Book of the week : Fear and loathing on the high street

29th November 2002 at 00:00

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 sensenbsp; 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.

Read the full review in this week's TES Friday magazine

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