Text of a talk given by Toby Forward to the Children’s Book Circle in February 1989
It’s exactly thirty years since the Opies published The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. It came out in 1959. In a brief section headed ‘The Improper’ they say, ‘Genuinely erotic verse, however, is unusual. That there are villains among children, as among adults, the News of the World offers frequent testimony; and from somewhere the ogre child acquires his strange salacious prescriptions, taking criminal pleasure in pressing them on juniors, and inscribing them on the walls of the school lavatory. But we are not here discussing delinquents.’ (Oxford 1959, p96) I don’t want to attempt to undermine the authority of the great Opies, but I have special claim to greater authority in playground games and chants in their period, because I was nine years old in 1959, and either their research was incomplete, or they have deliberately censored a lot of material that ought properly to come in the improper section. Alternatively perhaps I must put myself in their category of delinquents, an ogre child with strange salacious prescriptions; because my childhood was filled with obscene rhymes, more often lavatorial than sexual, though there were plenty of sexual ones, that I chanted happily, knowing that they were naughty without understanding fully why.
I have raided my memory to recall something from 1959 that the Opies might have missed or suppressed, and I came up with the Popeye rhymes. The index recognised these and gave some examples, but the Opies then gave away their censorship. They say, ‘Popeye is still very much alive in the oral tradition, but for some reason he chiefly features in verses which are unprintable.’ (p112). Well, yes. And perhaps even nice children sometimes said these verses. But I’m chiefly interested in a verse that the Opies decided was innocent enough to include. It’s a splendid example of the kids knowing more than you think, and of how even the most rigorous censorship slips up. It’s the most obscene verse in the book.
‘I’m Popeye the garbage man,
I live in the garbage can,’
(you can see how the tone is set right at the beginning)
‘I like to go swimmin’
With bow-legged women,
I’m Popeye the garbage man.’ (p 112)
I don’t know what the Opies thought that was about.
I suppose the lavatorial aspect dominated over the sexual, because one is within the experience of unmolested children, the other is not, so there’s more immediate understanding. But advertising, the Sun, the video market and soft porn magazines on the top shelf in the newsagents tell any observant nine-year-old that something’s going on that he’ll be interested in one day.
And then, back in 1959, there was a whole dialect that I spoke with complete confidence and fluency while knowing that I could never use it to adults, to teachers or parents. It was quite a complicated dialect. Take a word like ‘fuck’. The average nine-year-old can handle this word confidently with all the flexibility of the similar, but more limited, word ‘run’. ‘The child knows when it’s a simple verb, ‘I run, you run, she runs’, when it’s a noun, ‘I’m going for a run’, when it’s a derisory dismissal, ‘Run off, and then there are all the extra uses, which ‘run’ doesn’t have, as an expletive signifying anything from pain, to joy, to disapproval, to disappointment – all you need to do is to get the tone of voice right, rather like Japanese. And then it inflects with ‘ing’ to become an equally versatile adjective meaning nothing in itself but strengthening any noun it modifies by taking to itself the content of the noun. ‘He’s a fucking wonder.’ ‘He’s fucking useless.’ I should say here that the original title of this talk was censored by the organisers who didn’t seem to want to have it printed on the programme. I wanted to call it ‘Who gives a fuck?’ and that’s an interesting linguistic usage in itself. But as far as the Opies are concerned, this, and other powerful, flexible words with a great subtlety of usage, don’t even exist. And their thread that runs through the language of the playground, and their status as taboo words makes them markers of what is authentic in children’s speech. And if we leave 1959 behind and come back to 1989 and the publishers’ lists of children’s books, we find the same denial of the existence of playground speech. I can’t think of a single book representing itself as a realistic story about children, written for children, that uses the language of children. I have to note here the honourable exception of Simon & Schuster in publishing Dead Young, but that hardly qualifies as a children’s or even a teenagers’ book because caution demanded that the cover was stickered with a warning that it was only suitable for readers of sixteen and over.
Now, I’m not saying that books should, or even could, be published for nine-year-olds and over that accurately represented children’s vocabulary and the range of the topics they show interest in. But I do want to state as a fact that there is now no real censorship of fiction published for adults – everything in the way of offensive language, sexual practice and even blasphemous attacks are freely published, though I may say that if you want to go in for blasphemy I’d advise you to have a stab at the Christian faith rather than at Islam, not for theological or literary reasons, but just on the grounds of safety. But against this background of tolerance or even licence, there is widespread and entrenched censorship of children’s literature.
I would like to suggest that this does not protect children. Nor is it really intended to. Most of us know that children use forbidden language to talk about forbidden things. Most of us can remember doing it ourselves. So when we pretend in children’s books that this isn’t so, we are doing it to protect our own sense of vanished innocence rather than to help today’s children. We want artificially to perpetuate beyond its time innocence in others that we have lost ourselves. We may also feel a sense of fear that by recognising this in children we will unleash something destructive and dangerously powerful in ourselves, and I’d like to come back to that later.
The question is, is it honest or helpful to carry on with this censorship? On the one hand, it lets the children occupy a world of their own, in freedom from the oppressive presence of adults. As long as they think that this linguistic code belongs to them, they can use it in a pleasantly subversive way. It’s like the unifying patois of an occupied people. Although the adults have got control of all the practical things of the child’s world, they haven’t got control of the child’s mind. If adults were suddenly to start writing and printing books that really showed what it was like to be under twelve, then that might be a total invasion that would be very unwelcome. So censorship is a benevolent activity, necessary in a way both for adults and children.
On the other hand, we are talking as people who are at least bilingual, people who retain the language of the playground but acquire another one as well, a grown-up language. In Life Before Man Margaret Atwood describes this in her character Elizabeth.
‘Elizabeth has two (languages). The genteel chic she’s acquired, which is a veneer, but a useful one; insinuating, flexible, accommodating. And another language altogether, older, harder, left over from those streets and schoolyards on the far edge of gentility where she fought it out.’ (Virago 1982, p148)
Some children never grow up to learn this second language, and because they never found their first language in the books of their childhood they come to believe that books are written in a foreign language in which they are not interested and which they can’t be bothered to learn. So censorship of children’s books helps to continue the process of disabling people. The language of the playground is the language of those without authority. The same language is used in everyday life by people who as adults still don’t have any authority. Football terraces, factory floors, the prison recreation rooms, the corner caffs where the unemployed spend an hour in the warm, all these places echo with the cadences and the content of the playground. I was recently in a very seedy betting shop in Bradford losing a few quid on an odds-on favourite. While I was waiting for the race to start the commentary gave the news of the jockey who had fallen in an earlier race. An elderly West Indian man, sitting alone, showed that he had clearly had his money on the injured jockey. I knew he had by the wonderful instant callousness of the playground. ‘The jockey broke his collar bone,’ the television told us. ‘Should have broken his fucking neck,’ the man told the television. I would like to suggest, and only in the most tentative way, that while our present total censorship of children’s books continues, it may, it just may, help to keep up some undesirable divisions in society. Let’s go back to the Opies. What a frightening picture they give of people who use such language: ‘villains’, readers of the News of the World, ‘ogres’ enjoying ‘criminal pleasures’. Here I have to confess that much as I love lots of things in the Opies’ book I detest the tone of patrician condescension that pervades it. There is no distinction in their minds, in the passage on the improper, between delinquent children and the criminal classes, and they are quite right, but they draw some particularly nasty conclusions from this.
I see school librarians giving badges saying ‘Books are for Everyone’. Well, they aren’t yet. And I see the same people giving badges saying ‘Books are powerful’. Well, yes. So we protect ourselves from power in the hands of people we don’t feel at ease with. We rob the children of their language. We tie their tongues for ever. What would such ogres do if we gave them power? And what of the power deep inside ourselves? The hidden child who can destroy anything with a single word? The uneducated and unrestrained and uncontrolled thrower of tantrums?
In Life Before Man, Elizabeth has a row with the aunt who brought her up after the death of her mother.
“‘Get out of my house,” Elizabeth finds herself saying, screaming. “Don’t come back!” With the release of her voice blood surges through her head. “You mouldy old bitch!” She longs to say cunt, she’s thought it often enough, but superstition holds her back. If she pronounces that ultimate magic word, surely Auntie Muriel will change into something else; will swell, blacken, bubble like burnt sugar, giving off deadly fumes.’ (Virago 1982, p218)
So we might want to wonder what this censorship of magic words does to us later. We never hear them in the places of most powerful authority, in parliament, on the lips of judges, from television newsreaders, in church. Perhaps their subversive status keeps something damagingly dangerous alive in ourselves; something we would be better rid of.
As a priest, I am a representative of a faith that reserves the highest place possible for language. It uses ‘word’ to speak of God. ‘The Word became flesh,’ says St John’s Gospel. I have no doubt that by actually using some of the forbidden words this afternoon I have had the most powerful effect on some of you, arousing hostility, distaste, disagreement, perhaps even to the point where some of you have been unwilling to listen to what I have to say. I want to leave with one question. We censor children’s literature in the areas of sexuality and language. We do it because we ourselves as teachers, as parents, librarians, writers and publishers are frightened of the power of language and of books. Do we do it for the protection of our children or because we are also frightened of what would happen if the language of the powerless and underprivileged in our society should become one of the dialects of power – if we should untie their tongues?
Toby Forward is a parish priest in Brighton His novels include Pictures (0 671 69992 X, £3 50), Dead Young (0 671 69947 X, £3 50) and, coming this November, Neverland (0 671 65330 X, £7 95), all published by Simon Schuster.