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.

Some time later, Blake Morrison, poet-about-town, leaves London for Preston to attend the trial. For this is a rare crime – children killing children. ‘Twenty-seven incidents in two and a half centuries is one suggested figure. One can’t think the statistic will be very sound. Still, it’s not like ripping off car-stereos, is it? Or beating up prostitutes. Or any instance of workaday murder. This is a special crime, requiring the attention of special people. An aristocrat among crimes, which requires aristocrats of sensitivity to interpret it. We are all waiting to know what this killing means. Moral panic has set in.

Already the poet is wondering about his motives and his stamina for the enterprise, anticipating the day when he will feel ‘guilty, collusive, voyeuristic’. He has no intention, at this stage, of writing at length; he has been commissioned by an American magazine to cover the trial. He packs two books. One is Rousseau’s Confessions. The other is Rousseau’s Emile. What would he have felt if, at an early stage, his journey had stalled on some platform: and out of boredom he had flicked through Emile’s Preface, to hear Jean-Jacques say: ‘I had at first planned only a monograph of a few pages. My subject drew me on in spite of myself, and this monograph imperceptibly became a sort of opus, too big, doubtless, for what it contains, but too small for the matter it treats.’

It is hard to think of a more just description of As If. Too small (though well-padded); too big (because well-padded). It is a memoir and a meditation, not a polemic, not reportage; it is beautifully composed and beautifully shaped. No one writes more tenderly than Blake Morrison about parents and children, about the fear and responsibility of parenthood. No one could write with more compassion about the god-forsaken events he describes. His imagination is supple, he casts the net of allusion wide. He opens his heart to us, and he opens his diaries: his own baby’s battle with meningitis, bad moments in his marriage. And back to childhood, adolescence. That girl of 14, drunk at a party, who went into a cloaks-cupboard a virgin and came out, trembling and crying, with as much experience as the Wife of Bath; his mates had her, he didn’t, but could he have helped her? Could he have stopped them? Again, is it a form of child abuse, to be sensually aroused by the creamy body of his infant daughter? Male guilt implodes in his bloodstream.

He is at the trial. The accused are two small boys, both podgy, pale, unlikable. He would prefer to like them, warm to them but cannot. The judge is an unknown quantity. The barristers are caricatures. The early witnesses are those who saw the baby on his death march. They are stiff, uneasy, conscious that they passed by on the other side; the setting intimidates them, the language is alien, they talk in stereotyped phrases as if they have picked them up from the newspapers, or from each other. And the small defendants, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, seem to belong in some other reality.

Again, the book’s cadences and concerns go to work, drawing out a reinforcing memory. Our legal system can seem divorced from reality, estranging; the people in a courtroom can seem to live in separate dimensions. Long ago, in 1972, being then a law student with a sort of social conscience, I spent a summer placement with the probation service. Nothing I saw of adults was new to me, but a day in the juvenile court disturbed me profoundly. I took my concerns to our senior officer, a no-nonsense (I’d thought) and rather stern woman; she would have passed nicely as a county councillor, standing in the Conservative interest.

The juvenile court, I don’t like it, I said. It’s not working.

At once, the stern face softened. Did you feel it was too formal, she asked, did you feel the children didn’t understand? Was the language too difficult, were they intimidated?

Mutual incomprehension. Give her a minute, and she’ll push me a box of tissues.

But no! It didn’t scare them enough. It didn’t touch them, it didn’t reach them, they may as well have been somewhere else. They don’t give a — (better abdicate from this sentence, I thought).

Her dark gaze, behind her glasses, welled with distaste. What have we here, a trainee fascist, eh?

And they remain in my imagination, the 14-year-old shoplifters whose rubber faces were stamped with a sneer. They were untouchable, these offenders. They had perfect confidence that no one could do anything to them that would matter. Because, what matters? The adults in court were agonising over them, the lawyers, social workers, magistrates. But they were merely bored. They were impatient. They wanted release – the release they knew was coming. To get back on the streets. To do it again and again. That was 1972. A liberal age. They say the world is getting worse ...

And they do say it. It is natural to compare Blake Morrison’s book with Gitta Sereny’s book, The Cast of Mary Bell, reissued by Pimlico, with a new Preface by the author and an Appendix about the Bulger murder. Mary Bell and Norma Bell – neighbours, but not related – were girls of 11 and 13, tried in 1968 for the killing of two little boys, three and four years old. Norma was acquitted, and Mary was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter, on a plea of diminished responsibility. What did Mary do? She ‘squeezed their necks’. A quiet death interested her, a tactile death; not the stoning, the kicking, the bleeding. I remember how in the winter of 1970, at a conference of lawyers and social workers in a snow-bound grand lodge in the inappropriate setting of Windsor Great Park, I heard someone who had been involved in the case speaking of Mary Bell: of her early life, the many deaths she nearly died, the poisoning, the accidents, the attempts to dispose of her. This was a young woman co-opted onto a discussion panel, her eyes downcast, gnawing her lip, alluding, just alluding, to all the facts that had not been admissible as evidence in court – not knowing whether it was decent to reveal this knowledge, and yet feeling that everyone should know.

Should everyone know? How can we know what is ‘normal’? ‘Families operate in camera,’ Blake Morrison says. ‘It’s hard to know what happens behind closed doors.’ True, up to a point. True, if you’re middle-class. If you’re working-class, anyone may stare in: social workers, journalists, Blake Morrison. Children who kill children might be found in any stratum of society, but you can be quite sure that if Thompson and Venables had been the offspring of accountants, and Mary Bell had been a doctor’s daughter, Morrison and Sereny and the other investigators would have been quietly shown the door.

There are times when As If takes on the air of a set of writing exercises. Blake Morrison goes to a restaurant alone, watches three couples, makes up stories about their relationships. We’ve all done it, but it’s slightly indecent to do it cold on the page. It’s not that you fear they will read his book, and be upset by it; they probably wouldn’t recognise themselves. The offence is rather that he is confusing their imaginative reality with his, deliberately wiring them into some fantasy of his own. There is a name for this activity; it is called writing fiction. So do it then, the reader wants to say. Stop lurking in the shadows with that notebook. Step into the novelists’ playground. You’ll like it. We’re well hard.

It would not serve any purpose to summarise what Blake Morrison has discovered about the family life of the two young accused – except to say, that with its run-around fathers and suicidal mothers, it is not too different from the home life of our own dear Queen. Deprivation, neglect, violence: there is a monotonous circularity to it, it hasn’t the shape of a good story. Sometimes, in order to find enough story to tell, Morrison has to invent naivety in himself. He has to spend pages misunderstanding, refusing to accept that the legal system isn’t going to change in mid-trial. It is not difficult to grasp the essentials. The court had to ask two questions. One: did the boys kill James? Two: did that killing amount to murder? Morrison blames Social Services for not bringing forward evidence that would anyway have been inadmissible. He hacks about wildly with the blunt knife of his indignation. He blames the police and prosecution ‘for so vehemently pursuing a murder conviction against two damaged and half-formed boys’. How then should murder be pursued?

Every decent person will suffer some disquiet about the way our legal system treats children who are accused of serious crimes. Sereny particularly is exercised by the belief that had there been a mechanism to explore the background of the case, a way to understand the children’s mindset, there might-just might – have been a manslaughter verdict rather than a verdict of murder. (The sentence – detention for many years – would inevitably have been the same.) But ever since the murders took place, the bandwagons have been sagging under the weight of those who advocate a radical shift in the way we treat young offenders. Everyone does it better than Britain, it seems. There were even commentators from the US who criticised the way the British try homicide: it is like a man up to his neck in a cesspool scolding another for having mud on his boots.

There are questions here that need to be addressed in the language of human rights, not the language of pity and empathy. Nothing that Blake Morrison adduces can convince the reader, or would convince a court, that the boys were incapable of forming the intent to murder. To insist that they were so incapable diminishes them as moral beings. For the most humane of reasons, Blake Morrison wants to take away part of the responsibility from Thompson and Venables. But to do that is to take away part of their humanity. If two ten-year-olds of normal intelligence cannot tell right from wrong, and do not know killing is wrong – then what is the worth of a ten-year-old? Blake Morrison confuses the concept of ‘the age of reason’ with the fact of ‘the age of criminal responsibility’. (The latter is 18, he says, in Romania – a country notoriously concerned with child welfare.)

It is strange that people think – and many people do think it – that the way to protect children is to deprive them of status, to reduce them to something less than adults. It is possible that to adopt the kinds of system Morrison and Sereny advocate would effect this reduction, and create a system where children have fewer rights than at present and are even less protected.

Consider Sereny, in her new Preface to The Cast of Mary Bell. ‘Can it be right to subject young children to the awesome formality of a jury trial? How can a jury be expected to understand the thought processes, the emotions or language of children?’ But why should they not? Have they not been children? Have they not memories? Can only psychologists and social workers understand children? Is the whole concept of childhood to be medicalised? Is childhood a pathological state?

Later, Sereny says she prefers the European systems of ‘having family or juvenile courts deal with these cases after the social enquiry has been completed and therapeutic treatment substantially advanced’. So, before the facts are established, the interpretation of the facts is made? Treatment is begun before we know the nature of the wound? In this brave new world, adults charged with a serious crime have open court, a jury and the rules of evidence to protect them; no one may detain them or treat them or in any way interfere with their lives unless they are guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But children charged with the same crime are tried in secret by a tribunal which admits what evidence it likes, a tribunal which, however constituted, calls on experts who all have their theories to push, and which is likely to be much less rigorous in separating certainties from probabilities than a judge and jury. We may find children ‘treated’ not for their crimes, but for their tendencies – for their proclivities, not their proven offences. We should hesitate, I think, before diminishing children’s rights in this way.

It is very hard to accept that the death of a small child has no meaning. It is natural to try to find an explanation for it which goes beyond the individuals concerned. But to try to deduce anything about the state of society from the Bulger killing is probably a mistake. Blake Morrison has John Major in his firing line, for his statement that ‘we must condemn a little more, and understand a little less.’ An ‘epitaph to a brute culture’, he calls it. Not even his worst enemies would believe John Major is a brute. His statement can be read otherwise – simply as a plea for us to redirect our attention. To face reality – face the fact of what is done. Because, if you strip away the ‘why’, the murder remains. To understand all is to forgive all, it’s said. That is, as Shaw pointed out, the devil’s sentimentality.

Blake Morrison seems to be pessimistic about the future of Thompson and Venables. (We are not allowed to know their present whereabouts, how they are coping with detention.) But Mary Bell has been rehabilitated, and there is no reason to suppose they will not be released, with new identities, when they are young men. It is probably not necessary to reshape the administration of justice in the light of the very rare set of circumstances that led to the Bulger murder. It is possibly unwise to take any action that further diminishes the status of children, divides them from the blessings of adulthood. It is certainly undesirable to make the lives of poor people into public property; why is it that from those who have least, and have suffered most, even privacy is taken away? Blake Morrison’s plea is for understanding, more understanding, more understanding still. What if I am the object of all this understanding? What if your understanding looks to me like interference, like expropriation, like colonisation? I am not sure that we should indulge ourselves in our favourite pastime of exploring the nature of evil. Perhaps all we need do is to say, with Rousseau: ‘There is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something.’ And to know that everything can be salvaged, this side of the grave.