Nearer the Sky

The Ridings, Headington

I was thinking and writing on St George’s Day of the hymn/school assembly song “When a Knight Won his Spurs,” and the moral ogres and dragons it prompts us to battle. Another of this genre is “Glad that I Live am I,” which M sang to me as we walked Jeff the Dog this morning. This site gives various versions, none matching the comforting wham-bam-plunk of a school assembly. Nostalgia and spirituality is a different blog post, but some of these versions really don’t work for me, and none of them take me back to Blandford Infants.

These are the words.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes
And the fall of dew

After the sun the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

Do I mean “genre”? Perhaps for me they stick together just as the choices my teachers in State education made: vaguely religious lyrics urging a sort of morality in which we draw our understanding from the country lanes. No, it doesn’t make them bad lyrics. Yes, we sang “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” and stuff too, but these stick in my head because of the odd mixture of woolly romantic nature appreciation and aspiration: Ladybird British Wild Flowers and an optimism I now see the twentieth century never really lived up to. They were all certainly different from Sundays, where as Roman Catholics we were still immersed in a vision of the Mass that Heaney (so to speak) celebrates. My dad can still sing a wonderful marching-band version of the music for the Easter rite of sprinkling Holy Water; I can still manage a lot of Compline with its Salva nos Domine vigilantes. This is a good source. And maybe this explains why knights winning their spurs and country lanes seemed something of an oddity to me. If Glad That I Live Am I was odd then, I think of it as more mainstream now: being outdoors is about wellbeing; the locus amoenus (a quick link here) being the locus salubris. Enough marking; enough screen time all round: when I post this blog I’m off for a run in the jolly springtime.

Perhaps the oddness resides in the nature of children’s spirituality. Perhaps closer to what I see in this mixture of ideals and imagery is Tony Eaude’s idea that spirituality is elusive, contested, as I explored some time back, something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment. This would admit Lizette Reese’s final idea of growing nearer the sky, so that it becomes a metaphor rather than a child’s wish to grown nearer to heaven. I originally thought it was about growing taller. It may have that physical element, but there is more than that. As I’ve said before

It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom

all that desire for growing nearer the sky.

What Dragons?

Smaug the Magnificent by Tolkein.

I’m starting – and won’t finish – this on St George’s Day. But while I’ve written about dragons before here, and on St George’s Day, too. And as is often the case, I’m spurred into action by a remark elsewhere – in this case Martin Flatman’s comment on Twitter that suggested we should have a St George to fight bots. A clever thought: some internet warrior whose job is to deal with the time and emotion devouring interjections into our e-life. But what are our foes? How do we counter them? Let’s look at some dragons.

Lizard by Tove Jansson: curled round shining garnets.
“A giant lizard…like a hideous dragon guarding its beautiful treasure.”

Notice that it isn’t a dragon. As Tolkien suggests of a wider range of literature, dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare…There are massive brontosaurus-like creatures (the magnificently irascible Edward the Booble), and this lizard like a dragon, but of all the fantasies Tove Jansson conjures up, traditional creatures such as dragons hardly figure. We may have plants eyeing up Snork Maidens, and knitting ghosts, and the howling fire of the Comet’s nuclear blast – but no dragons.

“No dragons” makes me think of Thor Nogson, whose failure to confront his fear makes him so much a figure I recognise.

Then there is the sorry figure of the dying dragon whose form luckless, soulless Eustace inhabits/inherits much to his regret in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that uncomfortable fantasy of redemption and repentance at the heart of the Pilgrimage of Perfection (or the earlier Pilgrimage of the Life of Man or maybe Pilgrim’s Progress?), and the awesome (in the earlier sense of the world) dragons in Earthsea [Cue at least one fantastic, menacing, serpentine LeGuin dragon from the artwork of Charles Vess: compare and contrast with poor Eustace].

Pauline Baynes: Eustace as a Dragon bewails his fate
Charles Vass’s sinuous dragon at the start of The Books of Earthsea.

And nearer to my heart are the Knight and the Dragon, trying so hard to live up to the myth of who they are meant to be in Tomie de Paola’s parable of reconciliation and self-realisation, and the very modern, urban and urbane Franklin, in Jen Campbell and Katie Hartnett’s Franklin’s Flying Bookshop. Dragons have changed, been tamed (or come closer at any rate to us). Franklin seems a long way from Orm Embar.

“Luna and Franklin feel like they are made out of stories.”

Few of these – and I know they are self-selected (where, for example, would I put the greedy and self-centred dragon from The Paper Bag Princess?) – are the dragons we would fight. These last two in particular play with the terror, the aggression and turn it on its head.

So far, so predictable, perhaps. Beyond those texts, behind my understanding of what a dragon might be, is this song that I loved so much in school assembly. Martin Simpson performed a gentle, thoughtful version of When a Knight Won His Spurs, linked here.

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed,” the song goes. These monsters that attack us, that with the current war in Ukraine seem closer than ever – and, it is noticeable, the war is fought most fiercely in the ruins of cities – but is also fought with anger and misinformation on the web. And not only this war, but the miry lies of governments, our own self-deception. I no longer wield a “sword of youth” but I still fight to set free the power of truth in myself. It’s never an easy task.

So with this simple song from my childhood we might be back to where we might need to fight dragons. Maybe this is the place.

So dragons from the past in Western literature stand as images of aggression, greed especially, and are a species apart. They are (often) merciless, or with their own way of thinking: symbols of our inability to think ourselves into the minds of others. The battle here is with an enemy we don’t understand – maybe one that is set not to understand us.

This is where Martin Flatman’s remark becomes clearer and cleverer: how do we stand against the slow acid attack on our ideas or our spaces in the maze of the Internet or in real life: intrusive, poisoning, interrupting. How would a St George deal with them? Perhaps it s not the clumnsy sword-weilding that deals with them; you wouldn’t use a sword to bash away flies after all. Simply saying “don’t” to bots (and their fleshier imps, the trolls) is like saying “Thou shalt not,” as Pullman suggests in his surprising praise of Jesus as storyteller: Thou shalt and thou shalt not are easily ignored and soon forgotten; but Once upon a time lasts forever. We need stories of hope, stories that laugh at the invading, venomous half-truth. I am holding out, not so much for a hero, but for a Teller of Tales.

A Roll of Honour for 1st March

A bit of a tortuous introduction to a simple theme. I was looking for a Name Day for Jono, our daughter’s partner, and was a bit stuck for a Saint Jonathan. It turns out – with a bit of a wobble – that Jonathan, the son of King Saul and confidant of the man who will become King David, is commemorated on 1st March. I rather suspect that Jonathan, son of Saul is commemorated here in a confusion with Saint David, the fierce and energetic patron saint of Wales, but the story of David and Jonathan refers to the early kingship struggles in Israel, and to the mutual friendship between the two. I also see that Jonathan is commemorated as one of the patron saints of friendship in some Churches. 

Emmett and Caleb

So today is today. The feast of St David of Wales and (very much in its shadow), a commemoration of Saint (?) Jonathan, and although John the Beloved Disciple and a choir of others might join him, it strikes me as a day one might celebrate friendship. We are a long day from the International Day of Friendship, the world looks awful, I am coughing and coughing: we need our friends… So here is a quick roll-call, not much more, of some Significant Male Friendships in (mostly) young people’s literature.

  • In High Fantasy the obvious Tolkien friends might be Frodo and Sam – but what about Legolas and Gimli? Sparrowhawk in A Wizard of Earthsea has Vetch; their true names are Ged and Estarriol, which I cannot omit because of how the latter name rolls around in the mind, echoing the stars, or Tolkien’s Estel. 
  • Historical fiction takes me to Dara and Lubhrin the Heart-Brothers in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse, Moon Horse, and to Vortrix and Drem, to Artos and Bedwyr, to the tragic story of Randall and Bevis (I have discussed close male friendships in Sutcliff before) – but to other friendships, too – maybe to Thomas Becket and King Henry, for example. Not all friendships go well. Perhaps I unfairly stretch out of “children’s literature” with Sword at Sunset and with MydansThomas anyway
  • Other fiction must include Ratty and Mole, of course, Ping and Tolly, and the friendships that begin so awkwardly for Eustace (not a boy one could easily take to, himself) in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair: with Reepicheep and Puddleglum. And there is no forgetting Snufkin and Moomintroll, life-affirming and heartbreaking all at once.
  • Picture Books? Well, if I exclude Nen and the Lonely Fisherman it’s only because the significance of this male friendship seems to me to be much more romantic than many encounters, although almost its contemporary, Emmett and Caleb, provides a poignant example of ambiguity. The ambiguity of text is a thread for a labyrinth of half-meanings and unstated feelings going back to the story of Jonathan and David after all, and maybe its time to acknowledge the subtleties of such tales. But back to those passionate, wild child younger friends: how about Bernard and Alfie? How many Bernards did my children meet up with, or for how many of their friends were my children the Bernard? Rambunctious, up for a laugh, just on the edge of “naughtiness.” Whose house were they in when all the children took mattresses off the beds and used them to toboggan down the stairs? Who encouraged a young visitor to write her name on our bookcase?
Bernard throws the crayons

In fiction as in real life we meet friends on the edge of tragedy, comrades in arms and united in more gentle fellowship. We meet friends whose devotion to each other is deep and sustaining; comic; brotherly; on the cusp of romantic (and sometimes a coded version of this), so many invitations to adventure, to joy, to wholeness. Happy feast day, friends. 

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

Except, Tove Jansson will tell us in a roundabout way, there is – but this is not where she starts from. As Jake Hayes’ fantastic exploration of the book will tell us, Moominvalley in November “is a story about unfulfilled desires.’ And what we find is a different kind of family, where familial fit – the way a community wraps its skills and needs around one another – is re-explored, without most of the familiar main characters of the Moomin stories. But Snufkin is here, irresolute and disturbed.

One of the saddest sections in any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books is where Snufkin, on his way for the autumn, remembers he hasn’t left his usual letter for his friend Moomintroll.

I forgot my goodbye letter, I didn’t have time. But all the letters I write are the same: I’ll be back in April, keep well. I’m going away , but I’ll be back in the spring, look after yourself. He knows anyway.

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

He knows anyway: the heart leaps at that comforting assurance, the two friends knowing that the other is secure in their friendship. And then Jansson pulls the rug out from under my feet:

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

Way back, in what to me seems the sunnier autumn of Finn Family Moomintroll (the first of the books I had read), we had already seen Snufkin leaving before the end, to explore

all the strange places [he] longed for and would go to quite alone.

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

And he will enjoy being quite alone. His solitude is part of his complexity, as is his detachment. I live all over the place, Snufkin says when introduces himself in Comet in Moominland; my hands are free, because I don’t have to carry a suitcase. And along with garnets or any other precious things (apart from hat and mouth-organ) he carries little, physically or emotionally. Not for Snufkin any regret, the hopes for kindness at a distance. All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails playing on his mouth organ, he is off, answering the call he felt in the night of the storm on the Hattifatteners’ Island.

In the relationship between Moomin and his friend Jansson does a spectacular thing: she shows an unequal friendship, a love that Moomintroll feels and cannot really articulate, a friendship Snufkin picks up and puts down easily.

Moomintroll was left alone on the bridge. He watched Snufkin grow smaller and smaller, and at last disappear among the silver poplars and the plum trees. But after a while he heard the mouth organ playing All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails and then he knew that his friend was happy. He waited while the music grew fainter and fainter, till at last it was quite quiet, and then he trotted back through the dewy garden…

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

‘N-no,’ said Moomintroll, ‘it’s only that Snufkin has gone away.’

Jansson gives us a simple, hesitant denial: it is the pain of absence that shows us the depth of Moomintroll’s feelings. What began in Comet in Moominland with Snufkin jumping up and down [shouting] Fancy that! What fun! Coming all this way to see me! leads to Moomintroll in Finn Family Moomintroll toasting his friend with a wish for a good pitch for his tent and a light heart, but sad for himself, as Moominmamma wisely notices.

But when Snufkin, in the much later Moominvalley in November, ponders his relationship with the family, Jansson gives us further revelations. Snufkin, significantly in search of some creative completion, has returned to the Moomin valley to find assorted hangers-on have come too, looking for hospitality and companionship – locality and peace as Auden puts it – and while he is not pleased, the new arrangement at least gives him pause for thought:

And how different they are from the Moomin family. They were a nuisance too, they wanted to talk. They were all over the place, but with them you could at least be on your own. How did they behave, actually? Snufkin wondered in surprise. How is it possible I could have been with them all those long summers without ever noticing that they let me be alone?

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

Moomintroll has all sorts of people he depends on and who depend on him: the annoying-little-brother-figure of Sniff; the prototype for Miss Piggy in the Snork Maiden; his father (who has taught me so much about being a father that I am sat upstairs in my study writing); the rarely flappable and always wondrous Moominmamma. But only one Snufkin: there is a beautiful, slow-burn depiction of Moomin’s close friendship with the wanderer, that comes to a half-spoken resolution in November.

In some ways, with the Moomin family following the mid-life crisis of Moominpappa, figuratively and literally at sea (my blog post here), Moominvalley in November is another of Jansson’s meditations on family, but this time, it is Snufkin’s turn to learn. He leaves the valley and his friend Moomintroll with hardly a second glance, but finds himself blocked artistically, and makes his way back – only to find that the annoying, noisy, emotionally engaged Moomins have been replaced by a cast of disfunctional who-are-we-and-what-are-we-doing? characters. But they are a rewriting of the Moominhouse community; another sort of family. Just as Moomintroll on the island in Moominpappa At Sea is struggling with the frustration of his growing into adulthood, here Snufkin is wrestling with similar Angst, questioning what family means to him. On this reading (nth of n times) it seems to me that it is the irritation and pain as much as the joy that suffuses all the Moomin books that makes them so real.

It is his interaction towards the end of the book with little-boy-lost Toft* which marks the turning point in Snufkin’s understanding: when Toft, wrapped in his own fears, seeks reassurance, Snufkin has to step up, making (we should note) two cups of tea, two sandwiches:

‘It’s me,’ Toft whispered. He went inside the tent, where he’d never been before. It smelt nice inside-of pipe-tobacco and earth. Beside the sleeping-bag was a candle on a sugar box and the floor was covered with wood shavings.

‘It’s going to be a wooden spoon,’ Snufkin said. ‘Were you frightened by something?’

‘There is no family any longer,’ answered Toft. ‘They’ve deceived me.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Snufkin. ‘Perhaps they just want to be in peace for a while.’ He picked up his thermos flask and fill two mugs with tea. ‘There’s the sugar,’ he said. ‘They’re sure to come home some time.’

‘Sometime!’ exclaimed Toft. ‘She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!’

Snufkin shrugged his shoulders. He made two sandwiches and said: ‘I wonder what it is that the Moominmamma cares about…’

It will lead Snufkin to resolve his own creative block and liberate the anxious Fillyjonk, and by experiencing a different mode of community, Snufkin comes to realise, uncomfortably, what it is he appreciates about the Moomins. However he will not be there to greet them when they return: he has his music and has learned his lesson, but does not cease from being a snufkin. Transformation is not a magic reinvention, but a genuine change: not a Hobgoblin’s Hat change – the kind I was always hoping for for me – but something deeper that allows Snufkin to stay true to himself. At least this time, less careless with his friendship, he remembers to write to Moomintroll.

*

Real is an odd term. This is a world created by an author whose artistic talent is way beyond me, whose life in boats, on islands, in Scandinavian high culture is just as strange – but it is a world that becomes alive because we are invited (gently, subtly) into an emotional world we can understand. The little dog who longs to run with the wolves – until his wish starts to become true; the array of confusions we encounter in ourselves and others; peculiar friends and relations and their foibles and stamp collections; wrong decisions and adventures we hardly chose; how I met your mother; memories, regrets, death and rebirth… Huggably tubby trolls (and irritatingly fussy Fillyjonks, amenable ghosts, and Hattifatteners and the rest) standing for an array of characters we recognise and can see ourselves in.

*Jake connects this insightfully with Tove Jansson’s own loss of her mother. This adds powerfully, for me, to Toft’s break in understanding: Snufkin says “They’re sure to come home,” and Toft responds, “She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive, tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

You Can’t Have That Wish, My Little Bear

I would like to write a post in praise of Else Holmelund Minarik‘s Little Bear books with their illustrations by Maurice Sendak – but this is not that post. Indeed, I can’t have that wish at this point. What I want to do is speculate on the enduring power of the words in children’s books, and therefore to start with Little Bear, which provided some phrases that still get an airing at various times in our family.

The title for the blog post gives us the first. When Little Bear can’t sleep, his impossible wishes – actually extreme negotiating positions as he angles for a story – are met with Mother Bear saying You can’t have that wish, my Little Bear. In an earlier story in this little collection, Little Bear sees his lunch set out and says it looks like a good lunch for a little bear. Both of these passed into our family’s phrasebank, and we even now have a big black pot, which means we can ask about dinner by saying Is it in the big black pot? and birthday cakes are sometimes greeted by Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake. There is a wonderful cadence in all these phrases that means they lend themselves to repetition, and nostalgia for times when we were parents of young children keep them alive, no doubt.

Little Bear now has “his” own YouTube channel, with the animated stories in gentle colours, but it’s that gentle, simple and very open-to-interpretation prose in the books that delighted us. But is it just us? I would love to know if other families found it to have such an impact – and if other books have added to family phrasebanks. Did Snufkin listening to laughter, running feet, and the clanging of great bells far out to sea stick in someone’s vocabulary? Or the Elephant and the Bad Baby‘s rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road accompany many shopping trips?

And if so, what made such phrases not only have immediate quotability but longer-term stickability too? Was it the power of an original context? The prosody? The story? And what from more recent books has – or might in the future have – that power?

Running with Scissors

or: The Problem of MicroManaging Study.

At first we thought we would have a time-table, but we have given it up. We have a programme, and the hours are fixed for all big events like dinner, sleep, play and work, but our play and work lost so much force and interest by being snipped into little sections that after some hesitation we gave up the snipping altogether, and allowed ourselves to be interested in things.

Margaret McMillan “The Nursery School,” Chapter 9, pp 83-84

The McMillan project of care and education is exemplified in this book, well worth a read by those who would confine Early Years to a rather expensive version of baby farming, and describes the Nursery School as a place for refuge for children living in awful conditions and whose health suffers from lack of healthy provision – cleanliness, good food, plenty of fresh air all… ordered and fairand the health of the children perfect. They were models for educators, for families, foundation for the children, and a nurture centre where miserable children flourished. There was direct instruction in all sorts of curriculum areas, but Nursery Schools in the early C20th were not hothouses but lighthouses: beacons of good practice. The model of childhood was really one combining the child-in-need-of-rescue with a vision of a child with a right to full nurture. Note, however, that this is not a place of total do-as-you-please: there is identified need, purpose, resource: Art lessons, dance, reading, mathematics….

In the same way, a University as an institution fostering learning has identified need, purpose, resource. I looked at this fairly recently in a goodbye to this year’s Education Studies students by examining our Guiding Principles at Oxford Brookes. The model of the learner here: someone capable of learning by doing; an institution with confidence in its staff and students.

I wonder, however, whether the confusions about lines of accountability leads institutions to show a lack of confidence in its members. What are we accountable for? To whom? Let’s look at this as being accountable for student learning, and for promoting behaviours that aid that learning. Here are some of the books I might suggest my students read, for example, depending on the context. It strikes me that this (purposefully odd) selection underlines the importance of the tutor not as arbiter but guide: to nudge, not judge. You wouldn’t get a degree if you read these – unless that reading were informed by wider reading, discussion, synthesis, evaluation. Quotation alone does not make an essay, although I do recall looking at a portfolio (at another institution) where the student had been told to “put in the quote about Vygotsky to show us you read that chapter.” The dependent thinker.

I’m zipping around here, going from 1919 to the present day, and then back a bit. Cut through the noise of managementspeak, and McGregor’s model from 1966 (here, from The Human Side of Enterprise) of how one might view workers in a team is still of use here. Theory X suggests that it is management that actively drives the project by directing the workers, and

The average man is by nature indolent—he works as little as possible

He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

Micromanaging a student experience starts from here, and it doesn’t take too many clicks to find opinions about lazy students – particularly first years. By nature indolent.

If we start, however, from McGregor’s Theory Y that

…motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

then learning and teaching become a different set of activities altogether. Riskier, perhaps for all concerned – but actually more worthwhile than the over-planned, micromanaged but beautifully accountable syllabus.

Students in Higher Education are not employees any more than they are customers, of course; the shifting sands of ideology put them closer to one end of the spectrum in some time periods and at others closer to the other end. Thus, it might in some contexts seem desirable to say to a student “This course requires you to set aside some ninety hours for your own reading” but the tone is quite authoritarian: what do we mean by “this course requires”? That also sounds a lot, although over, for example, the Brookes twelve week semester it’s seven and a half hours a week (since I’m referring explicitly to the Brookes system here, it is worth remembering that an undergraduate very often takes four modules at a time, so that is almost a full-time job: with classes to attend, it really is a full-time job!). Did I manage that in the 70s? Yes, sometimes – very often – I did: pastoral crises aside, I was reading Homer (very badly) for a weekly translation class at a rate of three books a week for eight weeks, and I regularly saw very little sleep. If I disliked the pace of work set, too bad.

But this is not a valid argument: the “I was unhappy so you should be too” approach to course design has, it seems to me, at its heart a misdirected desire for revenge. Far better to revenge oneself by turning up at a tutor’s hour reciting The Catalogue of the Ships at three in the morning1. But why do tutors set work – reading specifically – for undergraduates? What do we hope in doing this?

The pictures in this blog are partly there to identify the disciplinary shift I had to learn to manage when I moved from being, in effect, an ex-Classicist (or “lapsed Medievalist,” as I described myself) where text was the lead, to looking at educational practice where ideas and practical application are at the forefront. And yet there has always been in my work with education students, my desire to “get them reading.” Is this the change we seek? To make readers? What does Higher Education aim to do? And in a time where the norms of classes and library time are disrupted, what, at heart, are the aims of education? My first thought is to dive for a classic text:

Applications in Education. There is nothing peculiar about educational aims. They are just like aims in any directed occupation. The educator, like the farmer, has certain things to do, certain resources with which to do, and certain obstacles with which to contend. The conditions with which the farmer deals, whether as obstacles or resources, have their own structure and operation independently of any purpose of his…

It is the same with the educator, whether parent or teacher. It is as absurd for the latter to set up his “own” aims as the proper objects of the growth of the children as it would be for the farmer to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions. Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function — whether farming or educating. Any aim is of value so far as it assists observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour; if it gets in the way of the individual’s own common sense (as it will surely do if imposed from without or accepted on authority) it does harm.

John Dewey Democracy in Education, Ch 8 “The Aims in Education”

So why the quirky title? I have used it with University students if I have had to leave the room just as a jokey reminder of the need to stay on task; it also belongs in the death scene in Muppet Treasure Island, where Billy Bones with his last breath warns against running with scissors2. Of course it belongs first of all in the Early Years classroom where, supervised or not, running with scissors is generally frowned upon; there is risk and there is risk.

And there is risk in learning. The independence of using scissors on your own might be an early step in education, but there are others, as outdoor learning sometimes emphasises. “Even” in everyday learning and teaching, as Dewey has it, we have an acceptance of responsibility to cope with in different contexts than our usual ones. We have (Dewey again) to let go of our own aims or at least to question them seriously through reevaluation of our observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour. The shibboleth is about “going outside the comfort zone” and perhaps the conditions for teaching and learning have been so different of late that we are very far outside that comfort zone – and seek a firm foothold in managing the student experience and recording how we manage it. Do we (Higher Education lecturers, tutors, administrators and managers of the nebulous stuff that is Quality Assurance) ourselves run a risk here: not letting the students make mistakes? Make their own choices? Not letting the students find their own way? “Read this – then this – then this” is an easy way to put together a programme of study, but a difficult habit to break when the time is right. Snipping learning into little sections (to return to Margaret McMillan) and not letting students or ourselves (McMillan) to be interested in things? After all, being interested wasn’t one of the learning outcomes. Was it?

It was and it wasn’t. The trivial round, the common task dominate our thinking. Lecture timetables, assessment deadlines. Dave Aldridge’s article (yes, go and read the original) puts it very clearly:

The descriptive understanding… leaves the materiality of university life untouched: those involved continue to memorise, recall, rehearse, assess, and implicate themselves in those activities associated with the accountability that encroaches on educational experience. Students attend or miss lectures, work part time, stay up late, participate in or shun their university’s union, and form and break relationships. Tutors struggle to find time for their research and the energy to resist institutional bureaucracy.

David Aldridge (2019) “Reading, Engagement and Higher Education.” Higher Education Reserach and Development, 38:1:47 http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/17145

The “materiality” of higher education is currently in a sort of ideological and procedural Limbo that reminds me sharply of CS Lewis miserable opening to The Great Divorce:

Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.

and like the characters in The Great Divorce, escape from this is only possible by risking something: the letting-go of worn habits of affection (or lack of it). I would suggest that “getting students to read” is another worn habit, and is part of a bigger picture foisted on Higher Education by a false accountability: students, at least the ones I have had off-the-cuff conversations with, seem to me to want to be asked to join the dance, not to know their tutors can account for every hour of the module’s learning. Again, it is Dave Aldridge who sees this as courtship, the tutor’s task being to see the student’s learning with the attentiveness of the lover.

So this certainly doesn’t mean a chaotic “pick the bones out of that” model of teaching. As Julie Fisher (yes, of one her books is in that first photo) has said Independent learning is not abandoned learning. I want students to read, I will propose work for them that will require them to look at and analyse texts from the role of therapy dog through to John Dewey, not simply so that they will read (as if that on its own will cure some ill-named ignorance, a Very Hungry Caterpillar transformation of Take-It-All-And-You-Will-Emerge-A-Butterfly), but so that the ideas they encounter will encourage them to take a risk – to think for themselves, to apply what they read about to the educational questions of why we do what we do. Systems and accountability will not suffice: we are back at the challenge of Margaret McMillan in her 1919 Nursery School: being allowed to be interested.

And if the everydayness of Higher Education is lost at the moment, we still have that as a challenge for tutor and student alike.

*

1: Actually, don’t even think of it. And certainly do not turn up at my house at any point day or night to discuss the place-language of Robert Macfarlane or to recite Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. At least, not without an invite.

2: Although if we meet in the pub and you can sing the Professional Pirate song I will be impressed.

Play as spiritual practice

I was, when it first launched, not a fan of the Hungry Little Minds campaign: its wording reminded me to the point of embarrassment of the platitudes I have spouted at Parents’ Evenings, and the refrain of every little thing you do together will help set them up nicely for the day they start school suggested that none of the aspirations of the 1980s and 90s about Early Years not being a preparation for later schooling had been heeded. This link, for example, takes you to ECF, the Early Chidlhood Forum, or at least to an overview of its history, and this takes you to its 2016 charter.

However, there are two things I see on the two posters I pass regularly: two wonderful smiling children. In this first one, Is there a tiger under the flap? the child is focussed, excited, showing (it seems to me) a real enjoyment at the experience of sharing a book. Resolutely Early Years in its focus, this sums up, for me, some key elements in these stages of learning to read: enjoying their own expectations, engaged with a book the image at least suggests they found engrossing and funny.

And in this one, I’m so glad we had this chat, the happiness is accompanied by what looks to me to be a smile of recognition: along with the excitement of entertainment is the absolutely vital element of relationship. So I am revising my feelings about these posters and the Hungry Little Minds project in total, and seeing them, as we stumble through the treacle of guidance – and lack of it, and mendacity, and goodness knows what – as a real contribution to recognising some of the wonderful work that relating to children does at home and in settings.

In the light of some very odd interventions – the SoS suggesting children should face the front, plans from serving teachers being given some prominence (and cash for the project, extending into next year), and rhetoric from both major parties about children losing out and catching up, not to mention sight of the new EYFS for the “early adopters” (a helpful comparison is in this blog post) – it seems to me that these posters show an important element in young children’s communication: delight.*

A long time back in my blogging history I did some thinking about spirituality and proposed writing about Play as spiritual practice for young children and I return (as I have in lectures; as I did time and again as a practitioner with 3-5 year olds) to Tina Bruce’s idea of play having a strong theme of wallowing in ideas and feelings.

In control of their ideas yet sending sparks with their imagination (a far cry from the new Goals, where imagination is apparently subordinate to cultural replication), a child at play is a learner alive with possibilities. Interesting to note, I think, how many metaphors I felt I needed for that one sentence: to be more straightforward, play is complex, dynamic – and I am sent back again to the post I wrote about teaching spirituality. I have asked before (in my old blog, linked here) about whether the idea of “dizzy” play and Roger Caillois’ model of the whirlpool are referring to the same phenomemon; whether play is in the ownership of the child because the child is wallowing out of the reach of the controlling adult. More metaphors; and they don’t hold together. Some steps back, then…

…and I come back to this notion of delight. When I wrote (about four years ago) that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities perhaps what I might now add is that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its potential to delight. Why might this be important?

I suppose “delight” seems better than “fun.” Is this just a deep-seated Puritanism in me? Perhaps – but it also has an idea of irresistible attraction (St Augustine cites Vergil with the line Trahit sua quemque voluptas, everyone is drawn by their own delight although the context for the original [the dementia of hopeless love] is not especially apt). Lost in the magic of play, rather than giggling at the comic exploit.

Tina Bruce’s ideas come in here very well, and the final of her twelve features of free-flow play is of especial relevance:

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas and feelings and make sense of relationships with family, friends and culture. Play is an integrating mechanism which allows flexible, adaptive, imaginative, innovative behaviour. Play makes children into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

Tina Bruce (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood – this itself is an expansion of ideas in, for example, her 1991 book Time to Play.

Interiorised, relational sense-making, holistic formation of the human, seems an important part of most recent definitions of spirituality – and helping, by this, to create a way of balance. Very close to the notion of the spiritual I have explored before where Tony Eaude writes of personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose.

Jerome Bruner’s (complex, lengthy) essay on Why Play Evolved in Animals and Man in his (et al) compilation Play (Penguin 1976) discusses Bentham’s use of the phrase Deep Play:

Deep play is playing with fire. It is the kind of serious play that tidy and even permissive institutions for educating the young cannot live with happily, for their mandate from the society requires them to cary out their work with due regard for minimizing chagrin concerning outcomes achieved. And deep play is a poor vehicle for that.

Serious play. A vehicle for teaching the nature of a society’s convention and a contest between troubled human culture (“degrading the biosphere, failing to cope with population, permitting technology to degrade individuality, and failing to plan” [Yes this was written in 1972]) and modelling new lifestyles. This is a window into children’s play and adolescent play that looks at play as sociological formation and interpretation. The links to spiritual development seem to me to be about the kind of relational aspects I have garnered sources for recently. Where do I fit in? What is the world I am working to shape, and which is shaping me? These are much like Helen Hedges’ questions in her chapter Whose Goals and Interests? in Engaging Play (Brooker and Edwards 2010):

  • What will I do when I’m bigger?
  • What do intelligent, responsible and caring adults do?
  • How can I make special communications with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • What is special about my identity in the place I live in?

These are not a million miles from the concerns that run through a lot of books – from, say, Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and one of the problems about such a broad spread of notions around spirituality is that everything can be seen as having a spiritual aspect, and we run the risk of nothing being particularly spiritual. It’s a real risk: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody, as Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor puts it. But play (according to Bruce) is an integrating mechanism with intrinsic motivation and deep concentration that allows a child to be immersed in their activity, an activity arising from their own agenda. Intensely personal, rather than a space for a child to conform to an adult need. While “adult agenda” often suggests to Early Years practitioners the more formal, teacher-led aspects of school experience, there is also a danger in describing play in terms of a forum for children to ask big questions. Eaude, cited above, has a warning when he talks of fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose. His idea that this exploration and development is conscious or otherwise means, for me, that we do not have to squeeze our theoretical expectations out of children like this.

I am reminded of my first class, a Reception class suffering the visitation from a local Secondary Head (incidentally my first experience of secondary mansplaining in that he told us all [including my own headteacher] that he was in charge of all our curricula), where he bent over one child and asked “So what have you been learning today?” to which the child replied “That’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s only four.” For children engaged in play the answer at the end of a nursery day might be “I went in the garden with Sam,” or “I got paint on my shirt.”

So let’s look again at these charming and photogenic children. They are shown engrossed and delighted in their activities: sharing a book, having a chat. Similar expressions are well known by anyone who even looks at a child gazing out of the window on a bus. The adult response – the serve and return of communication is crucial, and in the best cases, returns the same delight. When in the observations culled from being with my grandchildren I see something delightful – something that gives me joy – I hope I respond well enough. I often remember with a pang a child who came up to me to ask me something, took one look at me and said

Is this a “in a minute” minute?

Sue Waite’s 2011 article in Education 3-13 looks specifically at a pedagogy founded in a reawakening of joy in learning…the positive emotions encoraged by a rich sensory environment. She is outdoors of course: this is Sue Waite – but she makes a point applicable throughout Early Years pedagogy when she warns, in the tradition of Bruce and others that,

Contributing to, without commandeering, play situations for learning is a delicate skill and may run counter to practitioner’s expectations…The values expressed by practitioners included freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy and physicality and were reflected in examples of child-led, real-life experiential pedagogies engaging the enthusiasm of children and adults. Nevertheless, these examples were framed by an acute awareness of external requirements and at times conflict was reported between personal aspirations and practice, the ideal and the real.

Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards (Education 3-13 Volume 39, 2011)

Neither the child glad to have had this chat nor the one looking a for the tiger under the flap could, I believe, have shown that delight without an element of shared enthusiasm. Our awareness of external requirements should not be allowed to chip away at what is the core of education for me: the spiritual aspect of working with children helping them grow into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

But maybe this isn’t just the mission of the Early Years educator: maybe this is how we should look at our lives, in our families, in the shop queue, when we tun to social media. And we are back to my friend and colleague Jon Reid’s examen I have mentioned before: three ways I have shown myself some care; three ways I have cared for others; three ways I have experienced some care from others. Back to the compassion at the heart of ethical practice…

***

*It is worth noting that Alison Peacock – who contributed to the new EYFS and welcomes the changes to the curriculum – writes of the task of Reception as “joyful,” in part, I think, because of the restored primacy of teachers’ freedom to use their knowledge of the children and their expert judgement to offer a wonderful Early Years experience for all.

Belonging

A short video piece from DfE about some of the thinking behind more children returning to school and schools working on the arrangements they have put in place – note I am not going to go for the mendacious (or at least woolly) language of “reopening” – is revealing and heartening. Of course, it’s a promotional video, but I rather hope they will keep it up, although I recognise that this link may be superseded and in any case I am looking forward to a time when this kind of advice will no longer be needed. The language of the piece is interesting: lots from staff, parents and children about wellbeing and friendship. There is mention from a parent that she worried she couldn’t teach like the teachers do, and a word from a member of staff about routines, but overall the message is about children’s happiness, children’s friendships.

Joyce Bellous, in a recent and very rich article, calls spirituality – or at least one part of human spirituality – “a human capacity for connection:”

The assumption here is that spiritual work is grounded on our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place.

Joyce Bellous, An inclusive spiritual education

It is therefore part of an educator’s task

to offer children narratives to meet spiritual needs that arise in them naturally. These narratives allow children to live in peace (without anxiety) until they make workable narratives for themselves.

Bellous

I would suggest that her ideal here is worth pondering:

Spiritual work wraps itself around a willingness and ability to name ourselves authentically and situate that identity within a community of people who matter to us – to whom we are committed.

Bellous

Tony Eaude is part of this same line of thought that sees an important part of spirituality as relational:

…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…

Kathleen Harris (whose article on reconceptualising spirituality has been a mainstay of my children’s spirituality theme in the Brookes MA) suggests that school needs to be a

warm, hospitable, environment that fosters caring attachments among the child, teacher and peers, in which all children are accepted, embraced and provided authentic learning experiences.

Kathleen Harris, Children’s spirituality and inclusion

This is not a wooly utopia: she is clear, in the SEND context of her research, that this is a thoughtful and complex inclusivity which draws on major theorists’ views of development and learning and makes the plea that:

…educators must believe that the child can call upon his or her own capabilities, resilience and relationships when facing challenging situations. As this occurs, strengths support children in forming connections to the school environment and community.

Harris

…and this is where we come back to the schools featured in Department for Education’s video of schools widening their intake. Cleaning routines, different start and end times: these are important (and, yes, in some measure contestable – but this is not a blog about those tangles) but one of the parent voices has it clearly:

Oh, my child has loved it – loved seeing her friends again, loved being in the school environment: she’s very happy.

Jennifer

In other words, the message here is about the connection (multiple connections, perhaps) between happiness, wellbeing and belonging. We do not need to focus entirely on these relationships in school, but my gut feeling is that lockdown has accentuated our need for something we do well in educational contexts: provide “lots of interesting things to do and lots of interesting people to do them with.” Drumming; climbing frames; maths lessons.

It is in this day-to-day relational being that we find much of our purpose – and in which children coming back into schools will (if we get it right) find joy. This is the everydayness of compassion that we need. I hesitate to call it practice because that has, for me, the undertone of a self-conscious “doing:” we do mindfulness in schools (I’ve explored this before) rather than just try to be aware; we do belonging rather than belong; we do compassion rather than just try to be kind. The return to school systems and routines should help us simply belong, rather than the fraught attempts of a web-based Zoom, Skype, Meet or whatever: having stuff to do, the smell of the cloakroom, the sound when the ball hits that wall, seeing our friends… God, I know that need, as do lots of people who express this on social media. So it comes down to this: simply being with others who care for you.

Not every school is perfect in this, not every family, or classroom – not every University course, or retail outlet management, either. But we try, and educators have to try with a great deal of thoughtfulness over the next month or so – and I suspect ten times harder if all schools are back to full capacity in September.

To conclude, a final quotation, this time from Richard Holloway, whose Looking in the Distance is a series of essays on the possibility of a search for meaning in a world where the traditions of Christianity no longer hold sway: a very good text indeed for looking at spirituality, the roots (intellectual, linguistic, even musical) of which are so often embedded/entangled in a Christian theology it no longer espouses:.

We could choose to live as though the best meaning and purpose we can find for our own lives is the very meaning and purpose of the universe itself. We could pay the universe a compliment it probably does not deserve by living as though its purpose were love…

Richard Holloway, “Looking” in Looking in the Distance

Some sources:

NB: this blog post is very quotation-heavy because not all the sources (in terms of online journals) are readily available, and hearing the ipsissima verba of these writers seemed more important than me melling on.

Bellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development Exeter: Learning Matters

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/13644360701714936

Harris, K (2015) Children’s spirituality and inclusion: strengthening a child’s spirit with community, resilience and joy. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2015.1086728

Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”