Let’s Go Trespassing…
Peter Dixon reminds us of what kids are really interested in … and what adults prefer to give them.
“Let’s go trespassing…” declared William.’
I heard these words read again by Martin Jarvis on a recent programme about Richmal Crompton, and not for the first time my heart gave a small leap of expectation.
Please note that William did not say he intended to go and watch the men digging up the road, or the farmer reaping the corn … he said, ‘Let’s go trespassing’.
Albert was a similarly adventurous lad who, armed with a stick with a horses head handle, entered zoos and poked it into sleeping lion’s ears.
David (Deuteronomy 6, verses 5-16) threw stones at adults and a small boy with loaves and fishes somewhere else in the great book wandered round the countryside offering them to strange men.
I love that kind of thing – kids who break a few rules and get adult bores ‘Tut-tutting’.
Danny did it in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World… just fancy actually stealing your father’s car and motoring off without so much as half a driving licence. And how about the ethos of encouraging children to steal valuable items (in this case, pheasants from your neighbour)?
All heady stuff!
Not long ago I was asked to write some short stories for a well-established publisher – two were returned. One for a sensible reason. One for a daft reason.
In the first story I had inadvertently made the ‘male’ character the boss and the ‘female’ his secretary, but that was soon changed.
In the second I had written about three children who were drifting across a town in a hot air balloon. During the course of their travel they’d amused themselves by dribbling dribbles – hoping that an unfortunate viewer would receive an eyeful! I was asked to alter the passage so that the children ‘sprinkled lemonade’ on the crowds below.
As I wanted the cash I complied – but knew (still know) that the story is wrong. Children do not sprinkle lemonade … they dribble. I dribbled, I still do dribble, and so do my readers.
I have never sprinkled lemonade on anyone.
Nor do publishers sprinkle lemonade on people, they dribble as well.
So, William went trespassing and in those few words Richmal has us in the palm of her hand. Illegality, trouble, rows, chasings, adventures nod and grin before us.
This brief piece is an attempt to jog a few of today’s children’s writers back into the reality of children’s likes, ,dislikes and real lives. It’s an attempt to place children’s genuine interests on a par with publishers’ adult obsessions with cleanliness and safety.
Yes! Yes! Yes! I know we don’t want children hurting themselves as a result of the stories they read, but how true is it to suppose this happens anyway?
Do William’s outbursts really encourage groups of children – far and near – to climb over BR fences and balance along electrified rails in order to go ‘trespassing’ themselves. Personally, I don’t think so.
An author acquaintance of mine was gently reprimanded for writing about children ‘climbing into’ a swimming pool for illegal swims at night, but I’m certain he wouldn’t have been questioned if the children had climbed to the very top of a huge old oak tree. The author’s problem is that climbing to the top of an oak tree (even if it is 99ft high) is really rather boring, whereas breaking into the posh man’s garden to swim in his pool whilst he’s asleep is real bed-wetting stuff. Particularly if he’s as fierce as Robby Coltrane.
So – please authors – will you spare the time to read back through your William books?
William, in my memory, once went round the village stealing babies in order that he might win a baby show with one of them. He broke into people’s houses – including the vicarage – more than once, yet I remain convinced he was in no way responsible for an outbreak of baby-snatching, World War Two, or an increase in national juvenile crime.
We’re now subjecting ourselves and our children to a new form of education entitled The National Curriculum.
Whatever it is, or is not, one thing is certain. It’s mostly boring and unrelated to children’s real lives. Good teachers can enliven the most distasteful areas of study, but such energies as our teachers have (or had) are now dispersed into hours of rote Attainment, target box ticking and interminable form-filling.
Dull topics upon ‘Magnets’ and ‘People Who Help Us’ proliferate. Topics about things that are MUCH MORE interesting to children diminish, e.g. why can’t we have a topic about ‘People Who Don’t Help Us’.
It seems obvious to me that the magic, the sunlight, the fun and joy of primary education is going to depend even more firmly than before upon the quality of our children’s stories. It is in this land that they can dream their dreams and trespass their fields.
But please can it be THEIR muddy field, complete with cows’ poo, stinging nettles and trouser-ripping barbed wire… rather than the green astra turf of the adult imagination?
When he’s not dribbling, Peter Dixon is a poet, a teacher and a tireless promoter, throughout Britain and Europe, of the notion that learning can be fun. His books include:
Grow Your Own Poems, 0 333 44599 0, £4.00
I Heard a Spider Sobbing, 1873195 00 0, £3.50
Big Billy, 1 873195 01 7, £3.50
They can be obtained direct from him at 30 Cheriton Road, Winchester, Hampshire, or through your local bookseller.
Illustrations on this page are from What’s Wrong With Civilizashun and other important ritings by Just William by Richmal Crompton, published by Macmillan, 0 333 52656 2, £7.95.