Riyadh: Monday 26th November 2012
November has been a very difficult month for a number of reasons and seems to have gone on forever. I cannot wait to see the back of it. Actually, I say that well aware that it has in reality, been a month characterized by inconvenience and uncertainty rather than by any direct misfortune. No giant storms have washed away my worldly possessions. No one has died or been imprisoned. Life altering hardship has avoided me, for which I am grateful.
But that stated, it has been a tough month professionally and in terms of home life. And these have directly impacted on an aspect of my life which you, dear reader, get to share, but which, for the most part remains private and solitary.
I have written a lot of posts for November but have censored most of them. For the most part my life is easily compartmentalized and I can blog without fear of crossing over into aspects of my life which would affect either work or home. But with the need to focus on things, this month, the inner Crabbitat; that part of me which needs to talk about geopolitics, or built environment or history or the tea-pot, has been neglected. My problem is simple enough. Whatever I have written has touched, if only by implication, on things which either concern work or home life. And as a result, I have forbidden myself from posting these. It would be crossing a boundary I neither need, nor want, to cross.
My life is normally easily compartmentalized, to the point where there are really three Crabbitat’s:
- Public Crabbitat: He rises early, he goes to work. He presents a face to the world that is fairly stoical but lacks patience and increasingly does not suffer fools. He says things which he may or may not actually believe to get results. He compromises principles he might otherwise deeply hold. He is an unashamed sell out, whose every waking moment is consumed with thoughts of work. Or so he would like you to believe. He has a motto, Nemo me impune lacesit (No one assails me with impunity).
- Family Crabbitat: He enjoys food and wine, laughs easily and deeply at slap-stick humour. He works hard to be patient and to banish remnants of his working alter ego, but worries that he does not always succeed in this. He considers his greatest fortune is to be able to support and care for his loved ones and believes that he would make any sacrifice for them to be able to achieve inner happiness, but frequently he realizes that he cannot do this for his family and the knowledge hurts him deeply. This Crabbitat has a motto, Inrevocabilis Felicitas (Relentless Positivity), which he privately acknowledges is in part a reaction to the sadness and unfulfilled dreams he detects in those he loves.
- Private Crabbitat: He is self-indulgent and selfish. He indulges his own private passions and interests to the exclusion of all others. He only has eyes for history, ideology, politics, geopolitics, built environment and ideas. He will happily spend time and money seeking our intelligent conversation to the exclusion of things he knows need done. His great thirst is for discourse and he is undiscerning over where he finds it. When discourse is impossible he blogs. He is something of a social cripple left to his own devices as he quickly looses all sense of priority. There are several friends and family members who refuse point-blank to take him seriously and some who refuse to acknowledge his existence. He too has a motto; Virtutis perdisputationem (Virtue through debate).
It does not take a genius to recognize that this last, Crabbitat, is a pretty selfish fellow, incapable of forming proper relationships or engage in any activity that does not revolve around his own interests. Fortunately, he seldom gets time to indulge himself freely.
And yet, were he not to exist at all, my life would be an unsatisfactory thing, dominated by duty and subservient to aspects of my personality which do not necessarily come naturally. I am fortunate to have been able to find time to indulge this last Crabbitat because his neglect ultimately only shows me my inherent frailties, weaknesses and inability to live up to the roles life has assigned me.
This month, there has been little time to indulge Private Crabbitat and he has petulantly stamped his feet and sulked as a result. He spends much of his time, like a younger sibling, screaming for attention in any case, and is never happier than when he gets me to himself. Suddenly, required to sit back and tolerate attention being given to other aspects of life, he has been a petulant presence at the back of my mind, and has not helped in resolving the various issues to befall me this month.
And yet, to be frank, Private Crabbitat is a spoiled brat. Compared with the private sides of other family and friends be has been given extraordinary room to breathe down the years. He has no reason to complain.
Previous generations of my family have been granted little room to indulge the private self. Charlie Cleland had scant opportunity in his life to indulge his true self. A creative and artistic man, he could only indulge this side of his character infrequently, through the production of amusing cartoons or impromptu puppet shoes. Like all men of his generation, he was obliged to make sacrifices for King and Country, and responded by spending more time making sacrifices for what he perceived to be the interests of his class.
My own father, was relentlessly driven, ambitious and talented. Granted relatively few educational advantages, he was essentially self-made. Yet when he did allow himself down time, he devoted it primarily to his family. Yet, he possessed an uncommonly sharp instinct and quick mind. He had a real grasp of the world and world affairs, understood political trends and ideas instinctively, when I must labour to understand them through learning. He enjoyed men who could talk and argue and stand their intellectual ground, and yet never allowed himself to become seduced by this. His interests ultimately were driven by his deeply held morality, forged in Presbyterian Scotland. It seemed to me that his morality was a morality of action and instinct rather than thought and he led by example, warm and generous, but disdaining the lazy or indulgent. His pleasures were simple, and sweet. He enjoyed a peach, the driver’s seat of a car, had his own chair in the living room. His private self was carved out of his family self, a central part of it, not distinct and different as mine is.
The history of the women of my family is even more littered with suppressed private selves. The three generations from my great-grandmother to my own mother have taken place against a backdrop of social change for women. Nellie Cleland appears to have been a campaigner and a fighter, whose duties and role as a woman and mother (at a far more labour intensive time than my own), she shared with a public self, devoted to the fight for women’s health, the vote and fairness for the poor.
Her daughter, exemplified both the relative freedom this brought and the characteristic sense of sacrifice of the WWII generation. Her public life was as a nurse, but unlike women of previous generations, she was not required to surrender this self upon marriage. This freedom, is easily ignored today in our much more open society but constituted a real step forward in the fight for women’s liberty, and Margaret guarded this privilege jealously, refusing to leave paid employment until forced to do so by the state. Her public life was the dominant aspect of her existence, impinging on her family life, where she brought a similar approach to that demanded of a ward matron. Hygiene, cleanliness, hard work, fresh air and self-discipline characterised her domestic life and in large part, still do, even as her body fails her and mind finds itself unable to truly release itself from the demands of a public self.
My own mother, her, daughter, was granted much greater freedom and opportunity, and yet she too has been largely unable to indulge it. She has had to come to terms with being a “Baby-boomer.” Hers is the generation which supposedly invented sex, and which enjoyed greater licence and freedom and wealth than any previous age. Now retired, she finds that increasingly the generation which follows holds her responsible for their own comparable lack of opportunity and wealth. Raised with the cosseted notion that we too would benefit from greater house price inflation and personal liberty, we find instead that our western lifestyles are unaffordable, the prospects of us being able to own similar homes are negligible and the greater equality that freed our parents now enfranchises a class of lazy state dependent single mothers, possibly the only class of people still able to enjoy their own home in their 20’s.
Yet at the heart of my mother’s plight is a seldom acknowledged truth. Hers has not been a licentious, or self-indulgent life. On the contrary, her youth was stiflingly controlled and mediated by social norms. She was not expected to go to university, was not educated to do so. Hers was to be a future in which she would marry, have children, work in an administrative or possibly clerical capacity for a male boss.
She would enjoy foreign travel as previous generations could not, but the idea that she could outgrow her class, without remarkable self-possession and talent, was anathema.
Celebrity culture existed. Working Class hero’s were being sung about, celebrated. Pop culture had arrived. But, it was not as accessible as my generation have become used to. And in part this explains why the mere sight of Elvis, The Beatles or David Bowie could drive my mother’s generation and that which immediately followed into such uncontrolled rapture. These people were real, could be seen, but were so far removed, represented such colour, vigour and glamour as to be untouchable.
Today, you can wear the same colours as a star by visiting Primark. For my mother to have been able to do the same, she would more than likely have had to save for the fabric, and make it herself.
And this stifling lack of expectation has inflicted itself on my mother’s confidence to feed her own inner self. Creative and modern by instinct, given the opportunity, she is astonishingly creative. This reveals itself only grudgingly, however, and within defined parameters. Photographs of my sister and I, taken in infancy, reveal a family home which is at once stylish, open, airy and fashionable. This was the late 1970’s and the furniture and décor is of its time, and yet it is effortlessly so. It is not contrived or clichéd. Actually, it is quite subtle and tasteful, the antithesis of hackneyed images of the time.
And so the domestic history of the Crabbitat household develops through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the décor reflecting the levels of income in the household but conforming to the same relaxed and modern standard, never showy, always warm and welcoming.
When I have decorated, I have constantly been struck by my mother’s acute eye for what works, is in vogue and compliments existing furnishings. Today the house is a reflection of her age and interests. It has a “Living Room” but the real life of the house centres on the kitchen which reflects, within the modern confines of a modern brick dwelling, a country kitchen, complete with bubbling saucepans and warm tempting smells. It is at its best in the dark winter months, when the window’s steam up and the body craves mashed buttery potatoes, deep green cabbage and slow cooked casseroles. Visitors complement my mother’s kitchen, and her inventive cooking, but in truth her real gift is in turning the house into an extension of herself, informal welcoming and warm.
It goes essentially unrecognised, but in a real sense, my mother’s private self has been expressed in a family home to which generations of the men folk of my family have gratefully returned. My father, myself and my nephew are three different persons, and yet all have shared an innate feeling of being safe and comfortable and made to feel at home in my mother’s creation.
And yet, she does not recognise this, has spent much of her life feeling that she has no creative or self defining talent to pursue at all. Her domestic, family self has defined her, but never satisfactorily. There has always been a nagging presence in her life, a feeling that left to her own devices, unencumbered by the presence in her life, of reminders of duty her limitations, she might have found room for something else; a great passion that she would have had unique ownership of and given unique attention to.
And when imagining what this private self might have been like, her instincts are towards the creative and serene. She imagines herself water-colour painting or penning her own valedictory. Doubtless these dreams would have been joined by musical dreams were she not told from an early age that she had no talent for singing.
And so, my mother’s inner self is not ever really allowed room to mature and flower, crippled as it is by a lack of self-confidence which has sat like a conscience on her shoulder, reminding her that she is neither talented enough, nor deserving enough to give voice to creative or selfish urges. For all the apparent freedoms of her age, hers was a prison of guilt as much as a playground for licence.
And so the sacrifices of the generations are crowned by the triumphant emergence of my sister and I and our unrestricted space to indulge our true inner selves. I can blog or give time to finding interesting company to verbally joust with. My sister can marry her domestic responsibilities with pursuit of her interests in music. Neither of us is burdened with the need to dutifully sacrifice our lives to the service of society, class, family or work, as our for-bearers were.
For all my bleating about lack of space, I have had more room than any generation in history to indulge my selfish interests.
And yet it is not enough. An inconvenient November, when various petty misfortunes have befallen me, and suddenly I am temperamental and unhappy. Mine is a cosseted and selfish generation indeed.
So this post comes with a moral and a warning. For the next time, we find ourselves playing computer games, needlessly lying in bed or otherwise procrastinating, we should recall that even though out creative, selfish selves are perhaps moderately talented, they are never-the-less a part of us, demanding and vengeful if unfulfilled. And if, with all the freedoms we have, do not pursue our wider interests with vigour and perfect and hone them to the limitations placed upon us by talent, then we have not only condemned ourselves to inner regret as we age, but we also show contempt for those, whose own example is one of sacrifice so that we could one day enjoy the fruits of their labour.
It is no good sulking that our working and family lives do not cater for our private passions. They never did. We must make room for them, work hard at them, and accept that but for the very talented or very lucky, when we do so, we are merely devoting time to our own selfish selves, and deserve no credit or recognition safe the pleasure of knowing that you have earned the right to be pleasing yourself for a change.