Tuesday, 8 November 2016

I suggest you keep your children in doors

I'm currently walking around the perimeter of Hampstead Heath, where an incredibly charming chap has been photographing me as part of a post-Brexit-this-is-the-UK-now sort of project. He confesses that he's still not found a great many people to photograph with, how should we put this sensitively, less Europhile tendencies, prompting me to further wonder how I too can have spent my entire life only rubbing shoulders with 48% of the population. To my knowledge, only nine people I know actually voted Brexit, including my aunt and uncle, who are almost eighty. We sat with Philip last night discussing the same topic. All I can think is that I live a very sheltered life, or that a lot of my friends are keeping what happened in the voting booth a secret to avoid confrontation! You don't get many people actually saying how proud they are to have voted Brexit. When the country goes down the drain, I'm sure many of them will swear they voted a different way! It's like all the people who say they were in the Olympic stadium on Super Saturday.

Anyway, for the photograph, I suggested we went down to the tree with the hole in it, which is basically my favourite of favourite places on the Heath. When we arrived, we could hear children shrieking and my heart slightly sank. The kids, who were maybe 6 or 8-year olds, were obviously part of a school group who'd come to the Heath for a bit of a run around in nature. They were sitting on a branch about fifty yards away, so I climbed inside the tree, and the photographer started lining up a shot.

I'm sure it won't be a surprise to learn that, within twenty seconds, one of the adults with the children came scurrying over. She looked at us as though we were a pair of criminals: "Can I ask who you are and why you're here..." Because I was hiding in the shadows of the tree, Jack, the photographer, spoke. She'd plainly made him feel the need to justify his existence, "this is my friend, and we're simply here to take some photographs." The woman smiled wryly, "ah, you ARE taking photographs. Well, I'm afraid for the safety of the children, I'm obliged to ask you to stop." "But the children are behind me, and I'm only planning to take photos of my friend, and this tree." Said Jack. Rather too politely for my liking. The woman was having none of it, "if I could ask you to take photographs elsewhere. Perhaps you can come back when we've finished?" She smiled, a little passive aggressively, a little embarrassed, like she'd just sharted. It was at this point that my angry face emerged from the tree: "This is a public space and we are entitled to be anywhere we choose and take photographs wherever we want. We've said we're not photographing the children and if you see us turning the lens on the children, I give you permission to come to us and ask (politely) if we'd mind stopping. You have chosen to bring these children into a public open space. Their safety is none of our concern. They're not in a designated play area. If we'd wandered into your school, you would have every right to ask us who we are and what we're doing, but as that's not the case, and I think we're simply going to carry on. Thank you." I probably wasn't quite that eloquent. I was too shocked. I do remember smiling sweetly like one of those people you get in HR departments, whom you want to throttle whilst screaming, "just because you're smiling, it doesn't mean you're saying something palatable!!"

I am intrigued to know when we're going to get over the paranoia we routinely feel regarding children, photography and men. I get it. I know all the arguments. I know all the reasons why children need to be protected in schools. I understand that some children are at risk and that men are more likely to be sex offenders, but let's look at the statistics before we start treating total strangers, who are trying to enjoy a day at their favourite open space, like criminals. We've reached an absolute impasse if we continue to view all men without children in public spaces with suspicion. What next? Lone men are banned from entering parks? It is brutally unhealthy for a man to need to spend all his time avoiding so much as glancing at a child. I have no idea how male teachers, youth workers, nannies, doctors and social workers actually cope. We are dangerously close to living in a world where men are only attentive to their own children, and vast swathes of children grow up without male role models or feeling that men are always aloof and over-formal with them.

Obviously, I don't care. I don't have children and, with the exception of my godchildren, a few relatives and the friends of a couple of mates, I don't much like kids. I'm more than happy to ignore them when they come over for a chat. But as long as children are inquisitive, and not inherently frightened of men, we need to find a way through this ludicrous maze. In my view, if you don't want your child to stumble into the background of one of my photographs (in the process totally wrecking the shot) then keep him or her on a lead.

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