It’s odd, says Rod Liddle, that we mollycoddle our children while insisting that they can decide what’s right or wrong
When I was six years old and on holiday at my grandparents’ house I would spend every day, with a lunch box of egg and cress sandwiches, up at Darlington railway station, watching the trains. I would walk the half-mile or so along Clifton Road by myself and camp out — usually on the southbound platform — well away from the occasional adult trainspotters with their flasks, anoraks and notebooks. I think we all recognise today that adult trainspotters are invariably paedophiles, but this was something I knew, at the time, only instinctively. In any case, they were interested only in writing down the serial numbers of the trains, whereas my interest was in the monster Deltic diesels with their serious-looking sloping windows and alluring smells of electricity and hot metal, their dark warning growls as they were about to pull away from the station. I still remember some of the, to me, mysterious names of the engines — Pinza, the Durham Light Infantry, St Paddy, Nimbus.
It was a bone of contention in my family, my liking for these diesels — my grand-father was a train driver on the King’s Cross run and greatly mourned the passing of the steam age, thinking the diesels lacked romance and grandeur. Not to me they didn’t. I also liked the idea that they were going places, faraway places; I liked watching people pile themselves into the carriages too, waving goodbye and more often than not looking trepidatious and nervous. People didn’t travel as much back in those days; a 240-mile journey to London was a big thing, and expensive for ordinary folk.
I suppose if a six-year-old were found by himself on Darlington station today his negligent slattern of a mother would be on the front page of the Daily Mail by nightfall and the kid himself in care by the following morning. It is hard to put a finger on precisely what has changed in the intervening 45 years, but somehow we have all become infected by it, one way or another. I would not countenance my daughter, who is almost five, spending so much as 30 seconds by herself at a railway station, unless we had paid for nine minders who had been CRB-checked, frisked and vetted and she’d had vaccinations.
Back then, I suppose we had a greater trust in strangers, a belief in a sort of benevolent communitarianism which was perhaps one of the pleasanter consequences of the second world war. And also a much greater trust in the perspicacity of our children, underpinned by a very strict parental inculcation of what is right and wrong. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to mess around on the station back then, to climb down from the platform or to get in anyone’s way or to run around shrieking like a brat in need of Ritalin. A couple of drivers would invite me into the cab when their train was stationary, recognising me as ‘Joe’s son’s bairn’, but much as I wanted to, I was always reluctant. Not because I thought they’d sexually abuse me and chop me up and bury me beneath the cinders in the huge marshalling yards to the south, but because I didn’t wish to impinge, to be a nuisance.
This is why I’m a little torn over the case of the Schonrock kids, a story which has been revolving around our morning newspapers for the last week or so. Oliver and Gillian Schonrock live in Dulwich (which is where I lived until comparatively recently) and have two children, aged five years and eight, whom they allow to cycle to school and back, unaccompanied. Their school — the rather posh Alleyn’s — is a little less than a mile from their home, and the school authorities, citing governmental advice, told the Schonrocks that this was dangerous and should not be continued. The Schonrocks are holding out, though, and count among their supporters Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and by extension the Daily Telegraph. This is becoming a right v. left issue, then.
I must admit, when I first read this story I was shocked; you’d let a five-year-old child cycle to school? You must be mad. This is parenting of a certain brutal kind last seen by Joan Crawford, with her coat hangers. I am not sure that even now, at the age of 50, I would undertake the same journey on foot, unless I was wearing one of those Kevlar stab vests and a rape alarm. Leafy the roads may well be, but it’s still only a mile from Peckham. I’d be still less likely to cycle the distance: all that traffic, the bottle-blonde Dulwich yummy mummies scything through the rat runs in their 4×4 Volvo panzers, like extravagantly mammaried versions of General Guderian, mowing down everything in their path. The Schonrock kids apparently cycle on the pavements — which I suspect is illegal. But how can you have trust in them to do as they are told?
It is less dangerous now for kids to cycle to school than it was when I took my bicycle up and down the arterial roads of south London as a six-year-old kid, returning to tell my dad how many learner drivers I’d overtaken, how many milk floats, always getting an appreciative nod in return. That’s a solid statistic; however, it may be that fewer kids are killed or maimed on our roads these days because far fewer are actually allowed on our roads these days. I am not sure, then, what the stats tell us. Also, children are no more likely these days to be attacked by predatory train-spotting weirdos with flasks and notebooks than they were when I was anxiously waiting for the 13.10 to Edinburgh on Darlington station back in 1966; is that because we, as parents, are less likely to run the risk of leaving them where the paedos can get them, or because actually the threat was never particularly grave in the first place?
The propaganda has been so utterly relentless; that children are vulnerable and thick, incapable of making intelligent decisions for themselves. And as a corollary, that there is a fatal risk inherent in everything, that no stricture is overweening if it saves the life of a single child. And as another corollary, that children should be allowed to decide for themselves what is right and wrong and we, as parents, shouldn’t be too authoritarian about it. Somehow these three paradigms, at least two of which are intellectually mutually exclusive (kids cannot make the right decisions/we shouldn’t tell them what to do), have become almost unanswerable, cannot be gainsaid. And I just do not know the answer.