The child's hood
Updated: Jul 15, 2022
City life was a foreign reality to me growing up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of it - I had seen it on the television, in films and children’s programmes. I remember watching Stuart Little, a film about a small rodent impeccably assimilating to family life as the adopted brother of George. Snowbell the cat was the only family member with enough sense to recognise that this was a slightly bizarre living situation. Anyway, I am not here to act as moral arbiter for fictional familial mores. The Littles lived in a redbrick house sandwiched between two vast expanses of grey slate buildings. The interior was not small, and there seemed to be spaces that would make for great adventure for playful kids. The house, for example, had a laundry chute. Something like this rattling metal pipeline for filthy clothes would have given me endless amusement. George and his father also frequent the park to race their remote- (and sometimes Stuart-)controlled wooden yacht against a vessel that looked like it was used in the filming of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It was a childhood made of dreams for most children: a talking animal as a sibling, a beautiful old house spoilt with pockets of exploration, and gadgets that would leave kids ogling at glass-fronted toyshops. This Adventure film appeared to have it all, yet there was something to be desired about the life that these unlikely siblings were raised in. I recognised this as a young boy.
Having lived in the city now, and seen my nephews raised in London, I have come to realise what was missing. Theirs is a life characterised by confines, by walls hemming in the habitual childhood hobby of play. My nephews spend endless hours playing with their buzzing, humming, technicolour array of toys, but this practice is usually in a room. When the weather permits, they move to the roofless four walls that is their garden; synthetic grass framed by picket and brick, where balls can be thrown free of reprimand. Mostly, though, the weather acts as a metaphorical boundary limiting these restless boys to the indoors. This isn’t to say that these kids aren’t happy or having fun. It doesn’t take much to entertain a child. Even now I get away with buying my six-year-old nephew budget-friendly presents like bubbles, which he will huff and puff away at with joyful intensity. But these restrictions inhibit their freedom, and free children from the responsibility of setting their own limits.
Growing up I was fortunate enough to experience what Les Murray calls the ‘quality of sprawl’. My family lived on farmlands buried in the foothills of the towering wall that is the Drakensberg mountain range. On a clear day, you could see the Mont-Aux-Sources mountains in their purplish haze of might, where the world’s second highest waterfall leaks from the escarpment. On weekends after breakfast, my dad would arm me and my brother with walkie-talkies and send us off into the valley where we would have to occupy ourselves until the call for supper crackled through the radio receiver. This practice didn’t go without protestations. Some days we just wanted to watch TV, like any other kids. Other days we would tear off down the hill to the stream, which back then felt like a surging river. Or we would ascend the valley, where jutting rocks made for perfect towers of vantage from where a young sniper could spot figmental foes from far off. The world was our oyster during those days. We were afforded the freedom to do as we pleased. Freedom in the simplest form – from parental scrutiny. But this freedom came with the burden of imposing our own restrictions: to behave reasonably, not to outstrip our own capacities by wandering too far from home, and making sure we looked after each other. We had to learn the value of our own limits, of emplacing our own confines.