My memories of Boxing Day as a child are much as those of any other middle-class boy. A slight sense of anti-climax was soon mitigated by the remembrance that there were toys to play with (toys that had perhaps only been opened during the pomp and ceremony of The Day, what with my grandfather holding up the proceedings to listen, standing up, to the Queen, and stuff like that). My parents, certainly a little the worse for wear (aka gin – although I never saw him even slightly other than sober, he drank gallons of the stuff), were in sleep-in mode, in their giant and rock-hard double-bed (rock-hard because my father had a bit of a masochistic streak when it came to sleeping – it was a bed you tried bouncing on at the risk of breaking every bone in your feet).
In the middle of this hive of inactivity, doing his level best to look nonchalant, and generally ignored for the moment by my sister, by my parents, and by me, wandered my brother, curly-haired, barefoot, waiting for the light-bulb to go on in everyone’s head. Boxing Day was (and is) my brother’s birthday. It must be the worst posssible day to have a birthday (other than on Christmas Day perhaps, or, I suppose, February 29th). You wake up into other people’s exhaustion. However, he seems to have been pretty undamaged by the whole experience, and the doctors say that he won’t need counselling very much longer now he’s 52 (Happy Birthday!).
I have been very lucky in my siblings, and circumstances helped the luck along. When I started doing family history, I was amazed to find how often rivalry persisted, and usually sibling rivalry. Since I wasn’t content to research people on paper, but burst into their lives, their homes and their families as well, I found that – since a fourth cousin is a bit like a stranger on a train in this respect – all sorts of family feuds were confessed to me. Two sisters I met in the 1990s had not commuincated with each other since the end of the war (it was an argument about a stepfather). Now I met them in successive weeks. The secind one knew I had photos of the first, and her children and grandchildren, and eventually gave in and asked to see them. A fortnight later, the sisters met. I had acted as a catalyst, much to my surprise (and also pleasure).
My father didn’t like his sister, nor she him (my father was his mother’s favourite, and my aunt was treated with horrible misogyny by my grandfather). My grandfather did not like his sister, and vice versa. They fell out in 1953, and never saw each other again. It is a recurring theme in many families – most strikingly in the case of Enid Blyton, whose daughters, when interviewed, appeared to be talking about an entirely different mother. The younger daughter, Imogen, actually remarked that she didn’t know her mother was her mother for most of her childhood, while the elder sister (now dead) could be relied on to sing Blyton’s praises. And the Blyton set-up was a weird one. She expelled the father (who never saw his daughters again) and installed a new ‘father’, who was even shown in promotional newsreels. And do read Hilary Mantel’s ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ for the extraordinary story of her parents.
But what happened to us was that we were sent to boarding schools, and the abiding effect was that, ironically, since I loathed the schools, the second one anyway (another subject), we saw enough of each other to make a feast. We got on very well as adults. (Individually, we didn’t get on with my mother and father, in different ways, or rather, got on with them at different stages of our lives, and that’s partly also because we were dispersed.)
Anyway: happy birthday to my surviving sibling. I’m glad you’re around.