Once upon a time, in late Nineteenth-Century England little John Masefield lived a happy childhood, with a loving family and a love of books. Then his parents died, and the boy’s guardian, an aunt out of Dickens, sent him off the Conway, the training ship of the Merchant Navy, to cure him of his “book-obsession”.
Young John, you know, had “too much imagination”.
It could have been worse, because the lad loved the sea, and the Conway proved to be a congenial environment, where tutors and fellow students liked his turn for storytelling… Except, poor John was not made for the rigours of service. Once a petty officer, he embarked on his first transatlantic ship, and the voyage was a nightmare of ill-health, fevers and dizzy spells – awfully dangerous, when you are expected to spend half your life climbing up and down the rigging…
Although he barely survived, and had to be repatriated on sick-leave, his dreadful aunt had him embark again. After another horrible crossing, young John took the matter into his own hands and, once in New York, deserted ship.
Not the safest course, perhaps – but it allowed to keep his life, his love of books and his excessive imagination. He worked hard, read a lot, taught himself, began writing, and went on to become England’s Poet Laureate in 1930.
Nowadays, we mostly remember him for his Salt-water Ballads: I must go down to the sea again… He himself, never went down to the sea again, except once, as a passenger, to cross back home.
Still, one has to wonder. What if the Evil Aunt had managed to stifle John’s imagination in infancy? What if the people on the Conway, instead of encouraging him, had taught him that imagination is a dangerous failing to eradicate as soon as possible?
And I wonder because, some time ago, my little godson had his imaginary friend banned from the kindergarten. The educators did it after a little accident with another child – but it seems they had been waiting for a chance to banish Otto the Hare, as they triumphantly announced to the rather flabbergasted mother. They frowned when she said that Otto is very much a part of the family, and they explained that getting rid of an imaginary friend was essential to the boy’s growth.
At four, you see? At four, my godson was deemed to have too much imagination, and needed to be cured of it.
John Masefield’s story is a monument to the resilience of imagination, and it shows that this sort of cure doesn’t work… or does it? Masefield and his imagination lived through a lot – and I wonder if, in fact, imagination isn’t what kept him sane during his misadventures – but how many other children were and are cured with success? How many grow into adults who don’t read (unless it’s “from a true story”), and can’t extrapolate, and scoff at speculative fiction, and assume historical novelists must share their characters’ Elizabethan prejudices, and watch talk-shows because “it’s true life”…?
Oh, I don’t know – but, as I said, one has to wonder.