Afew years ago, while looking at some early examples of children’s books, I came across a richly coloured catechism listing dos and don’ts: good little children don’t pull the wings off butterflies, or tease their tabby cat, and – this was an expensive, finely printed volume from the early 19th century – a good boy doesn’t throw his footman out of the window. The book is in the John Johnson Collection of Ephemera at the Bodleian, and this scene was pictured, as I recall, taking place in a panelled room – a prefects’ study, perhaps, or a dining club. Boys’ play, then. And although circumstances and contexts change, still boys’ play now. Cyberbullying is a novel mutation of the tradition and one that doesn’t look to be coming under restraint any time soon. In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, looking to the (near) future, has a group of genetically enhanced boys set about ragging Klara, an Artificial Friend, to see if her internal circuitry is primed so that she’ll land on her feet if she’s tossed about upside down.
Boys are not only the perpetrators but often the targets of bullying, hazing, and other rites of gender initiation. In No Boys Play Here, which forms a diptych with Girl with Dove, her unsparing memoir of 2018, Sally Bayley is concerned with ‘boys trying to become men, but also girls playing at being boys’. Dads, uncles, brothers, neighbours – figures of menace and disaster – loom and vanish (‘when I look for the men they are never there’). When they do appear, men prove all too real: they spit and piss and vomit.
Bayley’s title quotes Falstaff’s boast during the Battle of Shrewsbury, and the Bayley family’s ‘missing men’ are refracted through Shakespeare’s male characters, lumbering across the book as kings and knights or appearing in the role of serving boys – ostlers, carriers, tapsters and drawers – who are often discovered trying to hide behind the arras. Bayley pays particular attention to those who ‘draw’ ale, like the hapless Francis at the Boar’s Head Tavern, torn between glamorous Prince Hal, who is detaining him with idle chatter, and Poins, who is calling again and again for more drink. This is boys’ play, too, and Francis hovers, crying ‘Anon, anon, sir,’ as if, rather than meaning ‘soon’, ‘anon’ refers instead to himself, ‘the puny drawer’ in his state of nonentity, of not mattering. Bayley is the kind of child who had a drawer for a cradle and later, when she was put up for adoption, two drawers for her things in a room shared with other children. At her foster home, a girl called Frankie was chivvied and taunted by the adults, treated like a slavey; when she disappeared, Bayley took her place, not drawing beer but making the tea and working in a café to save money for university – and her escape.
Bayley also identifies with Shakespeare’s cross-dressed heroines, taking on the ‘lovely garnish of a boy’ as a survival strategy, and a bid for power: ‘Sometimes it’s just more practical … At some point we might need to supplement aspects of ourselves and, in the tradition of Shakespeare, blend the roles of girl and boy, man and woman, king and fool, queen and servant.’ One of the desperate acts of her youth involved stealing tools, first a spanner to fix her bike, then a hammer, and hiding them in her clothes so that she, like Falstaff, would have heft, sheer mass, more metal, and wouldn’t face the world in looped and windowed raggedness, like the sad raggle-taggle of recruits he musters at Shrewsbury.
Accounts of finding other worlds through books are common. In No Boys Play Here, the child Sally can’t find a hiding place where she can read – there is no alcove behind the red curtain as there was for Jane Eyre. In Bayley’s account she steals away into the cellar, and later, in her foster family’s house, into the lavatory, and then, when she becomes a truant and a runaway, she walks up Highdown Hill and sits in the open air. In The Child that Books Built (2002), Francis Spufford’s self-portrait of the author as reader, he tracks his journey from picture books to teenage comics and his first encounters with pornography. His childhood was lonely because there was sickness in the house: his baby sister had cystinosis, a rare genetic disorder. Bayley adopted the same stratagem – losing herself in a book – but the sickness was different. It’s part of her technique that she never resorts to jargon, but her family conditions are all too recognisable, especially after months of lockdown: isolation in the midst of overcrowding, undernourishment, unemployment, domestic violence, bullying, abuse. ‘Poverty,’ she writes, ‘produces stunted children.’ She adds that 33 per cent of children in Britain exist in such conditions; since she recorded the figure, the number has risen.
We follow Bayley from her early childhood in a house ruled by women to the time when, aged fourteen, she gave herself up for adoption, in the face of enraged opposition from her aunt Di. Aunt Di presided over a weird crypto-Darwinian matriarchal cult and tyrannised her sister Angela, Bayley’s mother, as well as the gaggle of children born to them both (all boys except for Bayley). They had something from Grandmother Maze’s small pension; otherwise, the fifteen or so occupants of the four rooms lived on benefits. ‘The truth is no one in our house worked, not for money.’ There was much thieving and shaking of slot machines by the intermittent menfolk, and the money obtained went on drink, as the men came and went but were never allowed to sleep in a bed, only on the floor or a park bench. The piss of drunkards rises from the alley behind the house as Bayley’s mother and aunt curse and yell but can’t provide for their children. When her father, Laurie Hill, returns from a stint working in Saudi Arabia (at some point he qualified as a psychiatric nurse), he finds his elder brother, James, roosting in the family home; they fight, and Uncle James falls down the front steps, and Laurie with him. Bayley’s elliptical style doesn’t make clear exactly what happened. But it is Laurie who goes to prison and James who is dead, in his black sandals, ‘giant beetles, their shells splitting as the leather tears open’. At least Laurie will now have a bed and regular meals, Sally thinks. When she draws a picture of her home at school, she remembers these scenes: ‘Dad is down on the steps and his head is all skew-whiff. I want to drag him up but I can’t get him over the steps.’ She begins to paint using a lot of red. ‘Not too much red,’ her teacher says. ‘Fighting’s in the blood,’ Bayley writes, ‘but apart from the blood on the doorstep, I don’t remember much of dad.’
No Boys Play Here is written prismatically, breaking up time and flashing a kinetic sequence of songs, nursery rhymes, and quotations, especially from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IV. Bayley’s prose recalls Poor Tom’s scattershot patter in King Lear, Edgar’s play-acting. As a lonely child she is fired by mysterious phrases and strange punning (of Falstaff: ‘He frets like a gumm’d velvet’; when Falstaff is tricked by Prince Hal: ‘Thou liest, thou art not colted, thou art uncolted’). Falstaff’s name for a chamber pot, ‘Jordan’, is another of the magic words that can trick reality into seeming different, as when a soused Uncle James wants her to help him unbutton. Like Prince Hal, Bayley is studying people ‘like a strange tongue’.
Bayley’s adeptness with mobile identities, with class as well as gender, gives her unexpected sympathies – by the close of the book, she is understanding even of the wretched males (‘men are just boys in disguise’). She notes that men account for three-quarters of suicides in the UK, that suicide is the chief cause of death among ‘young men between twenty and thirty-four’ and continues to remain high among low-skilled workers. Most surprising, she also feels for Falstaff. She imagines herself stowed away inside his belly and experiences deep fellow feeling when he is finally dismissed by Hal. ‘I know thee not old man’ – one of the most wrenching lines in Shakespeare – is felt by Bayley, too, regardless of the differences that separate the girl waif, from the jocose, reprobate Fat Jack.
Girl with Dove and No Boys Play Here form an autofictional whole (the Italian translation of the first book has been categorised as a novel by its publishers). Bayley’s contribution to this ever-expanding genre is her distinctive approach to the self, the auto at the heart of autobiography, when compared to the portraiture methods of, say, Philip Roth (in his Zuckerman novels) or Annie Ernaux, who, in The Years, describes the life of a woman of her generation as if she were a concave mirror, able to capture, from the very edge of vision, the lives of all her contemporaries thronging round her. Ernaux doesn’t use the first person, but talks of herself in the third person, and records her passages chronologically in the impersonal on (mostly rendered in English as ‘we’ by her translator Alison Strayer). By contrast, Bayley progresses jaggedly and disrupts her voice not by uniting herself with a chorus of others under the first-person plural, but by projecting her thoughts through the mouths of others – watching out for the masks they put on, listening for the voices they affect. In The Private Life of the Diary (2016), she considers the different ways that writers have expressed ‘selfness’, and is often caustic about the journals of, for instance, Susan Sontag and Sylvia Plath. Her own accounts deliberately avoid soul-searching and the quest for self-discovery. In Girl with Dove, the funnier, less bleak of the two books, she imagines her neighbours as characters from a murder mystery; in this sequel, the dissolution of herself into all these boyish and kingly parts is rooted in a concept of personality as contingent, mutable and dispersed, a kind of quantum field psyche that is both here and there at the same time.
Towards the end of Klara and the Sun, when Ishiguro is puzzling out the difference between a real girl, Josie, and her Artificial Friend, he comes up with a notion of dispersed identity that no robot can replicate. Klara articulates it: ‘Mr Capaldi [the creator of AFs] believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.’ This perception of a person’s uniqueness as distributed among those who love her, and secured by their consciousness of her, can be ‘supplemented’, in Bayley’s use of the term, by including among these defining and sustaining presences the imaginary beings who emerge from – exist in – books, and who have been adopted and incorporated into the extended family of one’s mind.