Monday Motivation: Unhappy families

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

“So who was Alan? Is he your cousin, or your brother-in-Law?” Laura said, clearly perplexed.

“Neither,” I said. “He was my second cousin. Thomas’s son.”

“Was? Won’t he be at the lunch on Sunday?”

“No. He’s deceased.”

“Deceased,” Laura exclaimed. “Oh, my god, I’m never going to get anywhere with this family of yours.”

“It’s complicated,” Jenny said.

“I want you to write it all down. Starting with Jonathan. He was your grandfather, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Jenny and I said simultaneously.

“He was the one who celebrated two silver weddings,” I added.

I found a pad in a drawer where we kept the new corkscrew. “Got a pen?”

“I’ve got one,” Laura said.

“Wine, anyone?”

We all deserved a glass of wine. Our family is complicated, and explaining it, with all its stories, its scandals, its betrayals and its occasional acts of violence, is thirsty work.

“And his daughter emigrated to England. Our aunt,” Jenny said.

“And had three children. Two living, one deceased. Our two living cousins will be at the lunch,” I said, taking a handful of long-stemmed wine glasses from the cupboard.

“So there’ll be you, and Jenny, and these two cousins,” Laura said, “what are their names? Write them down.”

I poured three generous glasses of a fine South African shiraz, while Jenny started writing.

As she jotted down the names of the family members – and their significant others – so we told the stories that each inspired.

The story about the cousin who left a complicated will which, after her death, exploded merrily, leaving a trail of wounded and aggrieved inheritors to pick up the pieces.

The story about the uncle whose car, on the way to town was involved in a light bumper bashing. According to his young son, who’d been in the car with him, his father, a large and intimidating man, stopped their car, sighed and got out.  His son, watched what was happening in the rear-view mirror. His father stalked to the car behind them. The driver emerged from his car but before he had a chance to say anything at all, his father hit him in the mouth, and he dropped to the ground.  The boy’s father returned to his car, and they went on their way. The incident was never mentioned again.

The story about the father-in-law who abducted a man who threatened to rob him of his wife, beat him to a pulp, tied him to a tree, and left him bleeding on a hillside miles from the nearest town.

One story led to another. “That really happened?” an incredulous Laura asked of one particularly lurid tale.

“Sure,” I said.

“Then there’s the one about Gregory and the…” Jenny began.

“We can’t tell that one. If he ever hears that we’ve told that story, he’ll sue us, family or not,” I said.

Tolstoy famously wrote, in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I believe that while that sentence has a wonderful ring to it, it’s not as accurate an observation as I once thought. I believe there are no happy families. That’s not say that families don’t characterise themselves in that way, but that in every family there are people who behave badly and from time to time cause other members of the family great unhappiness.

But as Anna Karenina demonstrates, unhappy families – or at least, in my terms, sporadically unhappy families – are the source of great and lasting stories. The evening that Jenny and I spent describing some of our family’s more egregious behaviour had us exclaiming repeatedly: My god, now that would make a wonderful novel…

You might wonder what the gathering Laura referred to is about. Well, we are meeting to discuss the disposal of various family artifacts. “You’re going to behave yourself?” she asked me, a tad anxiously.

“Oh, yes. It’ll be an extremely civilised affair.”

Although behind it will simmer a dozen unresolved backstories. They won’t be mentioned.

Happy writing,


P.S. You might be wondering whether there’s any truth in this week’s report. Well, I have to confess that it’s a piece of what people have started calling auto-fiction. The basic facts are true, although they’ve been freely embellished. And of course, to protect the wicked, I’ve used pseudonyms throughout.


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