News from Nowhere, by William Morris

Chapter V

Children on the Road

Past the Broadway there were fewer houses on either side. We presently crossed a pretty little brook that ran across a piece of land dotted over with trees, and awhile after came to another market and town-hall, as we should call it. Although there was nothing familiar to me in its surroundings, I knew pretty well where we were, and was not surprised when my guide said briefly, “Kensington Market.”

Just after this we came into a short street of houses: or rather, one long house on either side of the way, built of timber and plaster, and with a pretty arcade over the footway before it.

Quoth Dick: “This is Kensington proper. People are apt to gather here rather thick, for they like the romance of the wood; and naturalists haunt it, too; for it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it. This part we are just coming to is called Kensington Gardens; though why ‘gardens’ I don’t know.”

I rather longed to say, “Well, I know”; but there were so many things about me which I did NOT know, in spite of his assumptions, that I thought it better to hold my tongue.

The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood spreading out on either side, but obviously much further on the north side, where even the oaks and sweet chestnuts were of a good growth; while the quicker-growing trees (amongst which I thought the planes and sycamores too numerous) were very big and fine-grown.

It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness. My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside.

Romantic as this Kensington wood was, however, it was not lonely. We came on many groups both coming and going, or wandering in the edges of the wood. Amongst these were many children from six or eight years old up to sixteen or seventeen. They seemed to me to be especially fine specimens of their race, and enjoying themselves to the utmost; some of them were hanging about little tents pitched on the greensward, and by some of these fires were burning, with pots hanging over them gipsy fashion. Dick explained to me that there were scattered houses in the forest, and indeed we caught a glimpse of one or two. He said they were mostly quite small, such as used to be called cottages when there were slaves in the land, but they were pleasant enough and fitting for the wood.

“They must be pretty well stocked with children,” said I, pointing to the many youngsters about the way.

“O,” said he, “these children do not all come from the near houses, the woodland houses, but from the country-side generally. They often make up parties, and come to play in the woods for weeks together in summer-time, living in tents, as you see. We rather encourage them to it; they learn to do things for themselves, and get to notice the wild creatures; and, you see, the less they stew inside houses the better for them. Indeed, I must tell you that many grown people will go to live in the forests through the summer; though they for the most part go to the bigger ones, like Windsor, or the Forest of Dean, or the northern wastes. Apart from the other pleasures of it, it gives them a little rough work, which I am sorry to say is getting somewhat scarce for these last fifty years.”

He broke off, and then said, “I tell you all this, because I see that if I talk I must be answering questions, which you are thinking, even if you are not speaking them out; but my kinsman will tell you more about it.”

I saw that I was likely to get out of my depth again, and so merely for the sake of tiding over an awkwardness and to say something, I said —

“Well, the youngsters here will be all the fresher for school when the summer gets over and they have to go back again.”

“School?” he said; “yes, what do you mean by that word? I don’t see how it can have anything to do with children. We talk, indeed, of a school of herring, and a school of painting, and in the former sense we might talk of a school of children — but otherwise,” said he, laughing, “I must own myself beaten.”

Hang it! thought I, I can’t open my mouth without digging up some new complexity. I wouldn’t try to set my friend right in his etymology; and I thought I had best say nothing about the boy-farms which I had been used to call schools, as I saw pretty clearly that they had disappeared; so I said after a little fumbling, “I was using the word in the sense of a system of education.”

“Education?” said he, meditatively, “I know enough Latin to know that the word must come from educere, to lead out; and I have heard it used; but I have never met anybody who could give me a clear explanation of what it means.”

You may imagine how my new friends fell in my esteem when I heard this frank avowal; and I said, rather contemptuously, “Well, education means a system of teaching young people.”

“Why not old people also?” said he with a twinkle in his eye. “But,” he went on, “I can assure you our children learn, whether they go through a ‘system of teaching’ or not. Why, you will not find one of these children about here, boy or girl, who cannot swim; and every one of them has been used to tumbling about the little forest ponies — there’s one of them now! They all of them know how to cook; the bigger lads can mow; many can thatch and do odd jobs at carpentering; or they know how to keep shop. I can tell you they know plenty of things.”

“Yes, but their mental education, the teaching of their minds,” said I, kindly translating my phrase.

“Guest,” said he, “perhaps you have not learned to do these things I have been speaking about; and if that’s the case, don’t you run away with the idea that it doesn’t take some skill to do them, and doesn’t give plenty of work for one’s mind: you would change your opinion if you saw a Dorsetshire lad thatching, for instance. But, however, I understand you to be speaking of book-learning; and as to that, it is a simple affair. Most children, seeing books lying about, manage to read by the time they are four years old; though I am told it has not always been so. As to writing, we do not encourage them to scrawl too early (though scrawl a little they will), because it gets them into a habit of ugly writing; and what’s the use of a lot of ugly writing being done, when rough printing can be done so easily. You understand that handsome writing we like, and many people will write their books out when they make them, or get them written; I mean books of which only a few copies are needed — poems, and such like, you know. However, I am wandering from my lambs; but you must excuse me, for I am interested in this matter of writing, being myself a fair-writer.”

“Well,” said I, “about the children; when they know how to read and write, don’t they learn something else — languages, for instance?”

“Of course,” he said; “sometimes even before they can read, they can talk French, which is the nearest language talked on the other side of the water; and they soon get to know German also, which is talked by a huge number of communes and colleges on the mainland. These are the principal languages we speak in these islands, along with English or Welsh, or Irish, which is another form of Welsh; and children pick them up very quickly, because their elders all know them; and besides our guests from over sea often bring their children with them, and the little ones get together, and rub their speech into one another.”

“And the older languages?” said I.

“O, yes,” said he, “they mostly learn Latin and Greek along with the modern ones, when they do anything more than merely pick up the latter.”

“And history?” said I; “how do you teach history?”

“Well,” said he, “when a person can read, of course he reads what he likes to; and he can easily get someone to tell him what are the best books to read on such or such a subject, or to explain what he doesn’t understand in the books when he is reading them.”

“Well,” said I, “what else do they learn? I suppose they don’t all learn history?”

“No, no,” said he; “some don’t care about it; in fact, I don’t think many do. I have heard my great-grandfather say that it is mostly in periods of turmoil and strife and confusion that people care much about history; and you know,” said my friend, with an amiable smile, “we are not like that now. No; many people study facts about the make of things and the matters of cause and effect, so that knowledge increases on us, if that be good; and some, as you heard about friend Bob yonder, will spend time over mathematics. ’Tis no use forcing people’s tastes.”

Said I: “But you don’t mean that children learn all these things?”

Said he: “That depends on what you mean by children; and also you must remember how much they differ. As a rule, they don’t do much reading, except for a few story-books, till they are about fifteen years old; we don’t encourage early bookishness: though you will find some children who WILL take to books very early; which perhaps is not good for them; but it’s no use thwarting them; and very often it doesn’t last long with them, and they find their level before they are twenty years old. You see, children are mostly given to imitating their elders, and when they see most people about them engaged in genuinely amusing work, like house-building and street-paving, and gardening, and the like, that is what they want to be doing; so I don’t think we need fear having too many book-learned men.”

What could I say? I sat and held my peace, for fear of fresh entanglements. Besides, I was using my eyes with all my might, wondering as the old horse jogged on, when I should come into London proper, and what it would be like now.

But my companion couldn’t let his subject quite drop, and went on meditatively:

“After all, I don’t know that it does them much harm, even if they do grow up book-students. Such people as that, ’tis a great pleasure seeing them so happy over work which is not much sought for. And besides, these students are generally such pleasant people; so kind and sweet tempered; so humble, and at the same time so anxious to teach everybody all that they know. Really, I like those that I have met prodigiously.”

This seemed to me such very queer talk that I was on the point of asking him another question; when just as we came to the top of a rising ground, down a long glade of the wood on my right I caught sight of a stately building whose outline was familiar to me, and I cried out, “Westminster Abbey!”

“Yes,” said Dick, “Westminster Abbey — what there is left of it.”

“Why, what have you done with it?” quoth I in terror.

“What have WE done with it?” said he; “nothing much, save clean it. But you know the whole outside was spoiled centuries ago: as to the inside, that remains in its beauty after the great clearance, which took place over a hundred years ago, of the beastly monuments to fools and knaves, which once blocked it up, as great-grandfather says.”

We went on a little further, and I looked to the right again, and said, in rather a doubtful tone of voice, “Why, there are the Houses of Parliament! Do you still use them?”

He burst out laughing, and was some time before he could control himself; then he clapped me on the back and said:

“I take you, neighbour; you may well wonder at our keeping them standing, and I know something about that, and my old kinsman has given me books to read about the strange game that they played there. Use them! Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure, and they are handy for that, being on the waterside. I believe it was intended to pull them down quite at the beginning of our days; but there was, I am told, a queer antiquarian society, which had done some service in past times, and which straightway set up its pipe against their destruction, as it has done with many other buildings, which most people looked upon as worthless, and public nuisances; and it was so energetic, and had such good reasons to give, that it generally gained its point; and I must say that when all is said I am glad of it: because you know at the worst these silly old buildings serve as a kind of foil to the beautiful ones which we build now. You will see several others in these parts; the place my great-grandfather lives in, for instance, and a big building called St. Paul’s. And you see, in this matter we need not grudge a few poorish buildings standing, because we can always build elsewhere; nor need we be anxious as to the breeding of pleasant work in such matters, for there is always room for more and more work in a new building, even without making it pretentious. For instance, elbow-room WITHIN doors is to me so delightful that if I were driven to it I would most sacrifice outdoor space to it. Then, of course, there is the ornament, which, as we must all allow, may easily be overdone in mere living houses, but can hardly be in mote-halls and markets, and so forth. I must tell you, though, that my great-grandfather sometimes tells me I am a little cracked on this subject of fine building; and indeed I DO think that the energies of mankind are chiefly of use to them for such work; for in that direction I can see no end to the work, while in many others a limit does seem possible.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07