How do we make people behave themselves? Throughout history there have been ways to control behaviours through belief systems. Fear has often been the most effective. Fear of hell, damnation, of reds under the bed, of being shamed in the stocks, of invasions by others, of our most precious things being robbed or violated. Stir up fear and people can be made to behave differently, sometimes for good.
Parents have to teach their children how to behave and stories of bogeymen and cautionary tales are part of our tradition. Struwwelpeter is a famous part of Victorian childhood, the book’s terrifying pictures of a boy who sucked his thumbs having them chopped off the most famous example.
“The door flew open, in he ran
The great long red-legged scissor-man”
Too scary to write the rest as memories of my fear and disgust are evoked from the ancient copy that was part of my childhood. We were breathless with terror and made a bit hysterical with dread as we looked together at the illustrations. One of the stories was about the punishment of racism, another of Frederick, a boy who was cruel:
“He caught the flies, poor little things
And then tore off their tiny wings,
He kill’d the birds, and broke the chairs
And threw the kittens down the stairs.”
Maybe Protestant Christianity was failing to control some children, not taught enough about St Francis the lover and champion of animals and the natural environment? By now the elves and spirits of previous centuries who had protected nature had been confined to harmless fairy tales, the sense in these increasingly godless colonial times was of the natural world being there for all to harvest at best, plunder at worst. My old fashioned geography lessons at school were about tobacco and coffee plantations and how very many apparently essential products came from whales, while the teacher who was after all kind hearted, told us in tears about how she had seen aborigines in Australia locked away behind fences and treated worse than animals.
This plundering is the result of a complete disconnect between man and the planet. My grandmother Jan Struther, with EH Shepherd as illustrator, wrote The Modern Struwwelpeter in 1936.
These stories are about how city children have to learn to cross the road safely, not play with electricity, and not want too much of all they see in shop windows. The children were named after her children and nephews. My mother’s story has her punished for saying too often “I must have that” and she gets turned into a wax shop dummy who can only forever “stand and smile and pose In the most expensive clothes.”
For my exhibition Otherworld I have aimed to evoke a reconnection with nature through those tiny spirits which might once have haunted the Heath which the gallery overlooks. Last summer I was deeply upset and infuriated when a wild part of it where I had just been photographing butterflies, including a colony of Essex skippers, was mowed the very next day by the council.
This contravened an arrangement where some areas of Blackheath were supposed to have been left wild after discussions between local experts and Greenwich council (which doesn’t have an ecology officer). An amazing number of ants bees and wasps can be found there. And will continue to be, but only if wild flowers and grasses are allowed to remain. Locals need to know about and understand this. If my eco-fantasy of a new culture of fear of harming the little folk came into play (including terrifying curses acted out on those who ignored and damaged them) perhaps the Heath could flourish and respect for the wild flowers, insects, bees even wasps be generated in all citizens, gardeners and the local council. That would be good for all of us to help prevent a real curse: a catastrophic decline in insects numbers.