The Dangerous Book for Boys

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The Dangerous Book for Boys

By Conn and Hal Iggulden

HarperCollins pound;18.99

The Iggulden brothers are on a mission to preserve boyhood joys such as coin tricks, exploring, stone-skimming and code-making; all are featured in this compendium of enthusiasms. They gather together childhood activities that fall well outside health and safety policies, involving catapults, bows and arrows and tree houses. There's a welcome introduction to the rules of conkers.

The book is also part encyclopaedia of the sort of knowledge the authors think will appeal to "boys" of all ages, including grown-up ones. This side of the book hearkens back to the era of the Boy's Own Paper, with facts about astronomy alongside tales of derring-do. The attempt to recreate a former age has extended to the quality of presentation more common in the Boy's Own era, with poor quality illustrations and lengthy paragraphs. This has a dulling effect on some of the "How to..." sections, which are too long and detailed. Will anyone follow six pages of instructions on how to build a tree house?

This illustrates another dilemma. In my boyhood, when we built a tree house we used stolen wood to make something dangerous that wobbled. Our rafts sank and our catapults could have had your eye out. The Igguldens write for safe and idealised boys, and their catapults carry safety warnings. Also, the question has to be asked: "Why boys?" I suspect the exclusion of half the population is intended as an ironic snigger for those who possess a willy, but if this is a joke then it's dated, even by post-feminist standards. As a grown boy, I'm not sure this is the image of masculinity with which I would want myself, the boys I teach, or my sons to identify, with its presentation of the British Empire bringing "the light of British rule to those less fortunate", or its five pages on the history of artillery.

Maybe it's because my childhood was made up of the Beano and skateboarding, but I'm not sure that the boys depicted here really existed. While this book makes an attempt to celebrate the perils of childhood, the celebration is a little safe and a little dull, and the irony falls flat.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of Emmaus School, Sheffield. His tree house still stands in Pontyclun woods

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