Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Now That Summer's Here: A Vignette of Two Mothers

You know the school holidays have arrived in Barton when you hear the mothers shouting obscenities at their children outside your window before 11 in the morning. Less so the fathers, which intrigues me, as it's clear they are not all out at work. Maybe they are watching Jeremy Kyle on the television, or perhaps dealing drugs. Or possibly they are just softer-spoken. Or maybe there are fewer fathers on the scene.

It happened this morning. "If you don't shut your fucking mouth, I'm going to shut it for you", the doting mother screamed, already at the end of her tether on Day Two of the summer holidays. It's a curious negotiation to watch, because there is deep affection on both sides, I have no doubt of that, but there's also deep boredom. I can't detect any sense of a hinterland. The children play up because they are bored (absolutely no point mentioning a book to them, even though the library is only a 25-minute journey on foot), the parents respond in exasperation because they have no money, which makes them think they can't make their children's lives more interesting. They don't realise that they don't need to, except that modern children are not allowed quite so much as my generation were to go outside and wander the parks and by-ways and make their own entertainments. I also wonder if they have enough imagination to do so. The television is a great stifler of imagination. But that is middle-age talking. So, the poor souls are shackled with each other, with nowhere to go, and nothing much to do, except bicker and curse. If the children had been better taught, learnt manners, given rules that meant they knew where they stood and weren't constantly demanding more, there would be far less shouting. But I think both the children and the parents would miss it. My parents gave us rules because they had better things to do with themselves all day than to shout at us. I'm not sure these parents do.

By contrast, walking back from the Labour Camp yesterday, along the Mesopotamia path, I overheard a woman and three children. Clearly one was not her own. They were very Oxford, nicely-spoken, questions and answers all made logical sense, no shouting. I couldn't hear it all, but one of the answers from the little girl not the woman's own was "there are mainly white children, but some black children". And then a question "do you play in each others' houses?" And I really didn't like the tone of that one bit. Was it hysterical to have inferred "surely mummy doesn't allow you to play in Sambo's house"? Well, that's what I inferred. Nice, white (and they were all white, and blonde, although in the woman's case this might have been with assistance), bourgeois, Oxford, English, people don't ever say such things, but perhaps they think them, all the same.

They also took up the whole of the pathway, without a thought to passing traffic - like cyclists, and me. No manners at all.

If I'm right - and I am more than happy to concede the evidence is scant one way or the other - which set of children was being mistreated? The victims of sweary banter? Or the victims of insidious racist attitudes?

In twenty years' time, the Bartonites will still be living here in Barton, unless they've been priced out by the property market, swearing at their own children. The Mesopotamians will be running the City and the law, and bringing up well-heeled families of their own. Each class passing on its ways and values, and attaining "survival of the fittest" (and the destitution of the rest) without ever achieving evolution or progress.

It was a sad thought.

But perhaps I'm wrong.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015


  1. The evidence to support your contention is all around us. A snapshot of modern Britain :(

  2. It's more than possible they all were subjected to racist attitudes. Having a shouting,swearing mother is no protection : my experience broadly suggests her family is likely to be a narrow-minded one.
    I think you are probably right about the children's future.
    Upward mobility was bound by its very nature to slow down. Intelligent people no longer leave school at fourteen in order to bring money into the home. The under-educated but bright, who had the intellectual capacity to raise their children to appreciate books,art,games, conversation,music,museums,swimming baths,the countryside, and sports facilities (values often associated with middle-classes ) were to be found even in the lower social classes in the early-to-mid 20th century. The last thing such parents wanted was for the next generation to be forced to earn a living low down the social scale if they were capable of better. The upside of comprehensivisation of secondary schools and scholastic examinations for everybody has been that we are now into the third generation of the public's being more widely able to enter their occupation of choice.
    The result is that the Barton, Cowley and Blackbird Leys types ( as I remember those areas ) who can be found all over the country, are where they are, behaving as they do, much more from choice or ability than they were fifty years ago. Ability gaps between social classes regardless of income are more noticeable now. The home environment a child experiences has always been the biggest influence on educational and consequent occupational attainment.
    It's always been related to some extent to socio-economic grouping . It's more so nowadays because of the number of decades since people have gained control over their position on the ladder.
    As a child I was unaware of education and class. You are right to say we knew where we stood, and so did the next generation, the one I taught. In my long-ago school holidays, by 11 am I would already have been to the library and back. Back, that is,only if the weather was too bad for me to have met friends,with or without books, and gone out to play. If it was not fine enough to go out at all, I would have written my own story if there was nothing else I wanted to read.
    In the fifties and sixties leisure was less expensive than it is today. There was little reason for the children of parents who now call themselves 'the poor' to bellyache for unaffordable things. Moreover, it would have taken more than the inability to buy the fashionable brand of footwear to reduce a mother to shouting abuse. We would have known better than to ask for anything more than once, anyway. Members of the generation that raised us, and the one that raised them, had come through at least one World War. They knew the meaning of true stress. They would have reserved 'fucking' as an adjective for when their plane was crashing in flames. My mother did not need to shout about anything. A look was enough.