Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dig This

The story of the tunnelling exploits of the Hackney Mole reminds me of my brief childhood career of making trenches and tunnels that invariably collapsed after only a couple of feet. Although I was inspired by stories of British soldiers digging their way out of German prisoner-of-war camps, I failed to pay sufficient attention to the technical details of props and linings. Besides, it was easier to carve mazes out of the abundant stands of stinging nettles that grew under the apple and pear trees of our little orchard, or to build camps from sticks and willow branches on the tiny island in the wide shallow pond at the bottom of the disused lock.

I grew up in the third of a row of four Elizabethan cottages in the little community of Dudbridge, a couple of miles from the Cotswold town of Stroud. To the front we had a view of a factory; to one side was the factory’s sports ground and to the other, across a brook, a small blast furnace; and at the rear was the pond where the brook ran into the old disused canal, and the prospect of countryside beyond. The cottages were each no more than three rooms stacked one on the other with a kitchen and bathroom tacked onto the back, but the acre of gardens behind them were a generous playground, and at a very early age I was allowed to roam farther afield, and expend my considerable energy in the tracks and hollows and abandoned quarries of Selsley Common.

Children are natural guerrillas, and the many of the books I read as a child - Just William books, the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons, Wind in the Willows, and Lord of the Flies - acknowledged this. I hope there are equivalent adventures in contemporary children’s books, but the few I have read were either examples of urban realism dealing with ‘issues’, or full-blown fantasy. Are there any that treat children as creatures whose natural behaviour is much more like that of Ratty and Mole and Badger (there is no better example of a den than Badger’s home in the Wild Wood) than the contemporary idea of children as miniature, unfallen, unformed adults?


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