‘You won’t want any tart. I hear you get enough of that already’
Coping: My fiery grand-aunt wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. We should be more like her
Whip stung: holding the cake slice in one limp-wristed hand, a saucer with a slice of her baking in the other, she turned to him in front of everyone. Photograph: E+/Getty
My grand-aunt was formidable. A Galway woman, auburn haired and fiery in a way that looks cliched on paper – I loved and was unsettled by her in equal measure – she was like a mother to my own mother, her kind and nurturing nature matched only by the whip sting of her temper. If you got on her bad side you were on your own, and there was a good chance you might not emerge alive.
When she was angry she had no sense of propriety. I remember her cutting one of her delicious apple tarts at a family dinner. One close member, she had earlier discovered, had recently been unfaithful to his young wife. Holding the cake slice in one limp-wristed hand, and a saucer with a slice of her baking in the other, she turned to him in front of everyone and said, “You probably won’t want any tart. I hear you get enough of that already.”
Life is too short to be putting up with nonsense from people. I just say what I’m thinking, and then people can think whatever they want"
Several jaws hit the floor, and although I feared her temper I admired her candour and imperviousness to social judgment. In that moment her words tore the polite pretence in the room asunder, and she stood there, in the midst of the fire she had lit, staring at him nonchalantly, cake slice still in hand.
As a child I would look with fascination at old photographs of her. Despite a very poor background she went to London in her youth and got a job in the women’s department at Marks and Spencer. She wore suits and coral lipstick during the 1950s, and seemed impossibly glamorous.
I was acquainted with her as an older woman who wore sun hats and kept an impeccable garden at the quaint house where she lived on Bere Island, and didn’t seem to care a jot what anyone thought of her. When I asked once, as a teenager, how she came to be like that she looked pensive while continuing her work in the kitchen. “Well, life is too short to be putting up with nonsense from people. I just say what I’m thinking, and then people can think whatever they want. Now go on and get out of the kitchen, dear: you’re in my way here, and it’s sunny outside.” I scarpered as instructed.
The opinions that matter are those of the people we value
Like many of us, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying not to care what people think – or, at least, not to let the extent of that caring become a paralytic that prevents me from expressing myself openly, taking risks or taking joy in the things I love. It sounds so straightforward, but if everyone in the room thinks you’re wrong to say something then you’ll usually feel that it was, even if you know you’ve acted righteously.
To be free we must be able to be our authentic selves, no matter the company we’re in. Naturally, we don’t say everything that comes to mind: a lot of it is weird, stupid and sometimes unkind. We should filter our thoughts to live in a cohesive society with others. But we should not filter the thoughts or behaviours that are important to us, and that don’t harm others, simply to fit in.
This care for the opinion of others seems to loosen its grip as we age. I hope one day to be one of those old women, in feather boa and crooked lipstick, dancing with a baffled and terrified young man at a family wedding. I would like to be more like the philosopher Diogenes, a founder of the Cynics, who would wander Athens in full daylight holding a lamp and looking for “an honest man”. He lived in a clay pot and routinely horrified those around him with his bizarre behaviour, including public masturbation.
He was perhaps not an ideal role model. Somewhere between my grand-aunt and Diogenes on the scale of secure sense of self would be ideal. The opinions that matter are those of the people we value. If only we were better at remembering that when making no impression for fear of making the wrong one.