Andrew O’Hagan

The abduction and murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy from Liverpool, has caused unprecedented grief and anger. Hours before the two ten-year-old boys accused of the crime arrived at South Sefton Magistrates’ Court, a large, baying crowd had formed outside. As a pair of blue vans drew up, the crowd surged forward, bawling and screaming. A number of men tried to reach the vehicles, to get at the youths inside, and scuffles spilled onto the road. Some leapt over crash-barriers and burst through police cordons, lobbing rocks and banging on the sides of the vans. Many in the crowd – sick with condemnation – howled and spat and wept. Kenneth Clarke has promised measures to deal with ‘nasty, persistent juvenile little offenders’. Those two little offenders – if they were the offenders, the childish child-murderers from Walton – were caught on camera twice. First, on the security camera at the shopping precinct in Bootle where they lifted James, and again by the camera of a security firm on Breeze Hill, as they dragged James past – the child clearly in some distress.

Watching those boys on camera brought into my head a flurry of pictures from my own boyhood. At that age, we were brimming with nastiness. I grew up on a scheme in the last of Scotland’s New Town developments. There were lots of children, lots of dogs and lots of building sites. Torture among our kind was fairly commonplace. I remember two furious old teachers driving me and my six-year-old girlfriend Heather Watt home early one morning. In recent weeks, we had been walking the mile to school in the company of a boy, smaller and younger than ourselves, a fragile boy with ginger hair called David. I think we thought of him as ‘our boy’. We bossed him. Occasionally, when he didn’t walk straight or carry our bags or speak when we wanted him to, we’d slap him or hit his hands with a ruler. We had to pass through fields to get to school, with diggers going and ‘workies’ taking little notice of us, though from time to time they’d bring over empty lemonade bottles which we could exchange for money or sweets at the chip shop. We must have looked innocent enough, holding hands, Heather and I, walking the younger boy to school.

Over time, we started to hit the boy hard. Our way to the school was dotted with new trees, freshly planted and bound to supporting stalks with rubber belts. We got into the habit of removing belts every day: we began to punish David with them whenever we thought he’d ‘been bad’. Just a few hits at first on top of his shorts, not so’s you’d notice. It got worse, though, and on the last morning, when we were caught by the two old lady teachers, we were beating his bare legs with the coiled-up straps. Though we’d set out on time that morning we were late, having spent the best part of half an hour on top of an out-of-the-way railway bridge practically skinning the screaming boy’s legs.

That incident caused a scandal in our square. My mother was employed as a cleaner in another local primary school with David’s mother and – although I remember crying and being confused and not quite knowing what we’d done wrong – I could see that we’d caused a lot of embarrassment. Up until the age of ten, I’d both taken part in and witnessed many such incidents. My three elder brothers had reputations for being a bit mad; other boys said they’d ‘do anything’. I watched them do any number of crazy things to other kids around the squares, and I watched the other kids do some crazy things in return. Early in the Seventies, on Halloween Night, a scarlet-faced man appeared at the door, shouting the odds and holding up a torn frock. My eldest brother and his pals had been ripping at the man’s daughter’s clothes ‘for a laugh’ and, as usual, it had got out of hand: they’d torn her dress to shreds and then taunted the girl, leaving her distraught. My mother and the rest of us sat in the kitchen biting our nails and covering our ears as my father, upstairs, gave Michael the beating of his life for that.

Another time, the whole family had to sit in front of a children’s panel. That’s what happens in Scotland if a child under 16 commits an offence: the social work department calls in the whole family in an effort to assess what the real problem is and decide whether the child should be in care – which in my brother’s case would have meant a residential List ‘D’ school. In the event that didn’t happen, but it took a long time for the community – especially our teachers – to forget what he did. With a friend, he’d burnt down a wing of our local Catholic secondary school.

It’s not that any of us were evil; even the more bookish and shy among us were given to a bit of destructive boredom and stupid imagining. Now and then it got out of hand. The boys I hung around with in my pre-teen years were always losing the head. During the good weather, the light nights, what started off as a game of rounders or crazy golf would end up as a game of clubbing the neighbour’s cat to death. A night of camping on the playing-fields could usually be turned into an opportunity for the wrecking of vegetable gardens, or the killing of frogs and people’s pet rabbits. Mindless stuff. Yet now and again people would get into things that you sensed were about to go over the edge, or were already over it. My memory tells me that that point was much more difficult to judge than I’d now like to think.

My friend Moggie began taking accordion lessons at the house of a rather anti-social woman who lived in the corner of our square. She started going out when she was supposed to be teaching him, leaving him to baby-sit her child, who was not yet a year old. Moggie would have been about seven or eight. One day I was in with him, bashing uselessly on her old piano, when he shouted me to the front of the living room.

‘I’m biting the baby,’ he said. ‘D’ you want to?’

The baby was lying on a white towelling nappy and Moggie was bent over her, biting her arms and then her legs and then the cheeks of her face. He said he did it all the time and that the baby liked it. He said it was like tickling. I didn’t want to do it but said I’d stay and watch. Another game he played was to put on a record, hoist the baby onto her legs and shake her in time to the music. She obviously wasn’t walking yet, but he would jostle her and jam her legs on the carpet. Her head would jerk about and she would cry. Some time later, the bite marks were discovered and Moggie was barred from the house, although everyone – including the baby’s parents – said that she had been bitten by the dog. I got to stay, since the woman reckoned I was sensible. Another boy who came to that house used to swallow handfuls of the woman’s pills (she always had a great variety lying around, so much so that her daughter was eventually rushed to hospital after eating a load). Moggie joined the Navy and the pill-swallower was part of a mob of boys who killed someone at a local Cashline ten years later. In the years that I hung around it, that house (and there were many others like it) had been the site of a large number of life-threatening games, solvent-abuses and youthful experiments gone wrong.

Something happened when we all got together, even when we were that young. We were competitive, deluded and full of our own small powers. And, of course, we spoke our own language. We even had our own way of walking – which wasn’t unlike that of the two boys on the video – dragging our feet, hands in our pockets, heads always lolling towards the shoulder. That culpable tilt gave the full measure of our arrogant, untelling ways. As only dependents can be, we were full of our own independence. The approval that really mattered was that of the wee Moggies and Bennas and Caesars we ran around with. There were times when I’m sure we could’ve led each other into just about anything.

Just William-type adventures – earning pocket-money or looking for fun – would more often than not end in nastiness or threats to each other or danger to other people, especially to girls our own age and younger boys. There was badness in it, a form of delinquency that most of us left behind. The girls with whom I read books and coloured-in, with whom I regularly played offices, were the victims of verbal taunting, harassment and gang violence when I ran around with boys. We all carried sticks and were all of us baby-arsonists who could never get enough matches. We stole them from our houses, stole money out of our mothers’ purses with which to buy them and begged them from construction workers. I can remember pleading with my mother to buy me a Little-Big-Man action doll from Woolworths and then burning it in a field with my pals. Most of our games, when I think of it, were predicated on someone else’s humiliation or eventual pain. It made us feel strong and untouchable.

If all of this sounds uncommonly horrific, then I can only say that it did not seem so then; it was the main way that most of the boys I knew used up their spare time. There was no steady regression towards the juvenile barbarism famously characterised in Lord of the Flies. We lived two lives at once: while most of the stuff detailed above went on, we all made our First Communions, sang in the school choir, did our homework, became altar-boys and some went to matches or played brilliantly at football. We didn’t stop to think, nor did our parents, that something dire might result from the darker of our extra-curricular activities. Except when that murky side took over, and your bad-bastardness became obvious to everyone.

Bullies who had no aptitude for classwork – who always got ‘easily distracted’ scribbled in red ink on report cards that never made it home – had unbelievable concentration when it came to torturing minors in the playground, or on the way home. For many of the pupils bullying was a serious game. It involved strategies, points scored for and against, and not a little detailed planning. It was scary, competitive and brought out the very worst in those who had anything to do with it. Kids who were targeted over a long period we thought deviant in some way, by which I mean that they were in some way out of it – maybe serious, bright, quiet, keeping themselves to themselves. When I was nine, there was a particular boy who lived two squares up. For years I’d listened to boys telling of how they’d love to do him in. I sort of liked him but, even so, I joined in the chase when we pursued him in and out of the scheme and across fields. This stood high in our repertoire of time-fillers. ‘Where’s Broon?’ – the boy’s name was Alan Brown – took its place in a list of nasty games that included snipes (skinning each other’s knuckles with cards after each lost game), kiss-cuddle-and-torture (with girls), Blue-Murder (the same, but sorer) and that kind of thing. If anyone came to the door when these games had gone too far, our mothers and fathers went ape. Belted and sent to bed, many of us would get up after dark and stare out the window, over the square, into each other’s bedrooms. We grinned and flashed our torches, trying to pass messages. The message, I remember, was always quite clear: it meant see you tomorrow.

Even the youths who came from happy homes enjoyed the childish ritual of running away. When parents, sick with anxiety, came to the door or to school looking for their children, we’d never let on. We’d help 11-year-old absconders get together the bus fare to a bigger place, all of us filling a bag with stolen tins and chipping in coppers for some hero’s running-away fund. Of course, they’d always be caught and brought back, but not before we’d enjoyed the parental worry and the police presence in the classroom while the drama lasted. In Jeff Torrington’s novel Swing Hammer Swing! a similar pleasure is taken by the boy Jason after the book’s hero, Thomas Clay, takes him to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. We hear of it in an exchange between Clay and the boy’s mother:

  ‘Dammit, how long was he missing for?’

  ‘I’ve told you – two min –’

  ‘You’re a liar! Ten minutes, Jason says.’

  ‘What’s a wee boy know about judging time?’

  ‘You damned eejit – that man could’ve been one of those perverts. Places like that hoach with’m. Come clean – how long did he have’m?’

  ‘Two minutes at the outside. Get a grip on yoursel. That guy’d been a perv, d’you think he’d’ve taken the boy to an attendant? C’mon, think about it. Another thing, the man didnae lure Jason from me – Jason followed him because he was wearing the same clobber as me ...’

  Although I was fairly certain that the boy hadn’t come to any physical harm – taken to a wc and interfered with, I mean – I didn’t dig this being forced into lying complicity with my dress alike. Jason, like most imaginative kids, hadn’t been content to tell of the incident as was – he’d jived it up some, flung a few more squibs on the fire.

We all did that at times. We all took and assigned roles in cruel little dramas of our own devising. Our talk would be full of new and interesting ways to worry or harass our parents, especially our fathers, who we all hated. Stealing his fags or drink brought a great, often awesome, feeling of quid pro quo.

I found many girls to be the same in that respect: I had a 12-year-old table-tennis friend Alison, who told us she’d been crushing old lightbulbs in a bowl and sprinkling them into her father’s porridge. We thought that was great. Some of us knew how to stop it, though, while others just kept it up. A couple of my boyhood friends assiduously built bridges between their mindless, childish venom – their bad-boyish misdemeanours – and adult crime.

Around the time of our cruelty to the boy David, the local news was full of the disappearance of another David – a three-year-old boy who’d last been seen playing on one of the town’s many open construction sites. Guesses were that he’d either fallen into a pipe trench and been covered, or that he’d been abducted. He was never found. We thought about him, in class we prayed for him, and when we weren’t out looking for something to get into, we tried to figure out what had happened to him.

Our mothers’ warnings to stay clear of the dumps taught us that David’s fate could easily have been our own. And in silent, instinctive ways I’m sure we understood something of David’s other possible end, the one that wasn’t an accident. We knew something of children’s fearsome cruelty to children, and we lived with our own passion for misadventure. Though we knew it neither as cruelty nor as misadventure. No one believed that David was playing alone at the building site that day. We didn’t know it then, but as many of us grew older we came to think it not inconceivable that David had come to grief at the hands of boys not a lot older than himself, playing in a makeshift sand-pit. All of these things have returned with the news of James Bulger’s murder. More than once this week, a single image has floated into my head: a grainy Strathclyde Police picture of a sandy-haired boy, with its caption ‘Have You Seen David?’