Although she is one of my oldest friends, my tendency to tell plotless stories irritates Valerie. When she enquires about the grape harvest, I provide forensic details of the car accident that left my vineyard manager unable to smell or taste. If she asks how the farmer’s market is going, I tell her about the stallholder who’s spent two years in a bureaucratic minefield trying to adopt her foster child. I can sense the impatience on the other end of the telephone. It’s not that Valerie lacks curiosity or concern-she simply lacks the ‘infinite patience’ gene, the gene needed to listen to stories about people you’ve never-and will never-meet.
I tell her it’s a Southern thing. I grew up in the dying days of storytelling, where gentle and meaningless talk was part of life. Aunts and uncles, cousins and half-cousins swapped stories for hours about relatives three generations back and kinfolks they’d known but were long dead. I practised being invisible so that the characters in the elegiac tales-Cousin Hazel who drank herself to death, Uncle Sonny who left each of his three wives as soon as they got pregnant-would not be purged because of my presence.
William Faulkner made good use of a childhood spent listening to family stories: 14 of his 19 novels are set in Yoknapa-tawpha County, his ‘own little postage stamp of native soil’. I lack the stamina of a novelist, but I have the durable legacy: the belief that our stories are the living mosaic that tells us where we’ve come from, who we are and where we’re going.
And, if life stories are your thing, the past week at the Labour Party conference has been your heyday. It doesn’t start with the two Miliband brothers and their race against each other. It begins with the story of two miraculous escapes. Ralph Miliband, the father of David and Ed, fled his home in Belgium in 1940 with his father. They walked from Brussels to Ostend and caught the last boat to Britain before Belgium was invaded by the Nazis.
Their mother’s story is even more remarkable. Marion Kozak was the daughter of rich Jewish parents. Her father owned a steel factory that employed 300 people in the town of Czestochowa in Poland, 130 miles south-west of Warsaw. In 1939, when the Germans took control of the town, Marion’s family refused to take refuge in the ghetto and went into hiding. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish religion’s holiest day, September 22, 1942, 2,000 Jews living in the Czestochowa ghetto were murdered on the spot and another 40,000 were transported to the gas chambers at Treblinka concentration camp. Her grand-parents and father died, together with more than 40 relatives, but Marion escaped.
In 1947, aged 12, sponsored by a Jewish organisation, she arrived in Britain. Fourteen years later, she married her professor at the London School of Economics, Ralph Miliband, and their first son, David, was born in 1965, their second son Ed in 1969.
The family sagas written by Faulkner are more apocryphal than the Miliband story. Still, I believe that the real victor last week was David, who lost the race by a feather, but emerged with his soul intact. I’d also like to think he’ll see this as his chance to write the one memoir by a politician I’d like to read, the story of his family. It’s not too late to ask his mother the questions about her life that children rarely take time to ask; it’s not too late to take the time to tell his young sons, Isaac and Jacob, the stories of their grandparents.
I believe that if the Miliband brothers had spent long hours listening to family stories, this rupture-brother against brother would never have happened. They’d have carved out an understanding in honour of their parents’ spirit and determination to survive. Now, it’s David’s story to tell. I only regret that the title Absalom, Absalom! has already been used.