Revelations that the Clintons keep a spreadsheet updated with everyone who has ever wronged them led us to ask writers and politicians whether they hold a grudge with the same conviction – and impressive organisational skills
If Hillary Clinton is still favourite to become the next president of the US, there may be a few worried Democrats who vote Republican in 2016. The Clintons have long memories, you see, and, according to a new book, they keep a spreadsheet listing everybody who has helped or betrayed them during their time in politics. The scale of the traitors’ offences are said to be graded from one to seven, like a kind of Divine Comedy rewritten for Microsoft Excel. For instance, if the book is right, Hillary’s election would be the end of the line for the secretary of state, John Kerry, who gets a place in the seventh circle of infamy for preferring Barack Obama.
Keeping a “shitlist”, it must be said, is not associated with history’s most lovable characters. Senator Joseph McCarthy made himself famous in 1950 by holding up what he claimed was a list of all the spies and communists then employed in the State Department. The list was never published in full, and McCarthy may well have been wrong anyway, but it helped to fuel the Red Scare, which ruined many careers. Richard Nixon was also discovered to have an “enemies list” in 1973. He may never have seen it personally, but it was drawn up by his aides with the express aim of trying to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies”.
More recently, the Church of Scientology was reported to keep one. Indeed the concept of the “suppressive person” who sees enemies all around is, somewhat appropriately, written into the religion’s demonology.
Just last year the National Rifle Association, for reasons that are hard to fathom, even published an extremely detailed list of its opponents, including many obvious names, such as Michael Moore, along with quite a large number of surprises, such as the ever-villainous Dick Van Dyke.
Keeping a shitlist may not add warmth to one’s reputation, in short, but it sure sends out a message. You are implacable, it says. You are going to be methodical about getting your revenge, serve it cold, and then take just a line of ink through someone’s name as a digestif.
The idea of the list says so much, in fact, that you don’t even need the list. At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, when he was still new in the Liverpool manager’s job, Brendan Rogers told all his players – and the TV crew following them – that he had written down the names of three people who would at some point let the team down.
In the middle of a very successful second season, he now admits that the envelopes were empty. It was a trick he says he learned from Alex Ferguson, a man whose real enemies list would fill a book, and has.
When I was a young activist, I had a shitlist as long as your arm. Yet middle age has taught me an important lesson in life: your shitlist owns you. It gnaws away at your soul and does you more harm than the list’s members.
So these days there is only one person I would like to park in a three-hour traffic jam: Jeremy Clarkson. I do not have to describe to Guardian readers why, with his ruddy face and greying clumps of curly hair held together with Copydex, Clarkson is on the list, because he’s probably on theirs, too. My only sadness is that he will revel in such notoriety. And the BBC will continue to pay him to be like this. It’s almost worth siding with Murdoch to ditch the licence fee over.
He’s on my shitlist because he’s been bragging about running against Chris Bryant as an MP. I hope the BBC give Chris his own show to even up the coverage. He’d probably beat Clarkson in one of those ridiculous road races they do on Top Gear.
I’d gladly amend the law to free this Tory clown from the onerous red tape of wearing a seatbelt. Then it’s just a matter of probability working its magic as he lives his celebrity life in the fast lane.
Very boringly – or perhaps very lazily, I can’t even be bothered to analyse it – I prefer to go by that old adage that the best revenge is a happy life. In fact, I have frequently been known to express sympathy for someone in the business who is publicly going through a tough time, only for a friend who is far better at keeping track of such things to remind me that the person was once a shitehawk to me in one way or another. I once even sent a long letter of commiseration to someone who I had completely forgotten had done me quite a significant disservice, which – entirely accidentally – must have made me look very gracious. Or maybe outrageously sarcastic. Again, I have no idea.
In (imperfect) memory, I have twice ventured toward what I suppose would be deemed faintly retributive action. The first time was when a colleague plagiarised some lines from my columns in their book, and after offering them the chance to cough to it privately, and being disappointed, I eventually mentioned it in pointed amusement to our mutual line manager. Nothing whatsoever was done about it, equally amusingly, and it doesn’t seem to have affected their career progression, so I don’t really count it as a dedicated takedown. The second time was during some journalism seminar, in which I was on the panel with the editor of a website who once claimed something personal and false about me that I thought damaging. I am afraid I interrupted their keynote address on the state of the trade or whatever it was to remind them of this unapologised-for error, and they seemed so shaken by being called on it in such a forum that I felt rather mean and regretful about it later, and am sure it only made me look like a complete twat.
Both were years ago, happily – and such infinitesimally minuscule slights, in the great scheme of things, that writing them out just now I can’t believe I even bothered to the quarter-arsed degree I did. In the interim, thank goodness, I have absolutely cemented the idea in my mind that even an ice-cold dish of revenge is far, far too much trouble to serve.
Here’s the thing: in order to have a huge feud with someone, you have to either a) have a huge relationship, as good as married or a very, very close friendship, or b) be engaged in a huge project – take, as a wild for-instance, running for president. In a big undertaking, people can betray each other in big ways even when they don’t know each other very well; whereas, on a normal-sized tapestry, you really have to be at the foreground of somebody’s life in order to stab them.
As a complete aside, I think this is why Damian McBride and all those end-of-the-era New Labour types make such a big deal about how betrayed they all were, because it lends grandeur to the entire project. Except it doesn’t. It makes them all look like idiots (1).
I’m not in the business of holding grudges against people I’m very close to (2), and obviously I don’t have a huge project, so there’s nobody against whom I nurse an implacable hatred (3). But I will say that any moderately well-lived life will contain some accidental giving of offence, most often by me, and after that I will nurse a grudge against somebody pre-emptively, on the assumption that they already hold one against me and if I were to meet them without acknowledging it, they would then have the opportunity to snub me. Imagine.
Then, if some panel event comes up that they will be at, I will passive-aggressively say to the organiser, “but X (4) hates me, would you check that he’s OK with me chairing?”, appearing both open and humble, so that even if X wasn’t even aware of hating me, X just has to forgive me or he’ll look bad (5).
One time, when I’d just met my fella, we were introduced to a journalist at a party, and he asked her what she did, and she put her head in her hands and said: “Oh God, really?” And he said if any other journalists were as obnoxious as that, it was definitely over between us. And I have had to keep my fingers crossed all this time (6). But otherwise, no. No shitlist. Nothing like that.
1 Damian McBride is actually on my shitlist, for a reason too petty to go into, although I will say that it involves LBC presenter Iain Dale.
1A Iain Dale is not on my shitlist.
2 I just remembered I haven’t spoken to my half-sister for 10 years.
3 Apart from Orlando Bloom.
4 Oliver James.
5 This Thursday.
6 I really want everyone to ask me who this was, but I’ll have to shake my head sadly and say I can’t tell you.
The problem with having a list (everyone has a list. Anyone who says they don’t have a list is telling porky pies, or Pope Francis; mine has a disproportionate number of people called Sadie on it and I am now troubled if I meet someone new called Sadie) is that unless you expressly publish it in a ledger, a la Clinton, the person involved probably has absolutely no idea they’re on it. I ran into a (highly successful theatre producer) aquaintance recently for the first time in an age, who said: “Oh my God, I have never forgotten that ferocious review of my play you wrote in 1992. I nearly gave up the game altogether. God, it was something else.”
He mentioned this several times during the course of a short conversation.
“I am so sorry,” I said. I genuinely was and am sorry. Before doing stuff other people reviewed, I thought reviewing was an hilarious lark, taking other people’s hard graft and writing show-off-y takedowns of it. Ah, being young. “What was the show?”
“You don’t remember the SHOW???!!”
I didn’t. I didn’t remember the play, the production, the year, or writing a review of anything. Although if the way young callow wannabes review things is anything to go by, I deserved rather more than being on someone’s hitlist; I deserved a hitman.
I do have a shitlist, but I’d be a pretty poor PR man to out the names on it. It’s a single sheet of yellowing paper, nestling inside my wallet. Thankfully it’s a very short list, however each name is tattooed on to my very soul because of a litany of sins.
My dad offered me the best piece of advice for dealing with the vicissitudes of PR life. I didn’t realise the power of his aphorism until the heat of battle. Cherish this, he said: “Lord protect me from my friends – I can take care of my enemies.” He claimed it was an old Polish proverb. Many years later I was told the quotation is attributable to Maréchal Villars when taking leave of King Louis XIV: “Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies.”
In work, I need to be surrounded by people with good souls. It’s important that the people across the divide share the same values of honesty. So when I experience a less-than-honest dealing from a journalist or client or employee, I notch it up. There is no point in harbouring feelings of paranoia when creating an atmosphere of certainty and reliance is critical. The best contacts are full of heart, and share a sense of responsibility for a relationship. Those on my list are the ugly ones, whose best conduct is enacted behind my back. These are filed in a bin marked “toxic”.
It’s a matter of being resolute – if we lose heart and a sense of proportion we are likely to be consumed by a craven process. Sometimes PR needs to bare its teeth and just tell the truth.
Although it is good to be merciful, for some, anger, hatred and evil will is everlasting. The shitlist is like a voodoo doll, which I occasionally stick pins in while cursing. It’s very therapeutic! Succumb to anger, then expect to slip into a dark spiral of despair. Ensure your own shitlist is small like mine, and then remember the greatest revenge is enormous success.
I wish I had a shitlist. I wish I had the capacity for that level of vengeance. I’ve seen entire careers get destroyed by shitlists – by people who overheard perceived slights long ago, then spent years waiting for the perfect opportunity to fatally crush the perpetrator – and I’m jealous. I want to be that person. I want to be that shadowy puppetmaster. I want to hurl someone’s entire future against a spiked wall because they looked at my shoes disparagingly at a party once. I want to be Kevin Spacey from House of Cards.
But I’m not. The point of a shitlist is to exact painful revenge when the subject expects it least. But by the time the subject expects it least, I’ve invariably moved on. If revenge is a dish best served cold, I’m the guy who took my revenge out of the oven, put it on a windowsill to cool down, got distracted by a shiny piece of paper on the floor, and let a hungry dog run off with it.
That said, in the brief window between being offended and completely forgetting about it, my shitlist has an incredibly low bar of entry. If you have ever remained stationary on an airport travelator, know that I have temporarily sworn violent retribution against you. If you don’t let people off trains before getting on, I’ll transiently assume that you’re the worst person who ever lived. If you’ve taken even a millisecond longer at a cash machine than I’ve arbitrarily decided that you needed, I will have definitely entertained the idea of finding out where you live and torching your house. If you’re the builder standing outside my window as I write this, drilling holes in things because it’s your job, then oh my bloody God you’re going to get it.
Or at least you would get it if my organisational skills were better. I think the problem is that I’m surrounded by such a constant stream of annoyances that I literally don’t have the time to commit any of them to memory. By the time I’ve decided to add, say, Jeremy Kyle to my list, I’ll accidentally glimpse a mug with an ironic moustache on it and immediately start daydreaming about tracking down and killing the man who invented mugs. That’s no way to live. Perhaps it’d be healthier to keep a shitlist. If that’s the case, that builder had better look out.
I never had a hitlist – it sounds like an American thing to me. In British politics, nothing is permanent – people aren’t friends or enemies. They will work with you one year, and the next year they will work against you. Just look at the relationship between Blair, Brown and Mandelson, which moved from love to devotion to hatred. There were people I came up against, such as Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch. I’m sure I was on a few hitlists myself – when I was leader of the GLC the editor of the Mail, David English, instructed his reporters to file six stories a day about me. But it tended to be media, rather than politicians, who targeted me, and even then I don’t bear a grudge. In a sense, there’s a feeling of vindication in knowing that someone like Dacre thinks you’re worth targeting.
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A man believes his grandmother’s will should be changed in favour of his aunt. Mariella Frostrup says this is about his father
The dilemma My gran is 90 and she has told me about her will – 50% goes to my aunt, her main carer, and the other 50% is between me, my brother and my dad. When my mother died five years ago, she left an unsigned letter asking her solicitor to change her will so that 75% would go to me, 25% to my brother. My dad, we believe, destroyed this letter in order to take the money himself, which he did. My argument isn’t about money – I’m successful and happy – but my problem is that my mum’s dying wish for her children has not been met. I want to convince my gran that she should change her will so that my father’s share goes to my aunt (who has MS, has to drive every day to visit my gran, gets few benefits and has been a full-time carer for my gran since my mum died). She deserves a break – my dad would spend it on cigarettes, whisky and petrol, just like he has done with my mother’s money.
Mariella replies Whoa, let’s take a step back. You may be successful, but I’m not convinced you’re happy at all. This isn’t a letter about money but about the weaponry you have at your disposal. Where’s the sense of sadness at your mother’s passing or your grandmother’s presumably imminent demise?
Instead of thinking about things of real value, you are caught up in a fiscal fiasco. As we both know, an unsigned letter is not worth the paper it’s written on, so instead of harking back to a perceived past injustice, let’s look at the situation as it stands.
First, you are neither her carer nor the beneficiary of more than a small portion of your gran’s estate. So why are you so hung up about it? There’s a very simple way to ensure that your aunt who has MS is properly rewarded, and that’s to give up your share of this coming inheritance. If you feel so strongly about your aunt being taken care of, pass on your portion and try to convince your brother and father to do likewise. I suspect you’ll be outraged by that suggestion.
Mentioning the 75% you lost out on when your mother died suggests that either the money does mean something to you or your emotional temperature is attached to figures and not your feelings. Your letter suggests you feel short-changed, both in terms of what you say was designated yours and also by your father, who is more focused on his own vices than his children’s virtues.
The long and short of it is that you are not holding the purse strings, so it’s not in your gift to dole out and withhold as you see fit. Instead of worrying about who your grandmother leaves her savings to, how about re-evaluating your relationship with your dad? It appears that he has let you down enormously and instigated what feels like a compulsion to punish him with whatever tools you can lay your hands on. Ultimately, as you say, he’ll spend his money as he sees fit, and if he doesn’t get this lump sum he’ll still continue in similar dysfunctional vein.
Maybe it’s time for you to take stock of what you really value instead of firing off like a machine gun in all directions. If it’s money you’re sore about, then you need to admit that to yourself, not least so you can stop your saintly aggrieved stance in time to address upcoming monetary matters. My feeling is that the money isn’t the issue here, except as a way of trying to exert control in what looks like a long family tradition of using purse strings to make puppets of you all. If you are after the emotional high ground, all you need do is transfer your inheritance to your aunt the moment you receive it, but don’t do so in the expectation of forcing others to follow suit.
Perhaps there are also unresolved issues between you and your brother. Start thinking about how to address those challenges. Having money to hand down is an all-too-rare privilege. You should be expressing gratitude for a place on that food chain, not concern about who deserves a share of an inheritance that isn’t yours.
To have the potential for happiness you need to break from this unsavoury family tradition of working out loyalties in sterling percentages. I’m not sure why your mother would have opted to divide her estate so unfairly between her two children, but thankfully she failed to endorse that choice. Why it should continue to prey on your mind is a question you’d do well to answer.
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The reasons people normally cite for getting hitched no longer make sense. We should be asking: why get married at all?
Marriage, as most know it in western countries, is regarded as the end goal of a relationship between (usually) a man and woman, and it normally has some sort of religious component. Marriage is regarded as “sacred”. Weddings are planned that few really want to attend; pointless dresses are worn never to be seen again; awkward family photos are taken.
Being married supposedly conveys respectability. We regard it as “settling down”, indicative of stability. For some reason we even congratulate people who are already in a relationship for, basically, signing papers (or just changing Facebook statuses) and calling it an engagement. We spend unnecessarily large amounts on engagement and wedding rings.
Yet, with low marriage rates (the US marriage rate is the lowest it’s been in a century) and high divorce rates, more single (by choice) parents (not to mention gay marriage), increasing numbers of people abandoning religious traditions as a whole, and people living happier lives because they only even consider marriage later, we should thoroughly reassess the importance of marriage.
Indeed, well-known people have already done so: Oprah Winfrey unashamedly remains unmarried to her life partner of 20 years; powerful Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Angelina have children, adopted and biological, but remain unmarried. Many of those who live in public eye are unafraid of dismissing marriage as the end goal. They don’t need a marriage certificate or label to be happy.
Thus, why get married at all?
One response usually involves tradition, religion, family and/or culture. None of these is sufficient, however, for marriage – or any activity.
To act solely according to what families want would be not only archaic but immoral: just because someone wants something doesn’t mean he should get it nor that his demand is right. Parents who, for example, force their child into marriage are increasingly being regarded as committing a crime in westernised countries. Their mere desire doesn’t make forced marriage right. A parental desire doesn’t have automatic moral soundness (let alone legality).
Love shouldn’t be completely unconditional, but it also shouldn’t be a gun to the throat. It is our lives, and compromises can usually – but not always – be reached.
Getting married for the sake of your religion also seems problematic: aside from those who are not religious, actions aren’t right just because a religion demands them.
The second argument you often here is that marriage is a declaration of love. It’s about “showing” we’re settled, our partners are “off the market”, and we’re in a position to build a family. Most of this, however, is a display for others. Plenty of monogamous couples maintain stable, healthy relationships without rings or certificates to “prove” loyalty.
Indeed, who are we trying to prove our love to? Our proof should be our treatment of each other: anything else is addition, not basis. There is more to be worried about if we need to “secure” someone, like a raging animal, with a ring or certificate or other public stamp.
Furthermore, as high divorce rates show, being tied to one person doesn’t work out for many, especially for the rest of our lives. Compromises can be made. Couples now swing, maintain open marriages, and so on. But this should only make us question why we’re still devoted to the “one true love” ideal in the first place.
Of course, there’s evidence to support the idea that married couples make better parents and families than, say, single parents. Some of this is because there hasn’t been much research into alternative family structures, although that will likely change since trends are changing.
All that said, it’s not marriage alone that gives couples magical parent powers: it’s the stability of a home, a good relationship, a great support basis. Certificates and rings don’t do that: mature, honest, good people do – for themselves and each other. And, further, the assumption that every adult or couple wants children is false.
There’s no denying this as perhaps the best of the terrible reasons for marriage. Married couples get certain legal and economic benefits we otherwise can’t get. The 1,138 benefits in the US alone are noteworthy, as many are all over the world. Social security, property, visitation rights, travel benefits and tax breaks. It’s an express option on tax filing, health and travel (not exactly romantic. The Book of Common Prayer should read: “Till taxes do us part”.)
Any marriage solely for tax benefits needs help. It doesn’t tell us anything about the relationship itself, save that the couple want benefits from the state. It’s not that much different from the infamous “green card” scenarios, where citizenship is obtained or a visa extended due to marrying a local. But this, too, undermines what many think marriage is – or should be.
Further, we should question why only one kind of relationship is recognised: namely the monogamous kind. Monogamy should be an option, not mandatory, on any level – let alone the legal and financial.
You could argue that the state needs some way to recognise stability. If marriage is the only way, then perhaps the state and I can nod and wink as we pass each other our papers for our mutual benefit. Similarly, this assumes the state should be involved in marriage at all, which itself requires serious consideration. If as adults we can decide how to spend the rest our lives, we can, on a case-by-case basis, say, draw up legal documents. Then, as Edward Morrisey points out:
Those who choose to cohabit in non-traditional relationships have ample options for formalizing their arrangements through [this] private contract process, which government enforces but does not sanction. That leaves adults free to choose whatever sexual arrangements they desire outside of the actual prohibitions that are objectively applied to everyone. That is actual freedom and equality.
Thus, if possible, even for these important economic and legal reasons marriage appears unnecessary. In the UK, for example, people can draw up similar documents to those of married couples. There’s no reason unmarried but cohabiting couples should be denied those rights earmarked solely for the married.
Why should anyone have to pass a government’s arbitrary, and usually archaic, notion of what constitutes a stable relationship to obtain benefits? If much can be done from a legal and contractual side without marriage, then marriage loses all credibility.
The “sanctity” of marriage – whatever that really means – has long been undermined for conservatives by: high divorce rates, polyandry and polygamy, gay marriage, recognition that there’s no “one” way marriage has always been, and so on. But, aside from these, we should wonder at marriage’s necessity.
We want a society in which we’re all treated equally like adults. Marriage as the assumed end goal of social life creates a stigma on unmarried people who are viewed as, for example, less stable, meaning they’re less likely to be able to adopt children – despite such people being as stable as married people.
My point isn’t eradication of marriage, but rethinking marriage’s importance and assumptions. This could help open all people up to different kinds of sexual and romantic interactions they might otherwise never experience – or, at the very least, increase tolerance, since society isn’t rewarding only one kind of relationship. It could help lessen stigma and actually treat all citizens – single, in relationships or otherwise – with respect. Marriage’s benefits, of stability, legal ease and economic pay offs can still be met, without institutionalisation.
All this shouldn’t deter fights for things like gay marriage – indeed, that cause also is about undermining marriage assumptions and norms.
For myself, I can see no reason that sufficiently makes marriage, in general, a viable option worth wanting or supporting. I would much rather live in a society that had little interest in my relationship life, but protected me and everyone nevertheless. It’s not a black-and-white situation of total societal interest or disinterest. Keep marriage, if you so want, but it shouldn’t hamper or restrict others from benefits or equal treatment, especially when there appears so little reason for having it.
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‘The older I get, it seems, the more freighted and significant New Year’s resolutions become’
I like a new year. Completely irrational and unjustifiable as it is, I do feel energised by the ending of one essentially arbitrarily labelled set of 365 days and the beginning of another. At midnight on 31 December, I always have a mental image of a huge version of those things we used to play with as kids – a dark bottom sheet overlaid by a piece of translucent paper on which you could press down and write with a stylus to cause the black to show through. As the clock strikes 12, you can lift up the translucent sheet and erase the markings, mistakes and scribbled nonsense of the year just past and start again.
I am havering at the moment between two possible new year’s resolutions. The older I get, it seems, the more freighted and significant they become. Gone are the days when I could just resolve to eat fewer sweets, watch less telly or try harder at hockey (“Lucy!” I can still hear our semi-apoplectic games teacher cry. “Run after the ball!” “Bring me three good reasons, in writing, together with a convincing analysis of the odds of this action producing any positive outcome for me and/or the team score, and I’ll think about it,” I would inwardly reply, while outwardly feigning deafness and/or temporary paraplegia).
Now, though, it’s all “Be a better person/mother/daughter” and “Volunteer/learn to cook/stop finding Michael Portillo attractive”.
This year, my choice is between which half of my soul to favour; which path, as I come to a fork in life’s road, to take. On the one hand, I’ve got to get out more. This is not the first time I have expressed such a sentiment, but it feels like the first time I have really meant it. Certainly it is the first time I have granted it the status of a new year’s resolution. But so it is.
Because, well, I mean, it’s getting ridiculous. I went eight straight days in 2013 without leaving the house. I work, then I look after the child, then I work, feed child, put child to bed, watch TV, read a book, fall asleep. And then all of a sudden it’s Monday night again, I’ve got rickets and I’m starting to feel scared of those big metal beasts making the bad broom-broom noises on the road outside.
I’ve already lost the ability to communicate among groups of people. I grunt in shops; and if I ever go out with friends, I’m always three beats behind the banter, and the words I want to say stumble on the unfamiliar journey from brain to mouth, before falling in clotted lumps into a silence very soon to change from expectant to disappointed.
Or I could just dig in. My sister has moved to a house in darkest Devon that has a little annexe just right for a small family whose linchpin (that would be, technically, moi) secretly believes that the apocalypse is almost upon us. I don’t know whether the computers or global warming are about to take over but, either way, a house in the country owned by the only family member who understands how to do more than turn on a laptop (my sister writes code, for crissakes! She could be 2014’s John Connor) is going to be the place to be.
I suppose we’ll know next week which I chose, depending on whether this column’s been written in a drunken haze or in berry ink on parchment. Happy new year.
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I can do a ’spot-the-difference’ exercise along the annual timeline and things with R have definitely improved
The holiday is over and I sort of miss it. All the festive food has been eaten, the undressed tree has been slung out, and the children and I are preparing once more to wake up in the dark for early school starts. Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, said: “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.” I usually strongly relate to this feeling, but after a relatively happy Christmas, I have an out-of-character, unseasonal optimism for the fresh year ahead.
I have now had ample time to digest the whole of Christmas, and am safely on the other side: I can say with certainty that it went well. In the past, Christmas has been a dangerous time for big family dramas; all the ripest arguments and deepest resentments would somehow emerge during the festive period.
There was, for example, the year my father decided to chop firewood at the bottom of our garden for the whole of Christmas Day because my mother had called him a grumpy old sod, and the time my younger brother lobbed a roast potato at my head because he thought I had more turkey on my plate than he had. Or the Christmas when my senile, cantankerous grandfather brought an air rifle to the table and threatened to kill us all, in between mouthfuls of cheese and biscuits. At the time, I was two so don’t remember, but apparently we all crept out of the house and into the car, leaving my grandfather to recall who and where he was.
There were no such disputes or scenes this year, and I think, on reflection, it was by far my most calm Christmas ever. I left my fighty past behind me for once and took a break from the role of aggressor or perpetrator where arguments were concerned. Of course, I still allowed myself a fair bit of sotto voce swearing, but I refrained from heated, unresolvable rows.
It has been a refreshing change. Christmas or not, I used to be frequently at loggerheads with R. We would save up all our bile for bombastic slanging matches, usually just as we had just set out for a “nice” walk or sat down to a “pleasant” dinner together. We would say mean things that were hard to retract, things that, in the moment, we thought we believed, but later understood to be knee-jerk reactions to the other’s spiteful outbursts.
And Christmas Day always used to end with a fight, usually instigated by me because I wanted R to know that he had failed yet again to control his drinking – or if he was controlling his drinking, it was to the detriment of everyone else’s good mood, because he would be in a fiercely uptight mood. Last Christmas, I’m sure our day ended with me spouting: “I’m right, you’re drunk, shut up.”
I am ashamed of how often we would enter into these fights, but I don’t let the guilt consume me: I realise that last year we were in a grim place. R was in denial and drinking, albeit in fits and bursts, betwixt short periods of abstinence where he was struggling to maintain his sobriety.
I played the role of capable controlling partner, the busy martyr doing everything that needed to be done at Christmas because I considered R incapable. I felt lonely and out of control and so did he. We were in a very unhealthy relationship, and the New Year brought, in my mind, less hope and more trouble.
Fast forward to this year and things have certainly improved. Progress, however slow, has been made: having the punctuation of important dates in the calendar to remind me of this is handy. I can do a “spot the difference” exercise along an annual timeline. Whereas last year, R would have been lolling by the fruit machine in his favourite pub every evening of his Christmas holiday – most certainly drinking pints with double whisky chasers – this year he has been far more present for the children. He does not come near us when he is drunk.
And things are better now that we are not living together. Yes, I miss R like mad at times, but until I am sure that we can rub along in the same house together relatively peacefully, separate is how I want us to remain.
The Christmas break was a fine time to kill bad habits, and a rare opportunity to spend precious time together as a family. I want to go forward with less fighting and hopefully more loving.
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