May: Family Affairs


(Mark Sampson) #1

We heard the news in the car, en route for the Good Wife's expert comptable not far from the white elephant that thinks it's an international airport. I was heavy with guilt, born of fussing too long over figures to be declared to the fiscal authorities.

Even though I was pretty damn sure that we were declaring everything to be declared down to the last centime, because the system of family parts and tax credits and what have you is so darn incomprehensible, my daydreams are haunted by the idea of that fateful knock on the door. Grave men in uniform, there on account of some heedless transgression to put the cuffs on me and lead to the French equivalent of a Black Maria parked in our drive.

It's probably as ludicrous a notion as my wife's fear that she had failed her TCF, her Test de Comprénsion Français. Our friendly neighbourhood factrice had handed over our post for the day and Debs guessed that the big brown envelope would be a notification of her result. She ripped it open without so much as a by-your-re-cycling. Like all official documents here, the content is not immediately apparent. Yes or no? Hit or miss, jury? It was, I gathered, rather difficult to say.

We figured out, though, that they wouldn't have sent an attestation for anything other than a pass. Later, the Daughter helped decipher the finer detail. Her adventures in the wonderful world of French education have equipped her well for such work. The C2 for the oral element was the best mark she could've obtained and meant that she spoke like a native. The B1 for the written comprehension was a dodgy pass that meant she had been right after all to fear the dull dialogue on which was based the 26 questions.

So now comes the real hard work: the assembly of our collective family French citizenship dossier, with copies and translations of a whole raft of documents to prove that we are whom we claim we are. And this hinges on our comprehension of the guidelines that accompany the intimidating application form. My goal is to complete, collate and deliver everything to the authorities in Toulouse well before the 23rd June – when my dad celebrates his 89th birthday and Britons vote for or against the Brexit.

The process of handing over our intimidating file of documents to unsmiling bureaucrats also triggers imagined angst. I'm absolutely certain that they're all trained and geared up to reject dossiers for the slightest transgression. As a former civil servant myself, I know the score. Keep files on the move. Never let them settle like dust on your desk. Pass it on or pass it back. Monsieur, where are the reply stamps to the value of €8?

Was it like this in the old days? Surely it was easier. Surely procedures were more transparent. To help me find the answer, this month I started the formidable second volume of David Kynaston's epic history of post-war Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem. I found a hardback copy of volume 2, Family Britain, in the Oxfam bookshop in Romsey and hauled it back home across the Channel with the aid of ropes and chains.

My anticipated wallow in nostalgia presents a few practical problems. Since I usually only find time to read – and read slowly – in bed, it means signing up for the long haul. Several months at least, I shouldn't wonder. And since I can't do what I usually do and let my book drop on the floor before turning off my bedside lamp lest the weight of this book wakes the rest of the household, I must prop myself up with pillows to read it – thus risking a potentially wakeful hiatus between the decision to stop reading and the onset of blissful sleep.

Not to worry; I'm sure another visit to the world into which I was born will be well worth any such minor tribulations. What's immediately apparent is how well every diarist wrote, even the so-called down-trodden lower classes, whose education would have no doubt been curtailed by the imperative of work. Everyone could turn a decent intelligible sentence. Even on the on-line Grauniad these days, the comments left by readers are so breathless and mystifying in their complete lack of punctuation that you wonder how anyone of a certain generation manages to apply for let alone hold down a job.

But, ah... that far-off genteel world of a north London suburb, with its horse-drawn milk floats, coalmen in their protective leather 'backing hats', surreptitious visits next door to watch with friends Robin Hood and other programmes on the banned ITV channel, the lodger on the other side with his noisy racing-green 3-litre Bentley that dated back to the dawn of motoring, Watch with Mother and Tonight with Cliff Michelmore on the green Ekco television, the maternal grandparents round the corner and the paternal grandparents an epic journey away on the southern suburban fringes of London, the weekly Topper with Beryl the Peril and others of her kidney, primary school at the bottom of the road, summer holidays by steam-driven train to the south coast...

It was a privileged world for a middle-class child (only threatened by Teddy Boys and the coming disruption of a move to Belfast) and there were distant echoes of it the other night when I sat up late to watch the Young Jazz Musician of the Year Final on BBC4. The five finalists seemed to come uniquely from very privileged families – and most of them from London. Two indeed came from the same family. There were intimate shots of music nights in the Ridout family living room. The family that plays together clearly stays together. There was dad on jazz guitar, mum on piano, the youngest lad on drums, oldest lad on tenor sax and 15-year old sister on trumpet. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Another 15-year old, with the telltale first name of Noah, played a number associated with the great romantic pianist Bill Evans with a poise and sensitivity way beyond his tender years. Julian Joseph, the chairman of the panel, a pianist himself whom I once saw in concert at The Leadmill, Sheffield, now doubled in size to the girth of an Oscar Peterson, liked his style but informed us that the unanimous winner was... the young Ms. Ridout.

When interviewed and asked how it felt, the winner in her endearingly frumpy evening gown giggled nervously and said it felt cool. As well it might. At 14 or 15, I dabbled with the trumpet but got no further than 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. Even that was a stretch. And even though Stevie Wonder hadn't written it at the time, the idea of bringing off an effortless version of 'Golden Lady' would have been fantastical.

One wonders how her talented big brother will cope with little sister's victory. They look a close-knit and loving bunch, the musical Ridouts, but you never know with families. All those rivalries and petty jealousies.

What have you done with my flugelhorn?

I haven't touched your flaming flugelhorn.

Oh no? I know you! You've had it in for me since...

Infamy, infamy!

Get lost!

You hum it, I'll play it...