Friday, 2 March 2012

'Acquisitive Individualism in Childhood'?

I have really enjoyed Alastair Campbell's e-book, 'The Happy Depressive'.  He is searingly honest about his challenges and characteristics.  On the way to drawing conclusions about his own happiness, he quotes a Rowan Williams article for the Telegraph on childhood materialism.

"The selling of lifestyles to children creates a culture of material competitiveness and promotes acquisitive individualism at the expense of community and cooperation."

Campbell also notes that research by York University for Child Poverty Action showed that children in the U.K. are the least happy of any wealthy European country.

Also currently in the news are opinion pieces critical of the fashion for  rose-tinted nostalgia, particularly in the BBC Sunday evening 'hit' Call the Midwife, but also in Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs & co. Strenuous journalistic efforts are made to coat these sugary products in reminders of the despair, dirt and deprivation which would apparently make them more true to reality.

These two strands come together for me in memories of the playground of the 1950s and two activities to which little girls were particularly drawn and which perhaps saved us from the materialism of our 2012 counterparts.  Playtime and after school would find us bringing a hardback book out of the schoolbag, not to read but to open, page by page, revealing to our admiring friends our collection of 'scraps'.  Fairies, flowers, rustic scenes, pretty little girls like ourselves, but most important of all, giant cherubs, seemingly head & shoulders only, leaning nonchalantly on a cloud; or full length angels, gazing wistfully into the heavens.  Towards the back of our book would be our 'swaps'; the scraps of which we had duplicates and which we were happy to exchange with a friend.  And this cooperation was a key element; the greatest satisfaction came from interacting with another child rather than enjoying the solo activity of a PSP or football on the Wii.

The other activity also involved trading and swapping and we called it 'Treasures'.  We would produce a small tin or box which contained precious items.  Negotiations would  begin:  would we be prepared to swap that item?  For what?   I should make clear the nature of these items; we were not dealing in DVDs or electronic wizardry: our treasures were glass waistcoat buttons; a single 'emerald' droplet earring; pieces of embroidered ribbon; cheap brooches with some of the glass stones missing; groups of 'poppet' beads or perhaps a single stray pearl from an unstrung set; a hair clasp with damaged fastening.  Obviously, some of these were so dear to us that we could not part with them, but we could fall back on exhibiting them for the admiration of our friends.  What fascinates me all these years later is that the acquisitiveness which is the most natural of childhood pleasures was, for us, essentially communal rather than individualistic. We learned to live with the pang of envy which struck when a friend had some unique and desirable thing she would not swap; the lesson was absorbed that you could not have something just because your friend had one; you could enjoy the possessions you had, but the real joy was in sharing!

Is it too much to suggest that our crouched huddles round these treasures were one of our most valuable preparations for adult life?  We became a generation which loved life all the more because we feared the threat of nuclear war; when our parents told us to stop being so silly, we shared the fear through action, like sitting down in the road to protest and wearing the CND badge; we talked about psychedelic fabric patterns, but our mums made our Mary Quant dresses following Butterick patterns and arguing with us over the final length.  We went barefoot or fell off our wooden Scholls'. We sang songs about parents getting out of the way of a generation they couldn't understand .... only we understood, together, the messages on the 'eve of destruction'!

It is becoming almost mandatory to criticise the 'baby boomers'; we all have these damned pensions, you see, and have retired in an unseemly manner, having the audacity still to clutter up the shops, bars, restaurants, tennis courts, greek islands, european city centres while damn well enjoying ourselves. We threaten to live until our 90s, spending the kids' inheritance along the way. And we still have opinions!

But I am tremendously proud of my generation. We didn't start the fire! We were idealistic and obsessed with the power of flowers but we worked together.  As instructed by Jimmy Reid, we were not rats! We made a lot of noise, some of it sublimely musical, and we made it together, not in the isolation of our electronic fiefdoms.

It is in being with other people that we really find ourselves.  By negotiating our way through relationships we make our mark on life.  I have a vested interest in the well being of today's young adults, pre teens, rising fives and toddlers.  I hope that materialism begins to lose its shine for their generations, that they always know the fun of activity which comes cheap or free, of digging channels in the sand, collecting sea glass, building a garage out of a shoe box, making muffins, dancing in the kitchen, singing in the backseat of the car  or drumming with wooden spoons and pots and pans; and that they understand that it is in sharing the activity that real joy is to be found.


  1. Bonjour Morag from Dordogne - had to mention your 'giant cherubs, seemingly head & shoulders only, leaning nonchalantly on a cloud; ... I can recall very vividly how my younger sister would swap any scrap for one of these cherubs. It was because she looked so much like them ... simple pleasures =life-lessons! Will visit again.

  2. An additional comment in support of your blog - taken from online newspaper . National Trust trying to encourage children to get outdoors and DO simple, pleasurable stuff before they reach 12 years of age.
    ( copy/paste into browser)