Are children still harmless innocents, or has the brutality of the modern world corrupted even the very young? Have we entered a post-Bulger age of child hatred, in which angels have been transformed into demons? Aleks Sierz previews a month-long exploration of childhood in literature and society.
If Alice in Wonderland is still for some people the perfect evocation of the topsy-turvy world of childhood, the image we have of Alice herself is paradoxical. On the one hand, she is neat, frizzy-haired and innocent; on the other, she is upfront, feisty even. Here's one little girl who always answers back. Nor can her creator, the Rev Charles Dodgson, be seen anymore as just an amiable eccentric; he's more likely to be thought of as an adult with an unhealthy interest in pre-pubescent girls .
In "After Alice", a series of talks about childhood in literature, the central themes are knotty questions such as: "Is childhood innocence a myth?" and "What does society really want from children?" To emphasise the distance we have travelled from the never-never land when kids were seen but rarely heard, most of the participants in "After Alice" give innocence a thoroughly bad press.
Blake Morrison, whose new book, As if, revisits the James Bulger case - "the moment that crystallised the debate about childhood innocence in recent years" - believes one reason for the murder's huge impact was that "it raised the possibility that innocence might have gone for ever".
One of Morrison's motives for going to the Bulger trial was a revulsion at "all the ideas about children being evil, the widespread feeling that there was a whole new, depraved generation - with the words 'wicked' and 'evil' being bandied about. The tabloids saw Robert Thompson and Jonathan Venables (the l0-year-olds who killed James) as monsters."
A father of three - aged 7, 12 and 15 - Morrison knows that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of innocence and monstrosity. "My two older children have an odd mix of an adopted, slightly cynical, 'cool' manner and a still terribly innocent and un-streetwise outlook."
However painful, the experience of witnessing the Bulger trial brought home to Morrison the way society was scapegoating Thompson and Venables. "They were made to carry this weight of anxiety that we had bred a generation of monsters; they became icons of evil."
But why should society need such a negative view of children? "All the widespread anxiety about juvenile crime seemed to implode on the Bulger case," he says. "One of the advantages of actually being there at the trial was that you could watch the boys, and, quite frankly, no way were those two particularly streetwise. They weren't the kind of hard children I'd been led to expect."
Out of Morrison's compassion comes a broader conclusion. "We have this idea of innocence from Rousseau and Wordsworth: that children wander about in this cloud of imagination. Sometimes this is true, but, at another level, children lack imagination; they can't foresee consequences, can't put themselves in the place of other people. Without empathy, their moral sense is impaired.
"One of the things we've got very muddled about is this difference between adults and children. Because of what they did, Thompson and Venables lost the right to be treated as children, but trying them in an adult court seems to me a monstrosity."
Not only is As if an argument against treating children as adults, it also taps into Morrison's own memories and experiences. Despite his scepticism about the ability of adults to recreate the world of childhood - "It's almost impossible to get inside the heads of children" - Morrison's book is good at representing his own childhood. He shows how close many children come to doing "evil" things. In one incident, a William Tell game nearly cost him an eye; in another, "dubious sex" at a teenage party could have landed him "in big trouble".
"I have a feeling of luck that something terrible didn't happen," he says of his own experiences. "Children have that potential for doing harm, doing more damage than they're conscious of. You do things as a child without a full awareness of all their implications."
But while Morrison is insistent that losing "the imaginative feel for what it's like to be a child" can result in treating children as monsters, one of the characteristics of his literary imagination is a desire to cultivate empathy.
"My book," Morrison says, "is an attempt to argue against certain ideas of childhood, particularly this idea that kids are growing up too fast and need to be slapped down." Instead of seeing children as growing up too quickly, he has the opposite fear - that kids are over-protected. "With the panic about letting children out to roam about by themselves," he says, "we are bringing up a generation of children who are not at all equipped to fend for themselves. " While we still cling to ideas about innocence, society still doesn't know exactly what it wants from its children.
Another participant in "After Alice", Nicholas Tucker, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, agrees that "the Bulger case brought to the surface a lot of unease about children in general". He takes a long view. "A hundred years ago, children were valued as an economic investment - they were your pension. Now they are more of an emotional investment. In the future this may change. We may get a situation in which children are seen as just a nuisance: noisy, expensive and tomorrow's unemployed."
Harking back to Dickensian times, when some children were viewed as, in the Malthusian phrase, "surplus to requirements", Tucker is pessimistic. "Today we are seeing a new wave of child hatred. Where there was always some element of resentment of children, now this manifests itself in calls to bring back the cane and clobber them with homework.
"We are still at the very fag end of the Romantic movement, when to be a child was to be innocent. But after the Bulger case no one talks about innocence any more. There was a gloomy feeling that the boys who killed Bulger didn't need video nasties; in fact, they used to read Roald Dahl rather than watch Child's Play 3."
But if there is a widespread feeling that "children themselves may not be very nice", what about our desire to see them as innocent? "The age of innocence is still there," says Tucker, "only it ends much earlier than before. Now, ideas of innocence are confined to the worship of the baby and the toddler. William Brown was once a lovable mischief-maker; today his kind of mischief is seen in graffiti and junior mugging." And where once "all the Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns were seen as good at heart, no one now thinks of the massed ranks of adolescence as good at heart".
Not everyone is so pessimistic. Maura Dooley, last term's TES guest poet and organiser of "After Alice", says: "Much of the talk about childhood has a way of making us more fearful than we need be. We do have to care about children, but we should also allow them to make their own mistakes."
Like some of the participants in "After Alice", Dooley believes that the experience of motherhood "helps you reinterpret your own childhood and see it in a different light". Using memories of her childhood in her writing, she also has a new awareness of her own children. "With my three-year-old I can see already how she uses different emotional strategies to get what she wants. It's not particularly innocent; I find it terrifyingly mature."
To locate the more positive side of childhood, you have to forget about innocence and look for other characteristics. Helen Dunmore, whose novels Talking to the Dead and A Spell in Winter examine sibling intimacy, puts the stress on how children relate to each other. "I look at the intensity of sibling relationships, especially the way they cover up for one another. They have this tremendous capacity to support each other. But although some siblings are always in solidarity, very often, in order to gain adult attention or approval, they betray the child world."
Rather than seeing children as either innocent or evil, Dunmore shows how they create their own "child world". "They have a whole secret life which adults know very little about. They have a map of the neighbourhood which is a child's map, places adults don't know about, but which are terribly important for children." Yet as well as being a beautiful world, this can be a cruel one too. "My next book is about cruelty, how girls dominate each other verbally. In it, I have this girl called Allie who's struggling to get out of being crushed by an older girl."
Although sceptical of the myth of childhood innocence - what Dooley calls the "nostalgic A A Milne version of a golden age" - Dunmore emphasises the idea that children "have a quality of direct response, physically and emotionally, to the world. But I've never thought that means children are nicey, nicey. "
For Dunmore, the most disturbing aspect of the Bulger case was not the actions of the two l0-year-olds, but the inaction of the adults who saw baby James being abducted and did nothing about it. "When children are seen as private property," she says, "there's no community responsibility for their welfare. "
If today's crisis in childhood turns out to be a crisis of how adults perceive children, the Bulger case will always be seen as a symbolic milestone. Perhaps the title for a future series of talks could be "After Bulger".
After Alice: Childhood in Literature, Royal Festival Hall, February 1-25. Tel: O171 960 4242
As if, by Blake Morrison, Granta Pounds 14.99, is published on February 12