Monday 19 September 2016

Momentum for children is the only political event for children around? Oh please!

I've just posted this on the thread following Suzanne Moore's article about Momentum organising creches and events for children.

In the 1950s we sang Stephen Foster songs - many of which were actual or derived from 'N-word' minstrel shows and traditions see 'O Susanna...' which gave us the image of the idiot African American, along with 'Darkies [sic] Sunday School' and others.

One of my favourite books was called 'The Meeting Pool' and it was only when I picked up a book in Singapore on images of South East Asia in children's books, that I discovered that the representation of Chinese people in the book were entirely along the lines of all Chinese people being deceitful, sly and dirty. Coral Island is almost unreadable, Thackeray's poem about 'the Chinaman' (which I was supposed to learn off by heart) is absurdly nasty. One of my favourite poets, Edward Lear, relies a great deal on the idea that foreign words and names are of themselves necessarily absurd, odd, or just intrinsically funny. Spike Milligan - someone else I adored - assumed that all people in India or Pakistan were absurd and/or funny just because of the way they talked and that he was entitled to take the mick because he was born in India. I won't even start on the representation of disabled people, Jews and of course the whole of womankind largely restricted to domestic roles, or waiting for lovers to turn up.

When such things were raised in the early 1970s, we were inundated with a torrent of mockery and abuse about such things being 'politically correct' but truth to tell, between 1700 until quite recently, it's clear that children's books "contributed to" an 'ordering' of society into hierarchies in relation to men and women, upper class, middle class, working class and vagrants, white and black, British versus the rest, and so on. Of course, not all people accepted that ordering and plenty of us had parents who would point out such things even as we read them...or put alternatives in front of us.

Books we regard as 'classics' like 'Children of the New Forest' - in its full version is a highly political examination of the two main strands of Protestantism in and following the Civil War and how they might or should unite rather than fight each other but of course also has to deal with the legitimacy or otherwise of the monarchy. Is there any important reason why you get the blind spot from a blind, lame person and the great existential threat to Peter Pan comes from someone who's got a 'hook'? Long edited out is the Blyton version of the doll story where the black doll desperately wants to be white. Dahl was wise enough to modify the Oompah Loompahs from their original form as 'pygmies', prior to 1939, there was hardly a children's book which simply showed working class people living their lives without being beset with drunkeness, thieving or violence. A look at the boys' magazines 1880-1920 is an unrelenting tale of British might and right, over 'fuzzy-wuzzies'.

Back in the classroom in the 1950s, it was the height of the Churchill cult, my local authority primary school had a 'Churchill House' along with Fleming, Bannister and one other, as if Churchill was a non-political figure!

If you want to know how 'political' children's TV is, then remember when 'Playschool' (which I worked on in 1971) had black presenters like Floella Benjamin, they were inundated with foul racist abuse. The initiative to have Flo was itself political - one that I would agree with - and people who opposed it saw it that way too and hated us for it. Of course it was a conscious move to say, 'this is who we are', even as Enoch Powell and others were saying 'hell will break out because this is who we are'.

None of the above is an argument for censorship or banning. I'm not going there in this post. It is simply to say that the argument that Momentum for children is somehow some uniquely political initiative is a nonsense.