Thursday, 16 July 2009

Self Service (Polemic 2)

The current furore surrounding writers, child protection and school visits sheds more light on the self-serving imaginary landscape around which of the appointed cultural titans roam. It is a classic demonstration of writerly vanity and illustrates the vacuity of much commentary about culture in our society. It's a manufactured, orchestrated bunfight in which the shrill voices of our doomsaying heroes drown out any semblance of reasoned or illuminating discourse.

The bunfight centres around new requirements in England, Wales and Northern Ireland requiring everyone who wants to work or volunteer with children or "vulnerable people" to be vetted by the
Independent Safeguarding Authority. The requirement will make it compulsory for anyone who has "regular" or intense contact with children or vulnerable adults have the checks.

This provoked the following measured responses from a predictable assembly of people what write kids books and have publicists:

"The whole idea of vetting any adult who visits many schools, but each only for a day, and then always in the presence of other adults, is deeply offensive," (Anne Fine)

"It's actually rather dispiriting and sinister. Why should I pay £64 to a government agency to give me a little certificate to say I'm not a paedophile.
Children are abused in the home, not in classes of 30 or groups of 200 in the assembly hall with teachers looking on." (Philip Pullman)

"In essence, I'm being asked to pay £64 to prove that I am not a paedophile.
After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literacy, I find this incredibly insulting."
(The database)...poisons the special relationship that exists between children and authors they admire". (Anthony Horowitz)

What is revealing about this is the manner in which the systemic insult is personalised.

No matter that this requirement covers a massive range of people who work with young people, this is transmogrified into an attack on the integrity of some of our most beloved childrens authors. Particularly hard to stomach is Pullman's sanctimonious, simple-minded assertion about abuse; coupled with both Pullman and Horowitz having the moxy to suggest that they'll be paying the £64 (unlesss blockbusting authors have ceased engaging the services of accountants these days?) we're left with a masterclass in vanity and self-regard disguised as social conscience.

For the thousands of us up here in Scotland who for a few years now have had to go through the Disclosure Scotland procedure when starting a job working with children or vulnerable adults it's less of an insult than an inconvenience. I don't believe for a second that my potential employers think that I'm a paedophile, it's just that they have to check. And that's fine. Although my flexibility in this regard may have more to do with the fact that I have to work to earn a living.

The likes of Horowitz, Pullman and Morpurgo, for all their undoubted talents, can afford to hold forth at length about "sinister" "insults" from a faceless bureaucracy. Just don't expect me to applaud their fearless decision to stop bothering to do something they don't need to do very often anyway.

It's heartening to see that the new childrens laureate, Anthony Browne
offering some some much needed perspective:

"I feel that as writers we shouldn't necessarily be granted an exemption. If all people who work with children have to be vetted by the police then we shouldn't be an exception. It seems a bit odd that we have to pay for it, though."

Don't worry Anto, I'm sure you'll be able to write it off against tax.

Even better was
Robert Muchamore's suitably combative Twitter message:
"Irritated at another round of whinging by the usual grey haired mafia of 'renowned' kids authors"

Anyone who works with vulnerable and damaged young people will tell you that even ordinary experiences require extraordinary effort. In their unwillingness to demonstrate even the slightest flexibility in this matter our heroes have demonstrated the true extent of their commitment.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Polemic 1

Irksome post on the guardian bookblog gives way to discussion in which the usual observation-commentary-extrapolation continuum betrays one of the classic intellectual blindspots of our times whereby broad, uninformed statements based on imaginative interpretation of a strangers behaviour is presented as some sort of psychological/sociological insight.

Where Sebastian Faulks WWI snoreathon "Birdsong" soothes the savage Staffy-wielding proletarians our heroine is forced to share public transport with, the spectacle of a man reading a novel by a
national treasure is a transparent (and creepy) attempt to seduce and destroy. I acknowledge that my irritation probably stems from the possibility that people would misinterpret my adoration of Smith's work as an attempt to curry favour with the sisterhood rather than the fact that she is bloody marvellous.

Anyway, this tendency seems to extend throughout the literatosphere: the use of observation as a springboard from which the (normally reasonably well established) author can vault headlong into a soup of their own anxieties and present them as a problem for society. Frequently, observations of this nature reveal more about our author than it does about the subject. This is something that makes my heart sink as the "hook" for the author is that the subject is, in itself, interesting.

An example?

Let's have a look at a
recent profile of arch-charlatan Sue Palmer trailing her latest notional treataise on the plight of 21st Century boys:

"NOT SO long ago, Sue Palmer was walking through Edinburgh's Queen Street Gardens. She had her dog on the lead and was minding her own business, when she happened upon what she describes as a "dreadfully upsetting sight".

"There were these three young women from a nursery having a chat, and they had nine little children with them on leads," says the Edinburgh-based author, who has published several acclaimed books about modern childhood. "I looked at those children and thought, 'they're getting less attention and time than my dog'. I don't think the women were being uncaring, but the fact that the children were on leads was just symptomatic of the fact that we seem to have comprehensively lost track of one of the most important elements of raising children: personal, loving contact."

I don't know if Ms Palmer has ever experienced the butt-quaking terror of trying to organise a group of young children anywhere out of doors but it does betray the fact that the origins of many of her theses reside in a school of thought we can call Nosey-Parkerdom. Furthermore, there is no indication as to whether Ms Palmer made any effort to ascertain to what extent these children were being denied personal, loving contact. Is the fact that these young children in nursery in itself neglectful? Or is it the use of leads? Coupled with Palmer's suggestion that children should not enter primary education until age 7 we're right into stay-at-home-parent territory aren't we?

"We've got screen saturation in our homes now, and we've got lots of ways little boys can and do end up in front of screens. We've got faster and faster in terms of the amount of technology we now use, and we've sort of forgotten that children are still the same creatures they've always been. They're born with these stone-age little brains and in order to bring them up well we have to slow down a bit and acknowledge they exist in biological time not technological time. We're fastforwarding them into the 21st century and that is contributing to an increase in emotional behaviour and social problems."

Speaking to people with experience of working with young men who would be considered as having what is charmingly titled Social Emotional and Behavioural difficulties I can't see how screen saturation (or technological exposure) necessarily feeds into their specific problems. The vast majority of their problems stem from broader social problems, poverty, neglect, deprivation, delinquency, early exposure to alcohol, drugs, solvents, absence of a strong or coherent community outside a peer group. You know, the kind of stuff that doesn't really stoke the ardour of Conservative Party Conferences as much as the simplistic Modern Life is Rubbish agenda peddled by high profile chuckleheads like Palmer.

"Boys need a lot of outdoor activity and play in order to develop the control of their limbs and minds that will allow them to sit down in class. If you have a little five-year- old boy trying to make a den or build a fort, it doesn't matter in play whether it falls down or not, but if we put them under pressure with targets in a classroom, they know this is the grown up world and they've got to please grownups, and if they're not capable of doing that at that age and they fail you've got a good chance of turning them off for life."

Here again we have a simple, innocuous statement (children need exercise) acting as a springboard for a Flying forward one-and-a-half somersault, pike
into an imagined pressure cooker school where p1 & 2 where boys are expected to knuckle down and forget about all that nonsense about playing and sharing or ever going outside again.

We have the imagined world of worried little boys, locked up inside with no place for creativity and fun, this is a world which, in the interview, has been entirely fabricated without recourse to any basis in fact. It is the authors OWN NIGHTMARE.

This, again, doesn't tally with experience of working with young people on the sharp end of the behavioural spectrum. The circumstances that lead young people to fail at school and to be turned off education for life are likely to have more to do with disruption in their educational experience. Every local authority will have a number of children (boys and girls) who from an early age are percieved as being SEB. The profound sense of alienation from education they will almost certainly experience will be learned by these young people as they are bounced from class to class, school to school, unable to settle into groups and perpetually viewed as a burden on the schools physical and human resources. This has precisely nothing to do with Palmer's imagined dislocation and everything to do with the all too real psychological horror of vulnerable children being pushed to the margins of mainstream society at an age when their need for basic education is most pronounced.

"With teenage boys, the peer pressure is to be edgy – to do bad things that are anti-establishment, anti-education and anti-social. They want an edgy, cool image that comes from media and marketing and computer games."

The gobsmacking revelation that young men want to be seen as individuals in their journey towards adulthood is so self-evident and banal as to inspire skepticism of practically everything that's gone before.

So what's my point? That the current urge to pathologise every aspect of youth development only fuels the profound sense of unease with young people, the fact that this perspective is marketable by publishers to an affluent and influential class of people who are psychologically and socially remote from the vast majority of ordinary society only serves to tighten the discursive circle where a diminishing clique claque about the "crisis" in their imagined childhoods.

Where previously a tension existed between the adult worlds instinctive protective instinct and natural generational distaste at adolescents, the adults are now locked out in the cold. The adult world observes, annotates and wrinkles its nose in distaste at a youth culture they can't understand and so they attempt to imagine they understand. And by imagining they understand the problem, their solution is rooted in how they imagine the world rather than how the world actually is.

Important caveat: This is merely an anlysis of the profile of Palmer and not a review of the book (which, despite my deep seated reservations, I will read on release and attempt to trawl through it without harrumphing the world back to the stone age).