wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John Carey

Original Copy

The question it poses is: are working-class children better off than they were two or three generations ago? Any sane and sensitive obseryer, with even a vague knowledge of the bad old days, would, you'd suppose, return a confident yes. But not Mr Seabrook. There have, he concedes, been material gains, but these have been offset by spiritual losses. Today's working-class child, showered with possessions from the cradle up, has been cheated, Mr Seabrook argues, of the sense of purpose which the valiant fight against poverty once ensured. The warmth and companionship of working-class life have gone too, and the young wander, like shrunken and bewildered addicts, in the lotus-land of limitless consumerism.

How well this accords with the strapping youngsters you see around is a matter for personal judgement. But what's surprising (and, in its way, honourable) is that having fixed on his thesis Mr Seabrook should include so much evidence that undermines it. For when he questions elderly ex-workers about the conditions of yesteryear, the horror stories that spill out soon put the little worries of consumerism into perspective. Most of his oral historians belong to an era—recent, but already unthinkable to us—when youth and death were gruesomely twinned. They remember TB, meningitis, diphtheria, and the hot, slow deathbeds of siblings. Children who survived faced a working day that could stretch, for a thirteen-year-old, from eight in the morning to eleven at night. 'Many a time I've left the house at seven, faint with hunger,' a woman, now eighty-five, attests. 'I've burnt crumbs of toast, and then poured boiling water on it to make out it was tea.'

These rigours did not, it seems, ensure spiritual health. Home life was brutal. According to Mr Seabrook's informants, parents regularly set about their children, and each other, with a varied armoury including whips, razor strops and stair rods. Women were ceiemonially humbled to puff the male ego. A son recalls how his father, if he didn't like his dinner, would throw the plate at the wall. He also persistently blew his-nose on to the grate. The wife never protested, but meekly fetched newspaper and cleaned up. It seems to occur to Mr Seabrook as he records these memories, that they are not as inviting as he intended. He declares that the injustice and lack of love they reveal were not representative of working-class life in the period. But how can he know? To establish that you'd need an extensive survey, and much of the evidence is already in the grave.

As for today's children, they are, on the whole, surprisingly absent from his book, given that its subject is childhood. He chats with a Hell's Angel (one of a splinter group called the Filthy Few), and joins four teenage glue-sniffing truants in a derefict house. About school, where most children spbnd most of their waking life, he says virtually nothing. Instead he touches contemptuously on the modern iuvenile's appetite for Coke, crisps and electronic toys, and on the ludicrous pop 'culture' by which adolescents have allowed themselves to be bamboozled. Such frivolities are admittedly aggravating to the middle-aged. But to imagine they can vie with the real social evils like hunger and disease which still kill seventeen million children a year in the Third world (many of whom would, no doubt, be only too glad of a little consumerism) is to be guilty of the same affluent soft-headedness that Mr Seabrook despises in the young.

He can sustain his case only by political rhetoric which disintegrates immediately on contact with common sense. Thus he maintains that modern parents, by indulging their children in material things, have 'thrown them to the market-place' and 'might as well have thrown them to the wolves.' But surely even Mr Seabrook could distinguish a live child, however degraded by digital watches and potato crisps, from a dead one? And surely even he would prefer the former? Or perhaps not. He doesn't seem to like children much, and his constant insistence that they should have a 'purpose' is obtusely utilitarian. You'd have to be rather strange to ask, when confronted with a child, what the purpose of it was.

On the other hand Mr Seabrook is plainly in love with his own childhood, and recalls it poignantly. It was working-class, and he tells us about the thick green soap, full of grit, with which the kitchen was scrubbed, the foamy arcs it made on the floor, and other details, magical to a child. It's a charming picture, though you can't help wondering about the woman who actually did the scrubbing. Was it such fun for her? She seems to have become a decorative appendage in Mr Seabrook's nostalgia. one part of him, you feel, would like the old working class preserved in a sort of sociological zoo, housing endangered species the clog-shod labourer swinging over ringing cobbles; the mum with her soapsuds and copper stick; the children playing on whistles resourcefully shaped from natural ash wood.

It was capitalism, Mr Seabrook gloweringly insists, that swept these lovable proletarians away, along with the green soap, and replaced them with their effete modern counterparts. He seems to envisage it as a deliberate plot. capitalism decided to give working class children easy and immediate gratification (toys, TV, crisps) so as to sabotage their human potential and stop them developing any critical intelligence, since that might threaten the capitalist system. As a version of history this seems too simple to be interesting—on a par with creeds that ascribe the world's ills to intemational lewry or rays from outer space. But Mr Seabrook's need to find a scapegoat in capitalism plainly relates to his own sense of guilt. His strange and querulous book is, among other things, a personal confession.

He tells us how he broke away from his working-class roots, went to Cambridge and indulged, with his clever friends, in 'cruel and shameless exultation' at the 'awfulness' of his parents. Now he feels sorry. Understandably: but it is not a rare case, nor exclusively working-class. Gifted children of ungifted parents must either outgrow them or remain stunted. There's no middle way. As Drfohnson remarked: 'Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left: as we approach one we recede from another.' It's not capitalism's fault.