Should I do as the Germans do and stop worrying about my son?
Boy is planning his gap year. Every few hours he rings from school to give me a progress report. ‘I’m allowing three days for Denver. Is that long enough?’ ‘We-e-ll, it’s pretty key in On the Road. Maybe five?’ ‘And I’m definitely stopping for a day in Farmington.’ ‘Where?’ ‘It’s where the Horace Walpole library is.’ ‘Oh, of course. Silly me.’
Actually, I don’t much mind where he goes so long as it’s nowhere near where I went for my gap year: Africa. I love Africa. I’ve had some of the most amazing, thrilling, dramatic experiences of my life there: climbing the Great Pyramid before dawn and seeing the graffiti left behind by Napoleon’s soldiers; nearly getting shot by drunken guards at an army base in Jinja; throwing up with altitude sickness on the crater rim of Kilimanjaro.
But the big problem with Africa, from a parent’s perspective, is that it’s so sodding dangerous. It was bad enough when I went there: from chiggers (those insects that lay their eggs in your feet) to amoebic dysentery, from civil war in Sudan and Uganda to psychopathic Boers who ran over our tents in South Africa. Since then, what with al-Shabab in the east, al-Qaeda in the middle and Boko Haram in the west, the whole place has been turned into a virtual no-go zone.
Did my own parents worry this much when I was a teenager? Well, probably, yes they did, but there were fewer mechanisms for parents to interfere. For example, when you went to university, your parents dropped you off at the college gate with your stuff and that was it. There were no touchy-feely induction sessions. There was no parental contact with the university authorities. It wasn’t school, for God’s sake. You were an adult.
Same with gap years. You told your folks which hellhole you were heading for — bosh! — and that was it. At a push, they might do what mine did and arrange for some family friends to accommodate you at key points on your journey. In Nairobi, for example, I was greeted by a lovely couple called Rennie and Christine Barnes, who arranged a dinner party in my honour. Halfway through, I was hit by an explosive bout of tummy trouble which I only just contained long enough to reach their loo, at which point I effectively redecorated the room. I was nursed back to health by their manservant, Pota, who fed me dry toast because it was all I knew how to ask for in Swahili: ‘Pota, tafadhali. Toasti mbili.’
Of course, were I not such a wuss where my kids are concerned, these are exactly the kind of character-forming experiences I would be wishing on them.
Read the rest at the Spectator.