Nicky Pellegrino and me at Waiheke Literary Festival —the swim suits are part of an exhibition of nostalgia from generations past!
The Generation Leap
Our younger daughter has been clearing out the junk in their home in preparation for a house shift in mid-December. Finally they will be able to move from their earthquake-damaged house (five years after the Christchurch earthquakes) and begin anew on a lifetyle block with a stunning sea bay directly below them. The drive into work and one of their children’s schools will take an extra fifteen minutes (on a good day at a quiet time), but the peace of the countryside I am sure will be worth it. Our daughter’s husband spent his early years in the country, and our family, whilst always city dwellers when the kids were growing up—because that is where the universities were, and where our pay packets came from—spent most of our holidays in remote places, usually by the sea or in the mountains. And now John and I live off-grid on an island—having escaped as far as we could from the city as soon as we retired from academia. Our other daughter lives in the European Alps and works as a mountain guide, one son and his family live on the edge of the city in a house that has no vehicle access, and 69 steps climb to get to it (with the bush and view of the sea to compensate), and our other son, having lived and worked in London, Melbourne and Auckland, now calls home a smallish town where he can surf on big waves every weekend.
Where we feel happiest living, or where—if we didn’t have work and other important commitments—we yearn to live, probably has its roots in childhood. It could almost be viewed as a core value. A value that is more nurture than nature, although it is possible that there is something in our genes as well that makes us a city or a country person. White New Zealanders whose ancestors sailed here from the UK in the 1840s to 1860s (like me) like to think they come from adventurous pioneering stock, which not only makes us the nation who travels the most, but also a nation who loves at least holidaying, if not living, in a rural or beach environment. Whether we inherited a different set of genes, more aligned with travel and the desire to find a less populated place to live than our UK cousins whose ancestors didn’t make that pioneering journey, who knows? Unlikely, I suspect. But the nurture hypothesis may hold water; we probably pass on our love of certain environments and our desire to travel in the same way as we pass on our other learned values.
We have spent some time with our five grandchildren lately, aged from 4 to 12 years, both genders. They are all fabulous kids, full of energy and love of life, but their full-on day-to-day lifestyles has started us wondering whether this generation will be a giant leap from us in values. Our own children seem to us to have the same values on all the important things as we do, (well, most of what we consider the important things!) but it is far from clear that their children will be as similar to their parents as our children are to us. There are the big issues of course—climate change, terrorism, and the ever-increasing plight of refugees, but the “smaller” issues are the issues I am thinking of; the things that even a five-year-old is daily impacted by.
Parents struggle to deal with the overwhelming intrusiveness of the digital world on their kids. At least when we and our children were young, parents knew when we talked too long on the phone (attached by a cord to the wall) to our best friend who we had seen only an hour previously. Now kids carry their mobile phones and their iPads with them, and surveys have found that many children, even before they reach teenager status, would rather be grounded from events that include actual human contact than have their digital devices taken away for a day. Cyber-bullying and the pressure to have the latest device whatever the cost are two of the negatives that lead to a fundamental change in values. Birthday parties are another pressure; kids today must have a bigger and better party then their friends, with gift bags produced for all the party goers. Whatever happened to a birthday party where guests brought an inexpensive present and the only gifts the guests took away were the coloured pencils from pass-the-parcel? How many parents can afford to hold annual parties for each of their children where they invite every child of the same sex in the class, and provide fancy gifts for them all? Not to mention buying expensive gifts for all the parties their child attends in return. And it is no surprise that many of these parties end in tears, for the birthday girl (not sure about boys) as well as for some of the guests. It seems, for the children themselves, parties are more and more about keeping up, in terms of extravagence, with the other kids, than having fun. Materialism trumping true friendship is surely not a value any parent wishes to see blossoming in their children.
Then there are the after-school activities: dance, gymnastics, sport, music. These are wonderful and the children who have these advantages are indeed fortunate, but again this comes at a cost in terms of the stress on the child (and parents!) and the financial cost. Nine paid hours a week of instruction or training for children aged only 9 or 10 is not unusual, and for some 12 to 15 hours is expected. On top of that are exams and competitions and weekend sports, and all this on top of the normal school day. In the olden days we went to our piano or dance lessons (one or the other, not both) for two half-hour periods a week and were expected to practice at home every day. Now it seems children don’t practice at home, at least for dance and gym (not that they would have time), partly so that they do it correctly. All well and good if the child is determined to be a champion, but do they all want this? Obviously these scenarios are more likely where families have the income, but many of these families are never-the-less struggling financially in spite of both parents working long hours, and solo parents working even harder. All to sustain these new “good parenting” goals.
So that is why I think our grandchildren may grow up with some very different values to us, and even to their parents, and not all of them will make them happy and well-balanced. So here’s to families who, whenever they can, go camping, preferably where there is no internet or mobile phone access. And here’s to families who sometimes stand firm and find a low-key way to celebrate a birthday, with an invitation to their child’s true and non-bullying friends only, and a plea for all gifts to be under $10! Even better, put all the $10 notes together and buy a goat for a family in a developing country, or provide them with a water filter so they can drink clean water.
Waiheke Literary Festival: The photo above (probably too small to see!) was taken at this festival on 14th November, 2015. The fabulous Nicky Pellegrino, NZ journalist and UK/NZ novelist, (did you read her great article titled “The Rise of the Older Woman” in the Nov 28th NZ Listener?) spent an hour “in conversation” with me chatting about the my “journey” from writing non-fiction to fiction.
One of the harder aspects of this journey is finding loyal readers (for future books), and the best way to do this is to attract them to one’s e-newsletter and e-mail list. So please do me a big favour: e-mail a friend of yours (just one, although two or three would be even better) and ask them to sign up! Try for friends you think might enjoy my monthly rants or who like to read bookclub fiction, or the sort of books I review. Ask them (gently beg them on my behalf) to go to my author website (www.jenniogden.com) and click on “Newsletter” in the Menu to subscribe. Thank you!
Given I seem to be on a “in the olden days” theme, I thought a book review about a book (or two books in fact) set in a time and social milieu even more removed from the values of today’s families, would be just the ticket. In my very first newsletter I reviewed my favourite novel, “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner. I have had considerable comment from readers about this who read it after reading my review and loved it as much as I did. These two books by Rumer Godden come a close second for me. Rumer Godden was born in England in 1907. She grew up in India and returned to England as an adult, dying in Scotland in 1998. Her books were recommended to me by a literary friend seven years ago and it a mystery to me why our English classes in school didn’t include her books in the curriculum. Her writing, like Stegner’s, is perfect. The worlds these books are set in are a leap from anything I have experienced; the first a large house in England, and the second a nunnery! But values of selflessness, community, family and the simple things in life can flourish in any time and community, so there is hope for today’s children, as long as we can ensure they have some time in their young lives to just be.
China Court: The Hours of a Country House (358 pages)
by Rumer Godden
Godden’s book China Court (first published in 1960) is the best example of the use of flashbacks in a novel that I have ever read. China Court is a big—but not grand—house in Cornwall and this is the story of five generations of the family, including the servants, who lived in it. The story covers a time-span from about the 1830s to 1960. The central character is Mrs. Quin who knew all five generations, beginning when she was a small girl on the outside looking in—and in love with the dashing grandson of the elderly owners. She marries the rather solid brother of the dashing grandson and we get to know the aunts and uncles, her children and finally her granddaughter. Like all good literary fiction, the end of the book is a reflection of the beginning. In fact the beginning and end are both of Mrs. Quin’s death, and in between we are dropped seamlessly in and out of generations of births, marriages, deaths and everything that makes a family a family. The writing is lyrical. “Home is very much in the smell of a house; at China Court the smell is always of smoke, peat and woodsmoke; of flowers, polish, wine and lavender; of wet wool from the outdoor coats, the drab smell of gumboots and galoshes, and earlier, of dubbin rubbed into gaiters; and of gun oil and of paraffin for the lamps. On Mondays the prevailing smell is of soap and water, boiling and steam; on Wednesdays of baking. That is perhaps the best smell; when the bread-oven door is opened, the scent of hot loaves fills all the house.” (p46). For Mrs. Quin memories are often gathered together by like rather than by time or generation; the memory of one marriage blends into another, the telling of one daughter’s rebellion becomes the story of another in another generation. It is masterfully done, so that the passing of time is secondary to the stories and the people; it is as if they are all encompassed by the house simultaneously. How grounding this lovely book is in the contemporary world of moving forward and getting on and throwing out.
In This House of Brede (672 pages)
by Rumer Godden (1969)
An enthralling book. The story centres on Philippa Talbot who, at 42, leaves a successful professional career and enters a cloistered Benedictine monastery in the south of England. As she finds her way in this new world we meet the nuns who are now her family. Each nun brings another dimension to the story with her unique personality. Never would I have thought I’d find the ins and outs of a Catholic nunnery riveting, but I was wrong! This book has definitely not converted me—and conversion was not the intention of the author I am sure— but it has given me a new understanding for these women who choose to dedicate their lives totally to their god.
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Youtube video of my talk at the Mind & Its Potential conference in Sydney October, 2014. Just discovered by me, quite by chance, the other day! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKJYAwdQ3tQ