Bound for the bad

Mary Beard

Alice Thomas Ellis has a delicate touch with her fictional delinquents. In The Birds of the Air, her second novel, Sam, the nearly criminal son of a respectable academic couple, reveals all those conflicting qualities that make the young offender so hard to deal with and to understand. We feel at the same time revulsion and a sneaking admiration. True, Sam is in many ways an offputting specimen: he dyes his hair virulently green; he talks in an almost incomprehensible adolescent jargon; and he gets his kicks from stealing bicycles and from other kinds of petty juvenile dishonesty. But with ATE we come to sympathise with Sam’s view of the world and his own sense of purpose. We begin to share his disdain for the hypocritical authority of his parents and share his excitement in trivial misdemeanours – like simply absconding from family celebrations or secretly taping (and then replaying at enormous volume) the pretentious chit-chat of a donnish party. It is even with a sense of wonder, rather than complete horror, that we read of his frankly appalling fantasies of mass murder: the dream of sitting on the rooftops, neatly unhooking the sharp-edged slates and aiming them at the necks of anonymous passers-by ‘until the air was full of their silly heads, flying around as thick as autumn leaves’. For a moment we can almost believe that these presumably innocent adults deserved their decapitation.

Rather too predictably perhaps, Sam is the only hero of the novel. Though loutish, though ‘naturally criminal’ in the worst fears of his mother, it is only he who can ever enunciate (for once, in ‘normal’ English) the adultery of his father. Only he manages to offer any hope of comfort to his aunt, lost in apparently inconsolable grief at the recent death of her son. And in doing this he serves to call into question all our certainties about good behaviour, delinquency and breaking the social rules. For Sam’s respectable parents and his repulsively precocious sister (‘the child anyone would wish for’) are in fact much more dangerous than Sam himself.

How is it then that ATE can collaborate on a book on the cause of delinquency, Loss of the Good Authority, that is so conservative, humourless and offensive in its certainty? In part, no doubt, it is the difference between fiction and ‘real life’. Real-life delinquents do not unfortunately have the glamour of Sam. They are not noble savages or wise fools – still less, ‘heroes’. They commit crimes whose consequences range from simple inconvenience (vandalised pay-phones, for example) to bloody horror. And, unlike Sam, they do not always leave their fantasies of violence and killing locked up safely in their heads. The novelist must change her tune. But, even so, ATE knows that there is much more to delinquency than the monocausal, fatalistic view she adopts in this latest book. How is it that the writer who once dedicated a novel to Jeffrey Bernard, one of the most prominent self-proclaimed ‘delinquents’ of the Eighties, can now join in dedicating her latest work to ‘Feltham Borstal’?

Loss of the Good Authority is the sequel to an earlier collaboration between ATE and Tom Pitt-Aikens (TPA), Secrets of Strangers, and it only makes sense in those terms. The earlier book is a case-study of delinquency in one family, the Huttons – whose second son, Geoffrey, proved increasingly uncontrollable. He was already receiving the attention of the authorities at the age of six because of a notable fondness for pilfering. But worse was to come in his teens when he added transvestism, ‘flashing’ and the occasional bout of violence to his repertoire. Most of this time he spent in care or in some more or less penal institution. Secrets of Strangers largely consists of the reworked notes of a series of family case meetings between the Huttons and various ‘professionals’ held over seven years, under the guidance of TPA, a psychoanalyst who worked with one of the institutions on which Geoffrey had been dumped.

Secrets of Strangers is a fascinating book. The notes of the meetings make a touching narrative of optimism constantly undermined by disappointment, as Geoffrey seemed to ‘improve’, then offended again, committing some even worse crime. They also make clear the hopelessness of his position and the very limited professional support available. Many of his carers and advisers were simply not up to the challenge of this intelligent, inventive and time-consuming adolescent. They were overworked, frequently changing jobs and sometimes, however well-meaning, quite out of touch with the background of the case and with the family. On many occasions, as the records show, the discussion included gross errors about the names, identities and history of key individuals in the Hutton story – errors that were more often the consequence of appalling ignorance than (on the more charitable interpretation) deeply significant psychic confusion. No wonder that Geoffrey often decided not to turn up!

The more sinister aspect of Secrets is the way that Mr and Mrs Hutton, in particular, gradually came to see the history of their family in the terms suggested by TPA and along the lines of his grand theory of delinquency. According to this theory, the delinquent acts as he does because of the ‘loss of good authority’ suffered by his parent at about the same age – a loss that remains unmourned. The delinquent is, in other words, an empty vessel into which flood the parent’s ‘projections’ of this loss, with all the disastrous consequences evident in the behaviour we recognise as ‘delinquency’. The classic cause of the loss of good authority is death, with the early death of a grandparent thus wreaking havoc in the grandchildren of the family, over a two-generation cycle.

For TPA, the Huttons provided a peculiarly complex instance of this phenomenon. Not only had Geoffrey’s grandfather died when Mr Hutton was only 11, but Mr Hutton’s elder brother, Geoffrey’s uncle Kevin, had committed suicide only five years later – when Mr Hutton was 16, just the age of Geoffrey at his most delinquent. Throughout the early meetings recorded in the book Mr and Mrs Hutton put up a valiant fight against TPA’s constant implication that Kevin’s suicide was somehow at the root of their and Geoffrey’s problems. But as the chapters move on, we watch with growing horror as the long-suffering Huttons give up the unequal struggle and begin to rethink and reformulate their own experience to fit TPA’s seemingly ludicrous ideas. With ghastly appropriateness, the book ends, not with the last meeting – for the series appears to have continued – but with Mrs Hutton’s ‘admission’ (after earlier denials) that she had originally wanted to call Geoffrey ‘Kevin’. Victory, in other words, for the theory.

Loss of the Good Authority develops and expands the theoretical implications of the earlier book, drawing on a wider variety of short case-studies. The basic principle is restated: that the parents of a delinquent ‘will always be found to have lost his own parent’s (or parents’) authority during childhood’. But it is now given a predictive validity with the (admittedly more tentative) suggestion that any child who loses a parent will necessarily become the parent of a delinquent – there is no way out. And the chain of destruction is extended. If one delinquent child is ‘cured’ or is taken out of the firing line (perhaps into care), then the projections will pass to another child, who in his or her turn will become delinquent. And if there are no more children left? In that case, the projections will finally turn against the parent, causing cancer (particularly, so we are informed, leukaemia) or other ‘loss of control syndromes’, such as obesity or alcoholism. Only the psychoanalyst can put things right.

This theory is implausible and, in its implications, baldly stated in the ‘epilogue’, offensive. There is no word here of the social determinants of delinquency; no word that poverty, unemployment or deprivation might have something to do with it. Nor is there any sense that the structures of power and class have any role in fixing the rules that only some people break; no sense, in other words, that the definition of ‘delinquency’ might in part be a convenient weapon of control for a governing élite. The closest the book comes to a recognition of social reality is in a series of short case studies and historical exempla – ranging from the Yorkshire Ripper (who, we are told, bears out the theory to a ‘gratifying’, but also ‘frightening’, degree) through Hitler back to Richard III (whose father had, significantly, lost both his parents before the age of three). Of course, the further back in history you go, the more frequent the losses suffered by early death. It is probably true to say, for example, that every single Roman emperor had some ‘premature’ death in his grandparental generation. Maybe for ATE and TPA this fact alone would neatly explain the almost universally delinquent habits of Roman emperors as a group. But for the rest of us it would be a ludicrously crude analysis of a complicated social, political and historical problem. The theory is equally ludicrous when paraded as the single key to the complex phenomenon of modern delinquency.

Yet more alarming are the political implications of this view of delinquency. Even the deft hand of ATE, who often works wonders in making TPA’s notions seem, at least, worth airing, cannot rescue the epilogue and its startling list of practical proposals: restriction of divorce for parents of minors (on the grounds that even unhappy authority is better than the loss of authority entailed in separation); the banning of parental suicide (as a public symbol of the importance to the child and the grandchildren of continued parental authority); the sterilisation of the children of divorcees, widows and widowers (in order to prevent the dreadful effects of the loss of authority in future generations). It would be comforting to think, as ATE tries to claim, that these and other such suggestions are just meant to shock, that they are simply part of a wickedly playful attack on some of the sacred cows of modern liberalism. Perhaps so. But unfortunately TPA (whose extraordinary view that capital punishment might be useful in burying the ‘projections’ once and for all is mentioned in an earlier chapter) shows many signs of taking the suggestions seriously. If that is the case, then this book is much more dangerous than the delinquency it sets out to explain – a classic instance, in fact, of the cure being worse than the disease.

Why then did ATE, who has much better things to say on delinquency, become involved in this project? Why did the usually perceptive Oliver Sacks claim that the book is ‘of fundamental importance, and relevance, to our time’? Why, as seems already likely to be the case, will the book enjoy some considerable vogue? The answer to all these questions is given by ATE in the introduction to the earlier volume. There she sees the problem not as understanding the elaborate counter-culture of delinquency, the families of criminals who muddle along happily in mutual understanding, while society frowns – the ‘Gary, love, just nick that packet of fags for Mummy and slip it in the pocket of your little rompers’ type of family. She wants to understand why the children of some decent, respectable, lawabiding, loving parents turn out like young Geoffrey Hutton. This is about middle-class parental guilt and anxiety. It is about that horrid awareness that your worries do not stop at the moment of birth, with that instant of relief that the baby is basically healthy, with all its parts. For you can still quite unwittingly ruin the child’s life. Despite all you do (because of all you do) it can still go to the bad.

This book enables us to shift the immediate burden of guilt for our children onto our parents, while still allowing us the luxury of a generalised sense of concern about our possible effects on our unborn grandchildren. It is reassuring at the same time as it is shocking. Those who want more of a challenge would do better to return to Sam in Birds of the Air – about whose (recently) deceased grandfather we are told, thank heavens, almost nothing.