The sanctification of family values

Glorifying a mythical type of normality adds to the pressure that exists in every marriage
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The Independent Online

Anyone requiring a gentle, if not terribly exciting, reminder of the peculiar times in which we live could do worse than pay a visit to the AOP Gallery in London where the private life of Britain's most normal family is currently on display. There you can see a day-by-day collection of photographs of John and Claire Want of Ystrad Mynach, near Caerphilly, and their two little boys, Niclas and Ieuan as they experience the ordinary lifestyle which has brought them fame.

Anyone requiring a gentle, if not terribly exciting, reminder of the peculiar times in which we live could do worse than pay a visit to the AOP Gallery in London where the private life of Britain's most normal family is currently on display. There you can see a day-by-day collection of photographs of John and Claire Want of Ystrad Mynach, near Caerphilly, and their two little boys, Niclas and Ieuan as they experience the ordinary lifestyle which has brought them fame.

According to reports in the national press, the family's enthusiasm for caravanning is well represented in the exhibition as is their support for a local steam museum. Family shopping trips, games in the garden, and Claire's plans for redecorating the house have also been extensively covered.

Capturing normality in this kind of detail can be a complex and time-consuming business. Having won a competition in which Britain's most outstandingly average families were competing, the Wants were given £11,000 by the sponsors Epson and asked to take a series of digital photographs of their daily lives. Their efforts were complemented by those of three professionals, Lord Lichfield, Tim Flach and the legendary paparazzo Richard Young.

To judge from the smiling photographs that have appeared in the newspapers and from their good-humoured contributions to the Today programme, Mr and Mrs Want are a sweet couple, fully deserving of their prize, but my advice to them would be to step off this particular roller-coaster now before it gathers speed. There has already been a hint of exhibitionism there - even before they put themselves forward for the prize, a family website was in existence - and more temptations seem bound to come their way.

Family is fashionable right now; there's a dangerous craving for ordinary, old-fashioned values. It would not take much for a publisher with a gap in their Christmas schedule to approach the Wants with a cheque, a ghost-writer and a proposal for How to be Normal. A TV company might easily decide to cash in with a guide to normal house decoration, gardening, DIY. There might even be a place for the Wants in one of the modish, semi-ironic interview shows in which normal people mix hilariously with celebrities. A fly-on-the-wall documentary could offer normal folk a right of reply to the excesses of Mr and Mrs Ozzy Osbourne and their batty brood.

Then, at some point, normality will bake and crack in the heat of exposure, and soon the traditional form of fame - snippy comments in gossip columns, unflattering shots in Heat magazine, an invitation to appear on Celebrity Mastermind - will follow.

Something genuinely odd is happening here. Just as the Wants are deemed to be representations of British family life, untarnished by much of the mess and confusion of modern life, so the hoopla that currently surrounds them perfectly captures the mood of the moment. Suddenly, an institution which has been in decline and even somewhat derided over the past half-century has been found to have profound value, as if it is some kind of domestic heritage site or a once-ignored old building that is listed at the very moment is begins to crumble and shift on its foundations.

The sanctification of home and hearth has become a central part of our TV viewing over the past five years. All those cookery and makeover programmes, those escapes to the countryside, the obsession with finding a "dream home", the reality shows in which the right or wrong way to live as a family is exposed, even the dating and drama shows which derive their potency from the search for their perfect mate: these entertainments are all offering up the same solution to the stress and uncertainties of the way we now live.

Settle down with the right person, the message goes. Find a nice house, shut the door on the outside world, and make some lovely kiddies together. Cultivate your garden, then try some interior decoration and maybe invest in a sun-lounge extension. Domestic contentment will keep booming, buzzing confusion at bay.

It is this new obsession that is to be found between the lines of speeches by Blunkett or Blair about the great issue of our times - anti-social behaviour. Yobbery, binge-drinking, street violence and boorishness can be traced back to family dysfunction. Fix that, and a safer, saner society will result.

This woollier, gentler version of the Thatcherite creed which encouraged self-enrichment as a way of contributing to the wealth of Great Britain Ltd is also seductive, simple and ultimately deceptive. Just as born-again capitalism was often an excuse for personal avarice, so family-worship will turn out, in many cases, to be a cruel fantasy.

Good company, love, attraction, kindness, a sense of commitment, discipline and structure are personal qualities which most sane people would like to have in their lives, but the idea that they can be provided by the idealised form of domestic contentment represented by marriage is certainly a lie today, and maybe always has been.

Behind the closed doors of family life can lurk as much selfishness and unkindness as in any more shambolic and apparently dysfunctional households. Glorifying some mythical type of normality, presenting family life as an answer rather than a question, is not only politically sinister, but adds to the pressure that already exists within virtually every marriage.

terblacker@aol.com

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