I read a lot of grown-up books as a child. I now read a lot of children’s books as an adult. My introduction to adult literature actually began as a result of a) a dismal failure in my cultural education and b) through the television. We all have theories brutally disproved when bringing up children and my mother’s turn came with her mistaken conviction that I could, with care, be made into a musical child. As part of this cultural charge of the Light Brigade, she gave me some cassette tapes of the various ballets where, between the pieces of music, a version of the story (more or less) suitable for children was read. The one that stuck with me was lovely June Whitfield reading the story of Romeo and Juliet. I was fascinated and then my father arrived home one day with a video for me. I can still remember painfully sounding out the name R. O. M . E. O. and realising in a flash that the other word must be ‘Juliet’. Thank you Daddy! I didn’t even attempt to spell out the name of the director (why would I? I didn’t know what that meant). The name was Franco Zeffirelli. I was either five or six years old.
What kind of idiot gives a five-year-old Romeo and Juliet to watch? Wise idiots, that’s who and to those of you who suspect me of a little light exaggeration on the age front, I can only say, we moved to Pittleworth when I was six, ergo anything I can remember watching in our previous home means I was six or younger, (also I can remember being in Mrs Williams’s class at school at the time; I’m sure she was a good and kind woman but I am not and I remember her, as I have remembered quite a lot of teachers since, as a kind of one-woman culture-crushing machine).
I can’t honestly say I was thrilled by my first viewing; I did wish they’d talk proper English and I was sulking because Juliet’s dress for the ball wasn’t pink but I kept watching and I kept coming back to Romeo and Juliet again and again. Gradually the beauty of Zeffirelli’s incomparably rich colour schemes worked their way into my psyche. The reds and oranges for the Capulets, the blues, greens and purples of the house of Montague and the wonderful washed pastels and luxuriant fruit displays at the masked ball: all these things turn out to have leached their way into my psyche and taste so that I genuinely think it might have been the most powerful and insidious aesthetic experience that I have ever had. To this day, my favourite flower is the Leonardis rose which, it strikes me now, could have come straight out of a set designed by Zeffirelli.
And what about that scene? you know: the one that meant that Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet at 15, couldn’t legally attend the premier of her own film because it contained nudity. Well, to be honest, I think my parents were just so matter of fact about it that I didn’t really question it; if they had giggled, or harrumphed or hit fast-forward, perhaps I would have attached some prurience to the scene but I didn’t. Two married people share a bed and don’t wear pyjamas or nightie, in a hot climate; it made sense to me (perhaps I was very dense) but I did understand that the scene was romantic and tender and funny and, of course, ultimately tragic and I am glad that that was the first nude scene that I ever saw, instead of, as I suspect is the case for so many children these days, a piece of porn viewed as part of a sniggering crowd on somebody’s smartphone.
And is it wise to let five year-olds watch teen suicide? Well, I am not going to let my five-year-old see it for the simple reason that she has already had a death close to her and is scared and upset about it. When I first saw it, I hadn’t. Death was an abstract and in a funny way I think I was less likely to be badly affected by it than, say, a depressed fourteen-year-old. I couldn’t ‘identify’ with these impassioned teenagers but, unencumbered by a haze of hormones, I did see that they were a right pair of pillocks. “After all,” I remember remarking to my rather surprised nanny, “they might have met other people to fall in love with”. It occurs to me as I write that seeing Romeo and Juliet early on might have implanted a streak of practicality in me amidst the blossoming nature of a romantic. At about the age that Romeo is supposed to have been, I remember saying to a close friend, “you have to be brutally practical to sustain a romantic nature like mine”. Still true, I think, after 16 years with the man I married. If you want to be the ones living happily, rather than one of the two poor idiots dying on a crypt floor for love, on account of the erratic medieval postal service between Italian city states, you need a bit of common sense.
And then there’s the language. On first viewing, I reacted as I might have done to a musical: stop warbling, get on with it and shimmy up to that damn balcony. And then it got under my skin, not because I understood it but precisely because I didn’t understand it. The images that were summoned up in my mind’s eye were all the more vivid and, perhaps, valuable for my incomprehension. I remember Romeo’s soliloquy to this day:
What or who was an Ethiope? I wondered: a giant possibly? Obviously dark-skinned. As it happened I had a book of Sinbad the Sailor stories in which there was a giant wearing an earring. It still flickers in my mind’s eye and the essential beauty of the image, of a shining jewel on dark skin, has (obviously) stayed with me. I could summon up a dozen moments like that from this play but it’s alright, I won’t.
So what was the point of my watching Romeo and Juliet since I clearly couldn’t fully understand the play? Well, it gave me an interest that propelled me into watching more Shakespeare plays and more grown-up films. I gained confidence with Shakespearean language so that when I did come to wrestle with (some of) it’s complexities at secondary school, it wasn’t alien to me and I was already intrigued. I became familiar with more grown-up themes and, having seen the films I was prepared to try the books. Used judiciously, the flickering screen, tv or iPad can be used to lure children into engaging with aspects of culture most adults would never dream of exposing them to.
Mine is an unfashionable view (there’s a shock) but I think that the concern that children ‘understand’ and even worse ‘identify with’ what they are reading and experiencing in wider culture can actually do a lot of damage. What you don’t know, what you quite don’t understand and your struggle to join the dots by using what you do know is incredibly valuable in encounters with culture; it’s called thinking. This is something certain novelists have evoked brilliantly. In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White wrote:
‘The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.’
I’d rather give my children ‘the glee of the porpoise’ than Paw Patrol. It’s there in Jane Eyre too, with ten-year-old Jane reading Bewick’s History of British Birds:
‘… there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. … I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. … Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings …’
Jane doesn’t understand much of what she is reading but it is fascinating to her and she makes sense of it by cross-referencing these half-understood images with what she does know: fairytales. As Einstein later said, ‘if you want children to be intelligent, read them fairytales’. The fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, once said that when asked ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, the answer came to him in the word ‘confluence’ — lovely word, evoking the flowing together of things. The imagination sparks when you see a connection between two hitherto separate things and children, not yet schooled in how they should think and categorise things, are particularly good at this: if they have any material to think with, that is.
Everyone in education and industry agrees that we need our children to grow up ‘thinking creatively’ and ‘outside the box’, unfortunately no one agrees (there’s an understatement) how these qualities are to be taught. My personal experience tells me that one way to train these qualities into being is to create a mind crammed with bits of information, bits that often conflict and contrast and do not quite make sense. You want a child’s internal universe to be very like the external one: random lumps flying around and every so often there’s a terrific bang as a couple collide and suddenly the dust of a whole new world starts to coalesce. More stuff equals more bangs: equals more ideas*.
The assumption about people like me is that we believe that this information should be imparted by chaining helpless children to the desk and making them learn The Iliad by heart, followed by their French reflexive verbs and the contents of the periodic table. Bilge. I sometimes think that the people who say things like “ why should kids*** learn that the Spanish Armada happened in 1588? They can always look it up on the internet”, have confused the workings of the computer with the workings of the mind. When dealing with computers, the stuff you put into it is data, ‘facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis’ according to one definition: Sounds riveting. Stuffing data into a machine is indeed a tiresome process and is hardly comparable to telling a child the story (and everything is a story if you tell it right) of the wooden horse, or the Big Bang or the Nativity or global warming. Unless, that is (she says, with eyes fixed firmly on the ceiling) the person communicating this ‘information’ to children is really, really bad at it.
I want the interior of my children’s heads to be like something from the The Old Curiosity Shop. I want there to be random limericks and Greek myths and snatches of The Nutcracker and Donald Duck and Bible stories and Henry VIII and assorted wives and Paddington Bear and Spitfires and the theory of evolution and Paw Patrol and Asterix.**
Then you give them a framework: you show them the myriad ways that these stories come together to make one big, enormous, complicated, exciting story called life on earth. Then the dull stuff becomes worth it. I remember at 12 starting Latin and being genuinely excited about it. That excitement began a rapid death with the first sentence of the Cambridge Latin course: ‘Caecilius est in horto’. I nearly cried: this was a world of Caesar and Sabine women and the Domus Aurea and I was about to hear what some dull Roman was up to in his garden? I’d been prepared to slog in order to learn and read interesting things but the doings of Caecilius weren’t among them and as far as I was concerned he could go stick it to the dahlias. By the time I discovered The (translated) Aeneid and the history of the classical world (not just ‘what Roman people had for breakfast’, I wish I were joking) it was bit late for me.
And now, as I teach my daughter to read, I reckon that the only thing more important than teaching her to read, is teaching her that there is stuff worth reading. I didn’t show her Romeo and Juliet but I did show her the beginning of Olivier’s Henry V with the panoramic sweep across Tudor London, ‘there’s London Bridge: the one in the nursery rhyme’, the shots of the Globe Theatre and the opening scene about Henry’s claim to the French throne, played for laughs. I just let her watch as long at she is interested. We’ve never got further than the tennis balls but she keeps clamouring to watch ‘the globe play’ and, a couple of Sundays ago, I had lost the dvd. To forestall allegations of human rights abuse, I suggested that we watch an early bit of Romeo and Juliet, ‘it’s the same sort of language and there’s a ball’ I told her. So we cuddled up and watched it, the twins were there too and they all tried to dance a ‘moresca’, which, as they all landed in a heap, I am prepared to agree may be best left to trained actors in these modern times. But then she made me go back and show her the previous scene where Mercutio describes the fairy queen Mab and that night we reread the Usborne book of Fairyland, which had acquired, I think, just a touch more ‘faerie’ than it had on previous readings and that’s what I want for her.
*That’s the kind of scientific thinking you that comes from spending your one year of physics rereading Gone With the Wind under the desk.
**All things that my five-year-old has shown interest in in the last three months.
*** It’s always ‘kids’.