Happy New Year! I was going to do a writer’s resolutions-type post to welcome in 2013, but a more worthy cause than myself caught my eye.
The website Mumsnet is working with the charity Railway Children and Aviva to raise awareness of children running away from home in the UK. They’ve asked for blogs about any aspects of the issue, with the incentive that for each blog post Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children. They will also donate another £2 for each comment on the post, and for any tweets or mentions on Facebook. How could I (and you, oh reader) ignore a cause like that?
I have no direct experience of children (defined by Railway Children as young people under 16) running away. Growing up, any notions I had of ‘running away’ were based mostly around images of animals setting off from home with all their belongings wrapped in a red spotty handkerchief tied to the end of a stick. I once ran a hundred yards up the road on holiday after my dad got cross with me, which demonstrates the extent of my ignorance.
But when I started to think about this, I realised that there was a book that made a great impact on my understanding of children who might feel desperate enough to run away. This was Break in the Sun by Bernard Ashley. I first came across it as a serial on children’s television – a quick Google search shows me that this would have been in 1981, so I’d have been 10 or 11 years old. Annoyingly, I can’t find my copy of the book, which showed a still from the series of the heroine, Patsy Bligh, so I can’t remind myself of it properly.
From what I remember, the story centres around Patsy who is miserable at home with her worn out, stressed out mother (with new baby) and stepfather Eddy who spends his time watching TV and shouting at Patsy. Her anxiety reveals itself as she starts to wet the bed, and she decides to run away to Margate where she and her mother used to live with an old lady, Mrs Broadley. Patsy is convinced that if she can find the old lady again all her problems will be solved. En route she hooks up with a travelling theatre company who agree to help her out (she tells them some elaborate lies about, I think, meeting up with her grandmother), but her idyll is threatened when she discovers that Eddy is trying to find her and she must stay one step ahead of him.
Break in the Sun was and is an extraordinary book. It portrayed Patsy’s anxiety and unhappiness so vividly – I still remember feeling her terror when she wakes up in a wet bed and anticipates her stepfather finding out. It showed how much children become conditioned by the way adults treat them – Patsy believes that she is useless, a baby, pathetic, no good, because that’s what Eddy tells her – and how hard they find it to trust another adult who might be able to help. It also shows how fixated children become on one thing which they think will be the solution to everything (in Patsy’s case, finding Mrs Broadley), and how at an end they can feel their lives to be when reality shatters the dream.
The remarkable thing about Break in the Sun though, was that it not only gives the young reader an insight into Patsy’s life, but also into the motives, fears and experiences that drive adult behaviour. Through Patsy’s (and therefore our) eyes, Eddy is an angry, hard man. As the story unfolds, and its perspective shifts to follow Eddy, we discover a man brutalised by a childhood with a violent father (I can’t remember, but he may have been an alcoholic), who as a child valued his own life so little that he took literally life-threatening risks, embittered by the overwhelming responsibilities of a new wife, new baby and step-daughter. We come to understand Eddy a little better, and realise that he is a gentler, softer and kinder man than we, Patsy, and even he assume.
What a powerful book then, aimed at youngish readers (there wasn’t really a YA classification in those days, but as Patsy is 11 the book was certainly for pre-teens), that is nonetheless sophisticated enough to enable at least one reader (i.e. me), to understand the perspectives of the mistreated and the mistreater (the latter is the clumsiest of words, but I hesitate to use ‘abused and abuser’ as Patsy is not abused in the sense that we use the word today), and the complexities of emotions that lead to desperation and unhappiness.
In a sense, Break in the Sun belongs to a more apparently innocent age, and is aimed at younger readers. This means that there is little hint of the potential risks that a child runaway may face – sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol dependency and violence are just a few highlighted by Railway Children. It also has a happy ending – Eddy is given the opportunity to reflect on his own childhood as a result of Patsy running away, and of how this might have affected his treatment of Patsy and the two eventually develop a mutual respect of one another. I’m sure that the stories of some child runaways also end happily, or are at least resolved in a way that will make that child’s adult life an easier one. But of course there will also be those whose stories aren’t reconciled so easily and these are the children that need help and support.
Are there other children’s or YA books that you have read that you would also recommend to raise awareness? Do you have any experience, either directly or indirectly, of children running away?Remember that for every comment posted Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children – here’s a breakdown of how comments could translate into help:
£1 could buy a warm drink for a vulnerable child on the streets (one comment)
£5 could buy a warm meal for a young person staying in a refuge (three comments)
£10 could fund resources for 30 young people at a runaway prevention workshop (five comments)
£25 could help keep one of our workers on the streets, seeking out children who may be at risk (13 comments)
£50 could pay for 1:1 support sessions to help a child work through their issues (25 comments)
Update on 17th January – I’ve started reading Break in the Sun again, and it’s even better than I remember.