I picked up a copy of The Times this week and registered a pang. There, on the front page, was something that felt familiar. It illustrated a piece about a TV programme called Our Yorkshire Farm. The programme is, reportedly, a ratings hit. Partly, this is because its unvarnished account of rural life offers a counterpoint to the sanitised version presented by BBC Countryfile. But also because the farm is home to a couple with nine children.
There they were, on the front of the newspaper, bunched-up in front of the farmhouse. The little ones in front, the teens at the back. In particular, I recognised the look on the face of one of the older children. A sort of jaded “why on earth are we doing this again?” expression. Still, fair play to the photographer. As someone who’s posed for these photographs myself, I know how long it can take to get a big family to behave.
The comments section of newspapers like the Daily Mail saw us ridiculed as prisoners of Catholic dogma and selfish ecological vandals.
My late-wife Jo may have been a journalist, but she grew to dread the interminable photoshoot. And there were a few. A decade and more ago, I decided to make what I hope was a rational defence of big families in print. It wasn’t always the liveliest of subjects. But commissioning editors loved the images that went with the feature. The caption, like a litany of saints, was part of the draw: “Edith (21), Agnes (17), Constance (16), Gwendolyn (14), Katharine (12) and John (11).”
And there, near the start of The Times piece about the Owen family of North Yorkshire, was the roll-call of kids. To be fair, it was a lovely article, explaining how mother Amanda had yearned to become a shepherdess while growing up in a Huddersfield semi. Her no-nonsense utterances on motherhood – “you wouldn’t bother having so many [children] if you were impatient” – couldn’t fail but call to mind the plain-speaking of my own late-wife.
It made me ponder on the nature of modern large families in the UK and, in particular, how they’re represented in the media. The obvious dividing line, I suppose, is between those parents who want to talk about it and those that don’t. Those who don’t want to be defined by having a famille très nombreuse, and those who don’t mind if they are.
I’m definitely in the latter camp. It lays me open to the charge of exploiting my children for personal gain. But, again, my late-wife and I took the view that, since we’d given up a lot for our kids, the least they could do was surrender some privacy. And, when it came to articles, it was us – the parents – who were in the firing line. The comments section of newspapers like the Daily Mail saw us ridiculed as prisoners of Catholic dogma and selfish ecological vandals. We were – variously – weird show offs, sexually incontinent, intellectually enfeebled, and deservedly doomed to poverty.
People who make vitriolic posts online are not representative. But we were, unquestionably, aware of our oddness. And united in the view that our life as so-called “eccentrics” had a definite starting point. Orwell never wrote “four kids good, five kids bad”, but there was a sense that while four-child-families still belonged to the world of “normal” parenting, five put you – somehow – beyond the pale.
Some parents rejoice in their family size and willingly turn it to advantage. The Radfords of Morecombe were the subject of a documentary series entitled “21 Kids and Counting”. They now have 22 children and recently spoke in the press about how hard it was exercising during lockdown without attracting the attention of officials who assumed they were from several different families.
We see how Jacob Rees-Mogg is, seemingly, happy to be seen in public with his six children. It’s undeniably a counter-cultural gesture – a high-vis assertion of confidence in the future.
The Radfords are famous for their fecundity. But what about those who are famous for something else? In showbusiness there are celebrities who quietly bring-up big broods, about whom we know next-to-nothing (Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson, fathers of six and nine respectively). Then there are those who are more relaxed about facing the accusation of using their children as “props” (the now-divorced actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, for instance, were often pictured with their six).
Here in the UK we see how Jacob Rees-Mogg is, seemingly, happy to be seen in public with his six children. It’s undeniably a counter-cultural gesture – a high-vis assertion of confidence in the future – and the trolls who rail against it come-off as mean-spirited. The MP for North East Somerset is quick to point out that he doesn’t spend half his life changing nappies. There’s money and a nanny. And for some detractors this is part of a pattern. From celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (5) to Boris Johnson (6), it requires an excess of cash (or libido) to have so many. Mothers fare little better. Financier Nicola Horlick was dubbed “superwoman” for bringing up six children and holding down a big job in the The Square Mile. A man would almost certainly not have faced the same characterisation.
Interestingly, Helena Morrissey, a big noise in the City, has recently seemed more open about how she and her husband Richard go about raising their nine children. I’m a huge admirer of the Morrissey’s and see in their new willingness to show that it is possible to reconcile success with a big brood, what may be an emerging reality.
In a culture which celebrates self-realisation and rootlessness, the creation of a big family is a selfless, almost revolutionary, act. It is a statement of belief in the sustainability of kindred ties in a world where relationships are increasingly conditional, transactional and ephemeral. It provides, as Our Yorkshire Farm illustrates, a school of hard knocks in a society apt to produce snowflakes.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families?
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