Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lawks! Yer Lordship!


The Judge told my father he was headed for an institution, in specific, Kingswood Approved School, a grim post-Victorian halfway-house between slum-street delinquency and borstal, the hardcore prison for the under-aged. As it turned out he was prescient, rather than deterministic. He didn't send Pater off to the place, hauled up before the majesty of the court yet again though he was. And it took a very long time for his promise to reach fruition.

I've been reading Dorothy L Sayers recently, as you will no doubt have deduced from the strangulated English of the 1930s that I am currently employing; and which I am currently attempting to exorcise before I become a parody of the English manners I learnt at my horribly decent boarding school. Rather!

Having waded through several of Ms Sayers novels arm-in-arm with Lord Peter Wimsey, (who is now a bosom-chum!) I have learnt a little more about the nature of England as she was before I left her, and about the ideas and actions which formed my own peculiar character. Lord Peter is endlessly engaging for someone like me, the epitome of the languid, sensitive, driven to 'noble action masquerading as disinterested foible' nature of the true gentleman amateur. A thoroughly well-written picture of the archetype around which I formed my ideal self at the tender age of fourteen, closeted as I was with the rugger-buggers, reactionaries, bumptious bores, and sad, mad academic gown-wearers at one's Alma Mater. But it's the unintended revelations in Sayers' world that betray the truth.

The casual anti-Semitism of the ruling class I can cope with, it's all-of-a-piece with the narcissistic Anglophilia of the Last Days of the Raj. Obviously it's objectionable and the Jews in Sayers' novels are all little more than Shylock updated from Shakespeare's original; moneyed, grasping, demimondaine. Unpleasant, but not particularly surprising. rather like finding the Colonel has been schtupping the scullery-maid in the billiard-room.

"Man's a complete bounder, of course, but then the family has never quite been top-drawer, if you catch my drift. Awful row in the mess, of course, when it all came out. Pink-Gin anyone?"

True again, all the culprits ('perpetrator' is so-oo 1980s) are either grubby, urban working-class professional sharpers,

"Fair-enough, Guv! Got me bang-to-rights this time, Hur, hur, hur!! It's off to the nick for me, orl-right!"

Or disaffected straw-chewing yokels whose base-villainy is betrayed by their wicked refusal to bow to their betters,

"What's a forelock for if not for tugging? Eh? What? Ought to be flogged for it!"

Or failed middle-class social climbers; the Captain but never the Major; the tiresome 'type' who wears too much cologne at the Club; the seedy wastrel who cheats at cards. The upper crust may have its doughy specimens but in Sayers world they are there because they are descended from a very High-Anglican God indeed. And if He's not in His Heaven They at least are setting a good example for the rest of us.

"Yes, but God was working to a very tight time-frame, Marjorie, and he clearly didn't have enough money to make a thorough job of it to begin with. Another bun, Vicar?"

No, I can stand all that. Even allow myself the odd sentimental moment as I contemplate the inner-turmoil of the (clearly auto-biographical) Harriet Vane as she wends her sad, self-obsessed, gaudily neurotic way to true lurve with the sainted Lord Peter. After all, the woman does write well, and the plots, while ludicrously byzantine on occasion, do provide escape for my fevered brain in its efforts to avoid thinking about actually doing some work. And in comparison to the recent ABC TV horror of Hugh Laurie playing Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry's Jeeves it's positively uplifting.

No, in the end it's the casual violence against children that makes me, well, dash-it-all, rather cross, not to mention in a snit, a tizzy and a febrile stew, damnit!

"I say! I mean, steady on! Stiff letter to The Times, doncha-know!!"

In a short story published long after the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane nuptials the happy couple are ensconced en-famille with their brood and a tiresome house-guest, Miss Quirk. This childless woman is a straw-man in sensible shoes, existing only to pontificate in absurd terms about the absolute necessity of 'permissive' child-rearing. This meaning no limits, no control, no thought, no management, no rationale, no moral instruction or suppressin' of the little beasts' instincts and, above all, no beatings.

La Q takes umbrage from silliness into high-dudgeon when the eldest Wimsey child gets three strokes of the cane from his doting Papa for 'scrumping' pears from a local worthy, ie: a yokel of the fore-lock tugging type. After a lecture from Harriet on suiting the beating to the temperament of the child the offensive Miss Q is confounded and ritually humiliated. Happiness ensues.

"Dashed clever, doncha-know! Woman had it coming to her. Can't stand these know-it-all spinster types, with their interferin' ways! All down to hysteria really. Sexually-frustrated, very sad, probably down to that fellow Freud, mustn't be too hard on them, can't really help themselves, what?"

As an argument for the judicious use of violence it's typical of the time, and is deployed with all the logic, charm and crushing superiority Vane/Sayers can muster. It's a shabby trick, and obvious too. Write the opinion you dislike in the most extreme terms, to the point of ludicrous stereotype if possible, and then knock it down with grace, understated charm and nasty results. It neatly encapsulates the last days of the British Empire during the great 'golden age' of the 1930s: Casual racism, snobbery, self-congratulation, smug superiority based on the hidden language of violent domination.

"I say, chap sounds like one of those awful Bolshies!"

Which brings me back to my starting point. My father was 14 when the Judge gave him the hard word. My father was a very tough kid, violent, difficult, a 'right little tearaway'. Growing up during the war inured him to violence. Given that his family were bombed out of their home three times, he can be forgiven for thinking that Hitler had it in for him personally. But he had a mother who knew that you didn't beat your children, it just made things worse, and she wasn't having it. When the Police arrived to drag him up before the beak one fatal, final time she kept them talking at the door while he jumped the back fence and ran away to sea.

Ten years later he came home and married my mother and was an incredibly gentle, loving father who never raised a hand against any child, wouldn't countenance it being done by anyone. Ten years later he finally arrived at Kingswood School as a social-worker with a rare talent for dealing with difficult, troubled teenage boys. He understood them. He'd been one. Quite without the inbred moral superiority of the upper class he created himself as a mature adult by sheer force of will. He wasn't perfect, but he was the example I had for being a father. My children were never beaten, smacked, spanked or anything like it. That's not how you grow capable, confident, self-possessed children. It's stupid and unnecessary.

Suzie is studying Social Work, like her Grandad. Nell's about to start her Politics degree.

I'm immensely proud of both of them. My word, yes!



Anonymous said...

I have seen both ends of the spectrum with violence against children in one family....the first two girls were beaten, smacked, slapped, frightened, scared, disciplined regularly, controlled..and forced to work, cleaning, cooking etc...since a young age,...they left school early, didn't complete university, rebelled and then they both became very successful professionals (and have difficult relationships with their father especially , the violent one) but now are strong, selfless, caring, hard working and gentle people..with admirable qualities.....the second two children due to the guilt felt by the parents..were given carte blanche, spoilt rotten and given everything they wanted, they have their rooms cleaned for them, they get presents, money and more...allowed to take advantage of the privileges and wealth on offer...university degrees..etc....and now they both are the most obnoxious, self centred, , disrespectful, selfish, lazy, arrogant, rude, childish, and did I say arrogant ? prone to tantrums...They use every manipulative trick in the book to scheme from their parents..etc....

I wouldn't advocate violence for a second...it's abhorrent....but I know which two of these kids I respect and have time for...! Wierd eh ?

A of M said...

Weird? No, just sad, really sad. I don't advocate complete 'permissiveness' as a parent. It's entirely easy to ruin a child by having no rules at all and no way of managing their behaviour. Children need rules, structure, a moral system in which they can trust, grow and mature. Something to believe in as a young child, something to push against as an adolescent. That's what a good family is, no matter how that family is structured.

It is entirely possible to raise a child of good character, morals and ethics without the use of force. It isn't easy. It requires intelligence, imagination and skill. It requires thought, hard work and a genuine active commitment to the child beyond simply seeing the child as an extension of your own ego, or abrogating your responsibilities for fear of acting decisively and getting it 'wrong'. But if your children aren't worth that effort, who is?