll bet it was empty.  Even artists who liked to shock would avoid swear words, for fear they’d get less airplay.  But don’t think for a moment that the lack of curse words means older songs are genteel and overly polite.  Not at all.  Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ has a body count that would startle even the most hardened of gangster rappers but none of the cast stoop so far as to resort to using filthy language.  Or, at least, I don’t think they do.  (It’s in Italian, so I can’t be entirely sure.)

It used to be the same way for television.   When screening movies with questionable language, networks would often mute the sound as the actor spoke the offending word.  The effect was akin to having the line drop out for a just a moment.  I have a vivid recollection of watching John Singleton’s ‘Boyz In the Hood’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube and marvelling at the vast stretches of silence.  Some might consider this to be butchery, but I liked the expletive-free version.

As an uncle, I firmly believed it was my duty to ensure my nieces and nephews were exposed to a wide array of musical influences.  There’s not a child alive that won’t respond with pure delight to the sound of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ by Little Richard.  (Incidentally, I once planned to write an opera about Little Richard called ‘Cosi fan Tutti Fruitti’ but I struggled to attract investors.)  But as they grew up, I started to give them more challenging things to listen to.  I wrestled with all the big questions – like, what’s the best age to introduce a child to ‘Bad Motorfinger’ by Soundgarden?  Probably seven. 

Thinking back, the two words I struggled with most as an uncle were ‘age appropriate’.  Not just with music, either; the tendency to go ‘too early’ extended to books and movies too.  I let my enthusiasm get the better of me.  On reflection, even I would agree that Hunter S Thompson’s tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and excess as depicted in ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ are best suited to someone who is older than twelve.  That said, the pre-pubescent recipient did go on to become a journalist so, perhaps, the book did its job.  For the sake of completeness, I should add that being a journalist is where the similarities between Hunter S Thompson and my nephew both begin and end.  But still.

I’d bought it as a gift.  It was a CD, back when people used to buy CDs so they could listen to the music of their choice anytime they liked, before those same miraculous little discs were relegated to the status of novelty drink coaster.  I’d picked up a copy of the latest album by the rap group, Beasties Boys, entitled ‘To The Five Boroughs’.    The reviews I’d read described it as a mature reflection of the impact of September 11 on their hometown of New York.  It sounded thoughtful.  Mature, even.  And it was.  At least, it was in part.

For those unfamiliar with it, the opening track of ‘To The Five Boroughs’ by Beastie Boys is entitled ‘Ch-Check It Out’.  But instead of an ode to stuttering, the song is in fact more of a promise to have a significant impact on a social occasion.  This impression is best captured in a phrase that, in the interests of politeness, I’ll describe as ‘turn this parent f-bombing party out’.  I’m paraphrasing, obviously.  It occurred to me at that moment, that I probably should have listened to the thing first before handing it to an eight year old at a family function.  The eight year old immediately put it on the stereo and turned it up as loud as he dared.

Soon the room was being showered in profanities.  Unfortunately for me, the swearing wasn’t a ‘hit and run’ situation where a single expletive can be masked by a well timed cough or clattering cutlery.  Rather, these words were the chorus and were repeated over and over and over again.  By the time the song ended, my strategic coughing was so severe that my father offered to call me an ambulance.  The eight year old – keen to distance himself from the ensuing controversy – loudly declared that the music was horrible and that this was the ‘worst gift of all time’.  That’s a direct quote.

That eight year old is now an adult and I know for a fact that he really likes the Beastie Boys.  And I’m confident that he’s heard if not used the words he encountered that day in a sentence.  Many times.  As for me, I regret nothing.  And if you know nothing of Beastie Boys, I can only encourage you to ch-check them out.  You could do a lot worse.  I swear.