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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Brockes

Digested week: When should we talk to children about the very worst things?

An Israeli soldier walks over damaged camping equipment under trees
An Israeli soldier patrols an area near the Be’eri kibbutz where 270 people were killed by militants during the Supernova music festival on 7 October. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images


One of my children, aged eight, is reading a novel set during the second world war; a book that was sent home from school on Monday with a message from the teacher to put it aside if it was too dark. Set in 1944 on Long Island, New York, the book touches tangentially on the Holocaust in a way that seemed to me to be done in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. Coming as it does this week, however, amid horrific images and stories emerging from Israel, it did make me think more generally about how and when we talk to our children about the very worst things.

We have talked about 9/11 in our house and been to the 9/11 museum, a fairly sanitised presentation with very little context about why the attacks took place. I have mentioned the Holocaust a few times, tentatively, then found myself shrinking from getting into the details. And while the civil rights movement is well covered in New York state elementary schools, slavery isn’t part of the discussion. There will never be a good time to bring any of this up and I wonder how long to keep stalling.

Meanwhile, on a termly basis all children in the city are compelled to go through lockdown drills at school and hide in a corner, for reasons many don’t fully understand. We talk about catastrophes in the news all the time, but these tend to be freak events a long way from home. I can’t bring myself to tell them about school shootings, or that the kidnap and murder of children their age is on the news every morning. On the way to school this week they got to talking about their biggest fears and, as should be the case for all kids their age, the list was cartoonish: getting stuck in an elevator, being eaten by a shark, and “burglars”, the catch-all term they use for bad people doing bad things, a description I’m happy to keep vague for as long as I possibly can.


As political actions go, a man throwing glitter at the Labour party leader seems pretty mild – although, as everyone knows, glitter is second only to anthrax for a material you don’t want to have to get out of your carpet. At the start of his speech on Tuesday, Keir Starmer was accosted on stage in Liverpool by a man wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “People Demand Democracy”, a group, according to the BBC website, that “uses disruptive tactics to push for electoral reform”. Addressing the audience, he said: “Politics needs an update”, threw an arm around Starmer, and was promptly dragged off by two women from security.

Keir Starmer and his wife, Victoria, standing at railings looking out towards the River Mersey
Keir Starmer to his wife, Victoria: ‘If he hadn’t crept up in my blind spot, I could’ve put him in hospital.’ Photograph: Reuters

It could have been much worse. As it was, it delivered to the Labour leader the opportunity for a Jason Bourne moment, rolling up his sleeves, dusting off his hands as if he’d just dropkicked someone out of a club at 3am and, preparing to resume his speech, uttering the line: “If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn’t know me.” With echoes of Tony Blair’s greatest ever line at conference – “I’ve not got a reverse gear” – someone enterprising should’ve had it emblazoned on T-shirts to be handed out to delegates by the end of the speech.


A lectern made of ash-effect wood and blue trim
The $19,000 lectern. Photograph: Thomas Metthe/AP

One of these comes around every now and then in politics and it is always a pleasing distraction from genuine political strife. In Arkansas, it recently emerged, the state governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had spent $19,000 (£15,570) of public money on a lectern, to the dismay of local political observers. It looked like a solid piece of furniture, with a sort of ash wood effect and blue trim, but it was hard to see quite how Arkansas taxpayers might derive value for money from it.

The whistleblower Matthew Campbell a lawyer and blogger, posted a photo of the invoice on social media, at which point the Republican party revealed it had since paid back the cost of the lectern; a move which, it was speculated, may have coincided with Campbell’s initial submission of a public information order concerning details of the lectern’s purchase. Huckabee’s office called the whole thing an accounting error, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a front-page photo of the lectern, and after weeks of discussion a legislative panel was expected to vote this week on whether to conduct further audits of the lectern’s purchase. All that seemed to be missing here was some gonzo-style, lectern-based caper, which made one long for the glory days of stunt-based journalism.


The term “yimby”, an acronym for “yes, in my back yard”, and in opposition to the more commonly used “nimby”, was referred to by Keir Starmer in an interview with the BBC, in relation to his promise to build 1.5m homes if elected. Yimby generally refers to pressure groups devoted to addressing housing shortages, rather than, say, people lobbying for a nuclear power plant to be built in their neighbourhoods, and is thought to have started in San Francisco 10 years ago in response to soaring house prices brought on by the tech boom. The Labour leader did not, in the interview, specify the exact nature of the housing he’d be happy to see go up in his back yard and may, at some point, have to clarify whether he is a yimby, or in fact, several clicks to the left, a “phimby”, which refers to advocates for public housing over market-rate developments.


I was sad to read Yvette Fielding’s reminiscences about the bad time she had as a Blue Peter presenter in the late 1980s, which were the years when I watched the show. At 18, she was Blue Peter’s youngest presenter and had been recruited from BBC drama to co-host alongside Caron Keating, Mark Curry and John Leslie. On the podcast Celebrity Catch Up, Fielding talked about being bullied by the late Biddy Baxter, and forced into dog-sitting the show’s pet, Bonnie, a labrador who seemed to be as put out by the arrangement as she was. Bonnie, said Fielding, scratched “at the door every night”. Oh, the harsh realities from which we were shielded.

Rishi Sunak speaking to Harry Kane
Rishi Sunak to Harry Kane: ‘It’s not that I can’t kick a ball, it’s more that I’d question the point.’ Photograph: Reuters
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