Sunday 4 September 2011

Torture as Entertainment by Katherine Langrish

I wasn't going to write about this at all.  I was going to write a post about sailing reproduction Viking ships on the sunny waters of Roskilde fjord one happy midsummer a couple of years back.

But then, reading the Guardian newspaper for Saturday 20th August, I came across a review of an audio book, and changed my mind: so the viking ships post will have to wait till next time.

The column is headed 'Sue Arnold's Choice'.   As you probably know, Sue Arnold regularly reviews audio books for the Guardian, and I often read and enjoy her recommendations, but I guess Jove nods, we all have off days, and this one stopped me in my tracks.  You can find it online here, but I'm going to quote from it anyway.

'Pirates!' by Roy McMillan is an audio book for children which Sue Arnold describes as 'an entertaining and extremely bloodthirsty history of pirates, privateers and corsairs from ancient Rome to modern Somalia'.  So far, so good: and I was particularly interested to see that the book follows its subject matter right into modern times.  I used to work for Lloyd's Register of Shipping and know full well that pirates have never gone away, and certainly no longer present themselves in 18th century costumes complete with tricorn hats, parrots, cutlasses and seaboots.  (A costume which has a lot to answer for: take away the parrot and add a black mask and a horse and you have a highwayman, another stereotype of the imaginary long-lost romantic past.)

Real pirates are not and never were romantic, and neither were highwaymen, in spite of the myth of the handsome beribboned rascal who kisses the lady's hand before demanding her diamonds.  There's room in fiction, I guess, for romantic rascals: but that's because it's fiction. With another hat on, I spoke recently at the Mervyn Peake Centenary Conference at the University of Chichester on Peake's classic picture book about pirates: 'Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor'.  Here is Captain Slaughterboard in all his sleazy glory: a comically terrifying character in the tradition of Long John Silver and Captain Hook.  Pirates in children's fiction are almost pure fantasy: as mythical as unicorns. 

History, however, presents the naked facts.  And the naked facts are often extremely unpleasant.  Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with telling children about the nasty things which have been done in the world: but I do have a problem with nastiness which is presented as entertainment.

Time for that quote:  Sue Arnold writes:

"Punctuating the biographies [of famous pirates] are ... graphic descriptions of favourite piratical tortures, headed 'Gruesome Alert', which PC parents will probably veto. Don't be wet. Kids are tough. They'll enjoy hearing how, for example, one pirate dealt with a hostage who hadn't come up with the ransom money.  The  unfortunate man was forced to squat in a bamboo cage squashed down with a heavy lid for 14 years, which made him so deformed that when released he could only walk on all fours.  Hence his nickname, the Dog Man. Not for the squeamish."

I'm sorry?  Kids will ENJOY hearing this?

You know, some of them actually may.  The ones without much imagination, and the ones who haven't noticed or bothered to think about the fact that the book follows pirates right up to the present day, and that perhaps torture isn't some quaint old-worlde custom after all.  But I thought books were supposed to broaden our imaginations so that we are more capable of empathy, and I thought history might be a way of making us think more wisely about the present - rather than a lurid chamber-of-horrors freak-show.

My quarrel is not with Roy McMillan's book, which I haven't listened to - it may be well and sensitively written, and the subtitle which the author apparently employs, 'Gruesome Alert', may be genuinely intended to warn rather than to amplify.  My quarrel is with the careless tone of the reviewer.

"Kids are tough" says Sue Arnold.  Well, some of them are and some of them aren't, and parents know pretty well what their own offspring can stand; and what is likely to produce the tap on the bedroom door at midnight and the shivering cry of 'I can't get to sleep - I can't stop thinking about [insert horror of choice]' - so it's a bit silly to name-call those parents who do decide this is all a bit too strong, as 'PC'. 
The world is full of horrors and always has been, we know.  I don't in the least mind children hearing about them - at the appropriate age - as long as the adults who convey this information don't present it as fun stuff.  (Those jolly old pirates, eh? What they got up to!)

My elder daughter studied GCSE history about five years ago, and one of the topics was 'Victorian Crime and Punishment'.  Part of the course involved a close study of the Jack the Ripper murders - including photographs of the victims - for no good reason that I could see (since the Ripper was never caught and therefore never punished) other than its sensation value: educators clearly thought the subject would liven up potentially dull lessons.  My daughter and a good portion of her classmates found it very disturbing, especially as her (female) history teacher appeared to enjoy the topic in a way which was quite out of sympathy with her class.  Indeed, this woman told them with regret she was unable to show them more graphic photos, since when she had done so with the previous year's class, a girl had fainted.

Unlike their teacher, my sixteen year old daughter and her friends understood they were looking at pictures of real people - real women and girls, some maybe not much older than themselves - who had lived hard lives and known terror and pain and early death.  They had been real, not some stop on an East End Jack-the-Ripper tourist trail. 

"Kids are tough".  Let's be sure this doesn't mean, "Kids are insensitive, unimaginative and callous. They need strong meat, even carrion: they won't appreciate anything better."  Let's be sure we don't apply lower standards to children's history books, sensationalising them because we think children won't read them otherwise (and people say "it doesn't matter what they read so long as they're reading" - a statement quite as idiotic as "it doesn't matter what they eat so long as they're eating"). 

And let's agree that just because something happened in the past, doesn't make it entertainment.

See Katherine Langrish at the Cheltenham Festival, Sunday October 16th at 5.00pm, talking with Kevin Crossley-Holland about her book West of the Moon.


Caroline Lawrence said...

As someone who tries not to shy away from ugly and often brutal reality in my historical novels, I find this a challenging message, Kath! But you are absolutely right. We need to be very careful what images we place in impressionable minds.

I'll think twice the next time I have my characters flogged or shot! :P

adele said...

A vey timely and fascinating post, Kath and I agree with you. I reckon there are things that oughtn't to be in ANY books but that's just me and it leads on to discussions about censorship which I'm against, really, except when....oh, I don't even like to put my toe into that debate!! But good on you for writing about this subject. Bet there will be loads of oomments.

Keren David said...

Thank you for this piece of sanity. I complained to my daughter's school when she, aged 10, was handed by a librarian a first person account of Auschwitz, with no context, support or sensitive introduction. The head teacher didn't really seem to understand my point that this was not just about my daughter, but about the way history was taught in the school.
I hate the assumption that all children are insensitive and love gore and cruelty...fostered by a culture which presents torture as entertainment on television and in museums.

Katherine Langrish said...

Caroline, thankyou - and I don't have a problem, honestly, with characters being flogged or shot - I was going to say, so long as it's done sensitively, but even that isn't quite what I mean. I'm thinking of the Hornblower books here - CS Forester's eponymous hero is a naval officer in the days of 'rum, sodomy and the lash' when seamen were sometimes flogged to death for the sake of 'discipline' and Forester doesn't pretend otherwise, but he presents it as the horror it was, not some sort of colourful period detail that we should enjoy. I'm sure in your books you would do the same.

Adele, I agree the subject of censorship is a difficult one! This isn't censorship I'm advocating, though, more what Karen touches on - context and sensitivity.

Sally Prue said...

Yes, it's dreadfully pernicious when children are told they should enjoy graphic and gloating accounts of torture and cruelty.

And children are - a look through many recent prize short-lists proves that.

The really important question isn't what children can cope with, but how we adults present the world in all its complexity to them.

They're children. They don't know all that much yet. They need looking after.

This doesn't mean you can't put in violence, but the glorification of it is hugely irresponsible. What are the poor kids to think?

Anonymous said...

"They need strong meat, even carrion: they won't appreciate anything better."

It is this attitude that bothers me most - how do people think our children are going to grow up to be compassionate, caring people, if they are not introduced to such concepts at a young age? To say, well, children are exposed to more violence at a young age now, and they're desensitized to it does not mean that therefore we should be able to expose them to even greater violence. You want to see a society that produces more crimes against humanity? Teach children from a young age that torture is "amusing," and that's what you will end up with.

(And as the parent of a child who is, at four, already so sensitive to other people's pain that she talks for days after about the little kid who fell down the stairs and bumped her head, and who cries louder than her little sister when said little sister gets hurt - I'm also more than a little miffed that my attempts to protect her until she is old enough to gain some perspective, and to encourage that gentle heart to want to help others as she grows older, is dismissed as "wet" and "PC." Humph!)

Anonymous said...

Caroline - I think regarding your characters, flog and shoot them to your heart's content - as I understand it, the problem here is with the presentation of what happens to REAL PEOPLE.
Children, especially those the age of Kathrine's daughter, are generally clear on the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The problem is the presentation of horrible tortures that actually happened - making children painfully aware of the horrors that man can inflict on man. Certain children will empathise with real-life torture victims and will be unable to distance themselves by saying 'it's only fiction, it didn't happen, it isn't real' - because it is real.
Personally, I can watch fantasy horror without too much trouble, but will never, never watch a war film, or anything else which heads itself 'based on a true life story'. It's far too disturbing.
On the other hand, I remember being absolutely fascinated by the information about torture instruments on a visit to the tower of London as a child and was hugely interested in the Aztec practice of human sacrifice - why? I don't know. I wasn't particularly insensitive - there is just something about the subject that does fascinate kids. Perhaps because children generally don't comprehend those pain levels, or think that it doesn't happen any more.
As we get older, we understand more. So strangely I think it's older children who should be more protected from this and parents are the best judge of what their children can understand.

Linda B-A said...

Your post really gave me pause for thought this morning, Katherine. You want to protect children but equally you don't want to present a world - and, in particular, the past, through rose-tinted spectacles. On the other hand you know full well that the row of fifteen-year old boys at the back who are beginning to get fidgety will perk up if you start talking about half-hanging and the appalling conditions in Newgate Gaol. The constant imperative to hold the interest of readers puts temptations in your way that sometimes challenge your judgement and your good faith as a children's writer. Naively seduced a few years ago by the romance of highwaymen, I went to the Old Bailey archives to look up some of the trials. I had hoped to add some 'local colour' to my narrative. In the event I was so sickened by accounts of their violence and cruelty I gave myself nightmares. I didn't use any of it.

Catherine Butler said...

I'm really not sure what I think about this topic - so I'm grateful to you for raising it! I can only go by my own experience, which is that of being a fairly sensitive, monsters-under-bed child, whose favourite place to go on trips to London was the London Dungeon. If I remember correctly, the fact that the various tortures, etc were real was part of the Dungeon's appeal for me, though I certainly wouldn't have wished them on any actual person.

I'm not sure, in retrospect, what to make of my reaction, except that I think it had something to do with finding out my own tolerances, and possibly with exposing my delicate psyche to violence in a controlled environment, perhaps to inure it to the real unpleasantness around me. Of course, that wasn't my conscious intention: I just wanted to go! But it's the best explanation I can come up with. I don't think it did me any great harm or made me a less caring person, but I don't know that I'd have been harmed had it been withheld, either.

Eve Edwards said...

There is also the issue that history is getting sensationalised to be interesting in that class on Jack the Ripper - tabloid rather than broadsheet treatment of the Victorian period. I wonder if this is a trend that has gone too far? I love the Horrible Histories but history isn't just a series of weird and wonderful gory facts so if we continue this impression at 15 and 16 surely we are selling our children short. Not that I particularly enjoyed learning about the battle for constitutional reform, Chartists etc. but I do feel I got a better sense of historical narrative from that than if I'd studied murder in the East End.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks all of you for your comments. Bryonypearce - I too am interested in topics such as the Aztec and Inca human sacrifices. They ARE interesting, since they were an expression of religious belief for an entire civilization. As well, obviously, as being hideously cruel (though arguably not less cruel than modern wholescale warfare). There is a place for the study of such subjects which I would never deny. What bothers me is the flippant 'this is the fun, gory part' message coming from adults who write about these subjects for kids - and who would never dream, surely? of suggesting the same thing if they were writing for adults?

Liz Kessler said...

Fascinating post Kath. I can't comment on the book, having not read it, but I agree with what you and others have said. It's the flippant attitude of the reviewer writing off parents as 'wet' or 'PC' if they don't want to expose their children to horrific brutality and abuse at an early age. That sneering attitude is pretty shocking. I hope you've already written to the Guardian!


Wendy Meddour said...

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post Katherine. It makes me question so many things. My initial reaction was to agree with you entirely: laughing at or trivialising horror is an awful thing and completely different to a healthy interest in historical events. But then I began to wonder why? Why is our undeniable 'interest' in the more gruesome aspects of history so much more noble? Isn't it still a hungry, ugly, voyeuristic desire? But then I thought, perhaps it's an essential need - we must confront the horror at the heart of ourselves ('humanity') in order to function? In which case, perhaps humour (or the trivialisation of our capacity for cruelty) might be a way of acknowledging the horror whilst detaching it from ourselves? And if this is the case, perhaps approaches such as Horrible Histories are so successful because the combined factors of Time and Humour constitute a double distancing? I don't know if I'm right about any of this, but I love the fact you've got different parts of my brain arguing with each other :)

Stroppy Author said...

My children didn't do Jack the Ripper, but both were traumatised by photos of parts of children being sold as food during Stalin's purges. However, I think it was really valuable for them to see that such things have happened so recently, so nearby - it wasn't presented in a sensationalist way but as something truly terrible. They were upset, but it's appropriate. It is very much to do with context.

I've written several books of horrible facts and in each case I and the editors have been careful not to make it too horrible. I hadn't really thought about where we draw the line before, but thinking about it now, I suspect it is to do with intentional cruelty. So we will include horrible diseases, parasites, unpleasant deaths... but there is very little if any that is deliberately inflicted pain.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Great post, Katherine. I get easily disturbed myself and this has led me to enforce film certificates etc with my children. I regularly get mocked and laughed at for it. Fortunately I'm fairly thick-skinned, because I'm sure about what I believe in and that is that children do need a certain amount of protection.
I agree with Sally Prue, as well, when she points out how dark many of the children's shortlists are - I fear adults are sending a message children that suffering and misery is more significant and important and better literature than happier subjects, such as adventure, personal growth or love stories. Personally I'm more in favour of light and shade.

alberridge said...

Coming late to this, Kath, but I have to say I'm standing and applauding. Really great and courageous post, and I agree with every word.

Your Hornblower comment above is particularly apt. It's not that we should whitewash the truth of human brutality, but that we shouldn't glamourize it: we should expose it for the horror it was - and is.

I'm another who includes horrors in her work ('In the Name of the King' has a flogging, a torture sequence, and even an 'amende honorable') but in each case I'm doing it from the point of view of the victim or the victim's friend. That may upset some readers, it may disturb their imaginations as the research disturbed mine - but I'm quite sure it won't brutalize them.

Those who go on to commit such acts, those who allow or legalize them, those who say 'waterboarding isn't torture' - these aren't people with too much imagination, they're people with too little.

frances thomas said...

My feeling is that publishers now demand that teenage stories have to be more 'graphic' and violent, and that without such details they won't be interested. I wonder how a sensitive writer like Barbara Willard woudl get by today

Emma Barnes said...

I'm very squeamish myself, but like Wendy I think laughing at some aspects of the violent past is not necessarily encouraging children to be cruel. The Horrible Histories make fun of aspects of the past that were indeed horrible, but they are not claiming, for example, that Henry VIII was a hero for killing so many people, the joke is very much at his expense. (Just as for adults Blackadder IV - about World War I - does not lessen the horrors of that time, in fact it brings home the awfulness of what was going on.)

Difficult things can be absorbed more easily through humour. Just like small children love stories about wolves eating little pigs etc - they are absorbing the idea that bad things can happen, but it is being made distant, and therefore easier to cope with.

Katherine Langrish said...

I do take Wendy's point about humour (and time) helping to distance horror, therefore helping children to 'cope' with it. That may be so, but this comment by this particular reviewer clearly suggested that children would enjoy listening to an anecdote involving hideous suffering. I don't see how it's possible to enjoy such a thing without some deadening of the empathic imagination. Is that desirable?

parlance said...

A few decades ago here in Australian primary schools, pirate stories were completely off the agenda as fun reading, and removed from school libraries and classrooms, because traumatised children in our classes knew all too well that pirates were real. They had made the dangerous journey in leaking boats from Vietnam, often victims of vicious pirates along the way. (Of course, these were the children who made it here alive.)

I don't know if such stories have crept back into the libraries. I suspect they have.

Catherine Butler said...

I think parlance's point is important. What makes these things digestible to some children seems to be the extent to which they are not forced to recognize what they are reading about as part of their world. The past is a foreign country, and besides the wench is dead (apologies to Hartley and Marlowe).

There's a wide range of things that wouldn't be stocked in school libraries for young children that are no more horrific in themselves than the gory historical stories that are supposedly so enjoyable.

Take serial killers, for example. When they're called Henry VIII, we read about them as part of the National Curriculum. When they're called Fred West or Ian Brady, not so much. I don't suppose Sue Arnold will be agitating for early-years books about the Moors murders, however "tough" she considers kids to be.

Juliette said...

Thank you for raising this. As a child I was forced to sob my way through assembly every Friday, clinging to my best friend, while our headmaster told us survival stories that were supposed to inspire us, that were full of gory details (albeit with eventual happy endings). I've never forgotten some of the OHPs that came with them. Most kids seemed to enjoy this, but I most certainly didn't (I did love Horrible Histories, but they were actually less horrible than they sound). It was horrible and to this day I can't understand why I was forced to go through that every week.

Caroline, though I am much less squeamish now, I don't think your books would present a problem - child-me would have been more upset by the tragic endings, but not by the nasty stuff, it would probably have gone over my head!

Linda Newbery said...

There was an excellent article by Pat Thomas in CAROUSEL magazine a year or so ago, in which she raised just this point, and argued very well that it's irresponsible to offer suffering and violence as entertainment, but that many adults use it as a way of enticing reluctant (mainly boy) readers. (I have just tried and failed to find it on-line). She raised something I've often thought myself: that the term "unflinching" is often used as praise, when maybe authors OUGHT to flinch ...

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Have read your blog - yes, I agree totally with everything you said. The problem is I've only just finished writing my blog on that subject for Sept 11th. Oh well, it's a subject that can't be revisited enough that's what I say!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Have read your blog - yes, I agree totally with everything you said. The problem is I've only just finished writing my blog on that subject for Sept 11th. Oh well, it's a subject that can't be revisited enough that's what I say!

Katherine Langrish said...

I'll look forward to seeing yout take on it, Barbara!