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In praise of Uncles

August 23, 2018



This is a more personal blog than usual, prompted as it is by the fact that today, 23rd August, marks the 20th anniversary of the death my favourite Uncle, a lovely man who made a profound impact on my interests and development. As well as a personal tribute to one Uncle it is a chance to celebrate, more generally, the contribution of those significant individuals who, whether family members or others, can make such a difference to how we turn out.

My Uncle John, my mother’s older brother, was a very special man. He was the first member of our family to go to University, he was a war hero who survived being blown up in tank in Italy, he was cultured and well-travelled and a wonderful raconteur and conversationalist, a talented artist and amateur actor. He had that gift of brightening up any room he walked in and making fun and adventure out of the most mundane of situations. He was a man of principle who encouraged me to take an interest in public affairs. Despite all of that I remember him most as man who always had the time to take in an interest in what I and my brothers were doing.

We were lucky that I and my brothers were quite a lot younger than his children and that, as result, he and my aunt had the time to see us quite regularly. I have a special memory of when they joined us at Christmas time. He would contrive to create a wonderful set of Christmas party games, well beyond our own, somewhat Puritan traditions, which transformed the occasion. He is a man whom I have missed deeply ever since his death.

I have much to thank other significant individuals in my life. My grandparents, especially my grandmother, who I was able to spend so much time with as a child. My Welsh aunt who opened her home, each summer, to give our family a holiday and who helped cement my lifelong love of the land of my fathers; a number of teachers who took a special interest in my development and who encouraged me to expand my interests and to explore horizons beyond what was common place in my family; early bosses who backed my ability and gave me the chance to progress and to take opportunities which have been crucial to the success of my career.

While nothing can take away from the role of parents in my upbringing I have been immensely lucky to have access to that wider network of adults who have been able to offer me perspectives and opportunities which it was not in my parents’ gift to provide.

This story has a number of wider lessons. First it stresses for me the value of intergenerational relations and how much we, as individuals, can always learn and benefit from those with different life experiences than our own. We need to guard against the divisions in society which seem, increasingly, to be isolating us from those who are different from us or who hold different views. Some of this can play out across the generations and we need to guard against that. I have a number of good Indian friends and I have always liked the way they address as “uncle” individuals of an older generation with whom they have a close connection.

My second point relates to those without access to the same opportunities as I had. For those who have lost parents through death or separation or who in other ways have had traumatic childhoods, special individuals can be particularly important in helping someone overcome their difficulties. Some people have scarcely ever felt the benefit of someone taking an interest in their story or their development. I see every day in my work in mental health the crucial value of sustained therapeutic relationships in supporting recovery and the roles of peer workers and mentors are also enormously important in supporting individuals who have experienced difficulty. We need to think about this carefully in the way we design and invest in public services.

My third point relates to our own behaviour and what we do, beyond our formal responsibilities, to take an interest in the affairs of others. It can, of course, be very easy to be too busy to take the time to do so but the difference that is made by learning someone’s name and story and spending time, formally or informally, supporting and encouraging them on their journey is incalculable. After nearly 12 years as a Chief Executive I have realised that it is the most significant thing I do.

Twenty years ago, I raised a glass, with others, to the memory of a very special man. I do so again tonight, grateful for the contribution he made to my life and mindful of the example he set about in taking an interest in the lives of others.

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