URSABLOG: Family Fortunes, The Long Summer Read

 

I find Brighton, on the south coast of the UK, an interesting place. I use the word ‘interesting’ in the British sense, which is deliberately ambiguous; it can mean anything you want it to mean, like strange, or fun, or simply just not very interesting. I was there last weekend for my youngest sister’s wedding, and that was interesting too, but meant in the best way possible.

 

I have had preconceived prejudices about Brighton, and some of them had persisted right up until the wedding. It is a long thin city, stretched out along the coast above the pebbly beach. It was built for pleasure, and more or less retains that function: it is a flimsy town, with a transitory nature. It is the only constituency in the UK with a Green Party MP, it is a mecca for the LGBT community, and it is funky and cool, and irritating and earnest, scruffy and smart, silly and serious all at the same time. Long known in English jokes for where people went for a ?dirty weekend?, it is certainly not particularly clean. The old Georgian and Victorian built terraces look impressive from a distance, but close up they are shabby and worn down. My eldest sister and her family were staying in a flat in a building on the impressive Brunswick Place. Outside it was imposing, inside there was a warren of corridors and stairs that hadn’t seen water and a mop, let alone a paintbrush, for many a year. The flimsiness is in the buildings too. The south-westerly gale that was blowing off the sea was not just rattling the windows but making the walls creak and groan. They have stood the test of time, but it feels that a small earthquake could topple the lot like a house of cards.

 

The streets are mostly at right angles to each other, built in blocks parallel and perpendicular to the beach. They go from seedy, to gentrified, to posh, to suburban and back again without any real change in the architecture. Expensive cars jostle for space with old bangers, and frequent buses compete with even more frequent bicycles.  All society is here, and share the streets with equanimity; there are many tribes as well as eccentric, pointed individuality. The homeless, of which there are many, settle into different strata, from the travellers camping on the beach, to the disturbed and troubled addicts around the station, shouting at the traffic or sedating themselves to stop the screams of their personal furies. All the while the human traffic mingles and churns, collides and mixes, bounces and cracks.

 

We arrived on Thursday night ? the wedding was the following day at noon ? and after meeting the rest of my noisy and plentiful family, my girlfriend and I went for a quiet drink together. It was not that late, around 11 o’clock in the evening, but we are used to Greece: it was closing time in many pubs along Western Road. We found a bar calledThe Bee’s Mouthand settled down with our drinks outside. Everyone was talking to us, it was very chatty and very charming, but then again everyone was drunk, in a ?I’ve been drinking all day? kind of way. After a while the benches we were sitting on outside (no smoking inside of course) were removed, and we stood by the door in the wind and fitful rain watching the Brighton world go by.

 

We chatted to a girl who had tried and failed to learn the Greek alphabet, many times, and to her boyfriend who was getting thrown out, and not being allowed back in, for smoking inside. The security guards were good natured, but firm. After a while a mild mannered and inoffensive transvestite came out to see what the fuss was all about, hoping to see a fight. He was disappointed, but as we finished our drinks and cigarettes he had us in tears of laughter as he told us one unrelated story after another.

 

So what have I got against Brighton you may ask? Well it’s where I started smoking again in my early 30s after giving up for many years. I had given up drinking for lent, and it was suggested at a dinner party we were at that a joint wasn’t really breaking the rules (even if it was strictly breaking the law). I smoked the joint, but was unimpressed: cannabis has never been a drug that appealed to me. But the unwitting side effect was that I was hooked on nicotine again and still am after many unsuccessful attempts to break the chains. It’s not Brighton’s fault of course, but I had to blame somebody or something apart from myself, so Brighton took the hit.

 

I also resented, particularly in my strict and uptight proper 30s, how other people were getting away with doing what they wanted to do, when the rest of us had to wear suits and go to work. In my 50s I am a bit more circumspect now, and understand a little more that the choices people have appeared to have taken are not necessarily of their making. Life takes its toll: it’s not the place’s fault. People find the place where they can deal with life, and it is as true of the go-getters in the City and Canary Wharf as it is on the side streets of Brighton and Hove, as much in Kolonaki as in Exarchia, or even Piraeus. We are all looking for a place to belong.

 

++++

 

My sister’s wedding to her husband Tom continued to break down my little prejudices. She has moved there from London, and they will live in a small flat on the top floor of a terraced house in one of the funkier parts of town. Despite the laid-back hipster nature of her set, Eleanor and Tom had organised their wedding with military efficiency down to the last detail. We had to be in the council chamber of Brighton Town Hall by the latest a quarter of an hour before the wedding ceremony started; needless to say my girlfriend and I, the Greek Contigent were not. After that, from the ceremony, to the photo opportunities at the bandstand, to the champagne toasts on the beach, to the restaurant for the lunch, everything ran like clockwork.

 

I had been asked by Eleanor and Tom to make a speech during the lunch. This part of the wedding weekend was restricted to the immediate family and the best man, and my speech was about us as a family, but also as Tom and Eleanor as a new family. We talk, rather patronisingly, about welcoming other people into our families, but I wanted them to know that I wanted us to be invited into theirs, to share with them their family life, and all that it will contain.

 

The following evening was the big party, when the aunts and uncles and cousins, and the wider group of friends came to share a spectacular evening, with a David Bowie tribute band, and drink and fun, and more speeches. And yes I spoke again, but in trying to find something different to say, I talked about love in these fractured times. It struck me as we left at the end, that our families are how we define them, and this includes the wider circle of friends in our lives. For that night we were effectively one big happy family, joined with a sense of purpose, the purpose in this case being to celebrate the love and commitment between Eleanor and Tom, even if many of us will never see each other again.

 

++++

 

During the weekend I was introduced to many new people, and was asked what I do for a living. Shipping, Greece, buying and selling all came up of course, and I explained - again - hat actually Greek owners control the largest private fleet in the world. Asked to explain this, I once again avoided the clich?s of ‘sea in the blood’, ‘an island people’ and instead concentrated on the family. I explained that because most shipping companies are family concerns then the investment horizons are longer: they are not investing for definite profits every quarter, but for their children and grandchildren, just as a family will build an apartment block that their children can move back into, with their children, when the time is right. Grandparents are twice the parents than the mother and father it is said, and so it appears.

 

In shipping, that brutally cyclical business where losses have to be absorbed before and after profits are made can only be a long-term investment, but timing is everything. In a company where the family are shareholders, and decisions have to be made, the potential for a monumental bust-up is huge. In an environment where the nature of discourse is, shall we say, less than formal, things can be said in the heat of the moment that may be regretted, personally and commercially, well into the future.

 

Family companies are nothing new, whether in shipping or not. I mentioned a few weeks ago a book calledDynasties of the Sea, by some margin the worst book I have read for a long time. Of the twenty ‘leaders’ mentioned, at least ten got their ‘start’ from money earned by previous generations; this is not a criticism, but a comment on how money is invested.

 

I am a great fan of Georges Simenon, and the latest Inspector Maigret book I read,The Misty Harbour, is about the murder of the harbour master of Ouistreham in Normandy, who was a captain of a vessel belonging to the Anglo-Normandie Line. The shipowner, a cold second generation scion of the Grandmaison family (big house of course), is implicated, and the story unfolds to reveal the sins of the family, past and present. There is nothing new in this: Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s plays mostly revolve around the family. How wouldHamletbe without the ghost father and the killer uncle? How would theOrestiabe without the children and parents? But these are stories, stories that amplify and crystallise the emotions that flow through family life.

 

Family shipping companies do not go out of business because of murder or theft, they go out of business through boredom and debt. The drive and desire evident in one generation starting a company cannot be simply transferred with the genes to the next which has been born into more comfortable times. The appetite for risk diminishes, and the sheer hassle of running a 24/7 business is not to everyone’s taste. Mix in the usual family ingredients of identity, guilt, loyalty, appreciation and a sense of responsibility and you soon realise it’s not just about the money. However the companies that do survive tend to be the ones where the family has a ‘hands-on’ approach, and have more skin in the game than just collecting the dividends. Success in shipping comes from actually wanting to do it, no matter how you get into it.

 

++++

 

This year has been a year of christenings, weddings and funerals, the full cycle of life marked by the ceremonies we choose as milestones. It has given me the opportunity to see life through other families, and their experiences and guess what? There is no standard way of doing things, and no monopoly on happiness or misery. There is no standard operations manual, or text book to help you, just your wider experience, and family.  And things go wrong.

 

?How did you go bankrupt?? Bill asked.

 

?Two ways,? Mike said. ?Gradually and then suddenly.?

 

This short passage from Ernest Hemingway’sThe Sun Also Risesillustrates how crises happen, in businesses certainly, but also in families too. Life goes on as normal, but things get more and more strained, and then a trigger is pulled, a button is pressed, a catalyst is introduced and then the change is sudden, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The momentum of the past collides with the new reality and the results can be catastrophic, strange, even fatal. They can also be darkly funny. And in observing other families and their stories I have, these last few months, seen things in completely different perspectives. More than that my assumptions about myself and my place in my family, and the wider family of shipping, and in the world have been shaken.

 

We take things for granted, life carries on as normal, we do the stuff we have got used to until we realise that we are wrong. This is not just in the form of the mistakes we make being thrown back in our faces, but in the things that don’t happen because we didn’t do anything about them, the things we finally realise need correcting if we are to succeed. Unless we stop, take stock, make changes and adjustments then bad things will happen, gradually and then suddenly.

 

++++

 

Brighton is a transitory place, and fragile, but that does not make it a bad place necessarily. Maybe in the past I was prejudiced because I did not want transitory and fragile things, that can change, or end, suddenly and when we least expect it. I wanted to think that everything was under control, my control. Things didn’t turn out that way, changes happened, but at least I am the wiser for it, or at least I hope I am.

 

I am writing this now in Skopelos as I wait for William, my sixteen year old nephew, to wake up. He is staying for a few days with me in Greece, and wanted to come here because he will soon be auditioning for a part in his high school musicalMamma Mia!and wants to visit where some of the scenes were filmed. Maybe he can channel the vibes and get the lead. The small road trip we have taken together has pushed both of us out of our comfort zones, and as we get to know each other better I see yet another aspect of my family and life here in Greece.

 

Summer is a time for recharging batteries, but the type of holidays we have and who we share them with are very good indicators of who we are and where we are in life. Apart from giving us the strength to carry on doing what we have to do, they release the energy we need to create and build.  I am finding that this is the case now. Being with my family, whether it’s all of us at a wedding in Brighton, or just here with William in Skopelos, has made me reflective, but has given me strength, and I am more willing for to face the fight ahead, whatever that turns out to be.

 

Families are funny things, a source of frustration and joy, of pain and hope, but the time I have spent with mine recently has shown that hope can spring up in the strangest of places, even Brighton, even Skopelos. I hope that your summer holidays, whether you have taken them already, are in the middle of them, or are yet to take them, will have the same effect on you.

 

Simon Ward