Tom Sutcliffe: Manna from heaven for us 'selfish' adults

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It was an odd piece of timing really. On the Today programme and in the morning papers yesterday, the publication of the The Children's Society's Good Childhood Inquiry was being summarised with headlines such as "Selfish adults 'damage childhood'". The picture was straightforward and depressing. Thrusting, workaholic acquisition-monsters were neglecting their children in favour of another two hours at the office.

As a result they were creating an exceptionally anxious generation, young people whose model of worldly success was entirely bound up with material things. And this distorted view of the good life was being compounded by the stresses of excessive testing at school and over-cautious restraint at home – again driven by a solipsistic adult notion of what was best for grown-ups.

Being a biddable type I tutted and thought, "That's awful ... we really should get our values in order". And then, school having been cancelled, I went out to walk the dog in the snow with my three children. And everywhere I looked I could see "selfish" parents doing something similar.

They didn't appear to be hunched over their Blackberries, trying to salvage that day's meetings or scowling at the hurdle that nature had thrown in the way of their fierce ambition. They were throwing snowballs, building snowmen, and taking advantage of the tiniest incline for a bit of sledging. What's more, everybody was smiling.

No great surprise in that, of course. An unexpected snowfall (and is there any other kind in Britain, however accurate the forecast has been?) is better than a public holiday. It's a furlough from routine that comes without the downsides of Christmas or Easter. There's no performance anxiety about whether you've planned well enough and no sense that you have to spend your way to a good time. Transformation simply falls from the sky, gratuitous and excessive. And, yes, I know it can be a nuisance (or even worse) if you're unlucky. But if you're not it's wonderful.

What yesterday morning's unusual light threw into sharp relief was that "selfishness" had less to do with the problem (if it genuinely exists to the degree that the Children's Society claims) than timetables. Our lives, both adults and children, are now pre-booked to an extraordinary degree. To be fair this is one of the report's points – that UK work hours (longer than any other country in western Europe) are partly responsible for the strains on family life. But I doubt that greed or blind self-advancement are at the heart of that fact – as much as a confused attempt to do the best by one's family. What's more, it isn't always easy to distinguish between a pressure that is in a child's interests and one that might be damaging.

Waking to the sight of six inches of snow I vacillated for a time between pressing on with the school run or calling it a day early. What would truly be more conducive to my children's long-term happiness? The sense that it was worth persisting in the teeth of adversity to meet one's obligations? Or the delight of a wish fulfilled? In the end, I'm glad to say, the schools got me off the hook – and we could all relish the all-too-rare delight of genuinely free time. And if you think the foregoing could have been better expressed – all I can say is that I can think of something better to do than perfect it. I'm going out again to throw snow at my daughter.

The 'gay milestone' is a long way off

There's something odd about the phrase "openly lesbian", which appears in virtually every news report about the new Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir.

One understands that reporters need a way to acknowledge that this might not be a first at all – what, after all, do we truly know of the sexuality of Indira Gandhi or Mrs Thatcher? But the adjective still reinforces a prejudice rather than disrupts it, with its implication that being left in a state of ignorance about the sexual preferences of a political candidate is a kind of concealment rather than a perfectly desirable state of affairs.

Add the phrase "openly heterosexual" to any of today's newspaper reports on Gordon Brown and you get some sense of how odd these sentences will one day come to seem. Sigurdardottir's election has been described as a "gay milestone" in some quarters. But the real milestone will come when nobody thinks it's worth mentioning at all.

One tiny human error was all it took ...

I spent an anxious half-an-hour this weekend convinced that my computer had somehow been infected with malware – thanks to a cock-up on Google that resulted in every site being flagged up as a potential hazard.

Later in the day Google revealed that it was down to "human error", an employee having inadvertently added every website in existence to a cyber blacklist. And given the phenomenal gearage of the internet, that moment of inattention must have been converted into a prodigious quantity of low-level anxiety, irritation and inconvenience across the world. Did it set a record, I wonder, for the greatest ratio between the smallness of the error and the global scale of the consequences? And if not, what beat it?



*I'm not sure I agree with my colleague Philip Hensher, writing on this page yesterday, that the Poet Laureateship is a desirable part of our poetic culture. It's true that the idea of a good poem on a royal or public occasion isn't necessarily a contradiction in terms – but should any poet feel moved to write one there's nothing to stop him or her. But I wouldn't want the post abolished just yet because I harbour a fantasy that someone will one day exercise it in a calculatedly subversive manner.

Wendy Cope would have been both entertaining and wise in this role but sadly I think she's too courteous – in the best sense – for the mild deception that would be involved at the moment of acceptance. Failing such infiltration, I think we need to appoint a Counter-Laureate. Perhaps some paper with a tradition of scepticism about royal stories could oblige.

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