Revisiting the stories of old

The first 20th-century back-to-basics hero was born before anyone knew what the basics might turn out to be. Dan Dare was beamed into 2000 amid the chaotic aftermath of World War II when the millennium seemed impossibly far off. Although a rocket scientist collaborated on the Eagle cartoon strip, its technology lagged far behind real-life developments - propellor-driven fighter aircraft were only slightly updated for the "pilot of the future".

Dan's values, too, were those required by the Festival of Britain present at the time that he was created, rather than an imagined future - liberal nationalism with an evangelical streak, plus enough initiative to solve the rationing crisis by fetching food from Venus. Like Enid Blyton's Famous Five, who enjoy a renaissance whenever the political climate is right, Dan Dare is an example of popular culture for children meaning whatever its creators want it to mean.

The worldwide experts in children's literature who gathered in York this week (report, page 3) considered how books for children help to construct history - in the way they reflect the past and predict the future as well as in the cultural icons they create. Little Red Riding Hood, picking her perilous way through a forest of interpretations from Perrault to Angela Carter, showed how the manner in which the most prominent characters are represented can change with the times.

The string of British children's classics published between the Fifties and Seventies (called the "second golden age" of children's publishing) includes an uncanny number of timeslip novels in which a rambling house soothes a solitary child's present uncertainties by yielding the secrets of the past. Tom's Midnight Garden, the Green Knowe series and others could, according to different participants, have been intended to retrieve a vanishing pre-war idyll, to represent a community outliving transient individuals or as a metaphor for the act of writing or reading. Children, however, will read them as good stories in which there are no superheroes, but a pleasing sense of being led elsewhere. Today's writers, too, deal in stories rather than Dan Dares.

In York, it was the stories that emerged as the child's key to gaining a sense of history. The experience of understanding a fairytale which comes alongside learning to count the months to the next birthday is our first sign that time is not confined to the limited present of our own experience. "We need history to teach us how to behave in the future," argued one participant. "Without a sense of history we are frozen in the now, asleep in Plato's cave."

The sense of other times and experiences may be more successfully drawn from fiction - a more nourishing food for the imagination than the "historic experiences" now marketed by the nostalgia industry, some of which have more elements of a theme park than a rich educational experience.

Dan Dare has taken half a century to make it from the drawing board to academic discourse; today's figureheads of popular culture will be able to do it faster. The PhD outlines on the Teletubbies and the Spice Girls are almost certainly in preparation.

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