The young mind needs Herodotus at bedtime - and penguins for breakfast

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The Independent Online

Believe Stuart Matthews, operations officer of the ice-patrol ship Endurance, and helicopters make penguins fall over. Believe Dr Richard Stone, of the British Antarctic Survey, and they don't. Taking it as axiomatic that one should always trust the word of a practical man before that of a theoretician, I believe Stuart Matthews.

Believe Stuart Matthews, operations officer of the ice-patrol ship Endurance, and helicopters make penguins fall over. Believe Dr Richard Stone, of the British Antarctic Survey, and they don't. Taking it as axiomatic that one should always trust the word of a practical man before that of a theoretician, I believe Stuart Matthews.

The helicopter appears from nowhere; the penguin looks over his shoulder, can't believe that a bird so much bigger than himself can fly while he can only paddle, follows the path of the helicopter in envy and astonishment and falls over. Makes sense to me. I also fall over following helicopters. And I'm not in competition with them.

It's not as though I fall over easily. On the principle that we are knocked down by what astounds us, I ought to end up on my back every time I see Harold Pinter enter a restaurant, but I don't. At school I was famous for never taking up any position but the vertical. Believing this to be an affront to his profession, the gym teacher wrote to my parents, complaining that I wouldn't vault, wouldn't hang upside down from the wall bars, wouldn't do a somersault or a handstand, wouldn't even lie down on the coconut mat. I don't know why he wrote "wouldn't". The word was "couldn't". But that's gym teachers for you.

His letter was a miscalculation notwithstanding. When my mother learnt that the family had scrimped to send me to a grammar school whose curriculum included periods of prostration, without a shirt, on unsterilised mats made from coarse African materials, she gave me an excuse note that's valid to this day.

I mention this only to emphasise how out-of-character for me it is to be falling on my back every time a helicopter passes overhead.

It's not true, of course. I don't do any such thing. It's a fairy story. And it may not be true that penguins fall on their backs, either. How much poorer the world is, though, if they don't. According to an ex-Falklands helicopter pilot, it wasn't a matter of the occasional penguin falling; whole colonies would go over, in lines, like those human packs of cards at mass rallies celebrating the triumph of socialism. Except that no one trains the penguins or threatens them with Siberia, which isn't that much of a threat, anyway, if you're a penguin.

In lines, though. Think of it. Are we really prepared to let mere scientific truth deny us such a spectacle, 20,000 king penguins playing all-fall-down on the Antarctic Peninsula?

We are in danger of losing our capacity for wonder, that's the lesson I draw from the psychologist Aric Sigman's survey of parents' bedtime-story-reading habits. We're not reading to our children as much as our parents read to us. We're too tired. We're too busy trying to find an arts programme on BBC television. And the little ones are too caught up in their computers. " Jemima Puddleduck! Get stuffed, Dad, I've got Cyber Warriors to shoot down."

I'm not sure what this survey tells us. The wonder of falling penguins is one thing; the crap that people do or don't read their children before bed is another. I don't recall what my mother read to me, but I have no memory of any of those wittering bears or melancholy steam engines that were the ruination of so many of my friends' imaginations. A Tale of Two Cities rings a bell. As do The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Four Feathers - books with numbers in their titles. That she could have served me better still, I don't doubt. She could have stuffed my little head with Herodotus, Dr Johnson, Keats's letters, the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and anything by William James or his brother Henry.

Too soon at three? Don't believe it. Think of John Stuart Mill and Mozart. The childish brain is criminally underused and undervalued, in accordance, I suppose, with the fantasy that uninformed childhood equals innocence and should be spun out for as long as we can spin it. The consequence of which is there for all to see - grown men and women with their noses in Harry Potter.

That there is shame attached to this, the readers in question know too well. Why else the plain brown paper wrappers, the sheepish grins when they're discovered hiding wizardry, not porno, and the calculation by the publisher that an adult-looking edition won't go amiss? Innocent fun? Don't give me that. It isn't innocent to be 40 years of age and thinking like a nine-year-old. Paedomentia, I call it.

I know the argument. Fill the young mind with fairies and you'll prepare it for Salman Rushdie. That's my argument, too.

We did better, bar the odd mishap such as Calvinism, when we filled the young mind with the Old and New Testaments. Pity about the violence, but the writing's good. A model of clarity here, a model of syntactical difficulty there. Let's hear it for difficulty. That dumbing-down we're all lamenting isn't a matter of not knowing the name of our Minister for Culture. There are times when we owe a duty of ignorance. No, we're dumbed down in proportion as we can't follow an English sentence that has more than one clause in it.

So, tots going to bed without their bedtime stories aren't the problem. Learn parenting from me: pull the plugs on their computers and send them to sleep with Areopagitica. Then, in the morning, if it's wonder they're in need of, talk to them about falling penguins.

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