Tuesday 9 August 2022

A pocket full of caterpillars

Yesterday, as the small person in the house (MB) was reading, I remarked to her that it always snows at Christmas in picture books. 'Yes,' she said, 'but never at actual Christmas'. On the other hand, summer holidays in children's books are traditionally long, hot weeks of frolicking in meadows and on beaches and rivers. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s, it occasionally snowed at Christmas. And even though I spent some summer days dangerously exploring the water meadows with other children now considered too young to be out alone, many more were spent racing raindrops down the windowpanes or looking for an extra cardi. This year, MB is getting an Enid-Blyton summer of sand, water and gritty sandwicches (well, brioche and cheese straws). Yesterday we picnicked in the garden while she and her baby brother played with sand and water and the deer in the field stared resentfully through the fence at us. 

This E-B summer is, of course, blighted. An Enid-Blight-on summer. It's hot because the world is burning, because we burnt it. Some days it's too hot, and I hang sheets over the climbing plants not to dry them but to protect the plants from scorching. Perhaps for a few years the kids can live in the storybook summers. The picture book Christmases, I fear are gone. (Though if climate change rots the Gulf  Stream, we might have more snowy Christmasses than we want.) 

Those favourite summer
activities of dog lynching...

My happiest summer days were spent running around the meadows collecting cinnabar moth caterpillars. Usually I put them in my pockets and took them home to transfer to a shoebox and try to feed them up to chrysallis stage. Sometimes I left them in my pockets and got an almighty fuss from my mother when they ended up as caterpillar mush in the washing machine. We went off, each armed with a packet of crisps with its blue paper twist of salt and sometimes a sandwich — possibly Dairylea or fishpaste — wrapped in tin foil. The sandwich usually got lost en route, but the crisps were eaten immediately. But it wasn't as hot as it was cracked up to be, even though I remember it as hot. We had no sun-hats or suncream but rarely got burned. We got rashes from the tall grass and cuts from the razor-edged grass, soggy feet from sinking in the boggy bits (it was a water meadow, remember), bites from flies, torn clothing and skin from the brambles, countless stinging nettle stings, sometimes poisoning from eating random berries, and we were attacked by leeches in the river. We were scared of foxes and adders, but still crawled into fox and badger holes and poked at snakes with a stick if they didn't immediately slither away. Sometimes we found wild strawberries and raspberries (escaped from a garden, I suspect — I'm not aware or Britain having wild raspberries), and always blackberries. But the blackberries weren't ripe in August, and this year the cinnabar moth caterpillars are already pupating when the holidays have only just started. 

... and testing your eyesight at Barnard Castle

How will today's children remember these summers? MB and her cohort have had two summers of covid. No play time with others, closed playgrounds the first year, no trips to swimming pools or beaches. A summer of semi-freedom isn't quite as useful if you've had little practice at being free with other kids. You don't have expectations of how you can spend it. 

Though she wouldn't be romping through meadows. All this concern with keeping your children alive and intact makes life very hard for today's children's writers. It's easy to fabricate an adventure when you can drop four or five kids in a meadow or forest or beach, or push them down the river in a boat or even on a home-made raft, stick them up trees and send them hunting for badgers or rolling down grassy slopes. It's not that easy when their mum or au pair or granddad or their friend's dad is sitting on a bench nearby, or their boat is on a boating lake and only rented for 30 minutes. I think I'd cope with caterpillar mush in the washing machine if they could have a bit more freedom and we could all write about it.

Anne Rooney

Out now from Oxford Univeristy Press:
Baby Koala
and Little Tiger, July 2022


Nick Garlick said...

Fascinating post. Perhaps children will be even more receptive to tales of adventure after the two years we've just had (and those possibly yet to come). And need them even more.

Nick Green said...

As we enjoy a summer holiday at this moment (bbq sizzling away), my wife happens to be reading a book about this very concept: it's called British Summertime Begins, and is about the phenomenon of the long summer holiday and how it has shaped our national psyche then and now.

Rosem said...

Ah Anne. Took me right back to my childhood - which was a long time before yours - and that complete freedom. As long as we were back for tea no one minded where we were. Later, my bestie and I used to take our ponies out on the Berkshire Downs and ride for miles. We always made it home.