Essays: Barbarity to children |
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Barbarity to children

FOR anyone with children, or anyone planning to have children, or anyone who has at any stage found himself not entirely repelled by the idea of having children, it was a grim week.

The rugged viewing started with Baa Baa, Black Sheep (Granada), Arthur Hopcraft’s version of Rudyard Kipling’s horrible story about his own childhood. Mike Newell’s direction was carefully non-emphatic, letting the build-up to the festivities happen in its own time. The gentlest plucking of the heart-strings accompanied the tender scene where the boy was handed over by his reluctant, loving mother to a seemingly kindly set of foster-parents. You could shed a genteel tear. With mother safely hull-down over the horizon, however, things came to the boil.

Foster-mother became aware that her young charge was not naturally disposed to obeying God’s bidding — a set of directives which she gave you to believe (in a good performance by Eileen McCallum) she was receiving each morning in cyclostyled form. The self-willed lad’s touch of evil was particularly manifest in his urge to read popular fiction and in the buoyant workings of his ungovernable imagination. Curbs would need to be imposed. The foster-parents’ own, hideous child was encouraged to apply pressure. The rod was not spared. The whole school joined in the hunt. Finally the kid went psychosomatically blind. When loving mother at least reappeared, it was clear that she was too late: her son had been turned from an ordinary laughing little boy into... Rudyard Kipling.

There, of course, lay the rub. John Stuart Mill’s barbaric education produced John Stuart Mill. As Auden once said, every child deserves as much neurosis as it can stand. It is probably a mistake to expend anger on the circumstances that help make great men what they are. Nevertheless it is possible to be outraged. The sheer unfairness of grown-ups picking on children is what gets you down. By the end of the programme the viewer was likely to find himself thoroughly regressive and demanding revenge in a piping treble — the kid’s threat to burn the rotten house down was accompanied, where I was watching, by loud cheers.

Kipling being supplied with an artistically fruitful kit of traumata was one thing. Ordinary, common or garden infants getting their brains beaten out by demented parents was altogether another. The relevant show was a special Panorama (BBC1) on battered babies. ‘We should warn you,’ said a preliminary voice-over, ‘that you’re likely to find some parts of this filmed report distressing.’ Since there was no part of the filmed report which was not distressing, the warning was the least that could be given. We saw children who had become spastics because of brain injuries; children with pulped faces sewn together in seemingly random patterns; children whose bones had been smashed. We heard about children who had been dumped in boiling water. We heard of how four children in a single family had been, respectively, killed by being put in a bath of. bleach; killed by being dropped out of a window; killed by being put in a gas-boiler; and killed by being smothered. But what we heard about most was the apparently insane compulsion, on the part of the responsible authorities, to keep families together when common sense demanded that the children should be separated from the parents by a mine-field and an electrified fence.

As so often happens, the discussion which followed the film was not in the same league for cogency. The argument for keeping families together must be stronger than we heard it put, else all the social workers would have rebelled long ago. But there was no one to put the conservative case except one or two painfully bland officials who kept on saying that improvements have been made — which might mean nothing more than that things are slightly better than when children were sent to jail for stealing bread. The figures advanced suggested that there are 4,000-plus known batterings a year, of which somewhere between 10 and 18 per cent are fatal. It was further suggested, very plausibly, that only the more sensational of the fatalities were likely to attract public attention. The contention that battered children grow up to batter their own children in turn sounded too logical to argue with. It doesn’t do to lounge about admiring oneself for being a loving parent, but here, surely, was a legitimate occasion for it. Perhaps, though, one is only congratulating oneself for being comparatively well off. It would have been instructive to hear about which income-groups are most likely to get up to this kind of thing. Is there any tot-bashing among the rich? You began to realise how lucky Kipling was: at least his injuries were mainly mental. Try making poetry out of your memories of a bath of bleach.

* * *

The first of a new series called Success Story (BBC1) dealt with Sally Bowles, who by now threatens to become the only Christopher Isherwood character anyone is likely to remember. A good deal of the show consisted of clips from ‘Cabaret,’ a film which was excellent in between the production numbers but which I thought showbiz-drear when it sang and danced. Bits and pieces from the film of ‘I Am A Camera’ proved that Julie Harris was closer than Liza Minnelli to Isherwood’s original Sally, whose real-life self was coyly introduced in the form of a photograph: no names, no pack-drill. Isherwood wasn’t asked what he thought of the way his original, politicised, semi-talented soubrette had ascended by easy stages to become an apolitical, titanically gifted superstar — the precise reverse of his initial conception. It seemed unlikely that he would have had an answer. He was only too ready to play the game on the amiably footling, camp level the format demanded. Still, an interesting show. Julian Jebb, producing the series, has had a marketable idea. But the real inquiry should be into what success is, not how it happens. We all know how it happens.

John Cleese and Alan Coren improvised their way through A Place in History (Thames): Cleese was handing over to Coren as Rector of St Andrews. Two girls (wives?) trailed these gifted buffoons at a respectful distance as they discussed affairs of State.

The Observer, 28th April 1974