MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS or Life in the Dysfunctional Lane

Sometimes I think that I have spent my life running from my family. Other times, I think that I have spent my life looking for a family. Probably both are true.

My father was an academic, a Shakespearean scholar and University professor. He worked hard, was not a lot of fun and ended up as Dean of Exeter University in England. My mother was a lot more fun- an artist and a writer- but lacking in discipline to be a professional in either field. Their’s was a runaway war marriage; they married after knowing each other for a week and then he went off to war and didn’t come back until after I was born. I think that I paid for that all our relationship.

My brother, Philip, was two years younger than I was. He generally had an easier time than I did, was cleverer and a better artist than I was. He became a left-wing political cartoonist and dedicated his life to the Cause but succumbed to alcoholism young. A sad story. My sister Kate is five years younger than I, a teacher and artist. She was the apple of my father’s eye and when he left my mother the year after I left home, it was a terrible shock to her and she never forgave him. My parents were very different and ill-suited; I remember them arguing most of the time, often about me which turned me into a sulky teenager who escaped as soon as I could. My father saw an opportunity to be happy with another woman, a fellow academic, and took it. I couldn’t blame him but it devastated my mother and broke the family apart forever.

The family spent some years in Uganda, East Africa and I finished my education in Scotland. I left home at seventeen and never really went back. I kept moving on, to Edinburgh, to Oxford, to Ibiza in the Balearic Islands and then to America when I was thirty four. There I was an illegal alien for nine years which meant that I couldn’t leave the country until I legitimised my situation which I did by marrying my second wife. I was also terribly poor and couldn’t afford to leave. By the time I finally got it together and went back to England and my family, I was forty three and had been gone too long. My father, who had never made any attempt to see me in all these years, although he had been in New York at the same time as I, was a different person with a different wife and a different life. We got on better and at the end, when he was dying of cancer, we were almost friends and I think that he liked who I had become. Although it equally might have been the fact that I had money at the time and a very young and beautiful academically-inclined girlfriend.

I am not sure that I ever connected properly with my mother again. Having not seen her for so many years, I hugged her and told her I loved her when I first saw her again. All she could say was “Jonathan, you’ve become so Americanised”.

By this time my brother was killing himself with drink and my family was all in total denial. But I could see that it was only a matter of time before he did himself in completely. What a waste of such talent! My sister and I had never been very close and were very different..I felt that I had no real family. I had no children for one reason or another- another long story there- and of my siblings, only Philip had had a daughter, Esme. And she married a Rastafarian from Jamaica and had three absolutely gorgeous girls, my nieces Sasha, Saskia and Sorrel. And then, very tragically, Esme died of cancer very young.

But I discovered India at this time and still was based in America. My father died in 1994 when I was India at a Khumba Mela in Allahabad. As is the custom there on the death of a father, I ritualistically shaved my head and have shaved my hair off ever since. Whilst maintaining my residency in the USA, I moved to India and made annual trips back to England where I spent more time with my family who now all lived in Hastings on the South Coast. I got to know them all better although my brother’s deterioration was shocking. But I liked the sleazy seaside of Hastings. There was a poor, run-down, loser sort of vibe about the place which suited me fine.

In 2002, I had a serious motor accident in India and badly smashed up my left arm. I came back to the UK, quite ill, for treatment and the day I went into hospital in London for an operation, my mother died. I never got to see her again and I have always regretted and felt bad about that. I moved into her apartment below my sister in Hastings to recuperate. It took awhile but I finally felt better- and was saved by my art as I have been so many times. I did a long series of portraits of the inhabitants of my village in India, some of my best work ever.

And so I went back to India when I had recovered. There I started a correspondence with a batik artist called Beth who was living in Colorado. After almost a year of emails and phone calls, we finally met at Heathrow Airport in London and spent two weeks together. A few weeks later, I packed up my life in the UK and joined her in Colorado Springs and we were married six months later.

And so fifteen years on from there, Beth and I are living in La Veta, a small arty town in the Rockies and running Shalawalla Gallery together. She is probably the only woman that I have both loved- and needed. We travel most winters, either to India or the UK. My brother died a few years ago but I had lost him completely at the end. I have a much better relationship with sister Kate than I have ever had, perhaps due to the efforts of my wife. She has visited us here in Colorado several times and we would not go to England without staying with her. I think that we have finally reached a good level of mutual respect and I value my relationship with her a great deal- there are after all, only two of us left mow.

Except of course for my beautiful half-black nieces who have all grown up now and have their own lives in Yorkshire. Sasha has two children and possibly more will come along. They are all so real and so glamorous and I am surprised and thrilled to have them as my family. I have a feeling that it is all about family in the end, although not necessarily the family that one expects in life. Beth and I tried to have children but failed and filled the void and fed our paternal drives by collecting animals. Beloved animals. We have three dogs and two cats, sadly losing another cat recently.

We found Lalu, the boxer/pitbull, in a box at a pet store en route to the pound and fell in love with him straightaway. He was a crazy puppy but has grown up into a fine, intelligent, kind and responsible adult dog. I talk to him and I believe that he understands almost everything I say. Voodoo came from Haiti: we were doing volunteer work down there, teaching batik to a group of Haitian ladies and setting up a small cottage industry which they could make some money from. On the final day of the workshop, we heard a dog screaming in the street, ran out and found a man beating a tiny, emaciated, hair-less street puppy with a broom. I lost it completely at such cruelty and got the man to back off but saw that the dog was badly hurt with a broken leg and broken hip. We thought that we would have to put him down but luckily found a vet who managed to patch him up, got him down to Port au Prince to a proper clinic where they treated him and put a cast on his leg. After a very tense week and after spending a great deal of money, we managed to fly him home with us to Colorado where he recovered completely and has now grown into a beautiful and loving little dog. I think that saving Voodoo is one of the best things that I have ever done in my life. Rani, the little Kentucky Coon hound girl, came to us recently. For one reason or another, she was being passed around without finding a permanent home and is exactly what we wanted and fits in perfectly although she is still a bit wild. Gita, the Siamese cat, was our first surrogate child and is now nine years old while Billi, the big ginger tabby, joined the family after I found him as a tiny kitten in the snow a couple of years ago. We lost Nyima, our other Siamese cat just last year. We had rescued him, unbelievably, at a heavy metal concert we were not enjoying, loved him for several years but he suddenly died from a heart disease. All our animals are very much part of our life here in Colorado and give us enormous pleasure as well as keeping us busy, on our toes and out on the trails walking regularly in all weather. Finally I have my family, not what I ever expected, but as important and real as any other. And you don’t have to put this kind of a family through college which is a plus! However, this family is no less of a commitment and in some ways inhibits our life as much or more than a family of children would do. They will never grow up and leave home. There are few restaurants that I can take them to and so we rarely eat out. We cannot leave home for any length of time nor throw them onto a plane and fly away on holidays and they can be a heavy responsibility, just like a human family. But I think I have been looking for such a family all my life in one way or another. I just didn’t know it or realise it until I was seventy five….