Tom Sutcliffe: Why ignorance isn't really bliss

Friday 08 July 2011 00:00

I found myself snagged the other day by a charming detail in the story about a Swedish kindergarten which aims to protect its charges from all culturally imposed gender stereotypes.

If you missed the report, the Stockholm school, called Egalia, addresses all its pupils as "friends", so as to avoid those pernicious words "boy" and "girl", and goes to elaborate lengths to ensure that the toys don't send out covert messages of social expectation. It also promotes a culture tolerant of gay and transgender issues, and open to non-traditional family types. Which is where the snag came in. One of the storybooks used to foster those attitudes featured two male giraffes, melancholy about their childlessness until they came across an abandoned crocodile egg, which they then cheerfully adopt. And, while I applaud the broad ambition to steer children away from inherited bigotry, I couldn't help feeling that this particular fable was a little unworldly in its choice of animals. Do they have an equivalent to the phrase "ankle-biters" in Swedish? And even if they don't, wouldn't an averagely questioning child have some pointed questions to ask about the ability of a giraffe to tend to the needs of an infant crocodile? Mightn't it also come as something of a shock to these tender minds when they eventually discover that what a crocodile most likes to do to a giraffe is lurk in wait at the water hole and seize it by the nose until it drowns?

By odd synchronicity, that story chimed with two others this week which revealed how hysterically terrified we are of having the wrong kind of effect on our children. First it was reported that Opera North had backed out of a community opera project in Bridlington because of objections to some elements of the libretto Lee Hall had written for the piece. His lead character, an elderly gay man, referred to himself as "queer" and explained that he preferred "a lad to a lass". And though Hall had already shown himself willing to compromise with his collaborators' terror of offence by rewriting a scene in which a young child was called "stupid" by his father, he drew the line at a request for further pasteurisation and sieving. Secondly, it was reported that the Duchess of York had had no luck in America with her latest children's book, The Little Pear Tree, publishers fearing that customers would find it "offensive" because it was about the 9/11 attacks, drawing on the real story of a tree on the site which was badly damaged but nursed back to life by clearance workers. Her little fable didn't imply that the Americans had had it coming to them, or that the whole thing was a government conspiracy, or that New York's firemen had been less than heroic. It simply acknowledged that something very bad had happened.

It's possible that The Little Pear Tree was dreadful, of course, but even if so it's still significant that the publishers chose to couch their rejection in the terms they did – the avoidance of "offence" now being notionally unimpeachable grounds for such decisions. And it leaves you wondering a little about the debilitating innocuousness of the stories we're happy to tell our children. No Grimm's fairy-tales these, with their welter of violence, and ambiguous family feelings and dark emotions; just a bland sunniness in which everything is lovely and challenge is absent. It's literary baby-food, in fact – except that the metaphor won't quite hold, since the nourishment in literature (even literature for children) comes from precisely those qualities that are being carefully expunged here.

This is broccoli purée that has carefully had every vitamin and mineral removed from it, out of a terror that those elements might prove difficult for infant digestions. And the result will be a stunted growth. One can't help wondering whether deep down that is what's secretly desired here, well below the level of conscious thought. We pretend that we want to educate our children properly but in truth we long to keep them in a prelapsarian state of ignorance for as long as possible, unaware that unkindness exists. But that only postpones the knowledge that unkindness can be survived. Opera North's decision – and possibly that taken by those American publishers – is a kind of lie by omission. They're also decisions that most five-year-olds would be sensible enough to avoid.

Crowe and Weir should really set sail again

Barry Norman, in an article in Radio Times this week, was lamenting the fact that Hollywood had never got round to making a sequel to Master and Commander. No fan of sequels generally, he was making the point that Peter Weir's adaptation of Patrick O'Brian's nautical novels actually had the potential for a decent movie franchise. There isn't a huge mystery as to why we haven't had one; the director himself described it as having done "well-ish" at the box office, and "ish" doesn't usually get executives slavering to have another go. Given that Russell Crowe launched a Twitter appeal to get a sequel made, though, you'd think there'd be a better than average chance in this case. I'd love to see another Aubrey and Maturin film, too, and Norman's article made me wonder why Hollywood hasn't had a go at taking the guesswork out of its investments with some crowd-sourcing. You can help make films happen on the brilliant website Kickstarter, which allows people to contribute funds towards unmade projects, technological and cultural. Obviously there's a bit of a gap between the £7,000 currently being sought by Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same and the $150,000,000, which it reportedly took to deliver Master and Commander. But given the online energies of movie fans there must be a way to monetise their frustrated passion for some movies. I think I'd pay up front for a ticket to Post Captain – and Barry Norman would too by the sound of it. All we need now is a few million more to join us.

Tune into a daring competition

All being well there's a man on a bicycle somewhere between Cherbourg and the village of Montsurvent today – not part of the Tour, but raising money for the OHMI Project, an intriguing competition that is intended to encourage the creation of a one-handed instrument that can emulate any of those used in the classical orchestra. And don't say "well, we've already got the triangle" because as one of the rules explains qualifying instruments must be tunable and "capable of playing complex melodies". Don't say "trumpet" either, because you'd need some form of support, and a winning entry would have to be playable using only one hand and arm, excluding the shoulder. The instrument would also have to have had a concerto composed for it, which has already been performed. In other words, what's sought is a synthesised version of an orchestral instrument that would allow a one-armed or one-handed player of sufficient skill "undifferentiated participation" in orchestral performance. The man on the bicycle is Stephen Hetherington, who came up with the idea and persuaded the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Prix Ars Electronica, among others, to support it. If you want to give the project, and him, a bit of a following wind check out the project website at

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