My parents often tried to outdo each other as they told tales of how dire their childhoods were, growing up in working class households with lots of children, some of them siblings; many of them random cousins carelessly plucked from other people’s families… And grandmothers and maiden aunts and down-on-their-luck uncles… There were tales of a large tablespoon of gruel (remember my parents were students of literature, so Dickens’ workhouse was ever close in their point of reference) being doled out to an assembly of hungry children. Most of the stories, I’m sure, are true. At least true enough as they were in my mother and father’s memories. Mum was born in Dundee in Northern Natal and grew up in a house next to a municipal rubbish dump. The windows of the tiny house were always closed to keep out the stench of the rotting dump. The house was inhabited by Mum, her parents, her sister, two brothers, an ancient aunt who we called Granny Connie, and various hangers on – most of them de...

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