Babes in the Wood
Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape
By Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton 419pp £20)
Albert Camus wrote that 'the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds'. This seems completely sensible and yet many books have a veiled quality to them, as if there is something the author would like to say, but won't or can't. We live in an ostensibly free society, in which people are not imprisoned or persecuted for speaking their minds. Nonetheless there are reams of authors suppressing or adjusting their opinions because they must earn a living, because their editors won't publish what they want to write, or because they fear they'll be savaged by critics or the trolls of Twitter. Though this is not the worst oppression ever endured, it is a shame and a waste if people are not writing the books they want to write. You think of all those sincere tracts that have been lost forever, replaced by careful, anaemic versions that swoon in the reader's arms and fade into oblivion.
With this in mind, I was delighted to read Jay Griffiths's latest book, Kith. It is a strident polemic against Western consumerism, and particularly its deleterious effects on childhood. It is passionate, wilful and supremely honest. 'How has childhood become so unnatural?' 'Why does the dominant culture treat young humans in ways which would be illegal if applied to young dogs?' Griffiths asks in the opening pages.
Children have been exiled from their kith, their square mile, a land right of the human spirit. Naturally kindled in green, they need nature, woodlands, mountains, rivers and seas both physically and emotionally, no matter how small a patch; children's spirits can survive on very little, but not on nothing. Yet woodlands are privatized ... while even the streets - the commons of the urban child - have been closed off to them.
Freedom is a major theme in Griffiths's writing. In her first non-fiction book, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (2000), she railed against the 'caging time' of the clock, of 'Western Christian time ... tediously ticking you off, count, count, count'. In her most recent work of itinerant philosophy, Wild: An Elemental Journey (2007), she proposed: 'Freedom is not polite. It doesn't knock or telephone first. It slams its hand down on your desk and says Dance.' In general, Griffiths emphasises the importance of 'following your bliss', as Joseph Campbell put it, defying those who want to stymie or enslave you. She naturally sides with the underdog: workers claimed by industrialisation and the great factory clock; indigenous tribes who have found their lands exploited and despoiled.
In Kith the relationships of power are more complex. 'Society' is at fault, called upon to repeal 'all acts of enclosure, literal and metaphoric, which have fenced in childhood with barbed wire'. Yet Griffiths blames parents too - for succumbing to media hysteria, for depriving their children of liberties they took for granted in their own youth. Children are 'scared away from the outdoor world by alleged stranger-danger', forced inside when they should be roaming freely. Griffiths condemns draconian parenting techniques, controlled crying and Ferberisation. She justly identifies the abusive strategies of toy manufacturers, 'grooming children into certain roles' so they can flog them 'possessions possessing childhood'. She defends 'self-will', the innate character and predilections of the child - with supporting examples from the novels of Philip Pullman, the !Kung tribe of the Kalahari, the Yequana people of Venezuela, and the Huaorani in Ecuador, where childhood 'shines with independence'. But Griffiths suggests that in the object-strewn West we underestimate our children, render them pliant and powerless. We also seek to fill their time 'usefully' - with rounds of ballet classes and Kumon maths sessions, even though 'children dwell not in the concrete world of utilitarianism but with the Romantics in metaphor's green meanings'.
Griffiths has a headstrong, idiosyncratic prose style, packed with similes and metaphors. Some of these are lovely ('I drank and drank the wild hills and the snow-swept, shining mountains'). Some - a riddle 'stuck in my teeth like a string of celery' - make you stall, but stylistic abundance is clearly part of her campaign against 'modernity's literalism'. She also toys with rhetorical binaries: childhood-adulthood, youth-age, nature-city, West-non-West, and so on. At times she elides these distinctions: 'Wildness is not the opposite of culture. Rather, wildness is the opposite of capture.' At others, her parameters are stark: romanticism is good, rationalism bad, and the two terms are presented as intrinsically meaningful. Yet romanticism and rationalism are convenient taxonomies, mere labels. To demarcate them so strictly, to believe them at all, is to risk a form of argumentative enclosure. Griffiths also sometimes overuses archetypes, drowning complexities in her fast-flowing rush of words. In a sense there is no such thing as 'the child' or 'the adult' - there are unique, finite individuals who happen, at a given moment, to be young or old.
It must be said that this is not a manual for child-rearing - most parents would take to the bottle if they tried to enact Griffiths's proposals for formless education and discipline-free hours, even if they had the resources to begin. From the evidence of this book, Griffiths does not have children of her own; she has not yet deployed her arguments in the shifting, bewildering nonstop transtemporal dissolution of the self that is parenthood. This is a point about perspective, however, not a questioning of her right to comment. More broadly, Kith is an extended paean to something that has been lost, and a bold protest against the forces that suppress and control: hyper-capitalism, societal iniquity, governments in love with banks, state-sanctioned lies. Against these, Griffiths sets personal forms of 'rapture' - Schiller's belief that 'joy could overthrow the given reality'. We are all, children and adults, variously 'interred indoors and may never fully understand [our] insidious enclosure'. Every free spirit stranded in a job they loathe, crushed against their kind in a commuter train, will recognise what Griffiths quotes from D H Lawrence (Sons and Lovers): 'He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.'
In the end, I'd rather have this book - which I sometimes disagreed with - a hundred times over than another all-balancing, all-placating musing that dissolves upon reading and is never thought of again. Jay Griffiths is fervent, scintillating and uninhibited. You emerge feeling you have heard someone speaking about her experience of the world, telling you what she thinks and not censoring herself. 'Children want what is authentic,' writes Griffiths. 'They loathe fake characters, forced laughs, false smiles and forged emotions.' I think adults do too, and the merged masses of adults and children need more books like this.
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Joanna Kavenna's latest novel is Come to the Edge. She was recently listed as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 2013.