The adult-only playground

December 5, 2003

London may be a 'fairground' for infantilised grown-ups, but it is the opposite for children - who find their urban spaces increasingly restricted, say Jenny Bavidge and Andrew Gibson

One of the more intriguing ways of trying to get the flavour of London culture at any given time is to look at what people are reading on the Tube. The Tube cuts people off from the airwaves, and therefore from electronic communication. Underground, people are driven to read.

Not many, it's true, especially if we leave out the newspaper readers.

Along with them, we should leave out the exceptions: the occasional preposterous creatures seemingly absorbed in books on Nietzsche; the diligent self-improvers clutching their Austen or their Dickens. There are always much more normal readers than these, and much more representative authors. In the 1980s, the representative authors tended to fall into two camps: bluff, masculine heavies (Jeffrey Archer, Frederick Forsyth) and feminine sentimentalists (Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope). Both are still around, but there is no doubting the rise to prominence of a new literature of the Tube -contemporary children's literature. In the subterranean world, Harry Potter reigns supreme.

The Harry Potter phenomenon is indicative of a major shift in the culture of the metropolis. On the one hand, London is increasingly taking on the appearance of a vast playground. Life in the city seems to be subject to a progressive infantilisation. Yet, on the other hand, the metropolitan play zone is perceived as ever more dangerous and threatening to children themselves. The beautiful and useful British Airways London Eye appeared in 2000. It seems the very symbol of funfair London. Paris also had its Ferris wheel. Whereas the European capitals once imitated and emulated each other in imperial pomp and grandeur, they now vie over fairground trappings, as competing wonderlands displaying a seemingly boundless array of consumer pleasures and freedoms personal and sexual. But be advised: the pleasures come with warnings attached. Children under 16 are not allowed on the Eye unless accompanied by an adult. In the great new metropolitan theme park, children must not go unsupervised.

As rogues, victims, ragamuffins, urchins or little angels, metropolitan children have always been mythic figures and, as such, a source of adult disquiet. This has its present-day equivalent: the tabloid categories (thugs, darlings, innocents, angels, monsters and so on) that map quite neatly on to concepts of "pure" and "polluted" places. The situation of London's children is the subject of vigorous debates. These particularly resemble 19th-century arguments about the presence of women in public spaces and are similarly fraught with anxieties about moral geographies, the dangers supposedly inherent in movement around the city. The question of the particular places in the city that children should and should not occupy has become intensely moral. Research on the urban geographies of childhood suggests that the wider urban environment is no longer a "childhood domain". However inadequate as a substitute, institutionalised, tightly regulated (and commercialised) "spaces of play" appear to be the only option.

If urban environments are often aggressively anti-child, adult fears for city children are leaving them more and more confined. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 gives children the right "to engage in play and recreational activities". However, a recent survey into children's opinions and experiences of London found that children were "more and more restricted as their place to play gets smaller".

Increasingly, children take to the streets and parks only with a watchful adult by their side. It is hard not to read the loss of small freedoms for children -walking to school, playing on commons - as part of a wider failure of creativity or imagination in metropolitan living.

Instead, children have to spend more time in a new set of precisely circumscribed (and often expensive) spaces, most notably virtual worlds.

Enticing as may be the prospect of hypertextual "wild spaces", the games function as safe versions of the playgrounds and city parks for which they have become substitutes.

But the restrictions are there not just to protect innocence - the little monsters also have to be watched. From the murderers of the ten-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000 to the uncontrollable "children from hell" on inner-city estates, London seems to be spawning sinister children, perhaps as never before. In this context, the James Bulger case of 1993 - in which a toddler was murdered by two young boys in Liverpool - has been particularly significant. It led to a series of government-sponsored policies, most of which sought to exert greater control over children through schemes such as "truancy watch". The Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 - once described as "a great moral crusade against children" - was followed by the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, which partly extended its measures.

In September 1998, a scheme was introduced that permitted local authorities to impose curfews on the under-tens. Although this was only used on one occasion, the curfew laws were extended to under-16s in 2000. Both the local authorities and the police now have the power to apply a curfew (9pm-6am for a maximum of 90 days) to "a known trouble spot", such as a particular estate. There have been other initiatives experimenting with surveillance, tagging and curfew. All have come under persistent fire from human rights and civil liberties groups, but reasonability has little purchase on the myths.

One purpose served by the myths may well be the current adult usurpation of metropolitan childhood. ("The city is a playground," says a car ad, "Go play!") For some time, urban fashion has been appropriating toys, games and other accoutrements of the child. At a peripatetic club night, School Disco, London clubbers dress in school uniform, dance to 1980s pop and play at being high-school children again. The "sound and vision" department on the fourth floor of Harvey Nichols has started to call itself "The Playground". Besuited businessmen pedal silver scooters to work. Outsize boys and girls career through the city on in-line skates, wearing Shaun the Sheep backpacks. Mobile phones are the walkie-talkies that adults always wanted as children. The concept of play, or "recreation", once closely connected with school life, has migrated to adult spheres, as in the case of "recreational drugs". Thatcher's children have become Blair's babes; and who better to preside over them than our first conspicuously boyish prime minister, who, like any shrewd goodie-goodie, knows when it's prudent to say "sorry" (Irish history, comprehensive schools)?

Here and there, however, some of London's real children struggle to keep their activities free from regulation. In doing so, they maintain a sense of city space that is directly opposed to current adult geographies and to preconceptions of the place of the urban child. Iain Borden's book Skateboarding, Space and the City brings this out clearly. Borden traces the development of what was, in the 1970s, a fashionable suburban children's sport into an irrepressibly disruptive feature of metropolitan culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Skaters refused to be screened out of city life. They insisted on sharing the city with others. They took over neglected streets and zones, or pressed occupied parts of London into service. Like the Huns, Goths and Vandals, they transformed the spaces they invaded. Moreover, they did so without paying for the privilege.

Finally, it is surely no coincidence that the period that has witnessed the growth of metropolitan infantilism has also witnessed the re-emergence of a figure who might seem to serve as a standing rebuke to it, the London prophet. Paradoxically, we have recently become more attentive to a number of grave and powerful voices that remind us of the seriousness of London, its extraordinary history, its myriad forms of life. In his book Mother London , Michael Moorcock presents the city's most significant children as the "children of the Blitz". He unfashionably insists on the profoundly traumatic dimension to London's recent history, a dimension that the London of the present appears to want to forget. He insists, too, in the teeth of all the transformations that the cityscape is undergoing, that the traces of trauma and loss lurk in innumerable metropolitan nooks and crannies and that we ignore them at our peril. But the losses are also ours: "We children of the Blitz are not to be pitied. We are to be envied. We are to be congratulated because we survived... we are happier than any generation before or since. We were allowed to play in a wider world."

The "wider world" at stake here will have little or no meaning for those used to para-gliding in the Philippines. But it may have more for their children, who are currently so largely kept apart from it.

Jenny Bavidge is lecturer in English at the University of Greenwich, and Andrew Gibson is professor of modern literature and theory at Royal Holloway, University of London. This is an edited extract of an article in London from Punk to Blair , published by Reaktion Books, £19.95.

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