This week Dad sent me a picture, which I do not remember seeing before, of my late aunt Ally and I. Discerning readers might notice that it was taken a while ago.
Ally died in 2016, unjustly young. A lot of people have a cool aunt and Ally was mine. All my other aunts are cool as well, of course. But Ally had a horse (and, later on, two horses), a field, a dog, and detailed knowledge of popular music. I loved tearing around the countryside in her 4×4, or watching her muck out her stables. (Did I help? I hope so.)
She was funny and mischievous as well - a mine of jokes and tales. When she gave me a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols she sent it via my grandparents in a big brown envelope on which she had scrawled, “Cliff Richards”.
She never seemed afraid of anything or anyone. When my fearsome Lancastrian great grandad demanded a particular kind of beer - or so I have been told - she found that he had drunk the lot and, thinking quickly, took the labels off the empty bottles and pasted them onto different brands.
With individuality can come irascibility. She wanted things done her way and did not like disagreement. That sort of conviction can be harsh, meaning that other people have to lose something of themselves. But all of us have vices that reflect our virtues.
In a post this week for UnHerd, I wrote:
I think most people will live happier, richer lives if they get married and have kids. It brings companionship. It brings responsibility. It helps us contribute towards the flourishing of individual life. But that is not true for everyone. Some people find companionship and responsibility elsewhere, and benefit people in different ways.
Ally was a blazing example of that. Perhaps she had regrets. I don’t know. It is none of my business. But she led a full, rich life, always working hard for others, from her rescue horses to the old woman who lived next door.
To live a genuinely individual life - whether you are married or not, or a parent or childless - you have to be a genuine individual. You can’t fake it. Otherwise, rejecting one conventional path in life will lead you onto another - chasing a different form of affirmation. It can be a part of you, but it has to be real.
Individuality is not the highest virtue, of course, but it leaves a mark. When Ally died, I wrote this poem. My sister got most of the Sixsmith poetry genes but I was pleased with this one.
For Allison Sixsmith
On country roads we rocked along
To pop, and punk, and reggae songs.
You knew the name of every one
Before a note was even sung.
That country must be quieter now
For gentle birds and placid cows,
And yet I feel that plants will grow
To rhythms of your radio.