Things you didn't really want to know, and something you might

Charles Butler hannibal at
Tue Mar 9 17:35:19 EST 2004

Dorian wrote:
> Which could be silly enough on its own, but my brother's character was a
> defecting Russian scientist with a nuclear bomb in his suitcase

I've been having trouble with a contact lens, and at first saw the word
'defecting' as 'defecating' - which made me read the rest of the sentence
quite differently and much more metaphorically. Context is all, indeed!

Meanwhile, someone posted me the following from the Independent of two days

Charlie -

This Is The Life: A happy childhood

By Rowan Pelling

07 March 2004

My older brother has been worrying about his children's happiness. The
problem, quite frankly, is that they are too happy. Unless he gives them the
material deprivation they deserve, they will grow up to be complacent
slackers who smoke pot all day or, worse still, middle management with a bad
Starbucks habit. Charles Dickens, Frank McCourt and Dave Pelzer didn't get
to where they are today by spending their infant days being taken on lavish
trips to Disney World. As McCourt wrote, "the happy childhood is hardly
worth your while".

My brother and I were struck by the truth of this comment after reading a
short autobiography by the children's writer Diana Wynne Jones. This
evocative memoir tells how the young Diana's parents, who ran a progressive
arts retreat in rural Essex in the post-war years, housed their three girls
in a "lean-to, two-room shack across the yard from the house," without
running water or any heating except one dangerous paraffin stove, where
"damp climbed the walls". This, despite the fact that two of the sisters had
contracted juvenile rheumatism. Their parsimonious parents sent all three to
school in oddments of uniform that had already been rejected by the matron
of the local orphanage, and for birthdays their sole present was to allow
the girls to read an Arthur Ransome book from a locked cabinet.

Deprived of parental attention, the girls relied upon each other and their
vivid imaginations for entertainment: painting, writing and using their
skipping ropes to improvise a flying harness (nearly asphyxiating one of
them in the process). This culture of robust survival was almost certainly
the reason the three of them enjoyed highly successful careers in adult life
as, respectively, an author, an academic and an actress.

It's hard to imagine quite what kind of employment awaits little Brooklyn
Beckham. When your wardrobe is stuffed full of bling and munchkin designer
suits, you have two personal bodyguards, and your fifth birthday bash costs
more than most people's weddings, there's not much motivation to make it in
life. Particularly when your parents display no hobbies outside shopping and
socialising. As Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, says
in his documentary Born Rich: "There are no courses in college on how to be
a happy and productive rich person." Yes, and I'm not too sure Oxford runs
degree courses on how to make the most of your Glasgow crack-den tenement.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to smirk at the boy (Josiah
Hornblower) whose greatest trauma in life was being taken to Grand Central
Station and told he owned it. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take the
poor little rich kids' stories as cautionary tales. Those of us who enjoyed
stimulating upbringings of mild impecuniousness with all the fun and frolics
of torturing insects and playing William Tell with homemade bows and younger
children, should not deny these joys to our own offspring. My hairdresser
and I (both one of five siblings from overstretched rural families) had a
merry session in the salon recently competing as to whose childhood was the
jolliest, poorest and most dangerous, with the most degrading hand-me-down

His family made their fun by teasing bulls, throwing cowpats, falling off
barn roofs and chucking other kids in the millpond. We did horrid things
with nettles, wasps and rope - I once tied my four-year-old brother to an
improvised totem pole and left him there weeping for 40 minutes.

And we had a great game that involved two old mattresses: a victim would lie
on one bit of bedding while the other was laid over them, then all the rest
of us would jump up and down on top in a vigorous attempt at GBH. This was
known as "jam sandwiches". Meanwhile our village primary school offered the
distractions of playground fights, regular canings, kiss-chase, and the
annual rounders gore-fest (when an over-enthusiastic backstop rushed into
the hitter's bat and lost their pearlies). These memories spring fresher and
gladder to mind than the odd occasions when money was flush and my mother
could afford tickets to a Wombles concert or Holiday on Ice.

If we hadn't been spurred on by the hardship of being made to eat dandelion
leaves in place of spinach, and living without BMX bikes, a colour TV (OK,
we got one in 1983, but that was later than anyone else in my class), or a
dental hygienist, my siblings and I would never have worked hard to achieve
lives of such middle-class decadence that we could, if we wanted, eat Wall's
Viennetta every day for the rest of our lives (the main ambition of our
youthful selves). The resulting worry is that we won't hand down sufficient
misery - in coastal shelf quantities - to our own offspring. Is it fair to
deny children iPods and Sky Sport and Center Parcs, and make them eat the
bitter leaves of garden weeds, in order that they may be furnished with a
reasonable chance to grow up an embittered artiste?

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