LITTLE HORRORS THROUGH THE AGES
Modern children are thought to be uniquely
lazy and wicked. But, says Marlyn Harris,
they have always been like that
A FEW WEEKS ago Ralph and Denise Bulger appeared on television, presenting a petition to the Home Office. A year and half after the murder of their son, James, they looked grim but well: both sun-tanned and smartly dressed. Denise was carrying her new baby who wore a rather nasty sailor-suit. Ralph wore a shiny bomber jacket and had his hair gelled into a hel- met. They were outraged at the news that the life sentences on Jon Venables and Robert Thompson might go to appeal at the European Court of Human Rights, and they had 282,730 signatures support- ing them. Denise said, 'If it takes the rest of my life I will do everything I can to stop those two ever being on the streets again.'
It was very uncomfortable. They were parents to whom the worst thing in the world had happened. I understood the emotions — my own would be the same but I also wished they were not voicing them, just as one wished that the screech- ing crowds had not been there outside the court when Venables and Thompson were driven away to begin their sentence. Little James was supposed to be the embodiment of innocence and his killers the incarnation of evil. Those contorted faces outside the court and the truculent self-righteousness of the parents somehow diluted the awful purity of the murder, and blurred its meaning.
One effect of the Bulger killing has been to fuel a debate about the loss of inno- cence in childhood into which all the usual suspects have been rounded up: television and video nasties; unemployment and drugs; divorce and family breakdown. A recent survey of 600 children by a social psychologist, Dr David Lewis, boldly announced 'the end of childhood as we know it', arguing that the traditional care- free child of the Enid Blyton stereotype had been replaced by a generation of pre- mature adults, divided into various imagi- native categories which were previously unknown to social science, but which were eagerly picked up by the newspapers. 28 per cent were 'couch potatoes', fixated on television and video games; 22 per cent were 'new punks', who thought of nothing but drugs, truancy and partying; 23 per cent were 'Branson's babies' obsessed with jobs, money and material possessions; while 24 per cent were 'Major's minors' glad-to-be grey conformists, interested only in a future of safe jobs and conven- tional family life.
As a piece of research it was so crassly subjective as to be virtually worthless, but every parent I know has similar things to say about their own children: the knowing- ness; the sophistication; the lack of won- der; the physical passivity; the acquisitiveness; the constant demand for entertainment. 'But I used, to bike three miles to school when I was nine,' I tell my 12-year-old daughter as she asks for another lift to her friend's house, half a mile away. 'And all I used to wear were grey flannel shorts and a shirt,' I tell my nine-year-old son as he wheedles for another Ice-T sweat-shirt, or Gap bermu- das. My childhood took place in the lanes and allotments of Swansea; with games of Mob on summer evenings; a frozen Jubbly for a major treat and an eightpenny bus ride to the Gower beaches for a holiday. Theirs takes place in the back seat of a Saab and in front of a rented video, and on holidays to Paxos and Florida (`Oh, not Paxos again, Dad!'). My entertainment was five books a week from the Sketty library and Uncle Mac on Saturday morn- ing; theirs is a total immersion in Aus- tralian soaps and Sonic the Hedgehog (`Oh shut up, Dad!'). I believed in Father Christ- mas until I was 11 and didn't lose my vir- ginity until I was 20. They never start believing in Santa Claus, and I don't dare to think about sex, when I see friends with 14-year-old daughters who have tattooed boyfriends to sleep for the night.
From time to time we make feeble bids to restructure their childhoods along the lines of our own memories: a wooden train from Galt Toys, a Kate Greenaway dress from Laura Ashley — but the dress stays unworn and the train gathers dust on the nursery shelf. It is Boglins, Batman and Lycra leggings that they really want. I know some people who have struggled to create a Fifties childhood for their kids: no televi- sion; no Quasar; no McDonald's; no plastic trash. The children wear strap-over sandals and have pudding-basin haircuts, and they play Animal Snap after dinner, but there is a palpable sense of strain to the enterprise, like theme-park actors in their fragile bub- ble of suspended disbelief.
There is, as you can tell, a mixture of rueful pride, anxiety and resignation in all this, for we have structured our children's world around cars, crime and consumerism, and they have no choice but to live in it. In sober moods, I don't really believe my chil- dren are more callous than I was (I once plugged a hamster into a fairy-light socket to see what happened). I don't really believe I was less dirty-minded: when I was seven my sister and I browbeat a little girl of four into eating a shit sandwich. I'm not even certain they are more sexually preco- cious than I was (the memory comes back of a garden wigwam and myself, aged nine, poking a friend's vagina with a biro).
I do know the distance between my childhood and theirs is less than the gap between mine and my mother's, who walked to school with her shoes around her neck, or my father's, who looked forward to getting the top of his father's boiled egg for a Sunday treat (`Oh shut up, Dad!'). The issue is not these superficial things, which change from one generation to the next — I am sure my children will bore their children with tales of how they were only allowed one computer each. The ques- tion is whether the unique horror of the Bulger case informs us of some fundamen- tal erosion of innocence — and I hope that merely stating the question exposes its silliness.
For one thing, the murder of James Bul- ger was far from unique. There are 30 or 40 similar cases recorded over the last 200 years (see Patrick Wilson, Children Who Kill, and David James Smith, The Sleep of Reason), but they are mostly forgotten now, even the recent ones. In almost all of them an element of sexual experiment or torture was present — as was strongly suggested in the Bulger case — and the offenders had frequently been brutalised themselves by parents or siblings: a fact often recognised in mitigation even by the supposedly bar- barous courts of the late-18th century. But the Prime Minister's asinine injunction to `condemn more and to understand less', made in the hysterical aftermath of the murder, was effectively an invitation to ignore such considerations, and in the trial of Thompson and Venables that is just what the court proceeded to do.
Writers who have been honest about childhood are always sensitive to the child's capacity for outrageous cruelty and thoughtlessness. George Orwell wrote about blowing up toads with a football pump, and of raiding birds' nests for chicks with his friends so they had 'one each to stamp on'. Harry Graham's Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes of 1899 were a burlesque, but their enormous popularity indicates that not everyone embraced the Victorian image of child as angel (I quote from memory here):
Alas, poor Willy is crying so hard, A sad little boy is he, For he's broken his baby sister's neck And he'll have no jam for tea.
Even when the writer is arguing for the inner goodness of the child, as in Tom Brown's Schooldays, it is not the cloying chapters about Tom's Christian awakening that are remembered, but the earlier pas- sages about his semi-criminal career with Harry East, and above all his roasting in front of the fire by Flashman. Kipling's Stalky and Co. has a threadbare moral message: that teenage anarchists make good empire-builders, but its emotional power is all tied up with the vivid episodes of sadism, torture and revenge.
Modern children's literature often tries to ignore or suppress the cruelty of chil- dren and their fascination for the macabre. In the 1950s Ladybird edition of Rumpelstiltskin, to take one example, the story ends in the traditional way, with the little mannikin ripping off the foot that is trapped in the floorboards; in the modern version he pulls himself free and runs away. Other traditional tales like The Red Shoes, where the little girl is made to wear a pair of red-hot iron clogs, or the Jew in the Thorn Bush, in which a magic fiddle forces the Jew to dance himself to death in the briar thicket, have simply vanished from the anthologies. The one writer who has consistently ignored the prettifying tendency, and in whom the elements of sadism, revenge and power fantasy remain rampant, is Roald Dahl, who is the most disapproved of by parents — and far and away the most popular with children.
When 1 was a child of seven or so, my school was closed from time to time for something called 'Voting day', which I misheard as Boating day, and which I came to associate for some reason with a print of Stanley Spencer's Cookham Regat- ta. It was years before I came to realise that general elections did not require that my teachers go off somewhere to dress in blaz- ers and straw hats to pole punts along the river. This kind of confusion, founded on incomplete information, a powerful visual- ising tendency, and the deep isolation of the child, is extremely common and helps to account both for the creativity and pene- tration of childhood, and for what seems to the adult its occasional lapses into bar- barism. My daughter used to refer to the sensation of pins and needles as 'ginger beer in my feet', which I proudly related as evidence of linguistic precocity, though, of course, it was no more than a shortage of vocabulary. My son, when he was four, was once caught trying to smash the family tor- toise on the garden path `to see how it worked' — which would be callousness in an adult, but was a simple confusion of cat- egories, between animal and toy, in a child. Nobody will ever know what was in the minds of Thompson and Venables when they abducted Jamie Bulger, but the pres- ence of batteries near the severed body of the child was suggestive. When Thompson was being interviewed by police several days later he was still able to ask if they would be able `to make the baby better', which is not the question of a personality with a developed understanding of the fragility and uniqueness of another human being. In a famous passage from Emile, Jean Jacques Rousseau tries to describe this elusive quality of childhood, which he dubbed 'the sleep of reason'. 'The appar- ent ease with which children learn is their ruin. The child remembers the words and the ideas are reflected back; his hearers understand them, but to him they are meaningless . . . Before the age of reason the child receives images, not ideas; and there is this difference between them: images are merely the pictures of external objects, while ideas are notions about those objects determined by their rela- tions.' It is possible, in other words, to have all the information about a subject, such as sexual intercourse, but no under- standing at all — and this is the actual experience of most people I have asked. `I was told the facts of life when I was about nine,' a friend says, `but I just dismissed them as too ridiculous for words. My par- ents would never do that.' Without person- al experience of the tug of heterosexual attraction, and without the ability to grasp the relations between family and reproduc- tion, the facts of life are just items in the repertoire of meaningless information we absorb as children. Like holding mummy's hand when you cross the road, or the 12 times table, they only acquire meaning with context. My daughter knows about Aids and condoms, but they only corrupt her innocence to the same degree that her recitation of French verbs makes her into a Frenchwoman.
In the 1970s it became fashionable for a while to declare that childhood was a mod- ern invention. Before the Victorian age children were dressed as adults, and expected to work as adults. They were also regarded as the bearers of original sin, and punished with appropriate severity. Lloyd De Mause's History of Childhood (1973) was a shattering chronicle of two millennia of rape, infanticide, violent and bloody
punishment, coprophagia, terrorism, neglect and utter callousness.
Obviously, not all children were treated so harshly or, as Nicholas Tucker, Profes- sor of Child Psychology at Sussex Universi- ty, says, `We would not be here to talk
about it. Children need to be loved to sur- vive. You only have to look at families in the underdeveloped world to see that even in a very harsh environment, with high infant mortality, parents do love their chil- dren.' It is nevertheless clear that before the 18th century the social and religious attitude to children was an extremely harsh one. The change in attitude, which Lawrence Stone in The Family: Sex and Marriage describes as the growth of 'affec- tive individualism', coincided both with the growing wealth and dwindling size of the bourgeois family and the general decline of religious faith. Rationalist philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau argued for the natural innocence of the child. Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth, seeking a form of natural religion outside the Church, saw the inten- sity of childhood emotion and perception as an 'intimation of immortality' for the adult. In the 17th century the child was `a limb of Satan', who needed the devil driv- en out with the rod. By 1840 Thomas Beggs was fretting over the corruption of innocent youth by 'the cheap theatres, penny gaffs and dancing saloons which are an incitement to crime. The daring enact- ment of the outrages of Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin and Claude Duval . . . exhibit to admiration noted examples of successful crime and attract the attention and ambitions of these boys.'
In this century the image of childhood has tended to alternate between the two extremes and the alternation has tended to coincide with swings in the national mood. In the Edwardian sunset of Frances Hodg- son Burnett's The Secret Garden, the child was still the incarnation of goodness. In the grimness of the Depression years, he became Pinky, the teenage gangster in Brighton Rock, with its Catholic message of original sin. In the optimistic postwar years, it was the sun-kissed innocence of the Enid Blyton child, and in the nuclear- haunted 1960s the infant savages of Lord of the Flies. `The way a society depicts its children,' Nicholas Tucker says, Is to do with how that society is feeling about itself, because the children are going to be 'It's the only way I can get my husband to take any notice of me . . that society one day.'
Children are a source of anxiety to adults because they are the result of our most ani- mal activity. On the one hand they hold promise of the future, on the other they are a reminder of our mortality. `When child- hood dies,' Brian Aldiss once said, Its corpses are called adults and they enter society, which is one of the politer names for hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, because they show us the state of our decay.' In an age of faith the child was a dustbin for adult sins; in a secular age he is a repository of idealised innocence, which we blame society for corrupting.
The paradox of the Bulger case and the reason it was such a destabilising event is that both images of childhood are present, each conflicting with the other. For the parents to feel the rage they need to feel, Thompson and Venables, little boys of ten who play with Boglins and watch Thunder- birds, must be monsters beyond redemption or pity. And yet for the full force of our vengeful rage to be felt it is also necessary for James their son to become another impossible abstraction: the avatar of inno- cence. 'There has never been a time in his- tory,' says Nicholas Tucker, 'when we have not thought two completely contradictory things about children,' but the Bulger case may be the first when we have tried to believe in both at the same time.