52. We need to talk about…Uncles


A typically dashing Uncle

What could be better than being an Uncle? Impossibly exotic bearer of unusual gifts and stories; freewheeling our way in and out of young lives minus parental baggage and devoid of black bags beneath the eyes, unless self-inflicted via some unimaginable adventures in the place where Uncles congregate to lounge, wax, sip Martinis and fly light aircraft.

Childless Uncles are a particularly funny breed in that we will never be worn down in the same way as parents. By which I don’t just mean exhausted; more that we will never be honed, shaped and crafted into different human beings in the way that parents are by their children. In our relationships we remain naturally selfish. Which is fine, so do kids. But our contrariness means we are always at as much risk of losing our beloved nieces and nephews’ attention as they are of losing ours.

A couple of examples from childhood.

A Great Uncle I loved dearly was a fan of all things practical. I vividly recall the day when midway through an age-inappropriate anecdote about steam power or cuckoo clocks or traction engines, which his captive audience may or may not have heard before, I asserted my teenage right to get up off the sofa and leave the room. Despite being in thrall to the impetuousness I was trialling so defiantly, I couldn’t help notice his face fall as I left him in the company of my loyal but uncomprehending younger brother.

What he must have thought of me doesn’t matter here. I never sensed anything but the same warm and generous acceptance of my brattishness whenever he came to other family parties in the years that followed. What I fear now is that after this innocuous-seeming incident he began to examine his own life in more detail and thereafter suspected himself of having become the archetypical boring relation – the unspoken fear of all in our position. Looking back, I realise he was simply being an Uncle: strange, independent and ultimately dispensable; something now he’s gone I ache to remedy.

Another Uncle, much closer to my age, was a pop star in the ‘80s and gloried in the hard work and rewards that came with that profession. His home was usually LA but when he was in England we were guaranteed a visit. The thrill of stealing cigarettes from the packs he’d carelessly leave at my parents’ house is one hard to match to this day. That he noticed us at all was beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t just hang onto his every word, as kids we breathed in his magical scent – of leather, tobacco, expensive aftershave. Every promise of the unknown world lingered long after his BMW had departed our suburban stasis.

My Uncle became a parent too but, before we got to know her, the distant presence of a vivacious Californian cousin seemed like yet another example of his shameless dream weaving. His fame made him available, his relative proximity made him ours.

As you can imagine, this led to difficulties beyond geography when it came to our adult relationship. In my twenties and thirties I could never see him as anything other than a superstar, and once I developed ambitions of my own I found it hard not to consider him a rival. When his reaction to my artistic efforts was encouraging but lukewarm, I took more offence than was warranted, displaying an arrogance I hoped would impress him more than my talent, or lack of, could.

Now older and wiser, I realize he was simply being an Uncle: aloof, distracted, infused with otherness, but ultimately just a man, just an Uncle. It’s a relationship I wish to restore and nurture. Perhaps now I’m an Uncle too I’ll be given that chance.


Me & My Uncle – a gift in vinyl from Hong Kong mates