Whereas today there are countless well-planned stimuli for children (almost from the day they are born) there was a time when children had far less man-made prompts to help them develop their senses and their growing intellect – a time when well-thought-out daycare and school-nursery programs were not at hand – a time when the ever-increasing urgency for competitiveness against the standards of other small children (e.g to start learning to play a musical instrument or to take up chess not long after the age of three) was simply unheard of and not within the financial compass of most parents.
In my own case—an evacuee to Tipperary straight after my birth during London’s Blitz in September 1940 and right up until the end of the war in 1945—I had the daily company of my very aged and widowed grandmother and her eldest unmarried son to see me through my early years – the two of them were essentially my parents as my own true parents were unable to cross the sea from London during wartime and, besides, the concept of parenthood would not have been understood by a young child. Each day became a time for a one-to-one series of positive growth, brought about by my two guardians – a privilege not given to many other children.
There was little or no money on their tiny farm (7 cows, 1 horse, 4 calves, 2 pigs and 40 assorted hens, ducks and geese). I had no shop toys or books. My toys were made from the various berries on the ditches, combined with leaves, dung and mud – all to make my daily ‘farm’: there was the rusty base of a creamery tank, coupled with a stout stick, to preoccupy me from the top of the stony lane down as far as the river: there was a stitched sock ball with six bottle-corks in it and it made a fine bouncing toy to pelt, to catch and run after: there was a box of colored buttons to hold my attention on the flagstones over the stream and I made up countless patterns with them: there were colored stones from the river – my tools for drawing my grandmother’s face on the flagstones – and my every effort was concentrated into making my drawings pleasing to her. These were but a few of the many natural toys that filled me with joy in a small community where the other children were usually locked away in the school-house 3 miles across the fields.
My life was a time for slowly learning to look, to listen, to contemplate as apposed to a child’s world often today, where there seems to be a degree of overstimulation, often to the point of boredom and at an almost frenetic pace.
I went with my uncle to the well with my small gallon and to fetch the cows. I watched the two old people milking, saw the pig dispatched from his brief life, went with my uncle when he shot his rabbits or used the ferret or snares or when he fished the livelong afternoon, whilst I sat on his waistcoat and admired the patterns in the trees’ branches above me. There is a long list of such natural stimuli. My uncle was always ready to show me the different field-flowers and the various trees and grasses and the little birds (the thrush, wren, corncrake, goldfinch) all of which ’only God could have made’ (he said).
I visited grannie’s old school-friends across the fields and watched their antics as they strolled across the meadows and I listened to the way their voices raised and then fell and how they reflected their moods and their gossip.
And each morning I was taught to say my prayers devoutly and the language of these prayers was very advanced and eventually it was to fill my growing vocabulary – so that I jumped from the stage of a babbling talker to using advanced adult speech quickly – much to the amusement of the grown-ups. This also applied to my bodily movements. I walked with the same strides as my uncle and spat into the cowdung when he did. Such daily enrichment was to stay with me forever and to echo throughout my 40 years as a teacher and (hopefully) transfer itself from my own style of teaching (songs and poetry and close observations of nature) into my pupils.
In the evenings the card-players came in and told their tales. There were no library books and my own grandchildren have rooms full of them. But there was a big box of gramophone records, where the haunting melodies gripped me (forever) and the 6-stanza story lines in the songs were a mixture of joy and sorrow. Round the blazing fire I was again a silent witness to the several adult voices and it is no wonder much to their joy my growing vocabulary echoed their own words and accents. I moved from infant to adult speech within three years.
Looking back you might well understand how a small child (in this case myself) might, as a result of such an early imprinting of life’s beauty and vibrancy, grow up one day to reflect it all in his writings – e.g. the seasonal tapestries of woods, hills and rivers – might store the whole of his infant world in a time-locked memory-bank and eventually set much of it down on paper.
Retired headmaster of 40 years in Inner London Edward Forde Hickey is the author of The Early Morning Light [Troubadour, April 2015], currently available via all major retailers.