Brian Viner: 'The generation gap has contracted since 1977, but it is still a chasm'

Home And Away: 'My daughter knows I'm a tourist in the world of MSN, and that I will swallow any old tommyrot'
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The Independent Online

Now that two of my children have hit their teens, my resolution not to echo the strictures of my own parents becomes harder and harder to keep. When I was 15, for example, my widowed mother asked Mr Williams from next-door-but-one to take away our television set and store it in his garage, a drastic but (I now realise) admirable response to the message from my teachers that, with O-levels looming, the quality of my work had taken a nosedive. My mother not unreasonably blamed the hours I spent in front of the telly.

My daughter Eleanor is now 15 and in her GCSE year. She is doing much better at school than I was at the same age, and plays loads of sport, so her lifestyle is far from sedentary, but still she spends what seems to me an inordinate amount of time at the computer on the live messaging site MSN.

Yet when I upbraided her the other night she told me that she wasn't actually on MSN, she just had to go through MSN to e-mail some homework to one of her teachers. I retreated, wondering whether or not I had been blind-sided with some classic teen techno-babble. Eleanor knows that I am a bewildered tourist in the world of MSN, Bebo and Facebook, and that I will swallow any old tommyrot. A fairly typical exchange goes like this: "Els, darling, it's gone 10 o'clock, can you please shut down the computer now and go to bed?" "But daddy, I'm just tandying the firewall so I can bluetooth it back to my hard drive." "Oh, all right. But just five more minutes, OK?"

My wife Jane is less easily foxed, but both of us are increasingly spirited back to our own teens when we try to help our children with their homework. The techniques her dad and my mum were taught for working out maths problems in the 1930s were incompatible with the brave new binary-dominated world of the 1970s, and both of us have vivid memories of bad-tempered sessions at our respective kitchen tables. If there was one thing that came between my mother and me during my adolescence, apart from my bubbling testosterone, it was the slide-rule.

The generation gap might have contracted since 1977 but it still sometimes looks like a chasm. Earlier this week Eleanor asked me to read her essay about the Dardanelles campaign during the First World War. It was well-written and cogently argued, but there was one glaring oversight, which naturally I felt obliged to point out. "It's excellent, but there are no dates in it." "No, we don't need to mention dates." "But history is all about dates!" "No, our teacher told us that history used to be, like, taught that way, with loads of dates, but that's all changed."

I suppose this isn't as daft as it sounds. I can see why it might be more important to understand the details and significance of a military campaign than to know when it actually unfolded, and at least Eleanor will never be as clueless as Maybell Brumby, fictional socialite and best friend of Wallis Simpson in Laurie Graham's marvellous book Gone With The Windsors, who records in her diary: "Dudley says we are to visit the Dardanelles. He seems to think I should know them. But one meets so many people." At the same time, if history is to repeat itself, homework-wise, I think I'd prefer it to come with dates.

There was an excellent promotion in these pages last week. People who brandished a coupon torn from The Independent were given a free filled baguette and hot drink at the sandwich outlet Upper Crust, and although as an employee of this fine newspaper I was clearly not one of those the promotion targeted, I confess that I took full advantage. I travel a good deal by train, I buy The Independent every day, and I tend to use Upper Crust anyway at stations around the country, so the offer suited me beautifully.

At a station in Wales, however, it backfired rather strangely. I asked for a cup of tea in exchange for my coupon, but said that I didn't want the baguette. "No, you've got to have the baguette," said the man behind the counter. "But I'm not hungry," I said. "You've got to have it anyway," he said. So I started offering it to the people behind me in the queue, who eyed me with a certain amount of suspicion. A mad, but quintessentially British little episode.

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