Children of the revolution
It's odd when the way to acceptance among young revolutionaries is by talking about your father
Monday 25 January 1999
The little girls are the heroines of Hideous Kinky, the tale by Esther Freud that's based on her own childhood experiences of wandering around Morocco with her hippie mother. The book has just been turned into a film, and the time is right. The children of rebellious, Sixties' parents are grown up now, they might have children of their own, and they're thinking again about their parents' legacy.
Despite that exchange about being normal, which appears in the film and sounds like an edgy criticism of the mother's lifestyle, one of the best things about Hideous Kinky, the novel, is that Esther Freud never judges the mother. She is a glorious, larger than life figure; and, with the benefit of adult understanding, Esther Freud goes back and ferrets out the riches of living with a parent who wanted to live well and honestly and courageously - even if not always conventionally. At a time when parents are under more scrutiny than ever before, it's good to remember that it's certainly not always the most conventional parents who do the best by their children.
But it's a complicated business, growing up with parents who are more rebellious than you are. Many people of my generation grew up wondering if we could ever wholly measure up to our parents' sense of adventure and possibility.
The usual thrust of picaresque biography and fiction is the path of the child brought up in a stifling, conventional household finding a way out into the larger world, a world full of adventure and life. But if your parents were hippies, or anarchists, or peace protestors, that movement can never be clear-cut. You can watch Rebel Without a Cause or you can read The Clergyman's Daughter, but you know that those will never be your stories.
Children of rebellious parents can, of course, rebel the other way, and try to shock their parents by wearing a suit, voting Tory or going out with a policeman. That's not surprising. Children don't want to feel they're just clones of their parents, especially when they're teenagers. For instance, if your parents have freely admitted to taking drugs or used them in front of you, you don't feel so curious and excited about drugs yourself. "It's so boring, it's what your parents do," said one friend of mine who resolutely refused to smoke cannabis, even when offered it by his mother.
Others, used to their parents wandering around barefoot and scruffy, suddenly become very conventional dressers - though how much of that is rebellion, and how much is fashion, is hard to say. I remember when a woman of about my own age, the editor of a national newspaper supplement, was talking to me about about going barefoot. "My mother used to go barefoot all the time," she said to me. "So did mine," I said. And then we both looked at each other, in our conventional dresses and shoes and tights, and started laughing. "We look like this because of our mothers," she said.
The tension between Sixties' parents and their children is also, momentously, about politics. Growing up with parents who took their children on Aldermaston marches before they could walk, as mine did, you're never going to feel as though you discovered left politics for yourself. I remember going to meetings of that crazy anarchist group, Class War, for a few weeks one summer. They looked at me rather askance, as well they might, until I told them who my father was. "Nick Walter's all right," they allowed. It's rather odd when the only way you can gain acceptance in a group of young revolutionaries is by talking about your father. That put me off student politics and protests for a bit, just as the fact that Spare Rib was a magazine my mother read made me turn away from conscious feminism for a time in my teens.
But those sorts of reactions are usually short-lived. It's just too much of a truism to say that the natural movement of the child of rebellious parents is to become besuited and conservative. Michael Portillo seemed to embody that truism in his recent television programme, where the Tory chauvinist returned to the land of his Communist, idealistic fathers. The French and Saunders sketch that became the seed for Absolutely Fabulous simply poked fun at the tensions between Edina, the aging hippie, and her tight-lipped, censorious daughter, Saffy.
In Big Women, her novel and television script about British feminism, Fay Weldon subscribes to that caricature by making the daughter of the most idealistic feminist a hard-faced businesswoman in spindly heels and black suits - funnily enough, also called Saffron - who takes over a feminist publishing house and sells it out to the highest bidder. That image of a break, a fissure, between the rebellious parent and the conventional child is the cliche of the age.
But it is only a cliche. Bella and Esther Freud did not, in the end, become "normal", whatever that means - they didn't end up working nine to five for a jowly boss or believing in what the Daily Mail says - but followed their own ideas in design and writing in their own individual ways. And, in the end, children often return to the politics of their parents, with a renewed interest in making it work for a different environment and generation.
Rather than wholesale backlash, I think children of rebellious parents can sometimes grow up with a certain sense of inadequacy. They hear a lot about the parties and protests of yesteryear, and for a time it can feel difficult for them to own their own youth and their own politics. And that sense of inadequacy is hardly surprising.
After all, my parents' generation, throughout Europe and the United States, changed the world. Perhaps they didn't change it in the ways they wanted to - they didn't ban the bomb, which was my own parents' overriding concern. They didn't establish an anarchist Utopia, which was something my father was pretty keen on; or see women and men becoming equal in every way, which my mother would have liked. But their generation did change the world; they made it much more irreverent, less respectful of authority; they created a society that was more tolerant of drugs and sexual freedom, and eager for race and sex equality. They created a revolution in everyday life.
But once they get over that feeling of inadequacy, the children of rebellious parents can feel a sense of optimism. They don't have to rebel in the same ways, partly because some battles have now been won. And the fact that some battles are won makes them realise that nothing stands still, and that they can build on the changes that the previous generation wrought.
The movement of generations may be complicated by each individual story, but I think a sense of continuity and development is surely both more useful and more accurate than the cliche of sulky Saffron, pouring scorn on her parents' ideals.
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