… When I were a lad, Christmas Day afternoons would see us go regularly to Nan and Grandad’s – Dad’s Mum and Dad – who lived in a large house on the main Reading-Wokingham road in Winnersh. Dad’s brothers and sisters, and their children – our cousins – would be there; we would be dressed in our new clothes and we would take, and show off, our new toys. Father Christmas visited us there, too: one year, probably round about 1970, driving himself along the A329 Reading-Wokingham road in a horse and cart, with word of his impending arrival, and at our house, gradually spreading from humour-ridden mums and dads, not sure how much longer, or even whether, they should keep the secret, to increasingly-excited children. There would be plenty of food, plenty of play, the TV; and the times would be good.
Later, the men of the family would gather with a few, male neighbours and retreat from the women and the children into the speakeasy sanctity of the back room of the house, adjacent to the kitchen, for unknown games of cards, probably more than a few smokes and, for all I knew, more than a few beers. Despite visiting the house frequently, and not just on special occasions, I have almost no memory of that back room, neither its decor, nor its aspect nor its furniture – of the kitchen, absolutely; and yes of the front room too, perhaps unusually so in families where the front room tended to be kept for weddings, christenings and funerals. But of the back room, I remember next to nothing. On these particular Boxing Day occasions, the door to the back room was shut. And it stayed shut; we were not allowed in and I, who pretty much always did precisely as he was told, stayed out. For all the mums, my sister and me, and all our cousins, the rest of the house, and the front room, was our domain where we were kept entertained, or at least humoured, with bowls of peanuts, lemonade and coca-cola. And, most probably, with threats of the strict and dire consequences that would befall us were we to break the rules.
Until, eventually, a few cousins, a little braver than I when it came to family authority figures, would seek to gain entry to the back room; initially being chased back out before, towards the end of the evening, when the men’s business was finished and the games of cards had, mostly, been cleared away, the men relented, smiled and we were no longer chased out. Then the evening would dissolve and we would all head back home, Christmas over for another year and, for the men, a prospective return to work based substantially around a life of tough manual labour doing the providing; for the women, a continuation of substantially domestic duties and responsibilities; and for the children, life would carry on in absolute innocence of the significance of what was going on around us or of what we had done, or failed to do; and the moulding of the self that went alongside that.
So: the back room: a place of seriousness, but where masks can be worn (indeed, perhaps should be worn); one of talk, but also good humour; where not everything is believable but where a grain of truth underpins everything; one where alliances are formed and deals made; and where peace is brokered; where hands are revealed at regular intervals, and strategies and thoughts regularly explained, justified and given new weight. A place of honesty. An adult room to which entry can be gained, with patience and then persistence, by those prepared to undertake the rites of passage required of that entry or with the tools to break down those barriers.
Welcome to The Back Room.