‘Know how to flex on Insta?’: grandchildren and grandparents explain the world to each other – The Guardian

How much do these two generations understand about the lives of the other? We listened in on five family discussions to find out
Bob Smith sits upright on the sofa as his grandson, Louis Brow, prepares to quiz him on youth slang. We are sitting in the living room of Louis’s family home in Ilkley, West Yorkshire; Bob has travelled over from Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, in his Nissan Micra.

“Would you know what flexing is?” Louis begins. “If I was to flex on the Gram?”
“You’re bending, you’re a contortionist,” suggests Bob, gamely.
“Nowadays it’s someone showing off,” Louis explains. “I’d flex my designer clothes, for example, my flashy watch.”
“Oh right, that’s a new one to me. What about flexing your muscles?”
“You can still flex your muscles. I might say to my mate, that’s a big flex, you’re flexing, you’re looking good.”
“Oh dear me,” Bob sighs, as he sinks back on the couch. “Why not say the correct word?”
Bob might not know the terminology, but he has had a major flex on social media recently. Louis is the Yorkshire Challenge belt (69kg) boxing champion and credits his success to the outdoor boxing gym, nicknamed the Dojo, that Grandad Bob helped him build in the back yard of the family home. A TikTok video of Louis using a tyre as a punchbag while his grandfather eggs him on went viral this year. Today, Louis confidently reels off his social media wins to Bob. He just hit 1m likes on TikTok; their video garnered 2.4m views. “Well, people like watching things,” Bob says, sagely.
Talk turns to another modern phenomenon: dating apps. Bob explains what dating was like in his youth. “There would be these dos in the church with disco dancing. When you’re dancing the first night, the ladies said: ‘You’ll have to come and see my parents before I can see you again.’ The parents would have to give you the nod. It took a long time to woo those ladies. It’s much faster now.”
“That’s the whole point of dating apps,” Louis says. “You’re bored on a night out, you match with someone on Tinder, and it’s back to the uni accommodation. It’s as simple as that.” He shakes his head in dismay. “Back in your day, you were such gentlemen. It puts us to shame. Now people super like on Tinder, slide into DMs – there’s no class about it.”
Does Bob know about Tinder? “Vaguely,” he nods. “You look at these modern things because they come up on the television. It’s a changing world and it’s changing fast. Very fast.”
We head outside to the Dojo, where Bob goes a couple of rounds with a piece of boxing equipment that mimics a sparring partner. Bob was a boxer until he was 14, when his father put a stop to it, fearing for his safety. Louis is fearless: he wants to retain his current belt and win the 75kg title. “If I win that, I’ll be the first Yorkshire two-weight amateur boxing champion – no one’s ever done two belts at the same time.” He’s doing an apprenticeship in financial services, but wants to build his boxing brand, get a huge following and go professional. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be famous like Conor McGregor,” he says.
Bob roars with laughter at this. He still has his goals. He’s been renovating a barn since he retired from commercial vehicle bodybuilding almost 20 years ago. He hopes to move in one day. Louis recalls a visit there to help with welding. “We were chugging along in your little Nissan Micra, and there was this long stretch of perfect straight road ahead, and I said: ‘Go on, Grandad, put your foot down, show me what the Micra’s got.’ And you said: ‘Listen, in life you’ve just got to take your time and go slow because if you go too fast you miss the beauty of life.’ It’s stuck with me, has that.”
Anisa Afsar travels from Bradford every week to visit her Nanee, Khurshid Bashir, in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. There are always kebabs and gossip, and Anisa, a keen reader, usually has a book on the go, something in the action and fantasy genres. But today, as we gather in Khurshid’s living room, Anisa realises she doesn’t know a lot about her grandmother’s story. “I know a bit of it – I know you didn’t go to school and stuff.” Anisa giggles, shyly. “I don’t know how old you are, to be honest.”
One challenge is the language barrier: “We can understand easy words,” Anisa says. “Nanee understands English – I understand a few words in Urdu, so it does take a while.”
“I wish I did go to school,” Khurshid tells Anisa. “When I moved here at 11, from Pakistan, I learned the language from being here.” She explains what life was like in Pakistan, a country Anisa has never visited. “Everything was outside. We bathed outside, we ate outside. Here, it’s like we’re locked in. In Pakistan, everyone was together, cooking and cleaning. It’s like another life. I’ve spent most of my life here – I got married at 15. So I see my life in Pakistan as my young time.”
Today, Anisa’s mum, Fozia, is on hand to help with translation. Khurshid tells Anisa she is 65, which amazes her granddaughter. “Your skin is probably better than mine,” Anisa says. “At 65, I would like to still look as nice as you.” Khurshid says she doesn’t wear makeup. She’s a clean freak, and says that keeps her young.
Anisa didn’t know how young her grandmother was when she got married. It’s got her thinking. “If I were to get married, I’d have to be about 30,” she says. Khurshid softly mouths the figure “25”, as if that might be a good compromise. For now, Anisa has other goals. She wants to pass all her exams. She likes English and performing arts, and through working with the creative writing charity First Story, she has been published in an anthology. She tells her grandma what she writes about: “It depends how I’m feeling. I like writing action, weapons and fighting. I add subplots, though, like romance, because it can’t just be one genre for me.”
What does her grandma think of all this? “Make sure you do well, and do something with your life,” she tells Anisa, with whom she shares a certain shyness. “Whatever you want to do, I’ll be proud.”
When we gather to talk on FaceTime, Enith tells Baye – perched on her grandmother’s lap – what it was like to be part of the Windrush generation.
“My parents came over to make a home here,” Enith says. “I stayed with my grandma in Nevis, and unfortunately my grandma passed away and so I had to come here on my own on a plane when I was seven. It was November 1964, and it was snowing. Coming from sunshine to snow, I was like, ‘What?’ I had a sticker on my coat to say my name.”
Baye considers this for a moment, then says: “You must have been scared.”
Enith nods. “Before I went, it was really exciting because I was getting new clothes, and everybody was saying goodbye to me. But on the plane, I didn’t have anybody to speak to – that was a bit scary for nine hours.” Enith tells Baye about all the things she’d never experienced before, like the cold. “Steam started to come out of my mouth and I said: ‘I’m smoking, why am I smoking?’ When I saw an indoor fire, I thought the house was ablaze.”
Baye and Enith live close to each other in Stretford, Greater Manchester; Baye stays over at her grandma’s on weekends. They watch TV together, though it’s usually what Baye likes, Enith says. “I like Frozen, I’ve watched everything about twice,” Baye says. “I like The Princess And The Frog. It’s not my favourite film, but it’s my Disney film. It shows black people can be princesses, and the princess looks like me.”
Baye helps her grandma with her iPad. Today, she explains what a step counter is for. “When we were growing up, we didn’t have these things,” Enith says. “It’s good that you know, so you can explain everything to me.”
Has Baye ever considered what she’d be like when she’s 64? “I’d have thought I’ll be like my grandma. I’d be very respectful. I’d watch a lot of Emmerdale, Coronation Street and EastEnders.”
Enith, who was a hairdresser for 40 years, washes her granddaughter’s hair at the weekend, and takes the opportunity to educate her on heritage and traditions. She recently explained the use of a hot comb, warmed on the stove, to straighten afro hair. Baye thinks this must have burned her grandma’s ears.
Baye likes her grandma’s head massages and the traditional johnny cakes she makes. “You’re very cool and kind, and a good cook,” Baye says. “You’re kind with your words and actions, and sometimes, when Mummy’s not here, I can stay up late.”
There is a plan to visit the West Indies so Enith can show Baye her heritage. Baye has all her swimming costumes ready.
Enith pulls her granddaughter close. “My parents left me with my grandma. I knew they loved me, but I didn’t feel love. We had that separation. Now, I’ve made sure that Baye knows and feels love. As soon as she hears my voice, I just want her to know it’s love there.”
Kiki Tautz and her grandfather, Pip Philips, natter away on the beach in Gosport, Hampshire, while their photograph is taken. They love to talk, Pip says. “We go places, have a sit down and a good discussion, don’t we? We talk about nature. You’re well into Mr Attenborough. He’s your hero.”
Kiki nods enthusiastically as her Gramphy gives her a comforting cuddle. “I learned that some fish can change from female to male. I didn’t realise animals can do amazing things like that.”
“I didn’t know that either,” Pip says, as they sit looking out to the Isle of Wight. “Animals work as a community, don’t they? It’s like ants – you’ve got thousands of them and they are working together.”
Kiki lives near the beach with her mum, Bryley, and dad, Ian. “I like exploring, playing with animals and going swimming,” she says. Her grandfather lives farther along the coast in Poole, Dorset.
Pip was in the Royal Marines for 26 years. His name is Alan, but everyone knows him by the nickname he earned when he entered the forces at 16. “I was 5ft 4in at the time,” he says, “so they called me ‘Pipsqueak’ and the name stuck.”
One of the hardest aspects of Pip’s career was being away from his daughter. “When your mum was young, I used to say at night: ‘See you, I’m going tomorrow.’ I didn’t know where I was going or how long for. It could be three days or six months.”
Pip’s only contact with family was through the Forces Free Air Letters system. “All we had was what we called the bluey, a piece of paper that you could write on two sides. We moved around a lot, so letters got back to the UK quicker than the ones coming to us. Eventually you’d get a big stack and you had to sort them out by date to understand what was going on.” It was difficult being away: “While you were working, you didn’t have time to think about family, but at night it was hard. You’d never get photos from your kids – just blueys.”
Kiki’s dad is in the RAF. “But now you can email and FaceTime. It’s quite different,” Pip says. Kiki speaks to her dad every night while he’s away. “It helps me relax because I can see him,” she says. “I know if I can see him online that nothing bad has happened.” She is a member of Little Troopers, a charity that supports children with parents in the forces. At school, friends keep her calm when she gets anxious. Then there is Gramphy. “Sometimes I don’t understand why Daddy has to go away, so I can talk to Gramphy about what he has to do there. Gramphy understands what it’s like.”
Pip gives his granddaughter a reassuring squeeze. “We look at where he is in the world on a map, and you can count down the days until he is back.”
Jean Young and Elijah McKenzie-Jackson have been living together since lockdown. “We call each other besties because we have conversations all the time, every morning, every evening,” Elijah says, as he budges up beside his grandmother on her bed. “It’s been nice living here, hasn’t it?”
“Oh, I love it,” says Jean, who moved from her home in Essex to live with Elijah and his mum in Walthamstow, east London, after she broke her hip. “It’s been nice having the company. I’ve got so many nice grandchildren to entertain me and talk to me. You never stop talking. I mean, I’m as bad.”
The walls of Jean’s bedroom are decorated with photos of her late husband, Ken, who died nine years ago. She tells Elijah, one of 10 grandchildren, about growing up in the 1940s. Her father was a lawyer overseas and the family frequently moved abroad for his work. Once, they got caught up in a second world war bombing. “It was 1942, we were all on a ship, including my mother and her two dogs, going to somewhere in the far east. We were only one night out from Bristol, and a bomb under the sea blew up in front of us. Luckily, we weren’t hurt. The Royal Navy came and rescued us and brought us back to shore. We were lowered down from this enormous boat in a smaller boat on a chain.”
“Like in Titanic?” Elijah says. “Oh my gosh, Grannie. It sounds like a movie.” Elijah is a climate justice activist, who found his calling two years ago. “I learned a tiny bit about climate change in school. I started watching documentaries, doing my own research, and I got very frustrated. I didn’t understand why no politicians were acting. When the school strikes movement came about, I realised my frustration and anger could be funnelled into something productive.”
“Good for you,” says Jean, even though she has her reservations about the school climate strikes. “I’m not against it. But I’m not sure you should miss too much school.”
We meet at the family home the weekend after Elijah returns from protesting at the G7 summit in Cornwall. He explains how it’s relatively safe for him to attend protests. “If I was a woman and a person of colour, I’d be much more targeted by the police. Walking the streets at night, I feel safe. I’ve never been stopped and searched. I have a privilege, so I’m going to use that privilege to speak up.”
It’s a different world from Jean’s. “That didn’t happen in my day. I could have protested, but nobody did then,” she says. “In those days, parents were much stricter with their children. Nowadays, you can talk things through. That’s what I used to preach to my children. I taught my girls that they had every right to vote – it wasn’t just for men. I got them all voting when they were quite young.”
Elijah and Jean discuss flooding, the oil industry, veganism (theirs is a vegan household) and LGBT issues. Jean has two LGBT children: Elijah’s mum, Becky, and a son, Shimonn. Elijah asks about their coming out. “There was never any secrecy about things like that,” Jean says. “I had to learn what they were talking about. LGBT didn’t mean much to me then, but I got the gist.”
Elijah thinks that having two mothers (he lives with Becky and her partner, and sees his other mum, Helena, very often) has made him who he is. “Having two mums and being a bit different has taught me resilience, and that everyone matters, and everyone can speak up,” he says. He believes his grandmother has been resilient, in a different way. “I look up to you for your openness to change,” Elijah tells Jean. “You could have been homophobic, but you were open and fighting for justice within your family. Now you’re vegetarian, nearly vegan, you’re talking about climate change – that’s something I would never expect from old people.”

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