Book of the week

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Fear and loathing on the high street

Cut the jargon if you want to find out what makes children behave as they do when they are outside their home. David Newnham reviews a new study

CHILDREN IN THE CITY: Home, neighbourhood and community. Edited by Pia Christensen and Margaret O'Brien. RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99.

Did you ever wonder why teenagers hang around on street corners? Perhaps you assume they've been chucked out of the house, are debating where to go for some under-age drinking, or are simply waiting for the kebab shop queue to get shorter.

And you may well be right on all three accounts. But at a deeper level, is it not also true that their presence "in the public domain" forms "part of their life project" and indicates "aspirations towards a serious engagement with civic life"? While chewing that over, you might like to consider how, "through the agency of young people on the street, new syncretic cultural behaviours arise".

You might prefer to pass on that one, too - depending on how much effort you want to put in. And the fact is that, unless you are fairly well versed in the language of sociology, anthropology, environmental psychology, psychosociology et al, parts of this book will require a considerable amount of effort.

Take chapter 7 - "The street as liminal space: the barbed spaces of childhood". If you're not familiar with the word "liminal", then you have a problem, since most concise dictionaries ignore it and at least one heavy-weight insists that it means "of or pertaining to a limen" (which is, of course, true).

All of which is a great pity. For beyond the irritating jargon - the "fuzzy zones" and "cultural geographies" and the endless stream of "narratives" - every one of the 11 essays here contains original insights that couldn't fail to be of interest and value to anyone whose life, professional or otherwise, brings them into contact with children.

Take that rather po-faced line about teenagers aspiring towards "a serious engagement with civic life" (a reference to the work of the American urban reformer Jane Addams). It begins to make sense once, in the company of more than one contributor to this book, you begin taking a detailed look at how children come to terms with the territory outside their homes, using the streets to explore their present and future social relations and feeling their way towards independence.

And as for all those "barbed spaces of childhood" - it's illuminating to hear why one bunch of older teenage boys in the East Midlands hang around at night by the waste skips at the back of a disused pub.

We might be what we eat, but is a little bit of us also where we live? The process whereby young children discover and map their surroundings, imprinting locations with memories and associations which in turn help to mould their own sense of identity, is about as fascinating a subject as you could wish to stumble upon between soft covers.

Planners and policymakers increasingly talk about listening to the views of children. But the point is made here - and easily understood this time - that "listening to children, hearing children and acting on what children say are three very different activities, although they are frequently elided as if they were not".

So what do children say? What scares them most in the modern city? While their parents are chiefly concerned about traffic, drugs and paedophilia, it's those poorly lit underpasses, thoughtfully constructed so that main roads can be crossed in safety, that give most kids the horrors.

And then there is the reasonable fear of lifts and stairwells, the terror of dark and dingy alleys, the anxiety about fires in rubbish bins and the theft of mobile phones in the street. There is also a concern about being hit by shopping trolleys thrown from high buildings - by other children, naturally.

For as anyone who has ever been a child will have suspected, the violence of other children represents a major piece of grit in the Vaseline of childhood. And so, as one study discovered, it is more security guards and brighter street lighting that young inner-Londoners crave. And like well-adjusted grown-ups, they yearn for designated spaces where they can be protected against the predations of certain adults and all disruptive and violent kids (boys like parks more than girls do, although girls make better use of the equipment once they take the plunge).

And what of those young city dwellers who never play in parks or "the street", but who are doomed to be forever ferried between dislocated islands of time-scheduled activity - usually in a great big people mover?

It's inevitable in a book with such an academic bent that the chapter dealing with "insularisation, domestication and shaping daily life" first outlines how the authors "conceptualised the interconnection between spatial and temporal aspects of childhood structure and children's agency" before developing "related case-study methods" and using them to study a bunch of 10-year-olds in Berlin.

But what threatens to be an impenetrable treatise on the patterns of children's movements through "functionally differentiated urban landscapes" proves to be a surreal impulse-by-impulse account of how boys choose their leisure activities in the face of seemingly monstrous parental control.

In the event, they react against the loss of spontaneous time and space in which to play by deliberately failing to turn up on time to organised events or arranging to meet friends on the way to after-school activities.

Something that makes perfect sense, however you choose to say it.

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