Friday, 11 March 2011

My Extended Family

Me with the Taskers, Stirling Castle, Scotland 1970

1973-1975 - As well as my own blood relations I had a series of mysterious aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom were related to me at all. I had an entire family of non-relatives living in Scotland who we would occasionally visit. ‘Uncle’ Harry and ‘Aunt’ Madge along with their six children, my ‘cousins’ would welcome us into their home for two weeks during the summer. Come to think of it I have no idea who these people actually were or why they were thought of as relations, but I grew to love them as my own family. I think the connection came from ‘uncle’ Harry and my father once being workmates who had kept in touch over the years. Such was the strange custom in our house where friends of my mother and father would be regarded as my ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’. I had loads of these pseudo-relatives – Uncle Ron, Uncle Bobby, Uncle Charlie, Aunty Mavis, and enough pretend-cousins to fill a school assembly hall. I wasn’t moaning about it – when any of these strange relations would call, they would give me some spare coppers from their pocket. In fact, I couldn’t have enough of these weird aunts and uncles.

Uncle Ron was my favourite of these ‘uncles’. He visited the family most summers with Uncle Alex who was an actual blood-relation. Uncle Ron was a flamboyant and funny man who wore pristine clothing - usually cream and beige with smart slip-on loafer shoes. The fact that when Uncle Alex and ‘Uncle’ Ron came to stay with us they would sleep in the same bed didn’t strike me in anyway as odd. I mean, Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise would be seen in bed together on TV every Saturday night.

(Child on the right is me with ‘Uncle’ Ron. Uncle Alex left kneeling)

Uncle Alex and ‘Uncle’ Ron made me laugh, brought me gifts, gave me money, got drunk a lot, fought, cried, bitched and danced. Alex and Ron generally had a two-week long party when they came to Belfast. This usually involved huge family rows caused by Uncle Alex and his dramatic tantrums. My two Uncles were as camp as a row of tents in a ‘Carry On’ film. They were hilarious entertainment and I loved both of them.

Watching Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron argue in a drunken bitch-fight was nothing startling either – my mother and father regularly fought, so alcohol-fuelled brawling was a sight I was very well used to. My parents often brought their drinking cronies (and more ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ for me) from the pub after closing time for a boozing session. From my room I could hear the laughter, raised drunken voices and the singing of country ‘n western ballads of despair.

As Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron danced together in an inebriated state in the middle of our living room to Englebert Humperdinck singing “dance, dance, dance to my ten guitars", they would suddenly begin arguing. The dancing became pushing and shoving and the singing turned into yelling at each other. The sight of Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron fighting was as Tom Jones once said, “It’s not unusual…

It wasn’t until I was about sixteen years of age that I figured out that Uncle Alex was gay and Uncle Ron was his lover. No one in the family spoke of Uncle Alex being gay. I had asked my ma’ and da’ on several occasions but the subject was always immediately changed. It was like a dirty secret to be ashamed of. This was protestant working-class heterosexual Belfast where a Protestant keep-it-all-in ethos would forbid speaking about things such as this. To this day I have never heard any member of my family utter the words “Uncle Alex was gay”. This may have been a family embarrassment but it made no difference to me at all. Uncle Alex was fun to be with, end of story.

Alex’s flamboyancy sometimes saved the day as it did on the morning of my sister's wedding in 1969. I was five years old and was to be my sister's page-boy on the biggest day of her life I was a mischievous little kid with a mission that was for me to be the center of attention and not her. Manipulating situations to make people focus of all attention on me is what I did magnificently.

As the beautiful radiant bride and her helpers were fussing over her wedding dress, I dramatically strode into the room. My mother, sister, father and bridesmaid didn’t pay any attention and continued to adjust their wedding apparel. I declared to the whole family that "I'm not going to her stinkin' oul’ wedding!" I went on sit-down strike refusing to put on my page-boy outfit. The white frilled shirt, blue velvet trousers and matching cummerbund and bow-tie were girls’ clothes and not for a boy like me. There was no way I was going to be seen dead in those little Lord Fauntleroy clothes! This was thirty minutes before leaving our house to go to the actual ceremony.

The attention turned from brides and bridesmaids being pampered to me. I felt a surge of power. I was now the focus of attention and not my sister on her big day. My sister burst into tears. She had already been a nervous wreck before I had chipped in with my dramatic statement but not she was a blubbering mess. “He’s going to ruin my whole day!” she howled. The relatives in the room tried to coax me into putting on my wedding outfit, from talking to me nicely to offering me sweets and money, to just plain screaming at me but I stood resolute. “I’m nat wearin’ those stupid clothes!” I repeatedly told them all.

At that moment my uncle Alex waltzed into the room towards me. He told me excitedly the frilled page-boy shirt I was refusing to wear was exactly the same as the shirts worn by the pop-star Tom Jones when he sang on stage. The excitement in his voice made me sit up and listen. "Really?" I asked. "REALLY!" replied Uncle Alex. "Oh it is SO Tom Jones!" chirped Uncle Ron. That was me sold. If the shirt was good enough for Tom bloody Jones, it was good enough for me I thought.

When I finally put the page-boy outfit my Uncle Alex clapped his hands and shouted “You look just like Tom Jones!” He and Uncle Ron began wailing an out of tune version of ‘My, my, my, Delilah’, while fixing my page-boy outfit. I stood in front of the mirror and in my five year old mind I saw Tom Jones the cool singer staring back at me. With pop-star coolness I declared to my sister, the blubbering, panicking bride "Okay! I will go to your stinkin' oul’ wedding!"

Uncle Alex had saved the day.

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