Colin Brazier: The rough and tumble of large family life

The author on his new steed: a no-frills Irish skewbald cob called Big George

Notwithstanding the reality of earning a crust by appearing on television daily, I remain a shy soul. My wife, by contrast, loves to show off. This is especially true at this time of year, when carol concerts and choral society shows reach peak season. Earlier this month there was a rehearsal every evening. She sings for three choirs, including one based in our village, whose big night was on Saturday.

Her show-stopping number was Tom Lehrer’s Christmas Carol, done with a flamboyance that is best characterised as “brassy”. By her own admission, her voice is not “pure”, but it is part of a performance that goes down easily with an audience lubricated by lashings of mulled wine.

Afterwards, she asked me if our children had enjoyed the show. They had, particularly her contribution. Not embarrassed, then? No, darling, they were very proud of Mummy. My wife, a former high-flyer who forfeited her career to raise our six children, said she was very pleased, adding: “Because, when you’re a mother who doesn’t work, it’s important that the children are proud of something you do outside of the home.”

My wife is a great believer in the recuperative effects of singing. And she seems to have science on her side. Last month the British Lung Foundation urged the 1.2m people in Britain who are diagnosed with conditions like emphysema or chronic bronchitis to join a choir. My singing is awful, so, if I am to find the fount of eternal good health, I must look elsewhere.

Only in my 40s did I discover that nothing stirs the endorphins for me better than horse riding. As regular Herald readers might recall, my mid-life crisis took the form of a former steeplechasing thoroughbred who threw me off his back frequently, but only in a spirit of bonhomie. Sadly, he had to be put down six months ago and, after a suitable period of reflection, I have bought a successor. Not another speed merchant, but a no-frills Irish skewbald cob. Horsey folk will scoff, but I did look at a couple of other contenders before alighting on Big George. It was the way he looked at me. And the fact he proved almost impossible to fall off, obviously.

My children, especially the eldest – Edith – have cheered on my adventures in equestrianism. Edith is now 17 and this time next year, God willing, she will be at university, where she plans to read geology. A period of domestic uncertainty will attend her departure. Not just the rush for the spoils – who gets her bedroom – but that vacant space at the top of the pecking order. Edith is almost four years older than her next eldest sister and, because she is one of them, she can wield a disciplinary stick over her siblings in a way her parents could not.

We will miss the free baby-sitting but, mostly, we will miss her ebullience and no-nonsense attitude to life. She could never be accused of “sucking up” to her parents, but she knows when to bend with the wind. My wife and I were keen that she should spend a week in Lourdes before embarking on undergraduate life. Not every student would give in. She did.

Edith’s departure will disturb the eco-system of family life. But it is unlikely to stop it being a school of hard knocks. As readers who grew up in large families will testify, abrasive contact with siblings tends to knock off the corners in a way that runs counter to life growing up as part of the so-called Snowflake Generation. I would be surprised if the Brazier offspring crave safe spaces at college, or require trigger warnings should lessons throw up subjects that might puncture the thin skin of their contemporaries.

That said, there are times when the rough and tumble of large family life can resemble a bloodsport. At a recent Sunday lunch one of them – 10-year-old Gwendolyn – was reduced to tears. Her tormentor was 13-year-old Agnes, whose tongue is sharper than a butcher’s knife. It went like this:

Agnes to Gwen: “You remind me of that lady in the film we watch at Christmas [It’s a Wonderful Life].”
Gwen: “You mean the lovely mummy?”
Agnes: “Yes, but not when she’s the mummy, when she’s the librarian who will never marry.”

Gales of derisive laughter followed. Gwendolyn, a bookish girl who recently passed the 11-plus, then stands up and addresses Agnes with these words: “You are just jealous because I’m clever enough to go to grammar school and you’re not.”

Now, maybe one day they will look back and blame the gladiatorial combat of family dining for whatever neuroses they may have developed. But I think not. In these seemingly innocuous exchanges we see the iron entering their souls.

Colin Brazier is a presenter for Sky News