My son wanted to take the long cut to school on the way to the Winter Fair. It is better than pavement as it has branches and thorns and mud. It is only a few metres from the road I’ll be walking along, but as I allow him this taste of brambly freedom, a millisecond public information film flashes in my mind.
“Thinking of letting your child run through some woods 15 metres from you? You night as well dip them in pig’s blood and lower them to sharks!”.
I remain faintly tense until he comes outside the other side, carefree and victorious at reaching the designated lamppost before me.
When I was nine, we had the freedom to roam in the woods many more metres from the house, maybe it was hoped we would be snatched away so our parents could have some peace. Public Information films frequently warned of men offering a visit to some puppies .
This is one of the most famous and anodyne.
And here is a wide-eyed puppet of fear telling you not to scare your children.
“You don’t want to end up dead or in hospital. You know what to do, say no to strangers”.
And Duncan Preston’s career was not irrevocably damaged by playing a creepy sweet giver who looked more than a little put out that his toffees don’t work first time.
I prefer him in Acorn Antiques.
There may be fewer public information films now, but the media knows that fear and suspicion are effective selling tools for their brand of marketable gossip. The constant broadcast of news from every angle further glazes us in a burning varnish of paranoia.
Once we arrived at the fair, I had to take over a stall due to teacher illness. My son helped me for upwards of 2 minutes, before better and shinier things lured him away. A bored friend of his wanted to help as it was his class’s stall and there was a competition between classes for who would raise the most money for the school. This was fine as I have known his mum for a while and I know him. Then, a stranger’s child wants to help. At this point, the worry sets in. Should I chivvy this child away?
I am now a stranger with a stranger’s child and, what’s worse, running a stall based around sweets. What will the people think? You begin to experience a psychosomatic suspiciousness around you.
I remember hearing an LBC phone in some years ago about a male nursery school teacher who had been victimised for his choice of profession. One caller said, “it’s a bit weird, you’ve got to ask, why would a man want to work with children?”. To be a man who doesn’t fear or despise children seems to be a peculiar and suspicious position in some people’s eyes. If you see a lost and crying child on the beach, the first thing a man must do is avoid them and search for a mother, girlfriend or wife to deal with the situation in case you are burnt to the ground by an angry before you have a chance to explain.
Better to be suspicious of everyone and make eye contact with no one.
Taking a walk with my son on a towpath today, a mixture of wintry rural prettiness and lecture on minecraft, I maintained my countryside habit of saying, “hello” or “good afternoon” to people passing by. I was brought up to do that when walking in the country. No one replies. No one meets your eye…unless they have a dog. Even then, it requires the dog to have done enough to warrant some sense of unneeded apology. If it runs around you, or wags its tail energetically within three feet of you, the owner smiles and says, “sorry, she’s very boisterous” or similar. They are probably fearful that you may report them to the police for owning a joyful dog that was joyful near your Nikes. Without some canine interplay, there is no human contact. I kept up my “good afternoon”s throughout the two hour walk to little effect. There are probably posters of me being stapled up on telegraph poles and dog poo bins all along the canal.
“People beware. replying to a good afternoon from a stranger? You might as well throw yourself into a threshing machine inside a power station by deep water”.
All this online communication, no real communication.Why not risk a greeting a reality.
(since putting this post up, many have told me they give and receive greetings on country walks. It must either be my face or the people on the towpath round our way have been up to no good.)
If you wish to immerse yourself in imaginary horror, Dead Funny Encore is out now. It has spooky stories by Stewart Lee, Isy Suttie, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, Alan Moore and more.