My older children – Elly, aged 17, and 15-year-old Joe – returned home tired and a bit whiffy on Monday after four days and nights camping at the Big Chill music festival in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire. There were dozens of their schoolfriends there, and lots more people they knew. Teenagers descend on the Big Chill from all over the country, but in particularly large numbers from the Welsh Marches and the Midlands, driven there by their mums, dads and peer pressure.
Joe wanted to go because Sam, Ben, Alicia, Megan and any number of other mates were going, so last Thursday I drove him, Sam and Ben there, choosing my moment to issue what I hoped was a stern but not overwrought warning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Joe winced with embarrassment, as I knew he would in front of his friends, but what kind of father would I be not to raise the matter?
For that matter, what kind of father am I for letting my 15-year-old son spend four nights at a music festival, unaccompanied by adults, in the first place? A middle-class liberal one is the answer, or at least my answer, and also one who trusts his teenage children not to do anything reckless. Nevertheless, both kids came home with stories of how easy it was to buy MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, and other drugs. Some dealers peddled their wares cautiously; we heard about a middle-aged bloke wearing a respectable fleece and cargo shorts who walked past a bunch of teenagers and, without looking at them, or even breaking his stride, said "ketamine".
His hope, clearly, was that they would catch up with him and complete a quick, discreet transaction. Instead, they politely said "pardon", which wasn't very Janis Joplin, and he hurried on, with his cargo. "I just thought he was, like, somebody's dad," recalled one of the teenagers later. Maybe he was.
Other dealers were more overt. Elly said that loads of them lifted up the flaps of the tent she was sharing, at all hours of day and night, offering MDMA. The answer was always no, and they moved on. I should add that neither child, nor any of their friends, ever felt harassed or threatened. The E commerce unfolds in a cheerfully convivial atmosphere.
Of course, I realise that a report of pills and powder at a music festival is not exactly shock-horror material. Heck, one of the Big Chill's headline acts was Lily Allen, who sings all about her little brother in his bedroom smoking weed. But even taking drugs out of equation, there was enough booze there to sink the Ark Royal, making me wonder whether my generation of middle-class liberals are doing our children any favours?
The same kids who have spent the last 10 years not being allowed to play in the woods for fear of a paedophile strike or a pond disaster, are now being packed off to music festivals, or to resorts such as Newquay and Salcombe when they've finished their GCSEs, with their parents' blessings. Or better still, with their parents' gin. At the very least, we are giving them some seriously mixed messages. Yet if we don't let them go, what kind of message is that? That they can't be trusted? That the world is full of peril and predators?
Actually, I'm not one of those who discouraged my kids from playing in the woods. But before I pitch my tent on the moral high ground, I'm also guilty of dispensing mixed messages. On holiday in Turkey recently, I gave Elly a long, impassioned lecture about the dangers of drinking too much. My wife Jane echoed this, but later quietly reminded me that we had spent the previous evening telling the children about something hilarious that happened to us 20 years ago when we were, not to put too fine a point on it, thoroughly pissed.