In Waterland, Graham Swift presents two ages of Tom Crick, his youth and his middle-age, and constructs a story that points out the connections between Tom, curious student of life and books, and "old Cricky" (Waterland, 5), the teacher of disillusioned youth. Childhood forms the relationships and fundamental personal characteristics that the future self rests upon, the self's history, the story of how the adult evolved, progressed, regressed. Childhood's story speaks of awakening, discovery, warding off fear. Adulthood's story describes the need to tell the story of change, the plunge into history:
Children to whom, throughout history, stories have been told...in order to quell restless thought; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives. (7)
Children may be blissfully ignorant or innocent of themselves as children, but adults see into or recreate or at least believe that "they come trailing clouds of glory, that they bring with them little parcels of paradise, that locked in their bosoms is a glimpse of what the world might just one day be." (235)
The novel begins with Henry Crick's reminder to Tom about people: "'each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk'" (1). This counsel acts as a qualifier in history's view of humanity, as a truth (the only common inheritance) which the characters in Tom's story forget about themselves, looking to their own children as the carriers of a torch which turns out to be an illusion: Ernest Atkinson impregnates his daughter Helen (Beauty personified, to him) in an attempt to create The Saviour of the World, who turns out to be a potato-head. Young Price's rebellion against History sparks Crick's foray into story-telling. Swift positions Price in this narrative as rebel, an embodiment of "natural resistance" (239), plagued by fear for the future. In one aspect, Crick's story-telling attempts to assuage this fear, to bring Price to an understanding of the value of his own youth through self-reflection. In Crick's estimation, childhood stands as that age "where life is always beginning, where the world is still to come" (152), the territory between the fatalism and imperialism of the adults in the story. Molding children, then, comprises the work of the adult-as-teacher: "A long, hard struggle against a natural resistance" (239). The dynamic of this relationship, embodied in Tom Crick's life, presents childhood as a natural state of existence. Tom Crick, by means of telling his stories, attempts to regain the freshness and meaning of childhood for himself, to reclaim his identity from "human siltation" (10), while instilling in his students an understanding of their special position at the same time. Thus childhood acts as a catalyst in the search for meaning, for an explanation of why the world works as it does: "your 'Why?' gives the answer. Isn't this seeking for reasons itself an inevitably historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before?" (106) As Tom Crick tells this story to children, readers, in a sense, are positioned in the role of child-student themselves. Crick's history lesson to his students unfolds as a lesson to the reader as well.