When we were clearing my deceased Grandmother‘s house for sale, we found a four-volume set of books that I had loved as a child, called The World of the Children by Stuart Miall (1903-1977). They were designed for children to read with parents, and covered subjects as diverse as a death in the family, algebra, how to measure the speed of light, how electric lights work and foreign travel.
They were originally published in 1948 (although these are a 1952 reprint) and show just what a different country the past was.
In one chapter, a small boy and girl swim naked together, allowing Marjorie, the girl, to ask her mother why boys and girls are made differently. (The precise physical nature of the differences is never discussed.)
Mother sums up the differences:
The big strong man enjoys being a big strong man, and the pretty girl who has won a husband and a home and lots of babies finds that there is plenty of work to do to keep all her treasures sweet and nice. God is very fair, darling.
Something that hasn’t changed – and which surprised me – is the chapter on “We have to decide whether a stranger is nice or nasty”. I can recall being told never to talk to strangers when I was at school in the early 1970s, but was never told why. Although old people and right-wingers would have you believe that pre-immigration and pre-sexual revolution, everyone was lovely and polite and everyone left their doors unlocked all the time, it appears that’s not the case.
The book is rooted in the colonial era, even though by this time the colonies were beginning to dwindle. The author, Stuart Miall, tries to be an enlightened imperialist:
The people of India are dark, almost black, but many have fine distinguished-looking faces and many are exceedingly clever.
(Notice the word “but”.)
On the Middle East, Miall writes
It is probable that if they were allowed to grow up together in friendship, little Arab children and little Jewish children would most surely make a happy as well as a holy land of poor, stricken Palestine, but the tribal beliefs of Arabs and Jews have not the virtues of Christian values, which exhort men to brotherly love and peace.
We are shown pictures of the industrious “dark-skinned natives” of India and “dusky children of Jamaica”:
He slips a little when discussing Gracie “a dark little half-caste girl, with a rather fine little face”:
Where white people live side-by-side with native people of a different colour, it sometimes happens that white man takes a black or brown or yellow woman for his wife. Then the childrem are called half-caste…Gracie looked as though she might be intelligent like her father, though having the dark skin of her mother. The life of a half-caste is usually a very sad one, because neither the white people nor the black people really care for him.
Here Miall seems to be sympathetic to the apartheid system, which began in South Africa in 1948, the same year the book was published.
What’s shocking is how mainstream such racism seems to be in 1940s England. Take, for example, the page of common words for teaching children to read and write: “an, as, at, be, big, collar, daughter, fat, fish” and so on, until we get to N: “neck, niece, nigger”.
This book was printed a mere 14 years before I was born. Amazing.