Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Lesson from a Jellyfish

Respect.

Respect is a word bandied about by politicians and hoodies alike but no one seems to realise why it's so vitally important that we take the word seriously. Respect is at the heart of much of our anti-social behaviour problem in 21st Century Britain. Disaffected youths claim to understand respect and talk of 'dissing' (disrespecting) as if it's a crime. People are beaten up for doing it, even stabbed or shot. And yet, with all of their binge-drinking, weapons-carrying, damage causing and scaring local residents with their antics, these very same youths are showing complete and total disrespect for those who share their community. In the more severe examples, gangs (or, as the government would prefer we call them, ‘troublesome youths’) become frighteningly territorial and will defend their turf sometimes to the death. In South London alone, we’ve seen a wave of fatal stabbings and shootings this past year.

So why are things so bad now? Well, the first thing to ask is … are they so bad? Are things worse now than they were, say, ten years ago? Or is it just that we hear about it more? When I was a kid growing up in rural Cornwall, we didn’t hear about serious crimes until they were in the weekly paper. What happened in Falmouth, just 10 miles down the road from us, may as well have happened in a different county. But now we hear about things immediately. News of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reached us from Pakistan within seconds. The world is a smaller place and, bizarrely, we often know more about what’s happening on the other side of the world than we do about what’s going on in our own towns. The result is that we hear about everything. Parents won’t let their children walk to school on their own and clog the surrounding streets with their Chelsea tractors because they are scared that their child will be abducted. But how many children have been abducted in the UK this year? The only one I can think of is Maddie McCann… and that happened in Portugal. But the media hype around that one terrible event has been relentless, probably because there have been so few other abductions. I certainly can’t remember this kind of media attention ever being given to a missing child before. And yes, there have been stabbings and shootings and youth violence. But how much exactly? Are we all being taken in by the media’s continuous demonisation of kids? Of course, there will always be some bad kids ... but I don’t see The Sun, for instance, reporting on the fact that kids form the largest proportion of the victims of crime.

What did we do when we were teenagers? Yup. We hung around in gangs in town centres, parks and shopping centres. The difference between now and back then is that if we were told to move on, or to be quieter or to behave … we did. Now the kids tell you to fuck off. I know. I was a police officer on the beat for years. The kids aren’t any different now from the kids back in my day except for a complete and total lack of respect … and the knowledge that there is very little that anyone can do to curb their behaviour.

As we’ve seen time and time again on television shows like Nanny 911, Supernanny and The House of Tiny Tearaways, child psychologists will tell you that children need rules and boundaries; they need to know what is acceptable and what isn’t. It’s like learning to play an instrument – you first need to learn the correct text-book method of playing before you can develop your own style. You need to know the rules in order to know how far you can bend them. In past times, apprentices were deliberately prevented from learning many aspects of their job so that their elders would always have an edge on them. Roy Hale, a taxidermist friend of mine, told me that when he first started learning the trade back in the 1950s, the senior staff would work under a blanket or behind a tarpaulin to prevent him seeing what was going on. The power lay with the adults. That’s all gone now. Children’s charters, changes in legislation, the rise in personal litigation, the decline of corporal punishment and many other factors have all come together to empower children and youths. And there’s been a subtle power shift too … how many parents now have to ask their children for help when using computers or complex electronic doodads? Kids now know their rights and adults feel powerless to impose sanctions. The result is a kind of anarchy; a Lord of the Flies scenario where the kids have their own kind of society and, in many ways, the upper hand. It’s completely at odds with the natural order.

But ‘power without control is nothing’, as the Pirelli tyre ads would have it, and control comes with emotional maturity, knowledge and wisdom – all of the things that a younger person lacks. And yet, we’ve spent the last 20 years either allowing or forcing young people to be adults. And advertisers have jumped onto the bandwagon with their clever branding of products designed to make kids feel older than they are. The media have a hand in this too. I distinctly recall glancing through one of my daughters’ magazines when she was 12 or 13 years old and being horrified that the magazine contained endless advertisements for expensive beauty products, mobile phones, fad diets and sexual advice including ‘how to give perfect oral sex’. Just a couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the new St Trinian’s film was rated 12A despite scenes of drug use and mild sex. Since writing this, a friend of mine told me that she walked out of the cinema mid-film as she felt that it was ‘too sexual’ for her children. What’s going on? Whatever happened to childhood? Shouldn’t we be allowing our kids a chance to enjoy that before we drop the weight of the world and all of its vices and temptations upon their shoulders? I’m sure they’d be happier. And I’m sure society would be happier.

Back in 2001, Dawn and I took one of our nieces – I’ll spare her blushes by not naming her - down to Cornwall with us on a short holiday. One event sticks in my mind from that visit. I wrote it up in a notebook at the time and here it is:

As we drove into Newquay, there was a sudden snort of disbelief from the back seat of the car.
“I can’t believe that she’d go outside in that top!”
We were driving past a young Cornish girl, about the same age as my niece, wearing a pastel-coloured sports top.
“What was wrong with it?” I asked.
I don’t know why I bothered to ask. That brand wasn’t currently fashionable in London. To make matters worse, I was informed that it was a ‘gay’ rip-off fake top anyway. And if it wasn’t real or currently fashionable – no matter how nice it was – then to wear it was to commit fashion suicide.
But I can’t blame my niece for that. She’s a product of her times. She wears designer labels. She owns a mobile phone. She plucks her eyebrows, shaves her legs and would rather be sawn in half than be seen in last year’s trainers. And she’s 12. And apparently middle-aged if her world-weariness is anything to go by. Nothing impresses her. Everything is just sooo booooring.

We arrived at our destination and parked near the gothic splendour of the Headland Hotel. We were standing on the cliffs above Little Fistral, one of Newquay’s smaller and less-well known beaches. In front of us, the sea was a sheet of blue silk broken only by the white wakes of Padstow fishing boats and their trains of gulls. A lone surfer braved the rocks and the elements in search of the Big One. For a second, even my niece seemed to be impressed by the magnificent view.
“Come on”, I said and led her down the cliff path to the beach.

Newquay’s Little Fistral is a beach in the making. The grains of sand have yet to be worn down to a uniform size and are mixed with slate that has fallen and shattered from the cliffs above. Triangular jagged rocks push up through the not-quite-sand like the dorsal fins of sharks, but closer to the tideline they become softer and smoother. Here, the wind and the powerful Atlantic waves have carved the rocks into bizarre organic forms that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 1970’s Prog Rock album cover. Mussels cling to the underhangs in brilliant blue-black swags.

My daughter Kerys has always been a passionate – if clumsy – lover of all things natural. From the earliest bum-shuffles she was fascinated by anything slimy, multi-legged, smelly, wriggly or creepy-crawly. My other daughter Sarah has also always had a passion for wildlife, albeit the furrier, featherier(?) and cuddlier variety. My niece, however, is the complete opposite.
“Eurgh! What’s that?”
She pointed at a gelatinous brown lump on the tideline. It shuffled backwards and forwards with the ebb and flow of each new wave.
“It’s a Compass Jellyfish”, I explained.
“A Jellyfish? They sting don’t they?”
“Some of them do”, I said. “I don’t think that type does though. At least, I can’t remember ever being stung by one and I used to pick them up all the time when I was a kid.”
She prodded it with her toe.
“Eurgh! It’s gross!” she declared. “Is it really made of jelly?”
“Well … not like the jelly you eat”, I said. “But it is made of a kind of jelly. It’s mostly water.”
She looked at the blob again.
“Is it an animal?” she asked.
I explained that it was an animal and described the whole life-cycle of the creature from tiny medusan to full-grown pelagic traveller.
“Then it will die if it stays here on the beach won’t it?” she said.
“Yes it will”, I replied.
And then, to my surprise, I spent five minutes watching my niece – a child exposed to a lifetime of anthropomorphic brainwashing by the best that Uncky Walt can offer - knocking herself out trying to save a creature that looked like some excessive bout of expectoration. She used a piece of driftwood to try and flick it back out to sea but the tide soon carried it back in. Time after time she tried but the sea soon brought the creature back. Eventually she gave me a kind of ‘Well, can’t you do something about it? You’re an adult!’ look, so I strolled over to the jellyfish, picked it up and threw it as far out to sea as I could.

She insisted on waiting by the shore for several minutes before satisfying herself that the jellyfish was now safely back in the ocean. She splashed through the waves, kicking water around. She let the sand engulf her feet, giving her the sensation of being in slow quicksand (if that’s possible). And as I watched her, I realised that all of the pressures of weight-watching, diets, having the right phone or MP3 player, wearing the right brands, using the right street-slang … all of them had completely evaporated from her. She was happy, laughing and revelling in the joy of simply being alive. In short, she was being that most natural thing in the world – an excited, inquisitive, warm, caring child.

The whole experience was an eye-opener for me. I maintain (in that hectoring, patronising way that middle-aged people do) that children do grow up too quickly these days. Childhood is a magical time and shouldn’t be rushed. There is an innocence in being a child; the world is big and exciting and there are new experiences to be had every day. It saddens me that kids are expected to be adults as soon as they can walk and I can’t help but feel that in allowing them to become young adults too soon we’ve created a society where those who need the most guidance have all of the power.

And, at the same time, we've robbed them of something irreplaceable and very precious.

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