Monday, 15 December 2008

Berg again

More on Leila Berg, because last week I read her Look at Kids, published by Penguin in 1972. She looks (there are lots of photographs) and she listens and she tells true stories. ‘Through anecdote and impression,’ says the blurb, ‘with compassion, anger and lyricism, she enters into the world of the city child.’ It’s not a sentimental book at all; and sometimes Berg herself, who isn’t always a passive observer, gets it wrong (‘At that time I was pursuing another fantasy in which it was vital for me to be omnipotent . . .’).

I’m shocked that I didn’t come across this book when it came out, that no one pressed it on me, because it was around that time I was doing post-grad teacher-training (at Nottingham, because Lawrence went there). I knew of A. S. Neill, I was reading Ivan Illich on de-schooling, but I was an over-educated idiot with no actual experience of children and the course, with its heavy theoretical bias, never bumped me out of that cocoon. My tutor, a decent and sensitive but academic man who’d written on Wordsworth, was doing research on children’s use of language: he’d wire up children with electrodes, show them short films (including some Ken Russell shorts), then get them to write, and he’d plot their vocabulary against the readings given by the electrodes. I helped him, ‘marking’ those children’s writing. Did this in any way help me to become a good teacher? Did this in any way help the children? No. I was as lost in the classroom as the kids.

One of the chapters in Look at Kids begins, provocatively: ‘London hates kids.’ (‘Children are the bottom of the pile . . . And London creates harassed adults, and, by its ever-increasing impossible demands, inadequate ones.’) The book ends with a plea: ‘Is it really so much that a child needs . . . Is it really so much? It is indeed. Ask our society that sets each creative child on the conveyor belt . . . till it becomes the anonymous mass component that the state needs.’

This isn’t just Sixties-speak, though it may come out of that decade. Since 1972 some things for children have perhaps lightened up but other things have got heavier, and it’s obvious – I read the news (one in ten schoolkids in the UK has carried a knife: that averages at around three in every classroom), and I’ve watched over the past few years my children get rigorously schooled towards their exam grades – that Berg’s book is far from out of date. Some of what she says chimes with the David Foster Wallace speech to Ohio graduates that the Guardian printed in September (‘The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us . . .’).

The book’s been out of print for years so until something is done about this, you’ll have to go to abebooks.

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