Monday, October 03, 2005

Love Smells Different

[Anyone who knows me well enough knows I'm a Jeanette Winterson fan. Although I have my reservation about the coherence of some of her recent works, here in this article about her god-children, she reassures me my devotion was never in vain.

Everything, encapsulated by that poignant last line. Not a punch to the heart. But it lingers, like the tactile memory of a kiss.]

Love Smells Different

She had a famously unhappy childhood. Now she has a new family. Jeanette Winterson on the unadulterated delight of being a godmother

Saturday September 24, 2005
From The Guardian

Open the pages of a Charles Dickens novel, and you will find that the real families are the pretend ones; Pip, and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Lizzie, and Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend. Esther, Richard and Ada, in Bleak House. Little Dorrit and Maggy.It's a good game to play on an afternoon walk with the kids - especially if the kids are not yours. Blood ties, as Dickens knew from bitter personal experience, are often fraught with animosity and conflict. It's a pity that Margaret Thatcher never read any Dickens; if she had, surely she would never have championed Clause 28, with its wicked mocking of what she liked to call "pretended family life".

For me, pretend families have always been the real ones. As an adopted child myself, with parents who didn't love me, but loved the fantasy of a "proper" family, I have a keen nose for fake feeling. Duty and sentimentality can dress up as love, but they can't throw a child off the scent for long. Love smells different, that's all.

So I have trusted in love where I have found it, and not worried about the shape or the source. My friends are my family - by that I mean the place I can go when everything else is gone. Resource, delight, and yes, obligation, is there, which has a different texture to duty. All three are present in my relations with my two godchildren, Eleanor and Cara Shearer.

The kids are the daughters of my oldest friend, the TV producer, Vicky Licorish. When we arrived at Oxford University in 1979, our tutor turned to us and said, "You are the black experiment, and you are the working-class experiment." So we were bound to be friends.

When Vicky fell pregnant in 1996, she was determined to have a home birth, even though she was staying in a pal's attic. She and her husband were doing up a house from derelict, and the baby arrived before the roof. It had been agreed that I would be the second birthing partner, along with her husband.

When the call came I spun into a funk; washed the car (twice), wondered what to wear to attend a home birth, changed (four times), and set off all in white to get stuck behind skip lorries and milk floats and caravans and all the comedy traffic of the M25.

Hours later, against endless phone calls from a desperate husband, I flagged down a police car and told the officer I had to attend a home birth. He must have thought I was the doctor, because he turned on his blue light, and flashed me through the back streets of Richmond, till we slewed to a halt below the attic, and I rushed upstairs.

As I came through the door, I saw my poor friend on all fours with two midwives and an oxygen cylinder. At that second, her waters burst and Eleanor flew out. "I reckon she was waiting for you," said the midwife.

I reckon she was. From that moment on, we were close in a way that I have found unexpected and marvellous. When she was a baby I used to take her tractor-mowing, steering with one arm and holding her with the other. She always fell fast asleep. When it was time to empty the grass box, I used to lie her down in the trailer-load of clippings. All her romper suits turned green.

She has always loved language - and words are a place we share. As an infant, the easiest way to stop her bawling was to ignore her completely, sit down, and start telling a story. Soon her desire to hear what happened next overcame her misery or fury, and she would creep up next to me, utterly silenced by the doings of some genie or sprite.

When I took her on holiday to Capri, a tempest blew all our clothes off the washing line and into a neighbour's garden. Out of that event I made up the story of The King of Capri about a selfish king who finds that all his possessions are blown across the bay to Naples, and into the backyard of the poor washerwoman, Mrs Jewel. Jane Rae did the illustrations, and Bloomsbury published it. Some godmothers knit, others tell stories. I just have to do what I can.

I do not regret having no children of my own. I have made other choices - towards my work, and a particular way of life that suits me, but I would regret not having Eleanor, and now Cara in my world.

Sharing kids is such a good idea - it smashes the smugness of the nuclear family, it spreads responsibility, and it allows children and adults alike, a chance to form relationships of choice. I think it is good for Eleanor and Cara to see how I live, and it is good for me to have to do things differently to accommodate them. They know I am gay, just like one of their uncles, and they know that men can live with men, or women with women, just as freely as their mother and father live together.

That said, although I am their legal guardian, we were advised to use a solicitor and witnesses to draw up this simple and obvious solution to any catastrophe, in case another member of the family challenged it. Gay and kids is still not the preferred option in trendy, cool, modern Britain.

The kids love me partly because they think I am bonkers. When they come and stay, we take the roof off the Porsche, strap them in the bucket seats in the back, and Belle, their 10st Newfoundland sits in the front. Then we whiz around the Cotswolds singing hymns and playing word games: "Could anything be madder than a cat on a ladder?" "Yes, a rhino pushing a Flymo ..." and so on.

Cara, who is six, loves gardening, and this year, she grew her own sunflowers from start to finish, and had her own salad bed. My girlfriend showed her how to make jam from windfall apples, including melting wax candles to seal the top.

Parents don't always have time for all this, and the extended, pretended family is a real way of giving mum and dad and the kids some breathing space and some imaginative space.

"Don't tell mum and dad, but ..." is a favourite line, here at Liberty Hall, and if they aren't saying it - I am.

Part of my commitment to Eleanor is to pay her school fees, halving the burden for her parents. It is money well spent, and I have watched her flourish, first at St Paul's Cathedral school, and now at City of London School for Girls. Both the kids love lessons, and I have never heard either of them moan about being bored. They learned early to enjoy the natural world of rivers and trees, and to join that world to the landscape in their heads. Nothing is more precious than childhood if you can teach them how to make it last forever. By that I don't mean failing to grow up, I mean retaining the curiosity and simple pleasure in everything, that is the gift of childhood, and the hallmark of a happy adult.

It should be so simple. It is so hard.

This year, on holiday all together in France, with long days of fruit-picking and cycle rides, and frog-hunting, and me finding the World's Biggest Toad, and delighting the kids by doing the ironing outdoors, (all you need is a long extension, and it is much more fun), and playing makeshift badminton, or Madminton, as it became known, and Cara tumbling out of bed with her curly hair all on end, to be told by Eleanor, "You look just like Samuel Pepys," which strangely, she did, and then Eleanor taking my hand one night and saying: "I can't imagine you ever old."

I told her that when she is my age now, I will be 84. "You'll have to look after me then," I say. She nodded. "I'll only look after you if you are still mad."

And somewhere, further down the time-road, we are still hand in hand, because I was there the moment she was born, and she will be there when I die.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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