Why our children will never have a summer like ’76

Posted on July 25th, 2013
Categories: News


In this gently nostalgic essay, father-of-four Toby Young bemoans a sad truth of our modern age


For those of us of a certain age, every hot summer is in some way a replay of 1976.

Until the cataclysmic thunderstorms of late August, it was a summer holiday of 80F days and sleepless nights, melting tarmac and reservoirs like crazy paving, Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase at Wimbledon, and Denis Howell at Westminster – Britain’s first and only Minister for Drought.

I was 12 at the time. The hot weather was a wonderful excuse to stay out late and get up to mischief with my friends. We kicked off shoes and adult supervision in what became a storybook summer.

Is that sense of freedom why the great heatwave still seems burned into our national memory 37 years on?

I now have four children of my own – three of them boys – and in many ways they have the same opportunity that I did.

If they are lucky, and this spell of incredible weather lasts, they’ll have six glorious weeks ahead of them. They can ride their bikes, go pond-dipping and build a secret camp.

It could be a summer they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, just like 1976 was for me. But I don’t suppose they’ll do any of that.

For my children, the holidays mean more time to spend in front of screens, the kind you watch and the kind you play on. Instead of joining their friends outside for a game of football, it’ll be FIFA 13 and Score.

They are products of the digital age; my memories of summers in the great outdoors seem to belong to the analogue era.

We have moved just one  generation forward, but that summer of endless blue skies belongs to a different world. We queued in the street for water. My children expect to drink  it encased in plastic. We had  water fights with buckets. Mine expect a ride in a log-flume at a theme park.

So is it any wonder my four children can’t amuse themselves in the sunshine when they’ve been surrounded by electronic devices all their lives? Having been brought up on a diet of video games and Hollywood blockbusters, they’re unlikely to disappear into the woods to play cowboys and Indians.

At least they have the choice. Others will be penned in by parents worried about the traffic, or by an impossible schedule of improving activities, all organised by adults, most involving  a car journey. If they do roam ‘free’ then they are sure to be linked to the mothership by mobile phone.

The only way to persuade my kids to leave the house will be to organise a trip to Legoland or Alton Towers. Unfortunately, I’m not sure my bank manager will allow it. You think I’m  exaggerating? When I went to Legoland last month to celebrate my five-year-old son’s birthday, the price of admission for two adults and five children was £304.50.

And, no, before you ask, I wasn’t one of those mugs who paid full price. I’d diligently cut out the voucher on the side of the Rice Krispies box so I could get in for ‘free’. If you add the cost of lunch at the Knights Table Rotisserie, I don’t think I had any change from £500.

One of the curses of modern life is that it’s almost impossible to take children anywhere without spending vast sums. It is another new restriction on their freedom and mine, less obvious than the epidemic of parental paranoia we are suffering, but insidious all the same.

We’re constantly reminded by public health officials that children should drink plenty of water during this hot weather. But what if you’re nowhere near a tap? Tesco has just increased the price of a two-litre bottle by 40 per cent, and a 75cl bottle at the cinema costs £2.50.

The same goes for ice cream. If you were you under the impression that a Flake 99 only costs 99p, think again. In my experience, they vary in price between £1.50 and £3 depending on the temperature outside.

At what point in the past quarter of a century did it become mandatory to buy so much stuff for your kids?

I don’t want to sound like a character in Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but when I was a lad I had to pay for all such treats out of the money I earned doing odd-jobs.

Indeed, one of the reasons the summer of 1976 was so memorable is that I got myself a paper round. Given that a bag of crisps cost 5p in those days, the extra £1.90 a week went a long way.

I also think the modern education system is at fault. My children are at a good local primary school and I’m sure the teachers would try to foster a bit of self-reliance if they could.

BUT they’re constrained by the absurd health and safety culture  that pervades the entire system. At their most recent sports day, for instance, they were forced to throw javelins made of foam that were blown off course as soon as they left their hands.

I’m not sure how that’s going to inspire them with the spirit of the Olympics. It was less ‘faster, higher, stronger’, more ‘slower, gentler, safer’.

I hadn’t realised how much they were missing out until I took them to Kenya at the beginning of the year and arranged for them to go to a school out there called Pembroke House for half a term.

It was like something out of the Dangerous Book for Boys. A typical school trip involved an overnight stay in a rhino conservancy. My daughter learned how to track a leopard, while my eight-year-old son was taught how to identify a poisonous snake.

They lost all interest in their Nintendos and discovered more innocent pleasures, such as building a network of tunnels in a muddy flowerbed.

I marvelled at the effect this wonderful school had on them in the space of six short weeks. It was as if they cast aside all the bad habits they’d acquired in the course of being brought up in modern Britain and, for the first time in their lives, became real children.

If there are no leopards in West London, there are abundant parks and ponds, and no shortage of muddy flowerbeds. Up above there are blue skies to match the long, parched – and from this distance – innocent days of 1976.

But I’m still worried that this glorious summer will pass my children by.