Like the teenage daughter in Absolutely Fabulous, many born in the
Seventies cringed through childhood as their free-spirited parents
lived the hippy dream. Among them was Chloe Fox, who rebelled by
becoming a model wife and mother. She talks to others who found
absolute freedom less than fabulous and wonders whether a life of
'mortgages and moderation' is the inevitable outcome
April 4, 2009
When I look back at my childhood, it is with the remembered imprint
of banisters on each of my cheeks. Along with my brother, Sam (we
were later joined by a sister, Louisa), I spent many a night watching
a wonderful world whirl downstairs at our Georgian townhouse in
Clapham, South London.
My mother, Celestia, a former fashion editor of Queen magazine turned
casting director, met and fell in love with my father, Robert, five
years her junior, when she was 26. He, after a disastrous stint
following in the acting footsteps of his brothers Edward and James,
was a fledgling theatre producer, working for impresario Michael White.
Theirs was a world of endless parties, and we took for granted the
roll call of stars that flooded the house and came,
champagne-breathed, to kiss us goodnight over the years: David Bowie,
Al Pacino, Rupert Everett, Bob Geldof, Paula Yates, Nicky Haslam,
Jerry Hall… It is the gut instinct of every child to consider their
own childhood the norm, and apart from a vague inkling that not
everyone's father had long hair and did the school run with a
Marlboro in one hand and Bruce Springsteen screaming on the stereo,
that's exactly what the three of us did.
As I grew older, however, the excesses of others started to make me
feel awkward in my skin; old beyond my years. When my school friends
bunked off to smoke, I went to the library and read a book. When they
sneaked to the pub, I took to my bed. In my lessons, anything less
than an "A" grade felt like a fail. I began to find my own parents
slightly mortifying; one Sunday lunchtime a joint was passed around,
and I left the table and locked myself, sobbing, in my bedroom.
Fashion petrified me. On the eve of my first dance, at the
Hammersmith Palais, my mother tried to coax me into her skin-tight
black Alaïa minidress. I decided that a shapeless purple silk shift
from Jigsaw was a much better idea. At parties, I wanted the ground
to swallow me. I only felt safe watching it all unfold. I didn't kiss
a boy until I was 16, and only then because he was too drunk to say no.
And so it has gone on. When I was 27, I married the boy next door,
whom I had loved from afar for a long time. In the five years since,
we have had two children: Jago, 3, and Christabel, 8 months. We have
a mortgage, a mountain of laundry and only dance in the kitchen or at
weddings. We have no famous friends, no cupboards full of sequins and
I'm sure, although they are far too loving to say it, both my parents
marvel that it's enough.
But we are not alone. If it is the fate of every generation to rebel
against the one that preceded it, then we, the children of the
children of the Sixties, are an inevitably strait-laced bunch. One of
the best-observed comedy characters of recent years is Saffy in the
sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. As her mother, Eddy, drunkenly falls down
the stairs in heels too high and skirts too short, teenage Saffy
rolls her eyes and goes back to her homework. But more than 16 years
have passed since Absolutely Fabulous began. Just what would Saffy be
like now? What sort of a mother did she become? How much is the
parent you become affected by the parents you had?
Free and uneasy
"My childhood was very open and creative and free, but always a bit
all over the place," says Poppy de Villeneuve, the daughter of
Sixties photographer Justin de Villeneuve, famously linked with
Twiggy, and former model Jan de Villeneuve.
As a child growing up in East Sussex, Poppy, along with her older
sister, the illustrator Daisy (who spent her first year of life
living with her parents in a tent pitched inside a Camden Town
warehouse), had a vague sense of her own otherness. "I knew the other
kids at the comprehensive we went to didn't have a mother who wore
floaty Biba dresses and have people like Peter Blake and Kenny
Everett coming to stay at the weekend, but at the same time it was
all I knew."
It wasn't until her teens that Poppy, now a photographer, began to
struggle with her own identity. "I've always been the straight one at
a party," she says. "While my contemporaries were all rebelling and
taking drugs, I was on the sidelines a slightly older version of
the child I was who slept on a pile of coats under the table in a
restaurant." To this day, she says she feels like the odd one out and
is a self-confessed workaholic, with elements of the control freak
about her. "When I have children, I'll give them more structure. It's
crucial for little people, I think."
At the age of 30, photographic and events producer Gawain Rainey, now
37, became the first person in his family to buy a house. Already
well established in his career and with his girlfriend, model Jasmine
Guinness, expecting their first child (the couple now have two sons,
Elwood and Otis), he decided it was time to start "being a grown-up".
This was not something his own parents had really done. His mother,
Jane, is the daughter of David Ormsby-Gore, the 5th Baron Harlech,
who was British Ambassador in Washington from 1961 to 1965. His
father, Michael Rainey, ran a hip Chelsea clothing boutique. Wealthy
and staggeringly glamorous, they ensured that their four children
Saffron, Rose, Gawain and Ramona had a childhood in the Welsh
countryside characterised by its freedom.
"In retrospect, it is impossible not to romanticise it," says Gawain.
"We climbed trees, camped out, roamed free. The television was
removed between April and October and school was just something we
had to do between bouts of fun." Jane, especially, wanted her
children to grow up free of the restraints that had typified her own
childhood. Having been raised largely by a nanny, she felt it was
very important to bring her own children up herself. "She thought you
didn't need school to be brilliant," remembers Gawain. "We all went
to the local comprehensive, always late, usually dressed in entirely
the wrong clothes. Once I asked my mum to put a swimming towel in my
bag, and when I got to the swimming baths, I was absolutely mortified
because she'd given me a towel with a naked woman on it." At 13,
Gawain's eldest brother, Saffron, wrote to his his maternal
grandfather asking him to pay for him to go to a decent school and
get a good education.
"There was no structure whatsoever," laughs Gawain, who only now
understands why every child from miles around wanted to come to his
house whenever they could. "When I look back, it seems like heaven,
but at the time it was a nightmare."
By the time he was in his early twenties, Gawain was disenchanted
with rebellious freedom. Rather than partying aimlessly like most of
his contemporaries, he worked hard, forging an incredibly successful
career at a very young age. A little part of him wishes he had
perhaps "chilled out a bit. When my mum and dad had two young kids,
they took them on Vespas around North Africa, whereas I'm at home
every night walking Elwood through his homework."
Writer Murphy Williams is the only child of poet Hugo Williams and
his French wife, Hermine, a performance artist who sang with members
of the Damned, walked the tightrope in Derek Jarman's Jubilee, and
wore Vivienne Westwood bondage gear before anyone else. Murphy's home
life was unconventional to say the least. When either parent had
their lovers to stay, it fell to their young daughter to act as the
moral compass and voice her disapproval.
"All I wanted was a conventional family," says Murphy, who remembers
loving the time, aged 8, when she was sent to stay with a more
domesticated aunt and her doctor husband in France for six months.
"At some point, my mother came to see me with her boyfriend in tow.
She was wearing a red leather jacket and stilettos and had dyed her
hair black and her fringe blonde. I remember feeling viscerally
disappointed at how far she was from the approachable, loving mother
Now with two small children of her own, Murphy makes a specific point
of paying attention to the details of family life. She has baking
sessions with her children, plans days out to theme parks and takes
time planning picture-perfect birthday parties for them.
"My birthday parties involved children running around on top of
Parliament Hill while my parents and their friends got stoned," she
remembers. "Mum had a friend who designed costumes for Doctor Who, so
the entertainment was always some terrifying alien leaping out from
behind a tree at us."
But Murphy has learnt to be thankful for her less than conventional
parents. "I'm really proud of them," she says. In this, she is
similar to fellow journalist Cosmo Landesman, whose book, Starstruck,
about the horror of growing up with his deeply eccentric parents, is
also a kind of love letter to them. "All I wanted was a proper mum
and dad," says Cosmo, whose father, Jay, was variously a nightclub
entrepreneur, agent, publisher and macrobiotic guru, and whose
mother, Fran, was a singer, songwriter and performer. Theirs was an
openly open marriage and their life a tireless, ultimately doomed
quest for celebrity.
Jay's mantra to his short-haired, bookish eldest son was always,
"Don't take yourself seriously, Cosmo." While his parents let it all
hang out downstairs, Cosmo would be reading Russian novels in his
obsessively tidy bedroom. "My parents thought I was as much of a
freak as I thought they were," he says. "My dad used to show his
friends my tidy room as proof of my pathological weirdness."
Cosmo's first marriage, to Julie Burchill, was a hedonistic one, but
whatever excesses he had indulged in the night before, Cosmo was
always shaved and suited when he went to pick up his own son, Jack,
from school. "Even so, he would look at me with the same
mortification [with which] I used to look at my parents. You can't win!"
In turn, Jack, now 23, is a free spirit a tattooed, pierced,
heavy-metal fan. "I'm so glad," says his father. "With the exception
of the green and anti-capitalism movements, there isn't a lifestyle
rebellion any more. Kids today have too much of a sense of economic
responsibility. Bohemian weirdness does seem to have run its course,
which is kind of sad."
Apple pie syndrome
Perhaps it's nothing to do with our parents after all, and everything
to do with the world we live in. Perhaps my contemporaries and I,
with our mortgages and moderation, are different to our parents
because we can't afford not to be. Or perhaps the only place left to
go that's shocking enough is conformity.
"What happens on a family level is also often true on a cultural
level" says Jungian psychoanalyst Stuart Macfarlane. "This is part of
a natural instinct towards balance. If a parent's behaviour is
extreme in any way, a child will instinctively compensate for it. The
same is true of society. The primary quest of an individual is to
establish their own identity; they will always adapt their behaviour
to get their needs met." Thus, the child of an irresponsible parent
will, more often than not, seek the acknowledgement they need by
being obsessively responsible. This, in turn, will collectively
affect the world they live in.
The effect is cyclical. Macfarlane calls it "apple pie syndrome". "A
family grow up in an orchard. Apples everywhere, in everything,
always. A child grows up hating anything to do with apples. He
promises not to inflict apples on his children as they were inflicted
on him. His child grows up never having eaten an apple. All he wants
is an apple. He promises not to deprive his children as he was. And
so he moves his family into an orchard…"
No prizes for guessing the fate of my children, then. In fact, I can
see it happening already. My son is only 3, but he hates nursery
rhymes. When we get in the car and I try to put on The Grand Old Duke
of York, he asks for Starman by David Bowie.