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

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

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