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

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.