If family life is fractured, a holiday is the glue it needs

A father fined for taking his children to Greece in term time has said that the rule-makers ‘don’t live in the real world’. He’s right; when did family life get so difficult?

Share

Curiously enough, the people with whom I felt most sympathy last week – aside from poor Valérie Trierweiler, quaking on her Parisian hospital bed – were Stewart and Natasha Sutherland from Telford, who were fined £993 by Shropshire magistrates for taking their three children on a holiday to Greece during term-time.

Normally one tends to regard those who deny their children education as slightly above the level of a plague-rat, but Mr Sutherland, in admitting the charge, said in his defence: “We have very little time together. I don’t work somewhere where you can choose when you take your leave.” He added that the law-makers who devised these proscriptions were not living “in the real world”.

The Sutherlands’ arraignment coincided with a survey of family life commissioned by the charity 4Children, whose results seemed, however indirectly, to be connected to Mr Sutherland’s predicament. According to the report, 56 per cent of parents think family life is harder than it was 20 years ago, with a third of parents in the North-west with children under 18 believing that the area in which they live is unsuitable for child-rearing. Anne Longfield, the charity’s chief executive, said “family life has changed beyond recognition over the past 30 years, and our services and practices have often failed to keep up”.

Naturally, quite a lot of respondents to the 4Children survey were experiencing pressures brought about by the recession, cuts in public funding and the high cost of living. On the other hand, it takes only the briefest comparison between the world of my own childhood, which stopped at the end of the 1970s, and the conditions of my own children’s’childhoods, the first of which began in the early 1990s, to establish that there are all kinds of ways – some of them symbolic, others narrowly practical – in which the world of hearth and home has been transformed since the days of the first Thatcher government.

To begin with personnel and occupation, middle-class family life in the 1970s was more or less identikit, with deviations from the norm occurring only in exceptional circumstances. Of the 30 boys in my class in 1972, for example, I don’t recall a single one whose parents were divorced, or more than half-a-dozen whose mothers worked full-time. The jobs their fathers did were conventional employments with regular hours. Generally, they had been doing these jobs since entering the job market and would go on doing them until they retired. My father, for instance, laboured for the Norwich Union Insurance Society for 44 years, narrowly trumping my maternal grandfather, whose career there lasted for 43.

To add to this abiding impression of solidity – and solidarity – was the fact that, by and large, family life was collective and its communality rigidly enforced. Which is to say that on Saturday evenings in the 1970s the five of us, having eaten tea by the fire, sat down to watch television together (invariably BBC1, ITV being considered vulgar) – a pageant of “family entertainment”, a phrase that then carried no irony at all – which extended all the way from The Morecambe and Wise Show to the Esther Rantzen-fronted That’s Life. On summer Sunday afternoons, alternatively, we packed into the car and bowled off on excursions through the Norfolk countryside, the popularity of this leisure pursuit nearly always being confirmed by the presence of other families known to us picnicking at the same beauty spots and playing the same rounds of crazy golf. One of the greatest scandals that ever reared its head came on the afternoon when my father went up to a friend found sitting in his car on some remote Norfolk back-road and discovered that the woman in the passenger seat was not his wife but his secretary.

Thirty years later, inevitably, all is fracture and disintegration, exemplified by those hugely embarrassing weddings in which ex-partners, and sometimes the ex-partners of ex-partners, stalk the greensward like tragedy queens, keen to make their presence felt but nervous of upsetting bride and groom. To run a children’s football team or engage in any kind of youth work is instantly to launch oneself across a minefield of outraged sensitivities and unimagined protocols, in which the former Mrs Smith wants to know why her ex-husband got sent the subscription form and the child’s most fervent supporter on the touchline is sometimes not a blood relative.

To these influences – which can’t fail to demoralise the child, no matter how understanding everybody is – can be added the new practices of our enlightened work environment and the extravagant commutes required of those whose jobs require them to work in London EC2 but whose hankering for a quality lifestyle demands residence in leafy south Suffolk. Even in the mid-1990s the corridors of City accountancy firms resounded to the bark of proud fathers bidding their children goodnight, so heaven knows what the situation is now.

And then, inevitably, there are the developments in media-land, the collapse of all-in, mainstream entertainment and a revolution in the technology by which the remaining multifarious offerings get delivered. Both of these, it scarcely needs saying, have the effect of dividing families on generational lines. Family Taylor might watch The Simpsons together, and four-fifths of them sat down in front of Sherlock over Christmas, but none of my children would dream of watching BBC1 on a Saturday night, and neither, if it comes to that, would I, for who needs Casualty when there are books to read? To a large extent the average teenager inhabits a kind of technological bubble which, even when popped by an investigating parent, has the capacity to reconfigure itself at a moment’s notice, and with a much thicker skin.

None of this makes family life any easier, encourages families to behave as families used to – I am reserving judgement on whether those Sunday car-rides were a good thing – or enables parents to spend time with their children. If there is a compensating factor guaranteed to prolong and re-imagine family life it is economic necessity, the inability of grown-up children to fund their own accommodation, but in some ways having a 25-year-old who can’t afford a down-payment on a flat in place of a 15-year-old glued to an Xbox is a poor sort of exchange.

Meanwhile, it is wrong to maintain there is nothing governments can do, and that the degradation of so much family life is merely a consequence of the flexible, hi-tech 24/7 world we all inhabit. If anyone should have been up in court in Telford last week it was Mr Sutherland’s employers. These turned out to be not, as might be assumed, some fly-by-night IT firm or hard-as-nails merchant bank but the Ministry of Defence.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there