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So childhood should be more hazardous? Stuff and nonsense

We love the world of The Dangerous Book for Boys, but few of us actually want our children falling out of trees

If politicians talk disingenuous rubbish about risk, then so equally do many parents

Considering how many parents have declared that seven is quite old enough to travel alone, it is amazing how few children of this age one sees of a morning queuing at bus stops, flashing past on tiny cycles or crossing arterial roads hand in hand, just as we did in the 60s on the way to the blacking factory.

Hulton Archive | The way we were: a boy takes aim, 1958.

By Catherine Bennett

Either they are so minute as to be hard to spot or, like the game of conkers and the company of William Brown, independent travel is rather less appealing in practice than when a point about the malignity of elf’n’safety officialdom needs to be made. Though, as the education secretary Michael Gove proved last week, a widespread insincerity about the joys of traditional childhood does not diminish its political value as a jobsworth-insulting technique.

While parents were denouncing the council that bossily pronounced Isabelle McCullough too young to cross a main road alone (although her school bus driver was also of this opinion), Michael Gove was widely taken at his word when he said: “We need to change our bubblewrap culture; we need a Dangerous Book for Boys culture.”

I can only think the Gove family had more success than mine with page 252, Hunting and Cooking a Rabbit, in which the authors assure the timid: “There is a great satisfaction in pulling off a difficult shot over a distance.”

As for schools, even teachers with access to a gun and a 30-yard range may find it difficult to provide boys with the recommended knives for skinning and disembowelling the dead animal – a heavybladed cleaver or, failing that, a penknife, preferably with a serrated edge. And how many teenage boys would wish to risk their own? “A standard kitchen knife,” warn the authors, Hal and Conn Iggulden, “is likely to be damaged if used as a chopper.”

Although, as its millions of adult readers will know, the Igguldens’ delightful book abounds in stories, poems, lists and harmless occupations from the era when there was nothing to play with besides nature and old newspapers, this is not, obviously, the content being advocated by Mr Gove in his campaign against our risk-averse society. The greatest risk, where failure to make a paper aeroplane or boat is concerned, is the crushing disappointment of the parent who realises that her affection for The Dangerous Book for Boys is generated in the same part of the brain that responds to faux-vintage cupcakes and will not be satisfied until it owns a Cath Kidston sewing box shaped like a rustic cottage.

No, what appeals to an educationalist such as Gove or Toby Young or, going back a bit, Thomas Arnold, are potentially bloody activities that will, as proven throughout the empire, cultivate the manly attributes.

Girls, with their innate sissiness, appear to be less at risk from bubblewrap. It is not yet clear if he will get permission for his year seven bomb disposal course, but the state academy to be opened by Toby Young still promises to produce specimens in the fine, Baden-Powell mould, given its founder’s fear, when he endorsed Gove’s approach, that schools are in danger of producing “cautious little wet noodles who daren’t say boo to a goose”. It cannot be long, for example, before youthful knife crime and muggings are conducted in nervous silence.

“We need to dismantle the whole edifice of mollycoddling rules and regulations,” says Young, “so our children are free to play proper, oldfashioned games even if they involve risk of injury.” Without this kind of physical threat, Digby Jones, the businessman and favourite of the sportsman turned noodle Gordon Brown, is another who fears for the nation’s future. Before he quit government to devote himself to baking ever-harder conkers, Lord Jones lamented “cotton-wool kids” whose unfamiliarity with discomfort is “potentially fatal to our economics and social wellbeing”. Is he right? One turns, instinctively to Maggie Atkinson, the Commissioner for Children, who is charged with representing their views.

Would children like life to be more dangerous? Tellingly, perhaps, Ms Atkinson would not risk talking.

Parents, however, seem sympathetic to Gove’s proposal for more dangerous schools, for boys at least. (For girls, although Mr Gove has yet to identify an inspirational text, The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, coincidentally co-authored by Mrs Gove [Sarah Vine,], advocates a different, yet equally vintage routine featuring sewing, daisy chains and Chinese burns).

Even if there is little evidence around to suggest strong parental interest in the benefits of personal injury, research indicates that they would like the state to supply some risk, as a corrective to its excessive vigilance. A survey commissioned by the British Toy and Hobby Association has just found that three-quarters out of the 2,000 parents it asked think that schools are too concerned with safety at playtime. Explaining the findings, a psychologist said: “Parents go nuts if their children get hurt at school.”

Plainly, if politicians talk disingenuous rubbish about the improving nature of risk then so, equally, do many parents. Schools may be over-zealous enforcers of safety regulations, but it is parents who invest in buggies built like tanks, and in four-wheel-drive tanks used as buggies, parked in mother-and-child slots designed to protect precious young legs from excessive walking.

 cadaverine vestiges were detected on Madeleine's plush toy

It is not long since parenting websites now targeting Lincolnshire county council were accusing the supposedly irresponsible parents of Madeleine McCann. After that, the pursuit switched to social workers for betraying Baby P.

Contrary to Tory principle, mollycoddling in schools is not all bigstate officialdom gone mad, but an answer to the public mood post Dunblane, Soham, successive child protection failures and occasional, inexcusable accidents on Outward-Bound style adventures of absolute pointlessness (unless Sir Digby knows some CEOs who owe their careers to kayaking). Not forgetting Esther Rantzen and her tireless efforts for the compensation culture: “How much could you claim?

One of the charms of The Dangerous Book for Boys, of course, is that it depicts a prelapsarian, pre-Rantzen state in which parents thrill with pleasure, rather than dread, when a child requests the tree, timber, drill, decking, hammer and “60 man-hours” required to build a treehouse in their idyllic, firing range size garden.

“Along with a canoe or a small sailing dinghy,” say the authors, “a treehouse is still one of the best things you could possibly have.” Thanks.

One could easily hate the Igguldens, except that this stuff really satisfies the same kind of yearnings as Swallows and Amazons and The Railway Children, Just William and the Famous Five. Touching as it is, that Gove should share this glimpse of his fantasy world, we are stuck with Jacqueline Wilson.

The Observer | 2010-09-19 | UK | Page: 33 Paper Edition - online here


  1. I'm unfortunate in having Michael Gove as my MP. He neither represents my views nor my values.

    According to the Mirror, his political inspiration is.... http://tinyurl.com/3abgu8g

    Gove on Gove and the McCanns - nothing about Madeleine! (Yellow ribbons & conspicuous caring). http://tinyurl.com/3yj478k

    Don't even get me started on Gove's alarming education policies! X(

  2. Children live in a very different world to when I was born when it was quite normal for children to be taking risks like climbing trees, going to school alone, (very few had cars) and generally learning to cope with the stresses of life ourselves because our fathers were fightng in Wars and our mothers were working as nurses or in ammunition factories.

    There is no way though today that I would allow a young child to cross hazardous streets full of traffic, not to mention the likely chance of a paedophile grabbing a child off the streets, straight into a car, without anyone being suspicious. Then the law was much stricter and anyone harming a child and getting as far as a Court would be likely never to see the light of day again!

    Nowadays any suspect can get away with staying silent at police interviews, which of course means more crime, and the lawyers get richer on the backs of victims.

    If Kate McCann had been made to answer those 48 questions we may well have found out what really happened to Madeleine.

  3. What really astonished me was the kind of patronizing chauvinism (for both girls and boys) presented in both "children books", and by Gove's outrageous educational conceptions. It's insulting in the XXI'st Century to see that people still try to force fossilized behavioural models on children. I understand that parents may want to have some "quality time" with their offspring by using those "books"; but instilling in them gender separation, i.e. sex segregation, is a step back to a more primitive and unequal society.

  4. Thank you Jilly for the second link, it does give a good insight as to the reasons some people felt a need to support the McCanns, it was mainly a self projection of their image, their family image onto the McCanns; that is, if we believe that Gove is being honest (cough, cough) in his argumentation. Nevertheless it is an interesting read, quoting an extract: «But as I left the Commons on Wednesday I was stopped by a colleague, whom I respect hugely, and gently upbraided for my ribbon. It was, he thought, a rather undignified surrender to sentimentality and, in its own way, a subtly coercive manoeuvre on my part. I was, he thought, advertising my own virtue and, by extension, not so subtly shaming anyone who didn't sport the same ribbon. It was conspicuous compassion, at once a demeaning of the tragedy the McCanns are facing, and an attempt to elbow in on the scene.

    It was a powerful rebuke and one made more telling by being joined the next day in The Times by Matthew Parris, who found the collective ribbon-wearing almost too mawkish for words. Two days later Simon Hoggart in The Guardian, whose judgment is usually pretty sure, also agreed that the spectacle was far from edifying.

    My first instinct, when the criticism was made, was simply to assert that all we were doing was obliging, in a simple way, the request of a family in distress. But I realised that response was inadequate. It might be true that was a motivation, but as a defence it risks only compounding the initial sin, of professing your sympathy for those in genuine torment in such a way as to imply those who aren't with you are somehow morally faulty. To have said, "I'm doing what the family asked", would have implied that others who didn't act as I had done were somehow lacking in compassion. It would have seemed like moral bullying.

    And, as I turned over in my mind the thoughts that had guided my hand as I put on the ribbon, I realised that the assertion that I was merely complying with the family's wishes wasn't the whole story.

    Why had I chosen to support this cause, at this time, in this way? Why had I, when I'd avoided wearing a single wristband all my life, however noble the cause, chosen to make this public avowal of support for this campaign? A huge part of it is simple identification with the McCanns. Madeleine's fourth birthday fell in the same week as my daughter's. Her father's background has similarities with my own. The photographs of Madeleine look uncannily like our own little girl. No fear that I've ever faced was like the terror I encountered on once losing Beatrice in a supermarket - and that was an agony that could be measured in seconds. Trying to imagine what the McCann family must be facing is at once, totally, instantly, possible and terrifyingly, unfathomably, distant. I have found it almost impossible to read, or watch, any of the news coverage because once my mind starts to reflect on what the family are facing the enormity of it all is too much to take.

    So I wore my ribbon partly because I felt a genuine, wrenching, sympathy and partly because if I were ever in anything like the situation they face I would want everyone I could think of, to do everything they could think of, to bring it to a happy resolution. And in that respect there was an element of solipsism in my reaction. In the same way as newspapers project stories more that happen to people like their readers, traumas affect us more when they hit those whose lives are like ours. There are any number of worthwhile causes that perhaps I should do more to help but fail to because my emotions, or empathies, aren't so engaged. With the McCanns' campaign, however, my rawest nerve endings were touched.(...)»

  5. Libel law should protect the public, not the powerful

    Intrusion into private lives is out of control, yet it is absurdly difficult to bring the powerful to book for crimes against the public

    read here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/sep/17/libel-laws-wrong-crimes-against-public

    Today, 20 Sept. the Kevin Halligen Extradition Saga continues....(allegedly)


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