It’s slowly getting better now, I think, following the “distractions of a pressing nature” reported in the middle of the month. I was felled like a Christmas tree at the time, though, and for me the festive season, although joyous in its way, has also seen a great shedding of needles onto the carpet.
Needles of truth; shards of reality.
Loads of bollocks. What use has the carpet for truth and reality? Why would a Christmas tree make such an improbable gift?
What can I say? Not much, unfortunately, except that I fear for this blog’s mojo: will it be lost? And if lost, might it be found again? As you see, I am floundering in riddles. My life has been an open book and now it is closed. How can any mojo be retrieved from that? How can I share with you, with passion and vigour, all that needs to be said when there is literally that “whereof one cannot speak”?
Maybe we do not always need words. Their absence may lack the clarity we crave, yet still speak more eloquently than their presence.
Then is there anything of which I may speak? Let’s see. There is Christmas itself, of course, and New Year, with its resolutions, and all that. I could review the year past, or the year ahead. There’s a whole heap of stuff to talk about, as usual, no problem.
So let’s just pile in with something on the telly: Gogglesprogs. Did you see it? Marvellous! It can be seen for the next three weeks or so on Britain’s Channel 4 TV. If you can pick it up in your part of the world it’s an absolute must. Elizabeth Day, writing in The Observer, reckoned it was the best thing on TV over the festive break. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t see much telly, but I am happy to take her word for it. The programme is apparently a spin-off from what she calls “the popular Gogglebox format”, as applied to kids in a number of households around the UK who were filmed while watching TV throughout the year. Day wrote:
“I know I’m being manipulated by an onslaught of cuteness. I know that kids say the funniest things. I know this isn’t revolutionary programme-making but, goodness, it was brilliant. I laughed, I cried and I marvelled at the ability of small girls to get supremely excited by Frozen while all the boys rolled their eyes and hated every single chord of Let It Go.”
As for what I liked, I’ll come to that in a minute. Like Day, though, I definitely feel under some compulsion to start by offloading a somewhat cynical response. She complains of “being manipulated by an onslaught of cuteness”. Her newspaper’s format, requiring her to review an entire week’s TV, left no space for developing this thought; but I do have that luxury, so here goes.
For starters, it is not the children who are doing the manipulating. They can’t help being cute and nor would we want them to. I don’t blame the programme makers for that either: they know what makes “good telly”, or chart-topping ratings at least. So I do not in the least mind them spending what must have been a good many hours in the editing suite, winnowing out chaff in which the kids just sit there, relatively expressionless, watching silently, or with bored inattention, or saying something racist or obscene or otherwise politically incorrect and unbroadcastable that they might have picked up from their parents, or a whole lot of stuff that is just not that clever or appealing.
No, I am perfectly happy for them to bin all that footage. But there are potentially other, less benign forms of manipulation going on too. We can see it even in that short quote from Day, in which she accurately reports a sharp gender contrast between the reactions of the boys and the girls when they were watching the “girlie” film Frozen, thereby reinforcing the view that kids will naturally and inevitably have gendered reactions. But what we cannot know, without seeing the entire uncut footage, is the extent to which selective editing played up these gender differences. We did briefly see one of the littlest boys emoting along with the girls though: unlike “proper” boys of 8 or 9 who have learned the gender rules, a 5 or 6 year old can be allowed a girlish reaction without having to feel ashamed – and for that reason, too, we viewers are allowed to see it. Even in a year when transgender identity has been to the fore, it seems gender stereotypes must, for the most part, be reasserted on behalf of the nation’s normal kids.
Also, manipulation-wise, some of the kids’ utterances were so perfectly cute one had to suspect they might have been prompted – as, for instance, when they were watching political news, which may not have been entirely their voluntary choice! They are seen watching a post-election speech by defeated Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, in which he says he tried and is sorry he did not succeed, but is sure that in the future Labour would come back strong again – to which two little girls respond with wildly unlikely applause, while a male prepubescent political sage dryly responds that prime minister David Cameron would never say he was sorry!
Manipulation or fakery of this kind is merely amusing. A more serious source of bias and reinforcement of current social values was to be seen, ironically, in an even better programme, or rather series, about children, also from Channel 4, in the run-up to Christmas. This was The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. Unlike Gogglesprogs, which had no pretentions to being anything but entertainment, Secret Life charted the progress of a scientific investigation monitored by Paul Howard-Jones, an educational neuroscientist at Bristol University, and Sam Wass, a developmental Psychologist with the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Unit, Cambridge. The series started with ten four-year-olds in a specially equipped nursery using cameras hidden at the youngsters’ eye level, enabling producers to gain a unique insight into the children’s social interactions with each other. Later programmes followed children’s growing understanding and social skills as they reached 5 and 6.
The scientists, closeted away in a wired-up monitoring suite where they could observe and hear everything, subjected the kids to sneaky but hugely revealing experiments, such as getting an early-years teacher to leave a chocolate cake on a table and then leave the kids on their own, put on trust not to eat it – with inevitably hilarious results, starting with one little delinquent’s sly lick.
The treehouse provided a great location for intrusion on the kids’ privacy, notably Sienna and Arthur, who took to playing “mums and dads” there. She wanted him to kiss her but Arthur claimed he “had to go to work”. Meanwhile, in his own den, we see Dr Howard-Jones getting positively excited over the prospect of a bit of amorous action. Losing his academic detachment completely, he is rooting like crazy for his little man: “Come on Arthur, stop stalling. Just go for it mate!”
Even the Daily Mail was charmed by this infant romance, to the extent of running a move-by-move description that ran to nearly 900 words, would you believe, just on the one brief encounter, under the headline “Is this the cutest TV moment ever?”
But despite this apparently pornographic detail, and the academics’ blatant voyeurism – which would surely be damned as “creepy” in any other context – something is missing from our screens, namely any evidence of manipulation. The major premise of the whole set up, remember, is that this is a ground-breaking way of observing and studying little kids as they really are, enabling very precise study of their psychological and social development “in the wild”, as it were, in their natural habitat, or at least behaving “naturally”, without adult interference or even (so far as the kids are aware) knowledge. But this is an illusion, at least as far as the “romantic” side is concerned. The impact of culture has already made its mark.
In the relaxed environment of Swedish pre-schools, as encountered at Heretic TOC a couple of years ago in Mickey and Maria make out in kindergarten, kids could get naked if they wanted, and a Swedish Dr Howard-Jones would have found no reason to be overly excited over a kiss that never quite happened. That would have been very small beer compared to Maria caressing Mickey’s penis, and doubtless a whole lot of other action between other kids. In Britain, by contrast, we are presented with a sanitised, culturally pre-determined (or pre-inhibited) view of what childhood intimacy can be about. What we see, in terms of kids falling in and out with each other, learning the rudiments of diplomacy and understanding each other’s feelings, is very real and important. But we need to know also that the footage is culture-bound, and therefore limited in its scope.
But, hey, this is heavier than I intended. Let’s get back to cute, and to Gogglesprogs.
My favourites, for once, were not the prettiest kids – of whom there were plenty in Secret Life, especially – but a pair of quite plain but enormously expressive ginger-topped lads in Gogglesprogs called Jacob and Connor. Connor gave a fantastically accomplished, superfast blast of the tongue twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” in its full, glorious four-sentence version, finishing with an ecstatic burst of triumph, commanding Jake, “Oh, suck on that!!!”
Jake’s admiration is, shall we say, less than overwhelming.
But Connor’s limitations are laid bare as they watch a documentary about the development of a foetus in the womb.
“What’s the womb?” he asks.
“That’s where you get made, says Jake.
“Disgusting!” says Connor.
Both of them crack up when they hear the voiceover about “our ancient, fishy ancestors”.
Jake, puzzled: “But we don’t have fish as our ancestors”.
Connor, with grave, almost philosophical, deliberation: “In some distant way we’re related to everything.”
Jake, sensibly sceptical whatever the truth of the matter : “Ummm… not really.”
Connor: “Yes, really.”
Jake: “Not really. How?”
Connor: “Because we are.”
Jake’s killer question has made it game set and match – not that Connor is going to admit it!
As for the emergence of a face on the foetus, 8-year-old William finds it so shocking he censors it, covering 5-year-old little sister Molly’s eyes with his arm.
Opinions vary as to what the foetus face looks like. The presenter calls it “human”.
“That’s not human, that’s ET!” says Connor.
“I’m scared. I used to look like a deformed potato!” says another boy.
Maybe the best one-liner came in a discussion of Jurassic Park. A dinosaur, according to one girl, “is basically like a violent giraffe”.
My favourite sequence, though, is where they are all watching a wildlife film of a herd of elephants crossing a swollen river with their babies. The adults try to protect the babies, stopping them from being carried off downstream into the muddy, turbulent current. But there are too many to look after. A couple of them do indeed get swept away. Their mothers, stuck with looking after the rest of the brood, can do nothing.
The kids are appalled.
“Are they leaving them without no help?”
“They can’t just let them drown!”
Their anxiety is palpable, and so is their relief when the babies are eventually rescued: the sudden sunbeams lighting the faces of some, the suppressed – and not so suppressed – tears of others. It’s all there in these kids: the raw emotion, the humanity. Very moving too, and something to cling onto, perhaps, as we move on from a year in which drowning humans, including infants, have featured more terribly on our screens than drowning baby elephants.