'It has worked at a price'
Margaret Forster talked to Jennie Bristow about the legacy of the Sixties and the 'gluttonous supermarket' of sexual relationships
'Nobody is embarrassed any more about anything. There's nothing that can't be discussed in a queue or on a bus.' Novelist and biographer Margaret Forster 'spends her life' eavesdropping on public transport. 'There are no hushed voices or whispers, it's all out there. And sometimes I wish that there could be perhaps just a little bit of a return to reticence.'
In these confessional times, the end of 'reticence' is often lamented by those who, like Forster, remember a time when it was frowned upon even to discuss your problems in private. But Forster is no old fogey. Overturning the values of the past has been central to both her personal life and professional work. In her bestselling memoir Hidden Lives, she contrasts the lives of her grandmother, mother and herself, and relentlessly exposes the thwarted ambitions of women living before the 1960s, finishing with a passionate declaration that 'everything is better now'. Her novels, too, brutally dissect the pressures and constraints of familial relationships, from the way younger generations become tied into a suffocating duty of care towards their parents to the destructive impact of moral judgements surrounding sexuality and illegitimacy.
But while welcoming the destruction of many of these past pressures and constraints, Forster voices a niggling feeling that maybe 'we've almost been too successful'.
'My generation, the parents in the 1960s, had this sweet little thing that we wanted our children to be our friends, because we'd been brought up by parents who we couldn't begin to expect to discuss anything with', she explains. 'None of my generation would have dreamed of going to their mother and talking about intimate or personal things, it just would never have occurred to you. But today, our children do. And it's lovely that it has worked, but it's worked at a price. You've got to have them sharing with you the most godawful terrible things, the tragedies and dreadful things that have happened to them. I have often thought, well, wonderful that he/she can weep and tell me these things, but so awful that...dear God, it's too much.'
For Forster, and many others of her generation, the 1960s marked a major shift in values - from reticence to openness, from strict sexual morality to sexual liberation, from the acceptance of inequality to a striving for equality. Superficially, it seems that the values endorsed by her generation finally triumphed by the 1990s. Yet she suggests that society has paid a price for this - the loss of some aspects of traditional values that were actually quite good. So 'I believe in secrets and keeping things from people, and I don't think it's necessarily bad, but I think a lot of that has gone', she says. Now, 'secrets are there to be found out - on a public as well as a private level. Nobody's allowed to have secrets or a secret life'. In public, the result is the Clinton-style confessional: 'it was unbearable, the whole thing. Every time he spoke I just felt ill...poor Americans.' And then 'there's the old-fashioned thing about pride, which has always been a very bad thing. But I think there are some good things to be said for pride'.
Is the ambivalence Forster feels towards some of the values of today really a result of her generation having been 'too successful'? There is a world of difference, after all, between families being able to talk openly among themselves and the Clinton/Blair style of emotional public address. Likewise, the recognition that a culture of stubborn pride prevents people from asking for help need not lead inexorably to a situation where having secrets becomes taboo and people are pushed into counselling whenever they face a problem. In fact, the 'values' embraced by society today may have the same labels of openness and personal freedom as the aspirations expressed by many of Forster's generation, but the similarity ends there.
If the 1960s was the time when the onslaught on traditional values began, the motivation for this was largely positive, even liberatory. It was assumed that people, when freed from the moral and social constraints of the time, could achieve greater things and more fulfilling relationships - they could move beyond the narrow expectations that society held of them. Today, by contrast, many of the 'progressive' values associated with the 1960s have been adopted for very different reasons. In this culture of openness, for example, keeping things to yourself is frowned upon because people are assumed to be incapable of coping with emotional problems on their own. The demand for openness is not born out of a rejection of stifling social etiquette, as it was 40 years ago. It has become a new etiquette itself, which insists that people talk about their private life in public, and lay themselves and their families bare to interference from professionals offering help and counselling.
In a similar way, what could look like the success of sexual liberation today bears little relation to the original ideal. 'My generation really believed sex wouldn't be any good unless you had a deep and lasting relationship, and as anyone can see, that's rubbish', explains Forster. 'But on the other hand the fact that you can sexually experiment and indulge yourself and give free rein to any passion you're feeling must bring problems. It's like a kind of gluttonous supermarket - it becomes a different thing and it starts so early, it's very nearly the first thing.' Her conclusion? 'Theoretically I approve of it - of women thinking I fancy that bloke and the bloke fancies you and that's it and you have your one night stand and why not, that's what my head says. But I can see that it might also really be quite disastrous.'
That the traps of marriage and monogamy no longer exist as they did 40 years ago should be a cause for celebration. But what have we made of this freedom? Increasingly, intimate relationships are played out against a general culture of distrust, in which giving 'free rein' to passion is perceived as dangerous - not because society disapproves, but because this lays individuals open to being hurt. Casual sex is accepted precisely because it allows for an emotional distance between people. Even this is surrounded by fears of disease and other complications, while longer-term relationships are commonly discussed as potential sites of violence and emotional abuse.
Forster remarks wryly that 'none of my experience is ever relevant, as my children are always reminding me. It's freakish and ridiculous meeting one person when you're 16 and never having had anyone else' - and then goes on to argue that she knows 'lots of people from my generation' who are equally freakish in their happy, monogamous, long-term relationships. 'You get all these hidden, harmonious partnerships, but you never hear about them.' What has changed is not people's relationships, so much as the kind of relationship that society sanctions. Today, you can experiment with your sexuality and have a series of (preferably non-penetrative) relationships, but is this a result of freedom - or of a fear of commitment?
One of the biggest 'value shifts' since the 1960s has been in personal and familial relationships. Much of Forster's work - both fiction and memoirs - painstakingly details the extent to which rigid family structures, and the expectations surrounding them, have wasted people's talents and thwarted their ambitions. Forster aims her fire particularly at the suffocating impact the family has had on women; but she comes back again and again to the constraints placed on younger generations by notions of family duty, loyalty and approval. And although she felt a very strong obligation to care for her own parents, she is adamant that 'I do not ever expect anything from my children'.
'You still sometimes hear people from my generation talking about the future and how they'll be looked after, and I'd never want that. I felt duty strongly towards my parents, because in a way their generation hadn't chosen to have children; and my parents hadn't been very successful in life, and they'd been good. I felt that I had a duty towards them, but my children haven't got the same duty towards me.' And as she points out, now that having children is largely a matter of choice, it is 'one of the most selfish things anybody ever does': 'what else are you doing it for except for your own self-gratification?'
That having children and a family is now down to choice, more than biology or social obligation, is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the past 40 years. To have kids because you want them, when you want them and with whom you want them must lead to a relationship with your children that is potentially more loving and less prone to resentments on both sides, than in pre-contraceptive times. Yet in today's insecure climate, the existence of this choice only seems to complicate the process of parenting, by constantly emphasising what cannot be taken for granted in the parent-child relationship. The endless stream of government-sponsored advice and interference in the process of child-rearing undermines the spontaneous trust between parent and child - after all, if the government doesn't think mother knows best, why should her son and daughter? Younger generations, meanwhile, use their newfound freedom from the shackles of family duty by becoming increasingly reluctant to fly the parental nest, with over half of men aged 20 to 24 still living at home with their parents. And the less parents demand of their children, it seems, the more younger generations are likely to hold up an 'unhappy childhood' as the cause of their current problems.
Forster's reaction to many of these developments is tempered by a sense that something must have gone right. From counselling to 'that terrible phrase "coming to terms" - it's so banal it's become absolutely meaningless', she adds that 'these things, however much I sneer at them, are probably good'. But however positive it is to have moved on from traditional morality, the progressive-sounding morality of today tends to distort even those things achieved by the 1960s, as well as laying many new traps. Things may be better today than they ever were before - but we can do a lot better than this.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000