I grew up in a small hamlet of a small village on a wide Yorkshire moorside. As kids we loved lecking out on the moors, free from adults; the world our playground. We had a little gang of about eight kids. We built dens which fell in our heads. We terrorised the local farmers. We fished for minnows in streams and blew home rosy-cheeked whenever we fancied. Once, there were roadworks in the village. We rode our bikes down just to use the real-life traffic lights.
We were suspicious of off cumdens. We gossiped. There were two ladies who lived together at the top of the track who loved each other, like that. They once argued so fiercely that blood came out of their ears. There was one black kid who lived in the village, and her mum was French. If someone was a bit bookish and strange, people knew it, and mentioned it. You heard it from someone who’d heard it from someone else, who’d probably been discussing it in the Co-Op. You never knew the exact words that were said. It was me, of course, who was a bit bookish and strange.
As teenagers, we had to be driven everywhere. We didn’t go to the local secondary school. We were spoilt and entitled and chose one further away that was supposed to be better (it wasn’t) and posher (it thought it was). So our social lives were suspended between the village kids and the other, posher, rural market-town kids. I fitted in with neither.
We were older, nearly Uni bound, when our parents divorced. Our dad loved men, like that, and everybody knew. You didn’t know the exact words that were said, but they knew. The talking bonded them all together, as gossip does, and excluded us, as gossip does. But we were on our way away by then.
We chose to bring our own kids up in London. No free-range tiddler-catching moor days for them. But no one black kid in the village, either. No bother about who loves whom, like what. We’re all off cumdens here, and bookish and strange is a good thing – or just a thing, and good is relative.
But just as those idyllic free-range days were not so rosy in reality, so the free-and-easy city anonymity is something of a lie. As a stay at home mum, I feel guilty for staying at home, just as working mums feel guilty for working and part time working mums feel guilty for what they’re not doing at work when they’re at home and what they’re not doing at home when they’re at work. So because I feel guilty about staying at home, I joined the PTA.
Now, because PTA concerns are by its nature petty, and the details tedious even to those who take them on, I’ll gloss over the details. There was an event planned, and a fuck-up occurred. And the fuck-up resulted in disappointed children, which will always set the village tongues wagging (though in a Yorkshire village the children would just have to Think On, or Shurrup Mitherin’ or something). Anyway – this is important – it created a division between working and stay-at-home parents. The fuck-up wasn’t mine, and in fact I had tried very hard to avoid just such a division. There it is.
The School Gate social minefield feels difficult to navigate on the best of mornings. On the morning after The Grand PTA Fuck Up, somebody came to stand next to me in the class line ‘in solidarity’. I was grateful, of course, but as a by-nature paranoid person who grew up in a small village, into my heart fear was struck. Throughout the day, it continued. People apologising for us getting abuse for something that wasn’t our fault. People showing support. Things discussed, debated and mulled over in private groups spewed whispered and deformed into public space. We didn’t know the exact words that were said, but we knew it was worse than bookish and strange.
It takes a village to raise a child – and if we have children where there is no village, we will make one. The school is a village. Our street is. Somebody was talking about me outside my house yesterday when the windows were open – I couldn’t hear the exact words they said because I covered my ears, but that’s a village, right there. And then there’s the other, newer, village we’ve created ourselves: the virtual village. Social Media. Twitter, the town crier; Facebook the Parish Newsletter, connecting cityfolk to each other in ways reserved for yokels in times past. And Whatsapp, the chat in the Co-op, where you might hear the rumour later but you don’t know the exact words said. It bonds groups together, as gossip does, and it excludes, as gossip does.
So two things I’ve learned, and a third my Yorkshire childhood taught me and I’m clinging to. The first is that villages are made of gossip and children, and that if you have the children you can’t escape the village (or the gossip). The second that social media may feel intimate but it is about as private as a village Co-Op. Be careful with the words you say. And the last that really, it’s just a PTA event, and that one way or another – it’ll be reet.