25 JUNE 1994, Page 21


From condemned playground to compulsory cohabitation in one generation


Cil Connolly was an ugly child from a far from distinguished and not particularly wealthy family. But he was a dazzling suc- cess at Eton, not primarily because he was clever and good at Greek — that helped of course — but because he learned how to make the bloods and aristos laugh, and so got into the Eton society Pop. It ruined his life. As he wrote later, the last school year of a successful Eton boy is so blissful that life thereafter, however well the fellow does, is a descent from Elysium, an expul- sion from the Garden of Eden- Connolly once said to me, right at the end of his days, 'My adult life has been a purgatory, lit by a few flashes of remembered heaven.' A lot of other old Etonians meet the same fate. One sees them littering obscure cor- ners of London clubs or slinking in and out of City merchant banks, looks of profound melancholy on their stupid faces.

The hidden curse of Eton has now become the curse of all children. We over- indulge our offspring to the point where they inhabit an illusory paradise, and we then dump them into the real world of competition, unemployment, housing shortage, crime and tricky personal rela- tionships. The spoiling process begins at the earliest possible age at which pandering is possible. That excellent maxim, 'Children should be seen and not heard', has been reversed. They are not merely allowed to be present on all occasions, but to domi- nate the scene. Recently I heard a Cabinet minister, a newspaper editor and the chair- man of a big public company, who were enjoying a civilised conversation on how to get rid of John Major, suddenly shushed into silence by parents because 'Felicity [aged nearly three] is trying to say some- thing'. Well: we waited and it eventually came: 'My doll is called Nobble.' Some good things I do not grudge the young. They now have comfortable and pretty clothes, whereas I still remember the agony, aged 12, of trying to put on starched collars with studs. Our part of London is crowded with adventure playgrounds of dazzling ingenuity, where kids riot in joyful high spirits and learn to be courageous and enterprising the easy way. They eat won- derful food and as much of it as they want (does any British child now know what it feels like, as I certainly did, to be really ravenous?). Reading and many other kinds of learning are made fun. None now experi- ences the toils of filling in a copybook with pen and ink. Their treats are Babylonian and never-ending. Recently I took a grand- child to see (and, my word, hear) the mechanical dinosaurs at the Natural Histo- ry Museum, and marvelled at the amount of expertise and cash which now goes on amusing the brutes — the kids, not the monsters.

In addition, we increasingly bend the law in their favour. It is now very difficult to prosecute tiny-tot thugs at all, even when they commit murder, as they increasingly do. Not only is the infamous Children's Act 1989 on the Statute Book, but its provisions are becoming well known to teenage hor- rors. The recent riot at St Mary's, Wantage, could not have occurred on such a scale without it. For the staff got wind of what the fifth form was planning after exams were over — that they had, for instance, been stockpiling powder paint and giant water-pistols with which to spray it — and accordingly raided the ringleaders' lockers and confiscated the munitions.

In the day of Angela Brazil, Dorita Fair- lie-Bruce and Eleanor Brent-Dyer, that would have been chalked up as a famous victory for the beaks and the end of the matter. Instead, the new brand of dormito- ry lawyers pronounced this pre-emptive strike an unlawful 'invasion' of their 'pri- vate sphere' under the Act. Some com- plained to Childline, others threatened to go to the police, but the hardliners said, `No — revenge.' So these fiends went back into Wantage, bought oil-based paint this time, plus 100 glass stink-bombs and other North Korean-type ultimate weapons, and in due course launched their D-day, sig- nalled by setting off the fire-alarm at 2 a.m. They wore IRA stocking masks knowing 'Everybody should be Lady Buck for 15 minutes.' that the staff would hesitate to tear them off, as this would expose them to charges of assault under the 1989 Act. As a result, the head, the Revd Pat Johns, one of the fat ladies recently made into priests, expelled all 51 of them — well, sent them home until the end of term — a response which was variously described as draconian, courageous, vindictive and over-reactive, This school is not, as the papers have said, a nest for children of decadent jet-setters, but a perfectly ordinary middle-class school for the daughters of pious Anglican par- ents.

Of course, as with Connolly's world of Pop, once children are booted out of this favoured existence into the real world, they hate it. But the booting out is now often delayed for decades, grown-up children squatting in their parents' comfortable homes well into their 20s, even 30s, citing the accommodation shortage as an excuse. Some parents, in despair, buy their off- spring flats, or sell their houses simply to get shot of the incubi. One divorced lady I know, with three children ranging from 25 to 35, all of whom live at home free when they feel like it, finds herself acting as a kind of unpaid valet, lady's maid, cook and laundress to her indulged brood. Me: 'You should not be such a doormat.' She: know. But if they go they might never come back. I don't mind, really, but I do wish Laura would not borrow all my best clothes without permission.'

There speaks a typical member of the newly down-trodden parental classes. But nemesis comes to the oppressors in the end, as it must. In the real world at last, they find themselves condemned to, among other things, sexual permissiveness. Increasingly, they discover it is not accept- able to have boy/girlfriends, affairs and flings, or even harmless friendships. They are forced by the opinions of their peers into gruesomely permanent 'relationships' with members of the opposite sex, variously described as 'partners', `live-in lovers' and other unappetising terms. The girls find themselves drudges and the young men are often role-reversed — and henpecked to boot. Last week, at a party, I asked a girl in her mid-20s how she was liking London. 'Not bad,' said she, 'but I have to begin cohabitation next week and, between our- selves, I'm not looking forward to it.' So there's some justice even in a youth-domi- nated world.