Being the mother of one of these young people is hard. The much loved and admired children of last year have vanished, not into first jobs or off to university, but to become strangers.
The love remains as strong as ever, perhaps strengthened by the need to protect them from the criticism heaped upon them. The difficulty is in liking them.
My own daughter was a non-conformist from the start. At nursery school she was the one who messed up the dance display by skipping in the wrong direction. At primary school she drove the teachers to violence. At her highly academic, all-girl secondary school, the headteacher despaired of her, describing her as a child whom she was unable to bribe, cajole, or terrify. She was expelled from there and was finally asked to leave London's largest comprehensive. But, through all this, she remained academic, attractive, good fun and, above all, likeable.
She could never have been described as easy. I had friends whose children were terminally untidy. Some whose children needed little sleep. Many whose children smoked. Jean was all of these - an untidy, insomniac smoker. But, all along, there was the feeling that she was enjoying the contrariness, relishing the shouting matches with me, and taking perverse pleasure in causing chaos at school. And every time she might have been thought to have gone too far, she would draw back from confrontation and redeem herself with an excellent piece of schoolwork or a cheerful conversation.
A five-year gap between herself and her elder brother meant that they shared neither friends nor many activities. However, because Jean was a thinker, a talker, a mimic and a wit, there came a time when she became a fringe member of his circle, viewed as a 'good laugh'. There is no doubt that they love each other, but they have now drifted so far apart that my son has a great sense of loss. He, too, finds the situation hard to accept.
Perhaps everything came too easily for her. She was musical, artistic, agile and academic and quickly became very-good-for-her-age at whatever she turned her hand to. It was not until it was time for her to settle down to serious practice at an instrument, or training for a sport, that her lack of perseverance became apparent.
Perhaps I should take heart from the fact that she has stuck to the hard and dangerous path she has chosen for longer than it would have taken her to do A-levels. I remember that the one thing I admired about Margaret Thatcher was her inflexibility. I hated the policies, yet admired the guts.
When it became apparent that Jean was depressed by her school subjects, I tried to encourage her to persevere, even offering an attractive bribe. But she told me that she was sick of sitting on plastic chairs, being told what to think - and she just stopped going. The school did everything it could to encourage her, well aware that she had university potential, but it, too, failed.
So A squatter emerged. At first she stayed away for the odd night, but gradually she came home less and less. Now she is of no fixed abode, and entirely without any possessions.
But possessions never did interest her. She never took care of her own things and frequently damaged other people's. I vividly remember a cherished LP of mine being left to melt on the radiator in her bedroom so that it drooped and warped and finally cooled into an amazing piece of vinyl modern art.
Now she has nothing and seems to want nothing. Like any even-handed parent, if I buy a gift for one child I like to buy something for the other, so I have tried to come up with something desirable: juggling balls, suitably scruffy clothes, books (she was an avid reader). Every gift has been greeted with enthusiasm, then lost or given away. This is really hard. On holiday or out with friends, I watch with envy as they enjoy buying presents for their young.
When she appears, briefly, at home, she tells us of evictions, disputes with the police, and being moved on. Then there is the immediate matter of feeding herself and her inevitable dog, and of keeping warm. She knows all the best supermarkets that throw out their food once it is past its use-by date.
When I asked her, in the early days, what she enjoyed about the life, she told me that it was the necessity of collecting wood to keep warm that night. She talks casually of giving a false name, age and address to the police and of the drugs (soft, thank goodness) that she takes. She expects her grandparents, aunts and uncles to take it all in their stride and they seem to manage it more easily than I do.
Squatting is a winter life-style - summer is for travelling. Sometimes it sounds like an idyllic holiday, keeping company with horse-drawn vans occupied by young families, sleeping in a bender (tarpaulin stretched over sticks), swimming in the river and partying at night. But the illusion does not last. The television and newspapers fill with reports on trouble at Stonehenge and Castlemorton, of Ecstasy and excrement, of drugs and violence. My anxieties come flooding back.
I HAVE never met anyone who would agree with me that she may never grow out of it. She used to say that she did not want to be told what to think - now she often sounds like a propaganda pamphlet.
She appears to have lost the ability to reason. The most likely thing to cause her to rethink is boredom, for she always had a low boredom threshold. She is 18 now, which ties her to one particular dole office; perhaps that will help my cause.
The summer is nearly upon us and the police and farmers are preparing to repel the invaders. Safely at home in London, I, too, dread the advent of the New Age travellers' season.
Danny Danziger is on holidayReuse content