Childhood: The Real Event - review

Kids Company comes to the Royal Academy.

"Often the deepest pain empowers you to grow into your highest self, but it can also destroy all your ambitions and dreams," Asha, 21,  Kids Company.

Outside the Royal Academy, a billowing, brightly coloured banner draws you in to the venerably institution's latest exhibition: “Childhood: the real event”. Take up the invitation and you'll see the work of children from across London exploring their real life stories.

Wandering through the first corridor, which is draped in acetate slides of children’s dreams for the future - varying from the widespread hope to play for Arsenal to the occasional aspiration towards a medical degree and, most touchingly, the hope to be loved - you are transported into another world. In the first room, with four large installations of sculpture, sound and video, is a world dominated by fear and distress. In the second room, coated in paintings, fashion, poetry and installations, the dominant tone is one of frank honesty. The third room, which features a selection of reflections and stories in all forms, is a world of healing, the last one a world of hope. These are the worlds of the "lone children", of whom are there are between 1.5 and 2 million in the UK - children who, whether in care, living with parents or fending for themselves, are subject to maltreatment.

Kids Company was established in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh to act as an advocate, a therapist and a carer to these children. The exhibition at the Royal Academy is just one example of the work the organisation does with maltreated children and young people in London. It is beautiful, tough and, above all, moving. Speaking to the New Statesman, Batmanghelidjh agrees: “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and I’m moved by it.”

Kids Company describes the service it offers to children and young people as “reparenting”, giving lone children who have suffered trauma and maltreatment access to key workers who fulfill a parental role in everything from attending parents’ evenings and taking them to school to helping with immigration law and council housing. Batmanghelidjh says:

It’s about not silo-ing these kids and their issues. If you don’t have a pair of shoes or you’re hungry it will impact right across your day. So it’s no good saying “we’re only in mental health provision” or “we’re only in housing provision” if you don’t address the rest of the things then what you provide isn’t robust.

Kids Company, above all, is a sanctuary to these children, away from trauma, maltreatment and fear. Batmanghelidjh says the project at the Royal Academy has offered the children involved the chance to work with artists as a form of therapy and an opportunity to tell their own stories:

The exhibition will give them a sense of pride and dignity and also diminish their invisibility. A lot of these children lead these lives in secret; these lives are not reflected back on the TV with them as the daily lives of children. By putting it in the public space in such a way, what we’re saying to the children is “your life experience is legitimate, it’s worth communicating and it’s important”

One of them, Karl Lokko, describes the children who took part in the exhibition as having been exposed to trauma at “ages where they’re not able to grasp totally what algebra is, never mind figure out the equations of life”. But their stories are awe-inspiring.

Children: The Real Story runs until 22 July at the Royal Academy, 12pm to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Entrance is free.

Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear