A historic aspirational future

From The Story of the Amulet, which I was re-reading after coming across Gore Vidal’s 1964 article on Edith Nesbit, children’s author and member of the Fabian society: the children have travelled into a socialist future, when their own age is described as the “dark ages”, and find a boy alone, crying:

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I’m expelled from school,’ said the boy between his sobs.

This was serious. People are not expelled for light offences.

‘Do you mind telling us what you’d done?’

‘I–I tore up a sheet of paper and threw it about in the playground,’ said the child, in the tone of one confessing an unutterable baseness. ‘You won’t talk to me any more now you know that,’ he added without looking up.

‘Was that all?’ asked Anthea.

‘It’s about enough,’ said the child; ‘and I’m expelled for the whole day!’

‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Anthea, gently. The boy lifted his face, rolled over, and sat up.

‘Why, whoever on earth are you?’ he said.

‘We’re strangers from a far country,’ said Anthea. ‘In our country it’s not a crime to leave a bit of paper about.’

‘It is here,’ said the child. ‘If grown-ups do it they’re fined. When we do it we’re expelled for the whole day.’

‘Well, but,’ said Robert, ‘that just means a day’s holiday.’

‘You MUST come from a long way off,’ said the little boy. ‘A holiday’s when you all have play and treats and jolliness, all of you together. On your expelled days no one’ll speak to you. Everyone sees you’re an Expelleder or you’d be in school.’

‘Suppose you were ill?’

‘Nobody is — hardly. If they are, of course they wear the badge, and everyone is kind to you. I know a boy that stole his sister’s illness badge and wore it when he was expelled for a day. HE got expelled for a week for that. It must be awful not to go to school for a week.’

‘Do you LIKE school, then?’ asked Robert incredulously.

‘Of course I do. It’s the loveliest place there is. I chose railways for my special subject this year, there are such splendid models and things, and now I shall be all behind because of that torn-up paper.’

‘You choose your own subject?’ asked Cyril.

‘Yes, of course. Where DID you come from? Don’t you know ANYTHING?’

‘No,’ said Jane definitely; ‘so you’d better tell us.’

‘Well, on Midsummer Day school breaks up and everything’s decorated with flowers, and you choose your special subject for next year. Of course you have to stick to it for a year at least. Then there are all your other subjects, of course, reading, and painting, and the rules of Citizenship.’

‘Good gracious!’ said Anthea.

‘Look here,’ said the child, jumping up, ‘it’s nearly four. The expelledness only lasts till then. Come home with me. Mother will tell you all about everything.’

‘Will your mother like you taking home strange children?’ asked Anthea.

‘I don’t understand,’ said the child, settling his leather belt over his honey-coloured smock and stepping out with hard little bare feet. ‘Come on.’

So they went.

The boy is named after Wells, “the great reformer”, who lived in the dark ages and argued for progress: their own age, with its sharp corners and infant deaths, so appalls their adult host that she is bodily evicted back to her own time, “where London is clean and beautiful, and the Thames runs clear and bright, and the green trees grow, and no one is afraid, or anxious, or in a hurry”.

When I read the book as a child, I remember noticing the way this section stood apart from the historic sections. The hint of back-to-nature romanticism of the boy’s bare feet sat oddly with the talk of Utopian future to someone raised on shiny metal futures, and the worthy nature of the “Citizenship” poetry seemed offputting. But I remember feeling very proud that someone thought enough of us to say a room in each house fit for a child’s needs was a basic necessity.

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