Boxes of Tissues

Hilary Mantel

  • As If by Blake Morrison
    Granta, 245 pp, £14.99, February 1997, ISBN 1 86207 003 2

Blake Morrison begins his account of the murder of James Bulger with a delicate diversion into the story of the Children’s Crusade. The year 1212: at Saint-Denis, a boy of 12 begins to preach. He has received word from God that it is the mission of Christian children to free the Holy Land from the infidel. He draws crowds, draws followers: boys and girls swarm from street and field. God is their Pied Piper. They march the roads of France, exalted, unstoppable, expecting a miracle at every turn in the road. They reach the sea and set sail for-what?

The grown-up Blake Morrison dwells on a darker version. Was the crusade exploitative, a lawless migration of unwanted children who would end by being sold into slavery? Disconcerted, he researches. It seems certain that the story has some basis in fact. Why has it stuck with him into adult life? Did he entirely believe in it, when he first came across it? And where was that? Was it a school history lesson? Henry Treece’s novel, published 1958?

Fine prose makes the memory work. I myself first read about the Children’s Crusade in a weekly magazine called Look and Learn. This publication was approved by adults; it was better than Bunty or Judy. When you turned one of its stiff, highly-coloured pages, you crackled with rectitude inside. And there it was: a child-hero gathers his forces for the Holy Land. There was a large illustration. After one reading they haunted me, those notional peasant faces – naive medieval eyes upturned under pudding-bowl haircuts. I found them in library books, I found them everywhere; the girls in the pictures were always younger, and their faces were unformed, less decisive. Why everywhere? Was someone arranging it? Was it a piece of knowledge directed especially at me? As if adults were sending me ceaseless information about it, as some sort of test of my moral courage. As if I were obscurely at fault for not having joined the crusade myself. As if ... It was the first ‘fact’ I decided to disbelieve. I thought it was a myth, and you can decide whether to take myths into your life; this one was not in my best interest.

Further research convinces Blake Morrison that scepticism is in order. It seems the word used of these crusaders was pueri, which can mean not a child but a youth, any male between 12 and 28. A more convincing picture emerges: runaway apprentices and landless younger sons, big lads on the loose, on the road ... It sounds more likely. Still, the original, uneasy picture gnaws in the psyche: children lost and wandering, lost and gone for ever. Reading the early pages of Morrison’s book, I go back to an earlier age still, when my body registered symptoms of fear whenever I heard the phrase ‘far and wide’. It was the title, as my luck would have it, of a series of graduated reading books. I heard it again and again, with the same stir of panic. It’s what every child fears: to be far, to be flung wide, to be lost without hope of gathering-in.

And so the mind arrives at the blocky geometry of that defective video screen; the toddler’s arm stretched up, the older child in step with him, and the other form – the third point of the triangle – moving weightily ahead, purposive, as if in a hurry to arrive at the obscenity being prepared.

Two ten-year-old boys, truanting from school, go to a Liverpool shopping-centre. They stole, or may have stolen, ‘a pen, a packet of batteries, Humbrol enamel paint tins, sausage rolls, party poppers ... a troll ... a packet of iced gems, a balloon, a plum, a pear, a banana’. Think of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trying to steal apples; standing rapt before a fruit stall, gazing at ripe pears. Today it’s Robert and Jon who are on a spree: they steal a yoghurt, a milkshake, two cartons of Ambrosia rice. Finally they steal a child, blond-haired, not quite three. One of them takes him by the hand. They lead him into the city.

They walk some busy roads, they are seen many times, remarked by passers-by. At intervals the baby shows distress, and adults do stop, ask questions; after all, this is Liverpool, where mouths are not zipper-ed and concern is not frozen and a child is everyone’s concern. But the big boys are plausible: he is lost, but they’re taking him to a police station. And at times the child looks happy, trotting along quite trusting and contented. They walk him two miles. Two miles away from the mother who momentarily took her eyes off him. They take him to open land, beside a railway line. It is now almost dark. They strip off his lower garments. They ... what comes next, we do not know. They beat him to death. They leave his body to be cut in half by a train.

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