I’ve been thinking all week about Jon Venables. In some way, I find it too distressing to write down what the case means to me, when so many people believe the young man is simply a lost cause, a person in the grip of evil. The papers have been ringing asking for comment: the messages go to voicemail. Outside, buses pass in quick succession, the passengers reading their newspapers and seeming very sure of something: ‘Once Evil, Always Evil,’ says the Mirror. I keep thinking of Meursault, who didn’t know why he did it, who didn’t see the size of the damage, who wasn’t able to opt for survival, with the sun beating down and explaining nothing.

When I first wrote about the killing of James Bulger, in the LRB in March 1993, I was in my early twenties and it was the first proper piece I’d written for publication. The nation was in an uproar and something about the boys on the CCTV footage made me uneasy about myself. The editor sent me home to think about it, and over that day and long night I came to see my unease was to do with familiarity. Venables and Thompson were not only like the boys I knew, but like the boy I had been, and their crime was an extreme version, different in degree but not in essence, from things we had done on the housing estate outside Glasgow where I grew up. The amoral meandering of the boys was something I recognised.

When I wrote that piece, my childhood was still close enough for me to enjoy the surprise of having escaped it. Now, at this distance, I realise Venables is nearly 30. I find the confluence, if that’s the word, of his ruination and my visibility disturbing. At some level, I will always feel I could have been Venables and the more opportunity I get to make myself understood, the more it becomes obvious that he will never escape condemnation, the thing John Major called for more of in his statement at the time of the trial. I have dreams about the boys, and sometimes dream I am the person in the CCTV footage who walks past them with a shopping bag at the exact moment they abducted James. I can see the butcher’s shop where James’s mother is waiting for her change; I see the floor tiles reflecting shadows and hear the mall’s muzak bending sinister as the shoppers go about their business. I hear the echoing swimming-pool clamour of the ordinary day about to go wrong.

Sometimes I stop in front of the boys and catch something I would rather not see in their eyes. And I am frozen there, sure my face is the only one facing the cameras. I imagine I can rescue all three of them by reaching in and whisking the toddler free, that I can send Venables and Thompson on their way, to find lives that might turn out like mine, in the sense of having a childhood they can shrug off, and children whom they can look after, in rooms they have taken to house their sanity. All this happens in the dream, and I wake up shouting. Those who’ve heard it say that what I think is a shout is actually a moan; when I’m asked what the dream was about I can never bring myself to say: ‘It’s really about me.’

I had hoped at least that Venables and Thompson might have succeeded in wiping out their childhoods and starting again. The news in the last few days that Venables would stop people in the street to tell them who he really was, tell them he was Jon and he was one of the pair who had murdered the little boy in Liverpool, leaves me forlorn. I always thought he might be out there somewhere, inventing himself.

Every growing writer has his shadows, and by middle age we know these counterlives are part of us. For some, it may be a dead father still stalking their prose. Forster spoke of his mother, standing in that house on the margins of Stevenage, surrounded by all her plates and her shawls, waiting for him. But the media age has brought those shades from places we haven’t quite been: when I dream I am in the Strand Shopping Centre, I am seeing a configuration both made and sustained by the public eye.

Back in 1993, I thought I could name something that wasn’t being named, spell it out plainly, and that would be that. But what I didn’t know was the depth of the panic caused by Venables and Thompson: a crisis not only in the right-wing press, but a small crisis of liberalism, too. Nobody knew whether to blame videotapes or economic depravity, negligent mothers or state schools, but a fundamental loss of innocence was at issue. The British papers were in their favourite mode, evident again this week: mixing vengeance with sentiment, while exuding prurience and humbug. Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, is being paraded as the proper arbiter of justice: as if the mother of a murdered child should call the shots, should be the one to decide what ought to be done with the killers. She is not to be challenged: who in their right mind would seek to challenge a grieving parent?

Yet we need to challenge her, because that also means challenging the moral stupidity the media’s use of her represents, the urge towards counter-violence that always seems to make sense to the mind of the average working-class Briton. Of course she wants the boys behind bars for ever. She wants their rights taken away. Which of us, given the horror, would never be tempted down that road? No matter what the law says, a sense of entitlement nowadays devolves to the families of murder victims. The tabloids and not just the tabloids like it that way. Among the tabloids I include the Today programme.

This case has, from the beginning, involved the need to say that grief is not an achievement, doesn’t confer power, and Denise Fergus should have no say at all in the fate of the boys who killed her son. She speaks contemptuously of the justice system, feels she should be consulted on every aspect of the case, and the media egg her on because her words claim attention and sell papers. She, too, is one of the shades haunting the Strand Shopping Centre. We want to listen to her, but to act on what we hear would be criminal. She says she won’t rest until those boys are truly punished for what they did: she wants them incarcerated under their original names – a death sentence.* Meanwhile the justice secretary feels he must pay lip-service to her status in all of this.

In 1993, there was no liberal orthodoxy to apply to the case, and there isn’t now. Yet we should still think about Boy A and Boy B, who only became known to us as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables when the judge in the original trial proved over-zealous in meeting press demands that the boys be named and their likenesses published. There isn’t another country in Europe where two ten-year-olds in trouble would have been exposed like that, and it directly led to them requiring new identities and protected lives. It now looks as if Boy B was unable to cope with that in the long term, and his new criminal activity, however sexual and however violent, will be horrifying to the same degree that it is consistent in a man with his experience. If he has been looking at child pornography, as alleged, or getting into knife fights, as also alleged, then we might acknowledge that this is what routinely happens in the lives of adults who lost their childhoods, who were abused themselves, who can’t go home again, and who might be condemned to spend their lives in a cycle of harm and rescue. The question, therefore, is as much ‘what else did you expect?’ as ‘how could he?’ You can’t magic his kind of trouble away.

The Guardian columnist Jill Tweedie called me after my first piece appeared. I didn’t know her, but she was crying on the phone, saying there were things that she’d done in her past, childhood cruelties, that she had never recovered from, never even told her husband about. Another phone call came from a writer who said the case had drawn him back to a terrible incident at Eton, when he stabbed a boy with a penknife. We might think about the steps people take to reimagine or redress their early lives when they know they were blighted by their own wrongdoing and by the wrongdoing that surrounded them before they could oppose it. With Venables, we allowed ourselves to think that rehabilitation had put the past out of play, and that eight years of sterling effort by social workers had ‘fixed them’, filled their minds with gratitude, cancelled their anguish. But it was always possible that one or other of these boys would fall, as if for the first time, possibly by reaching for a childhood his circumstances now denied him.

It’s said you can’t unmake your childhood. But you can. You can unmake it every day of your adult life. I think I would say that every fictional character I’ve created has lived with that dream. But perhaps nobody can have lived with it as complicatedly as Jon Venables. In recent years, he has been drawn remorselessly back to the Liverpool of his youth, despite his licence making such visits illegal. He worked as a bouncer at a club and he did some of the things other twentysomethings do: he drank cider and took ecstasy tablets and he found he had no balance, he had no story, he had no standing as a person beyond his own horrible myth. He had shown good form at the beginning of his ‘rehabilitation’: he was the first of the pair to break down and admit what had happened; he was the first to express remorse and wish that the victim’s family could know he was sorry. Under questioning, he was the wrecked and emotional one, failing to grasp the legal terms that were being spoken to him. At the trial, I was shocked at how little the defence did to try to explain the boys’ lives.

To this day, I feel that Venables, especially, was unable fully to understand what he was doing the day they killed James. He knew what killing was, but in the same way that many children know what flying is: a thing that some people can do quite effectively and excitingly in films. After watching the film Halloween, about a series of frenzied murders, Venables made a drawing of a person wielding two knives and stabbing two smaller people. The killer had breasts. He called the drawing ‘My Dad’s House’. In the days before abducting James Bulger, the pals watched the movie Child’s Play 3, about plastic dolls who are inhabited by the souls of ‘bad guy’ dolls. The bad guy doll, Chucky, is splattered with paint and cut to ribbons. James Bulger, it should pain us to recall, was spattered with paint on the road to his death. And beside his body on the railway line lay stolen batteries, suggesting the boys may have been confused between a real life and a toy.

The attempt to make sense of these things might be doomed to failure. In a very direct way, a ‘senseless killing’ is more bearable, because it saves us the trouble of having to ask any questions of ourselves. But for me the Bulger case will always mean asking questions of myself: asking why we undid the belts supporting young trees and used them to beat a boy until his legs were raw or why the cats on the estate were never safe from our excursions. Luck played its part in rescuing me from all that, but I had friends who were not so lucky, and I know their names and sometimes I see their faces in my dreams too. In some way I am tied to Venables and Thompson, and it feels very natural to me to have believed that writing could be a way of speaking up for all of us.

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Vol. 32 No. 8 · 22 April 2010

In the early 1980s I was sentenced to six years in jail for smuggling cocaine in a boat. One of Leon Brittan’s first executive actions as home secretary was to deny parole for people serving ‘a long term’ (more than five years) for certain offences, including those involving drugs. Consequently I had the good fortune to spend long enough in prison to acquire something of an education – and not just through the Open University.

Like Andrew O’Hagan, I too recall moments of savagery I indulged in in childhood (LRB, 25 March). I used to dream about my cruelty to a beloved chicken, often waking in tears. (It involved a tricycle and a length of string; I believe I thought she needed the exercise.) Later, experiments with my dog and a garage roof brought some moments of self-loathing. (She was unharmed, but nonetheless …)

Principally O’Hagan’s piece brought to mind the plight of the lifers I met in open prison, where they were undergoing a three-year transition towards freedom (of a sort – Life Licence). And the childhoods they had told me about. I had a childhood that wouldn’t normally have brought me into contact with some of these men. I went to prep and public school and the worst thing I had experienced as a child was being thrashed hard with a stick. (If you don’t count being separated from your family like a Spartan hoplite, aged six.) One of my friends in prison (well, we shared a joint occasionally), Joe, was arrested for killing a man in a pub brawl. The police questioned him about the bloody bruising on his back. He didn’t tell them that his mother had taken a poker out of the fire and beaten him with it. Another, Rob, told me that his mother in Glasgow loved him. A big woman, she disciplined her family with her fists. His drunken father used sterner methods. Rob ran with his mates in the Gorbals. In some circumstances, you might kill in order to avoid being killed.

Of course, right through the prison were people who ‘shouldn’t really have been there’, at least in their own minds. One had paid somebody to kill his wife. Fortunately for his wife, it was a police officer. He told me often that he wasn’t a criminal like the rest of us. The fellow who had been abusing his daughter for years thought drug smugglers were ‘scum’. A violent burglar who, on speed, had slit a man’s throat because his brother spoke his name during the robbery (the man survived) held similar views. Another inmate, a police officer who had taken a man’s eye out with a blow in police custody, assured me that it wouldn’t happen to a chap like me – only to lippy buggers. The prejudices expressed by some newspapers would find an echo in any jail.

As the editor of the prison newspaper I had an office and some solitude and sometimes had unsolicited calls from people at a loose end. A man I had known for a couple of years came in and we got talking. He told me stories of the violence inflicted both on him and by him as a soldier in Northern Ireland. One thing that really hurt him was that in the course of defending a Green Finch (an Ulster woman police officer) from assault in a crowd – buckets of urine, blows from pieces of two by four – he drove the butt of his rifle into the face of an assailant and found to his horror that she was a woman. Eventually we got on to his crime: he had raped and murdered a young woman in a Scottish ski resort. I said nothing. But it added to my impression that many ‘murderers’ were damaged public servants trained – which is to say, desensitised or damaged – in the armed forces, often doing our dirty work.

I received an email today from a friend in the UK for whom I bought a gift subscription to the LRB. ‘Did you read the O’Hagan piece?’ he wanted to know. He was my co-accused some 30 years ago.

Rob Mansell-Ward
Dunwich, Queensland, Australia

Contrary to what Andrew O’Hagan says, there is no evidence at all that Venables or Thompson saw Child’s Play 3. It was never mentioned at their trial. ‘Splattered with paint’: you have to watch the film frame by frame before you can find a speck of paint on Chucky. And the doll is decapitated in a carnival ride by the accidental stroke of a scythe, not ‘cut to ribbons’. At the time, I was head of programming at Murdoch’s BSkyB. The Chucky story was being run hard by the Sun, which called for the film to be banned. As it was in my film inventory, I checked it out. The film – a routine, but quite well made, horror – stayed in the schedule. It had no connection with the death of James Bulger.

David Elstein
London SW15

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