Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Importance of Small Things (for Aylan Kurdi)

For a few thrilling weeks in 1987 I was best friends with a potato. His name was Peter. I was five when we met; he can’t have been older than a week. Peter came from a big paper bag in the kitchen and was selected for friendship because he was beautifully rounded, evenly-formed and smooth of skin. I gave him a carefully carved face and four toothpick limbs; he gave me a constant smile and a loyalty that was as quiet as it was dependable. My memory has faded, but I think it’s fair to say that I loved that little potato man as much as any man ever loved a child of his creation. From the day I made him, I knew I would never forget him. Indeed, I never have.

As adults it is incredibly easy to forget the special relationship that small children have with small things.  Often we are too busy to see the look of wonder on our small ones’ faces when a feather drifts in through an open window, as if carefully posted by an invisible hand; or we fail to notice the heart-shaped stone that is squeezed for such a long time in sweaty palms that tiny muscles begin to ache and cramp (but still don’t let go). Children have always found abundant magic in objects that are so small that their very existence is almost a kind of secret. But just give a three-year-old a key, a coin, a ladybird or a leaf and you will see that for small people, an object’s allure only increases the smaller it gets.

Peter didn’t last, of course. With no immune system to protect him from the ravages of bacteria, within weeks of his birth his flesh began to turn starchy and wet. His features became indistinguishable as his body lost its integrity, melted into itself, and fell away. I gave him all the treatment I could: when his toothpick arms began to crack and splinter, he quickly received transplants; I handled him as rarely and as gently as possible, sometimes with a nice clean tissue, in an attempt to preserve the fragile bond between his disintegrating skin and his pale innards. In the end, when his body began to turn green, I took him into the garden, all by myself, and laid him to rest in his family’s plot – the corner of the compost heap nearest the wattle trees. I held my tears inside. Peter wouldn’t have wanted me to cry. 

In time, there would be other small things in my life: a blue marble with a white swirl inside that I found in the cleft of a tree at primary school; the two tiny china gnomes my parents had bought on their honeymoon in South Africa’s Eastern Cape; the snails’ shells I buried under a tree in a failed attempt to start a fossil factory and make my millions. When I was ten I traveled alone to the UK from South Africa to tour the country with my grandparents, and while walking on a beach in Wales I found a pebble that was as black and smooth as polished jet. I decided that I would carry that pebble with me for the rest of the trip, and eventually back to Johannesburg, as a reminder of the country where my mother’s father was born. Riding in my jacket pocket, the little pebble went with us all the way across the Irish Sea to Dublin – I made sure to squeeze him now and then to check that he was still snug as a bug – and then all the way to Galway on the west coast, before we slowly wound our way back east again towards England. But my pebble’s odyssey to the far end of Africa was suddenly curtailed as we re-crossed the Irish Sea: in a moment of reckless curiosity I threw him from the deck into the boat’s violently churning wake, and, just like that, he was gone forever. I still vividly remember the immediate and awful panic that I felt, the urge to pull him back before he had even hit the water, and the lingering guilt that instead of holding my little travelling companion tight and keeping him safe, I had condemned him to life at the bottom of a cold, dark sea. In fact, my memory of the guilt I felt is more vivid than my recollection of much of what we saw on that trip, because when we are children small objects do not merely stir our curiosity, they often become the portals through which we begin to understand our own inner lives, and our budding emotions.

The fascination that children hold for small things only makes it more strange that adults often choose objects for children that prize colour and scale over meaning, and that buckle and break before the Queen has even finished her speech – but that’s only because most of us have confused the magical interior of a child’s mind with the materialistic interior of an adult’s. If you want to give a child a present that they will love (and not merely destroy), you should give them something that will fit comfortably in the palm of their hand; something hard and durable; preferably very old and with plenty of tiny details, and then tell them exactly why it matters and that they must never lose it or let it go. You can grab a child’s attention with a piece of plastic for an hour or two, but give her a relic with a tale attached, and you will enthrall her forever.

I used to think that I had lost the ability to fall in love with small things. Adulthood is tightly packed with so many bland, gigantic, IMPORTANT things, things that barge in, all sharp elbows and shouting like drunken students at a Chinese buffet. Our cities rush and rage, our politicians demand that LESSONS WILL BE LEARNED, our banks shudder and fail, our bosses berate, our computers and smart-phones and widescreen TVs explode and crash and dazzle – and before you know it, it seems impossible to remember how exciting it was to find the hidden face in the rust on an old bicycle frame, or how relaxing it was to spend a few hours sitting cross-legged on the garden path whittling a popsicle stick. But occasionally, if we just allow a little space for contemplation, even our jaded adult attention spans can bristle and spark as if they were still brand new.

From time to time, I still go looking for small things. These days they can be harder to find – my adult eyes have been conditioned to look instead for the roar of advertising and the flicker of potential danger. It takes a concentrated effort to search instead for the spaces between, to study the edges of things. But sometimes, when my mind is at ease and the city’s drone has receded a little from the foreground, my eye for small things returns, and I am transported back to a time when a marble was a tiny world, and a potato seemed to possess a kindness all of his own making.

Three or four years ago, on a rainy Friday when I should have been at work, my friend Esther and I went looking for small things together. Our search lead us to a very specific place, where we knew that wonderful small things would be waiting: the Foundling Museum in central London, which commemorates the Foundling Hospital, a home for orphaned and abandoned children opened by Thomas Coram in 1741. The hospital doesn’t exist anymore – it moved from central London to Surrey in 1937, then to Hertfordshire, and closed in the 1950s; but a sense of what it must have been like is preserved in the museum by thousands of photographs, paintings and even video interviews with some of the last children to sleep in its dormitories.

The Foundling Museum
The suffering that the children of England had to endure during the first few centuries of the Foundling Hospital’s existence was horrific. With the Industrial Revolution beginning just twenty years after the institution opened, children weren’t the precious small things they are today: they became little more than conveniently-sized workers, with fingers small enough to unpick the tangled cotton in the dark Satanic mills of Manchester and bodies slender enough to fit deep inside the soot-clogged chimneys of London. Under-nourished and with virtually no medical care, in much of the country a child reaching adulthood was the exception rather than the rule. The Foundling Hospital’s own statistics speak volumes about the experience of children in Britain at that time: of the nearly 15,000 children presented to the hospital in the four years from 1756, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out.

Most of the children who ended up in the Foundling Hospital were left there by parents who loved them desperately, who wanted to keep them, but were simply unable to because of the dire circumstances of their lives. It was poverty – simple, merciless poverty – that pulled those families apart. Because the children were entrusted rather than abandoned, their parents developed an informal system of marking a child as theirs, so that they could be identified and reclaimed when – and if – the parents were able to look after them again. They did this by leaving tiny trinkets and tokens with their children as symbols of their love; the more special and unique the item, the more likely they would be able to identify their child in the future. It was these small things that caught my eye the first time I visited the Foundling Museum.

The tokens are extraordinarily varied: they include thimbles, rings, hairpins, knotted threads, even a hazelnut; and every single item represents the love that a parent felt for their child at the moment that hardship tore them from each other. One poor little chap, a baby called John who was later renamed Robin Carr, was even delivered to the hospital with his own caul (the amniotic membrane that covers a foetus), which was believed to be a lucky thing to hold onto (if probably a maggoty horror show in the summer months).

Another foundling was Elizabeth Harris, born on 6th June 1756 and brought to the Foundling Hospital by her father. Like most other parents of foundlings, Mr Harris was not giving his daughter up willingly: he was about to be transported to Australia for seven years for stealing coal. Very little is known about the Harris family or their situation – whether Elizabeth’s mother was still alive, whether she had any siblings or other family, or what desperate circumstances drove Elizabeth’s father to steal the coal that would wrench him from his child – but one thing is beyond doubt. Elizabeth Harris’ father loved his daughter, and the token he left at Thomas Coram’s hospital has outlasted the enormous tragedy of their lives and still stands as a testament to that love 270 years later. 

The token is a James II coin, rubbed smooth on one side, and carefully engraved with Elizabeth’s name and her date of birth. The inscription curves around the edge of the coin, leaving room in the centre for the depiction of a winged cherub, looking to its left and smiling slightly, its features minute but exquisitely rendered. I always wonder about the significance of the cherub – I like to think that it was intended by her father as a kind of guardian angel to guide Elizabeth in his absence. He must have thought that the token may be the only symbol of his love that his daughter would ever know. Sadly, even that small mercy was denied her. The hospital’s governors believed that unclaimed children should not be weighed down by the knowledge of their origins, and therefore not one of the tokens left there was ever handed over to the foundling for whom it was intended. Even if Elizabeth had received her token, the reunion with her father was never to be: she died of consumption long before his seven years in the penal colony were served. It seems particularly cruel that although the love that Elizabeth’s father felt for her is plain to thousands of visitors to the Foundling Hospital today, Elizabeth herself probably never laid eyes on the small engraved angel her father sent to watch over her.

In twenty-first century Britain, we live in very different times from Elizabeth Harris and her father. In the modern version of the Harrises' country, we endeavour to make sure that our children are properly cared for, that they have access to free healthcare and education, and that their emotional traumas are listened to and not beaten into silence. We even have the luxury of waxing lyrical about the many different ‘Golden Ages’ of childhood, when kids were apparently so much healthier and luckier and happier and better behaved than they are today – sometimes we mean the 1950s, when thousands were crippled by polio; or the 1940s, when children saw their towns flattened by bombs; or the 1970s, when sexual abuse was never spoken about; or those truly blessed children of the early nineteenth century whose government declared, in the 1819 Cotton Mills and Factory Act, that children aged 9–16 years were to be limited to 12 hours’ work per day.

Our country, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is now one in which we have the ability to educate every child, to make sure that every child has a roof over his or her head, is fully vaccinated, and has enough to eat. And yet, a dark shadow still falls across our British soul: for it seems that our present comforts have made us oblivious to the true anguish of our own history. They have made us forget what it really means to live in absolute poverty, to experience the kind of deprivation that isn’t about smaller televisions or not going on holiday, but instead speaks in toxic drinking water and never learning how to write your name.

If we could speak to Elizabeth Harris’ father as he sat huddled on that antipodes-bound boat, thinking of the daughter he had left behind with nothing but a tiny engraved coin to remember him by – and perhaps praying that one day he would make it back and find her, all grown up, still squeezing it in her aching hand – what advice would he give to the parents of twenty-first century Britain? Parents who never have to steal coal to buy food, or send their children to work for seventy-two hours a week, or have them taken by strangers to be raised, or watch them die one by one of tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery and cholera? Perhaps he would tell them to spend more time with their children, because some small things do not stay small for long and can never be made small again. He would probably say that they should not worry if they cannot buy the biggest or most expensive presents, because an object that fits in a child’s hand – but is given from a parent’s heart – will last the test of time better than any mechanical gadget or molded piece of plastic. I’m sure he would tell us not to lament the loss of the Golden Age of childhood, because we still have time on our side and our children can live the best of all possible childhoods now, if only we adults have the desire, the energy and the imagination to make it so.

I think that Elizabeth’s father would ask us to remember that the suffering that poverty caused in his life didn’t end with his death, but simply migrated across the earth: from the factories of the East End it has found new homes in the slums of Lagos and the drought-ravaged uplands of Kenya; it is in the Afghan valleys too remote for antenatal care, and the Brazilian favelas where gunshots echo through classrooms on a daily basis. He would probably say that we should remember that economic migrants don’t come to Britain to attain wealth, but to escape poverty that can be as terrifying and deadly as any war: to make sure that their children are safe from disease, are able to be educated, can have clothes to wear and the security of three meals a day. He would surely remind us that the many British parents transported to Australia for stealing bread did not do so for the glory of possessing the bread, but for the necessity of giving it to their children to eat.

Most importantly of all, I think that Elizabeth’s father would probably say that we should learn from our children, who already know that things are most precious when they are small. As that poor man looked out across the cold, dark sea unfurling relentlessly, and eternally, between him and his daughter, hoping that the people to whom he had entrusted his daughter and her precious coin would look after them both and keep them safe, he would probably tell us exactly the same thing that a two-year-old would: when we are lucky enough to have a small thing – whether it is one of our own creation or one that someone else has lent for safe keeping – we should hold it tight, keep it safe, carry it with us, and never, ever lose it or let it go.


  1. Emlyn, I'm so glad you have come into my life. Your writing is so beautiful and thoughtful. This piece started out in one direction and then took a haunting and lyrical turn. I thank you. But I do still want to me to mention the very tiny mushroom I found when was about 7yrs old. I was sure it was the smallest mushroom ever found in all the world. My father encouraged me to preserve it in vinegar in a small jar and write to the guiness book of world records. Although I never did, that mushroom sat on a shelf in our kitchen for years!

    1. Heidi, thank you so much for this message! It really reminded me of that childhood feeling that you really COULD set a world record, that the incredible and the unprecedented was daily within reach. And now I shall add your comment to the collection of small things that are much more precious to me than anyone could guess from their size. x

  2. After reading this, you're definitely my new favourite person too. I thought it was just me with the little things. Currently obsessed with moss on a particular wall. Teeny tiny worlds. Tracey.

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