Christina Patterson: Shelley and middle-class musical chairs

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The Independent Online

Shelley, who said that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world", might have been amused that a high court judge who hit the headlines this week shared the name of his rival, Coleridge. He might have been less amused by his message. "There is a tendency," said Mr Justice Coleridge on Wednesday, "especially among the chattering classes, to assume that we have attained a social utopia, in which we are entirely and happily free from taboos, stigmas and other constraints on human behaviour. It sounds so beguiling: let us do what we want, when we want and sort out any mess as we go along."

Well, if you're talking "social utopia", Shelley was your man. If you're talking "chattering classes", too. He loved a nice chat, our Percy, wandering around the Lake District or along the canals in Venice, drinking wine with Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva, or coffee with Keats in Marlow or prosecco with Leigh Hunt in Pisa. The man who wrote of the "weariness" of "wandering companionless" was certainly "happily free from taboos, stigmas and other constraints", eloping with a 16-year old when he was 19, leaving her and his child for the daughter of a friend and then having a dalliance with her half sister. And if there was any "mess" to be sorted out, he wasn't there to do it. He died, in a fishing boat off the coast of Livorno, when he was 29.

His second wife's half sister, by the way, was Claire Clairmont, who had a baby with Byron. Let's not even get on to Byron. There is not world enough, or time, to plot the complicated liaisons of the Romantic poets and their circle, the love triangles, the intrigues, the offspring. These are people who make the domestic life of Karen Matthews look conventional to the point of staid, people for whom "free love" was not just a noble aspiration, but a daily (and rather exhausting) reality. The love was free because other people paid, just as other people paid, and still pay, for the upkeep of Karen Matthews's children.

Coleridge didn't mention Shelley this week, but if he had, he might have quoted him: "Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!" Instead, he talked, in measured tones, of the damage done by "the endless game of 'musical relationships', or 'pass the partner' ". The music, he didn't say, but might have, was for the parents, not the children. The children dance, because they always have to, to the parents' tune. And Shelley, and his friends, he might have added, have indeed become the "unacknowledged legislators of the world", because it was the revival of their Bohemian dream – of sex and stimulus and stimulants and opiates on tap – that put the swing into the Sixties and fuelled the social revolution that got us where we are now.

It was partly poets, in fact, and artists, and "thinkers" ("thinkers" like RD Laing, who believed that madness was a problem of perception and who, incidentally, had 10 children with four mothers) who shaped the zeitgeist that became the new fabric of the new society and the new welfare state. These were people who, by accidents of history and economy, lived off the odd book review, or painting, or academic paper, in big houses in Notting Hill or Hampstead. They knew you could have it all – sexual gratification, artistic fulfilment, intellectual challenges, oh yes, and kids – because they did. They were the baby boomers, the people who never wanted to grow up, and never had to.

If these people wrinkled up their noses at the Karen Matthewses of this world, and at a stinking, feral, illiterate underclass that looked like pigs in tracksuits and bred like rabbits, it was as a breed apart. Their children were fine, thanks very much, their Mollies and Chloes and Ellas and Sams, their children were cool, because their children were sophisticated and they were a bit like, you know, friends. And yes, they were sophisticated, these children: savvy, streetwise, amusingly ironic on demand.

But that didn't mean that they weren't children, and it didn't mean that they flitted from household to household with quite the happy abandon that their parents imagined, or that they welcomed new partners and siblings (or whatever you call your mum's current lover's kids) with quite the alacrity that might have been hoped. And it didn't mean that they didn't suffer eating disorders, or problems with skunk, or unexpected meltdowns. It didn't mean, in fact, that they didn't suffer.

We're beginning to see the price paid by the children of the underclass, the children with one parent, if they're lucky, and minimal education and no aspirations and no model of employment and no hope of it. We haven't yet seen the price paid by the children of the cavalier middle classes, the men whose sense of entitlement has them constantly "trading up", the women whose neurotic late motherhood allows no room for a man. This was the generation that grew up believing that it's better to travel than arrive, better to damage than be bored. The truth, of course, is that with children it's better just to be there.