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Jane Kelly: We live in a world of terrified, fat, impoverished adult children

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Lionel Shriver was at the Hay Festival this year plugging her new novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047. It centres on three generations of the Mandible family as an extreme fiscal crisis hits a future America. It gives a dystopic glimpse into the decline that may await America and Europe all too soon, with a Chelsea Clinton administration in the US and Ed Balls as Prime Minister over here. 

Mandibles are, of course, those bits of the jaw to do with chewing and devouring, bringing to mind the praying mantis. From this 18th century trope, we know her characters are going to be greedy gobblers who she doesn’t like one bit.

The wealthy best-selling author, originally from North Carolina, looks at relations gathered around the ailing Douglas E Mandible, aged 97, in particular his stressed son, ‘Carter,’ a journalist, father of three and grandfather of four, who is ambivalent about his aging P. Inheritance is on his mind and he is worried that he might end up with, ‘Zippedy-do-dah-zenada,’ American apparently for zilch.

Carter knows that he grudges the fact that his old Dad is still alive. Everyone in the book, despite all having trailerpark names, made up on the spot rather than handed on from a previous era, in the American way, examines their complex feelings and motives in long expository speeches without a trace of irony.

As Shriver put it more succinctly at the Hay Festival, ‘A family fortune introduces an element of corruption.’ 

Inherited money she says is, ‘a contaminant.’ Basic inheritance, from parent to child, is evil. She sounded very harsh yet rather confused about this. 

‘I am very sympathetic to the parents handing it on but not to the children waiting for the windfall,’ she said. She believes that their benevolence automatically causes the sins of avarice and greed in offspring. A mention in your mother’s will create a ‘sense of entitlement.’ 

Of course, she’s right, there are some very nasty people around and their behaviour near death-beds is revolting.  At the time of a parental death many people see sides of their nearest and dearest that they can never forget or forgive. But Shriver, who has no children herself, takes this into politics. She says parents leaving money to their children gives the recipient a ‘free ride,’ ‘a leg-up’; ‘it’s not fair’ she said because some people don’t get to inherit from their parents, so it’s a ‘kind of cheating.’ 

So parents can leave money but children shouldn’t take it. In her talk at Hay she wanted a return to a USA, ‘The way it used to be when you took care of yourself and your own.’  

People with means have always left legacies to their children, so I assume she was talking about the small people of the USA, those who never got much from anyone. 

In her curt nasal whine she muttered on about US banks, and how the State itself called in all gold in the 1930s. The State she believes may fail in its first job, ‘to protect our stuff,’ and we may see a collapse of civilisation. In a sub-Trollopian manner, she tries to relate the recent economic recession to a struggling man hoping to inherit from his father. I am not sure that she is able to do this, or that she understands history that well either, as she told her audience at Hay, ‘Western democracies started as a good idea but became corrupt.’ 

She says this private fiscal pollution is made worse ‘because this is not the most ordinary of times.’ She’s certainly right about that, at least in that this is the first time in history that the poor are fat and the rich are thin. ‘A tsunami of lard has come to us from over the Atlantic’, as geneticist Dr Steve Jones, who was also at the Hay Festival, put it. 

Despite winning the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver seems to have missed out on some realities of human behaviour. Having a will gives old people continuing status and power in a family. Many people make money mainly to be able to give it to their children and grandchildren, whatever those people are like to the outside world, and in these strange times more middle class people need to rely on their parents financially from cradle to grave just to maintain a modest lifestyle. 

I am not sure how America, her former homeland (she now lives in London) has changed over the last thirty years. The people I know there are working into old age, constantly anxious about keeping up their insurance payments, but in the UK things have changed greatly for the small people in the middle. 

Shriver wrote seven novels before she became a success at forty eight, but not many people are going to have that kind of good fortune. Most people here, not rich or on benefits, now view the future with some dread. Dependence on parents is partly, though not entirely, a consequence of this change in middle-class fortunes. 

My father, born in 1919, had a wealthy mother who married, rather below her station, a Protestant Irishman tumbling down to the lower-middle class. He went to grammar school and passed through school certificate to university. After the war he got a local government job easily and supported his family without any trouble. He never asked his parents for anything. His mother wielded her will over him like a weapon which caused him some wry amusement and my mother a lot of disgust. She came from a similar class, but her father, an accountant, was extremely parsimonious. They never had a car, a phone, a fridge or a TV. My mother went to grammar school but was expected to leave school at fifteen and get a job in an office. When her father died he left no money which was a great puzzle, but the subject of money was never mentioned. She would rather have had nothing and never known the reason than broach the subject. 

In my time, we were expected to go to university, get good jobs and support ourselves. After the age of twenty our parents rather faded into the mist as we set up our independent lives. My contemporaries, their grant cheques in the bank, made their way to university alone, by train or bus, and parents rarely visited. After graduation we got into the professions and acquired endowment mortgages. No one I knew asked their parents for money. It somehow wouldn’t have been thought of. A small legacy in a grandparent’s will was probably the first time the idea of inheritance might come up, it seemed quaint and charming, and was quickly forgotten. 

That little world with its mixed economy and inter-generational self-reliance has vanished. We are now in a world of seething discontent, resentment  and insecurity. Men like my father with a nice house, safe job and secure pension no longer exist; even white collar workers are now on short-term contracts and further down the line the unskilled have had their wages depressed and job security obliterated by migration. We need another Trollope to describe it; struggling educated, once aspiring middle-aged people beholden to ancient parents they may have loathed for most of their lives. If they want to send their children to university, help them get into the property market, or even run a car or buy a decent bottle of wine now and then, they have to engage in a protracted false bonhomie with someone they may dislike intensely.

I’m not sure why this has happened, like Shriver I don’t know much about economics, but it can’t all be down to crashing world money markets. Some of the change has occurred through the  undermining of middle-class values and a deliberate infantilising of our culture. Unfortunately, the great failure of British education, the deliberate removal of knowledge and skills, coincided with the economic changes. It’s increasingly clear that that British people are now outclassed by the skills and maturity of migrant workers who come from cultures where the traditional hierarchy of teacher/pupil/parent/child remains in force. Financial anxiety coincided with the great change in western parent/child relationships. 

For people born in the 1970s and 1980s, cosseted and over protected from infancy, not allowed to roam free, dive into the deep end, fall out of trees or talk to strangers, breaking away from parents may be difficult, even without financial need. Independence, ‘standing on one’s own feet’ or ‘taking care of yourself and your own,’ have not been part of our culture for forty years. We now live in a world of terrified, overweight, impoverished adult children. Just how we got here and how we get hastily to somewhere better I have no idea, and neither does Shriver.

 

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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