Not quite the right approach

LEILA BERG, who has written about 15 children’s books, published in ten countries, ran a nursery school in her large house which was at the same time headquarters of the local YCND. Her daughter is an actress touring with Caryl Jenner’s Unicorn Theatre, her son is an art student at present on a kibbutz in Israel.

I NEARLY DID MR. FLETCHER AN INJUSTICE. I like people. I specially like people who are against authoritarianism and dogma as Mr. Fletcher is. I go on liking them when they dedicate a pamphlet “warmly and with confidence, to all young people” … though I grow uneasy when I turn to the back and find the writer is not 102 but 42. Such a courtly farewell to youth in one not aged, such a benign handing over, is a little alarming.
But with all the goodwill and fellowship in the world, I could not help finding Mr. Fletcher’s pamphlet a bit odd. Who had he written it for? And why had he written it? Who was “we” and who was “they”, and why did the two keep changing places? And why did he get caught up in invisible eddies and swirl muddily around, zigzagging about, losing the drift? I read it once, then twice, then, still puzzled, seeing that it was a longer version of an article that had originally appeared in New Society, I went down to their offices to try to sort it out.
There I discovered it was the last article in a series of six by various people, on the adolescent in present-day society, that appeared, last year. This accounted for the apparently undirected arguments, the arms flailing on empty air. The pamphlet dedication is not, after all, benign, even patronising, but defiant. “I don’t care what some people say about adolescents! They’re my friends! You’re my friends! We’re friends! … aren’t we?” I can understand, with sympathy, how this happens.

Mr. Fletcher states in his opening sentence that we do not need any new morality for teenagers. Before the inoffensive pamphlet reader has any chance to say “But I never said we did”, and “What do you mean, ‘new’?”, and “What do you mean ‘morality’?” or to get clear whether Mr. Fletcher is speaking to, at, or about teenagers. Mr. Fletcher launches into a series of swipes that are misconceived, ineffectual and irrelevant, and that can only be explained by conceding that they arose in another context out of generous indignation and impatience.

He says—to summarise roughly his argument—that he does not believe in the melodramatic “tough and tender” romanticisers; that young people of today are sensible, want peace and quiet and a house with a garden, get on quite well with their parents; are worried by the bomb, but who is not?; that the world is much better than it used to be; that the possibility of nuclear war is ghastly but unbelievable, and in any case makes no difference to moral issues; that the world is complex and makes us feel helpless, but this has always been so, and is offset by the consideration and care shown for young people; that similarly the gap between parents and children has always existed, and that anyway parents are more sensitive to the problems today; that children have always matured early enough to make sex a problem—the increased wealth of teenagers has altered nothing, except whether thy go out on foot, on bicycles or on motor-bikes; and anyway, why are young people criticised when we adults are just as bad?

By this time, one is reeling slightly. Have adolescents then no problems? I think of the two young college people, completely unknown to me, who came all the way from Essex with my name, address and phone number in their hand, because one wanted an abortion. No problem here?

I think of that other girl, who actually had her baby before anyone realised she was pregnant; she wanted so much to keep it, but her parents said they would throw her out if she did; so she had the baby adopted, and now the three of them live together in hate, but respectability. No problem here?
I think of another girl, whose parents, both working, know her situation quite well; and it is pretty messy. They seem quite fond of her in their restricted, respectable way. At any rate they have never kicked her teeth in, as far as I know. But they have never made any offer of financial, or other, help. She borrows from friends. No problems here?

And I think of a boy I know, a young plumber of about nineteen, who has just bought a birthday present for his girl—a frock, a coat, shoes, stockings and a handbag. He told me that last year he bought her a record-player that cost fifty pounds. I thought of his parents who must have been courting during the war—ration books, empty shops, empty pockets. Did his mother call it pride that she felt towards him? Did his father call it trying to get him to spend his money sensibly? Was the present really so uninfluenced by the fantastically different past of a generation ago? Were there really no problems here?

He lived in a small flat with so many adults—including aunts and Gran—and so many children of various ages, that I asked him how he managed. But he said it was all right until his younger brother, who was getting married soon, started to pile up all his new stuff on the bed.
“He must be young to be getting married”, I said.
“Oh, he’s mad. You wouldn’t catch me getting married. I’ve been engaged for five years, but you won’t catch me getting married, not for years yet.”
“Why did you get engaged?”
“Huh, it wasn’t my idea!”
No problems here, Mr. Fletcher?
And our first generation students, unbacked by any family tradition, sharing no common past with their new friends, no common future with their old, surely they must have problems? And surely Mr. Fletcher, a university lecturer, must know them? So isolated, of course they form groups; and in both their isolation and their grouping, they are attacked. This generation will surely go down in history as the time the B.M.A. committee—all adults, of course—was horrified when a boy, asked what he would do when the four minute warning went, said “Sleep with Brenda”. Bad, bad boy. You will stand in the comer when the four minute warning. goes. But all the same, the boy and Brenda have problems surely now, if only because they have to deal with such adults?

And that line about “we adults are just as bad”. Having taken the trouble to place it in context, I realise that Mr. Fletcher meant it generously, defiantly; but it comes over with such kind, myopic confusion it shocks me. If I took a three-year old out, and she wet her pants because I hadn’t had the sense to organise her day properly, I would know it was my fault, because I was an adult and had the responsibility, and I would be more intelligent next time. Similarly when young people are persuaded and bludgeoned by adults who see a wonderful chance of grabbing some of their money by pandering to their uncertainties and weaknesses and making them last, then I am aware the exploiters are adults. When the young people are denounced by people who have never denounced the exploiters, then I am aware the denouncers are adults. No teenager depends for his livelihood, for his meals, for his car, for his holidays, on the calculated exploitation of someone else’s vulnerability. If he did, he would be a “juvenile delinquent”, not a businessman, an advertising man, a politician, a bureaucrat, a bishop. Why doesn’t Mr. Fletcher mention this, instead of trying to make us one large happy family by saying there are no problems? My mother-in-law, at times of impending argument, used to say “Have a nice cup of tea”. She meant well, but I can’t say it was helpful.

In the second half of the pamphlet, Mr. Fletcher sets down his Ten Non-Commandments; and here, as in the first half, one is aware that the numerous cuts the New Society editor made were more effective and helpful than Mr. Fletcher perhaps realised, and that it was a pity to restore them. Perhaps it would be stupid to complain that the NonCommandments are unoriginal; it would be more accurate to say they seem unfelt and unexperienced. Mr. Fletcher says for instance, “To try to achieve the highest qualities of excellence of which you are capable both in what you like doing and in what you are committed to do … is as good a basis as any for a satisfying personal life”. Could one say this to an unskilled boy or girl working on a conveyor belt, or to an educated one feeding a computer? He goes on “It is the same with leisure. There is much to be said for periods of enjoyable idleness; but not many people are happy with this for long. The problems of leisure …” It is all so theoretical. Say this to one of the young unemployed up in the North-East of England—or to those down South, who like a shorter working week because then they can work overtime. The pamphlet just doesn’t gel. Life is much more complicated than that.

Besides—thinking of Non-Commandments number one and two—dogma is dogma, whether God or anti-God. And Mr. Fletcher does not alter this fact but rather intensifies it, by starting his first Non-Commandment “Never accept authority”, then following it up with so much unnecessary anti-God stuff.
But frankly I find this whole business of focussing on the adolescent as a phenomenon, rather repellant; and I think this is really what Mr. Fletcher is trying to get over. I once kept a nursery school. And once on a Saturday, looking out of my window on to the Common, I saw one of my three-year-olds with his mother, and was knocked backwards to see—for the first time—that he was small. I had never realised it before. People are people. Growing up is not a separation, but a synthesis, or a building up. At forty, we are also thirty, twenty, ten, just being born. The stairs still creak alarmingly in the night; we know, though now we don’t hear them. We still are not always sure which is us, and which is the outside world, what are the fingers that we move and what are the streamers tied to our pram handle blown by the wind; but now we can discuss, reason, and delineate, in action, our identity.

I look at a new baby and I see the strange shells of its ears and the waving starfish fingers—like something stranded by the sea on a surrealist shore; and I see the mustering hands frenziedly shepherding words from the working mouth, like an urgent anemone in a pool, but the baby’s words are, fittingly, silent. This is any new baby, extraordinary in its ordinariness. I see a three-year-old, possessed by terrifying anger, and I know her screams are screams for help, so I comfort her and strengthen her. I am amazed at the understanding of a child, sometimes so much simpler and sweeter than an adult’s. I am enthralled by her limpid dignity, and delighted by her joy. I am moved by the vulnerability, the courage, the humour, trust and capability of adolescents. These are my fellow human beings. Their size is not apparent,
only our reciprocity is. As an adult, all I can offer—and must offer—is experience, skill, and perhaps a love that is not vulnerable.

Nor do I find our self-consciously dispassionate sociologists any less repellant than the passionate denouncers. “Look at their clothes”, they cry. “Isn’t it interesting. They seem to have a different uniform this week!” And they write it down in their little notebook. This week the youth club. Next week Mars.
But to shout passionately back “They are my friends. They have no problems” seems to me to be contradictory. My friends all have problems. Only my enemies don’t.

In fact, I do not go at all for this “new morality” discussion. I cannot say “Yes, it does exist”, or “No, it doesn’t”. I can only ask “What do you mean?” I have just been down to a tiny Somerset village, and there at a jumble sale in aid of the cricket club I heard a man say “Bloody” not once but twice in the same sentence; and I felt outraged. I would, I believe, have felt it right and proper for my friend’s son to knock him down and say “Take that, you cad. There are ladies present”. I had been there three days. Then I went back to London and swore amiably as usual. That is morality.

But if by talking of “new morality” people mean “is the ground being cleared, are things moving, are people beginning to look at each other at last?” then I think the answer is yes. For me the symbol of today—and I am romantic enough to enjoy a living symbol—is the hitch-hiker. I sat at a table when a wealthy woman was discoursing on hitch-hikers. “Why don’t they get a car of their own?” she said. “Something without working for it! Something for nothing!” And I thought “Someone opened the door of her cage, and she cowered back”.

The reciprocity of hitch-hiking, the unpremeditated friendships, the acceptance of risk, the good humour, the giving of what one has and taking, as equal, whatever the other has to give … this is the only way life can be lived today. Some people have worked this out, and they are middle-aged. Some know it without thinking, without being aware they know or that it is anything to announce, and they are young. I think perhaps Mr. Fletcher knows it, but I suspect only in theory. I think he needs to be aware of young people, to know them, as well as feel amiable towards them. The denouncers and the exaggerators he can just ignore; life itself will look after them.