Pissed-off Toff

In thrall to the young

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff suggests that the younger generation of today – aged, say, eighteen to twenty-five – is more spoiled and over-indulged than any that came before them … and that as a consequence they are often impossible as guests, and even worse to live with.

How many parents aged fifty-something heaved a sigh of relief, I wonder, as their young offspring packed their suitcases and returned to their Internet-based jobs after a prolonged family reunion over Christmas and the New Year? And how many parents of roughly the same age, I wonder, are now more than happy to see their university-aged children return to their seats of learning, taking their ubiquitous smartfones and laptops and chargers with them?

Notoriously, the family tensions and the enforced intimacy and the non-stop self-indulgence of the winter solstice are dangerous for husband and wife, offering rich seasonal pickings for divorce lawyers. But is this not also a time when many parents reflect on a subject about which they hardly dare express their thoughts? Namely, the hideous demands and expectations of the younger generation, nowadays; and, all too often, the impossibility of civilised co-existence with them.

This topic has been on my mind for several years, but only now can I write about it as I wish.

* * * * *

As my countless readers from the Ukraine to California know, and from Australia to Canada too … as my readers know, for ten years I lived in a large flat at the top of a mansion block in Westminster, with a fine view looking westwards over the apse of the cathedral. My elderly absentee landlady was a woman of considerable style and even greater strength of character, and I was fond of her and terrified of her in equal measure. On the rare occasions when she came to town, I either disappeared, or I danced attendance, producing meals in the dining room for her and any family members who might materialise. Such visits, never lasting more than a few days, generally passed off without major incident.

Other visits, increasingly frequent as time went by, were less welcome. My landlady had various grandchildren who, as they reached the age of eighteen or thereabouts, were liable to come and stay at the flat for ‘work experience’ and internships of one sort or another. I became particularly fond of one of them, a girl with striking pre-Raphaelite looks. She always made herself agreeable and sometimes invited round her own girlfriends, who also made themselves agreeable and were just the sort of daughters that I would be proud to have, if I were a father.

However, two of the boys were quite another matter – case studies, almost, of the awfulness of the so-called ‘snowflake’ generation. Brought up by their super-social boho-chic parents in a stately home 150-odd miles from London, these two good-looking brothers, whom we will call ‘Archie’ and ‘Zac’, were the embodiment of selfishness and entitlement.

Let us take the younger one first – Zac, the less awful of the two. Despite his expensive private education, he could not summon up even the most basic courtesy to oil the wheels of our co-habitation; and only with the greatest reluctance did he reply, in monosyllabic fashion, to my attempts to establish goodwill. Since this Zac had found a job in a bar, he was thankfully absent most evenings. But he was liable to return at any time during the night, with some girl or other, and they might or might not slump down in front of the television at 3 am, oblivious to the presence in the flat of two middle-aged lodgers. From time to time, used condoms lay glistening in one wastepaper basket or another.

Otherwise, it was bad enough that Zac used to leave the iron on when he had finished ironing his white shirt before the evening shift. What if I were not there to turn it off? But things reached a new low when one day I emerged from my room in the housekeeper’s quarters to find that the boy had yet again left the flat without closing the door behind him, so that anyone could have walked in and taken anything they wanted – most particularly, my Mac computer on the dining room table, containing my whole life. Plus a solid gold pen or two.

“You have to understand …” he said, as I remonstrated with him once again. “No, Zac,” I cut in. “There’s nothing I have to understand. You’re the one who has to understand. When you leave this flat, you must close the front door, always. Why do I even need to say it?”

“You have to understand,” he repeated, the very picture of outraged self-righteousness. “At school, all the doors close automatically. I’ve been institutionalised.”

* * * * *

But Archie was worse. Despite a few persistent facial spots, he – like his younger brother – was good looking, and capable of attracting girls. But so molly-coddled had he been, so cosseted and over-indulged; so entirely unable was he to make the slightest effort with other people or to think about anything other than his own needs, that he was effectively dysfunctional. 

The first night he arrived, he asked me: could I help him make his bed; could I give him a battery for some electronic device or other; did I have any toothpaste? The next day the boy attempted to prise open a tin of food using one of my expensive Sabatier knives. After which, one trivial annoyance succeeded another. This Archie had the sole use of his grandmother’s bathroom, where there was a titanic bath-tub from the 1920s which he used to fill up to the very brim, so that the water spilled into the overflow and spattered down into the courtyard below. This annoyed the neighbours in the flat beneath ours, and occasioned many a telephone call to myself.

As reluctant pig-in-the-middle, I asked the boy not once, but several times, to please desist from filling his huge bath to overflowing … plus, by the way, his bathing habits meant that there was no hot water left for myself or the other lodger. As I remonstrated thus, Archie looked at me with dumb insolence. And soon enough, I received a telephone call from his mother, who felt the need to ‘discuss’ this matter.

* * * * *

Determined that the atmosphere in the flat that was my home should not be poisoned, I made various efforts to promote civilised co-habitation. One evening, therefore, when I knew that a number of his friends were coming round to the flat before going out to a nightclub, and realising that Archie was incapable of making any effort whatsoever on any front, I bought a large platter of sandwiches from M&S and left it out in the kitchen before retreating into my room. The next day I received not even a word of mumbled thanks. Later, when the youth was due to go to Venice to attend one of the art courses run by John Hall for the children of the rich and privileged, I spent an hour or two typing out my secret tips for the city, which I happen to know well: the most fun bars to go to, the least-known restaurants, the best pizzerias … and left it all in an envelope. Again, not a word.

At some stage, too, Archie asked me to stop doing my routine hour of evening piano practice. This, he claimed, caused him to feel ‘stressed out’; but this time his request met with a point-blank refusal on my part.

It was perhaps inevitable that things would come to a head. One evening he came back with half-a-dozen friends. A party ensued in the drawing room. The yelling and shouting became more and more manic. Then came banging and crashing, with the occasional wild incursion into the kitchen next to my own housekeeper’s room. At some time around 4 or 5 in the morning the noise subsided … and when, at eight o’clock, I emerged to survey the damage, I saw that my volume of Bach’s preludes and fugues had disappeared from its usual place on the music-stand above the keyboard of the piano in the drawing room.

Given to me as part of a set by my mother on my 21st birthday, and containing fingering for various of my favourite preludes worked out over many hundreds of hours, this volume of music is perhaps my most valued possession. With a feeling of sickness rising in my stomach, I looked for it high and low. It was nowhere to be found. By now seething with rage, I stormed into Archie’s room and hauled him out of bed.

A close-run thing for my Bach preludes …

In the end, the volume appeared … propped up against a wall in Archie’s bathroom. And later that day, I received a telephone call from the lad’s father. Furious at the lack of ‘respect’ that I had showed to his son, and outlining my own failings and insignificance in the starkest terms, this flaky socialite – far inferior to me in terms of intellect and accomplishments, but far superior in terms of worldly position – not only threatened me with instant homelessness, but insulted me more thoroughly than anyone has ever done in my whole life.

Later, the mystery concerning my volume of music was resolved by the concert pianist who from time to time gave me lessons. Didn’t I get it, asked the blue-blooded PR-C when he next came round. Did I really not understand what had been going on? Well then, let him explain:

As was clear from the banging and whooping and shouting, the youngsters had been not just drunk, but high on cocaine too. The cloth-bound cover of my volume of Bach preludes presented the ideal surface from which to sniff this drug up into their nostrils. And by tradition, the snorting of drugs takes place in bathrooms … so Archie and his friends had come back to the flat with a supply of coke which they had snorted in the bathroom, using my own volume of music as a platform … and leaving me – innocent of any experience whatsoever of drugs – to assume that my most valued possession had been ripped up or thrown over the balcony in a fit of madness.

* * * * *

It was not just the selfishness or the sense of entitlement or the sheer boorishness of Archie and Zac that drove me to a frenzy; nor just their utter incompetence on the domestic front; nor the stench of the hi-protein take-away food that they lived off; nor, even, the fact that they turned the place into a slummy bordello with their various bedmates. 

There were other broader considerations. If they were entirely unwilling to show even the most basic civility towards a middle-aged lodger, might they not be concerned – as their own generation apparently is – about weightier matters, such as the ‘environment’ … that issue about which Greta ‘How dare you!’ Thunberg lectures us on a daily basis?

But no. As already noted, Archie liked to use up the entire hot water supply for his evening bath. He heated his room to an unhealthy temperature, twenty-four hours a day. The two boys routinely left all the lights on. They also contrived to produce huge amounts of waste from food, packaging, and discarded possessions … none of which they could be bothered to sort for recycling: that fell to me.

So when Covid hit, and when I realised that as a result of the ‘lockdown’ these two boys would not be coming to the flat for the forseeable future, I leapt for joy. Nor, indeed, did I see them between that moment and the day when I moved to the north of England.

* * * * *

Archie and Zac are, admittedly, extreme cases. But are they not a magnification of a generalised phenomenon – a younger generation that is incapable of doing anything for itself, and which expects to be looked after by indulgent parents at every turn? It might sound like a cliché, repeated throughout history, but when I was a boy, things were different.

From early childhood, the importance of making myself agreeable to the older generation was drummed into me. As a boy, I was expected to help with household chores, and I earned my pocket money by working in the garden. Around the age of thirteen, I learnt how to iron my own shirts, and have never expected anyone else to do it for me. From the age of eighteen, I have been capable of cooking a decent meal, and of giving a dinner party; and have always expected to help with the washing up. And from when I left Eton, I received not one penny from my parents until my mother died twenty-odd years later.

None of which is unusual for someone of my age. But how does it compare with the younger generation of today? Over the last year or so, and especially over Christmas, I received various communications from friends with children aged, say, 21 to 25. A pattern emerges.

A country squire aged 50-something loves his boys to bits, and is rightly proud of them. They are all good-looking, intelligent, and successful. But when they come home with their friends, they turn into vandals. They break everything. They leave stains from wine glasses on the Jacobean furniture. They rifle through his wardrobe and borrow his smartest clothes at will: a smoking jacket here, a dinner jacket there. They take his car and lose the key. They reset the television to weird channels. They eat the food in the fridge, playing havoc with his wife’s meal plans. But at the same time, they are charming, solicitous, and good company.

Another friend has long since given up any hope that either of his two children will lift a finger to help with anything. Indeed, with her special dietary requirements, his daughter produces such a mess in the kitchen that at one stage last year he could bear it no longer, and left his own home to stay with a bachelor friend for a week, thereby incurring a social debt that he was soon called on to repay. Having accepted long ago that he must wait on his children hand and foot, what he now finds most infuriating is their unpunctuality.

“Remember, Tom, we’re invited for drinks before lunch at Highclere tomorrow,” he says to his son. “So can you be ready to leave at twelve. Please.”

“OK, Dad! Got it!! Relax!!!”

And the next day, noon sees Tom luxuriating in his bath. The parents leave for drinks with the Earl of Carnarvon. And Tom and his sister follow in a separate car, much later, and duly get lost.

“It drives me to distraction,” says my friend. “But so long as they stay cheerful and they’re good company, I suppose I can live with it.”

Of the various people I spoke to, only my younger brother seemed thrilled without reservation to have his three daughters to stay in his tiny house. But with my other friends aged fifty-something, the same concerns surfaced repeatedly. They wait on their children; they shop for them; they cook for them; they ferry them around. Rarely do they see them before mid-day … oh, and in larger house parties, used condoms tend to make their unwelcome appearance in the strangest of places.

* * * * *

Is there a solution to all this?

When I was at Oxford in the early 1980s I spent a couple of summers near Siena tutoring the two girls of Matthew and Maro Spender – the most generous of hosts, as close to bohemian royalty as you can get, their house filled with guests who were without exception beautiful, interesting and well-bred. Although there were no rules, there was no lying a-bed. Breakfast was at 9.30 on the terrace, and everyone was expected to be there, on good form. Civilised conversation took place, spiced with the best and most up-to-date gossip. Then the day started. It was always productive. Everyone was always doing something: painting, cooking, working in the garden, or reading a proper book. It was not that sloth was not tolerated; rather, it was not even contemplated. Those two summers were among the most intensely happy periods of my life.

Years later, during a period of homelessness, I found shelter with the artist Polly Hope, in her converted brewery in Spitalfields. As with the Spenders, the same unstated rules applied. Here, breakfast was earlier, at eight o’clock. The whole household must be in attendance: guests, waifs and strays, and Polly’s various assistants. After which, everyone must go about his business. The day must be productive. Then, at six o’clock, it was time to stop. Drinks were served, and supper followed, with good conversation. There was a grand piano, of course. And again, productivity created contentment.

* * * * *

Might such a thing still be possible in today’s world? A rule-based system in which the young are not allowed to stare into their smartfones while mummy and daddy wait on them, but in which they have to act as adults and contribute to the well-being and smooth functioning of the household … or they’re out?

“Rules?! For my children??!! You must be joking!!!” said an old friend to whom I confessed this fantasy in an unguarded moment …

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