Country Childhood Stories - Owain Jones


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Owain Jones' seminar given at Museum of English Rural Life on 12/03/13 concerning childhood stories and experiences of rurla life

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Country Childhood Stories - Owain Jones

  1. 1. Little figures, big shadows: country childhood storiesOwain Jones: Reader in cultural geography: landscape, place andenvironment; Countryside & Community Research Institute 1
  2. 2. I am a cultural geographer with interests in how landscapes and places areimagined, and how they are practiced in everyday life. This includesthinking about rural childhood in the UK. A very potent cultural idea - ordiscourse – or set of intersecting discourses.I will go through ideas of‘rural idyll’‘rural childhood idyll’Ideas about – ‘what children are’Literary portrayals of rural childhoodHow the countryside and the city are contrastedHow the idea of ‘rural childhood idyll’ is commodifiedIs it just a cultural myth?Gender and ethnic differences 2
  3. 3. The Rural IdyllOne of the most powerful cultural discoursesin UK society – the idea of ‘the countryside’. 3
  4. 4. Nature and (traditional) agriculture conflated in the UK (no wilderness). Artintersects with the ‘countryside’ – nature, agriculture, community. A pastoraltradition – still very active and powerful - still being reinvented.
  5. 5. WHY rural idyll?Deep roots in ancient texts (Raymond Williams)Countryside and forest seen as areas free from state control (Shakespeare, Robin Hood)Reaction against urbanisation and industrialisationClass - Powerful families were firstlylandowning families.War - countryside used as emblem of nationat times of national crisisMemory : nation’s deep collective pre-urbanidentity
  6. 6. Debates still abound in media andLiterature about the ‘idyll’.Villages, communities
  7. 7. Idyll in Literature: e.g. Thomas Hardy, George Elliot, The Brontes
  8. 8. Idyll in Poetry: e.g. Keats, Wordsworth, R S Thomas,Housman, Claire, Ivor Gurney (many others) Often about idyll lost
  9. 9. Idyll in Art: John Constable, Graham Southerland
  10. 10. Idyll in Music: classical, e.g. Vaughan Williams; William Walton; folk (a folk revival goingon at moment)
  11. 11. Welly TellyEscape to the Country (BBC)“A series which helps prospective buyersfind their dream home in the country” “Perfect rural location” Build A New Life In The Country (Channel 5) An idea that is recognisable “The show follows British adventurers The perfect urban location who dream of creating homes in perfect but more uncertain rural locations” (often moving from urban areas
  12. 12. The Country Childhood IdyllA key part of thewider idea of idyll. 12
  13. 13. An ongoing discussion about this notably Colin Ward 13
  14. 14. The Country Childhood IdyllA potent cocktail of:FreedomAdventure (Famous Five)Fresh airPhysical activities (tree climbing)Contact with nature: animals, plants, landscapes.Stuff to play with (think of city spaces in comparison)Places to hide and play (the Just William stories)Other children (gangs) (Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee)Places to make their own (dens)Community
  15. 15. A literary creation?Many examples(novels) Cider with Rosie(on curriculum - film, tv, plays)(night games)Larkrise to CandlefordChildren’s literatureMemoirs and biographies(My Country Childhood) 15
  16. 16. The invention of childhood It is very arguable that modern childhood was invented about 2 – 2.5 centuries ago by the Romantics - innocence, purity, spontaneous, creative, the best of humanity Charted in paintings and literature The Apollonian view of children as opposed to the Dionysian. (Jenks 1996)
  17. 17. Romantic genealogyRomantic movement: art, literatureand philosophy in late18th centuryWestern Europe.In reaction to urbanisation andIndustrialisation.Invented the ‘nature’ , ‘countryside’and ‘childhood’.Childhood close to nature. Athome in the countryside.Distrust of the urban, dismay at the urban 17
  18. 18. So just as children were beginning to be constructed as natural, wild, free, they werebeing moved into, or born into, the growing urban dystopias of the industrialrevolution. (Dickens). This tension still remains (Jones 2000)Blake BlakeSongs of Songs ofInnocence Experience UrbanRural
  19. 19. Rural –urban comparisons live onMost children now live inurban or suburban areas.(but)‘the city under modern conditions,can no longer be dealt withpractically by children’(Ward 1978: vii).A nostalgia for other timesand other places. 19
  20. 20. Urban childhood lives in a sort of shadow of the other as an ideal.A wider discourse too - Raymond Williams - 20
  21. 21. Result??? The impossibility of urban childhood‘The city is everywhere and in everything’ (Amin and Thrift, 2002: 1).‘in Britain, the late modern private child [is] predominantly the city child’. (James etal: 1998: 51)‘to be a child outside adult supervision, visible on city centre streets, is to be out ofplace’ (Connolly and Ennew 1996: 133)‘it is hard to escape the conclusion that the turn of the century urban child is anindoor child’ (Ward, 2000: viii)‘environmental planners have become increasingly aware of the ‘impossibility’ ofurban space for children’ (ESRC, 1999)‘ I can think of no city that admits the claim of children’ (Ward, 1978: 204).‘the death of children is a constant thread in the history of London. In more thanone sense, youth is a stuff which will not endure in the confines of the city’ (PeterAckroyd 2000: 639).Where does this leave children?
  22. 22. A recently changed history??Half a century ago youths, in rural areas at least, were freer than thosein urban areas. They were not watched over, they were not alwaysunder the eyes of adults. This is no longer the case. Now when theyleave school they have to return home right away -there are no morehaystacks, quiet hideaways, places where one can go in secret. Theymoved from the gaze of adults-teachers to that of adult-parents, to thegaze of the TV. And they are always closed off in that way. Where as inthe city, it was the opposite is not too long ago. Freedom could be foundin basements, in parking lots, in everything that was underground; thatis, in the unconscious of the city, where a certain sexuality in relation tothe forbidden, including its unfortunate sexist and violent aspects wouldtake place. There was something really wild about it. Now it isdisappearing because of the control of children’s free time. (Poslianec1996: 68-69) 24
  23. 23. Putting the ‘myth’ into practice?CounterurbanisationMoving to the countryside. Some couples move from urban areas whenthey have, or plan to have, children.Bringing up kids (quote from my research):, “well, you see, he (Jack) couldn’t be a wild thing in St Andrews Road[their old address] without people telling him off and whatever, whereasout here he can, can’t he?” “they can’t do wild things in the city can they without, without sort ofdamaging things... Jack running around with a huge stick (here) sort of,it looks funny rather than menacing doesn’t it”. 25
  24. 24. Putting the ‘myth’ into practice?Taking city children intothe countryside. VariousOrganisations do this.City farms (bringing thecountry to the city).School – farm linkprogrammes. 26
  25. 25. CHILDREN’S FARMS (very quick google search)LANGLEYBURY CHILDREN’S FARMLangleybury LaneKings Langley01923 Easter – End of OctoberSchool holidays (weekdays) –12pm – 4pmMEAD OPEN FARMStandbridge RoadBillingtonNr. Leighton Buzzard, Beds01525 £5.50, Child £4.50, SC £5Annual tickets availableTHURLEIGH FARM CENTRECross EndThurleigh, Beds01234 from £2.95Child from £3.50See the lambs being hand-reared. Plus lots of young rabbits to cuddle. 27
  26. 26. ComodificationChildren’s Books and Toys1000s of farm/rural based booksFor children of all agesMostly read to /played withby urban children 28
  27. 27. A myth? A mask?As the idea of rural idyll is argued to hide all sorts of problems; the rural childhoodidyll might mask all kinds of problems which children face such as social isolation,lack of access to transport and facilities, poverty, drugs etc. Isolation Remote from services Public transport Aging populations Modern agri-business Rural poverty A Childhood: The Biography of a Place Harry Crewss memoir of his childhood in rural Georgia, published in 1978, was lauded by critics as an honest depiction of the violence, 29 desperation, and courage evoked by situations of extreme poverty.
  28. 28. So is it just a myth?No. That is too simplistic a conclusion.“There is a big gap in equality of access to high quality naturalenvironments between children from rural backgrounds and childrenfrom urban backgrounds” (Demos and Green Alliance, 2003).“There is also a suggestion that across England, children in rural areasmay be more active than other children (Pretty and others 2009).” PlayEngland (2012)The myth, when acted out, can become a sort of reality.(Counter-urbanisation) those moving to the country today might well bewealthy middle class families with significant resources.Children in some instances do have degrees of freedom. 30
  29. 29. A complex pictureCider With Rosie is definitely an account of Idyll but there is detailed description of extreme poverty and violence in it. There are glimpses of one disabled child whojust disappearsIdyll is in part about community and belongingAs depicted in film….Whistle Down the Wind. Brian ForbesWill it Snow at Christmas?Sandrine Veysset 31
  30. 30. Glimpses of ‘Allswell’ (case study in South West England)Lots of children, some quite free to ‘play out’ at quite early ageThe “micro geographies” very important – roads, paths, arrangements ofhousesSTUFF TO PLAY WITH. SPACE TO PLAY INParental/adult attitudes variable but key 32
  31. 31. It did look like ‘The Famous Five’ sometimes 33
  32. 32. Theoretically: this is very much a cultural geography approach where discourseand social construction is to the fore. But as the pictures show, it can also beabout embodied practice. The two are always entangled in social formations ofwhat ever kind. 34
  33. 33. Control and a kind of freedomBy choosing to live in such a place, where what children can encounteris controlled by the environment, parents exert a form of control whichin turn lets some children have a degree of freedom.The case study, very much a middle class idyll. There might well beother, wilder, idylls.In either case, these allow children to make their own local geographieswhich suffuse through adult spatial patterns. 35
  34. 34. Differentiated country childhoodsEthnicity (n.b. Ingrid Pollard).AbilityIndividual and familyGenderWhere? 36
  35. 35. Boys and girls and come out to play?The girls played their part of invitation and show, and were rather moreassured than we were. They sensed they had come into their own at last.For suddenly they were not creatures to order about any more, nor themake shift boys they had been; they possessed, and they knew it, the cluesto secrets more momentous than we could guess. (Laurie Lee).I became aware when writing about city children that boys experience,explore and exploit their environment much more than girls do. This is evenmore true in the country. The range of activities thought appropriate forboys is far wider than for girls, who are also subject to a wider range ofparental prohibitions (Ward p. 13) 37
  36. 36. Need to radically rethink what children are, and what cities are, and how they (can)come togetherChildren not “Apollonian” (innocent) or “Dionysian” (corrupt) (Chris Jenks 2005)but ‘other’ (Jones, 2008). Strange, partly unknowable, weird creatures who need tobe left to their own devices, spaces and becomings as much as practicableHigonnet (1998)
  37. 37. Conclusions?Ideas and practices of country childhood are a highly complex and potent mix ofpowerful ideas of nature, nationhood, romantic childhood, concern over the citiesand so on.These flows of meaning get tangled up in the everyday lives of children and families,and shape everyday life.But they do not shape everyday life completely or in simple, direct, ways. Manyother factors are important too, such as the specifics of personal and familygeographical life.There are differences in ethnic and gender experiences and the shifting contexts ofglobalised culture, economy and technology (which I have not mentioned) are alsoimportant. 39
  38. 38. Key referencesBunce, M. (1994) The Countryside Ideal: Anglo-American images of landscape, London: Routledge.Bunce, M. (2003), Reproducing the Idyll, in P. Cloke (ed.) Country Visions, London: Pearson Education, 14-30.Davis, J. and Ridge, T. (1997) Same Scenery, Different Lifestyle: Rural Children on a Low income, London: The Children’s Society.Demos and Green Alliance (2003) a child’s place: why environment matters to children, Demos: LondonHorton, J. (2003) Different Genres, Different Visions? The changing countryside in postwar British children’s literature , in P. Cloke (ed.) Country Visions, London: Pearson Education. 73-92.Jones, O. (1997) ‘Little Figures, Big Shadows, Country Childhood Stories’, in P. Cloke and J. Little (eds.) Contested Countryside Cultures, London: Routledge, 158-179.Jones, O. (1999) ‘Tomboy Tales: the rural, nature and the gender of childhood’, Gender, Place and Culture, 6, 2, 117-136.Jones, O. (2000) ‘Melting Geography: Purity, disorder Childhood and Space’, in S. Holloway and G. Valentine (eds.) Children’s Geography: Living, Playing Learning, London: Routledge.Jones, O. (2002) ‘Naturally Not! Childhood, the Urban and Romanticism’, Human Ecology Review, 9. 2. 17-30.Philo, C. (1992) ‘Neglected rural geographies: a review’, Journal of Rural Studies 8, 2, 193- 207.Ward, C. (1990) The Child in the Country, London: Bedford Square Press.Williams, R. (1985) The Country and the City, London: The Hogarth Press. 40