The human condition: Mama was a rolling stone ...
The rock'n'roll generation were also, embarrassingly, your parents... Suzi Feay on Saffy Syndrome survivors
Sunday 06 October 1996
Saffy Syndrome dictates that the offspring of liberal let-it-all-hang- out parents will turn out timid and moralistic, like the daughter of drunken fashion slapper Edina in Absolutely Fabulous. These kids have been deprived, goes the popular wisdom, of the chance to rebel, because their parents are groovier than they are. Or rather, conformity is itself a form of rebellion.
"I longed to go to church, but I didn't dare," admits Joanna Briscoe, who wrote a novel satirising her alternative upbringing, awash in Indian mysticism (Mothers and Other Lovers, Phoenix pounds 5.99). She was given a mantra at the age of nine and told never to reveal it to anyone. "I've only ever told two people what my mantra is, and I was worried sick about it afterwards. I think that the spiritual emphasis at home - the pressure to join different Indian cults, the constant dietary restrictions - was as pervasive as, say, Catholicism would have been."
Trendy parents are only rebelling against parents of their own. Madeleine, an artist, was 21 when her daughter was born. "I didn't want her to have to conform to all the petty rules that were imposed on me when I was a child. Her childhood was very unstructured: no set mealtimes or anything. She came to gigs with me, strapped on to my back. I now regret that we lived so chaotically, because at nine she was like a little old lady. We sent her to boarding school, and she came back much younger, because she felt it was safe to be a child. It was a co-ed, the kids grew their own food and called the teachers by their first name. When it was time for her to leave at 13 she said very firmly that she wanted to go to an all-girls school `with a uniform'."
Anna, now 24, is "much more conventional than I was, and a strange mix of sophistication and naivety. She seems to have done everything at the wrong time; she did all her raving at 13. But she's a very compassionate person. And thank God, she smokes!"
Film actress Sadie Frost, while no conformist herself, has talked ruefully about her wild upbringing: "When you've got a sister called Sunshine and a brother called Gabriel Jesus, it's hard to be normal." Frost stresses the need for balance with her own small son: "I take bits from how my parents brought me up - the freedom and love - and combine them with a little more discipline."
Hippy "unconditional" love, it seems, has its drawbacks. Briscoe says: "I think my mother is uncomfortable with the fact that I'm very ambitious, unlike my brother and sister. She is proud of me, but she's just as proud of their no O-levels. Sometimes I think I deserve more credit. I still think: `Do they realise what I'm doing?'"
Laid-back parenting is associated with the Sixties, but Catherine, growing up in the 1950s, remembers an upbringing verging on the negligent. "My parents ran away together with very little money and had four children by accident. The house was always full of their glamorous friends, writers and artists, and we knew we were quite incidental to their life. There were no controls at all. There were a lot of bomb-sites around to play in, which was quite dangerous, but we could roam as we pleased." Coldness, it seems, is not confined to the conventional household: "For my father in particular we were simply an inconvenience. And we were aware from a very early age that he was seeing other women. His mistress in Belgium became a family joke." Catherine admits to having suffered a lack of self- esteem, "but a lot of people do, no matter what sort of family they come from, and I've got over it now."
The children of unconventional families don't conform to the Saffy stereotype. Far from being judgemental, they've imbibed liberal sentiments to the extent that they find it very difficult to blame their parents for anything. They are, judging by this small sample, a tolerant bunch. Gina, 26, has always mothered her dope-smoking, party-going, emotionally insecure mother. "When I was at university she would ring me several times a week to bang on about her boyfriend trouble. I'm sure if I'd said, `shut up about your problems, listen to mine for a change,' she would have done. It's just that hers always seemed more drastic." But Gina insists: "I couldn't possibly get angry with her. She has made me open-minded and empathetic. She was a brilliant mother in many ways."
The residual feminism of thirtysomething daughters may inhibit them from passing judgement too readily. "There was a time when I absolutely hated her and thought, `Why can't you bake cakes?'. But I think that was very childish and selfish of me," says Gina. Amanda, 33, says of her cool Chelsea childhood: "I think there was a lot of pressure on single mothers to buckle down and behave, and I'm glad she didn't." One habit which did not find favour in the neighbourhood was her mother's habit of leaving a window open in the basement at night so that the local rough sleepers could creep in. "She would go down first thing, unlock the door and say, `Off you go, now! Shoo!' I still think that was a really cool thing to do." Amanda's earliest memories involve protest marches, wondering why people smoked "grass" (the green stuff, she thought), and being taken backstage at the Rocky Horror Show to meet Tim Curry - stark naked and drinking champagne. "All my friends were into far more dangerous stuff; I didn't need to rebel, I was basking in her reflected glamour."
Amanda's mother, Dawn, has mixed views, looking back. "In a way, it swung too far the other way. I sometimes embarrassed my children. I remember my son locking my boyfriend in the bathroom with his supper on his lap because he didn't want his friends to see him. So yes, now I would be more discreet."
It's the fate of parents, whether fat, thin, posh, common, dowdy, eccentric or dull, to embarrass their children by their mere existence. But there is a particular misery in having trendy parents. Amanda cringes at the thought of her mother's 1970s padded trouser suit and patchwork platforms. Madeleine was told off by her daughter for turning up at school wearing star-spangled-banner cowboy boots. Joanna Briscoe says: "Paradoxically, it was worse when I was in my 20s, because all that hippy stuff was so unfashionable then. It's a bit more trendy now, so my friends are quite interested in my mum's goings-on."
"The old way wasn't any good either - all that hypocrisy," muses Dawn. But there has been a reaction, on the part of parents as much as kids, back towards tradition. It tends to get forgotten in the St Bob custody battle that Paula Yates is the author of two parenting books with an impeccably traditional, child-centred message. Recently a friend of mine, browsing in a Richmond bookshop, saw a strangely familiar figure frowning over the Roald Dahls. Mistaking her startled expression for helpfulness, he said: "I'm looking for something traditional for my children." She found herself discussing the merits of Lucy Boston and the Narnia Chronicles with Mick Jagger, whose children by Jerry Hall trot around in velvet coats, alice bands and bunty shoes. Maybe in the future, they will look at their parents and echo Gina: "There are still times when I think, `Oh God, you prat, why can't you act your age?' "
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