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In 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared, “most of our people have never had it so good.” The postwar generation grew up protected by a new welfare system, enjoying freedoms and opportunities unknown to their parents. Plus, says recently-turned-sixty, British author Linda Grant, “we had fabulous music and clothes.” In her latest novel, Grant traces the trajectories of four baby boomers who thought they could change the world: from their idealistic student days at Oxford through the realities of growing up and growing older. We discuss what happens when their rose-colored glasses come off in middle age and a new century.
- Linda Grant novelist and journalist
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from We Had It So Good by Linda Grant. Copyright © 2011 by Linda Grant. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. British novelist, Linda Grant, was born in 1951 and she says it's time for her generation to take a long, hard look at itself because the jury is still out. Her latest novel explores the ambition, secrets, longings and regrets of four friends who meet as students at Oxford in 1968. The title of her new novel is, "We Had It So Good." Linda Grant joins me in the studio to talk about the generation now facing the realities of late middle age. And I know many of you will want to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Linda.
MS. LINDA GRANTGood morning.
REHMSo good to have you here.
GRANTThank you very much -- thank you so much for inviting me.
REHMMy pleasure. Talk about the spark for this novel.
GRANTWell, I think you have ideas in your mind and there comes a point where you think, I want to write about this. And I think the first spark probably was about the day after 9/11. I remember sitting at home thinking, what has happened here? And feeling a sense of being punched in the face, feeling of entering a new and very, very different world.
GRANTI had just turned 50 and I remember thinking my generation, particularly in Britain where we didn't have the draft, we didn't have the Vietnam War, had this incredibly long run of good luck. You know, we had no bad -- history had not come and done terrible things to us and I remember thinking, is this all going to change? And I think the second thing that happened was at a party in 2005, very good-looking, distinguished looking man my age in a very, very nice suit and a very good haircut, expensive suit, came over to me and he said, I think we were at the same university. And I said, yes. And he explained to me that he had set up this hippie health food, brown rice, soybeans, justick (sp?), patchouli oil shop.
GRANTAnd I said, of course I know who you are, of course I know who you are. I know exactly who you are. I remember you. And I looked at him and said, so what do you do now? And he said, advertising. And I thought, how? How did we go from that point, what is the arc of somebody's life which takes them from, you know, the early '70s of this kind of hippie idealism, the counterculture, a word we've forgotten about, to middle life of prosperity, you know, owning an expensive home, selling out to the man, how did that happen? And, you know, when I sat down and talked to him, you know, a lot of it was actually to do with his childhood...
GRANTSo that you meet somebody for a moment when they're 19 or 20 and you think, this is who they really are, but actually, everything which has gone before and what comes after is the most significant thing. And I thought, here we are, all these people who I, you know, knew these kind of, you know, stoned hippies and I found them all on Facebook, facing retirement and posting pictures of their grandchildren and that really was how -- what is the arc of our lives of my generation?
REHMYeah. And was that -- did that represent your own life?
GRANTYes, absolutely. I mean, I went -- you know, I was -- I think what I remember most of all and it's such a crazy thing to say, was how special we were. We really believed that we were going to change the world. That those -- I was in my teens for most of the '60s and I remember thinking, oh, you know, our parents have made this sort of lifestyle choice to have gray hair and wrinkles, which obviously, you know, we were not going to have.
GRANTWe were put on the earth, we were born to be young and to stay young forever and we are going to change the world everything -- and that was just axiomatic. It was definitely going to happen and I wanted to look at why didn't that happen. And part of it was to do with our own illusions, our own sense of our own specialness. And special were we really and how dismissive I was of my parent's generation.
REHMYou know, I wonder whether many generations up until this one have come into being with that same thought?
GRANTI think that we were in sort of a strangely privileged position that we weren't really aware of. Our parents had actually won the Second World War for us and we didn't quite appreciate it. I call the book, "We Had It So Good," because in the late 1950s, our British prime minister said, you've never had it so good.
GRANTAnd there was a sense, sort of particularly in Britain, that we were this generation, we got the welfare state, we got the National Health Service, we got increasing prosperity, we got the rock music, we got the drugs, we got the fashion, we got -- you know, we got a feeling of -- I mean, do you remember the Age of Aquarius?
GRANTYou know (laugh), so everything around us was saying, the world is going to change and we're the generation which is going to do it. I think when you look more carefully at what those ideas of change are, you know, they seem a little insubstantial (laugh).
REHMBut yet, there you were, a citizen of Britain, having heard Prime Minister Harold Macmillan make that comment and yet you decided to make your main character an American. Why?
GRANTI think the reason is, I want America -- in Britain, in the '60s and '70s, the really important political ideas were actually coming from America. The Anti-war Movement, the Women's Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the things that really mattered to us were actually coming from the U.S. I mean, the Black Panther Movement, these are all ideas that, you know, we're really aware of. And I wanted to have a character who embodied optimism. The -- he's from California, his parents are immigrants, he's completely classless, he's a scientist, so it's not just political optimism, it's scientific optimism as well.
GRANTThe idea that science is going to eradicate disease, he's -- you know, he's doing a doctorate in chemistry at Oxford, he's a Rhode scholar and he really believes he's headed for the Nobel Prize, you know (laugh). So here's the character in the novel who has that absolute belief in the future and no cynicism.
REHMAnd yet as a child, there he is growing up and playing with furs and putting on furs that belong to Marilyn Monroe and other major screen figures. He figures his father knows these people personally and doesn't quite understand that the father is a furrier and takes care of these gorgeous clothings.
GRANTYeah, is father actually works in a cold storage warehouse and he -- you know, he takes his son in to work one day and, you know, while Stephen is running around, he tries on Marilyn Monroe's -- his champagne mink stole.
REHMHe never forgets that.
GRANTAnd he never forgets it. But the -- one of the things that this novel is about is what the generations tell each other. So his great memory is of -- and his father actually doesn't remember it at all. It's this sort of great memory of his childhood. His father's completely forgotten it. His father is worried that his son is going to grow up into a sissy...
GRANT...so this sets off a chain of events where he arranges for him to get a Maritime Union ticket and work his way through college as a merchant seaman because he thinks that going to sea will make a man of him.
REHMYou know, I found that so cruel. Here the young man gets this scholarship to Oxford, he gets his ticket in the mail. His father takes that ticket, cashes it in and says to his son, now, you earn your way across the ocean.
GRANTYeah, well, there's partly a bit of a plotting reason for that because onboard ship, he meets a fellow Rhode scholar who is not down in the cruise bunk, but is, you know...
GRANT...and this is really kind of based on something which did happen, which was somebody I knew who was at Oxford around that time and I met him a few years ago and he started to tell me what sounded like a really boring story about how he was a member of the Watton (sp?) College bridge team and they had got all the way to university semi-finals and he had been knocked out. You know, they had been knocked out by this Rhode scholar and he said, and 20 years later, I was watching TV and I said, there's Clinton of unif (sp?).
REHMOh, my gosh.
GRANTHe knocked me out from the bridge tournament and now he's going to become President of the United States. So, you know, so Stephen's -- you know, my father went -- in the 1920s came to America as a merchant seaman and he stayed for a few days with Houdini. Now, I grew up with that story. It was, God, Dad, that is so boring, to stop telling that story and I wanted to replicate this with this father always -- you know, of course, I came over on the USS United States with Bill Clinton, we ate petit fours in my cabin. Dad, that's so boring.
GRANTThe generations were always boring each other with their stories.
REHMLinda Grant, she won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2000 and her novel, "The Clothes On Their Backs," was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008. We're talking about her newest novel titled, "We Had It So Good." Do join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd we're back. British writer, Linda Grant, has a brand-new novel. It's titled, "We Had It So Good." Sort of talking about the opposite of what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had to say in 1958 when he said, this generation never had it so good. This is an exploration of the realization of what is, what can be, what will be and what role we as individuals play in our own future. You had a spot to read for us, Linda.
GRANTOh, okay. Well, here is Stephen in 1996.
REHMOur major character.
GRANTMajor character on the eve of his 50th birthday. "He experienced such dread at the idea of turning 50. It was also extraordinarily surprising that he should be older now than his father was when he, Stephen, had set off for England on the S.S. United States. So unwelcome and unbelievable, but he turned down the party, the restaurant meal, the romantic weekend in Paris or Venice, even the gift of himself of a new car. He fancied a Saab. He wished to extricate from himself, by violence if necessary, his 50-ness. He understood that he was more than halfway done with his life unless he lived to be a hundred, but he was more likely to be 80 and the next 30 years would pass by in a flash.
GRANTThe final decade will be full of ill health and dimming eyesight or hearing. He will be sitting in a chair watching TV instead of making TV. At 50, Jimi Hendrix had been dead for 22 years, Jim Morrison for 20, Elvis for only eight. It was romantic to die young, but not a fate Stephen wished for himself. He wanted to stay young forever. He had once heard his mother say, looking in the mirror at her lined face and the sagging jowls, but I'm only 22. There were photographs of his mother looking impossibly young, but dressed in the styles of wartime. Her youth did not count. His parents had been adults all their lives. They had had the depression and war and responsibilities. They had been born into middle age. How can I be 50, he asked myself, when I only just began?"
REHMHard to imagine the reality of our parents as young people with their own lives.
GRANTYeah, this is really the kind of thread which passes throughout this novel, three generations. Stephen, whose father is a Polish-Jewish immigrant, his mother is Cuban -- Cuban immigrant. And yes, the generation that won the war, but a generation he's not kind of all that interested in. He doesn't question his parents. And only when his father comes over for a visit towards the end of his life when he's a widower does he finally -- well, he does not understand, but his father confesses to his daughter-in-law, you know, what his real story is, so there were big secrets.
REHM...who has become a psychotherapist.
GRANTYeah, who has become a psychotherapist.
REHM...who Stephen has met onboard the ship or...
GRANTNo, no, no. At Oxford.
REHM...at Oxford, at Oxford.
GRANTYeah, at Oxford, yeah. And so they have -- what happens is Stephen gets sent down from Oxford for manufacturing LSD and...
REHMAnd for ripping a page out of a book.
GRANTWell, that's it. That's really what he gets sent down for is defacing a library book. As soon as he -- that happens, he loses his college deferment, his draft papers arrive. He very hurriedly marries his girlfriend. And surprisingly, against all the odds, they make a long marriage. How does that happen? It doesn't begin with a kind of great love affair, but they find themselves turning into people who, you know, move into, you know, a rooming house, renting a room, then renting two rooms, then renting a floor, then buying the house and then winding up with a house, which cost 3 million pounds and...
REHMAnd having dinner with the Blair's.
GRANTWhen having dinner with the Blair's. And then their children are saying, we don't really believe that you used to be these impoverished hippies. Come on, you know. They -- I was actually -- there's a house in Chalk Farm, which I remember in the '70s was a squat and it had this huge mural painted outside it. And I was walking past it literally on Friday after watching the Royal Wedding with a friend who lived just across the street. And I said, you know, that used to be a squat? I remember it.
GRANTSo his children don't -- they -- you know, I think one of them says, you know, Dad's a bore and Mum's a nag (laugh). Do they really believe that their parents were once these young romantic people, you know, these challengers of authority? They don't because we cannot imagine, in a way -- I think we can't imagine the lives that we had before we were born and we don't understand that our parents have secrets. We don't understand that they mythologize. We don't understand that our lives were a construction. And of course their parents are going to edit -- parents will edit their lives to tell their children.
REHMDo you think that that has changed somewhat now that people are living longer and this whole quest to understand one's history has become more popular, so there are questions that the parents, that my generation never asked?
GRANTWell, I think that's very interesting and this sort of whole rise of the family memoir would, you know, indicate that. I think what probably the big change is, is the number of friends I have whose children in their late 20s were still living at home because they can't afford to buy anywhere.
GRANTSo the gulf between, you know, my parents for whom, you know, sex before marriage, you know, was not to be contemplated, you couldn't really tell them anything about what you're doing. But the generations are probably closer now than they were. You know, are they -- but I wonder if when you were in your 20s, you were so focused on your own life and creating your own reality, do you really want to know what your parents have done? Are you all that interested? I'm not sure.
REHMYou know, you said earlier, Linda, that 9/11 really had a powerful impact on you. 1963, when John F. Kennedy, is the moment the world changed so dramatically for me. It really said the world is not the way it was when I grew up.
GRANTWell, you know, I remember -- I came to America for the first time after I graduated from the university in 1975 and I hitchhiked across America.
GRANTYeah, and I remember the thing people talking about was Watergate. People said that Watergate...
GRANT...changed everything, that there was a loss of innocence after Watergate, which was very interesting to me coming from Britain because I don't think we'd ever had any innocence about our political systems (laugh).
REHMYou thought they were all scandal-filled.
GRANTWell, you know, we had -- you know, we had our scandal in 1963, was it -- The Profumo Affair and that is when I think that, you know, we discovered our, you know, politicians were sort of lying hypocrites. So it was very interesting to me to see the impact of Watergate. I was just staying with some friends last night in Virginia and staying in the room of a lovely little 10-year-old boy who was born in 2000, August, 2000. He was one and I thought, oh, my God, there are people I can have conversations with who have no recollection of 9/11. That was amazing.
REHMSo each generation...
REHM...has its own central memory.
GRANTI think that's true. I mean, you know, if you talk to my mother, for my mother, it was two things. It was the Abdication Crisis (laugh) all that stuff you saw in, "The King's Speech."
GRANTIt was really -- she must've been in her late teens when that happened and the Second World War, you know, which...
REHMAnd the second world war.
GRANT...was such a convulsion.
GRANTAnd I -- you know, we grew up in my childhood watching the films on TV. They would show, "The Dam Busters," and all these movies. And I remember, you know, not really understanding how deeply affected our parents had been by those events, how their lives had been disrupted. You know, just finding out that my mother had had a fiancé who was killed in the war. You know, she wasn't set to marry -- she wasn't destined to marry my father, she was destined to marry somebody else. And, you know, what that secret was locked away inside her and I never asked her...
REHMHow old were you when you found that out?
GRANTProbably about 11 or 12, something like that, but our parents were secretive. I mean, you know, I found out when I was 10 that I had a half-sister, that my father had been married before because you didn't talk about divorce, so, yeah...
REHMYou know, the other thing that is so different now, or seems to have been different, is that young people, like Stephen, who decided he was going to be a chemist. He loved chemistry. He -- from the time he was a child, he -- as you said, he thinks of himself ultimately as a Nobel Prize winner. Plans go awry and chance...
REHM...and even success, whether one is successful or not depends so much on whom you meet...
REHM...on a phone call you make, someone you talk to.
GRANTYeah, there's a point in the novel in the late '70s, after Carter's amnesty, when Stephen goes back to America for the first time in 10 years. And he goes to see his old college professor and he says, you know, I want to come back. You know, can you give me a job? And his college professor says, of course I can't give you a job. You've been out of this for 10 years. You know, he's been working as a -- you know, as a science journalist. And he suddenly realizes that the great dream, the great plan is now permanently out of his reach. It's permanently beyond him and it's very traumatic for him.
GRANTAnd we have another character in the novel, their friend, Grace.
GRANTAnd Grace is somebody never derailed from her crazy '60s politics. You know, somebody who continues on this revolutionary path. A girl who is already psychologically damaged by things which have happened in her own family and who becomes more and more damaged as she, you know, refuses to compromise with reality. So you have the sort of the sets of people who compromise. You have Stephen forced into compromise.
GRANTYou have Andrea for whom it's always about, you know, trying to keep your feet on the ground. You know, trying to kind of make a living, you know, trying to have a home and have children. You have, you know, the one privileged character who just totally sells out, their friend, Ivan. And this poor girl -- poor woman, Grace, who really goes on believing in that idealism. She's the real -- she has the core of the Revolution inside her and it just batters her. You know, reality batters her.
REHMIt batters her, but somehow, she cares for other people.
GRANTYeah. Well, I think that, you know, what happens at the end of the novel, and I don't really want to give it away...
GRANT...is that Stephen proves himself to be deficient in a certain thing and where Grace really rises to the occasion. And one of the underlying themes of this novel is actually about female friendship. How can you meet somebody when you're 18 and you're still friends with them 40 years later when you apparently have nothing in common? What are the kind of ties that bind women together? How do they care about each other? How do they tell each other their secrets? And I wanted to follow this friendship, this very, very unlikely friendship because each of them -- at a particular moment in time, each one gets something from the other which sustains them.
REHMLinda Grant, her new novel is titled, "We Had It So Good." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. And let's go first to Falls Church, Va. Good morning, Ed, you're on the air.
EDOh, good morning, Diane. I'm enjoying the vignettes and the parts that Linda has read from her book so much.
EDThe point I think that I'd like to make first is that the whole baby boom thing was really a worldwide phenomenon. It was not just in the United States and maybe the self-centeredness of the U.S. makes us somehow think it was just us, but it happened in Canada, it happened in Britain, it happened in Germany after the war. People had survived and I think there was a great relief that they had made it through that hellish experience.
EDAnd World War II was -- the thing about World War II was the outcome wasn't at all certain. In 1942, it was a struggle in this country and on the allies to win the war and there hasn't been such an experience since. World War II was the main event of the 20th Century, the feature. And afterwards, it's all the shorts and the aftermaths and the mopping ups and the comments and the writing of the history.
EDSo there's probably a sense among the boomers that we were born after it had happened, but of course, they were a fortunate generation. I happen to be old enough to remember the death of Hitler in 1945 and the feeling then was very much like it is now. This very evil person had been killed or had died. Of course, it was a -- well, he was shot, I guess, and burned -- suicide. But anyway, here now Obama's gone, his heart no longer beats within him and I think there's a great sense of relief and humanity is still here and we're still alive.
GRANTI think you mean Osama, not Obama (laugh).
GRANTA lot of people have been making that slip.
EDOf course, sorry. What a goof.
GRANTWell, you're absolutely right. You know, the Second World War was the defining event of the 20th Century. I mean, there isn't a question about that. Certainly the -- you know, the -- I mean, the First World War was almost a kind of, you know, the prequel to it. And you're absolutely correct, the baby boom phenomenon, worldwide, I'm not sure, but certainly not just in North America, but in Western Europe. And all kinds of things were happening. You know, the -- Baader-Meinhof in Germany, all kinds of things were going on as a result of this. And, of course, you know, Paris in 1968. So there was this sense of sort of a revolution in the air, but I don't think we really understood that we were not able to make those revolutions if it had not been for the winning of the war.
REHMLinda Grant, she won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2000. Her novel, "The Clothes on Their Backs," was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008. Her new novel, "We Had It So Good."
REHMAnd let's go back to the phones to Julie who's in Portland, Mich. Good morning to you. You're on the air.
JULIEGood morning, Diane. I'm sorry, I'm on a cell phone. I pulled over.
REHMThat's all right. Good.
JULIE(laugh) I just find this topic fascinating because I am definitely of that generation and my husband's father was in World War II and he was in Special Forces and he was very instrumental in bringing down Hitler and going into the Eagle's Nest afterwards. And, you know, they came back and they didn't talk about any of this and everybody's so interested in the Elite Six that took down Bin Laden now and, you know, all of those figures from the past are just like -- they're just gone. There's no recollection of them. And so we live in a small town and, you know, they're not considered, you know, special like the troops are nowadays.
JULIEAnd I think that -- you know, that it's good that we're bringing that out now, but it just seems like history just kinda goes off into the ethereal and we don't really, you know, pay attention to it and so we keep making the same mistakes. And I think our generation did a lot of great things and I guess I just needed to say that.
REHMI'm glad you did.
GRANTI absolutely agree that our generation did a lot of great things. I mean, you know, and I think...
GRANTFeminism. I think that the women's movement, second generation feminism, was absolutely the crowning achievement of my generation. I'm very, very proud that I was very much part of that. I mean, that was, I think, the single most significant political change which has occurred, social change and that happened worldwide. I mean, the Civil Rights Movement was in America, the Women's Movement certainly was born in America and was exported all over the world, but it has affected absolutely everything. We should be really, really proud of that one.
REHMI wonder, Julie, would you agree with that?
JULIEYes. And that is something that I -- you know, I'm very strong in my beliefs there and I will, you know, not let anybody put that under, you know, I mean, I just stick up for that in all conversations, so I think you're right. That is a very, very powerful thing in our generation and we really need to continue with that.
JULIEAnd, you know, I just want to make sure that we don't try to take over the men's world, that we just, you know, make us realize that we have power and we have -- you know, we have a lot of good to add to the world in our own way.
REHMIndeed. Thanks for calling. To Ruth in Marietta, Ohio. Good morning.
RUTHGood morning. A little bit ago you were talking about the defining moments in one's life and you cited Watergate and Kennedy's death. For me, the big moment was when the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush. I had a feeling of total loss of optimism, a loss of innocence, just a personal loss of how I had always held the Supreme Court as the last bastion of hope and it just was destroyed to find out that they were just another political instrument.
GRANTWell, I remember following that one very, very closely. I mean, I think all of us, you know, in Britain were, you know, watching that moment by moment. I mean, it really is an example of history being -- you know, being fundamentally altered by a single event. Yeah.
REHMThanks for calling. Here's an e-mail from Zack, who says, "In the book Strauss and Howe's 'Generations: The History of America's Future,' they argue there are four generational archetypes in American history and they appear in a cycle recurring roughly every 90 years. Boomers, as idealists, are destined to dream an entirely new world with new values while their millennial children, as civics, are destined to make those dreams reality. Indeed, boomers have changed the whole world, but the lasting effects of that change are just being realized."
GRANTWell, that's a really interesting quote. I'm very interested to know more about that book. Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, in Britain, there was some very, very significant social legislation which took place in the 1960s which gave women equal pay, which legalized abortion, which legalized homosexuality, very, very significant things. The only thing I would say about that is that we -- that legislation wasn't done by the baby boomers 'cause we were just teenagers. It was done by people, really, you know, of the 1930s, grownups, adults who complained about that stuff for a very long time. We reap the benefit of it.
GRANTI mean, I think if -- when, you know, young women say to me, I'm not a feminist, I say, you know, do you really want to go back to a world where you have to get your husband's permission to take out a credit card? I mean, there are vast social changes which have taken place, progressive social changes which I believe in. And, you know, I think that we're still sort of arguing about how to implement them or how best to implement them.
REHMCan you read for us a bit more from the book?
GRANTWell, here again this is Stephen five years later in a chapter which is actually called, "The Internet."
REHMAnd by now he's about 55.
GRANTHe's 55. So we're in 2001 'cause he was born in 1946. "Stephen could not get out of his mind how lucky they had been, himself, Andrea, Ivan and all their friends. The sun had risen on them and it stayed all this time on their faces. Their purpose was to fulfill the ultimate destiny of the human race. He was 55 years old and for the first time, he understood that nothing bad had ever happened to him. He lived in a house worth a fortune with his wife of 30 years, his children's lives had worked out, no one was on drugs or in prison, no one had died of AIDS. Everyone he knew led a nice life. And on and on it was all supposed to go. Then this, out of the clear blue.
GRANTOnly in the days after the catastrophe did he realize that all kinds of warning signs had been there all along, not of the atrocity, but of his own misguided judgment about the permanence of the universal condition of his generation, to whom nothing bad was supposed to happen. 'We've had such a long run of good luck,' he said to Andrea. 'We thought it would go on all their lives. We were born in sunshine.' 'You were, not me.' 'We all were.'"
REHMAnd of course, he's referring to 9/11.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones to Bricktown, N.J. Good morning, Jim.
JIMI too was born in '51 and I find a lot of parallels and yet some differences. The deciding moment, and being after the war, that the Brits voted out collectively Winston Churchill, yet they had been through the blitz and whatnot. And whereas in this country, though we had tremendous loss of life, nothing like that happened except for a couple of submarine sightings. And I remember my parents talking about blackouts, but the Vietnam War was really the pivotal point and the segregation and the rebelliousness against that.
JIMAnd it seemed like we, the United States, embraced our war hero Eisenhower and then had this hyper conventionality, you know, with him becoming president. And it just seemed like the '50s was where Rosy the Riveter had to go back to the kitchen and the blacks back to Jim Crow and that's what made it all more important and what made us more rebellious.
GRANTYeah, no, that's absolutely right. I mean, you know, I was growing up in a -- you know, sort of in a suburb, in, you know, bourgeois suburban environment and we were -- you know, I think the thing is, you know, my parents were the children of immigrants, Jewish immigrants, both sides, and they really wanted their children to have a prosperous and a nice life. They wanted us to have private education and private medicine and all of these things. And, you know, I'm kind of ashamed really at how I didn't understand that, you know, that their kind of materialism was just so much wanting better for their children and what I saw it was, was conformity -- conformity and convention.
GRANTIt's very, very interesting to me to watch a program like "Mad Men" because I was sort of -- you know, I mean, I was -- you know, how old, 10 in '61 and you're sort of watching this world, you know, just incrementally changing. And so we were rebelling against sort of a bourgeois stifling conformity, which was actually our own parents' protectiveness of us. And that's kind of a very strange thing to have to recognize. They just wanted better for their children.
REHMYou talk about what you feel is one of the greatest contributions of your generation, namely feminism. What do you think is the worst?
GRANT(laugh) You caught me on the hop there. I mean, I think that something happened in the early '70s which I remember very well and it was -- there was a particular slogan which was -- and I'm wondering if people are going to remember it, which was, how can I change the world if I can't even change myself? So it became a sort of tremendous moment of sort of introspection and sort of, you know, of selfishness, I think, so that, you know, we really were the architects of the vast consumer boom of materialism. You know, we have never had so many consumer goods. Nobody has ever had so many. I mean, this is a really tiny thing, but I was looking at my bathmat yesterday morning and I was thinking, I should really get another one. I thought, you know, my parents had the same bathmat I think for the whole of their marriage.
GRANTThey never thought that they needed to get rid of their bathmat.
GRANTI was thinking, oh, no, I think I'll get a new -- you know, we, I think, created the disposable culture, I think. And the one thing that I think is a bit of a toxic legacy is because we are so convinced that we're young, right, we cannot bear the idea of aging. And I think we have created the whole business of cosmetic surgery of, you know, altering your appearance of facelifts, of all of that. It is unbearable to be old. I don't think my parents thought it was unbearable to look old. We, I think, think it's unbearable to look old and that, I think, is a product of our own narcissism.
REHMAnd that plays out in the consumer goods.
REHMWe have to keep replacing...
REHM...and making sure it's bigger...
GRANTIf you like, because it turned out to be so much more difficult than we thought it was going to be to change the world, to make the better world, world a better place, we're making our own homes and our own bodies better places by continually buying new things. And, you know, I don't know that that's quite such a sort of -- you know, I don't think if you told us at the time that that was going to be our legacy, we would've been all that delighted.
REHMLinda Grant, her newest book, "We Had It So Good." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, to Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEGood morning, Diane. I was born in 1946 and served in the military in Vietnam and came home and got into protests and street marches. And anyway, my comment is this. I thought that what we did, the scratching and fighting we did to make things change, I thought that just when we had our fingers wrapped around the prize and had it well with our grasp, all of a sudden, every -- in the other direction, we became CEOs and crooked politicians, we began making the wrong decisions, we spoiled our children. We created a disposable generation, went exactly in the opposite direction of what we were fighting against to begin with. And I for one am somewhat disappointed. I've often said, I don't think the revolution worked.
GRANTYeah, well, I mean, that really is sort of part of the, you know, the theme of what this novel is about. You know, why did we -- you know, was it an impossible dream in the first place? Was it something -- you know, we just had to -- you know, we settled for mediocrity. Was that inevitable? Was the prize really within our grasp? I suppose the question that I'm asking is, you know, were we really all that special to begin with? But, you know, it's a funny thing that, you know, I talk to, you know, young people who are involved in political protests today and they say, oh, our generation's completely different to yours. Well, in what way? And they say, we want it. We want it more than your generation. And I just have to laugh.
GRANTYou know, radical change is not that easy. It isn't easy. And I think that some of those corrupt CEOs and corrupt politicians are always gonna be corrupt CEOs and corrupt politicians. I think there are a lot of people who never really believed in the revolution in the first place, they just had long hair so you thought they did.
REHMYou know, one thing that Joe mentioned, our attitude toward children. How drastically that has changed? I mean, we talked about consumer goods earlier, but I mean, the whole market now just for children to make sure that they are constantly busy, constantly occupied, constantly happy, never disappointed, never thought that they've done anything wrong, a whole attitude toward how we raise our children has changed.
GRANTYeah, well, that's a kind of huge -- you know, huge sociological question. I kind of, you know, feel way too intimidated to even address, but there -- you know, it is the -- you know, when I used to -- it was my birthday. I would get a birthday present. You know, it would be a jigsaw or something.
GRANTAnd, you know, now, you know, you can't have one present, so there is this sense of we have to give everything to our children in ways which never happened before. But this is part of this kind of enormous consumer society which grew up as a product of the baby boom generation. We created that. We're the people who made it.
REHMLinda Grant, she won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. We had her new novel, "We Had It So Good." Linda Grant, what a pleasure to talk with you.
GRANTOh, thank you so much. I'm so delighted to be here.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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