“When I grow up, / I will be smart enough to / answer all the questions / that you need to know / the answers to / before you’re grown up. / And when I grow up / I will eat sweets every day / on the way to work / and go to bed late every night…”
That song has been in my head all week: When I grow up from Tim Minchin’s adapation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – a work of unutterable genius (on both parts) and a book which has remained special to me ever since I first encountered it at the age of ten. You see, Matilda is, in my opinion, a perfectly put-together children’s tale – free from condescension, pomposity and artifice – and, because it’s so earnest in its moral conviction, it speaks to me now just as warmly as ever.
It’s a story, I suppose, mainly of courage – the triumph of intelligence over the stupidity of brutes – but beyond that there lies a more subtle allusion, and one which all adults ought to bear in mind. Children, Dahl warns us, are apt to turn into grown-ups, and grown-ups, for all their buffoonery, tend not to live up to expectation. Indeed grown-ups, contrary to popular childhood belief, are flawed and frightened and foolish and just as incapable of making decisions as they ever were; they’re just bigger and older and their longevity requires them to take some sort of responsibility for their actions, whether they’re equipped for the task or not.
This fallibility in adults is a matter that is not largely discussed in front of children, even today, and the idea that a little girl may, on occasion, exercise greater wisdom than her parents and teachers, is one that doesn’t necessarily sit easily with those of us who have made it past all the major milestones and have, in some ways, ‘earned’ our adulthood. We know how to do long-division, for goodness sake!; we know how to apply for a mortgage; we know how to cross the road; we know all those practical pieces of information that, at the age of ten, seem impossibly clever. And we have matured morally, hopefully, too; we have seen our way through enough of life’s obstacles to have built up a personal bank of solutions, systems and standards and, in those ways at least, we are far more capable now than we could ever have hoped to have been back then. But what of those questions that Tim Minchin talks about in his song? Is the square root of sixty-four the sort of thing he’s thinking of? I would suggest not.
If Minchin has remained true to Dahl’s vision (and I believe he really has), those lyrics will refer to more than just the weekly maths test. “When I grow up“, the song continues, “I will be strong enough / to carry all the heavy things / you have to carry round with you / when you’re a grown-up” For members of the audience who have spent the day sifting through the latest list of onuses and obligations, there is bound to be a deeper resonance. The fact is that, as an adult, you are able to eat sweets every day (I still feel a surge of joy when I ration out my own biscuits, taking too many purely because I’m allowed to) and you can go to bed late every night if that’s what you want to do but, as the meek and mild-mannered Miss Honey illustrates, age does not cure all neuroses and, unfortunate as it is, it doesn’t guard against error either.
The wonder of Matilda, and When I grow up in particular, is that it reminds us of our ten-year-old selves. It reminds us of the ambitions we once had and of how much we looked forward to seeing them through, but it also reminds us of our own limitations and of how society holds age in such unrealistically high regard.
Underneath the bravado and bluff, it seems, we’re all still ten-year-olds; excited to be making our own rules and doing our best to bring about the many brilliant things we’d hoped for. We may still be metaphorically checking under the bed for monsters, and fretting about the things we’re unsure of, but that’s alright: “Grown-ups”, as Dahl once said, “are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets” and, through his writing, he gently points out that the biggest secret of all may well be that we’re still rather more similar to the children we used to be than we might publicly care to admit, and that the process of growing up is one which, despite the widespread misconception, is never really complete.