The way you survive your in-laws is of course the way you survive almost anyone, in Peace Time at least. Eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise and avoid free radicals. But in the short term, a sense of proportion makes the struggle more bearable.
My first Christmas with the in-laws was not surprisingly my first Christmas as a married man. And the first thing that dawns on you is the sense that you are visiting the ghost of Christmas Future.
An old quasi-Freudian myth suggests that every man hopes subconsciously to marry his mother, and every woman her father. We seek certain familiar qualities in prospective partners, though not necessarily in their looks or name or fondness for cardigans.
Christmas with the in-laws however is for many, the moment that we realise we are marrying her mother, and his father. The consequent dawning sense of claustrophobia, of inescapability, resembles a stifling, sprout-scented re-working of the eternal presence of time-past and time-future in Eliot’s Burnt Norton. This is where a lot of the stress comes from.
I went into this scenario with a history of being, if anything, cringeworthily Philo-In-Law rather than Anti. I loved the performative opportunities of acting the Good Son, showing off the virtues that had somehow eluded my own parents. In particular, the ritual of congratulating the Mother-in-Law lavishly on her skill with the gravy, custard and bread sauce, with an enthusiasm I hadn’t shown my own poor mother since I was twelve. And sitting up late at night with the man of the house, being handed a decent whisky in one of the decent tumblers, once both our respective womenfolk had retired for the night, was as grand and ennobling a rite of passage as anything to which the girlfriend herself could grant access.
But gradually of course the shine wears off. As a wonderful line of Anthony Powell’s has it, “parents, especially step parents, are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfil the promise of their early years.”
In-Laws are very much in the same category as step parent here – an adult authority figure to whom you come late in life.
And once becomes familiar with the sporting anecdotes, the economic insights, the political views, the half dozen favourite coinages of Roy Jenkins or Denis Healy or of course the Other Powell which appear with increasing monotony, drawn like a coin from behind one’s ear by this surrogate uncle… before you know it, your father in law is no more fascinating or able to bestow rank and maturity upon you than is your own father – and remains more able and liable to withhold his legacy should he so choose, which becomes a subconscious source of resentment. In short, they settle down to the status of mere mortals.
Nevertheless, once children came along, I found my Mother in Law reassuringly brusque and unsentimental, and my Father in Law in particular a ready ally when it came to the preposterous, masochistic choices we had made in the children’s toy department. Anything requiring batteries, or capable of speaking (especially in an American accent), let alone flashing and bleeping, warranted meaningful eye contact and an almost regretful retreat to the liquor cabinet to rehearse between us the philosophical underpinnings of our deep seated visceral loathing of plastic crap.
On Christmas Day in 2009, to escape this nonsense, my Father in Law accompanied me to the beach in Hove, for what was perhaps the most peaceful and serene twenty minutes I’ve had this century. I had requested a wet suit for Christmas, along with various neoprene accessories, and I paddled, then swam about fifty yards out to sea. There I bobbed gently, in the silence, watching the sun sink into the English Channel amid glistening turquoise and golden wavelets every bit as picturesque as anything the Caribbean has to offer. It was heavenly.
My father in law remained on the shore with his two faithful black Labradors, also enjoying the tranquillity of the childless environment. But when I swam back in, I had drifted a good hundred yards up towards the pier and he walked up in time to hear me encountering a small party of revellers who had not seen me go in.
I enquired of them, in my best French accent, whether or not this was England? For a minute or two I think they believed it. My father in law was delighted by this little jest and subsequently told this story in my presence whenever possible. I loved him for that. It was so nice to hear a story told by an elder that did not involve my own incompetence.
Sadly, in 2015, he suffered a stroke, and three months later, he was gone. My wife was, and indeed often remains, inconsolable. It is my job of course to offer a sturdy shoulder, patience, and a rock of stoic indomitability to the vagaries of whassaname – especially at Christmas time. But the truth is, I miss the old blighter too. Because, in the end, if you hold out for long enough, in laws become as part of the furniture as your own family.