Saturday, November 12, 2011

You want to know the secret of eternal youth? Call your siblings

By Jennifer O’Connell

If you really want to know the secret of eternal youth, ask your siblings round.

There’s no quicker or more effective way to recapture the flush of youth than a few hours spent in the company of those who shared it, thrashing out such important issues as who ate the last strawberry Quality Street, or which one of you broke the leg off the Millennium Falcon during the treacherous Christmas of 1982.

No matter what age you are, how many adult responsibilities you’ve accumulated, or what you’ve else accomplished in life, you can always count on your siblings to reduce you in an instant to that teary, foot-stamping ten-year-old, whose Tiny Tears has just had her hair washed in the loo.

 Image by Fotopedia on Flickr

Just ask 38-year-old James Murdoch. The current issue of Vanity Fair reveals that, during this summer’s phone hacking crisis, his sister Elisabeth took father Rupert aside and advised him to persuade James to step down as the chairman of News Corp, which owns Sky and the Times newspaper group.

Elisabeth may have quit her role in News Corp some ten year previously, but – unhappily for James - her position as his big sister is a lifelong one, and comes with attendant meddling rights.

Rupert did indeed consider firing his son, who has always been regarded as the brightest and best of the Murdoch progeny (a state of play which may not, a cynic could suggest, have been entirely unrelated to Elisabeth’s intervention.) After a sleepless night, the family patriarch decided against it. Still, you can be sure Elisabeth and James will have more than just the remote control to squabble about this Christmas.

Is it any wonder that recent studies have turned the old wisdom about only children on its head, revealing that the sibling-free make for the happiest children and adults?

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In one study, which was carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research in Britain, half of the children 2,500 children surveyed said they had been bullied by a sibling, and one in three said they had been hit, kicked or pushed on regular occasions. Others complained of name-calling and having their belongings stolen.

Dana Rosemary Scallon knows all about feeling bruised (metaphorically of course) by your siblings, after she and her sister Susan Stein fell out spectacularly over control of her royalties - a row which ended up in a US court five years ago.

During the court case, allegations of sexual abuse were made against Dana’s brother and campaign manager, John Brown – and these allegations again resurfaced during the race for the presidency. Now it appears that Dana’s niece, Susan Gorrell – who made the complaints – is planning to sue her aunt personally and Gorrell’s mother, Susan Stein, insists she has "no personal relationship whatsoever" with her younger sister Dana. As family disputes go, it’s hard to imagine one less likely to be resolved any time soon.

But big families aren’t all bad news. As Nancy Mitford – herself one of seven, who fell prey to bitter rivalries - once said, the best thing about being born into one is that you get an early lesson in life’s essential unfairness.

That can be a useful preparation for life, especially a life in politics – and never more so than if you’re David Miliband.

The elder by four years, and better-looking by some distance, of the two Miliband brothers, David was the one who had everything going for him.

He got a first in his degree, while little brother Ed only made a 2.1. He did his postgraduate studies at the flash MIT in the US, while Ed had to make do with Bertie Ahern’s alma mater, the London School of Economics. In Gordon Brown’s cabinet, David was appointed Foreign Secretary, while Ed got the less prestigious Cabinet Office.

But all that changed in September last year, when Ed pipped David to the position of Labour leader.

These days, the brothers are all public declarations of love, and simmering resentment. During Ed’s first speech as Labour leader, David declined to clap. The final childhood score was settled when Ed got married this summer – and elected not to have a best man.

But there’s something about the Irish which dictates that when we fall out with our families, we fall fast and furiously.

When Ben Dunne was caught in a Florida hotel room in 1992 with a prostitute and a quantity of cocaine, it was the last blow for his sister, Margaret Heffernan, described in media reports at the time as a strict Catholic who "disapproves of any kind of over indulgence".

He later said that her subsequent bid to oust him as joint managing director of the family firm was “one of the great favours” she had done for him, because it forced him to get clean. But remarks he made just three years ago suggested that, even now it’s not all sweetness and light between them: “She’s 66 years of age…If I was in the retail business I would say I was past my sell-by date. I think Margaret may be getting past it.”

As Dunne’s capacity to twist the knife twenty years on demonstrates, family quarrels are unrivalled by any other in their capacity to endure – as well as to infuriate, to hurt, to shame and to humiliate.

But what really elevates them above all other types of feud is the way they always end up back where they began.

And inevitably, that’s with the question of who has more. Whether it’s more of Mummy and Daddy’s attention, more toys, more A-grades or more power, money and respect may vary with age and circumstance, but the thrust of them never really changes.

And yet, for all that, family feuds also offer a kind of thrill of aesthetic distance – the same kind of frisson you feel when you terrify the life out of yourself on a rollercoaster ride and know that when it ends, you’ll find yourself safely back on earth.

There is, as the American journalist Mignon McLaughlin wrote in The Neurotic’s Notebook, in every family row a “tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.”

And in the end – forget the billion dollar media empire or the broken Millennium Falcon – because that’s what family’s all about.

Besides, if not with your siblings, then who else will you ever get to engage in such passionate discourse about the optimum flavour in a tin of Quality Street?

Don’t even try telling me it’s not strawberry.

This column first appeared in the Irish Independent Weekend magazine on November 12, 2011

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