10 Brilliant Things I Have Learnt From My Unconventional Family

SELF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT

And how you can apply them to a conventional life…

My favourite red wellies that I would NOT take off, helping Dad fix stuff.

I was thinking about what I would like to write about, something that might be interesting, humorous, even helpful for others and my dear friend pointed out that:

‘Your family are nuts, like totally nuts, you should write about them’

Well, it’s true. My family are a bit different.

What do I mean by different? Well, they’re that special breed of eccentric that sits right on the very fringes of what is considered ordinary. Their unique brand of quirky allows them to sneak under the radar of normalcy completely undetected, or, in total contrast, to put in an appearance so outrageous it leaves people wondering if it was even the same person.

Grandad and Grannie in their finery.

On Mum’s side, we have the glamour of Grannie, with her Bouffant hairstyle reconfigured every Friday, her obsession with Egyptian Cats and extensive thimble collection. Her dressing up box and den making facilities were to DIE for.

Grandad was into gardening, he had a bar in the front room — now in my studio (many a snowball as a child) and was a champion accordion player. He collected curiosities from their travels and I’ll never forget the day I blew embers from his peace pipe all across their living room carpet after they allowed me to try it; how was I to know you weren’t meant to blow?

They were Jazz aficionados and this passion took them all over the world to watch their favourite musicians. They had the most amazing record collection I have ever seen and Grannie’s special ‘Jazz Clap’ is the stuff legend is made of.

Here is my uncle with one of his guns.

I must not miss out my Uncle, proud owner of a gun shop, an ammunition store at his house (obviously), a rather questionable circle of friends and collector of many things; animals, cars, toys and whatever other random stuff he had happened upon that needed rescuing.

My long-suffering Auntie, who would tolerate whatever random animal, vegetable or other that should be paraded through the kitchen with a grimace, a smile and typically good grace. 
Visiting my cousins generated similar levels of excitement to that of theme parks. Not only would we get to see them (along with my Auntie and Uncle) we got to play with all the animals, maybe go up the stables to see the horses, jump on the trampoline until we felt sick, drive the mini electric motorbikes (up a wall once), go crabbing on the estuary, ride in the boat, get the family bucket from KFC and… if we were really good, our uncle might milk Pepsi the goat and make us fresh milkshakes! Sometimes we would stay at the little cottage on stilts next door, which felt special. I loved it there, it felt like the summers would go on forever.

Grandma (now 95) and Mum

On my Father’s side, we have Grandma, still kicking it in her 90’s, she has been a vegetarian since my childhood and is now pretty much vegan. Was an avid knitter, a talented woodcarver, sadly her sight is not what it used to be, so the risk outweighed the reward and she had to stop. I do still have my prized wooden hamster, and most family members have at least one of her masterpieces.

Grandpa, also a vegetarian, a radio presenter, poet and psychedelic tapestry maker. He used to make me cassettes of Winnie The Pooh and would put music to ‘stomp’ to on the other side as I was a big fan of stomping as a child, I still have them.

My Uncles on that side are a Yacht Engineer and writer who travels the world virtually full time, and the other a motorbike collector, sort of engineer that used to fix Paul McCartney’s washing machine.

And my parents… Well…

Dad 2nd from left, and Mum far right with the stripey socks.

Mum and Dad were, in my opinion, bohemians of their time. My father ran away from the army in Northern Ireland, ended up in army jail, switched to a career of fixing televisions, and after many years of electrocuting himself did an Open University Degree, endless colourful sweetcorn on our dining room window sill, got himself into the field of rocket science. For really!

‘Chief Engineer Fireshadow Munition’

Father being a wizard here…

Was one of his many Bond-Esque job titles. My youth bedroom (as with most youths) was slathered in stickers, but my stickers said things like Rapier or Sea Wolf and had graphics of whatever his latest missile project might be.
Dad retired early and has been spending his time making preserves; in fact, he has an entire shed where he stores his chutney, everyone wants Dad’s chutney. He finally stopped wearing leather trousers in his early 60’s, but that hasn’t stopped his bi-annual festival, which takes over the entire village where he lives. His band along with several others play; friends and family come in from all over, some pitch tents in the garden, everyone gets wrecked, his daughters stuff their bags full of chutney.

Mum was a great Roller Skater, a skill I definitely inherited.

Mum, well she is probably the most deceptive of them all. Very well put together, some people think she’s rather ‘proper’, which makes me smile. She went back to college, a single parent, when I was in my early teens, so she could become a teacher; her dream job. She taught for a decade or so before sacking it off after getting fed up of working with such a bunch of intolerable f*ckwits. She is a secret creative, she can draw, write, knit and turn her hand to most of the arts (all on the down-low). Mum is also a razor-sharp sarcastic; not to mention a stealth badass, if you will.

She won’t break out the big guns unless absolutely necessary, so it’s doubly effective (and terrifying) when she does. Like the time she took on my new headmaster because we had dyed my hair fuchsia pink, and she really could not understand what the fuss was about, or the time I came home to find my entire bedroom in bin bags because she:

‘HAD REACHED THE END OF HER TETHER’

I think my sister would agree that Mum is both of her daughter’s number one fan, she is dependable, reliable, and is always cheering both of us on from the proverbial sidelines of life. She has stepped in as an emergency alternate Mum for some of our friends when they couldn’t go to their own. If there was a dictionary definition photo for ‘Liberal Mum’ it would be her face. Now her daughters are grown-up (ish) she is enjoying her daily quarantine yoga by zoom, ranting about idiots not social distancing, and generally being p*ssed about not being able to visit me in Vietnam.

Now I could go on to write about my sister, cousins, and every other beautiful weirdo in my very extended family, but I would never get to bestow unto you how this has shaped and helped me, how being a part of this ragtag little gang of creative, intellectual, pragmatic, hustlers on the periphery of what is perceived as normal, has made me a conscious, self-aware, intuitive human being. So let us begin…

Here I am pondering the intricacies of life.

1. It Doesn’t Matter What Anyone Else Thinks
When you stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking about you (or quite possibly not thinking about you) you will find yourself liberated. Granted this is hard, definitely something that gets easier with age, but I can tell you now that all these insecurities you have are just that, your insecurities. It’s only you that thinks them, only you that sees them. Stop putting yourself down! What are your strengths? Celebrate them. Your weaknesses? Acknowledge them and work out how to improve them. Balance is fundamental in any kind of self-development, give yourself a break — you are awesome!

Me circa 1980 owning that sh*t.

2. Embrace Individuality
Embrace it and encourage it! What a boring place this world would be if everyone was the same. This is foundational in my very being. For as long as I have memories, I can hear my Mum saying things like ‘ooh isn’t that different’ or ‘special’. We went out of our way to hunt down the unique; from my lavender spotty leotard for modern dance to my trips to Kensington Market in my early teens so I could find things that no one else would have. I was rummaging around charity shops and jumble sales before that was considered cool and you can apply this to a lot more than what you are wearing. Herd mentality is so passe. Worried about how people will react? Please refer to point 1!

3. It’s Never Too Late 
Stop making excuses and just get on with it. My Grandma decided in her late 60’s she wanted to learn to tap dance. So off she went and she got her certificate. Instead of being scared that it might be hard/you might not be able to do it/you might not like it/you are too old and so on… How about you be scared that you could die tomorrow and never even have tried to do all of those things you quite liked the idea of. Chop chop people, there is no time like the present!

Grandma being a total Betty.

4. You Can Be Anything You Want
(Within reason, if you’re not royalty, you will struggle to become a queen for example) 
This is true, however. Mum went back to college as a single parent with a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old, in her 30’s to learn to teach. She qualified and went on to be an amazing teacher. My Dad went from Granada TV repairman with pretty much no qualifications to a rocket scientist. It’s about having the guts to make the scary decisions, then the resilience and determination to see them through.

5. Fix Your Problems And Move On
This is very simple indeed. My family are doers and they understand that moaning is not productive, drama is a waste of time, gossip has no real value, grudges are poisonous, and constantly referring back to events that were never properly dealt with from 15 years ago is positively toxic. If there is a problem you have to do everything in your power to solve it. We have all worked in those places where a colleague spends all day every day complaining about how much they hate their job, but do nothing at all to look for a new one, it’s so selfish and it affects everyone. If something happened a long time ago, that you are unable to fix then you have to make peace with it. Stop dwelling on something you cannot change, and learn never to let anything fester like that again. I guarantee you’ll start to feel better, and think of all that time you’ll have to do nice things instead!

6. Putting On Your Glad Rags Really Can Make You Feel Better
This one is particularly important for you lot all stuck at home in quarantine. It’s quite nice sometimes to not have to bother to make an effort, it’s also a bit of a trap. If you sit at home all day every day in say, your PJ’s or a version of, eventually the novelty value of being able to wears off and it becomes the norm. Now that is not a good thing, this is when you want to give yourself a little shake, maybe take a shower — yes the amazing cleansing properties of WATER; you can put some makeup on of that’s your jam, and why not elevate your outfit because the simple fact is that it is rather likely to elevate your mood too! There is not one person in my family that doesn’t understand the importance of appearance and it’s magical transformational properties.

Mum collecting her prize with Grannie

7. Modesty And Mystery
Ok so let’s start with the modesty, the mystery will be organic. You now know a bit about my family, I think it’s fair to say they are rather unique. They are also almost all blissfully unaware of how interesting they all are as individuals; their primary focus is on bolstering the brilliance of the rest of the family.
What I mean by this is that if you met one of my family it’s pretty unlikely they would tell you any of the things I have and that’s for a few key reasons:

They don’t believe they are doing anything that’s particularly extraordinary, they don’t want to be a terrible bore, plus it’s not very British to introduce yourself along with a list of your achievements, job title, pay bracket, choice of car, area code etc. I mean who cares? 
It’s not because they don’t want to share, it’s just that they just met you. It’s like a drip system, slowly offloading quality information each time you meet again, that’s the mystery part see. 
If however, you meet more than one of my family at the same time you can expect them to introduce one another with such proud, enthusiasm that by the time they are finished you’ll have enough detail to assemble the entire family tree with added employment history.
This translates so well to everyday life. When you are introducing a friend it holds so much more weight if it’s you that gives the gushing manuscript of all their outstanding achievements, it also allows that friend to remain modest, and a little bit mysterious, two qualities that are very appealing across the spectrum.

8. Vegetarians Do Live For Longer
Grandma is 95. She has been vegetarian for around 70 years, she is pretty much vegan now. She goes on a walk in the countryside every day, likes to swim in the sea and has generally had the sort of lust for life normally reserved for 20 somethings. Granted she is slowing down a bit now, but she is 95 after all. Eating fewer animal products is good for you, try it out!

Helping Grandad to play

9. Everyone Is Creative
I promise. I don’t suppose the first time Grandpa made a psychedelic tapestry it was one of his masterpieces. Just as I don’t suppose Grandad could play the accordion from the moment he picked it up. The thing they have in common is they kept at it until they got really damn good. If you enjoy doing something then you’re going to want to do it again, and then with time, and practise you will improve. The mistake that so many people seem to make is they pick something that they like the look of, or that is fashionable at the time and try to learn it, hate it, try a bit more, still hate it, give up, put the thing in the cupboard console themself with the fact they are not creative and that is the end of that. This is a terrible mistake, you just got to keep looking for the thing that you enjoy, it doesn’t matter if you suck at it, if you enjoy it you’ll be persistent and with time you’ll stop sucking.

Renegade toddler.

10. Distance Doesn’t Change A Forever Bond
My quirky family share that special bond. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, it can be years before we meet up at the next legendary (and trust me they are just that) party. We live all over the world and we are busy types but it doesn’t matter, it feels like just yesterday and it’s fine. When we do get together it’s fantastic and it will keep us going for the next however long before we all meet again. In fact, I don’t think my body could cope if we were to meet up too regularly. That sort of event puts a bit of a strain on the internal organs.

I have been extremely lucky to have been surrounded with such an incredibly diverse group of positive, supportive people for so much of my life and it really has taught me a lot. The real world is judgemental, discriminatory, harsh, everyone seems to be on a mission to propel their own self-importance, and it’s all too easy to get sucked into that. There is so much artificial distraction, so much chatter and noise, sometimes it’s hard to remember what the reality actually is, you can muddle along being busy doing nothing for an eternity. When I am feeling that way I like to think about my funny family, and what they might do in that situation. They would probably tell me ‘it’s a load of nonsense, pull up your socks and just get on with it’ and you know what they’d be right.

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