Reflecting on the nuclear family.
I hadn’t intended to be back so soon with further reflections on the new Jay Griffiths book ‘Kith’. But in continuing to read the book yesterday evening, I found the title phrase here particularly struck me. So much so that I kept thinking about it as I was out running this morning, always a sure sign that something’s got under my skin. And so I thought I’d write my ruminations down.
Jay Griffiths is talking about how children in the Euro-American culture spend so much time in the sole company of their own nuclear family. And how this makes them very dependent on the quality of the only guaranteed adult relationships they have, with one or both of their parents. Contrasting this with the situation in many indigenous cultures around the world she came across while writing ‘Wild’, she repeats this beautiful sentence said to her somewhere in Africa:
‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
And I know immediately what this means.
So while she’s explaining about extended families and close neighbourhoods where people take common responsibility for all the children of the village, and children move around easily between houses without judgement or blame, when life happens and friendships bloom or emotions strike hard and temporary respite space is needed, and that this bringing up is happily viewed as a common task because it’s the village’s future. And people seem happier and less likely to be lonely. Then I know what ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ means, because it almost happened to me.
Let me take you back. To what might yet be viewed as a late flowering of the indigenous working class culture of Britain.
It’s the late 1950s and like much of the population of North Liverpool the slow ending of post-war austerity has finally seen my family move from shared space in terraced houses, to a new home of our own on a new estate, just outside of the city.
No messing, bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. The estate was half built, there were still surrounding farms (with pigs), a Polish refugee camp had just shut down up the road and was full of interest, a nearby pond (full of frogs and tadpoles), and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal (with ducks and, still then, working barges), and interesting tramps would pass through and be interesting and in no way dangerous. And we ran wild. It was a place in flux between agriculture and suburbia. But we didn’t know. We thought flux was normal.
We fell in the pond, emerging covered in mud and frog-spawn, opened the swing-bridges on the canal for the barges, played house and war games on the building sites and refugee camp, crawled all over the steam rollers left out in the evenings, visited the baby pigs and thoroughly explored what I now realise was our ‘Kith’. Our country, our place.
Far and wide we explored it too. I recall once in all of this getting the bus with my Mum to the nearest hospital as, it soon turned out, I’d broken one of my big toes. So we get off the bus in Ormskirk, five miles away from home, and my Mum says ‘I wonder where the hospital is? ‘It’s just down there,’ I point out, as nonchalantly as an eight year old can manage.
Because our Kith was a big place. As long as we were home more or less in time for tea we could and did go where we liked. Having no idea this freedom would become so fragile so soon.
And closer to home we were free too. By the time the three streets that formed my inner-Kith were finished getting built there must have been twenty or so children living there. Not the big teenagers, but ‘us’ – everyone under the age of secondary school, babies included.
And the village was raising us.
So as well as ‘Kith’ we had ‘Kin’.
A few words about the villagers. They seemed old to us at the time, of course, but I reckon the age range of the adults there in those early days must have stretched all the way from 20 to 30. And though we all moved in more than ten years after the end of World War Two, the effects of it were very much with us.
The men had mostly not served in the war, but all had done National Service. (Our own Dad had volunteered for the RAF and been in the occupying forces on the border of what became East Germany).
The women, though, had grown through the war all working or expecting to work. Because during the war the country had been run by the remaining men who were too old to fight and all of its women. And on the whole the women seemed to have enjoyed much of the experience. Of being all in it together, of making do and mending, digging for victory and generally caring for each other – ‘You and Yours!’ as they’d cry out at Christmas.
By the late 1950s, of course, very few of these women were in paid employment any more, and none of them in our street had jobs outside being the ‘housewife’ that society had been promoting forcibly on them since the men came home from the war looking for their jobs back.
But I think they all remembered the commonality of being ‘all in it together’.
Because here’s how it was in those early days. We were all surrounded by ‘Aunties’ and their doors were open to us all. They all could and did feed us from the fresh food they seemed to be constantly baking, they’d put plasters on our constantly scuffed knees, they’d read to us when it was raining, play with us sometimes when it was sunny and they were ‘all done’ in the house. And they could all tell us off. We looked after the babies along with the Aunties, we shared bikes with all the others, and dogs were generally viewed as four legged children, free to join in as long as they didn’t burst the footballs or run off with the dolls. The whole tribe of us, and it did feel like a tribe, grew in the glow of the Aunties’ love.
In fact it took me a good while to realise that none of these women around us were actually related to me and were therefore subtly different from the ‘Aunties’ we’d be taken to visit now and then. Our village on that estate, you see, contained no extended family. But that didn’t matter, thanks to Aunties Betty, Marion, Lil, Lorna, Frances, Freida and the rest. Thank you all.
There were ‘Uncles’ around of course – including ‘Uncle’ Bob who had the only camera in the street, so thanks for the only early picture of me I now possess Bob. But they all worked full time, and so were mostly supportive members of the village cast.
And then it all changed and I don’t know why.
Parents started saying that playing out in the street was ‘scruffy’. And getting us to ask our friends in to play with us. ‘But no more than two at a time. I don’t want a house full’.
So the doors began to close as the television aerials appeared on each roof and a car appeared on each drive. Though to blame those two things seems too simple. Television was only in the evening (and even then there were boring ‘interludes’ between the sparse programming) and the cars were out at work all day. The broader reasons are emerging over time, as always, around the nature of our work-dominated society and the slow failure of the nuclear family. Whatever, the street and the tribe and the Aunties began to fade from view.
Until I remember one evening when I’m about 10. Our Mum’s already out and our Dad has to go out for a short while. I’m left in charge with strict instructions not to let anyone play out ‘in the street!’ We watch the car disappear around the corner and go straight out to play. Only to be found there half an hour later and severely punished.
That day my local Kith died and I did the rest of my growing up in secret, in the wider Kith, walking away beyond the view of my parents, my nuclear family and, sadly, the Aunties too.
So there you have it. A true story of the shutting down of ‘all being in it together’. After which we’d have to knock and politely ask ‘Can we have our ball back?’ When previously we’d have walked in and got it like we belonged there. All brought on by one lovely African sentence in one magnificent book:
‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
So could we, perhaps, have our village back? Because maybe the nuclear family was never going to have enough people or variety in it to work?
More on these briefly halcyon days in the Food in the 60s series, co-written with my friend since back then, Barry Ward.