BOOK REVIEW: The bad old days when we were young

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF CHILDHOOD Ed. Michael Rosen Viking, £15
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The Independent Online
THE PENGUIN BOOK OF CHILDHOOD Ed. Michael Rosen Viking, £15

The cover of this anthology pictures two sobbing, scruffy, 17th-century schoolchildren. The ugly fear on their faces contrasts with more appealing depictions of infant sorrow, often signalled by the presence of one tear suspended on thick eyelashes, found in modern cards or calendars.

The cause of their grief is an impending schoolmasterly punishment from a wooden pandybat, of the type so bitterly described two centuries later by James Joyce recalling his schooldays in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Readers are thus warned that they are in for a different ride from those complacent, humorous glimpses of childhood formerly found in collections published around Christmas. Michael Rosen does not take an overwhelmingly gloomy view of childhood, but he does insist on a balanced one. Most of us prefer to concentrate on the happier moments of being young, but Rosen offers no such respite. For him, it is all too easy for nostalgic partial recall to change over the years into a belief that all childhood isby definition jolly good fun.

It isn't, and never was, and to prove this point Rosen includes a few genuinely horrific extracts. There can be no more depressing example of inhumanity than cruelty to the small and vulnerable, particularly when this is institutionalised within mass movements like the slave trade or the early industrial revolution.

But for those with strong stomachs or the ability to skip just before the going gets really tough, this collection is constantly provocative. The white middle-class male database generally quarried for suitable quotations about past childhood is greatly extended to cover a variety of different conditions and colours. Disabled children make an appearance - when did you last hear from one of those in a general anthology? Orphans speak up as well as family children; young criminals and the socially successful also have their say.

Many of the extracts still revolve around long-standing concerns about childhood. There are debates on the advisability of beating children, an argument that goes back as far as Ethelred the Unready. The12th-century commentator William of Malmesbury describes the thrashing with a stout candle that the king received at the age of 10 from his mother when he dared to weep after hearing of his brother's death. This punishment led to a life-long dread of all candles - "so much so that he would never let their light be brought into his presence".

But although there was obviously some understanding of the lasting effect certain traumatic incidents could have during childhood, this made no impression on those parents determined to make life for their children as hard as possible.

The quoted rationalisations here for such behaviour amount to little more than: "If it did me no harm when I was young, it must be all right for my children too."

Of the many unfamiliar quotations some of the best come from the inter-war developmental psychologist Susan Isaacs. Her work has been over-shadowed by Piaget, mainly because he produced an overall theory of child development while she did not. But the sparkling passages of dialogue between her and the children she worked with (on matters such as where babies come from or how the world began) show her keen ear for infant logic.

Her belief in the sheer scale of what the very young can achieve in their thinking is only now becoming accepted wisdom.

Rosen ends with a three-page collage of newspaper headlines depicting children as abused victims. This is in contrast to what he sets out to convey in the rest of his book, where children are mainly shown as lively and capable. Even so, his final quotation is also a depressing one: "Approximately a fifth of all five- to 10-year-olds are now left alone after school or in the holidays because both parents are at work."

This amounts to 800,000 children. If their memories are ever going to consist of much more than gazing at a television screen, society should be doing a good deal better by way of offering them something more satisfying.