Innocence abused

18th November 1994 at 00:00
The Penguin Book of Childhood, By Michael Rosen, Viking, #163;15. 0 670 84759 3.

Gillian Avery on an anthology of childhood.

Walter de la Mare's classic anthology of early childhood memories, Early One Morning, appeared in 1935."There are few things in the world," it begins, "so sure of a welcome in any human mind, as a creature brand-new to this life of ours."

He did not avoid showing suffering - there were chapters on conscience, sin, sorrow, fears, and accounts of harsh treatment, sometimes cruelty. But the assumption was that most adults were "at least friendly to childhood and children", and that most could remember in their own childhood moments of pure, undiluted joy. Sixty years on, this assumption is no longer made. In 1935 there was still much literary interest in children, and a great desire - among those who could afford it - to prolong youth as long as possible.

But Michael Rosen finds that the interest in childhood is as low now as it has ever been. In my experience, monitoring a week's newspapers, say, for stories about children, reveals that over 90 per cent show children as battered, abused and murder victims. This chorus is interrupted only by accounts of children's evil and advertisements where they appear as smiling clothes-hangers. His Penguin Book of Childhood reflects this, and the jacket picture shows Jan Steen's "Village School" with a weeping child being beaten. From ancient Egypt - the anthology is arranged chronologically - to the recent news headlines which so starkly end his selection, we are shown centuries of the hostility and inhumanity of adults towards the young.

"I grew up beside you, you smote my back, and so your teaching entered my ear," an Egyptian boy some 4,000 years ago says of his teacher. "My mummy, her put a fag up my bottom. My daddy pull my willy. My bleed on my bottom," says a 1980s three-year-old. They are exploited, savaged, and tortured, whether they are slaves on a Virginia plantation or schoolboys at Eton; flogged into learning if they come from families who can afford education, or, if they are the poorer sort, sent out to work as soon as they can stand.

Rosen has spread his net wide, using documents, diaries, letters, interviews, as well as memoirs, but avoiding "the literate, the educated, and indeed the literary" which he feels have already been well documented. In this claim he cheats a little; almost to the 19th century surviving material - as his own extracts show - mostly concerns the upper echelons of society. And in his concern to give the late 20th century view he sometimes bends the past to suit his purpose. Charles Lamb was far more tender than the snappish extract about a sick child - "Goodbye, little bastard" - might suggest to those who did not know his essay "Dream Children". Cotton Mather, the ultra-orthodox New England preacher, whom Rosen shows warning four-year Katy about the "sinful Condition of her Nature", undoubtedly expected much precocious religious sensibility in his children. But he loved them dearly, and in 1689, likening the death of a child to the tearing off of a limb, he spoke of their "pretty Features, pretty Speeches, pretty Actions. Well, at the Resurrection of the Just we shall see the dear Lambs again."

Few of the extracts quoted by Rosen suggest that adults ever feel that sort of affection. Or indeed that children could be described as "dear lambs". The sorrowful inscription on the tomb of a small Ancient Egyptian boy stands out as one of the few records of parental love.

And when we hear the voices of the children themselves more often than not they are chanting scatological rhymes, or feverishly discussing sex if not trying precocious experimentation. Even their moments of pleasure are tainted - as when Dolly's father tells her not to stand on the footbridge and let the steam from trains below wash over her: "The firemen piddle on the coal because they can't get out of the cab.It's piddled steam, firemen's piddled steam you've been playing in." The Penguin Book of Childhood is undoubtedly fascinating, but more as a representation of l990s attitudes than as dispassionate history.

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