Nostaglia vs. Reality – Does childhood really have to be technological?

Finding Inspiration in the Smallest Things

I’ve been wondering for a while what my next blog essay should be about and it was only yesterday, when I read the incredibly sad news that Ray Bradbury had died, that I finally knew what I had to write about; namely INSPIRATION.

Ray’s writing and books were a big influence on me as a kid (along with Issac Asimov, Douglas Adams and Iain. M. Banks, to name but a few). It was the creativity of sci-fi that first enthused me to start writing myself (and the results were pretty awful). But they got the creative juices stirring within me and it got me to start writing (rather than procrastinating) none-the-less.

But the more I’ve thought about it, that’s not where inspiration first began for me. In fact it first arrived when I was 5 years old in the shape of little hard backed books made from one sheet of paper that measured 30 by 40 inches big.

I can still hazily remember the day. We were on holiday somewhere in Southern England (Somerset I think) and visited a little village fete. I can remember looking up in the sunshine at the spire of a Norman church and wandering around trestle table stalls manned by elderly women in tweeds skirts and men in J.R. Hartley hats. Just like all fetes and bric-a-brac sales that were held when I was a kid (in the 70’s and 80’s), there was always a book stall, with spines laid in lines facing up to the sky, where you could pick up all manner of worn and tattered books for a few pence.

That was where I found my first one; Henry V it was called and the memory of that day has stayed with me ever since.

I’m talking about that bedrock of all British children’s childhoods from the 19040’s onwards,  Ladybird Books. But it wasn’t in the field of writing that they inspired me, rather that of history. Looking back, the earliest memory I have of being passionate about history and wanting to be a historian (believe it or not, that’s my original profession) stems from that day and came from reading that little Ladybird history about king Henry V (I’ve still got it, its sat on the table next to me ad it still makes me smile whenever I see it).

Going through my old Ladybird collection whats interesting is the most powerful memories I have are not attached to the words and stories, but rather to the artwork used to illustrate them.

It was generally powerful stuff; Kings were noble, Queens beautiful yet modest, Heroes heroic and Life gentile and reminiscent of a by-gone age that probably never even existed.

Take the front cover for ‘Battle of Little Big Horn – Custers Last Stand’.

The heroic Custer stands proud and tall (all cream with a natty little red scarf and well groomed blonde whiskers) leading to the last.

His men, desperately fighting for their survival are brave and strong (note the guy front left whose still going with his rifle butt).

Name me an impressionable little boy who wouldn’t find that sort of image evocative and heroic. Struggling aren’t you.

Each and every one of these little books was crammed choca-bloc with top quality hand painted art work. Interestingly Douglas Keen, the man who created the Ladybird series’ for the printing firm ‘Wills & Hepworth’, saw the art work as one of the main differences Ladybird was making in the educational book marketplace of the 1940’s and 50’s (see here for an in-depth interview with Douglas)

What is amazing looking back is the caliber of artists Keen was able to commission for each new Ladybird series. For example Frank Hampson, of Eagle comics and the creator of Dan Dare, was working as a technician at Epsom Art School and was the first artist commissioned. Frank Humphris, who also worked on Eagle, was by all accounts an expert on all things Wild West, owning a collection of authentic cowboy gear as well as being an honorary member of an American Indian tribe, so it was he who produced all the art for the American West books, including Custers Last Stand.In fact most of the early artists used by Keen were also working for Eagle comics.

In many ways Keen had taped into a golden age of British main stream illustrative art and consequently mine, and many others, childhoods were drenched wholeheartedly in the imagery of Dan Dare, Ladybird Books, Commando comics, War Picture Library, the Beano, Desperate Dan and much, much more.

Drugs for Kids?

One of the noticeable features of becoming 30-something and having children is the topics of conversation between friends tend to change. Some of the main topics these days now are how; ‘its just not as good growing up compared to when we were kids’ or ‘everything has become so corporate now’ and of course the classic ‘technology has just ruined children’s imagination.’

And do you know what, I think there is a point to be made. Its not the same anymore. But whether or not that is unqiue to this generation is debatable.

  The issue is of course more to do with the impact technology is having on the children of today. Its potentially wiring their brains differently and organising their thought processes, communication methods and social interaction in ways that we, a generation only a couple of decades older and who grew up with the birth of computers and gaming, struggle to keep up with.

Add to that a desire to look back on our own childhoods through rose-tinted spectacles and you’ve got a sure fire recipe for doom and gloom.

Playing outside all day on your BMX with just a bottle of frozen orange squash and a few bourbon biscuits to sustain you until dinner time seems a far cry from today’s children, who are increasingly indoors and consumed by technology.

Or is that really the case?

I’ve only to look outside my window on a weekend or school holiday to see kids (of a certain age range admittedly) whizzing past on bikes, running around and generally causing play based mayhem (its amazing how we see it differently as adults isn’t it). Only rain or darkness tends to keep them in.

The difference isn’t so much childhood per se but rather what the child does in their downtime at home and how they interact with the world around them. Technology is now integral to their lives. Let me give you an example; our youngest (who is 8) routinely plays Sims and Dressing Up Games for Girls online. But as she plays the game she is still creatively playing by talking aloud, making up story lines for characters and acting dialogue between them. It took me a while to realise but she interacts with the online characters in the same way she would interact with a doll.

So the behaviour hasn’t really changed, its just the props being used.

Intriguingly what has changed is the mood technological consumption creates. Take it away and its like dealing with a drug addiction. End its use early and moody anger ensues. Its ultimately as addictive as any other drug that stimulates our brains. And the problem with any drug is addiction; the more you have the more you want of it.

Some would argue that its the consumption that’s the problem. To their mind consuming technology as a user means children are losing the ability to play imaginatively and thus think creatively and originally.

There may be a point to this but then again there is a strong counter argument to suggest its just the way they are creative that’s changed.

What I would argue is the consumption becomes more of a problem when we stop to consider the culture of what is consumed. So its not so much about the technology but rather the software and content that’s hard for us to police. Children are becoming exposed to more and more adult themes, especially of a sexualised, graphic or violent nature. Numerous studies have demonstrated the impact of this and the Parents Television Council have produced a study on children’s viewing habits (it makes for scary reading as a parent).

Its clear that no matter how hard we try technology makes communication and information sharing increasingly easier and open. That’s something to celebrate. But the dark side of it is the impact its having on children.

But to say we are producing a generation that cannot communicate, are always online, shut away in dark rooms and thinking dark thoughts is probably scaremongering. We were all teenagers after all and that to me describes that condition exactly. Its just the tools available to entertain that have changed.

Really our worries today aren’t so different to those of our parents and grandparents when faced with the arrival of radio’s, record players, TV’s and eventually computers.

Bedtime Reading

That’s not to say that the moral messages being conveyed to our children isn’t something we should ignore or not worry about. We should as parents take responsibility for how we raise our young (as a teacher I’ve dealt with many amazing young people over the years whose behaviour and problems stem from the environment they were raised in, so I believe pretty strongly in that).

But there is perhaps a limit to how much we should worry.

A few years ago, when my son was little and learning to read, I dug out of my parents loft all my old Ladybird books as well as my Commando, Battle and War Picture library comics (along with a few beanos, dandys and an original first edition of Garfield comic uk). He loved them (briefly) but what struck me most was how the moral focus of every story was so simplified and extreme.It was essentially indocrinating children into a positive mindset towards an ideal yet false British society, the Empire and ultimately War.

It made me realise that perhaps we need to get our worrying into to focus. Here’s a couple of excerpts to illustrate my points:

”English law and English justice are known and respected throughout the world, for in this country of ours it is almost impossible for an innocent man to be sent to prison…’ (Ladybird book King Alfred the Great) – Really? Is that true?

or the classic on Stone Age man…’If we could see them, we should probably think that they are not human beings at all…we must think of these animal like people as having none of the things we have in our every day lives…’ (Ladybird book Stone Age Man)

I could list many more examples that are worse if I dug out all the old war comics I brought. Ladybird books are brilliant. They’ve become true nostalgia items because they were so well made. But they were also a product of their time and place.

But they have an impact. Within a few weeks of my reading these books and comics with my son he was infatuated with war and history, just as I had been as a child. But in the idealised way that it was presented in the 1950’s and 60’s. Men were heroic, honour and bravery were virtues to be promoted and death came quickly in a blaze of glory. Oh and of course, all national stereotypes were reinforced (thus the French were ultimately cowardly and prone to betrayal and most Germans were Nazi’s to their core).

Interestingly, when I asked my mum about her views on my childhood reading she didn’t seem overly concerned. She just shrugged her shoulders a said ‘thats what boys do’. But what she added surprised me. ‘Of course,’ she continued, ‘your Grandad didn’t like it at all and was really unhappy when I let you have toy soldiers to play with..’ (I had a lot of toy soldiers).

For my Grandad, who had lost one brother at Arnhem and another to TB in a German prisoner of war camp, allowing his grandson to play with toy soldiers and glorify war was unthinkable when he’d lost both brothers and many friends to it. In the end he compromised with my mum; he’d tolerate it but do nothing to promote it, which explains why we never played soldiers at his house.

What I came to realise is the very things that attracted me to history in the first place also filled my mind with a very incorrect view of the world. It was one of airbrushed idealism that ignored the horrors. Understandable in generations who grew up and lived through WW1 and WW2 but perhaps idealism is as dangerous a view of violence and war as one that portrays it as a video game?


Let me give you an example.

I remember doing a project at school on WW1 and reading a book that had a drawn picture of a British Tommy hanging over barbed wire. The caption underneath read ‘Albert was always a lucky one, today it would only take him half an hour to die…’ Fast forward many years and visiting the WW1 battlefields in France and Belgium the full horror of that war comes flooding home to you. It wasn’t idealistic at all.

And in that way there’s alot of thanks to be given to technology for at least exposing those sort of idealised myths and painting a more realistic picture of the world.

For example if I’d seen the opening of Saving Private Ryan when younger I probably wouldn’t have thought war was that good at all.

Now I can find out all about war crimes, revolution and abuses by regimes on its own citizens just by the touch of a button. And with the advent of blogging and mobile phone videos the common person can record the reality of what is going on and upload it for the world to see.

So surely the issue is not then the technology and the effect it is having but rather the question of how should we raise our children and should we open their eyes to the world in a controlled manner? Surely as parents its our duty to control what we allow our children to be exposed to and to educate them about what is right and wrong. My son may now be of an age where he plays Call of Duty but he is clear that the game is different to real life (not sure how I personally feel about WW2 now being a computer game, but thats another blog!) . At least he understands the brutality of war. The problem begins when the young person does not know the difference exists.

But whose fault is that? Parent or child?

Brutality has always existed, its a human condition.

At least we can now be more aware of it if we chose to open our eyes to whats going on.

Perhaps the technological generation have the means to finally do something about it…

…Or do we want to create a fairytopiac bubble for them to live in that excludes the reality of how most of the world are forced to live?

And thus continue to make the mistakes that we keep on making?


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