Baby, look at me now
I’ve just become an uncle again, so I flew to the UK to welcome my new nephew to the world, and teach him a few lessons about life, love and other stuff beginning with “L”, such as, I dunno, lepidoptery or something.
It’s difficult to gauge how receptive he was, since he’s only three weeks’ old, but at least – and unusually for a baby – he didn’t vomit over me.
I bought presents for him, and for my beautiful little niece, and I cradled him and kissed him and generally crooned over him but, beyond that, it’s a bit difficult to know what an uncle is supposed to do.
There is a sad dearth of positive role models for uncles. For generations, we’ve been represented in the media primarily by Uncle Fester from The Addams Family – an ugly, bald hunchback with weird eyes, who nobody in their right mind would let near their kids.
Of course, TV has moved on tremendously since the early days of the monster sitcom, and the best modern dramas are more nuanced and profound than any movie – or even much of literature. Today’s most absorbing characters are amoral drug dealers ( Breaking Bad, Weeds) warring bikies ( Sons of Anarchy) Machiavellian dwarfs ( Game of Thrones) and unrepentant gangsters ( The Sopranos). Surely, in this climate, we could expect a degree of rehabilitation for the harmless, maligned uncle. But what do we get? Uncle Junior from The Sopranos – an ugly, bald stooper with weird eyes, who nobody in their right mind would let near their kids, and whose very name seems like a creepy oxymoron.
OK, we’ve had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – dashing, handsome, stylish and brave, to be played by Hugh Grant in an upcoming Guy Ritchie movie – but he isn’t an actual uncle. If he were the Uncle from M.A.N., he’d be ugly and bald with a bad back and weird eyes, and played by the guy who’s Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.
The job of an uncle is to be avuncular, but there’s something sinister about that word. It sounds a lot like “carbuncular” or even “tarantula” – and can it be only coincidence that most uncles have bad feet and long hairy legs? As I approach 50 years old, I’ve noticed myself become more avuncular. I’m bald“ing”, grey“ing” and smell“ing” faintly of spirits, and I’ve always had weird eyes, and I’m starting to suspect this is a direct consequence of my recent glut of nieces and nephews.
My brother is a very good uncle to my children. He seems to know instinctively how to treat them. He picks them up by their ankles and swings them around and around until they’re about to vomit. This has made a great impression on my daughter, who recently approached a group of strangers at a bus stop and told them, “I have a very silly uncle who thinks upside down is the right way up.” My daughter is 29 years old. No, she isn’t. She’s five. Kids seemed to have a lot more uncles when I was young. They were everywhere. Your dad’s brothers, your aunties’ husbands, your dad’s mates, your grandma’s brothers, your mother’s lovers were all your “uncles”.
Great uncles, in particular, seem to have gone out of fashion (not that they were ever particularly stylish). I had loads of great uncles, and I remember some quite clearly: there was Uncle Ike, who wore a hat; Uncle Max, who wore a different kind of hat; and Uncle Gaby, who chased the Germans all across Europe, from 1939-45. I have his war medals, and my kids like to play with them. He died childless, so we are the only ones left to take care of his memory. He was bald – inevitably – and short, with a sad, kind face. I don’t even know when he died, but he always reminded me of a baby. Now he reminds me of my brand new nephew.
Best letter wins theatre tickets.