For a long time, I thought I'd had a happy childhood. I had two caring parents and a loving sister. There was never a lot of money but there was always enough for food on the table, school uniform and new shoes for growing feet.
As I grew up, I came to think of it as a safe lower-middle-class background, having been told that people in Britain lived in categories: lower class, middle class, and upper class. Later, this was confirmed on TV by Ronnies Corbett and Barker and John Cleese. I rather liked being in the middle, even if, like Pooter in George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody
, it made me feel slightly insecure. A time, then, where denizens of The Secret Garden
had yet to discover Cider with Rosie
There was an active and sincere Protestant work ethic at work in those days. My parents worked hard to put food on the table, provide for their kids and ensure that the bills were paid promptly. Not yet the deconstruction of the traditional family, the searching critique of the 'Janet and John' world which teaches us to debunk the past as sentimental nostalgia. So I grew up healthy and strong, bright-eyed and proudly British, and became the man I am today: confident, clued up, upwardly mobile, aspirational and a generally nice sort of chap. Like a cosmetics advert at the time, it was nice to know that I was nice to know.
It's amazing how long our illusions last. They hang on from childhood into adulthood, and it's perhaps only in later life that we look back and come to understand what things were really like. We remember the good bits: the new bike, the visit to the seaside, the birthdays. Not the others: the bills, the dentist and the measles, the tortures of first love, and meeting the expectations to do well. Yet, for all that, there were the consolations of the toys.
Early on, there were two of these: the teddy-bear and the golliwog. Both were loved to bits and went with me everywhere until nursery school gave me real live human friends. Not as if, at such an early age, the shades of the prison-house enclosed around the growing boy, so much as a change from imaginary friends to ones that really talked, argued and challenged. The best years of life seemed to have started. I stood, as on the peak at Darien, at a new dawn. Nothing like a happy childhood to set us up for life.
Looking back today, in a politically correct period of history, and reflecting thoughtfully on what people meant when they said they'd had a happy childhood, I came to wonder whether my childhood had been as happy as all that. Those toys, for instance. From a modern perspective, I had loved those toys uncritically for what I thought they were: simply a teddy-bear with a cuddly rounded body and big friendly eyes. A bear like Pooh, a character I came to know and love as I grew up. My bear was reassuring when I felt sad, and like the Owl in A A Milne, I often felt wise enough to talk down to my bear and tell him to pull his socks up and stop eating too much honey. After all, the Bible (that rather out-moded work) taught us then to believe that we were put in charge of the animal kingdom, not so much an Aslan figure (too much eschatology for my liking when I read about Narnia the other day) and more the Lion King.
Little did I know, however, that I was as much in a fantasy world of childish anthropomorphism, something which years of TV viewing of David Attenborough's programmes taught me later to scorn and debunk as entirely wrong-headed. The problem with humanising animals, and attributing human feelings to them, is that it radically distorts the true identity of animals, converting them into mere species-ist caricatures for mere human convenience. It is an insidious process of disrespecting.
Things got far worse when I re-evaluated my love of Golly – not the ghillie in The Monarch of the Glen
but my friendly golliwog. With my enlightened modern mindset, I can now see clearly how I not only succumbed to racist stereotypes (the kind that led viewers in the 1960s to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show
and laugh at the Indian caricatures from Peter Sellers, the man said to have been every personality but his own) but I was in danger of being indoctrinated in supremacist theory, white over black, and all the sinister post-colonialist binarism that it implied. It was a time when, in its head at least, Britain still thought it ruled the waves (now it merely waives the rules).
Once upon a time, I even had a copy of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo
, now, unless it is an antiquarian curiosity (where, irony of ironies, it fetches high prices) banished from all respectable bookstores and libraries. As I grew up and schoolwork, friends and sport took over, my two good friends somehow disappeared, probably simply loved to pieces or handed down to all the poor children out there who did not have toys of their own.
For the context was one where there were 'poor children' 'out there', somewhere in a mysterious zone far away from my lower-middle-class cocoon. They were 'they' and they came from working-class families that had too many children, not enough to eat, and voted Labour. Toys, clothes, books were handed down when no longer needed. Now we give them to charity shops so that the poor people can at least find something nice they can afford to buy, unless they choose to wear purple and go for charity chic like Jenny Joseph's elderly lady.
Then, with deeper reflection, things got even worse. I had a gun. In fact several of them, in a holster, held up by a belt with studs, just like Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. Film heroes of generations of young boys long ago. Riding the range in the local park, hiding in trees and peering secretly down on lovers' trysts, I was Shane protecting the noble homesteaders against the evil ranch barons. It got worse still when an uncle thoughtlessly gave me a Bowie knife for my birthday. We built a stockade and re-imagined the Alamo. If I'd ever met a bison, I could have skinned it on the spot and eaten its liver.
So there I was, armed to the teeth, soaked in militarism and masculinist ideology, at the young and tender age of seven. This led to all those war books, escape from Colditz and the like, where plucky British officers outwitted the nasty Huns. Later still, as a librarian, I was to ponder the disproportionate interest among male British readers in books about the war – a war that seemed to have been won, with a starker cruder moral contrast than modern realpolitik allows us to believe.
All this indoctrination and thoughtless upbringing was made a lot worse by my reading tastes. Zane Grey's riders of the purple sage appeared in my games and dreams. Enid Blyton's 'adventure' and 'five' series, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, reinforced nothing less than a mass of stereotypes in my imagination. The kind of cognitive chaos educational psychologists deplore these days as inhibiting healthy childhood development.
Blyton's stories were full of posh kids who never had to go to school (how could they possibly have done well and gone on to university?), who were snobs (looking down on poor people, gypsies and foreigners), who ate too much rich food (no mention of diabetes at the time). Like the kids in Swallows and Amazons
, they were all too active to get fat, and had no time even to mock fat kids. They were pretty thick as well, in not noticing that George was a girl who wanted to be a boy and needed to sort out her dyspraxia.
The American kids had even more fun, saving the USA from crooks at home (probably bent capitalists) and foreign devils (from China and Russia) abroad. At least I was not exposed to comics and graphic novels, since my teachers knew all about Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment
, Hannah Arendt, and Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent
I can recall my sister having a Barbie doll too. We knew no better than to imagine that girls were girls and boys were boys. When I became a man and cast aside childish things, and began to imagine that I might have children of my own one day, I vowed that no child of mine would ever be so crudely taught as to believe that sex should outweigh gender. If a boy thought of himself as a girl, then fine. No sweat.
My sister was a clever child and soon tired of Barbie – even with all the changes of clothes, she thought it all boring. Even so, as the memory comes back, the thought of irresponsible sexual stereotyping, such as that seen on the catwalk and in 'love at first sight' programmes on TV, fills me with horror. She managed to get through puberty without anorexia and bulimia, and came to live a happy life as a woman of normal shape. Although these days we're taught to agonise about what normal really means. Yes Minister
helps us a bit: I'm normal, you're rather strange, he's round the twist.
One of the hardest lessons to learn from any backward-looking sentimental journey (and that goes for nostalgia about childhood as well) is that things are not like that now and probably were never really like that then. All I can say, with the true arrogance of modernism, is thank God (we reach out for all the help we can get these days) we're not as naïve nowadays. We all know better now; we know the harmful effects on the minds and imaginations of young children if they are unwittingly exposed to misleading stereotypes. In those happy days before political correctness and social media, we thought we could be happy, but, then, ignorance is bliss.
So it is that I can see now, with 20:20 hindsight, that my so-called happy childhood was not happy at all. It was a festering sore of a childhood, full of manipulation, indoctrination, caricature, violent thoughts, and xenophobic impulses. And all the worse for being with the cosy indifference of comfort and complacency. I had been very much a hapless child born into an post-imperialistic culture, where being British was best and foreigners were stupid, animals cute or dangerous but never animals as they really were, and gender relationships and social class hierarchical and fixed, and all wrapped up neatly like a birthday parcel.
If I ever have grandchildren, I shall think twice about giving them books about Mrs Tiggy-Winkle or Bob the Builder
or Where the Wild Things Are
, just in case they encourage species-ism, class snobbery, or bad dreams. And, if asked why, I shall tell them how my childhood was very nearly ruined by thinking I was happy when I was really in grave danger of turning into a bigoted adult. My next report may well be on a happy adulthood – if I can locate the right politically correct way of describing it in time.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland