The latest on books and the arts

RSS

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.

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

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.