Saturday, 14 January 2012

An Uncensored Life

Yesterday evening, at long last, I watched the most recent episode of Sherlock (S02E02, 'The Hounds of Baskerville') and it dredged up a long-forgotten childhood memory of the fact that my whole family was mauled by giant dogs from Hell.

Quick critique on the show itself: I've heard from quite a few Sherlock fans that they were disappointed by last week's episode, and from watching it I can see why. It was interesting that the explanations for the strange occurrences around the Baskerville site as suggested by the locals were along the lines of some kind of horrible beast created by genetic research - I thought this was quite a good 21st Century parallel for the mythological/folkoloric suggestions from the original Sherlock Holmes novel, but at the same time I kind of missed the supernatural element because I really love Dartmoor mythology and folklore (this is what you get when you take nerdy kids to National Trust bookshops and allow them to purchase volumes entitled Ghastly Ghosts of Devon and the like, but more on that later).

The way they shot Dartmoor itself was also very interesting, although again I was slightly disappointed. There were a lot of panoramic shots where they kind of messed with the colours a little bit to make it look more vast and bleak and forbidding, which is an entirely natural cinematographic response to that kind of landscape, but it didn't work for me (although it wouldn't have looked out-of-place in an adaptation of, say, Wuthering Heights). The great thing about Dartmoor, as a couple of the local characters mentioned during the episode, is precisely how vast and bleak it is, but that for me was lost in the way they shot it. Especially the vastness. There's a certain perspective you sometimes get when standing around on Dartmoor, not even anywhere particularly special like on top of a tor, just by the side of the road looking across acres of gorse scrubland, wherein everything you are feels infinitely dwarfed by the untameable, untillable, barely-inhabitable land. And the big, fancy shots of it that they put into last week's Sherlock managed to completely lose that aspect of the scenery. The more intimate bits shot in "Dewer's Hollow" (which doesn't exist, although there are plenty of places very much like it which do) gave a much better feel for the landscape close-up than any of the panoramas did (although it's entirely possible that those bits weren't filmed on Dartmoor at all).

A lot of the plot elements were stupid (as one of the people I watched it with mentioned, why would a super-secret CIA experiment have its own t-shirts?), but on balance it was at least an entertaining (if not perhaps as intellectually tantalising) episode. I did like the fact that they showed Sherlock experiencing doubt and fear; that was a really nice piece of characterisation.

But enough on that. What those ninety minutes managed to remind me of (aside from how much I love Devon) was my first foray into the library held at our primary school. This would have been in late 1994, during my first full term at school; our infant class was dutifully marshalled down to the library in small groups and told that we could pick any volume we chose to take home and have our parents read to us. I would like to emphasise the word any; perhaps this is more about my earliest experiences with the fallibility of adult authority, but I digress. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities offered to me. My reading experience thus far had consisted of the formulaic books we were using to learn to read, filled with poorly-developed (and illustrated, if I'm honest) farmyard characters and little to offer in the way of narrative intrigue. So to be presented with a room full of books which were filled with completely new pictures and stories seemed wonderful.

I chose, being a morbid five-year-old, an illustrated (and, I presume, heavily abridged) kids' edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Show me the five-year-old who would not rather be reading about a flaming-eyed murderous hell-hound than, say, Spot the Dog, and I'll lose my remaining faith in humanity. I cannot fully express how entirely awesome this kids' version of The Hound of the Baskervilles looked. I was practically foaming with literary rabies at the prospect of taking it home and forcing my parents or grandparents to read it to me. It was like a shining beacon in a sea of battered tomes. I can remember many things about that day, in that room, but what any of the other books offered looked like or consisted of are details lost to my memory. I plucked The Hound off the shelf and proudly presented it to whichever teaching assistant was there with us, to "show us around the library". Or, as it turned out, to censor what we read. For that is what she did.

I was told in no uncertain terms that The Hound of the Baskervilles, even in such an innocent and childish incarnation, was entirely unsuitable reading material for little girls. Being a ballsy thing, I protested, and was once again told that I could not have it. I believe (although perhaps this is just years of anger about a] the whole experience and b] the way gender is hammered into children from almost every source during every developmental period) that I was offered something more girl-specific as an alternative choice. But no other choice (and certainly not whatever I ended up being fobbed off with, the memory of which escapes me) was in fact anything resembling my choice, since I had chosen and subsequently been denied the right of choice.

There's an incredibly happy ending to this story, though. The people with the most power to censor my reading - my parents - chose at almost every opportunity not to. I can recall perhaps only one or two attempts made by my parents to stop me from reading something they considered unsuitable, and those were almost certainly both Jilly Coopers furtively stolen from my grandmother at the age of nine. I have no idea why, when they were fairly overprotective about many other aspects of my young life (including in particular the films and television I was exposed to), they made so few attempts to control what it was that I read. It could have been the speed at which I read - books were coming in and out of the house at such a frantic rate, and often with so little involvement from them, that what I was reading was pointless or impossible to police. Or perhaps, especially when I was a little older, it was that they had not themselves read what I was reading, and thus couldn't comment on its suitability.

It was a glorious and remarkable freedom, and one which I would urge all parents to grant to their children, no matter how much they long to shelter them from the shocks and hurts of the world. It meant that I was occasionally reading wildly inappropriate things, books whose contents I had no register of tone or emotion by which to frame and thus properly understand. Will Self, for example, is a startling writer even now - when I was thirteen, his novels were just penetrable enough to be unsettling without me realising how darkly funny they were also intended to be. The same goes for Don DeLillo - I read White Noise entirely straight when I was fifteen, and it was only when I came back to study it for a dissertation that I realised how funny a book it is. These wildly inappropriate things did not damage me in the slightest - and neither would The Hound of the Baskervilles have done, had I been allowed it. One of my favourite things to do when I was a lot younger was to read something that frightened me so much I could not sleep. That the human imagination is capable of producing such an effect is a glorious thing, to be treasured rather than prevented.

The great thing about literature is that so much of it self-censors, depending on the reading age (and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional maturity) of the young reader. So much of description, narrative and tone can be gained or lost by the reader. It was precisely because I had been allowed to read widely and rangingly that I came to love reading so very much. Censorship does not protect; it merely makes children bitter and angry towards the censors.

So please do not censor the reading of your children. Their development will censor itself, up to a point, and even after that they're unlikely to be damaged by what they read. Many of my earliest memories involve reading and books, and for kids who don't easily make friends, a book is a passage into a world where the social constraints of day-to-day life do not matter in the slightest. A book is a true friend, even if it appears to be a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, too-much-makeup-wearing older kid, trying to lead your child astray. Reading is one of the safest ways a child can thus be led.

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