Between the Co-op and the baker's the pavement was busy with shoppers and pushchairs. My younger daughter was with me. A boy on a bike came weaving through the human slalom, expertly skidding in front of the post office and doing a wheelie from one side of the pavement to the kerb, to an accompaniment of tuts and mutters and raised walking sticks. The boy on the bike was impervious. He completed a semi-circular return for another skid, when I set a firm hand upon his bars and blocked his way.
I am not of slight build. He was short, thin, and his head reached my stomach.
A boy on a bike. A boy with a zig-zag haircut and an earring, a Raiders jacket and white trainers with fluorescent inlays. A mountain bike with suspension forks and multiple gears. He had a Coke in his jacket pocket and a chewed- off Curly Wurly bar in the cleft of his fist and the handlebar. Amazed indignation on his face gave way to rage, his eyes aggrieved slits and his mouth a thrusting spout of hate. A boy on a bike, aged nine, maybe ten.
'Don't use the pavement for bike tricks,' I said.
'Get off my bike, you]' and he yanked the bars in my grip.
'Get your bike off the pavement and stop being a nuisance,' I said.
'Get your hands off. Don't you touch my bike.'
'Don't ride your bike on the pavement.'
'Right, I'm telling my Dad about you.'
He jerked his bike away and sped off, shouting a fricative syllable of abuse. My daughter, observing the hissed exchange from several paces away, said: 'Did he say sorry, Daddy?'
I told this story to a friend who is a teacher and a socialist, saying I didn't know if my daughter's trust was an asset to the world or a handicap to her. Whether innocence is a virtue or a curse is an old question. I wanted to know what my friend would have done with the kid on the bike. He said he'd think twice about acting in public the way he would at school. Even at school, he said, if you told a kid to pick up the chocolate wrapper they had thrown to the ground, you could meet a stare of incredulity. One kid had said to him with self-evident finality, 'It's rubbish. I don't want it.'
Adults, he said, are unwilling or afraid to lay the hand of restraint on children. But unchecked liberty can threaten other people's rights, including those who approve freedom. It is the privilege of youth to have no regard for history, but if they live in a continuous present, they will have no sense of the evolution of the freedoms they enjoy, or what life may be without them.
The kid I stopped on the pavement instantly defended his property and his sacrosanct right to the enjoyment of it. His bike was physical, solid, real and his own. The social rights of others were invisible, abstract, no concern of his. The kid who threw away the wrapper defended his right to consume his chocolate and not own its wrapper. These minors are confident of their rights; indignant when impeded and uncomprehending when confronted with the effects of their enjoyments.
In any city centre children cruise around in pounds 90 trainers, sporting haircuts dearer than a hardback, individually Walkmanned, guzzling chips and polystyrene drinks, happy in multi- consumption. Most of them will become reliable employees, parents and citizens. But for some, consumption is the prime condition of existence. To buy is to be; to be is to have. It is what you get with free-market affluence.
Who are these children? Whose are these children? Are they part of the historical evolution of liberty, 50 years after the building of a post-war Britain? A few generations after free milk and orange juice were signs of National Health, Coca-Cola and burgers are the E-numbered mouth-amusements of the young. Many juveniles have their own TV, video and a computer that never computes but offers games of violent potency against depersonalised foes, rewarding reflex and the arts of self-defence and destruction. There is no money to be made in a game that requires the skills of tolerance, sensitivity, patience or co-operation.
Such children are denatured and de-socialised, robbed of discrimination, of history and their own childhood. I fear that, if they vote, it will be for the party that crackles and pops with the zappiest ads, and appeals to intellect and conscience least; or a party offering reflex action against depersonalised foes: a brutish Nintendo Nationalism.
And yet teachers take them, in groups of 30 and more, for an hour at a time, and make them concentrate, study poetry, reflect upon ideas and feelings, and write about them. And they don't spit, swear, chew or put their feet on the furniture, all of which they do at home or in the street. It is in schools that respect for words and thoughts and people is higher than for business plans and audits and slogans about 'choice' and 'diversity'. It is outside the classroom that the glittering trivia of Britain plc persuades our young to be consumer drones - less than feeling, less than caring, less than they could be. The Government tells us that a national malaise is to be blamed on socialist policies in the Sixties, teachers in the Seventies and Eighties, and a decline in family values in the Nineties. Back to basics, yes. Let's get down to basics of public service rather than private greed, valuing people above commodities. Let's get back to a basic social philosophy for the next century, one that despises City speculation and hypocrisy, one that rejects the shabby mendacity of charters and manifestos, but combines morality with social need and individual liberty. Let's give children more to respect than 1990s Grabbitism.
I began with a kid on a bike and a question that bothered me. I don't want my daughter's innocence to be a disadvantage to her because society is brutish. That means sometimes letting kids know that they can't treat the world as their own pavement. If only the Government did the same on the walkways of national life. But when John Major's 'blitz on crime' amounts to a tip about prickly hedges, every act of socialising adulthood must count.
The writer teaches in Oxfordshire, at a comprehensive school where the pupils are, thankfully, motivated and hard working.
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