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Childhood

February 5, 2010
Selina, a maenad now, hatless and tossing disordered locks

Christina writes: Listing books by and about Kenneth Grahame in an earlier post led me to read Peter Green’s Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame, Author of The Wind in the Willows (1993); and since he suggests that The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1899) reflect Grahame’s own childhood experiences, I re-read those two works as soon as I finished Green’s. With the exception of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in Dream Days, I had only vague memories of them from my earlier reading, though I retained a clear vision of some of Ernest H. Shepard’s silhouette illustrations.

The Golden Age and Dream Days recount incidents in the lives of five orphaned children who live in a largish country house in the care of relatives, presented from the view of the children, indeed written in the first person by one of the boys. They are allowed to roam unsupervised and do much as they like as long as they turn up at certain times in the day for meals, lessons, bed, and so forth. They enjoy this existence, and rather despise the different interests of the grownups, whom they call ‘Olympians’. These books are not really for children, but aimed rather at adults who could appreciate both the self-assurance of the child author’s limited point of view while also understanding that of the Olympians. The following extract from the Prologue to The Golden Age gives a taste, and an indication of how the children’s imaginations transformed their surroundings into a place full of adventure:

These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy – of their good luck – and pity – for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character . . . that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it. They might dabble in the pond all day, hunt the chickens, climb trees in the most uncompromising Sunday clothes; they were free to issue forth and buy gunpowder . . . free to fire cannons and explode mines on the lawn; yet they never did any one of these things. . . .

On the whole, the existence of these Olympians seemed to be entirely void of interests, even as their movements were confined and slow, and their habits stereotyped and senseless. To anything but appearances they were blind. For them the orchard (a place elf-haunted, wonderful!) simply produced so many apples and cherries. . . . They never set foot within fir-wood or hazel-copse, nor dreamt of the marvels hid therein. The mysterious sources, sources as of old Nile, that fed the duck-pond had no magic for them. They were unaware of Indians, nor recked they anything of bisons or of pirates (with pistols!), though the whole place swarmed with such portents. They cared not to explore for robbers’ caves, nor dig for hidden treasure.

The freedom enjoyed by the children allows such exploits as ‘borrowing’ a farmer’s boat to imagine themselves as Argonauts, building bonfires, setting out on a road imagining it will lead them to Rome, and accepting lifts from people they hardly know, things that would make many parents today shudder.

The children’s freedom and imaginary adventures reminded me of Humphrey Carpenter’s account of Ronald and Hilary Tolkien’s childhood in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977). The boys would watch the millers at Sarehole Mill, and named one the ‘White Ogre’ because of his white dusty clothes: ‘When he yelled at them to clear off they would scamper away from the yard, and run round to a place behind the mill where there was a silent pool with swans swimming on it. At the foot of the pool the dark waters suddenly plunged over the sluice to the great wheel below: a dangerous and exciting place. . . . Indeed, explorations could be made in many directions, though there were hazards. An old farmer who once chased Ronald for picking mushrooms was given the nickname “the Black Ogre” by the boys. Such delicious terrors were the essence of those days at Sarehole . . .’ (pp. 20–21).

Carpenter also tells us that when Tolkien was eight years old, he began to attend King Edward’s School. ‘The school was in the centre of Birmingham, four miles from Sarehole, and for the first few weeks Ronald had to walk much of the way, for his mother could not afford the train fare and the trams did not run as far as his home’ (p. 24). In 1904, at the age of twelve, while living at Rednal (south-west of Birmingham) ‘Ronald had to rise early and walk more than a mile to the station to catch a train to school. It was growing dark by the time he came home, and Hilary [age ten] sometimes met him with a lamp’ (p. 30). This reminded me of The Country Child (1931) by Alison Uttley (1884–1976), an account of her own childhood fictionalized through Susan Garland, a farmer’s daughter. When she was seven, her mother took her once to the village school four miles away, and thereafter she had to make her own way there and back. The walk included one mile through a dark wood which she found rather frightening: ‘No-one ever knew Susan’s fears, she never even formulated them to herself, except as “things”. But whether they were giants which she half expected to see straddle out of the dark distance, or dwarfs, hidden behind the trees, or bears and Indians in the undergrowth, or even the trees themselves marching down upon her, she was not certain. They must never be mentioned, and, above all, They must never know she was afraid’ (ch. 1).

All of these came to mind when I read a discussion on the BBC website entitled ‘How Stranger Danger Changed the Way Children Play’. This pointed out that ‘up to the 1960s there were few children who didn’t spend much of their free time outdoors, playing in the fields, parks, streets, back alleys, old bombsites and local beauty spots. This play was unsupervised by mum or dad and children were free to go on adventures far from home. Sadly this world of independent child’s play has today largely vanished.’ It suggested that a significant reason for this was parents’ fear of strangers and child abduction, but also it noted that greatly increased road traffic had made streets and roads more dangerous, and redevelopment schemes broke up neighbourhoods and the extended families which once kept an informal eye on children.

And this in turn made me think back to my own childhood in Bristol. I can’t remember my mother ever escorting me to school. My first school, when I was five, was about ten to fifteen minutes’ walk away, with several minor roads to cross, the major one at the end with a lady to supervise children crossing to the school. I don’t think my parents ever worried about my going out, and there was one occasion when a neighbour told my parents that he had seen my younger brother, probably then aged about six, on his tricycle about a mile and a half away on the far side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. They all thought how enterprising it was of him!

Children’s literature of the period reflected this freedom, from Edith Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons who go sailing, camping, and prospecting, and even Enid Blyton whose various groups of children would not have been able to overcome all those spies and villains and solve all those crimes had they not been free of constant parental supervision. I never did anything like that, but I certainly never wondered at them being allowed to do such things.

To the dull eye it might have appeared unromantic and unraftlike

Now that I live in the USA I have lost touch with the situation in England, but our local paper often has stories about traffic problems caused by parents who drive their children even short distances to school, or about children whose lives are so programmed by their ‘helicopter’ parents or who are so attached to their televisions and computers that they never experience the ‘golden age’ of childhood. I remember a comment someone made to me a few years ago: while once upon a time children would play quite happily with some cardboard boxes and a curtain and use their imagination to transform them into a car, boat, tent, or exotic costumes, children today no longer know how to make their own amusements and certainly don’t know how to play ‘make-believe’. Instead, they get it pre-digested on television and in their computer games.

Postscript: I had barely finished writing the above when I was reminded of an article about the new Junior Oxford English Dictionary that appeared more than a year ago in the Daily Telegraph. Along with many words associated with Christianity, e.g. bishop, saint, and with English history, e.g. monarch, coronation, words connected with the English countryside have been omitted to make way for more modern vocabulary – BlackBerry (the phone), broadband, blog, database, chatroom, attachment – on the grounds that most children today live in an urban environment. The list of words omitted includes acorn, ash, beech, blackberry (the fruit), bluebell, buttercup, catkin, chestnut, clover, conker, dandelion, heather, holly, lark, magpie, minnow, moss, newt, poppy, primrose, thrush, weasel, and willow. I grew up in a city, but remember picking most of those flowers, gathering blackberries and conkers, and fishing for minnows in parks and open spaces within the city (such as Clifton and Durdham Downs) as well as the nearby countryside. Ironically, Adventures at Home by G.M. Hickman and R. Elizabeth Mayo (1961, in the series Pilgrim Way Geographies), which includes illustrations by Pauline Baynes, devotes much space to the vegetation of Britain, with diagrams of various trees at different times of the year and of their fruits. The section on spring mentions snowdrops, catkins, and fishing for minnows, while the one on summer suggests making a collection of wild flowers, with instructions on pressing to preserve them.

Today children chained to their electronic devices probably already know all of those modern media words of the moment, but if their lifestyle means that they are not encountering the names of native flora and fauna, they will certainly need a good dictionary (not the Junior Oxford English Dictionary!) to read much of English fiction and poetry written before the last decades of the twentieth century – including, of course, The Wind in the Willows, and works by Tolkien, not only because he included so much description of the natural landscape, but because dwarf, elf, and goblin, have also been banished from the Junior OED.

Wayne adds: Although Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books do indeed contain children acting remarkably free from adult supervision, in every case either an adult or parent (a ‘native’) is not very far off, or the children have promised to check in with one every so often (for instance, when they need fresh milk for their tea), or the adults know where the children are (if not always what they’re doing). Ransome’s children, then, know freedom but have been taught responsibility. This makes the greatest impact in the masterpiece of the series, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, in which the Walkers (the ‘Swallows’) find themselves in a boat drifting out to sea and must sail it across the English Channel to Holland, breaking their promise to stay inside the harbour (it wasn’t their fault) but proving their abilities, resolve, and courage beyond any doubt. My own childhood memories from suburban Cleveland are a mix of restrictions – don’t cross the road (this when very young), always let Mom or Dad know where you are (well before the days of cell phones) – and of freedoms. I could go some distance on foot or on a bike, to school or the town library or shops, and there were fields and woods near our house in those days – now built or paved over. As for playing make-believe, there was a lot of that, based in large part on cardboard boxes, shirt cardboard (stiffeners from my father having his shirts laundered at a dry cleaner’s), and cardboard tubes from bath tissue rolls or oatmeal boxes. These became everything from boats to spaceships. Eventually I realized that I enjoyed designing and constructing things more than playing with them afterward.

Images: Selina, a Mænad Now, Hatless and Tossing Disordered Locks, Stalked around the Pyre and To the Dull Eye It Might Have Appeared Unromantic and Unraftlike, by Ernest H. Shepard from the 1973 Bodley Head edition of Dream Days.

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