July 10, 2016

Such Enchanted Children (Manchester Guardian, 20/10/64)

Alderman Lister Robinson wants to have fruit trees in Peterborough streets so that children can go scrumping. I wish he would come to London.

Little Julie down the road paused at the notice-board on the grassy overgrown triangle of land at the corner of the street, too small to build on, and read “Children are not allowed to play on the grass.”

Julie being only four, her mother said, “How did you know it said that?” And, surprised at her mother’s ignorance, Julie answered

“Well, wherever there’s grass children aren’t allowed to play on it, are they?”

Grass is not for playing on, flowers are not for picking, trees are not for climbing. In London, a child in a tree splits the sky asunder, thunder seems to crack, lightning forks, and any adult nearby thinks at once of Borstal.

I have seen three girls sent crazy-drunk in springtime by the unexpected sight and smell of unfenced council-laid-out beds of tossing daffodils, so that they rushed at them and picked them and threw them all in the air, like ecstatic puppies, quite out of their senses – or maybe in them.

I have seen children in a park warned off from picking blossom, encouraged by a sympathetic adult to pick the dandelions that grew among the grass; I have seen the dandelions whipped away from them by an outraged keeper who scourged them with withering words, then, tight-lipped and repressive, before the children’s agonised eyes, rammed the flowers into a rubbish-bin, smashing them righteously down to make sure they could not be rescued or revived.

The children on council estates cannot keep animals and cannot grow flowers. Earth is the horrid detested dirt that they guiltily bring in on their shoes. The ground is concrete. What you grow things on is blotting paper. Up the road is some parkland, and there I saw four children playing. Their ball went up into a tree, and suddenly, tumbling through the leaves, an apple fell down. The children were wonder-struck. An apple falling out of a tree! How did it get up there?

They examined it to see if it was real, and were amazed that it was. Gravely, and a little troubled by the mystery, they began to play again, stealing sidelong glances more and more often at the magic tree until at last, semi-accidentally, the ball again sailed up into the tree, and, wonder of wonders, another apple came down.

Now it was settled beyond any doubt! They were seized by glorious merriment, a wild delight, and over and over the ball shot up into the tree, and the apples pelted down, tiny, wormy, enchanted apples. And such enchanted children. Never in their lives had they seen such a thing – apples growing on trees, like a picture in a book.

The adult with them was entranced by their delight, and the knowledge that came to them with the delight as a revelation; and she pretended she saw nothing what ever, just sat deaf and blind among the falling leaves and twigs and apples with an eye alert for a keeper. But soon her friend came up, good citizenship over-riding all delight in her, and was shocked and stern. They went home, but the children took the magic apples with them, hidden in their pockets, apples that grew on trees!

Someone once told me that when she was a child in Vienna her mother bought up one whole summer crop of a cherry tree for the children. For a spring, summer, and autumn the tree was the children’s. Nose-deep in spring in the creamy curds of blossom, perched in summer in among the swinging cherries, mouth and clothes stained crimson, they lived in their cherry-tree, at one with the sky, an accepted part of the whole, wide, magical, reasonable world.

©Leila Berg
published in The Manchester Guardian 20/10/64