Childhood's turmoils

16th May 1997 at 01:00
The Swap. By George Layton. Macmillan, Pounds 9.99 This book, I thought, is about me. I, too, grew up in the Fifties, in the land of woolly balaclava helmets, a working-class lad who went to grammar school. As I read on, though, I realised that George Layton's schoolboy is not quite me.

He inhabits a Fifties that smells of cabbage, where mums go out cleaning, and aunts have hairy warts. The stereotype saddened me, for it was not always like that. Our house smelled of Mansion polish. My aunts were kind and loving; my mother would have died rather than clean for someone else. And whereas George Layton's hero nearly went on a day trip to the Festival of Britain, I really did go.

The stories, though, are excellent, well up to the standard set in Layton's first book, The Fib. In fact, The Swap carries on where that book left off, although the central characters have moved on from primary school to the grammar.

George Layton's strength is that he remembers and puts to work all the unease and turmoil of childhood. By calling on these timeless childhood feelings - guilt, fear, awareness of adult secrets - he performs the neat trick of writing from his own, long-ago experience in a way which yet speaks directly to children of today. Thus in "The Second Prize" he explores almost ruthlessly the mixture of terror, embarrassment and guilt that overwhelms a child whose prize-winning painting was actually done by someone else. At one point the boy considers telling his Auntie Doreen the truth: "It'd be easier to tell her than my mum. She'd get rid of the taxi and we'd go back into the house. I'd go upstairs to my bedroom ..." But, of course, courage fails, and the dreadful day goes on to a climax which has a little twist in it.

The moral issues are boldly chosen. The title story tackles, among other things, social class divisions. Another explores anti-semitism. And yet it would be a bold and insensitive teacher who interrupted the narrative in order to tease out these messages. Children will pick them up well enough.

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