Real living: Why couldn't my parents go off the rails?
The stigma these days is to have had an ordinary upbringing. After all, as Hester Lacey knows, Marmite and `Blue Peter' don't make for great dinner-party conversation
Sunday 07 February 1999
Celebs and authors have always capitalised on weird upbringings. Take Esther Freud, whose novel Hideous Kinky, about being towed through Morocco as a child by her hippy mother, has just been released on film with Kate Winslet playing the way-out mum. In Hilary and Jackie our attention is held less by Jacqueline du Pre's virtuoso performance on the cello than by the salacious details of how she nicked her sister's husband. And it's not just the bohemianly artistic types who reveal all these days: Mo Mowlam told Michael Parkinson last weekend all about her father's alcoholism, eliciting a warm wave of public sympathy. The ex-Welsh Secretary Ron Davies in part blamed the strange incident on Clapham Common which cost him his job on his unsatisfactory relationship with his father.
Financially, a dubious background is by no means a disadvantage. There is a burgeoning breed of young writers who make a comfortable living out of navel-gazing books on how they slept with their dads or spent their entire adolescences starving and vomiting. And there is a whole new wave of cheap but often not terribly cheerful weekly magazines that offer their readers a few hundred pounds for their true-life stories of the horrors lurking behind the respectable front doors of the nation. (Sample headline from this week's edition of Chat: "Dear Son, Your Dad's A Murderer", the story of a single mum who discovers her toddler's father is a killer. What tales of his own the little chap will have to tell in later years!) These mags don't have any shortage of contributors, because now everyone is wearing their horrendous experiences on their sleeves. Mere acquaintances, virtual strangers at dinner parties, will buttonhole you and tell you in excruciating detail about their mad dads or crazy mothers.
It's enough to make those of us who had a perfectly normal childhood feel both inadequate and boring. In Martin Amis's novel The Rachel Papers, the anti-hero talks about the shame of coming from an unbroken home. And if, as I did, you grew up in a nice house in Bournemouth, ate Marmite sandwiches in front of Blue Peter, went to Brownies every week, did your homework, never bunked off school, passed all your exams, and watched the Sunday evening BBC children's drama series in front of a cosy fire with your mum and dad and (also disappointingly normal) sister, you do start to feel that your parents could have made a bit more effort and come up with a messy divorce somewhere down the line. Or at the very least shouted at each other a bit more frequently and more loudly. (Hey, come on mum and dad! It's never too late: one of you could start shooting up and the other could join a commune ... oh, never mind.)
When someone tells you about the time when they ended up in a hostel because their father gambled the house away and was beaten to a pulp by his card-sharp mates, it seems a bit feeble if the best you can come up with in response is the story of how your dad was attempting to change a lightbulb once and fell off the ladder (but luckily sustained only a few minor bruises). Someone whose mother beat them with a broomhandle for daring to wear lipgloss won't be impressed with the heartrending tale of how your mum made you have swimming lessons at school even though you really, really hated them and you cried every Tuesday evening at the prospect.
The irony is that the "normal", uneventful upbringing is becoming increasingly abnormal. Politicians are howling for the institution that is the family to be saved, as though it were an endangered species down to its last few breeding pairs. And the perfect ad-land family of jolly mum dishing up a delicious steaming casserole to smiling hubby and eager kiddies is accepted as no more than a fatuous cliche to be sneered at.
Normal just isn't seen as very interesting at the moment: in fact it is extremely uncool. But our day may yet come. When everyone is dysfunctional, dysfunctional will become tedious. Horror stories will elicit nothing but yawns, and the functional will suddenly become fascinating. People will be hanging on my every word, as I recount my pleasant, rose-tinted reminiscences of those sunny bucket-and-spade-and-ice-cream-cornet holidays in Cornwall. My mum has even still got the photos tucked away somewhere.
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