When I first came to London as a student in the early 90s (oh, how much more romantic would early 60s sound…), being principled was as easy as getting dressed. In between leaving the Socialist Worker lying around and introducing myself as a vegetarian, I would trot around campus in my ‘No Means No’ date-rape campaign T-shirt with carefully trashed Doc Martins and hair the same shade of plum as my distressed mini skirt, and it was clear to everyone that I was fully opinionated and ready for heated debate.
Anger is a natural state for students, along with complete inertia – but when everything from the restoration comedy reading list to the choice of bottled beer in the SU bar needs to be challenged, a state of total apathy is essential every now and then to complement the turmoil of life.
This was a time when a love/hate relationship with Katie Roiphe was as far as you had to go into real-life issues to feel politicised and engaged. Wearing a T-shirt stating your beliefs could only make them stronger. But then it was time to graduate, and start putting money where there’d previously only been a need for mouth.
And with that came the gradual stepping down from the soapbox – in tiny almost imperceptible increments to start with. I was shopping for soft furnishings on Saturdays rather than rallying in Trafalgar Square, but I did set-up monthly direct debits to charities to help pay for someone else to do the legwork. New Labour and Nelson Mandela brought an abrupt end to most of my remaining political fury, and suddenly interest rates and promotions were the only things to get a bit bothered about.
So now, after two rungs on the property ladder, three children, several career hops and a couple of poignant birthdays, I no longer have a post-it note list of the things I’m going to change about the world today. I have a nagging sense of unease about some things, a desperate sense of anger about others, and lots of things conspiring to prevent me acting on either. I’d like to blame the kids, but we’re probably back in the realms of apathy.
Last night I had a very unsettling conversation with a very old friend, which made me question the whole issues of beliefs, and whether any of them are ever any more than paper thin. There’s no way you can progress through life with the same unwavering stance you held as a teenager. Everything changes and shifts as it ages – you, your opportunities, your understanding, your priorities and the world you live in. Although I’m not sure my friend would agree, I don’t think my basic principles have changed, but maybe my expectations have. Obsessing about which secondary school I’ll be allowed to send my daughter to is clearly a very personal use of my campaigning energy, and won’t contribute a huge amount to the greater good of society. But even when you’re 18 you have to pick your battles. And I do still have battles.
Maybe you just reach a stage in your life where you have to stop wearing your anger on your T-shirt. Then you won’t disappoint the people who have been around long enough to remember the original slogans.