Uncles

Those uncles which you want were dangerous;
Your grace attended to their sugar'd words,
But look'd not on the poison of their hearts :
God keep you from them, and from such false friends! (Richard Duke of Gloucester)

Factionalist filth… despicable human scum… worse than a dog
(Kim Jong-Un)

Tuning the pages of the old photo album, he did not linger much on the women, the aunts. Women have no souls, they are not even animal. It has been said they are more like plants. Their business is prettification. He focussed on the uncles.

Here is Billy, uncle of the teenage orphan who intruded into his life by coming to live in his house for a while. He had been long married then, this frozen time, towards the end of his. His nephew wondered about the ideas that had been in his uncle’s mind. How truly contented life was he with life, sex and everything?

To the adolescent, his elders’ attitudes about girlfriends, nudity and other sexual concerns could feel uncomfortable. There is a puritanism about the young, a resistance to the seeming chaos of sexualised everything. Billy knew that and remarked on it once apropos some television play they were watching together.

Sex is a big part of life, something to be worked out and managed. The man has his masculinity. His drives, desires and emotions may make him a beast. An image forms of a farmyard cock among his hens, pecking them all, then crowing with high satisfaction. However there are different needs at different periods throughout life. There is a time when young and in love when one can dissolve into the sexual partner. Then one affirms the extremity of unselfishness. Every phase can have its own peculiar rightness.

How a man sees himself is different from the way he is seen by the adolescent, someone else’s son, not a blood relative who is thrust into his company not many years before he is due to die. Approaching the end, he has a view on what he has achieved, and how much he is reconciled to life and the world. Circumstances gave him his opinions on matters of religion and politics. Even communism offered some sort of aggressive alternative, proposing a reordering of everything. Nazism did that too. Both spoke to a revolutionary anger and dissatisfaction with society as it was.

Billy was his own boss, and could be proud of the wealth he had acquired. He had got a large detached house in a prosperous suburb, with a big terraced back garden. His mind was his own too. He did not believe what he was told to believe. He called himself a communist, and also saw much to admire in Hitler. He voted Conservative though.

Amusing to children when younger, he was the funny uncle. He would crack jokes, mostly silly puns. Doesn’t everyone have a funny uncle? John Betjeman mentioned one in a poem. My mother had one, my own great uncle, a real blood relative. There is a photograph of him here, with his arm round her aged fourteen.

As well as his wealth Billy prided himself on , his successful career, his flourishing business, as well as all the women he had slept with, including the prostitutes. All this went to make up his own accomplishment such as it was. There were some social embarrassments he had never got over. The nephew noted the books on subjects like health food, prayer and self-hypnosis, and continued to wonder about his uncle’s memories of sex. How often did he knob his wife, my aunt, in the days when he did? How did he do it? What else did he do?

Billy still felt desire for young women, the frustration had never ceased. You talk this sort of thing over with a friend if you have one. Now he was approaching eighty, all of his friends were long dead.

Ten years ago he could still find himself smitten. About once a year he would meet a woman who strongly attracted him. He would find himself talking for an hour or so and receive a really positive feeling, as when he was young. Obviously he had by then given up all thought he might take her to bed. Even had that been possible he was by then too unsure of his potency, but he thought at least he had made a good impression on her with his wit and character. However, whenever he tried to meet her again he found himself ignored and rebuffed. Now even that mixed pleasure had gone.

He hadn’t done anything with his wife for many years. She had grown very fat They had long had separate bedrooms. She would lie in bed for much of the day watching rubbish on television.

In my youth and inexperience I could make little of how he saw himself.
All that can make life worthwhile is certain moments of intense affirmation that can be preserved in memory. That is all that is important. Nothing else means anything. What do I have in common with any of my relatives or ancestors?
I sentimentalise, fictionalise.
It all seems unsatisfactory. Their lives were futile, the requisite affirmation seems not to have been achieved.

Yet my perspective was limited and I presumed on subjects way beyond my competence. What were his memories of two world wars, I cannot speculate, though I vaguely remember seeing a photo of him in his military uniform.

I recognise how ineffectual and hopeless I seemed to him in some respects. Year after year I had no ideas for a future career, and no girlfriend or any suggestion of one. Obviously I masturbated, that nasty adolescent practice that is never spoken about, or at least wasn’t in those days. I had read some books about sexual perversions. So in my innocence I thought I was sophisticated as well as depraved. What was the wisdom he had, he and his contemporaries? What was this knowledge that was not spoken in public? What was his own man’s talk?

There are two boys in the school dormitory, one lying in his bed, the other standing beside it. I am the one out of my bed talking to the other about what he did with girlfriends. It is all about putting his finger in their cunts, something they wanted, he said, whereas we all knew what we wanted all the time but didn’t in this case get. This was the era of heavy petting. It sounded something frustrating, rather horrible. One did however hear stories about convent girls. They were supposed to be the best.

For me there was an experience I didn’t remember with any pride or pleasure, the school dance, drunk, getting girls to dance with me, pressing them close so they felt my erection. I felt hostility towards girls of my own age. I had virtually no contact with them but I expected them to jeer at me.

I had no ideas for a career. I was strongly averse to what they call the work ethic. Reaction against something that was said at that crucial time may even have helped to set the future pattern of my life. Of course another motive was the expectation of an inheritance which would make life delightful for a while. I liked what my old grandfather told me of one of my great great uncles, an outrageous eccentric who never worked but always had his pockets full of money and jewellery. No photographs survived of him. As a child he may have been spotted by Charles Dickens who used to wander round the streets where he was living. He was an inspiration.

Times were interesting. We were all following the Profumo affair as it unfolded. It was Billy who asked me if Ward was dead when I had not even heard he had taken an overdose.

I found it hard to relate to his teetotalism. Also looking at his son, and seeing how he ended up, I cannot rate him much as a father, which should be one measure of his success or failure.

One day I came into the kitchen and found him lying still on his back on the floor. I thought he might be dead. I believe he was doing what in yoga they call the corpse posture. He was interested in meditation, but once said the Indians had never come up with anything useful, comparing unfavourably with the Russians, who had invented brainwashing.

He found some of my drawings and had high praise for my artistic talent. but there was one I did not want him to see. All were black and white pen and ink except this crudely drawn one of a father with his three naked daughters he is about to spank with a slipper. This was done in coloured pencil. It was entitled The Spanking. He must have seen it, but I preferred to tell myself he had not.

When I was no longer living there I still saw him a few more times. I recall his last words to me not long before he died:-

“I’m glad of that”.

In another photograph is an uncle who may have had far more influence than I realised until recently. He was an almost fascist uncle, who used to deliver his opinions at the dinner table. He had definitely fought in trenches in the first world war. I don’t know what he did, but it must have been honourable enough. Round this dinner table, sat men, relatives, uncles. The boy was early exposed to right wing opinions about social change, and much cynicism about the government. The Suez crisis was explained with knives and forks on the tablecloth.

Here is someone else, in a photo sent to me, not an uncle, rather a cousin thrice removed, but he was an uncle of someone with whom I’ve been in recent correspondence, and he was a blood relative. This is from 1900, a wedding photo, taken in my grandfather’s garden. Looking at the people I notice some real blood uncles.

I dismiss the modern phrases that come uninvited to mind, like “costume drama” and “fools in old time hats and coats”. All here suggests a different world of thought and ambition. In one or two of these faces I see will and determination. Here is also a great uncle I could have known but don’t remember, maybe because he died when I was only four. Geraldine says this one, Earnest, is more attractive than Horace, the cousin, but then we work out Horace was only fifteen when this was taken. All these aspirations, this intellectual world, one knows of from literature. That mental world is not so remote, it is more alive than its equivalent today. Earnest appears again twenty years later in Billy’s wedding photo.

Horace doesn’t though. The fifteen year old boy would go on to acquire extraordinary experience. He spent years as an army officer fighting in France, getting killed in 1918, some thirty years before I was born. This was something historical, important even for me, a deeper layer, relevant to all of us and what we are. Soldiers participated in history like the poets did.

There are different ways of understanding the past. A short time in public is a very long time in private. Looking at these pictures, I identify with the alien life of this my family from the restricted perspective of the child. I can see it as nature not history. We were lower middle class, so my father told me. Ours was not the perspective that is expressed in literature, yet of course we were aware of that. We were sensitive and receptive to the greater world, all the intellectual currents in the atmosphere, the hope, the religious convictions, the different ideas of men and women. As now, the sexes had different thoughts and opinions on prostitution.

Another great great uncle was a successful merchant, he built a large house for himself and a street of smaller ones for his tenants. He appears in a big photograph with lots of family members sitting or standing in tiers in his garden.

At the end of the Recherché des Temps Perdus Proust writes of how the young people are becoming bolshevists. That is the transition from one era to another. It’s also like the coming of a new religion, as once Christianity came to the ancient world. When the religion changes like that there’s a radical break in continuity.

There was some sort of revolution in the nineteen sixties, Dionysian someone called it. It started with the Profumo affair, a political creation with great unforeseen consequences. Then came a communist one just a bit later. Everything changed, but only on the surface. Now there is a kind of compulsory doctrine, the need to include what was not included, a moral demand, politically motivated.

So how far could these people in the photographs imagine a distant future away from their immediate reality? No more than I can. Not only is the future is blank but the present is poorly understood. But its history needs to be written. I could write an imaginary histories of a lot of these, a long saga, fitting the family and the literary and historical perspectives together. Their world is hardly mysterious. We have easy access to the ideas and the values that were around, we can look back on them with familiarity.

For those who didn’t want a communist revolution, another option was a Christian conversion. Now it seems the interesting variety and diversity of the past has come to an end because everybody has to be included. It is as if the communists fought and lost, but then they won.

Two men are having a conversation about religion. One of them could even be a vicar. Neither is comfortable.

Back to Billy. He is the only one I got to know. Almost his last words to me were to ask what I was doing for Christmas.
“I’m going to Germany… with a friend.
“I suppose there’s no point in my asking, male or female?”
“Female actually”

Glad as he was for me, my uncle may not have envisaged quite how good it was. I had got myself a convent girl for uninhibited fucking. In Germany we fucked outside in a forest with snow on the ground, and then on the floor of her parents’ kitchen at night while they slept. And what a dirty mind I had!

With that I would make more uncles.

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