David Balfour, a well-educated young man living in 18th century Scottish Lowlands, and with connections to landowning gentry, finds himself, after a series of unexpected adventures, in the Highlands. He finds himself in the company of fellow countrymen who are somehow not his fellow countrymen, so alien are they to his own cultural values. And he finds himself a bosom friend of a man whom, in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as a traitor. And with this unlikely friend, he tries to evade the soldiers of the British Army, the redcoats, whom, again in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as being on his side. In the face of all this, the very idea of taking sides, of choosing one’s side on the basis of one’s cultural background, seems to dissolve.
To compound this cultural confusion, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a young lad of Indian background, living in the Scottish Lowlands, nine years of age, and whose awareness of the English language did not extend beyond half these nine years, was thrilling to this tale. Indeed, this Indian lad was David Balfour. His imagination excited, he scoured the local children’s library for books about the Jacobite Rebellion, about the Highland clans, and greedily absorbed what he could. And his primary school teacher, on observing his interest, tried to encourage it, and, indeed, to tell the rest of the class – indigenous Scottish children all – something of what many would term their history. In his mind’s eye, this Indian lad saw himself hiding from the redcoats in the heather with Alan Breck Stewart; he found himself witnessing the assassination of Red Fox, and coming under suspicion as an accessory; he re-lived in his mind meeting with James of the Glens, and felt something of his terror. He was so thoroughly immersed in it all, that the curtain separating reality and fiction seemed unimportant – as unimportant as it can only be in the mind of a child whose imagination has been stirred into action. The fiction seemed more real than reality itself, and, as with David Balfour, cultural affiliations based on the mere accident of birth seemed to dissolve.
I wonder how this child would have felt had he been told that none of this was actually “relevant” to his own life – that he wasn’t a Scottish Lowlander with connections to the gentry, and that he couldn’t really be David Balfour, as David had a white face and he had a brown. That the Highland clans and the Jacobite rebellion should mean little to him as these weren’t part of his history, and that, indeed, for that very reason, these topics should put him off history altogether. That the books that he should relate to most strongly were dreary books about race which would tell him what the various taunts and abuse he and his family experienced regularly had already told him – that racism exists, and is a Bad Thing.
Sadly, this appears to be what new newly crowned Children’s Laureate does appear to be saying, to much approbation, it appears, from newspapers from across the political spectrum. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson? “I can’t be doing with this stuffiness about only reading classics,” says the Children’s Laureate with all the eloquence and insight of a petulant and none-too-articulate teenager.
(I am not sure, incidentally, who it is who recommends that children only read classics, but an enemy is an enemy, imagined or otherwise.)
I suppose there is no point feeling angry about any of this. One can’t hold back the tide, after all. But perhaps I am entitled to be just a bit sad, as I immerse myself again into Kidnapped, and once again flee the redcoats in the company of Highlander Alan Breck Stewart.