Seen but still not heard

Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood, by Fran Abrams, Atlantic, RRP£20, 304 pages

Next February it will be 20 years since the abduction and murder of the toddler James Bulger, last seen on CCTV being led through a shopping centre in Bootle, near Liverpool, by a pair of 10-year-olds. The boys beat James to death and left his body on a railway line.

The subsequent months of national soul-searching form a pivotal moment in Songs of Innocence, Fran Abrams’ history of British childhood. The “question that was asked was not really a question about what [the murderers, Robert] Thompson and [Jon] Venables had done. It was: what have we done?” Abrams contrasts the “national orgy of self-examination” that followed the murder with the 1968 trial of another child who killed, Mary Bell, which was accompanied by extensive press reporting but “very little comment”.

The Bulger case illustrates Abrams’ central theme in Songs of Innocence, as she reviews childhood from Victorian times via the prism of the two dominant, but opposite views of British children – either as innocents, in a state of purity and in need of nurturing; or as possibly wicked, in need of adult guidance and help to grow into purposeful adults.

As the 20th century progressed, with its huge advances in child health and living standards, these extremes softened, only for a case like Bulger to return it all to the surface. “We are born with evil in us and cruelty is a part of this,” wrote William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, after the Bulger murder. “ ... And when children go wrong they often go wrong with a vengeance. There is such energy in children; they are more powerful than any bomb.”

Abrams, a journalist, backs up her sprint through recent history with extensive use of newspaper and other archive material, which can be repetitive and includes some errors. It is also already out of date – the paedophile abuse scandals uncovered in the past few months date back to the 1970s and 1980s. Abrams reports on what was then an unfocused malaise: there was “a feeling that all was not well in the world of the child, this nagging sense of guilt. As the 1980s progressed, new evidence was emerging all the time of levels of abuse.”

Society may have woken to the reality of child abuse in that decade, but many cases have taken another 30 years to come to light. And, shockingly, we learn that “until the mid-1980s, the government did not even have a policy or guidelines for dealing with child sexual abuse within families”.

Songs of Innocence is both useful history and a corrective to a self-absorbed, in-the-moment view of this subject. Abrams finishes her work looking forward, as pundit rather than chronicler, and predicts the near future will be one of retrenchment. There should be less of our familiar 20th-century aims for our children – the “sense of self, a sense of entitlement and opportunity” – and more realisation of harsh reality: “The one thing we really need to give the young is a clear economic path through life; a path on which they’d be able to give something back to their parents’ generation ... ”

Abrams acknowledges that, in recessionary times, “the question of why parents have them [children] is thrown into ever-sharper relief.” Financially, those cute babies and consumerist teenagers are just going to get more disastrous. But even a rationalist like Abrams, with her overview of the child as both economic and social currency, underestimates the potency of that messy, gut-wrenching, overwhelming love that modern parents have for their possibly unemployable, over-indulged offspring.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.