My annual summer school week for the university's Department of Continuing Education finished last Friday, leaving me (and, I suspect, my students) pretty exhausted. It was a wonderful week, though, even though it was so full-on. I had a lovely class - fourteen people who were all motivated, cheerful, hard-working. If any of you are dropping by this blog, I wish you lots of luck with your writing: keep going, and let me know how you're getting on.
Last year, you may remember there was a huge debate about the issue of printing age ranges on children's books. I was very much of the view that you shouldn't. A campaign was waged by big-name children's writers and it looks as if most publishers backed off. Now we have another issue causing indignation: new legislation that requires that any author visiting a school will have to be registered on the Independent Safeguarding Authority database. Registration will cost £64, paid by the author, not the institution hiring them to visit.
Now, I've been looking at opinion on both sides: an author (Joe Craig?) on Breakfast News the other day said there were risks involved when authors visit schools, even if you wouldn't think so, given that the author is in a public environment and accompanied by adults. He said that kids often ask authors for the chance to communicate by email and so on - and that an author could get hold of these contact details and start grooming a child for abuse.
Nobody doubts that abuse does happen. There are evil people in this world, evil, screwed up, manipulative sad-sacks.
But my first point is, in agreement with writer Gillian Cross, that even when checks and systems are supposed to be in place, we have no idea how successful they are when preventing abuse. Time and again we are told that social workers and social work systems are being checked, yet horrendous cases of brutality towards tiny children still happen. No lessons seem to be learned; what we are told will never happen again always does.
Secondly, there is the assumption of guilt, of nefarious intention, of children as potential victims, of authors as potential abusers - all part of our siege-mentality culture. We bring up our children to fear and suspect others, and this is very very sad.
At the Winchester Conference last week, Michael Morpurgo, with his passion and idealism, demonstrated all that is good in the world of children's writers. He wants the best for children. He runs a farm in Devon where deprived children can breathe clean air, stroke the animals, learn to trust - sometimes, even, learn to speak. If he refuses to sign up to this legislation, are children in schools to be denied his wonderful enthusiasm and enthralling stories, each with a message (without being didactic or patronising) of love, imagination, seeing the best in other human beings?
One writer who is not signing up is Philip Pullman, angry that this legislation implies that 'no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them.' He adds: 'I suppose, I shall never be allowed into a school again. I shall regret that very much, but I refuse to be complicit in any measure that assumes my guilt before I've done anything wrong.'
What's your view? When does protection become suffocation? When does legality become tyranny? It's all part of the debate about CCTV, ID cards, 'Elf and Safety. I'm reminded of the animated film 'Wall-e', where in the distant future the remnants of the human race are all on board a spacecraft like a cosmic cruise ship, where robots and computerised systems do absolutely everything for them: they're like plump babies whizzing about in reclining chairs, sucking nourishment up through straws, their limbs atrophied to weak little flippers.
Finally, for the next few weeks, oh joy, I'll be reading books entirely for my pleasure, not because I have to analyse them in class! Currently I'm reading the best book I've read all year - and I fully expect it to hold onto that position. It's Christopher Rush's 'To Travel Hopefully'. I discovered it in the travel section of Borders, yet it's not really a travel book. Or not only a travel book. Rush lost his wife to cancer; the first section is an utterly harrowing account of her illness and death, and his inability to come to terms with it. There's a terrible beauty in the language and a power and honesty in what he records that will break your heart. To heal himself, he decided, rather madly, to retrace the footsteps of his hero, Robert Louis Stevenson, travelling with a donkey through the Cevennes in France. That's the stage I've reached now - and the exquisite language, the range of literary references and meditative power of this book are still taking me by surprise at every page.