Squeezed Middle: We all want to equip our kids for the future, but Mandarin at four years old?

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa.

‘‘I’ve just brought the twins here for an hour while my four-year-old has her Mandarin lesson.”

Huh? I stare blankly at Rosa, a mother I have just started chatting to at the soft-play session. She is young, smiley, nicely dressed. She isn’t wearing a twinset or pearls or any other obvious accoutrements of an awful, pushy parent. And yet . . . Mandarin? Four years old?

“Then this afternoon we’re just staying at home.”

“We are, too,” I say, relieved. “God, afternoons, eh? We never do anything. Other than sit around watching Fireman Sam!”

“Really?” Rosa looks alarmed. “We usually do home schooling but this is our day off. I believe kids need to learn to manage boredom.”

This is happening to me more and more often: I’ll start a perfectly normal conversation with a perfectly normal-looking fellow parent and after five minutes things will get all weird. The other day, the mother of one of Larry’s friends from nursery told me she had signed her son up for a private primary school in a distant, leafier suburb. I almost choked. I mean, get a grip! Does she think she is doing him a favour? Quite apart from anything, he’s going to have to wear one of those dorky little hats.

I don’t blame people for feeling edgy, though. In a way, it’s good to know I’m not the only one. We are all trying to equip our children for what lies ahead and we are all fumbling uselessly in the dark. Will they live in a totalitarian cyber-state? Become drone labourers for the Chinese? Experience a hideous environmental apocalypse? We can’t confidently rule anything out.

Rosa yawns and rubs her weary eyes. On the trampoline, one twin is jumping on the other twin’s head. Before having children, she was a doctor. She was trained to figure out what is wrong with people and give them pills to make it better. She is applying the same practical, problem-solving approach to her children’s prospects.

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa. Instead of brooding helplessly about the future, I should focus on finding solutions. No doubt Mandarin would come in handy, and I’m sure there are computer programming courses for toddlers out there . . .

It’s no good. I just can’t do things that way. I’m not organised or determined enough. Instead, I fall back on a fuzzy conviction that if Larry and Moe are generally loved and have fun they will find a way to be happy even in challenging circumstances. If they both have nice friends and, when the time comes, nice girl (or boy) friends, I will consider myself to have done well.

Of course, this lackadaisical attitude is probably partly to blame for my own tumble down the socio-economic ladder.

There are some advantages to the fuzzy approach, though. As she bundles her twins into their double buggy and rushes off to carry on managing her daughter’s boredom, Rosa sighs and says the saddest thing in the world: “If you knew what it was really like before you had kids, you’d never do it, would you?”

Allez Français - Mandarin is the new in thing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org