Getting rid of them

Tom Shippey

  • Betrayal: Child Exploitation in Today’s World edited by Caroline Moorehead
    Barrie and Jenkins, 192 pp, £15.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 7126 2170 9
  • The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by John Boswell
    Allen Lane, 488 pp, £20.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 7139 9019 8

The first of these books has a clear plan, allowing several people to work on it. It pulls in material from all over the world, giving scope for frissons of strangeness and variety. Most of all, it has an ‘issue’ about which everyone can be guaranteed to feel strongly, and similarly. The issue is child exploitation and child neglect. There can be no question that both are rife, both are sad, and both are desperately serious. But they are serious in ways which this book cannot explain. While the authors are boldly prepared to say that they are in favour of motherhood, and definitely against the man-eating shark, on more delicate and less obviously emotive matters they are not prepared to comment.

What, for instance, should be expected of children? Caroline Moorehead, the editor, must have an opinion here, but she does not explain what it is. ‘In Medieval Europe,’ she declares, ‘children were regarded as adults in miniature: small, immature grown-ups who needed time – but not very much of it – in which to grow, both physically and mentally.’ Only in the last century were children ‘at last perceived as a separate kind of creature’. Whatever one may think of Ms Moorehead’s view of Medieval Europe – it comes just after a sentence which declares that the Black Death drove all fit people to work on the land, a view so wrong one hardly knows where to start correcting it – the tone of confidence in modern progress and ‘the Western World’ is unmistakable. But are children really ‘a separate kind of creature’? They do grow into adults, and (one has to say) in an inseparable kind of way. If one read ‘people’ for ‘grown-ups’ in the passage quoted above, and deleted the qualifier about ‘not very much of it’, would the allegedly Medieval view be so unacceptable? The Medieval/Modern opposition has not been thought through. Its ill-effects are perceptible at many places in this volume of essays.

Several of the contributions are genuinely alarming, or appalling, like the essay by Andrea di Robilant on ‘street children’ in Brazil, the one by Cameron Forbes on sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, the one on abused children in Great Britain by Sarah Hobson (consisting largely of taped statements). It is hard, though, to take as seriously the exposé, by the editor again, of children working in ‘sweatshops’ in Naples. No doubt the children are underpaid, and no doubt they play truant from school. Would school do anything for them, though? What else is on offer? On Saturdays and Sundays Gianni ‘sleeps late and goes out riding on his motorbicycle; in the summer he goes to swim off the rocks that divide the grand hotels of the esplanade from the sea.’ Many middle-class children all over England would cheerfully swap with him, from that account. Gianni’s problem is not that he is a child, it is that he is poor, and the unthinking assumption that all children in all societies should be kept in separate institutions till they reach some defined ‘school-leaving age’ is just that: unthinking. Rich solutions are no answer for poor societies.

Elsewhere contributors spoil strong cases by simple gullibility. No doubt Thai babies are stolen for adoption, or perhaps for prostitution, but how would you use a baby for drug-smuggling? Is the ‘thinking’ behind this that customs officers won’t look at a corpse? If so, why not use an adult corpse? How do you explain ‘repatriating’ a dead baby? It’s a pity to snatch at a thrill and miss a point.

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