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

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood