These are weepy times in Britain. The upper lip is no longer stiff, and huge leaks have appeared in the dam of the emotional self-control that has traditionally surrounded British life. Everyone, it seems, is wading about in a salty flood of remorseful tears. The “Diana Week,” in which red-eyed millions canonized their princess as a wronged Madonna of compassion, was only the most amazing overspill of this mood. Tony Blair’s overwhelming electoral victory in May, which at the time seemed to be about angry ration- ality, has in retrospect the features of an eruption of public shame. The eighteen years of Thatcherism and post-Thatcherism, with their vulgar gospel of selfish individualism, brought the British public to a point at which they could no longer live with their own self-dislike.
This is not as strange a phenomenon as it seems. The English, especially, have in the past been open to upwellings of mass guilt, above all in periods of rapid and uprooting social change. The Evangelical religious revivals of the early nineteenth century, at a time when the inrush of population to the new industrial cities was sweeping away older family structures and moralities, marked such a moment. The 1980s, which also seemed to overwhelm old values with new lifestyles dedicated to cash and the flesh, had a similar impact. Now there is a reaction, into horrified and lachrymose questioning. Where is decency, or community feeling? Where, above all, is innocence?
For the last ten years or so, the British have been facing up to the idea that “the innocents,” in the shape of their own children, are not so innocent after all. This has been especially painful in a society which from Victorian times developed the romantic notion of inviolate childhood—a walled garden, in which a holy and almost distinct subspecies found its protected habitat—with an enthusiasm unmatched anywhere else in the world.
It has been a step-by-step discovery. The first phase was a gradual recognition of the obvious—that most children were subject to constant moral and physical exploitation and that their ascribed “innocence” was constantly being shattered by adults. The Victorian decades of social reform were loud with calls to rescue children from premature conscription into the adult world by being sent up chimneys, beaten by drunken fathers, or turned out into the gutters to satisfy the enduring English lust for underage sex. It was a century later, in the 1970s, that incest involving children was not only recognized to be far more prevalent than anyone had been able previously to admit, but suspected to be merely one corner of a hidden universe of sexual exploitation and pedophilia. Report after report shocked the country during the 1980s, and the old “incest” word was rapidly and completely replaced by the term “child abuse”—subsuming both sex and violence.
It also became clear that the sexual abuse of children was usually done by men (and a few women) who had themselves been sexually exploited in childhood. Only in the last few years, however, has it emerged that the very young can also be abusers. It has turned out, through a series of horrific trials, that some of those who rape, batter, torture, and occasionally murder children are children themselves. The very notion of childish innocence is being undermined at last. It is not surprising that a fresh tide of self-reproach and self-questioning is running. If our children are capable of terrible deeds (these questions go), whose fault is it? Bad parenting, the new poverty of exclusion, the availability of violent and pornographic videos? Or can it be that we simply have not understood what a child is?
Under English law, a child under ten is not accountable for a crime, while a child between ten and fourteen is only accountable if he or she knows that a crime is being committed. But what does that “guilty knowledge” entail, and how can it be demonstrated? This was at the heart of the James Bulger case, which appalled and fascinated Britain in 1993 and which impelled the poet and critic Blake Morrison to cover the trial and write one of the two books under review.
In February of that year, two ten-year-old boys from a deprived part of Liverpool abducted the two-year-old James Bulger from a shopping mall. Both were habitual truants from school who passed their days marauding about the streets, shoplifting, and getting into minor forms of trouble. They took James Bulger on an aimless wander across the town, from time to time hitting and tormenting him. Finally they led him onto a railroad embankment, stripped him, covered him with paint, and then battered him to death with bricks and an iron bar. There was also some evidence, though the charge was never proved, that they abused him sexually. They left the little boy unconscious and dying across the rails, and a train later cut his corpse in two.
Blake Morrison spent a month at the trial of the two children, reporting on it for The New Yorker. “If child killings are the worst killings, then a child child-killing must be worse than worst.” That was the thought he went with. But it turned out not to be like that; there was no dial registering moderate or extreme degrees of wickedness. He went with a question, too: Why? But there was no reliable answer. “Increasingly, trying to answer Why seemed to require some leap of empathy, or speculation: from the churningly gruesome facts of the case into more general thoughts about what it is to be a child—and a parent.”
He looked at the two small boys in court, Robert and Jon. They were unnaturally fat, bloated by prison diet and lack of exercise. They seemed to have nothing whatever to do with the courtroom, no grasp of what was going on. Morrison was revolted. “I feel the spirit of medievalism working still in court: the dumb incomprehension and deep silence from the dock….” But this was not quite right. Far from being dumb animals, the boys turned out to be all too human and individual. Robert was the tough one, the leader and initiator; Jon the less cocky, the follower. Both had disturbed backgrounds. Robert grew up in a broken family where violence was endemic; Jon had displayed a desperate ferocity at school which horrified his teachers.
Both had lied comprehensively to everyone—family, police, social workers—about James’s death. But it was perfectly obvious that they and nobody else had killed him. The witnesses’ statements were quite conclusive. The trial was about whether the two boys knew, in the legal terms of accountability, what they were doing when they murdered James Bulger. At the core of the trial was the playing of tapes in court, the recordings of their interrogation by the police. The jury and the public heard the defiant little-boy voices denying, and then the terrible howling and weeping as they were confronted by the contradictions in their lies. “Please God,” Morrison writes, “never let me hear a child cry like that again. Or rather, let those who think these boys inhuman hear their all-too-human distress.”
They were both found guilty, and sentenced to be detained indefinitely “during Her Majesty’s pleasure.” Morrison, who had managed to read social and psychological reports on the two boys that were never produced in court, went away enraged. Guilty? What about the backgrounds, the emotional conflicts of these two “damaged and half-formed boys”? What about the responsibility of their parents? And yet those parents, themselves struggling against every disadvantage, had tried after their fashion to save their children: “They too felt beaten by life.” So where was the innocence, where was the blame?
In the intervals of the trial, Blake Morrison went back to the Yorkshire town where he grew up, and reflected on his own childhood. His father had lived in a hopeful postwar time when parents were sure their children’s lives would be better than their own. “Children leading adults away from destruction: that was us, after 1945.” But were they so innocent?
Here Blake Morrison begins to ramble a bit. His account of the trial, his description of Robert and Jon, is a devastating piece of reportage. But his attempt to measure what they did against his own childhood is awkward and less than conclusive. He wants to confront and demystify the adult fear that surrounds the sexuality of children; he describes his small daughter undressing in the literary language of a seduction, and records that he got a hard-on when he embraced her. This passage caused some silly consternation among London critics, but in fact leads nowhere helpful. He recovers from memory a nasty scene when he and some other boys had sex with a drunken teenage girl at a party (he didn’t actually “do it” in the dark cupboard, but the others did and he didn’t stop them). For that, he interrogates himself in the style of the police with Robert and Jon, but—again—we learn more about the sensibility of a writer who is also a father than about the inwardness of children.
Andrew O’Hagan takes us a bit closer to the secret. His Glasgow working-class family moved, when he was very small, to the fresh air and spreading concrete of Irvine, a “New Town” on the west coast of Scotland. It seemed a huge improvement. For children once confined to streets and sidewalks where they were pretty visible, it was now possible to take off into the landscape, “a territory to call their own: they were hanging out, but no longer where anyone could see them.” And, like those Liverpool boys, Andrew O’Hagan and his pals lived on the edge of trouble. They did the usual exciting, exploring things. But they also did bad things. They vandalized a builder’s yard, and regularly robbed and terrorized young men with Down’s syndrome at a nearby farm settlement. He and a small girl used to whip an even smaller child raw, on the way to school. And one day he, with three other kids, thrust a tiny boy into a deep swamp with wooden poles. They took turns pushing him under, pulling him out and cuddling him, and then pushing him down again.
That could have ended as the walk with James Bulger ended. The almost-killers were all of eight. Were they evil, and did it warp their lives? It did not. “One or two of the boys assiduously built bridges between this sort of behaviour and the ways of adult crime, but the great majority did no such thing. They were never perceived to be problem kids, just kids who sometimes went too far with things.” All the same, the Bulger case jolted O’Hagan. “It wasn’t the sort of case that anybody was going to understand, but it was one in which the lives of the boys, the lives of such children in general, could bear a little thinking about.”
He found it grotesque that they were given an “adult trial,” and treated by the press and public as devils. “They were children, and in some respects they were very typical little boys. Something had gone very badly wrong, obviously. I can’t say I identified with them. All I can say is that there were certain things about them which were recognizable, things about their lives, their ways of walking and inclining their heads towards each other.”
But Andrew O’Hagan’s book is not, mostly, about the evil that children do. It is about other children who disappear, and indeed about older but still young people who vanish in a variety of ways. The London police call them “mispers”—missing persons—and over 20,000 are registered in that city every year. Counting those who vanish but are unmissed by anyone, there may be 200,000 children and adults in Britain who cannot be found. Some are dead; in the United States, a child is kidnapped and murdered by a stranger every three days. Most are just not present, though probably alive somewhere. All are in some sense lost to somebody.
O’Hagan is haunted by the idea of the mispers. Borrowing a metaphor from photography, he writes that “a negative…will often show detail quite invisible in the picture itself.” Absence and missingness reveal a lot about the people, families, societies that miss a presence. And this loss of children is, of course, an ancient terror whose power has not diminished through the millennia. Children who vanished were in some times and places thought to have been murdered by Jews for their rituals, or abducted by passing gypsies. (In Scotland, at least, the traveling people themselves have the same fear, siting their camps in places where their own children will not be stolen by “burkers”—body snatchers—or kidnapped by social workers plotting to transport them to orphanages in Australia or Canada.) Today it is not Jews or gypsies that we fear, but mythic “Satanic abuse rings” and all-too-real pedophile killers (like those whose crimes have poisoned Belgian self-respect over the last two years). But the quality of terror is the same. Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel A Child in Time begins with the vanishing of a child in a supermarket (a moment’s inattention, a little girl never seen again), an episode which devastates every parent who reads or remembers it.
In 1976, when O’Hagan was eight, three disappearances happened near to him. Little Sandy Davidson, aged three, strayed out of his granny’s house in Irvine and was seen no more. Then Tricia Black, a big girl of twenty-two, didn’t come back from a night out, though her handbag was later found in a pool. A few months later, O’Hagan’s mother was shaken to hear that Renee Macrae and her little son had gone missing. A burned-out car was found, but nothing more. Mrs. O’Hagan had known the man whose picture was now in the papers as Renee’s lover. The police found no reason to charge him, though, and that case, too, remains an unsolved disappearance.
Missingness was already present in the family. Andrew O’Hagan’s grandfather had been listed as missing, presumed drowned, when his ship was torpedoed in the war: “Just as my sense of the family’s history had been a wee bit dark and tied to thoughts of my missing relatives, so, too, was my sense of things emerging in our new town tied to the fact that people could disappear around us at the same time.” The vanishings in 1976 marked him more deeply: “The disappearances of that year became tied, in my mind, to fears and wonderings, hopes for the future and curiosities about the past.”
Moving to London, he pursued the mispers of the metropolis, interviewing families, talking to police officers, seeking out the vagrant and homeless young who were already halfway down the vortex of oblivion. And he was drawn, almost inevitably, to the horror which came to obsess the British public of the 1990s as much as the James Bulger case: the Gloucester murders. There, over many years, Frederick West and his wife, Rosemary, had raped, tortured, and murdered an unknown number of young women, burying them in fields, under the concrete floor of their cellar, or beneath the paving of yards. Twelve bodies were eventually dug up. Nobody knows how many others were not found, for many of the victims were not strictly mispers: their disappearances had not even been noticed. “We failed to see that they couldn’t be seen, and that is always a tragedy too.”
But O’Hagan was too intelligent not to notice, in all his researches and encounters with survivors and bereaved families, that disappearing—even sometimes the disappearing of young children—often has to do with escaping. He sums it up well as a situation in which there is often no satisfactory solution.
The missing problem can be complexly evil, and it can be complexly benign. It may in time be answered by a national system of watching which helps with the stamping out of all sorts of badness, but which also prevents people who want to lose themselves from doing so. This, perhaps, is the price to pay.
January 15, 1998