David Behrens: I’d rather anything goes than return to a repressive society

The film Stan and Ollie, with John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in the title roles.
The film Stan and Ollie, with John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in the title roles.
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The permissive society, it seemed to me, was already flourishing when I first arrived in Bradford to work 40-odd years ago. But nobody had told my landlady.

There was to be no one in my room after dark, I was warned. It was scarcely big enough for two, anyway.

It amused me that people still liked to maintain a veneer of respectability, even while their neighbours carried on behind the net curtains as if they were in an Alan Ayckbourn farce.

Today, no such facade is necessary. When my son moved into a student house last year, the promise of a double bed in every room was literally pasted in the letting agent’s window.

Occasional jolts such as this are useful reminders – not only of the hypocrisy that has been swept away on the tide of social change, but also the different universe today’s young people seem to inhabit.

Another came this week, when I texted Behrens junior to say that I had just returned from having seen Stan and Ollie.

“Who are Stan and Ollie?” he scribbled back several hours later, having eventually arisen, student-like, from his double bed.

Perhaps I should have made it clearer that I’d been to the cinema, not to someone’s house, and that Stan and Ollie is the name of a current movie. He did at least twig when I texted the words Laurel and Hardy back at him.

The film is wonderful, in case you were wondering. It is set not in the Hollywood of the 1930s but in England two decades later. The great comedians, needing the money, had embarked on a third tour of our provincial theatres – the Bradford Alhambra, among them. They stayed around the corner at the Midland Hotel, which had also seen better 

The evocation of the buttoned-up Britain to which they came struck a chord with me because the timing coincided exactly with an event in my own family that was scarcely spoken of, even when those who knew the details were still here to do so.

My father, recently returned from the RAF, had grown restless in the family home – he was the youngest of several siblings and the last to remain there – and had decided to up sticks and get married. This was not to my mother, but to someone whose name I do not know. They had a daughter, but the match had been struck too soon and the flame soon went out.

Shortly afterwards, he began courting my mother, whose parents were scandalised by her fraternisation with a divorcee. So much so that after they married, his prior life was locked away in the cupboard of secrets, never to be opened. A prison sentence would have been less disreputable.

As far as I know, they never discussed it again. I learned of it only after he had died, having grown up believing I was his eldest child.

I’m not sure what became of his daughter – the half-sister I’ve never met. I heard she and her mother had emigrated to America before the 1950s were out.

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for dad to have kept for so many years the secret of a daughter he presumably never saw, and for whom he must have yearned. Such were the extraordinary social conventions of our repressive, post-war society.

For many, it was worse still: a time of outlawed lives played out in secret, on worn-out sofas in sad little rooms, in the amber glow of a tungsten bulb.

I remind myself of this every time some aspect of our present, anything-goes culture comes along to appal me.

It’s why I didn’t bat an eyelid at the apparent permissiveness of my son’s landlord. Double beds for everyone, I say. Even Laurel and Hardy shared one.

I was also a divorcee when I became a parent, and given my dad’s experience, I’ve been at pains to be open about it. The fact that to my son it’s no more of a social faux pas than using the wrong knife and fork at dinner is further evidence of the extent to which times have changed.

My generation had many advantages over his. There were grants, not loans, to pay for a university education, and jobs at the end of it were relatively plentiful. Some of us – not me, I regret – had index-linked pensions and could look forward to an early retirement. He will see none of that, and I worry for his future. But not for the freedom he has to live his life as he pleases. That, at least, is progress.