Arthur Heeler-Frood set off for his prestigious grammar school nearly three months ago, but he never arrived. This studious, brainy 15-year-old had meticulously planned his disappearance, his “escape” from a world controlled (albeit with well-meaning love) by his middle-class parents.
He changed clothes in a barn, left his school uniform hidden in a bin bag and his bike chained to a fence, and posted a letter to his mother and father telling them where to find them, ending with “I have run away because I am bored of my life… know you will be upset but understand I have to do this.” He had not taken his phone, bank card or passport, just some cash.
That note made me well up; so brave, so poignant, it summed up everything that’s wrong with being a teenager and having to live at home. You feel trapped, a prisoner under constant surveillance – even within the happiest family, which seems to have been the case for Arthur.
Parents have no inkling of what is going on inside their children’s heads. Just like Arthur, I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London when I was 15, and then Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, another free-wheeling chronicle of travelling and sleeping rough. I dreamt of escaping every day. Trapped in my semi-detached home in a west London suburb (my father moved the family there without any consultation when I was 15), I stared out at identical dreary houses. I yearned to be my own boss, not to have to sit my A Levels, forced to conform to petty school rules for another two years.
Then, a bombshell. My 13-year-old sister, having given no inclination of her intense dissatisfaction, did an Arthur. She left for school one morning and disappeared without trace. Pat took a small holdall with a few clothes and my post office savings book, immediately cashing in my meagre savings of around £30.
When she didn’t turn up by the next day, the police started a search. My sister, exactly like Arthur, had kept her plans to herself. She had few friends and hated suburbia as much as me. Neither of us talked to our parents much (well, it was the early 1960s). They seemed like ancient beings with as many rules as school.
Arthur did well to stay on the run for 10 weeks; my sister was found after one, just before the police planned to tell the media. She had been happily living in a basic boarding house in Bangor, having a great time hanging out in Woolworths, eating fish and chips and doing very little.
When asked why she had put my parents through torment – my mother had feared she had been kidnapped – Pat simply said: “I was bored and fancied a holiday.” The incident was never mentioned again, and when I reached the age of 18, I walked out for good.
Arthur is a hero, showing resourcefulness well beyond his years. Far from being reprimanded, he should be treated with respect for exploring Manchester, London and Birmingham on foot, sleeping rough and managing to evade recapture for 10 whole weeks. He will have met low life and highly intelligent fellow humans. His life will have been enriched immeasurably, unlike many of his peers.
A new study by the National Citizens Advice Service finds that many teenagers are not very confident about their future. Less than half in the North-east thought they would manage to work in their dream career. One in three in the area worry that their accent will hold them back.
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Aspirations vary widely; the most confident young people live in the South-east and London, and the least confident in the North. The children of achieving parents are still far more likely to go to university or work in their chosen career than the less fortunate. The root problem is confidence – something I lacked as a youngster, even though I achieved decent exam results and went to a prestigious college to study architecture.
State school and working-class parents just don’t help your self-esteem and fear of the unknown. According to Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Britain is a country with huge social divisions that are not getting smaller.
Young people today are finding it harder than my generation of baby boomers to get on the housing ladder, and into a decent job with training and prospects. They are cautious, scared of risks – and unadventurous. Cocooned by cotton-wool parenting, too many young people are naïve and unworldly.
Perhaps more school kids should be forced to follow Arthur’s example, sleep out and rough it. It would make a more interesting reality show than I’m a Celebrity.Reuse content