John B Keane: A family is a fine thing so long as it’s someone else’s

WHEN I was younger I was friendly with a man who promised himself that one day he would write a history of his own family.

WHEN I was younger I was friendly with a man who promised himself that one day he would write a history of his own family.

There were more famous families and more illustrious families in the locality and it was felt that he would be better rewarded if he wrote about these.

But no. All he wanted to do was write about his own. He told a local schoolmaster what he was about and asked him if he would be good enough to look over the history when it was written. The teacher agreed but then he addressed himself to the would-be historian as follows:

“Do not go back too far,” he said. “You are on the crest of a wave now and it would seem that such was always the case amongst the past members of your family.

“Maybe it was but I know that in my own case I would never write a history of my family for the good reason that, unlike you, I know too much about them. The same applies to all families everywhere.”

The historian, however, was determined to press ahead. Other sane and sober elders in the community advised him against it. One old man asked him why he wanted to write about his own family rather than another family in the first place.

“Because,” said the would-be historian, “they are my own.”

“So are mine,” said the elder, “but you’ll never catch me writing about them.”

This did not deter the historian. He was in possession of relatively ample means so he went about asking others if they remembered such an aunt, such a great-uncle or such a great-aunt and so forth and so on.

He worked diligently but the information he required was slow in coming in. He sat down one night and gave the matter his most careful consideration.

Think as he did he came no nearer to a solution. He rose and there and then decided to go to a pub where liquid inspiration was always readily available.

The pub, he discovered, was a mine of information. Its occupants who were eager and willing to join company with anyone who would include them in a round turned out to be possessed of limitless information about the historian’s family.

Not a bad word would they say against them and they assured him that anybody who did was a thorough blackguard.

Never, they declared, in the history of mankind was there such a family for honesty, bravery, good looks, dignity and true humility.

The more they drank the more fanciful their stories became. Some even wept at the injustice of a world which did not canonise such antecedents as the historian’s.

That there were no counts, knights or princes in his background was an enormous affront to honest labours and selfless suffering.

All the old arguments against the writing of the history were frittering away and he could see now that it was jealousy that prompted the objections.

The drink flowed freely as they discussed the humourous side of the family. Then came the charitable side of the family. Then came the warlike side and it emerged slowly but emphatically that all the members of all the branches were truly what one might call men for all seasons.

Happily our friend went homeward but if he awoke in the morning with a sick head and a reduction in the size of his purse he also awoke with the knowledge that he would be quite justified in starting the book.

He purchased jotters and pencils and at the same hour on the following night he proudly wended his way to the pub.

He went around requesting the patrons to repeat the statements they had made the night before but all refused to do so.

Our friend was astonished. Was it how they had led him up the garden path or was it that they had merely indulged him because of the free drink?

They assured him that this was not the case, who did not even want their names in the papers not to mention books. They were simple unlettered men and begged to be excused.

He tried to cajole them with drinks and went so far as to offer them money but they were adamant. What they should have told him what that in the long run all families get their share.

No one stays far too long at the top and it is a wise man who is content with his lot provided it is a reasonable one.

In the histories of all families there is a faulty bulb for every shining light. For every distinguished member there are scores of ordinary ones in addition to the normal quota of ruffians and scoundrels.

A family is a fine thing, so long as it is someone else’s.