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On childhood

‘Some people will tell you that none of these things happened. They’ll say they were just a dream that the three of us shared. But they did happen.’
Heaven Eyes, David Almond

I  have two vivid childhood memories of things that can’t be true. They both date from before I was four years old.

The first is of seeing a witch fly out of my ear. I was lying in bed listening to the thump of blood in my head. I remember that I was irritated by the noise, which was keeping me awake, and that I became convinced that it was the sound of footsteps in my ear canal. Then a tiny witch flew out of my ear on a broomstick and circled above my head.

The second memory is of being up late enough to see the stars. What I saw was miraculous – huge orbs of blue and red and yellow and green, blazing in a black expanse. The next time I saw the night sky, maybe a couple of years later, I nearly cried with disappointment: the pale blue points of light I saw then were wan travesties of the glories I remembered.

Obviously, neither of these things can have actually occurred: they belong in the world of dreams, and might indeed be memories of dreams. Nevertheless, they were real to me. They have the concrete quality of other memories – playing with the family dog, the taste of sour milk I drank once by accident, the resistance and release of a rusty nail piercing my foot as I trod on it – that family lore confirms actually did happen.

Their very strangeness seems to have preserved them alongside these more mundane recollections. Or perhaps they are memories of memories, overlaid with a thicker sediment of fiction each time I call them to mind. I’ve no way of telling: we can, after all, only remember in the present. They are remnants, teasing fragments of a lost world in which everything – what I imagined, what I dreamed, what I saw – was equally accepted as real.

It’s difficult to remember what it’s like to be a child, because it’s impossible to undo adult knowledge. Memory and fiction are closely related capacities that together form the raw material of the human drive towards narrative: what we remember is a fluid retelling, not a fixed photograph. The ‘innocence’ of childhood is partly construed as this inability to tell reality from fantasy, always from the vantage of an adult’s presumed ability to distinguish one from the other. Children are condemned to cuteness and, worse, incompetence.

Being a child doesn’t feel cute. What matters in a child’s life mostly escapes the adult gaze: incommunicable privacies, bizarre myth-making, perverse games, inchoate fears, passionate desires and griefs. The consciousness of children, from their formative years through to adolescence, vibrates with all the complexities and contradictory flux of a subjective universe, which is itself the raw material of story and poetry. As writers for young people know, it is crucial not to patronise. And there are rare writers, like the English author David Almond, who can vividly remind us what it’s like to be young. Like his precursor Alan Garner, Almond takes children seriously.

In the present climate of moral panic, remembering and imagining childhood can be a perilous act. Childhood is a rigidly policed state, fenced with sentimentalism on the one hand and the possibility of criminality on the other. Trashy current affairs shows overwhelmingly represent young people as either violent and dangerous, or as passive victims of a violent and dangerous world.

Consequently, youth is rapidly becoming one of the most obscure states of being human. Merely to represent a child can create a scandal. To admit, like Almond does, the feral reaches of childhood, its innocent sexuality, its cruelties, sorrows and joys, its poetry and (importantly) its competencies, begins to seem more and more a subversive act.

A child is not a reflection or function of an adult, but an entity in his or her own right, separate and incorrigibly mysterious. The paedophile and child abuser don’t respect that autonomy. What’s deeply troubling is that the social anxieties around childhood also deny it. The child becomes conflated with the paedophilic gaze and itself becomes an obscenity, as Sydney Children’s Hospital officials recently demonstrated when they rejected a work by artist Del Kathryn Barton that featured her six-year-old son. As executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Tamara Winikoff, commented in exasperation, ‘In our zeal to protect children, we are erasing them entirely’.

Maybe this is because adulthood is a long process of forgetting, of armouring ourselves against the experiences that burned across our unformed selves and, often painfully, shaped us. We grow up, put away childish things, and ‘face reality’. But what reality is that?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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