Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

As modern extended families go, mine goes pretty far. In fact, you could say it's got more extensions than Chantelle from Celebrity Big Brother. There are stepbrothers, half-sisters, in-laws and ex-laws - not to mention all the cousins, aunts and uncles whose presence on the family tree is unadorned by explanatory footnotes relating to divorce or other schisms of a marital nature.

Strangely, outsiders seem to view this familial network as something of a joke. "We've just been hearing all about your complicated home life," they smirk from the safety of their nuclear-family bunker as my 11-year-old daughter outlines the intricate chain that links her to her nine-year-old step-nephew. Or they look a bit shocked, as if the idea that one might actually speak to one's ex-husband, or one's husband's ex-wife, or one's ex-husband's ex-wife, is - well - unspeakable.

Within the family, we don't tend to harp on about the exact relationship of this half-sibling to that step-parent. Indeed, none of my three stepdaughters would refer to themselves as a step; if asked, they describe themselves as whoever's sister. Sometimes, though, a relationship is so bizarre and convoluted that it's difficult not to show off about it. Here's a good one: Keith Dovkants, the chief reporter of the LondonEvening Standard, is my ex-step-cousin-in-law. (His stepfather is married to my ex-husband's aunt. Or something.)

Some members of the family have only the most tenuous blood link yet are co-opted with great enthusiasm by the rest of the clan, like my much-loved, much-missed Aunt Lisbeth, who was my stepmother's aunt.

And some we found through the pages of this newspaper, like Greig, my half-brother-in-law. Actually, that's twisting the truth a little. It was Greig who found us through The Independent. Two years ago, he saw an article on the travel pages written by my husband, Craig, about hitching back from Cyprus via Istanbul after National Service in 1959. There was a photograph of Craig's student card from his time in Turkey that gave his full name and it was the first clue Greig had ever seen as to the whereabouts of the half-brother he'd always suspected existed.

Greig is Craig's father's son. Craig himself remembers being taken to Yorkshire as a child during what was obviously some sort of family crisis, but it's only now that he knows this was because his father, stationed in Yorkshire with the air force at the end of the war, had an affair with a young woman who became pregnant. The pregnancy was hushed up and Greig was brought up believing his grandparents were his mother and father.

It was only when he applied for a passport to go to Australia in his late teens that he found the name on his birth certificate was that of the woman he believed to be his older sister. You can imagine his shock. But no one in his family would talk about what happened - least of all his natural mother - and it was only when she died that he felt able to investigate.

You often hear a lot of rubbish about the decline of the family and how this is contributing to the end of the world as we know it. All I can say is that it's worth remembering that in "the good old days", children were often kept in ignorance of their origins for fear of what the neighbours might think. They were prevented from contacting the people they felt might be an important part of their life.

It's ironic that divorce, a legal process that tears couples apart, has in many ways provided the glue that pins our family together. Perhaps it's a geographical thing: one of the benefits of living in London is that you tend to act as a hub for people on their way to things like interviews, universities, conferences and holidays abroad.

Of course, many divorced couples these days use their children as a weapon in their battles, hindering access to the other parent and also, by extension, to a network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Which is why I find it so odd that people think my family so amusing. If the alternative is bitterness, hypocrisy and inhibition, then I'd rather have my eccentric extended family any day. Including Greig and his lovely daughters, Kate and Alice, who are my children's... sorry, I'll have to stop and work that one out.