Wednesday, 7 September 2016
A Constant Economy of Truth.... By Bernard Hendy
Accuracy was never a strong point in our family. Years of confusion and frustration preceded my grasp of this salient truth which finally dawned upon me late in life. Only after the high noon of my own existence had come and gone and I was well on my way towards tea time did I finally appreciate this. Even then, however, I could never claim that everything fell neatly into place. Rather I came to the gradual acceptance that nothing about my origins could be taken at face value. As a result of this belated revelation I am at last able to view both myself and my complicated relatives from a more balanced perspective. Things have begun to make a little more sense at last. I was born on the fourteenth of April in nineteen forty seven. At least that is what it says on my birth certificate but I have come to view such flimsy evidence with the deepest suspicion. After all, I was raised within a gifted elite who, like royalty, are possessed of both official and actual birth dates. Yes, strange as it may seem, many of my family members somehow contrived to issue forth into this existence in circumstances that had to be concealed from those in authority. Nearly all of my numerous aunts were actually older than the records indicated; some of them much older. My mother had three birth dates and of the two birth certificates I have traced for her, both depict different dates and both are incorrect. Several of my relatives also departed this life in a similar vein, with some lingering on, according to officialdom, long after they were stone dead. Clearly things must have been more relaxed in days gone by if even the lower orders were able to deceive the Powers That Be over important matters such as birth and death. The Law at the time directed that all parents were obliged to register any offspring within six weeks of the actual birth and dire consequences were threatened against those who failed to comply with this eminently sensible regulation. My family, however, took a perverse delight in frustrating both the spirit and the letter of this directive at every opportunity. Indeed it became a tradition. Thus I have no way of really knowing whether or not my own stated birth date is correct. The year probably is accurate as my mother always knew when to draw the line. Regardless of her seemingly low intellect she also possessed considerable reserves of low animal cunning. This usually sufficed to deter her from embarking upon projects where the prospects of success were slim. She had the kind of intuition which somehow made her instinctively aware of when the odds were against her. So nineteen forty seven is probably correct but the day and the month are anybody’s guess. My specific enquiries as to the facts of the matter always drew a blank and until her demise my mother remained steadfastly enigmatic about the whole affair. I do know that the Hawthorn was in blossom and that the Cuckoo was calling, because she mentioned this in an unguarded moment. So it is always possible that the certificate is correct for once! My father, poor chap, was dead long before I was old enough to ask him and my sister, born in June, nineteen forty as far as we know, has taken little interest in the problem and so I am stuck with what the official record states. The low status of our particular family is something that has always been more than evident. Most major family events for example seem to have occurred in the open air, and close to rural produce of some kind or other, a sure indication of lowly birth. My mother was actually born in a hop bin. Most of my aunts, uncles and cousins were certainly conceived if not brought forth in either pastures of cereal or fields of long grass and my Grandfather, who clearly liked to be different, expired amongst wet fish. His brother Ernest was blown up in a turnip field and another brother and two cousins were all mown down together in a field of barley. With this theme in mind I am fairly confident that at the time of my birth something was being sown, tended or harvested and that my mother was of necessity, involved. This has left me with a slightly distrustful nature combined with an interest in vegetables of every variety. By pretending to have forgotten the precise details of my birth my mother merely upheld family tradition. She saw nothing iniquitous or novel in this attitude. The circumstances of her own delivery into life were similarly ambiguous and I imagine that she was merely conforming to inherited characteristics over which she had little control. This practice of natal uncertainty appears to have originated in Ireland, Galway to be precise, and taken to England and deep into Kent by my Great Grandmother Margaret who, upon her marriage to my Great Grandfather, felt compelled to perpetuate the custom with a certain amount of fundamentalist vigour. In no time at all the seeds had been sown into another generation and as a result the relentless erosion of robust official statistics began. Great Grandmother’s firstborn, another Margaret, took up the baton of dishonesty with enthusiasm and carried it triumphantly into her own marriage to my Grandfather, Edgar Constant. Their union produced thirteen live and lusty children, each bearing the unmistakable hallmark of chronic deceit. Against this background my mother’s attitude assumes a greater modesty than one might initially assume and it can almost seem understandable that she refused to recognise what all the fuss was about. Surrounded as she was by numerous siblings, each possessed of an identical eccentricity about such trivial matters, it is little wonder that she stuck to her guns. After all, what do numbers really signify? Why bother about them? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Leaving aside a nagging frustration regarding accuracy which has obsessed me all my life, I can now finally begin to comprehend her attitude. It has taken over fifty years of trying though! My mother’s upbringing rapidly conditioned her to the application of deceit as an essential tool of survival within the large and dysfunctional Constant Family. The delights and remunerations of hop picking so distracted her own mother that obligatory registration of an infant within six weeks of birth was routinely ignored. As a consequence, seven of the thirteen children were registered late and had to have their birthdays `adjusted’. One child was overlooked completely, causing acute embarrassment when his death decades later appeared to have taken place before his birth. Bureaucratic incidents of this kind ensured that the Constants were obliged to keep their wits about them for the duration of their lives.