Thursday, November 15, 2012

Another look at bullying: Peter St. John's "Gang Territory"

Gang Territory by Peter St. John
Reviewed by Katherine Ashe, author, the Montfort series, Nov.14, 2012
World War II and the bombing of London brought about the displacement of multitudes of children. We see photos of them, wan, frightened as they’re herded onto trains bound for the safer countryside or they’re led away by the firm grip of strangers’ hands. But what happened to them after that, when they arrived at their unfamiliar destinations?
Peter St. John’s autobiographically inspired story of a boy from a destroyed London orphanage gives us an insight. An insight not only into the new hazards such children faced, but into the noble code of boyhood, a code that forbade complaining when one was abused and that produced a degree of self-reliance that would serve well in later years – provided the noble spirited little lad survived.
As in a medieval romance, the hero’s name is never revealed to the reader. We will call him Boy. Boy arrives in the rural village of Widdlington which is scant of indoor plumbing but rich in gangs of children. Every street has its own gang who guard their territory from intruders. And an intruder is any other child who does not live on that street. This of course makes life exceedingly difficult for Boy, whose aunt and guardian seems oblivious to the juvenile culture surrounding her, for she makes a habit of sending him on errands where his very life depends upon his ingenuity in getting to his goal and back home again unobserved.
There may be individuals as completely lacking in humane feeling as this aunt, so completely focused on a sense of being put upon, so resentful of a young boy, and so determined to gain every instant of advantage from the unwanted presence of a child, as to resemble a slave driver with a savage tongue in place of whip. When the aunt seems to relent at sight of the boy’s injuries one senses that self-protection, not pity, is her foremost, driving motive: fear of being discovered as the abuser she is. Why is she so cramped and mean of spirit? Seen from the viewpoint of Boy, we never learn.
But if the aunt makes his new home hellish, the principal local bully, known as Slug, turns the entire outside world into a trial of strategy for Boy as he must navigate from place to place nearly always under the threat of severe bodily harm if he loses his focus of attention for a moment. St. John sets up hazards and triumphs that make the plot predictable but that also create suspense – and a certain admiration in the reader as we know what must be coming but well drawn intervening events keep forestalling the inevitable.
Widdlington is peopled with kindly folk as well as brutes: from teachers to parents to children – mostly girls – and the local derelict known as Dummy. Many speak in dialect although, thank heaven, Boy does not. As yet another “Oi” for “I” is uttered, the words of Henry Higgins spring to mind: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” Walter Scott loved writing in dialects too, so St. John is in illustrious company.
The issue of bullying is as timely now as ever and St. John’s exploration of the ways in which children cope: isolatedly, determinedly, with fear and bravery, is as resonant in Gang Territory as in Huckleberry Fin, and as salutary a reminder of obtuse adult perceptions and the complexity of the world of childhood.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series