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.