Leafy living: the Sun Inn pub in Richmond, south-west London. Photo: Flickr/© Jim Linwood
Show Hide image

Sun-In and John Lewis: growing up in 1980s British suburbia

The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools.

The House Is Full of Yogis: the Story of a Childhood Turned Upside Down
Will Hodgkinson
Blue Door, 336pp, £12.99 

 

This is a memoir of the Eighties but open it in search of Arthur Scargill and the Wag club and you’ll be disappointed. The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond, in south-west London – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools. Their idea of rebellion is to go completely mad with a bottle of Sun-In, assuming that the joint they’ve just smoked has not already reduced them to a queasy heap on the bathroom floor. (Sun-In, for those who weren’t there, was the cheap spray-in bleach of choice for wannabe David Sylvians.) Yes, shoulder pads abound. But these come courtesy of the author’s mother, who regards Margaret Thatcher as a feminist role model and has a mania for beige carpets and John Lewis kitchens.

In one sense, then, what befalls the Hodgkinson family in 1984 or thereabouts – the chronology is slightly hazy, this being a book that rather wants for dates – is strikingly out of kilter both with the times and with their sensibility. The yogis of the title, who fill up the house like so many skittles, surely belong to the gentle Sixties rather than to the rapacious Eighties. And the Hodgkinson parents seem at first to be the last people who would fall in love with meditation and white pyjama suits.

Liz Hodgkinson is a tabloid journalist (she is working on the Sunday People as the book opens) who specialises in lifestyle features with titles such as “How to turn your tubby hubby into a slim Jim”. Her husband, Neville, is a medical writer on the Daily Mail, which, then as now, has a reputation for being a somewhat brutal workplace. However, the beady-eyed reader will notice early on that there is perhaps more to Nev than meets the eye. After all, isn’t his favourite album Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens?

The drama begins when Neville falls ill and is sent to Florida to recuperate. On his return, he gives up his job and becomes – who knows why, exactly? – a devotee of the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual movement established in India in 1937 by a diamond dealer that is now run by women, whose job it is to lead the world away from violence using meditation. For his sons, Will and Tom, this is awkward. It’s embarrassing watching their father gently proselytising to family friends while wearing white pyjamas and it’s miserable always to be given dhal when what you long for is a fun-sized Mars bar. Neither of them understands why Neville spends so much time staring at his “red yogi egg of light”. Tom, at least, would rather stare at his ZX Spectrum computer.

Amazingly, the change in Neville rather suits Liz. When he moves into the basement, in effect putting an end to their physical relationship (celibacy is an important element of Brahma Kumari teaching), she simply churns out yet another feisty self-help book: Sex Is Not Compulsory.

What to make of The House Is Full of Yogis? Hodgkinson, a rock critic at the Times, has a lovely, light style and some of his set pieces are very funny (it’s impossible not to love his account of a family holiday on a boat on the Thames that ends in disaster as Liz, wearing her special captain’s hat, cheerily runs their vessel aground).

He is attentive to the minute social divisions that define the British middle classes – in this world, the posher you are, the more likely it is that your parents will be in possession of a crumbling and unwashed estate car – and he’s good at teenage embarrassment, whether induced by girls or by one’s mother’s bouffant hairdo and deranged gender politics.

Yet there are also moments when his story lags – he tells us, for instance, a good deal more than he needs to about his alternative boarding school – and it’s clear that while he is happy to send up his baffling, contrarian mother, his fondness for his wispy, mild-mannered father precludes a proper examination of his own feelings (or, for that matter, of Neville’s).

There are too many questions he leaves unanswered, not only about the Brahma Kumaris (Neville now lives with them at an Oxfordshire retreat) but about something I regard as far weirder and certainly more disturbing: his father’s role in driving the Sunday Times’s denialist reporting of Aids under its then editor, Andrew Neil. When he finally returned to work as a journalist, Hodgkinson repeatedly questioned the link between HIV and Aids.

I’m not saying that I longed to hear that Hodgkinson Jr had to spend his later life in psychotherapy. In a way, it’s a relief to read a memoir that is so affectionate, so moan-free, so reluctant to apportion blame. But its sweetness – and at times this book is very sweet indeed – needs cutting, if not with the vinegar of disappointment, then at least with the acid of doubt.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era