Sunday, 27 December 2009

Brothers At Arms

One person I will not be meeting with over this Christmas period is my brother.  My visit to my parents' house has been carefully scheduled to avoid his visit.  My girlfriend thinks this is an unpleasant situation especially as I have never met my baby nephew.  She only has sisters and I told her that in my experience compared to sisters, adult brothers generally do not communicate.  For some reason in the late 1960s/early 1970s it seemed very common to have two brothers born 2-3 years apart.  So many of my friends, like me, have this pattern.  Of all of them, only one pair now communicate and that was after years of not speaking at all.  In that case it was pretty extreme circumstances that brought about the reconciliation, the younger brother had married a very unpleasant woman who proceeded to move her Mexican lover into the house and then decamped to Switzerland to be with another lover, taking all the marriage documentation with her making it hard for her husband to get a divorce.  I use her as the archetypal example of woman brought up to insist that she has everything she wants, becoming petulant if she does not get it and having no moral considerations at all about what she is doing: her desires are supreme in her world.  Anyway, the elder brother has not gone around saying 'told you so', but his concerns have been proven to be correct and with the brother contrite and proving to be a useful tenant for a property the elder brother could not fill, they are back on good terms.

All other brothers I know, are not talking.  Usually the last time they see each other is when they get married and even then one friend of mine who I have known over twenty years did not invite his brother to his wedding because they were effectively strangers to each other after more than two decades of non-communication.  I did wonder why adult brothers do not communicate and, in fact, are often very hostile to each other.  A lot of it seems to stem from men thinking that their view of things is the 'right' one and the only possible view.  I know two brothers who are real posers, pretty pretentious and in fact very much like each other, successful in their careers and with women, but clearly on the details of what is the 'in' thing to do or own, they cannot agree.  In many ways they are too similar.  It does not have to be big things like religion or politics that keep brothers apart, in fact if these things are the basis of the difference they often have a grudging respect for the other.  What separates brothers is what separates families, the small day-to-day habits.  There is more friction in a house around taking off shoes when you enter, washing hands before a meal, putting the toilet seat up or down, saying grace before a meal, even how you make the tea, than there ever is around the big issues of the day.  This is something that you learn quickly from the age when you are permitted to go and play at friends' houses; you often end up with a whole different set of behaviours for when visiting.

Owing to this sense of men knowing what is 'right' (and this often extends to telling their parents what to do especially when they become elderly) one or both brothers can end up patronising the other.  Unlike the brothers I have detailed above, I had a good relationship with mine until last year.  We would visit each other's houses despite them being in different countries, a few times per year and would regularly email and exchange gifts.  We did have one large row back in 2002 and this stemmed from events 15 years earlier when we had been teenagers.  I have a bad temper and get violent with it, so we would often fight, something that went against my brother's pacifist tendencies.  He also felt (wrongly) that I did not respect him because whereas I had gone to university he had decided not to.  It was clear he still viewed me as if we were still 18 if not 15, and in fact in terms of the university thing, he would have been wrong back then.  To some degree it showed that whilst we got on well, we had not talked enough and in particular I should have communicated more clearly how proud I was of what he had achieved in web design and carving out a new life in a foreign country. 

Some of the patronising attitude has come out in the recent split (well, 11 months ago now).  He has travelled extensively in Africa including to very remote parts so he can adopt an attitude of me not knowing the 'real' world.  I accept, not least because of my various ailments that need constant medication, that I would not survive in remote parts of Morocco or Senegal for long.  However, that does not mean I am useless living in Milton Keynes or Oxford or even London, places I have thrived in, even in the poorest areas of Tower Hamlets.  Brothers seem to believe they must 'save' their brother, whether he is younger or older than them, from himself and the mistakes he is making.  Of course, generally he is not making any mistakes, just living a different kind of life.  I own a house and have work, I am not on drugs and I drink rarely, there is nothing I need saving from.  I want a better life for myself but I am a million kilometres from the kind of lifestyle that needs intervention.

A lot of tension between brothers stems from the other people in their lives, particularly the girlfriends and wives.  I have to confess that I found my brother's wife difficult to handle.  She was very forthright and especially when in continental Europe was very patronising assuming that the average British person would get utterly lost if they walked out of a house unaccompanied when in Belgium, whereas I had been cycling and driving across North-West Europe for many years.  However, I could see they were in love.  They have been together for over a decade now and have a child.  As time passed the woman relaxed and I actually have ended up with a better relationship with her, who has none of this emotional baggage my brother has, than with him.  She has changed and is not the woman she was when first with my brother.  Even then when I found her irritating I had the manners to accept that this was the woman my brother had chosen and not to try to convince him to chuck her out for someone else. 

I know it sounds mad, but I do believe in the precept put forward in the movie 'The Commitments' (1991) that you can learn a lot about life from the lyrics of songs, especially soul music.  Hence, I refer back to 'When A Man Loves A Woman' (1966) written (though others are credited) and sung by Percy Sledge and the lyrics: '[He'd] Turn his back on his best friend/If he put her down'.  That song has all you need to know about how you will witness men behaving when in lover. The one thing guaranteed to break any relationship between men is for one to criticise the significant woman in the other man's life and I knew any criticisms I made of my sister-in-law would fall on deaf ears.  Anyway, the criticisms were minor, there was nothing that she was doing that harmed my brother, I simply found her rather irritating, but even expressing that irritation as I did in 2002 when exhausted, cold and drunk, raised a strong reaction from my brother. 

This is why I was surprised when my brother started criticising my girlfriend last Christmas saying that I should get rid of her, despite all the happiness she had brought me.  He made assumptions that she was somehow draining money from me, whereas in fact she was contributing far more to our funds that would have been proportionate as she was earning three times less than me.  As is common, he portrayed me as naive about her and that I was not seeing what she was doing.  He was very critical of her going to the USA a place she had always wanted to visit and to see friends there, using money she had inherited.  I tried to temper his view, both face-to-face and via email, outlining all that she was doing for me, how hard she works and what a good mother she was to her son.  My brother would not listen to these words and so started sending hostile messages to my girlfriend directly (they had previously collaborated on a website) telling her she was draining money from me and should leave me.  You would not be surprised that in the face of being unable to get him to stop this barrage of criticisms (we blocked his email address coming into our inboxes) I had to break off relations with him.  Ironically, my girlfriend who has a big heart, wants me to try to rebuild contact with him, but I have received no apology and have no belief that his attitude towards her has changed.

My girlfriend finds it surprising that me and my brother have ended contact and have no view of ever restoring it.  This, I imagine is because she has only sisters and while they can argue and gripe they seem not to be so critical of each other to cause rifts that are very hard to heal.  This may be one of the largest differences between men and women.  I keep telling her, that in my experience no brothers I know are in contact with each other and that in fact up to 2008 my brother and I were an anomaly.  At this present moment out of all the brothers I know, only one pair is communicating and that is due to the exceptional circumstances.  So, I do not currently foresee me ever speaking to my brother again.  I guess we will grunt at each other at one of our parent's funerals and his son will look at this strange uncle who will, no doubt, be painted far blacker subsequently.  I have done nothing to harm my brother, I have not stolen from him or assaulted him, I just happened to go out with a woman he disapproved of, on the basis of false assumptions about her behaviour.  Even if she was taking me for every penny I have, then that would be a matter for me, not him.  To repeatedly try to break up the relationship and go after her when I had blocked his emails seems very unpleasant.  Consequently I am now beginning to walk alongside my friends who have not seen or heard from their brothers in decades, which, certainly in the UK seems to be the norm.

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