I worked my way through my undergraduate degree by teaching outdoor sports to children of various ages. After several summers of it, I made the mistake of signing up as a summer camp counsellor. I can’t speak for the summer camps in general but I can say that I was not a little horrified by how much time I spent trying to limit bullying. I say ‘limit’ because preventing it altogether would have been a labour beyond Hercules, and it was certainly beyond me. I left the business with a view of childhood that was much more Lord of the Flies than Swallows and Amazons.
A few years later, I was living in a caravan on the West Coast of Scotland, which gave me a fairly detached perspective on a moral panic sweeping the press. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, infamous as the ten year olds who had murdered the toddler James Bulger, had been released from prison. What struck me about the wave of hysteria was that a lot of the commentators seemed to be almost desperate to paint Thompson and Venables as monsters. I began to see that they were less concerned with any harm Thompson and Venables might do than with protecting their image of childhood. If they wanted to continue to conceive of children as harmless and wholesome, it was necessary to categorise Thompson and Venables as something other than children.
It was a view my experience prevented me from agreeing with. That’s not to say that most children would go around murdering each other given the opportunity. The vast majority of the ten year olds I taught would have reacted to a lost toddler by helping him look for his parents. However, I also saw the cruelty of a significant minority. I like to think that the lack of compassion of the bullies I’d encountered stemmed from an underdeveloped sense of empathy, which they would grow into later. It’s equally possible that they are still holy terrors to the people around them to this day. What I am sure is that if any two of them were trying to prove themselves to each other, I would not want an unattended toddler anywhere near them.
The story moved some distance from conception to completion, largely as the protagonist’s capacity for violence was directed mainly against himself. I was trying to tell a story, not comment on society.
Something must have worked, because this was the first story I wrote that didn’t need extensive rewriting. Consequently it became my first story to be accepted, although several stories I’d written earlier were published after later rewrites.
Summer Holidays was published in Albedo One #29, republished in the Suffer the Little Children anthology, both of which are now out of print.
Cover by Manda Benson.