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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear