Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘Leaving home used to be a rite of passage’: Andrew O’Hagan on family, freedom and a generational divide

‘Leaving home used to be a rite of passage’: Andrew O’Hagan on family, freedom and a generational divide

If you were a working-class teenager in the 1980s, the thing most expected of you in the family home was that you would soon be leaving it. There were imminent romances to be imagined, but few of them burned brighter in the two-bar fire of the soul than the notion that you might soon have keys to your own front door. I think I dreamed about it, the Hoovering whose frequency I could personally control, the music at full volume, the sleep-overs that would never turn into psychodramas involving Bell’s whisky and the police – my own flat, where all the grief could be left behind and tins would be banned from the fridge.

Back in the late 1950s, my parents hadn’t done “single life”. They were “married out of the house”, as they used to say in Glasgow, my mother at 19. “You’ve made your bed, so you can lie in it,” was one of my grandmother’s favourite phrases, as if looking after yourself wasn’t a fledgling activity but a moral imperative carrying a high price for failure. The ability to “stand on your own two feet” (another favourite) went along with the expectation that you wouldn’t let the grass grow under them, a directive to pastures new, one street over perhaps, with a spouse, children and a washing machine of one’s own. “In 1961,” writes the British historian David Kynaston, “only 98,466 houses were built in the public sector, compared to 170,366 for owner-occupiers.” My parents were suddenly in a world where progress meant leaving home and getting a mortgage. As it turned out, they were bred-in-the-bone tenants who shared a heartstopping fear of debt; their kids, on the other hand, each had a flat before they were 30.

Caledonian Road by Andrew O'Hagan.View image in fullscreen

The dream of leaving went deep, a kind of poetry for my generation, which spelled out its political demands on T-shirts, always with a melancholy touch. We went on marches. We rocked against racism. But there was something domestic and more quietly political in the songs I loved, from the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home to the Smiths’ Back to the Old House. It was the bid for a different life and a kind of regretful acceptance that you might have to live that life on your own. Feminism, rock music and the pill appeared to have completely passed my parents by, with their preference for Shirley Bassey, Perry Como, and frequently getting pregnant by accident. (I shouldn’t complain: I was the last.)

There’s no evidence that my mum and dad spent any time in their youth imagining they could live alone. But for me, getting away was an early, passionate theme, and I fantasised about British cities where I might land and discover life. One of my favourite TV programmes was The Liver Birds, about two girls sharing a flat in Liverpool. To me, it was a promise of what the world out there might possibly be at its best: a feast of independence. I watched it with my mother and could see from her reactions that this was something she’d never had – those hairdos, that backchat, those boyfriends, that coat – and I’m sure there was a certain amazement in her voice when she talked about it, as if a person like her never got to leave home. Sons can be brutal in their sense of “can do”, and I was already departing. At school, we spent half an hour every morning writing in our “news books”. It was supposed to be handwriting practice, but I took it as an opportunity to try out some wish-fulfilling autofiction, composing stories from the frontline of our war-torn living room, and reporting on how I would soon be living in a penthouse in Paris.

We were all expected to leave home, but it was a fault in your stars, perhaps, if you travelled too far or forgot the innate superiority of your origins. I went to London, and as the decades passed my mother said it made her sad – “I always thought you’d come back” – yet she also advertised it as one of her achievements, that each of her children had gone off and built their own nest. Pride and proximity have a complicated dance to perform in lives like ours: my father didn’t care about proximity (he only did pride), and once we were in flats of our own he scarcely ever came to visit. For my mother, it was harder. She wanted us to do well, have work, gain a partner, build a home, but she also clearly bracketed it with what felt to her like personal loss. It was a breakup. Unmistakably. I’ll never really know what to say about it, but I find it emerges in my stories – the small dramas of distance that can play out between people who love each other. When I left, aged 21, the bus from Glasgow had scarcely passed Carlisle before my mother emptied my old room and replaced my desk with a doily-festooned dressing table. In her heart (and she lived in her heart) I had betrayed her by wanting to go, and life, for her, was just like that, a series of gains enjoyed by other people at her expense. She could remark that we’d “settled”, and would enjoy saying that to her friends, but I could hear it in her voice that she felt we’d abandoned her in a house of old school photographs.

Leaving home used to be a rite of passage. It’s there in the classics, from Jane Eyre to The Color Purple, with especially vivid depictions of it in postwar British literature – Arthur Seaton battling his way towards a council house in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Jo in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, manufacturing by necessity the family she never had, while characters in David Storey’s and Beryl Bainbridge’s novels are always fleeing the coop or flying into Camden or challenging the old domestic habits as they struggle to establish a life of their own. “It had become necessary for me to look for safety elsewhere,” wrote Anita Brookner in Leaving Home. Later in that novel she describes the leave-taking from one’s original family as “the great drama of our lives”. That was true in Brookner’s youth and also in mine, but is it still?

The suggestion now is that young people often can’t afford it, and that very many – weaned on Brexit and versed in the negative isolationism of the pandemic – have trouble imagining themselves as self-elected foreigners or people who would choose to eat alone. The suggestion also is that with house prices as they are, and space limited, the young might be trapped, many of them seeming to find the outside world on their phones while still living with their parents. I’m not sure about that – each generation, especially in Britain, tends to see other generations by its own lights, but I feel there may be something different now in the way we think about space: perhaps it’s less to do with buildings and more to do with rooms. It might be possible to leave home not by actually leaving but by retreating into your own space. According to some artists, TikTok heroes, influencers and hackers, the box bedroom is a stage, an icon of the age – a place where strong feelings are often had at some distance from experience, where bills are paid by other people, where friendships are intense but carried out in a confusion of physical absence, where sex is mostly a rumour or a miasma of breathless scenes online, and where your private choices are commodified by social media. Apart from the financial impossibility, leaving home, for a lot of young people, might feel like leaving the self behind – swapping one’s centre, free wifi, a stocked fridge, the entire production studio of the self, for the anxieties of “freedom” in a totally unaffordable world. Between the British censuses of 2011 and 2021, the number of adult children living with their parents in England and Wales rose by almost 15%.

Andrew O'Hagan outside his home in London.View image in fullscreen

Here’s a possible irony. People who are young now may not have had the initial luck their parents had, but commentators say they are going to be much better off in the end, because they will inherit everything. A recent report says they will become the “richest generation in history”. Liam Bailey, who does research for the estate agency Knight Frank, argues that the ramifications of this transfer of wealth will be enormous. I think he means the effect on rental and property markets, but it could also signal a terrifying increase, in the future, of the gulf between those who inherit and those who don’t. (I would vote for a social housing tax on property windfalls beyond a certain value, even after inheritance tax and capital gains, just to close the gap a little and reduce inequality.) Bailey’s report also made me think of other sorts of ramifications, mainly psychic ones, or Freudian ones. What happens when a population that had a less fruitful youth comes to maturity still feeling “made” by their parents? (Hello, Ibsen. Thank you, Philip Larkin.)

Leave-taking is big with writers. We give airtime to the transit of regret, the power of the unsaid. Look at Andrew Haigh’s wonderful new film All of Us Strangers. A writer living on his own in an empty-seeming tower block tries to remember his late parents. He takes a train and goes back to the house where he grew up, and he knocks on the door, which is then opened by his dead mum. And then the writer, played by Andrew Scott, goes into the living room and sits down with his dad and tries to explain the years. That’s what every writer does, every day, as we sit down at the desk and knock again at the door of the old house, hoping to be known this time, recognised for who we actually are. The same music is playing that was playing back then, the same curtains are covering the windows. It doesn’t matter what year it is because we are always borrowing from lost time.

There are lines by Philip Larkin that are truer to me than the ones about your mum and dad fucking you up. Home Is So Sad:

It stays as it was left
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide.

I think I wanted to make a home more than I wanted any other thing in life. I notice only now that my work is full of falling buildings and broken homes, missing children and last hurrahs and carefully furnished rooms. Making a beautiful home, making it yours and making it welcoming and peaceful at last, is one of the hostages to fortune that the child of difficult parents may hold against the future. We left home to reinvent it: that was the plan, but of course life will always bring new disorders and fresh schisms. The task is perhaps to forge both your own home and your own sense of culpability, too.

But the old house is always there, waiting for you. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 years working on a novel called Caledonian Road, about the fall from grace of an art historian and bon vivant called Campbell Flynn, who thought of himself as a good man. The book is about class, politics and money – but to me it also tells the story of a person who might have left part of himself back in the Glasgow high-rise where he grew up. Perhaps that’s a story of society that we are always seeking to tell in new ways: how we stay progressive as the years pass, and how we might join the hopes of our past to the realities of the turbulent present. Campbell will find out who he really is in the London he fell for, and that fell for him, but perhaps the bid for success and your own story is always to risk estrangement. I’m the father of a 20-year-old, and I suppose I’m both relieved and perplexed when he says he might never leave home. I nod in assent, trying to comprehend, while remembering the person I was in my early 20s, holding in a closed palm the key to my first rented flat.

Source: theguardian.com