Talking ’Bout My Generation
Baby-boom bliss: The Isle of Wight rock festival, 1970 (credit: Roland Godefroy)
Richard Littlejohn, P.J. O'Rourke and Rod Liddle have had remarkably similar careers. They have all been successful reporters and broadcasters, and are now highly-paid and extremely popular columnists of a similar political tinge: libertarian, sceptical and fiercely opposed to political correctness. Now, to their surprise and occasional alarm at having reached their fifties or sixties, they have written memoirs of growing up in the postwar era and critiques of the society their generation has shaped in Britain and America.
Littlejohn (born 1954) is an Essex boy whose family migrated to Peterborough when he was five. His book takes us up to his departure from grammar school at 16, interspersed with the sort of pithy and unfavourable comparisons with today's Britain that make his twice-weekly Daily Mail column so entertaining. Liddle (born 1960) comes from a similar background: a family that slowly moved from the working to the lower middle class, in his case in and around Middlesborough. He takes the opposite course to Littlejohn: his book is a savage indictment of his generation and of today's Britain, with occasional reflections on his own childhood and upbringing. O'Rourke (born 1947) also takes us through his childhood years in middle America and then broadens his scope to provide a succinct and witty analysis of the impact of the baby boomers, of whom he is a classic example.
Although Littlejohn and O'Rourke grew up on different sides of the Atlantic, the similarity between the childhoods they describe is quite remarkable. (As another baby boomer, born in 1948, I can attest to their accuracy, as well as admiring their powers of recall.) It was a world where children were expected and encouraged to be self-reliant and to make their own entertainment.
Littlejohn is the son of a former policeman who became a railway officer worker and worked his way up the management ladder. Richard learnt his alphabet by the age of two and could read and write by the time he went to primary school at four, taught by his mother and grandmothers. There was nothing abnormal about this: that was my experience too, minus the grandmothers. Not that he was a sheltered child: "My young body bore the self-inflicted battle scars which resulted from running at doors with my head; falling out of trees; and clattering down the stairs on a tea tray doubling as a toboggan."
Childhood in the Fifties seemed closer to the era of Tom Sawyer than to today's pampered and protected youngsters, ferried to endless organised activities in SUVs, or getting fat (sorry, obese) playing video games. When the Littlejohn family moved to a half-built estate on the outskirts of Peterborough, young Richard found "a paradise of endless adventures" in the cornfields onto which his new home backed and the building site that comprised the rest of the estate. Inspired by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, he and his friends even built their own Checkpoint Charlie with builders' materials. Armed with toy guns, they stopped all cars on the road and were apparently treated with amused tolerance by the drivers. Today, the police would probably send in a helicopter and a Swat team.
At the local primary school "twisted ankles, sprained wrists, scuffed knees, split lips, black eyes, scraped elbows, the odd fracture" were the order of the day. Yet the school topped the table of 11-plus passes to the area's grammar schools every year, thanks to an inspirational headmaster.