Referencing William’s Blake’s 1789 collection of poetry about childhood in its title, Fran Abrams’ new book Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood offers an account of children’s recent social history from the Victorian era to the present day. While I have read several other books on childhood history, they have tended to be quite academic and it was a pleasant change to read something a bit more entertaining in tone. Abrams is a journalist by training (she works a lot for Radio 4 and the Guardian, and it shows) but has written other books with a social or social history theme to them (“Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage” and “Learning to Fail: How Society Lets Young People Down” amongst them); this is the first I have read.
So why write another perspective on childhood history? Probably because there is always room for more discourse on the child in our society. Modern childhood is often viewed in a poor light: it gets a bad press, and children are portrayed as variously spoiled and cosseted or as delinquent and dangerous. We fret over education, stranger danger, and worry how the youth of today are possibly going to turn into the productive adults of tomorrow (especially important when those future adults are going to be looking after us in our old age). Abrams clearly demonstrates how this state of affairs is far from new – teenage gangs ran amok a hundred years ago and there had always been a persistent worry about the children we raise, their abilities and how their moral compasses develop.
Organised into an introduction, eight chapters, a conclusion, an epilogue and bibliography spread over just 270 pages, Songs of Innocence is big on breadth, but a little thinner on depth. For instance, while this may be about “British” childhood by title, much of the evidence is in fact English (and predominantly southern English at that). Granted, things like the Boy Scout movement would have affected the whole of the country, the bulk of the material presented remains rooted in England. This is likely to be due to the availability of evidence to the author, but I couldn’t help but feel that with a couple of edits in the text this could have been retitled “the story of English childhood” and been more accurately named for it.
In terms of content, the book concerns itself as much with the adult perception of children and how this changed over time as with things such as the educational and legal reforms that had impacts on children’s lives. I liked this approach; children don’t live in a bubble separate from adults, and to include both perspectives kept the book interesting and engaging. It was also not afraid to discuss the darker sides of childhood – nineteenth century baby farming, the risks to Scouts due to their work with the armed forces in World War 2, child murderers such as Mary Bell – something which often gets omitted in the rush to paint childhood past as a rosy thing we should all be nostalgic for.
I particularly liked the use of primary accounts, often in children’s own words, although sometimes in reflection from adulthood, to support the arguments being made. They added colour and depth to the text. One in particular stood out for me – extracts from an autobiography reflecting back on a childhood lived in Rhyl in the 1970s and 1980s. The reason for this simply was because I also grew up in North Wales in the 1980s (although it perhaps also stood out for not being an account from England); one comment it made used a phrasing that I had not heard in twenty years and that I had completely forgotten about, but which brought back some childhood memories with startling clarity upon reading it again. This was of course a very personal response, but I suppose it highlights the enduring fascination with childhood and the powerful hold it can have over us even as adults.
However, one curious omission from the book is the treatment of babies; children for the large part only seem to become children when they attend school. Perhaps this is because babies are voiceless creatures without primary evidence of their own to leave behind, but surely society’s treatment of our youngest, most vulnerable and dependent members says as much about childhood and how we perceive it as does the way we think children should be educated or use their leisure time (even if they should have unstructured leisure time).
I was also surprised at the lack of illustration provided in the book – not a single picture to accompany the text. This I felt was a shame, especially given how the book actually goes to great lengths to describe certain photographs and images seen by the author and how they support or illustrate the topic under discussion. Perhaps there were copyright issues or providing these images was just too costly, but I think they would have led great support to the words, and been of much interest to the reader. On the whole I found this a very likeable book and certainly one worth reading if you have an interest in social history. It is well researched and persuasive, and comes recommended from me despite the disappointing lack of illustration in it.
Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood by Fran Abrams
Published by Atlantic Books, November 2012
With thanks to the publisher for providing me with this review copy.
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