Thursday, 11 December 2014

Responsible, and not yet Twenty

I've got hooked on writing stories with protagonists under sixteen.  My ideas machine just hopped from one to the next.  My tales tend to be high-stakes, world- or life- changing yarns.  Then I started thinking, how often do young people find themselves in those situations?  Stories are all well and good, but how close to reality is it?

I often read fiction for young people where they get rid of the adults one way or another, but in the real world, we're all mixed together.  I've been writing historical stuff and in my research its clear an under sixteens could be thrust right into the middle of extraordinary events and expected to do something about them.

Here are some examples that may give you ideas...


Unlike democracies where you have to grow up to be selected and elected, a royal is born to the job.  In the past when the Ruling Families, er...ruled, from the moment a royal was born to the moment they died they were in the game, often a deadly one.

In 1554 Lady Jane Grey of England was 17 when she was beheaded having been queen for around 9 days.

Elizabeth the First of England took the crown in 1558 at 25, when she was younger her life hung in the balance and whim of her half-sister Queen Mary.

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443 to 1509), was married at 12, widowed at 13 while pregnant with the future Henry VII of England.

Were these women pawns in power games or player themselves?  A bit of both really, but age didn't matter.

More obvious young people with a role.

Alexander the Great was notional regent at 16 leading forces into battle.

The Black Prince was in the field and fighting at the Battle of Crecy (1346) when also 16.

In the same conflict, the 100 years war, but on the French side, were Joan D'Arc, who only reached 19 and the boy Charles, who would become Charles VII of France was in the thick of it from the age of 15.

Look across every nation and you will find young men and women from ruling families fighting for their status, position, survival and sometimes their nation.  I can't resist one more.

Genghis Khan, he was only 10 when violence and danger was in his face and it never stopped for his whole life.  Admittedly he died in his 80s and for much of it he was dishing it out, but responsibility was there first for his tribe and then the whole Mongol people.

Enough of toffs.

Sailors and Soldiers

Boys have sailed with their fathers since time immemorial, first in fishing boats, then in trading vessels.  Imagine the dangers and responsibilities that could ensue.

More formally, in the Georgian British Royal Navy, a young man could join as a Midshipman; for example:  Horatio Nelson started his career at 13.  In a few years a boy seaman or midshipmen could be in charge of a gun section, a boat or some other position of responsibility.  In action senior men could be lost and instant promotion come a young man's way.

Imagine a small vessel with a couple of officers and midshipmen under fire, very quickly a 15 or 16 year old might be the only one able to command.  Would the old sea-dogs of the crew obey? Perhaps he's the only one in an open ocean who can navigate. There's a story in itself.

Then there were powder monkeys running ammunition to the guns.  Young boy seamen, probably younger than 13 running through a ship in the heat of action.  Were they all boys?  I doubt it.  When you're starving and choices are bleak, the reliability - relatively speaking - of life at sea might encourage a young girl to pretend to be a boy and see the carnage and horror of battle.

The army was no different.  There were drummer boys and those who lied about their age.  My Grandfather did to join the navy, using his dead brother's birth certificate.  One of my heroes Audie Murphy was probably 15 when he joined to fight in World War Two.  Many under-age soldiers fought in both world wars.  Until recently 16 year-olds could fight on the front line for the British Army.

I was told an anecdote about some World War Two British Army truck drivers who came under attack in Northern France.  The youngest, 16, broke down in tears as the enemy came at them.  The rest of the soldiers - only a few years older - had no anger or contempt for his nerve breaking.  They told him to hide as best he could until the fighting was done.  Later in the action a bullet pinging a little too close and he then went the other way, all fury and fight.

Around the world children still fight, some are forced and some volunteer.  The charity War Child estimate there are 250,000 child soldiers and almost half maybe girls.

Other Jobs

Apprentices started in their teenage years and were expected to master an 'adult' job as quickly as possible.  In a world with no government support, if their master or father - usually the main breadwinner - became ill or died, a young person could become critical to avoiding poverty not just for them, but their whole family or even a whole business.

I already mentioned Audie Murphy, another heroine of mine Annie Oakley was around 8 when she started hunting to keep her family fed when her father died.  At 15 she earned enough from her labours to pay off her mother's mortgage.  Imagine a 15-year-old doing that today - who isn't a pop or movie star, that is.

I saw a TV programme recently about John 'Jack' Bamford GC.  At 15 he saved his two brothers from a house fire showing extraordinary fortitude and bravery.  He was awarded the George Cross, the highest gallantry medal that can be awarded to by Britain for courage not in the face of the 'enemy'.

His courage was amazing, but what made me think, is that he had spent the day before working down the local coal mine.  At 15 in the 1950s he was considered a man and was expected to earn.

It reminded me of the boys who worked in mines hundreds of years before, 7 and 8-year-olds who had to work flaps to keep the air fresh for the older men - who might have only been a handful of years older - toiling away.

Today the are still child labourers, obvious ones are the actors you see on TV, but in poor areas everywhere young people are taking on responsibilities way beyond their years.

If you're thinking of a story about younger people, you don't need a virus to wipe out all the adults or maroon them in a strange place, look back to history.  You'll find people taking on burdens or seizing opportunities of great responsibility below an age when their allow to vote in most countries today.

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