A dysfunctional family feast

Christmas today, writes Henry Sutton, means having to say you're sorry to your step-parents, stepchi

"Thank God it happens only once a year," my mum invariably says. Yet for years I had two Christmas Days, one straight after the other. Both with presents and hot turkey, and hours in front of the telly. Christmas Day itself was usually spent with my mum and stepfather, and possibly two of his real children from his first and second marriages, and maybe a former stepchild he'd inherited after his first wife had emigrated to Australia with his second wife's husband - my mother's his third wife. And for my second Christmas Day my full brother, sister and I would dutifully go to my dad's and his current wife's or partner's and some other odd assortment of children. My father's now about to get married for the fourth time - I think.

Quite normally also present on either day would be a few elderly relatives squashed in a corner, like extra stuffing. There was always someone I'd never met before, or if I had I'd have forgotten what they were called or where they fitted in. My proper siblings and I began giving them nicknames such as Mogadon Woman, or the Poisoned Dwarf, or Creme de Menthe (I've never seen a person consume so much of the sickly green liquid) and, when we were a little older, we always made sure we had a supply of small innocuous gifts we'd carefully wrapped but hadn't yet attached labels to. There were never enough to go around - except the year of my father's second marriage, which was so quick that they met, married and separated all between the two Christmases.

Although my parents didn't separate until I was ten, the odd thing is I can't really remember a Christmas when they were together. We used to live opposite a golf course and my father played golf whenever he wasn't working, which included Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The one time it snowed my sister and I made skis out of some old plywood (we used Sellotape to make the tips) and shot all over the fairway, though even that year my father was absent. Years later I learned that he had been visiting his father who had been sent down for dealing in stolen goods.

I have vague memories of being taken to my mother's parents but they were very strict and my grandfather didn't like children much - we had to stay in a caravan in the garden. Going to my father's parents (this must have been after my grandfather was released) was much more fun. My grandmother loved playing practical jokes and imitating her dog, or Peggy, the donkey she once had, though she used to favour my sister terribly (who always got much larger portions and her fags to light).

Of all my childhood Christmases (and I suppose I had one and a half times as many as I should have had, though no more than most of my friends) the one that particularly sticks out is the first double Christmas after my parents separated. For some reason we spent actual Christmas Day with dad (he gave up golf after he split from my mother) and Christmas Day Mark II with mum. Neither of them yet had official new partners so there were no extras, only strange phone calls - at my mother's, anyway.

On Christmas morning our mother dropped us off at a cold rented house. She didn't come in (she didn't leave the car), which was perhaps just as well because we found cereal packets had been nailed to the walls. My father was living off cornflakes and then I think it was Golden Nuggets (he's always loved cereal and diligently tries each new variety), and he'd had some friends over for Christmas Eve drinks, he explained, and they'd all decided to decorate the house. The cereal packets were about the only cheery things they could find.

That year my father's presents came wrapped in newspaper for the first time, which he continued to use, though sometimes this was substituted with M&S carrier bags, until he stopped giving us presents. We went out for lunch - which I think was the first time he'd ever taken us to a restaurant. On Boxing Day we ate cold food my mother brought back from her mother's (at least I think that's where she'd been). My mother's always hated cooking. It makes her tense and tearful. "Nobody ever bloody appreciates it anyway," she says at least ten times a Christmas. She usually follows this with, "I don't know why I've bothered with Christmas this year. Next year I'm going to leave you all to it." (She hasn't yet.)

I think what made my first double Christmas so memorable was not so much my parents' recent separation as the lack of any attempt by either of them to make Christmas even seem normal. They weren't pretending anything any more. There was dad hunting around for cash to pay for our lunch and mum who'd bought her first plastic Christmas tree because she couldn't face Hoovering up any more pine needles. As the years have gone by, what's struck me as particularly strange is this urge to create a "proper" family Christmas, to pull together all these distantly related people when most of you either don't get on or don't even know each other; this adhering to one tradition, one institution, when all the others have collapsed around it.

The plate-smashing and walking out didn't start until the man who was to become my stepfather had actually moved in to my mother's, along with, over the years, various quantities of his real and ex-stepchildren. There must have been a few incident-free Christmas Days at my mum's - one for sure was when my stepfather's eldest son slept through it having spent Christmas Eve joy-riding (he had the biggest assortment of car keys I've ever seen). And there was the time my mother's father (the one who didn't like children) was seriously ill and we ate sandwiches at home while she visited him in hospital. But mostly my mother struggled to fit this ludicrously large turkey into the oven. And mostly it came out crisped beyond recognition, or still pink in the middle, weeping watery blood. Though that wasn't the real disaster. The real disaster came during the eating of it. Or the clearing up afterwards.

"Please try to get on," my mother would plead for weeks before the event, "just for me." Or she might say, "He [the stepfather] has promised to be good." Over the years my stepfather has supposedly promised my mother all sorts of things, but mostly that he'll change, that he'll be pleasant for once. And so have we. Yet none of us seems to have managed it. If anything we've got worse, we've become more ourselves. It's us (my brother, sister and I) against them (my stepfather and the various bits of his family). Now I tell my mother people don't change. We just have to learn to tolerate each other.

My mother, who's stuck in the middle, usually walks out first - often while we're still eating. My stepfather doesn't stomp off until after he's finished eating - he likes his food too much. My mother simply slips out of the room, perhaps hiding her face, leaving us shamefully wondering for a few moments whether she's just going to the toilet until we hear the front door quietly shut after her. Oh, we rush after her all right, our guilt horribly amplified in the dank Norfolk air soaked through with that weighty Christmas quiet.

Her husband, on the other hand, suddenly explodes. The slightest provocation by my sister, my brother or I can set him off - you get the sense that he's been storing it up throughout the day. He frantically searches for a plate, or a glass, or preferably the gravy jug which he picks up and hurls across the posh marble-effect lino he normally doesn't even like people walking on. And then he leaves the house slamming the door.

The only thing that gets out of control at my dad's is my grandmother. Now in her nineties and with her hair a lank white instead of a bouncy orange, she still smokes tons of B&H, which my sister has to light for her, and does remarkably energetic impersonations of Peggy the donkey. What I've always felt, going to my father's various homes (or more literally his current partner's home), is that I'm a guest, that I'm peering into somebody's life I'm slowly losing touch with. Christmas is about the only time of the year I see him now. He's grown grey and soft and has developed heart disease. However, no one ever stomps out in a huff, perhaps because no one knows each other very well. We're all too busy establishing connections, struggling for things to talk about. Resentment and jealousy haven't had time to build up.

My sister was the first not to appear for Christmas at all one year, and how my brother and I wished we'd made the break, too. But slowly and inevitably one or other of us didn't show up as we became more involved with boyfriends and girlfriends. In the four years I've been married, my wife and I have avoided family Christmases altogether - either with her parents or mine. Last year we had a non-Christmas with some minimalists in Northumberland. Their house was hard and empty, and because neither of them drank or ate meat, being polite, neither did we. On Christmas Day we went for a four-hour walk over snowy hills and bleak moors and, though feeling cleansed through and miles away, I couldn't help wondering whether my stepfather had yet smashed a plate, and where exactly my father was spending Christmas.

And I thought back to telling my mum that people don't change and realised that perhaps I wasn't quite right - people can change, it's just that it's all part of growing up and moving on. But when it comes to family Christmases and going home it's so easy to be engulfed by the past. Stuck in the minimalists' perfect house where nothing was out of place, sober and hungry, for the first time in my life I felt like smashing a plate. Not out of some jealous, childish rage but because I wanted to create a bloody mess. Because that, to me, I suddenly understood, is what Christmas is all about. I was missing it like mad.

Henry Sutton's novel, "The Househunter", will be published in January by Sceptre, £6.99

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496