In most childhood games, the first thing you need to do is eliminate the parents. You can’t be an outlaw or have adventures if you have parents to spoil the excitement. My sisters and I were often on the run or in hiding, and for that we had to be orphans. Our best hideaway was a ratty loft floored with bantam droppings, where we constructed a den out of old packing cases and smoked pipes stuffed with the white pith from inside reed stalks. We would pull up the ladder, and our parents never came near us.
All the best children’s writers understand this and get rid of the parents as soon as possible. J. K. Rowling makes Harry Potter an orphan, housed in a cupboard under the stairs by the awful Dursleys. C. S. Lewis evacuates the Pevensey children from London during the Second World War to stay with an old Professor, whose spare-room wardrobe is the portal to Narnia; their parents never feature. The British Empire provided ample opportunities for such scenarios. Aged 6, Kipling was packed off from India to Southsea to board with a brutal foster family, as immortalized in his tragic story ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ (1888). In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911), the young heroines Sara Crew and Mary Lomax – both spoilt, and sickly from the climate – return from India to make their way in England, parentless and alone.
Another powerful motivation in my childhood was to get out of school. Anything to avoid watery fish on Fridays or being smacked over the head for making a mistake in maths. Later, as a boarding-school teenager regularly punished for ‘dumb insolence’, my aim was to get out of church, to which we went in crocodile, wearing green pill-box hats. One Sunday some friends and I answered the register, then sidled behind a curtain; while the rest of the school trudged off down the main road we spent a blissful hour or two roaming the woods.<
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