I went to an event recently.
I went in an authorial capacity, and chatted to some people, and sold a few books and made a few new friends, including the very wonderful Laura Quigley, historian of Plymouth, and the equally wonderful Paul Diamond, founder of Hidden Heritage.
I was with some friends, and my husband and my little boy, in our re-enactment guise as the Napoleonic 32nd Cornwall Regiment. And there’s your bit of scene-setting.
There was a group of children there, unaccompanied, unattended, who spent the whole day tearing around the venue laughing and shrieking and generally creating the sort of havoc that unattended children mob-handed with energy to burn, often create. (And, you know, there’s maybe a whole other post about whether it’s a good idea to get a hall full of complete strangers to babysit your children, but it won’t be this one. So.)
The girls wanted to talk to us, and the boys didn’t like that. All of about 8 or 9 years old, maybe a little older, and the girls wanted to ask questions or just to talk to us. One little girl kept coming back, bringing her doll’s pushchair that she’d bought for £8 with her own pocket money, and she’d just stand at the table and show us her things: her doll, her plastic pirate gold coin, her pushchair. (It was a little bit broken, and one of the boys she was with kept trying to make it more broken. She said her dad had mended it last time but he might not be able to do it again, and she didn’t want it to be any more broken. The small boy and I had a go at mending it. I think we did okay.)
Anyway, she thought we were fascinating. And that made me ever so sad, that she – and her friends – didn’t think, “I could do that!” or “that looks interesting!” – they just didn’t think of us as real people, who had real lives. Or that we were dressed as real people, who’d ever had real lives. We were like something out of a film, and we didn’t have any relevance to them, although we were very glamorous and exciting.
And one of the other little girls wanted to buy a book, and that almost broke my heart, because she really, really wanted to, and how can you say “it’s too grown up for you” without sounding like an absolute heel? And she didn’t have enough money (although to be honest if she’d been older and asked, I’d have probably given it to her, just because I so much wanted her to have it.) She wrote a story at school. She asked me how long it took me to write a book, and I said about a year, but when I wrote a story for the small boy it was normally an hour or two, and she looked thoughtful.
See, what I found so heartbreaking was that these children – and they lived in a regeneration area, and they were clearly from families where money was tight – they wanted to know, and they wanted to ask, but they didn’t think history was anything to do with them. It was a little magic circle of people, a privileged class of people – people with money, who could afford to buy books, and wear impractical clothes.
(People who make their children little wooden toy muskets, and have the time and the skill to do so.)
They didn’t know how to dream big dreams, other than the wild fantasy of one day going to Legoland AND Butlins. That was the compass of that little girl’s ambition. That’s heartbreaking. You can be anything you want to be, in your head – a princess, or an astronaut, or a monster from space – and she wanted to go to Butlins and Legoland.
And I didn’t have anything that I could do for them. I didn’t have any books for little girls, that they could buy with their own money, and read for themselves, and be part of the magic circle.
That made me sad, and I’m going to do something about it.