In junior school days my friend and I bought two white mice from Aldershot Market and reassured our parents they were both male. We ended up with forty mice; my father had built himself a designer shed, but the only carpentry he ended up doing in it was making mice cages. In various homes there followed a succession of guinea pig cages and aviaries, but I yearned for larger creatures. By the time I was fourteen I realised I was never going to get a horse, but our parents relented and we got a dog; who became pregnant on her first heat. We begged to keep one of the puppies, this was considered by my mother to be greedy, as soon as you get what you want you want more. We kept a puppy.
If you give birth to a boy and girl people assume your family is complete, but two didn’t seem to be enough. The friend with whom I shared the white mice came from a family of six children; all beautifully brought up in a small house; my parents marvelled at the efficient running of the household. Large families have always fascinated me; I don’t know how many couples fantasize about having lots of children, but for most of us it is medical dramas and financial disasters that dictate family size. When you are expecting your third baby everyone assumes it was a terrible shock and cannot believe you did it on purpose. My mother could not accuse me of being greedy this time as they had produced three of us.
When I walked my children to school there was a local family I thought of as the Droopy Family; parents, son and daughter so pale and wan, I could not imagine how the parents ever had the energy to procreate. The opposite of droopy families would be the Fantastic Family. Many of us might privately think our families are amazing; we can never credit how we produced a head boy and a head girl and launched three totally different people into very successful lives. But Fantastic Families are rare, they are large and amazing.
I was not one of Amanda Owen’s Twitter followers; by chance I read in the newspaper about the Yorkshire Shepherdess. Despite a traumatic first birth by Caesarean she has given birth to nine children on one of the most exposed and remote farms in the Yorkshire Dales.
By any reckoning this makes her a Supermum and by necessity the family lead an environmentally friendly and healthy life.
I became aware of a very different family after watching BBC Young Musician of the Year; I love the music, but as I am very nosey, the best part is where they visit contestants’ homes and families.
In my novel ‘Brief Encounters of the Third Kind’ Emma Dexter is a brilliant musician in a very ordinary family, who find it hard to support her financially and emotionally.
By contrast her husband Paul Jones comes from a family of four children, all great musicians, with a famous conductor father and pianist mother. I thought the Jones family were larger than life, but when cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won Young Musician of the Year 2016, we met a family more amazing than I had created. Seven children all musicians, with interesting names and mixed heritage good looks. I recently caught up with a documentary about the family who live in a rambling house conveniently detached from close neighbours; practising going on continually; pianos in the hall, violins in the bathroom, mother’s life devoted to organising them. The father’s job was not specified, but anyone who has had to feed teenagers and make sure homework gets done will wonder how this family operates financially and practically. On Saturday mornings the family are up before dawn to catch the train from Nottingham to London to attend the Royal Academy of Music.
I wonder at what stage families change from fending off disapproving looks when yet another baby arrives, to buying a house that matches their status as a Fantastic Family. Writers rarely create families that match up to real life.