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01Jan21a Plea for broad relationships

[Source & author unknown]

A relatively narrow debate, and no wonder

January 2001

Rock pools, like the deep one I am dangling my feet into at the moment, are home to strange fish and odd reflections.

The child beside me asks whether that large spotted creature whirling like a marine helicopter is the uncle of that little fish. Or maybe they are cousins?

She is too young to have been infected by the snatch of HMS Pinafore that springs unbidden into my head. In Gilbert and Sullivan's caustic view of Victorian familial arrangements, cousins, sisters and aunts are a trail of importuning leeches. But the child hasn't yet acquired any cynicism about extended families.

There has not been much wonder in the recent debate about motherhood or "child-free" choice, individual rights, birth-rates and long-term demographics. I have read few words about the variety of relational roles that individuals occupy in the lives of those close to them, and fewer still about their connection to the children close to them. Where have all the aunts and uncles gone? It's as though we are again thinking of families as discrete sealed units, mother/child, or mother/father/child. Self-contained little bubbles of private fulfilment - or misery.

The nuclear family, like the Empire, strikes back.

If we conduct an important debate in such restricted terms - individual rights, personal choice etc - what will happen to our peripheral vision for the other relations who can make life rich and unpredictable? Or just magnificently loopy, or even dreadful? Are we to be reduced to mum, dad and then communing with a series of identikit "friends"? If so, what of our regard for the dignity of lives lived outside the conventional relational patterns of parent and child or companions of choice? I am not sure I am ready to accept a world in which we forget to factor in the uncles, cousins, the many capable women we used primly to call maiden aunts, the brothers in their twenties and sisters in their thirties who unexpectedly turn out to be magicians with children. Bring them back into the debate, I say.

Last week, I watched the child become apprentice to her great uncle, a single man in his fifties. Together they are building the literal bridge of an imaginary ship in a bush garden. She measures, he hammers, she hammers, he saws. She climbs up a ladder that could be a topsail and holds the bolt that will take the rope ladder. He drives it home. She chides him for the odd error. He instructs her with a degree of detail she would not tolerate in her parents.

Seeing them, I remember an uncle of my own. Or maybe he was a cousin. What was memorable was not the exact connection but the adventurous world into which he took me. A member of an early Australian Antarctic exploration team, he was single, probably in his thirties. From David I learned about ice-breakers, about living in close quarters for intolerable dark months, about frostbite, and getting on (or not getting on) with your fellows. David was an extrovert and a showman, glamorous and unaccountably generous to a teenage schoolgirl who endlessly interrogated him.

These odd relationships are two-way - that is what is so marvellous about them. And so liberating. Because they are free of the usual restraints of parenting or pedagogy, they are essentially exploratory. Adult and child both learn - without trying. For the child, it is a breaking of new ground and a testing of limits. For the grown-up it's a re-awakening process, a recognition that it is still possible to discover something exciting. And maybe to be brave again.

I am conscious, writing this, of the malign edges that now constrain the understanding of relations between children and adults. Child prostitution and Internet paedophilia make alarmist news more readily than innocent friendship across generations. But the existence of the former does not rule out the possibility of the latter. Certainly it shouldn't. Children don't do well in cotton wool, and adults need children to rekindle - legitimately and effortlessly - their own imaginative lives.

Tomorrow we will go snorkelling in the deep rock pool, child and woman together.



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