Recalling my act of punk rebellion at school shows how different attitudes are today

Maybe the answer for parents is to be far less bothered about parenting

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The Independent Online

I spent the bank holiday weekend with some of my girlfriends. We have known one another for 45 years. It was a traditional programme; drink, food, laughs. And then one of us produced a relic. “To parents of girls in the Lower IV”, begins the neatly typed letter. It is dated 20 June 1978 and comes from Anne Piper, our imposing headmistress at Wimbledon High School. “I am sorry to have to write to you in this way, but I am disturbed by the reports I have had from the staff about the appearance of some of the girls who went on the outing to Folkestone.”

This was nearly 40 years ago. I remember the trip as if it were yesterday. “The girls are representing the school,” continues Mrs Piper, “and although we make no demands as regards school uniform for such expeditions we do expect them to be properly dressed. Had I realised that they would be wearing “punk gear”, I would have suggested that they were sent straight home.”

It was June, 1978. And four of us were triumphantly sporting “punk gear” on the geography field trip. Jane, who found the letter, claimed she can’t remember what she wore. How can that be? I can recall every last detail, down to the safety pin hooked into the corner of my mouth. Skinny jeans, baseball boots, “Anarchy” scrawled down one shirtsleeve, “Boomtown Rats” down the other, the whole pantomimic ensemble finished off with the family dachshund’s collar around my neck and a bath chain draped across my back, plug still attached.

We got into so much trouble. Detentions, a letter to every parent, plus an undertaking from Mrs Piper that No Girl would ever be allowed to go on the Folkestone field trip again in her own clothes. It was one of the highlights of my school career.

Relating the caper on Twitter, I was struck by a response from Rose Edmunds, in Brighton. “That takes me back,” she tweeted. “There were such unparalleled opportunities to cause shock and outrage in those days!” Indeed. You could rock up to school with a bath plug dangling from your collar and get into a satisfyingly huge amount of hot water. It was a straightforward, simple and swift act of rebellion. With a lower case r. (This is Wimbledon, after all.) Dressing up as punks, writing words we didn’t understand on our shirtsleeves; it seems a totally innocent gesture compared with the anxieties of potential rebellion that I and many others now anticipate when we wave off our 13-year-olds to the latest summer festival.  

The whole terrain is polarised; while one page of a paper yesterday told the sobering tale of 17-year-old Toby Fairclough, dead after taking a single dose of ecstasy in a country field, another page in the same paper suggested that many young people these days are rather dull, fearful and unadventurous. One survey discovered that 40 per cent of twentysomethings (perhaps ones who had helicopter parents) have zero desire to push boundaries, take up new pursuits or even try out a novel holiday destination. It’s Portugal for the rest of our lives, alright?

Maybe the answer for parents is to be far less bothered about parenting. My children simply cannot comprehend how at the age of 13, I was allowed to saunter out of the Millard home adorned with 100 safety pins, a bath plug and accessories from the family pet. Yet inspecting my clothes would simply have not occurred to my busy mother, any more than would the task of making me a daily packed lunch. School lunches, homework, piano practise; these things were my affair, and I was responsible for them, or not.

She and my father weren’t atypical. I think this was just how parents were. And while parents were slack, school heads were the planar opposite of today’s collegiate, well-natured principals. All schools were run like boot camps, and heads perfectly capable of sending children straight back home if they felt it was deserved. Reading the Folkestone Letter now, from an adult perspective, I feel rather sorry for the geography teachers obliged to take us on the trip. I suspect they got an even worse telling off from Mrs Piper than we did.