Simon Collins

Simon Collins

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

I’m starting to think the Victorians were right about children. And when I say Victorians, I’m not talking about that not insignificant portion of the Australian population which believes the opinions of obstetricians should be overruled by the infants they deliver. Or the Australians who want 16-year-olds to be allowed to vote. Or the Australians whose Premier recently endorsed the decision of secondary school students to disrupt our city centres and demand the restructuring of our economy. No, I’m talking about the Victorians who gave us poorhouses and penny-farthings and Jack the Ripper. A bygone pommy generation often characterised as regressive and authoritarian and paternalistic. Which is not entirely fair. Sure, they covered up the odd suggestively carved piano leg and imprisoned the odd flamboyantly dressed aesthete. But these Victorians also initiated unprecedented social and political change, from the extension of their own domestic slavery prohibition to the edges of the empire, to the Reform Laws, which curtailed the more anachronistic powers of the aristocracy. British parliaments of that era also introduced legislation forcing employers to observe the sabbath, thereby inventing the weekend, and incubated the (correctly spelled) Labour Party. They didn’t get everything right, those spat-sporting mutton-chopped Victorians: they were two decades behind us on women’s suffrage and didn’t stop dumping convicts on us until 1868. But when our present monarch’s great-grandmother finally popped her bejewelled Jermyn St. clogs she left a far more equitable realm than the one she’d inherited. And thanks to the supplications of the Anglican Church and the novels of Charles Dickens, children were among the beneficiaries, in as much as poorer parents started sending their kids to school instead of up chimneys and onto battlefields. Victoria must have quite liked children herself or she wouldn’t have had nine and named so many parts of her empire after them. But it’s highly unlikely she consulted them before doing so. Indeed, despite what the eponymous TV series would have you believe, before her children came of age it’s doubtful she’d have asked them about anything much beyond how their German was coming along. Nobody, after all, had asked her how she felt about being crowned a child, and she’d soon worked out that the secret of being a popular monarch was to accede to the prevailing belief that children should be seen and not heard, and thereafter to remain – in that respect at least – forever a child herself. So if the opinions of princesses were deemed worthless, how much more so the opinions of the children of commoners? The idea that they should be deferred to on any subject would have been such a novelty to audiences that George Bernard Shaw later made it the subject of one of his plays. But the old fascist had to scroll back four centuries for his source material, and St Joan is his only tragedy, its gamine heroine coming to a smoky end for presuming to tell grown-ups how to behave.

Greta Thunberg is the St Joan de nos jours, the principal difference being that while the Maid of Orleans contented herself with resolving the problems of one country, the Siren of Stockholm has given herself a global remit. Any playwrights working on equivalent homages to Greta Thunberg must have been hoping that after she’d had her last American tantrum and was heading back to Europe, the carbon neutral craft carryinher would be capsized by a storm directly attributable to the climate change she’s been warning us about. However the play might be received, that would certainly have ensured the canonisation of its subject. But nature refused to play ball here, just as it has stubbornly refused to grant all the other wishes of the climate catastrofarians, so now those playwrights will have to abandon their tragic endings in favour of something rather more prosaic, but at the same time, in its own way, so much more satisfying. In the final scene of this version of the play, the smugness of the Thunberg family is shattered when, not long after Greta arrives home, the Swedish police barge in and charge Mr and Mrs Thunberg with child abuse. And as the curtain falls Greta herself has her Instagram account suspended and is sent to bed without any pepperkaker.

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