It has become fashionable, indeed almost obligatory, for public figures in their fifties and sixties to turn on their own generation, and blame it for more or less all of our present problems. The baby-boomers, we are frequently told by one of their number, are shiftless, hedonistic, selfish and generally more fortunate than they deserve to be.
Everything bad about the modern world is pretty much their fault: unemployment, global warming, traffic, housing problems, the recession, wars, crime, pension problems, general moral collapse. When, all those years ago, Roger Daltrey of The Who sang that he was t-t-talkin’ about his generation, he can have had little idea that, four decades on, the generation would still be talking about itself, and almost always in whingey, self-lacerating tones.
The latest woe-monger is Jeremy Paxman, who, to judge by an anguished article in the Mail on Sunday, is going through some kind of late-life freak-out. Ours is “not merely the luckiest but also the most selfish generation in history”, he wailed. Its overwhelming characteristic is “self-absorption”. Our parents “made-do-and-mended through the austerity years” but all the baby-boomers fought for was “the right to wear their hair long and enjoy sex”.
We have not only betrayed our children and grandchildren, says Paxman, but, worst of all, we are still making decisions because we vote in elections while those in their twenties and thirties cannot be bothered. This, mysteriously, is also our fault.
It’s all very emotional, and will no doubt play well in a culture where self-flagellation and guilt have an almost sexual power. Yet, like any sweeping generalisation about millions of people who are dissimilar in every way but happen to be roughly the same age, it is an exercise in silliness and special pleading.
Flailing around, Paxman points out that our parents had as Prime Minister Clement Attlee (hurrah!) while we had Tony Blair (boo!). It is an argument which would embarrass a Lower Sixth Debating Society. One might as well compare The Billy Cotton Band Show and The Old Grey Whistle Test in order to draw plonking conclusions about music, or judge the progress of poetry by reading the ravings of Ezra Pound beside the work of our own saintly poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
The idea that billions of people were uniquely selfish is as idiotic as arguing that everyone of the previous generation was heroic, or that all who have followed are culturally disengaged. Baby-boomers did not accept free university education in order to screw things up decades later; it was not their fault that the NHS was working better, nor that it was easier to get a mortgage.
Even the argument about long hair and enjoying sex is flawed. Seen as part of a general movement of domestic liberation, they were not insignificant advances but have shaped the way we live and argue today in a positive, liberal way.
Perhaps Jeremy Paxman’s attack of guilt and self-loathing reflects some sort of personal turbulence. If so, I rather wish he would not implicate the rest of his generation in his great crisis of conscience.
While monarchists enjoy reports of the Queen’s triumphant visit to the royal-obsessed country of Australia, and anticipate the orgy of bunting and grovelling which will be the Diamond Jubilee, a more sombre reminder of royal life has been published in the press.
The BBC, it has been reported, has been training its staff for the sad event of the Queen’s death. Aware of the terrible gaffe which occurred when the Queen Mother died (Peter Sissons wore a burgundy tie and a grey suit), the corporation has been putting the major players through what has been described as “royal funeral training”. Black ties and dark suits are now kept in cupboards at Broadcasting House in case sad news breaks when least expected.
Yet, even at what one hopes is an early stage, there must be concerns. Nicholas Witchell, “The Footman” as he is known in royal circles, has the look of someone who feels he should be doing John Simpson’s job rather than hanging around the gates of Buckingham Palace with the tourists.
Huw Edwards, the BBC’s official Man of Sorrow, will obviously be centre stage. His gentle air of quiet sympathy when reporting tragic news is envied by broadcasters around the world, and it is said that videos of his most famous newscasts are shown by funeral directors to junior staff to help them learn the appropriate tone of voice and facial expression.
All the same, there is something distinctly buttoned-up and male about the corporation’s royal team. Surely, in the early 21st century, at least one presenter should be female and experienced at showing on-screen the emotion which viewers will be feeling, breaking down at strategic moments. Fortunately, Her Majesty is looking well so that there will be ample time to train the chosen presenter for royal caring duty.
My candidates for the job are Rosie Millard, Fern Britton and Esther Rantzen.
Independent, 1 November 2011