Yes, this is true, but it’s not English

Such podiatric reverence was probably not uppermost in Simon Hughes’s mind when he cited African and Asian families as models of how the young should look after the old. Rather than “forcing” the elderly into care homes where their main companion is a television set, the Liberal Democrat justice minister railed, British families should seek to emulate the example of immigrant families who “look after their families to the end”.

It is true that the circle of care, at least in Indian families, embraces all generations. When we speak of family, we do not limit its meaning to spouses and children. By family, we mean the “wider family” that Hughes invoked: parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, even second cousins and in-laws. And, in the pecking order, age is the determinant of veneration.

This is neither right nor wrong in any moral or cultural sense but we do know that we English have been living in nuclear families at least since the Middle Ages. We’ve had at least half a millennium where the standard household unit is two adults and their own children. We haven’t been living in the extended family for as far back as we can reliably trace. Granny didn’t live with her grandkids.

Just ain’t the way we did it.

17 comments on “Yes, this is true, but it’s not English

  1. I rarely disagree with you (or agree with Simon Hughes) but that’s not entirely true. The Northern working class often took widowed parents in before the Welfare State killed natural affections. I have fond memories as a small boy playing in the back yard of a two up two down with shared outside chemical lav. My regular playmate was the neighbours’ widowed father who once memorably told me (as I played in my Red Indian outfit) of seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when he was a lad. My own grandparents were sustained in their own home long after they could take care of themselves by a rota of family members doing all the household tasks. It’s gone now, for certain, but it’s a loss. My neighbours’ children had a different, more caring, attitude to age and infirmity in consequence.

  2. “Granny didn’t live with her grandkids.”

    The concept of the “granny flat” seems to have passed Mr Worstall by.

  3. @Tom

    It hasn’t entirely gone. My grandfather died recently (of dehydration, in the care of PaulB’s wonderful and caring NHS, natch – well, he was 96, and had only fought at Arnhem, why give the old fool a glass of water? But I digress) and until the final two weeks or so he was living in his own home with my mother and my two aunts visiting him on a rota basis. My uncles were less assiduous but helped out, too.

    The original piece in the Daily Telegraph is shot through with the kind of casual assumptions which, if applied in the other direction, would bring howls about cultural imperialism and racism etc.

    ‘Britain should learn from India’s family values’, says Anjana Ahuja (I assume she doesn’t include suttee).

    ‘When we speak of family, we do not limit its meaning to spouses and children. By family, we mean the “wider family” that Hughes invoked: parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, even second cousins and in-laws. And, in the pecking order, age is the determinant of veneration.’

    Yep, sounds very fucking familiar to me, Anjana. It’s not confined to Indians, you know. Second cousins, I will grant you, I’m not that familiar with, but I have 23 first cousins so give me a break.

  4. @ interested. Ms. Ahuja probably doesn’t include honour killing and gender abortion either. I know of several towns in the east midlands where there is at least one purpose-built block of flats for the housing of the asian aged. The emancipation of westernised women of asian descent unwilling to spend a life as the domestic slaves of their mother-in-law quite possibly was instrumental in their commissioning. Off with the rose-tinted glasses, Anjana

  5. K.R.Lohse: spot on! But given the level of generations of first cousin marriage, honour killing doesn’t remove much from the gene pool and family/clan identity trumps the individual. I am glad to be in the happy position where I rely on friends rather than family for my social identity even if I outlive them to a lonely old age.

  6. Tom & Interested,

    When I met my wife, she used to, as a teenager, sleep with her gran two nights a week because the wonderful old lady had leukaemia, the other five nights were covered by other members of her family (she’d had 11 children and lost her husband soon after the youngest was born, the eldest children going out to work to support mum and the youngest, they’ve always been a close, loving supportive family ever since). She only spent the last couple of nights of her life in hospital.

    My wife’s act of love to her gran nearly meant that we did not become an item. I met her on a Sunday (23 July 1978), and asked if I could see her Monday. “No, I’ve got evening classes” was the reply. Tuesday? “No, I sleep up at my gran’s”. I get the picture, I thought, Yorkshire lass not enamoured with my cockney(ish) accent, well, I’ll give it one more stab and if the answer is no I’ll know I’m not wanted. Wednesday? Big grin, “yes, Wednesday’s good”. And the rest is history.

    When my nan died, my mum ensured her second husband (not my mum’s dad) could stay in their house until he died by visiting him every day.

    My father-in-law had to go into a home because he had dementia and was a danger to himself but he had numerous visitors who would call in every day and sit and play dominoes with him. I was especially proud of our 10 year old niece who called in every day after school.

    For many families it is perfectly English to love and care for family.

    Happy St. George’s Day, by the way.

  7. This “the extended family should care for the elderly, look at other cultures” thing turns up regularly.
    What’s missed out is it’s the elderly who prevent it happening.

    I know families who operate like they suggest. But it’s the way it works, wouldn’t suit most Brits. In later life the “head of the family” role shifts down a generation. The family home, the family assets, become that of the son & his family with his father/mother taking backseat roles.

    I’ve a fine example in my own life, why this doesn’t work with the Brits.
    My father’s now a widower, in poor health, needs assistance & is mentally not really capable of administrating his own affairs. The logical thing is I should look after him. But prising his mottled shaking hands from control just ain’t gonna happen. And sorry, I’m really not keen on returning to live under his roof at his whim with the entire life change that’ll require for me & mine so he can expire sitting on his pot of gold. So we have a very complicated arrangement involving paid carers, lawyers & other expensive nonsense.

  8. @DocBud – lovely story. You knew you had found a good one at that point!

    @BiS ‘I’ve a fine example in my own life, why this doesn’t work with the Brits.’

    Doesn’t work with some Brits. These things are never applicable that widely, is the point.

    You live abroad, it’s complicated. You live at the other end of the country, the same. If you live in the same village, or town, it gets easier. That’s perhaps the main difference between some modern Brits and their olden day counterparts, and Indian emigrees here, we move around more. Indian/Pakistani families (for instance) are still concentrated in Leicester, Bradford, Luton etc

  9. I have to say that TW’s attitude comes as a surprise to me. I would have thought it was entirely British to do this. At least for some of the time. No one seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

    What everyone misses is that the Baby Boomers couldn’t wait to destroy this part of British life. They told their parents to take a flying f**k and rejected all their values. Now they are old, they want the young ‘uns to care for them? Well good luck with that.

    This sh!t Simon Hughes is a prime example. Complete rejection of his family values – let us ask what Asian families think about bisexuals shall we? Now he wants everyone to ignore the damage done to British society since he was a student politician? As I said, good luck with that.

    It is easy to turn an aquarium into fish stew. Slightly harder to turn a fish stew back into an aquarium.

  10. isn’t the real problem the level of mobility we are now used to? A generation ago, you could almost expect to be living in the same town or even street as members of your family. At worst, you would have relatives a village/town away. Rarely the case these days.

  11. Yes, it did happen a lot more than nowadays. Partly because we are a more mobile society, also more selfish, and mainly because children’s opinions are considered more important than those of the elderly.

  12. DocBud – “Generalising an entire generation is truly pathetic. My wife is a baby boomer, see above.”

    I am sorry but I did not have space to list each and every selfish Baby Boomer by name. Although the extent to which people can escape the Zeitgeist is an interesting question. Perhaps for latter.

    On the plus side, if your children have seen your wife caring for her own elderly, I am sure they will have learnt something and she won’t have to worry about their old age. There is, I dimly remember, a nice bit from the Simpsons I should add here.

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