The breakdown in family life that threatens us all

Reader Response to “Don’t Marry Career Women” – The breakdown in family life that threatens us all

The breakdown in family life that threatens us all
Regular Contributor
Richard Morrison
I am in shock. I have just read two books that expose Britain’s teenagers as vicious, lawless, contemptuous of authority, alienated from family and society, fixated on drugs, drink, crime and lethal weapons, and wrapped up in a gang culture that leads nowhere except incarceration or an early grave.

Yes, the youth of 1938, when Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock, must have been a ghastly lot. Surpassed, perhaps, only by the young thugs of 1962, as portrayed in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — though the author said that he based that novel’s most violent scene on a horrific attack on his wife in the 1940s.

Returning last weekend to these novels, regarded in their era as incendiary, gave me a much-needed sense of perspective after all the apocalyptic talk about Britain’s teenagers in the past week. What both books remind us is that disruptive and dangerous kids have been part of British life for generations. True, the scale of the problem is bigger today. And maybe (as the Institute of Public Policy Research suggests) we do have the drunkest, randiest, most socially retarded teenagers in Europe. But the causes remain the same as ever. So do the remedies. No ostentatious head-scratching about either is needed. The question is only whether we have the guts to put matters right.

On which point, I have been astonished by the complacency exhibited by many pundits and politicians. With respect to the Tory leader, “all they need is love” is about as convincing a policy for dealing with Britain’s out-of-control youth as an aspirin is for gangrene. And with respect to all those columnists who loftily declare that teenagers have “always needed to rebel”, and that adults should stop interfering because the kids “turn out OK in the end”, the fact is that our prisons are overflowing with young men who are so far from “turning out OK” that quite a number of them decide that suicide is their best career option.

As for The Times leader-writer who believes that teenagers “are our future . . . and the future is measurably bright” — well, that rosy view would be greeted with a guffaw in Moss Side or Tottenham. If the nightly stabbings, muggings and overdoses by feral teenagers suggest a “measurably bright” future, I wouldn’t like to be around if life ever became a little overcast.

That’s the first cause of the problem: the class divide. People in Westminster, Whitehall and the media village don’t see the depth of this tragedy — the insidious wasting of teenage lives by the hundred thousand — because it isn’t their kids, it isn’t in their kids’ schools, and it doesn’t happen on their streets. There is no political will to tackle the issue of disaffected youths (aside from chucking useless ASBOs round like confetti) because people with power have insulated themselves from all the trouble.

Then there’s the albatross round the neck of the baby-boomers running the world: a lingering nostalgia for the permissive Sixties. Because many of them did (and do) soft drugs, they squirm away from condemnation of the substance abuse that destroys teenage lives. The signal they attempt to send is that mild dope is OK, but not the stuff peddled on inner-city streets. But that’s a hopelessly compromised moral stance. And the kids on the estates know it.

Next, look at schools. Why are millions of pupils — and I mean millions — bored out of their skulls? Why do so many teachers feel stifled by diktats and a narrowly prescriptive curriculum? What is there at most schools to hold the interest of non-academic children when the staff are so focused on cramming kids for meaningless exams? And why do thousands drop out of learning, and out of society, before they are 14?

And lastly (though this should be first) you have to point the finger at British family life — or, rather, the colossal breakdown of it. Again, middle-class commentators completely misunderstand the problem. This isn’t about yummy Islington mummies moaning that their teenage kids are never in for family meals. It’s about kids who haven’t seen their father in months, who aren’t welcome in their own home because their mum’s new bloke hates the sight of them, who could disappear for days before anyone would raise the alarm, and who haven’t an adult in the world to whom they could turn if they get into trouble.

That is what I mean by the breakdown of family life — and I defy you to find a single high-rise estate in Britain that doesn’t have a dozen kids in that predicament. But nothing will improve while people who bring children into the world feel under no obligation — neither social, financial, legal or moral — to devote the time and effort needed to raise their offspring decently.

All this can be summed up in three words: abdication of responsibility. That applies not only to parents who don’t nurture their children, but also to the influential and powerful middle class that doesn’t want to accept responsibility for sorting out the gross social squalor afflicting those lower down the pile. Such selfishness is so short-sighted. Donne said that no man is an island. Equally, no sink estate is an island. The seeds of bitterness being sown there will tear apart our country if we don’t wake up. The future is not measurably bright; it’s potentially appalling.

Why we should still take note of Elgar

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, is an enthusiastic music-lover. I know that, because he once invited me to lunch to tell me about the new work that he had commissioned for the London Symphony Orchestra, using his own money and dosh prised from the wallets of City chums. I also hazard a wild guess (because I haven’t the foggiest notion what the Bank of England does, except push up my mortgage payment every month) that he is a busy chap. So I assume that it is **bleep**-up, not conspiracy, that has led him to order the removal of Edward Elgar’s visage from £20 notes in 2007 — the year that happens to be the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The decision must be reversed. England has produced few enough great composers — five in five centuries, by my reckoning (Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Elgar and Britten, if you want to argue). Yet we accord none of them the reverence that we lavish on Shakespeare. Putting Elgar on a banknote was a rare nod by the British Establishment in the direction of musical genius. Let the old boy stay there for his big one-five-o at least.

Cold comfort

Thanks to all those “old wives”, some of them male, who responded to my plea for meteorological guidance. I wanted to know whether the profuson of berries on bushes this autumn really does signal a “long ’ard winter”, or whether I should give my winter overcoat to the Oxfam shop because I haven’t needed to wear it once in four years. The consensus? That if I do give my coat away I will absolutely guarantee a long ’ard winter. As always, the Law of Sod takes precedence over all other calculations.

11-07-2006 05:49 PM

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