‘The Children Who Lived in a Barn’ is possibly my favourite ever children’s book. Published in 1938, the book was written by Eleanor Graham, the first Editor of the Puffin Story Book range.
The Dunett family live in a small village called Wyden and have a very pleasant life (‘They were not ‘poor’ but it was easy to see that they had not much money‘) until the fateful day when a telegram arrives to inform them of Granny’s serious illness in an unnamed European country. Of course, Mother and Daddy must fly to be with her and they leave behind their brood of children to fend for themselves, despite Mother’s concerns:
‘Now stop fussing about the children, They can manage perfectly well by themselves – and it’s quite time they had a shot at it. You do far too much for them. It doesn’t give them a chance to be independent. And, after all, isn’t that what we’ve been trying to teach them ever since they were born?’
Susan (13), Bob (11), twins Joseph and Samuel (9) and Alice (7) soon find themselves homeless when the wicked landlord, Screech – who wants their house to sell to ‘garagy’ people for a fat profit – kicks them out and they are forced to find another home.
The first book I remember selecting for myself was ‘Secret Seven on the Trail’ by Enid Blyton. I loved the Secret Seven and went on to read all their adventures, but unlike them there is no mystery to be solved in Graham’s book. There are no criminals to catch. There is simply the story of how the children survive in their barn: carrying out jobs for the local villagers; learning to cook using a haybox; Susan and Bob becoming the mother and father figures – especially poor Susan who spends most of the book run ragged with her domestic chores (I didn’t say this book wasn’t a product of it’s time). So what was it that appealed? Why would this simple, basic tale entrance a young boy whose passions in life were ‘Doctor Who’ and the Secret Seven?
In her introduction to the recent Persephone reprint of the book, celebrated author Jacqueline Wilson comments, ‘Back in the 1950s, The Children Who Lived in a Barn seemed entirely convincing. Reading it now that I’m in my fifties, it seems mind-boggling.” When I read it , in the 1970s, the book still held up and felt plausible and I wanted to be one of the Dunett kids and, looking back, it seems that everything I did revolved around creating my own world, my own place in the world: from our clubs and secret societies, to makeshift camps set up in forests, under boathouses and in our parent’s sheds all I wanted was a world – a family? – of my own. My parents, and the parents of my friends were only too happy to let us create these new, exciting worlds.
I was born in Hartlepool in the north east of England and grew up just down the road in Billingham – a town which expanded in the 1920s to meet the demands of the ICI complex which overshadowed it.
‘Teeside was the home of Brunner Mond, a large chemical concern that should be familiar to the millions who have read Brave New World. Aldous Huxley was inspired by a visit to Billingham, a 1920’s New Town just outside Stockton-On-Tees…what he saw in their vast and advanced factory complex was so technically fascinating, and crucially so clean, so unusually sterile, that it contained the portents of a future industrial society.’ Owen Hatherley
Despite what the current thinking might have you believe, life on a 1960s/ 1970s housing estate could be fantastic. To us kids, Billingham – concrete criss-crossed with with alleys and ginnels and parks and greens – was one huge playground which, when we moved there in 1977, seemed fresh and new and full of excitement and promise.
‘…we felt kind of like the first men to walk on the moon. There was a children’s play area in the middle of each square; little clusters of rock and bench and swing, surrounded by triangular patches of bush and mucky flower bed. Man-made grass slopes rose there too, bordered by kerb and a car park marked out with paint. Those rocks and slopes, for many of us, were our first domain, and they’d proves themselves equal to representing the entire universe, no less…you could…move along a number of narrow paths made from gaps behind the gardens, and as child, you always had the feeling you were in some sort of clever maze, some complicated underworld designed as much for amusement as for function.’ Andrew O’Hagan on Irvine New Town in the 1970s, ‘The Missing’
We knew every nook and bush, and where possible we made a camp in them. One I particularly remember was a natural hideaway, formed by the meeting of hedges in the corner of a field (and now a housing estate). It was like an igloo inside.
I was also lucky in that my holidays were often spent roaming the countryside and seashore around the various campsites we visited, in particular Brighouse Bay near Kirkcudbright in Scotland. I think of nights around a fire on the beach, winkles cooking in a can and…
…while we waited for them to cook my friend Tim casually throwing rocks at rusty aerosol until it popped and splattered his white Arran sweater in bloody red paint. Or scraping limpets off rocks to use as bait for crabs – and once we had a bucket full, merrily traipsing back to let them loose amongst the sunbathing campers…
Real life is never as rosy or the children never as sweet those portrayed in ‘Children…’ but, to be honest, I didn’t care. Did I want the Famous Five to turn up to their Kirrin Island camp to find the cumbersome mechanic’s daughter lumbering away having left crumpled, soggy vaginas in her wake? Or find Anne molested in a telephone box on a hot summer’s evening, the details of her plight made all more exciting for never being revealed (at least to her schoolmates)? Or have one of their mothers found murdered in one of the houses facing their school? (One of her sons was in my year at school and his brother was a couple of years older. God knows what they must have gone through). Or what about them turning up to find shit deposited on classroom floors, arses wiped on hand sewn patchwork dolls and ‘Docko is shit’ sprayed across on outlying shed (‘Docko’ being the nicknamed for our headmaster, Mr. Docherty)? No – maybe because, as children, we see what unites us rather than what divides us and I was happy with the sense of freedom which this book, in particular seemed to authorise.
And yet, with hindsight ‘The Children who Lived in a Barn’ is a bittersweet read in that I recognise in the Dunett children something which I, as a painfully shy child, lacked: a personal confidence which I would not come across in others until I trundled off to college a few years later and which I now know I will never possess. This is the confidence which many middle-class kids, be it through their schools or via their parents, are hot-housed in, enabling them to sharpen their elbows and maintain the position(s) which they are bred to believe are rightfully theirs. We can talk about money and privileged education, but I believe this confidence is key to allowing a person to truly be themselves in life and, unfortunately, it is something which rarely comes from working class homes: what might be encouraged by middle class parents is sometimes knocked out of a child as ‘getting above your station’ or thinking you are something special: for many working class people the belief is that this can only lead to one of two things: stigmatisation or an awful fall from grace.
‘The middle class approach to life…is founded on a bedrock of security: an understanding that the future will be as good as, if not better than, the present. By comparison the working class approach to life…embodies generations of uncertainty…Will our child survive?…Can we make plans that will work out? Lynsey Hanley, ‘Respectable’
My parents supported me and encouraged me at every turn, but they never knew that confidence themselves, and books, no matter how good, are unable to feed all the needs of a child. So if we are to ensure that all children have a chance to be all they can be, then we must ensure that our state education system is second to none in both academic achievement and creating confident, fully rounded individuals. Education should attempt to make up for the shortfall in material and emotional support of all pupils: in short, education should create a level playing field. A huge task, but if we really want a society which is cohesive and constructive then we must begin with the basic building blocks. Of course, this is just part of the solution:
‘It could be argued that Western culture restricts today’s children to a diet of computer games, homework, television and discos and that their `freedom’ is at the expense of a sense of responsibility and self-worth . . . ‘ Jacqueline Wilson
Despite this, I will always love ‘The Children who Lived in a Barn’ and it will always remind me of my childhood and how, in many, many ways I was very, very lucky.