All surveys carried out by retail businesses with a view to generating press coverage should be treated with extreme caution, but I cannot resist writing about one that has just been published by Furniture123.co.uk. The press release is headed ‘The Decline of the Bedtime Story’ and the key finding is that 64 per cent of parents do not regularly read a bedtime story to their children. Just 10 per cent say they do, while 6 per cent say they have never done it.
Oh how I envy that 6 per cent! I am a member of the wretched 10 per cent who read to their children at night. Why wretched? Let me count the ways.
First of all, children have absolutely no taste. None. When my daughter was a baby and unable to protest I read her Pride and Prejudice, mainly because I fancied rereading it myself. But as soon as she was able to exercise any choice she would insist on the most ghastly trash, such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by the hirsute communist Michael Rosen. Ironically, Rosen is a lifelong opponent of rote learning — on the grounds that it stifles children’s creativity, or some such rubbish — but I have been forced to read this awful, so-called poem to my children so many times that it is seared into my brain.
I cannot merely cite it by rote. I find myself muttering it, involuntarily, when I’m on country walks and confront one of the obstacles the children have to face in the poem: ‘Uh-oh! Mud! Thick oozy mud. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch. Squelch squerch.’
I know that when my time comes and I am staring the Grim Reaper in the face I will think: ‘Uh-oh! Death! Hooded, skeletal death. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’
Even halfway bearable children’s books, such as the Mr Men stories, become unendurable through endless repetition. I am not in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, because the witless beggars will all vote Labour, but lowering it to six would be a brilliant idea because small children are the most conservative creatures on God’s earth. You have to twist their little arms to breaking point to get them to try out a new bedtime story, but if they like it they will then insist on being read it every night for a year.
And woe betide the parent who is so bored by the denouement of Mr Tickle that he accidentally gets a word out of place. The storybook Nazis will insist you start again from the beginning.
To relieve the tedium, I once bribed my children with Maltesers to let me read a story from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I chose Hansel and Gretel, but halfway through I realised that the real villain of the story isn’t the witch but the children’s useless, deadbeat dad. He initially opposes the wicked stepmother’s plan to abandon their two children in the woods, but changes his mind after a bit of browbeating. What kind of message is that sending to young children? Men are such pathetic, spineless creatures that they will happily murder their own children for the sake of a quiet life. And the plot of almost every story by the Brothers Grimm is the same, from Snow White to Cinderella: mum dies, dad remarries and then does absolutely nothing to prevent his new wife from trying to murder his kids, often in unspeakable ways.
But the absolute worst children’s story ever written must be ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. God knows what I was thinking when I came up with the bright idea of seating all the children round the fire on Christmas Eve and reading them this piece of doggerel. That was about ten years ago and ever since, without fail, the children have insisted that I repeat the performance. Even the 14-year-old, who recently downloaded The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins on her Kindle, won’t countenance any deviation from the annual ritual.
When I get to the bit where St Nick is calling out the names of the reindeer — and why would he bother to do that at every single house? — I am almost physically sick. Can you think of a more twee, sugary bunch of names? Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem! I cannot recite them without instinctively reaching for my rifle.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.