England is a good place to visit if you want to get a sense of the prevalent state of conformity in the land. As I walk the miles and miles of long paths full of ethnic shops in Birmingham, one thing is clear. ‘Family’ is big here. I have nothing against families, but seeing what sells the most makes me rather suspicious. There isn’t a single shop that, in addition to selling food, fabrics, or incense, is not also selling picture frames. Especially the golden and the silver ones are popular. The minute I enter a shop like this, the owner strikes up a conversation that is almost always identical in its exchange with what I get to hear and say in all the other places:

‘Can I interest you in a picture frame?’
'I don’t think so.’
‘Why not, don’t you have a family of your own?’
‘Sure I do.’
‘So, what’s the problem, then?’
‘There is no problem, I just don’t like to think of my family as objects in a frame.’
‘How many children do you have?’
‘I have none.’
‘I’ll pray for you.’

Obviously the implicit assumption on the owner’s part is that if I had more than one child, then there would be no way in HELL I wouldn’t want to present them nicely, as they pose happily on display for everyone else to see. So the number of children is very important. The more of them one has, the more one can fill the empty space on the dresser with their representation. Now, due to my platonic philosophical inclinations that favor being kind over being merely smart, I refrain from commenting on the fact that I find such displays disgusting. What mythologies people fead their hearts and heads with is really their problem, but I often speculate what the reaction might be, if I said that I preferred to see empty spaces on furniture and fireplaces filled with books rather than idiotic pictures that disclose the poverty of thought and emotion in the house. (Actually, I think that I said that once, and it didn’t go so well with the well-intended party).

Roaming through the art galleries in Birmingham, I notice that while people have always wanted to represent families, it was never the poor who got to do it. So I wonder what happened between 1350 and 2011. How has the transmigration of the discourse on family as dictated by the affluent groups been translated into solid ethnic British conviction of the ‘this is the way’ as dictated now by the ones who have to compensate for lack of recognition and money?
(We leave the middle space populated by the snobbish bourgeois who make the norms for clich├ęs out of this).

“It’s all about memory,” my sister tells me – as she is trying to keep me away from ending up in the hospital due to high blood pressure. “People use their family members as objects in mirrors, in order they that appear closer.” “Closer to what?” I ask, while being reminded of the attention signs written on all American cars regarding the perception in the mirror of vehicles behind you on the road. “Closer to what they imagine they have, but don’t have,” she says, “a fulfilled soul.”

As I try to understand what such a statement means, and what its implications might be for all those who declare themselves soulless on purpose, so that they can be exempted from having to engage with deconstructive commonsense, my sister turns to the wall behind her and says: “Why don’t you stop worrying about people buying crap, and take a family picture of me right here now, in this pub, featuring another family." Above her seat, Led Zeppelin is grinning from another time in a picture frame, and I can’t help thinking that Robert Plant has just made today’s showbiz headlines in Mail Online, with a remark on his joining the establishment after receiving CBE from Prince Charles. (I bet that the family picture will make it into a frame on the mantelpiece).

Some stupidities never change. I think I’m going to book myself a flight to the Arctic today. I’m getting claustrophobic here.


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