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Dubious wisdom from the mouths of babes

In an age when logic and thought are suspect, childhood purity has gained a new authority
THE CONSENSUS in the studio at Carlton Live seemed to be that The General had had the best of the argument. It was one of those popular TV debates in which an audience is gathered together to shout at one another as a smoothie with a microphone hops about, stoking things up.

Its theme was the environment, or maybe education, or possibly protest: it was difficult to tell. There were a few experts on hand, and one or two managed to make a worthwhile point during their 10 seconds in front of the microphone.

A sincere educationalist said one thing; a whey-faced Tory councillor said another. But it was The General - once called Matthew, relaunched as the tree protester General Survival - who received the most sustained applause. Wearing his trademark Napoleonic hat and, possibly with the help of the Carlton make-up artiste, an air of raffish angels-with-dirty- faces innocence, he delivered his message: he had been sitting at home, not going to school and all, and one day he thought, you know, about roads and all that, so he, like, decided to go up a tree and, well, sort of stay there and that was it.

Everyone in the studio seemed strangely moved by this testimony. The smoothie congratulated The General on his articulation. The councillor admitted to being impressed by the strength of his beliefs. A former advertising man argued that he would receive a better and more relevant education from fellow tree-dwellers than he would from any school. The educationalist continued to argue the importance of learning how to read and write, of interacting with other children and discovering about the broader environmental issues involved, but this seemed a quaint and old-fashioned view.

The General, as the world now knows, is 11 years old, has dropped out from school, and now lives in a tree as the media celebrity of the moment. Doubtless he will soon find himself in a TV studio with Ashley, the 12- year-old comedienne, whose act is the talk of comedy clubs throughout the country. According to newspaper reports, Ashley includes some dodgy material in her routine which brilliantly and subtly wrongfoots her audience. Does she know what she's talking about? Does laughing at iffy jokes about sex toys delivered by a pre-pubertal girl involve one in a corrupting process? Or on the other hand, could she be utterly aware and sophisticated and making a valid satirical comment from the perspective of a child about issues of the moment: adult anxiety, juvenile sophistication, the media exploitation of children? Nobody knows, so Ashley gets away with it.

Of course, these child celebrities are not alone in the world. Skulking weirdly behind The General in the Carlton studio was his mother, who refused to speak into the microphone. Ashley's dad is her agent and manager, but has confessed to being bewildered by his daughter's ambition and precocity. Rather touchingly, he has told journalists that he hopes she will outgrow the need to stand up in front of an audience and show-off. Ashley's eyes are on Hollywood.

If both these parents seem almost in awe of their offspring, it's not simply that the children are odd (although they are). Much stranger and more alarming is the reaction of adults, keening with slack-jawed desperation to hear the views of a small person unsullied by education, experience or the mess and compromise of adult existence. In an age when logic, thought and argument have become suspect, and the ability to emote and to feel is everything, the voice of childhood purity has found a new authority.

The fact that The General has not the slightest idea of the environmental arguments against proliferating by-passes, beyond a vague sense that stopping horrid men with their chainsaws is a better way of spending his time than watching Home and Away, matters less than his piping sincerity. Ashley's ignorance of the complexities of adult relationships is regarded as containing its own kind of truth. It's the tendency of the gullible to treat the words of an innocent with reverence that was explored in Jerzy Kozinski's novel Being There, only today, the Chauncey Gardiners are children.

In many households, the mindless discipline of old has given way to a lazy liberalism. In any dispute between a school and child, parents invariably range themselves against the teachers. David Blunkett's laudable attempt to encourage parents to take responsibility for the completion of homework, and his daring suggestion that a fixed time might be established for going to bed during the week, seem doomed to failure.

After all, to impose a structure for a child requires the parent to be an adult.