Michael Murpugo’s Dimbleby lecture last night, ‘Set our Children free’, was passionate, inspiring, and delivered a blistering assault on library closures, social disconnection, the league-table mentality that denies children that basic life-blood, real education, and is grounded not in exams, but in healthy and inspiring relationships, at home, in school, and in society. He is a natural teacher. It was an encomium to connection and the notion of the ‘Liberal Education’ and spoke, beyond class or cultures, beyond Nations, to the responsibility of all adults, especially those who have succeeded, to give something back to all children. Murpugo knows how to use words, to live inside them, to tell stories we respond to through his talent for performance, and in that he is the poet he talked about being at the end, if he wasn’t reincarnated as an animal. His poetic sensibility lives and breathes in nature too, his home in Devon, and his relationship with his partner Claire, who started the School Farms project, getting inner city kids into the wild.

I found myself thinking how old-fashioned it was too though, forgetting the notion that ‘childhood’ itself is in part a Victorian invention, and, in the US especially I think, can become a glorification of childhood or supposed innocence, at the expense of the necessary journey into adulthood. That old-fashionedness is not necessarily a bad thing at all, especially as a rallying cry for idealism and action in an increasingly vicious, accountant led environment, but what would a children’s author like Roald Dahl have said, I wonder? His stories, though there is plenty of gentleness in many, are much more engaged with the darker elements of human and thus childhood psyches, as were the old Fairy Tales. So although Murpugo says in the real world all children are innocents, in Dahl’s world other children are often the enemy, as above all are adults. Think of all those horrid kids in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, falling foul of the nasty side of human nature and their own, before Charlie triumphs. Think of James’s journey with his peach, and the crawling things of life, made friends and allies now, or his brilliantly violent and irreverent Revolting Rhymes. Many have said that children’s brains, and especially teenagers, are actually constructed differently, presumably because they are still wiring, to adults. It is through stories that children are allowed to safely explore these darker elements of us, the world and themselves too, and so hopefully grow to full maturity and responsible adulthood, in a world that involves threat, competition, and the natural cruelty too that real children can sometimes engage in. Perhaps Dahl is closer to the child’s psyche, the exploration of which for a writer often begins in a place of sudden threat, like James’ parents being eaten by a rhinoceros at London Zoo, and Murpugo comes to it from the other side, more like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, talking with the at times nostalgic longing of the truly responsible adult, that brings an entire life baggage with him too, and a great deal of articulacy. What is certain is that both are great storytellers, and both are rightly and essentially on the side of the growing child. Perhaps that can indeed inspire an entire society with the wonder we once all felt, and many still feel, for life. DCD

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