Reading the book, I was struck by one thing in particular: the Five are accompanied on their camping trip by one Mr Luffy, a middle-aged teacher from Dick and Julian’s boarding school who is coming to the moors to indulge his hobby of entomology: the study of insects. He drives them from their home to the distant moorland campsite. The children think nothing of this, nor do their parents. Although he has the sense to not interfere with their daily activities, they hold intelligent conversations with him, and invite him to share their simple meals.
It’s hard to envisage something similar happening in a modern children’s book – unless, of course, it was written to set up a “realistic” and “challenging” sexual predator storyline. The notion that eleven and twelve year olds might enjoy and indeed benefit from the company of someone two generations above them, who was neither a family member nor someone with whom they were compelled to spend time (like a teacher in the classroom), seems more alien to us than it once did.
The “olden times” that stretch for my children from the creation of the universe until the day they were born, have a lot to teach us.
Perhaps I’m over-interpreting Five Go Off to Camp; but it has sometimes occurred to me that one consequence of the decline in English churchgoing – between 1980 and 2015 regular Mass attendance in England fell from over 2 million to around 600,000 – is that fewer people get the opportunities offered by churches. And one of the most important of these is interaction between people of different generations.
In my own experience, it’s very common for my children to talk to older people at Mass – although not so much since March, for obvious reasons – and I think these conversations are very important. In this time of rapid change, socially and technologically, it’s vital for children to have living anchors in the past, who can help to teach them the lesson that things were not always the way they are now. The “olden times” that stretch for my children from the creation of the universe until the day they were born, have a lot to teach us; and people who have lived through many events and changes often acquire wisdom and insight from that process.
Besides this, having regular contact with young people, especially children, is excellent for the older folks themselves. There have been some fascinating experiments in the Netherlands where – in return for reduced rents – university students live alongside retirees, providing them with some human interaction and maybe a little conversation. This has been shown to improve the health and wellbeing of both parties, and shows the value of intergenerational spaces. In the UK, we have had similar experiments, in which nurseries and care homes share space.
The notion that eleven and twelve year olds might enjoy and indeed benefit from the company of someone two generations above them, who was neither a family member nor someone with whom they were compelled to spend time (like a teacher in the classroom), seems more alien to us than it once did.
Because enclosed indoor spaces with lots of people in them are high-risk, mixing between older and younger people in Church settings has been a source of public health concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is true even though we now know how to minimise the risks of infection in such spaces – excellent ventilation (with windows wide open to allow air to circulate), masks and social distancing. It is a great shame that churches’ potential as a meeting-point has been undermined by these necessary measures.
It also underlines the importance we attach to older people, who have traditionally been highly valued in churches because of their stability and their long perseverance in the faith. The great effort made by so many to safeguard elders has been a bright point in this grim year, and hopefully, once all this is over, our churches can once again be places of encounter between the energy and potential of the young and the hard-earned wisdom and prudence of the old.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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