Lizzie Condon, in memory of a remarkable life

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Nana with her children, from left, Pat, Andrew and Frances. This picture was taken in July 1977, only a week or so before her death

40 years ago today my Nana died. While hers wasn’t the first death I’d experienced, her loss affected me and everyone in the family profoundly.

Lizzie Condon had lived with us my entire life. When my mum – her youngest daughter Frances – married my dad Jimmy in 1960, the newlyweds moved into the room and kitchen in the Gorbals where Nana had raised her two daughters for the last 27 years. Three months later, when they were rehoused in a two-bedroomed flat in the then-brand spanking new part of Glasgow’s vast Pollok housing scheme called South Nitshill, Nana went too.

Round the corner was her eldest daughter Pat Connelly and her husband, another Jimmy. Her first grandson James had been born in 1956.

When the Traynor babies started to arrive along with additions to the Connellys, Nana was there to help, though she was only in her early 50s at this point and still working herself.

We moved to a bigger house in another part of Pollok when my brother Tony was born. My parents had had five children in six years – it was the 60s and they were obedient Catholics (or as my dad put it later, they’d tried the rhythm method, but have you ever tried finding a brass band at midnight?!) – and Nana was not only our grandmother but also an essential part of the economic lives of both her daughters’ families.

Her being there let mum and Pat find part-time work, knowing their mum was there for the tots and the bigger ones once the bell had rung. I don’t have many pre-school memories, but I do recall hectic lunchtime as 10 kids (including a tiny baby, my cousin AnneMarie) jostled for food and attention as Nana doled out grub and admonishments in equal measure.

Another dim memory I have is when the big ones had gone back to school after lunch and Tony and I would climb up on the couch with Nana for Watch With Mother and she’d tell us how the sandman was coming and “Quick! Cover your eyes before he gets you!” She’d get half an hour’s peace for a fag and to do her crossword while we were bawbaws and none the wiser for having been suckered into a nap again.

Apron strings

The kitchen was her domain. She loved nothing more than a natter with a cup of tea, her cigarettes and matches tucked into the pocket of the apron she wore daily, a fresh one on every morning. When I was first put to work helping Mum with the ironing at the age of 10, the only things I was trusted with were dish towels and those aprons, though by then only Mum was wearing them as Nana was quite infirm.

But that was then and this was now, in that kitchen in Lunderston Drive with its cold pantry and Belfast sink over which a mangle was fixed. I recall playing in the kitchen as Nana sat at the table, her back to the pantry. Mum was washing clothes at the sink and went to the pantry to haul out the little spin dryer. As she did so, a mouse ran out and Mum, who was terrified of rodents, let out a scream. In what seemed like an amazingly seamless manoeuvre, Nana swivelled on her chair, grabbed the heavy metal shovel that was by the pantry door, whacked the mouse and scooped it up before flinging it out the back door into next door’s garden. In my mind’s eye, the neighbour’s bad-tempered Alsatian, the inappropriately named Pal, ate the mouse, but I think I’m stretching my memory somewhat at this point.

In 1968, I think, she had breast cancer. She had a partial mastectomy, but she never did give up the cigarettes. In our health-fixated age, it seems crazy that she didn’t quit smoking once she’d had that brush with cancer, but the reality is she had so few luxuries in life that I completely understand why she’d rather have had a fag and the occasional whisky than deny herself a little joy.

She was great to us kids because she was incredibly affectionate and interested in what we were doing. On my fifth birthday, she took me to join the library because I wanted to get books the way she and Mum did. I got to choose one book while she had two, and when we got home and she’d read it to me (taking all of about five minutes), I demanded we go back so I could get a new one. Oh the disappointment as she told me I’d need to wait two weeks.

She’d sing to us – old music-hall tunes like Oh Oh Antonio and Why Did You Make Me Care? Always the sad songs, the heartbreak tunes, more than a hint of melancholy about her as she crooned about a love affair gone sour.

She could be nippy, too, sharp with her words to Mum and especially to Dad who was always joking and always loud. But then our whole house was loud, all the time. It must have driven her mad because she’d only been used to a quieter time with Mum and Pat.

Then everything changed. Like my dad’s mum, Nana Traynor (as she was always referred to in our house as if we needed something to tell the two apart), Lizzie was a widow. We knew that Dad’s dad, Sam, had died when Dad was 18. Nana, Mum and Pat were always a lot hazier, if not downright evasive on what had happened to their father, Lizzie’s husband.

An unexpected reunion

On March 30, 1970, we found out why when Andrew turned up on our doorstep. Here was the son she’d been forced to give up for adoption 40 years earlier in America, the half-brother her daughters had no idea existed.

Imagine you have kept a heartbreaking secret for almost 40 years. Imagine every day of your life you think about a child you were forced to leave. Imagine the pain and grief that plagues you. Imagine the burden you bear as you get on with life knowing those closest to you have no clue as to the sorrow you feel.

And then imagine the devastating moment that secret is exposed and your shame and hurt are laid bare to the world.

Lizzie never talked in any depth to anyone about what had happened to her and Andrew in those terrible couple of years she spent alone and terrified as an unmarried mother in 1930s New York. I don’t think it’s simply that she didn’t want to relive a dark and painful time or that she was embarrassed to admit she’d had a baby outside of married. It’s that she simply couldn’t. She had to bury her feelings and memories because her survival depended on it.

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Pat, seated, and Frances at the latter’s silver wedding celebrations in 1985. Born just 11 months apart, they were inseparable their whole lives

She didn’t tell Mum or Pat anything more about their father than they already knew. That she’d either left him or been abandoned by him when she discovered she was pregnant with Mum a mere three months after giving birth to Pat. That she’d thrown herself on the mercy of her own widowed mother back in the Gorbals, in that same room and kitchen where Mum and Dad would start married life almost 30 years later. That she’d been allowed to return to Glasgow but without her son and his name was never to be spoken of again if she knew what was good for her or by God, she and those girls would be out on the streets.

And how that had been that until Andrew, by now a Catholic priest, had somehow tracked her down and took a chance on crossing the Atlantic without making contact first, determined not to give her any opportunity to ignore any letter or, worse, reject him by post.

There was no rejection, only relief and joy in their reunion.

A happy ending

Lizzie – Nana – was whole again for the first time in decades. Andrew visited every year, sometimes twice a year, but wrote long, chatty, remarkably open letters to his mum – he used to call her the Duchess because he said she was so regal – and to his two sisters that filled in a lot of gaps and, while painful for him to write and even more painful for his mother to read, began a remarkable healing process.

Emotionally, Lizzie was whole again, but physically she was beset by illness. The cancer returned, this time having spread to her stomach. She became increasingly frail and was eventually confined to bed where she continued to rule the roost. A few bangs on the bedroom floor would alert one of us kids to her need for a cup of tea or ciggies off the van – no, she really didn’t quit, puffing right to the last few days of her life.

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Andrew and Frances, ironically back where it all started in New York in January 2008 with my sister’s eldest daughter, just six weeks old and like her great-uncle, a native New Yorker.

The last time she was up and dressed was in the picture at the top of this blog. Andrew was making his annual visit and he said Mass in the house for family, friends and neighbours. Her pride, joy and love in her children was never more evident than on occasions like this.

Outwardly, there was nothing remarkable about Lizzie Condon. But hers was a genuinely remarkable life – reunited with the son she thought of and prayed for every day, the son whose overwhelming love for her absolved her of the awful guilt she carried for giving him up.

I loved her as my Nana. I still miss her. And I will always be proud of her as a survivor who finally got the happy ending she deserved.

Elizabeth Condon née Donlevy

March 31, 1906 – July 27, 1977

 

Things I wish I could ask my Mum on Mother’s Day

My sister Louise and I talk about our mum, Frances, all the time, as indeed do all of my brothers and our extended family. Today, on Mother’s Day, Louise and I talk to her one more time.
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Our mum Frances in her mid-20s

Fran: It’s been seven years since my mother died. She was two months away from her 77th birthday so I was lucky because I’d had her in my life for a very long time.

We were close – we bickered, of course – but we talked a lot and often about more than just the superficial and everyday. But there’s still so much I wish I had asked her about, so many things about her as a person – not simply as mum or gran or auntie or sister but Frances Condon, the teenager, the young clerkess, the traveller, the music lover – that I would love to know.

Louise: I was a fully fledged adult and mother myself when Mum died so, luckier than some in having her for so long.

You were formidable when I was young, I didn’t dare upset you. Not that you were Mommie Dearest, you just could silence me with a look. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare disappoint me or yourself. I try it now with mine and it’s nowhere near what your laser glare was. I salute you for that and practise daily to emulate you.

You worked full-time with six kids. For that alone, I am in awe. But you also cooked every meal from scratch, seemed to always be there and looked after not just us but your sister, nieces, nephews, in-laws, never seeming to favour any one over the other. Everyone felt attended to, never ignored. They all still talk about you, as mine do, even though you only met the eldest. You’d adore the youngest, she is a force of nature and you would consider the eldest the daughter you could finally style and dress in your classic elegance.

We have all floundered a little without you. You were the matriarch we gathered around and took strength from.

Here are three things we each wish we could ask Mum today and why.

 

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Mum in 1970, aged 37

Fran: Financial constraints meant there was no way you could have gone to university after school, but if things had been different, what career would you have chosen and why?

I always thought you should have been a teacher or a writer. You absolutely loved books and devoured them on a daily basis – that love of reading you’ve passed on to all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who went to the library as much as you. You were also incredibly smart with figures and accounting. That you could budget for a family of six kids on dad’s fairly meagre income over the years still impresses the hell out of me 40-odd years on. I never plucked up the courage to ask – and really, was it ever any of my business? – how much you regretted that further education was simply not an option, that at 17 you had to leave school and go to work; that you then had to give up a job you loved and with it any kind of financial independence when you married. You always struck me, Mum, as the good girl who did what was necessary to make everyone else’s lives a little easier. I wish you had had half the career options that came my way.

Lou: How did you deal with those Groundhog Day moments (apt too as that date is your birthday) when the cooking, cleaning, putting out of fires and general raising of children is shown to be the exhaustive task it is?

I honestly don’t know how you did it. All of us? The boys with their football strips and all of us different ages and stages and attitudes and bullshit? I’m struggling with the difference between a five-year-old and a nine-year-old and I could tear out my already very short hair. I’m fine some days, it’s life, it’s running a house. But by God, I could scream other days. I’m also really sorry for swearing because I know you never did and didn’t like it, but I’m human and you were a saint so, that’s that settled. Next.

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Fran and Mum on the beach at Crail , 1970

Fran: How much did you hate those shopping trips with me and Lou?

Boy, did we cramp your style. You must have despaired that you’d had six sons and not four. I never knew anyone who could shop like you, mum. Remember all those times when you took yourself off into town for hours and would come home with nothing but a smile on your face for the sheer pleasure of browsing for a bargain? I could think of nothing worse. We used to joke that the shopping gene had missed me and Lou out completely. We’d get off the bus or train and within minutes would be angling for lunch or a coffee break while you had your eye on the prize – Lewis’s or Goldberg’s, a whizz round Arnotts and maybe a wander through the perfume counter at Frasers just to try out some new scents. I shudder remembering the times you came home when I was a teenager, having “picked a wee something up” for me that I would hate on sight – I also cringe at how rude and ungrateful I was, especially as you would have loved nothing more than to spoil me with a new outfit. We did laugh about that later on but only once you’d given up on ever buying me a piece of clothing ever again. “Do you think you’ll still be able to wear jeans and T-shirts when you’re in your 50s?” you’d rage at me. Er… yes, mum, I will. I do. But I do wish I had your good taste and sense of style and I always smile when I remember your annual shopping trip to Mademoiselle Anne’s in Stockwell Street where you’d buy a beautifully tailored coat and a couple of dresses so stylish that they never went out of fashion.

Lou: I know you loved to read, but I wonder now if the newspapers and books were an escape not just from your difficult early life but as it continued?

When reading, you were gone, away. I hope that it was as magical an escape as it seemed to be when you would read a few pages, close your eyes and lay the book on your lap. I hope you went right to where you wanted to go. I used to watch you shut your eyes, just for a few moments, and wonder where you went. As ever, Mum, you were away ahead of your time, mindful before we called it that, practising CBT before it was called that, aka “things could be worse”. I wish you were here now, just taking five before getting on with the next thing you had to do. I’d be there to help you do it.

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Mum, right, with Sophie, centre, and Ellen – the three were the very best of friends for 50-plus years

Fran: Why didn’t you ever write down the recipe for your lentil soup?

Mum, I actually pine for your homemade soup. And the Sunday dinners that, even close to the end of your life, you still lovingly prepared “just in case” someone turned up. I make my own soup but it doesn’t taste the same. All the ingredients are there, I put them together exactly the way I watched you – and Nana first – doing it from when I was a tiny tot. I know what’s missing is you. A couple of years ago, I popped in to see your dearest friend Sophie, who sadly passed away last month. She was making soup and her house smelled like yours used to. I was almost paralysed by memory, tears blinding me. Every time I make soup, I wish I was watching you make yours one more time.

Lou: Why aren’t you here now?

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Lou and Mum on the beach at Crail in 2009 with Cub No. 1

We need your wisdom more than ever, people like you Mum. Wise, intelligent and strong. Your kind are thin on the ground. You would see through every shyster like you always did, early on and with a simple shake of your head, you would sum up their character succinctly. I’m kind of glad you don’t have to see it, but I selfishly want you. I want your guidance raising my strong girls, like I hope you know you raised yours. Happy Mother’s Day, from one to another.

To Frances Traynor, 1933-2010 – and mums everywhere.

Busy doing nothing but for once it’s worth it

There are some bonuses to being confined to bed for a short time. Netflix, box sets, on-demand TV are certainly up there. Right now I’m hard pressed to think of many others, aside from being offered and accepting endless cups of tea.

In the eight days since my operation rendered me NWB (non-weight-bearing) and my horizons have been limited to bed, bog and occasionally couch, I’ve started to write a blog about a dozen times.

Each time I’ve been too easily distracted by something on Twitter, daft memes on Facebook, on Wednesday by death and destruction in London and on Friday gleefully joining in the schadenfraude at Donald Trump’s public humiliation.

There’s the other thing about being stuck in one place with your only – ha! – contact with the outside world being social media, 24-hour rolling news and the bing bing bing of texts and Whatsapp notifications.

You are never really alone.

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My view for the last week – and the next

I’ve had weeks – months, in fact – to prepare for this. I told myself I’d use the time productively, that I’d rest properly and use all those quiet moments for contemplation and serious thought as to where I’d direct my future career. I’d start reading that pile of novels by my bedside and even finish ( or at least re-start) writing my own book.

Hmmm.

I’ve slept a lot. But mostly I’ve obsessively browsed social media, read far too many think pieces, watched far too much rolling news.

All those other things I promised I’d do? Not so much.

And having done nothing but immerse myself in news, I’ve experienced several times that terrible feeling of being completely overwhelmed by all that’s happening; a feeling exacerbated by the knowledge that, for the first time in my life, I am physically incapable of doing anything in response.

It’s disconcerting, more than a little terrifying and yet has been oddly liberating, too.

Because, for the first time in my life, I’ve accepted I can’t do everything. In fact, I can’t do anything. No more mini messiah complex of thinking only I can help, only I can do it, only I can sort things.

So instead of lying here fretting because the carpets need hoovered and Debbie hates hoovering and I don’t want her to do stuff she hates…

Instead of anxiously and fruitlessly worrying about the effects of proposed healthcare reform on poor Americans…

Instead of obsessively following the machinations of Brexit and Indyref2 and giving myself an ulcer over how I can influence either…

Instead of agonising over the terrible, tragic and pointless loss of life in London and wondering long into the night how I can personally persuade angry people to take a deep breath before saying or doing something they might regret forever…

Well, I’m not doing any of that – not any more.

So I have found one other bonus of being confined to bed. The frustrating time for recuperation has been the space that unexpectedly let me work out that too often I’m busy doing nothing. That my reaction to all those big overwhelming events is too often to throw myself into a frenzy of activity, as if by mere movement alone, I can magic any problem away.

It’s chastening to accept that no matter how essential you think you are to the world turning, the reality is that life goes on regardless of whether you’re spring cleaning, joining protest marches or – as I am right now – adopting a Zen-like approach to an almighty itch halfway down a stookie*.

My recovery from the operation could take up to nine months. I appreciate how lucky I am that it’s not more debilitating, and while I hope I get better faster than that, the long-term aim of short-term physical limitations has to be that I appreciate better the times when I really can do something that matters.

Until then, I’ll be busy doing nothing.

*Scots word for plaster cast

So long, and thanks for all the dogs*

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Relax. I’m not actually going anywhere. It’s where I’m no longer going to go that’s important.

Almost six years after I made what friends and old colleagues probably regarded as a quixotic (ie barmy) decision to become a dog walker, next week I shall hang up my poo bags for the last time.

Not only that but I will be returning – sort of – to the conventional office life I had thought I’d left behind forever.

What’s prompted my about-turn is the rather grim news that I need an operation on both of my feet, thanks to a particularly unpleasant orthopaedic condition known as Haglund’s heel.

Essentially I have bony spurs growing out of both of my heels and into the Achilles tendon, causing severe inflammation and pretty much constant pain. Only an op offers a long-term solution, but the recovery can take up to nine months. The first op, on my left foot, is down for March (NHS crisis notwithstanding) with the second one to be done at some point next year.

Dog walking didn’t cause this problem. The design of my stupid feet did. Daily walking on hard, uneven ground for the last half decade simply exarcebated things.

I’ve already been stupid enough to try walking half a dozen dogs while leaning heavily on a pair of crutches, having torn cartilage in my knee a couple of years ago.

The prospect of trying to herd a bunch of recalcitrant pooches in a downpour while limping furiously and risking further damage to my feet is not something I can contemplate.

I’m too young – yes, really! – to be thinking of walking with a stick or, worse, browsing Gumtree to buy a second-hand mobility scooter.

So it’s all over. Lead On Dog Walkers will be no more by the end of the month. My lovely pack will be led by a new dog walker and I’ll have to start thinking of buying corporate workwear again…

I’m sad that it’s ended this way, but I’m determined to look on whatever bright side I can find in this post-Brexit, post-Trump world.

The one constant in life is change. But change also brings opportunities. So I’m embracing both the change and the opportunity to do something else with my life. Let’s face it, we’ll all be in harness til we’re 80 at this rate anyway so I may as well make a start on the third stage of my working life right now.

I’ll miss my doggies, some of whom have been with me since that very first summer. Alfie will miss his canine chums and his four walks every day. I will miss beautiful sunny days on a hill watching the sun glint off the sea.

I won’t miss horizontal rain, my fingers going through a poo bag, getting accidentally nipped while handing out treats or slathering ketchup on to the neck of a dog that’s rolled in fox shit or worse.

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I’ll miss fighting for my spot on the couch and being the constant centre of furry attention as top dog.

I won’t miss fighting for my spot on the couch and being the constant centre of furry attention as top dog.

Anyway, that’s my tail of woe (pardon the pun). Now, onwards and upwards. I might even find some time now to finish the damn book…

*with apologies to Douglas Adams

So long, George Michael, you have been loved

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2016 has not been my favourite year. As understatements go, that’s right up there with a local newspaper headline of “Broughty Ferry man lost at sea; 1200 others perish”* after the Titanic sank.

From politics to health, I’ve been on the wrong end of too many results this year.

But hearing the shocking news on Christmas night that George Michael had died has floored me.

I didn’t know him, I never met him but I loved him. Loved his music, loved his attitude, loved his outlook on life, his self-deprecating humour. Loved his mighty fuck-you to the media that dogged his every footstep, his two fingers to the music industry that bound him.

As a teenager when George first appeared, I didn’t love Wham! I was too busy pretending to be cool and disparaging such pop froth. Secretly I did love the songs and sang along to every word, but I was one of those stupidly binary idiots who thought it impossible to like both the Smiths and Wham! More fool me.

Instead it was George the solo artist whose music touched me, made me cry, made this clod-hopping klutz with two left feet ache to dance.

When I was lucky enough to see him at Earls Court in late 2006, I’m not ashamed to say I wept with the sheer joy of it.

Six months or so later, I was among thousands who packed Hampden Park to dance and sing and wave my arms in the air with an exuberant George in the way I’d never have contemplated as a teenager – again, more fool me.

2016 has been a sobering year in every respect. Inventive unique musical and performing artists who refused to toe any cultural line or conform to societal expectations have gone.

There’s a viciousness to the political forces that have taken root here in the UK and elsewhere, an angry way of thinking that rejects the live-and-let-live philosophy the likes of George and Bowie and Prince espoused, instead preferring to isolate and banish any outsider, whether through ethnicity, religion or sexuality.

As with the deaths of Bowie and Prince, the loss of George Michael diminishes our world that little bit more, makes things a lot less interesting, a lot less fun, a lot greyer.

Thankfully we’ll have always the glorious technicolor video of Outside, where George, dressed as the sexiest cop on the beat, turns a public lavatory into a disco and rips the absolute piss out of the system that outed him.

Rest in peace, George – you have been loved.

*almost certainly apocryphal but still…

 

Into the darkness..

We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.

The words of the inspirational Martin Luther King seem a little hollow this bleak November morning.

2016 has not been a year to celebrate for me or for many of my like-minded relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The result of the US presidential election sets the tin lid on what has been a quite dreadful 12 months.

Intolerance, racism, bigotry, outright misogyny and small-minded nationalism have become the political norm on both sides of the Atlantic.

I can find few positives to take from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, from America’s decision to elect Donald Trump ahead of the competent, experienced Hillary Clinton or from the general move of political culture to the right across much of Europe (what price Marine Le Pen and her fascist Front National sweeping France’s presidential elections next year?).

I’m tired of hearing how these votes are how the great unlistened to, the uncared for, the ignored are finally telling political elites they’ve had enough.

This is a failure not only of political leadership but of education and aspiration.

These are not votes for change, not votes to rip up the establishment and install a new more equitable order.

These are votes for a past we can never return to. The howl of anguish from mainly white men at an industrial and social world that has changed and evolved to mean much of their autonomy and power has been shared around with women and minorities of all hues.

Angry men – and women, it has to be said – who want to tear down the society they no longer control without any clue as to what horror might replace it.

Well, the rest of us are not going anywhere. Women, minorities of sexuality, ethnicity and religion. We’re here to stay. And the rights so ferociously fought for over decades will not be surrendered.

For those of us who believe in civil rights and equality for all, things have never looked more bleak.

But from the darkness must come light. It’s hard to find any hope in this most desperate of days, but find hope we must.

Again in the words of Dr Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.

And I’m trying to find some inspiration in the words of JFk, one US president the world didn’t recoil in horror from:

One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

He ain’t heavy, he’s a Brownlee

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I’m not the only one who welled up at the marvellous sight of Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee helping his “wobbly” brother Jonny over the line after the latter almost collapsed metres from the finishing line of a triathlon in Mexico at the weekend.

If ever there was an example of both brotherly love and fantastic sportsmanship, it was summed up in the image of a clearly disorientated Jonny with his arm firmly around big brother’s arm neck guiding him home.

But for me the aftermath was even better when the bantering brothers – whose talent and skill levels at a sport that saps both physical and emotional strength defy belief – downplayed events with such humour and affection that it made me actually laugh out loud.

Anyone who has a brother or sister will know that sibling rivalry is real.

Every time you’re good at something or something good happens to you, the person or persons guaranteed to bring you straight back down to earth with a snide remark or, worse, a dead arm, is your nearest and dearest.

And you return the favour – with bells on.

Woe betide anyone else doing something similar, though. That’s when that familial solidarity, honed by years of fighting each other but uniting against mum and dad or any other common foe, kicks in.

The Brownlee brothers are extraordinary athletes. Olympic champions. World champions. And they’re competing in the same event, big brother vs. wee brother.

What keeps their competitive natures from spilling over into animosity or resentment is the sibling bond shown up so vividly in that post-event interview: “Flippin’ idiot” said Alistair of Jonny.

That clip of Alistair hauling Jonny to his feet and virtually dragging him over the line should be shown on a loop to this jaded, cynical nation of ours until we finally accept and embrace that every so often we all need someone’s arm around our shoulder.