FrankWhen the death was announced last week of Frank Worthington, it was the latest passing in a disconcerting recent run of former footballers who were more or less all gracing the field of play at the same time forty-fifty years ago. The fantastically flamboyant Worthington was one of the great entertainers of the game when football’s great entertainers were Nureyev on the pitch and Robin Askwith off it – a generation inspired to express their extrovert personalities by following the trail blazed by George Best, those for whom giving punters their money’s worth mattered more than winning at all costs. Perhaps not entirely unconnected to this attitude was the fact Worthington never played for a club challenging for honours; his best years were at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers in the 1970s, though he came within a whisker of signing for Shankly’s Liverpool. Perhaps his reluctance to moderate his appetite for extracurricular excesses cost him there, but Frank Worthington’s often-breathtaking skills at least earned him a small handful of England caps, even if he was one of those players for whom anecdotes in the bank rated higher than trophies in the cabinet.

Like most famous faces admired from afar and never listed in one’s own personal address book, I didn’t actually know Frank Worthington; I’ve a feeling I may have once asked for (and received) his autograph when he was playing for a struggling Leeds United side en route to relegation in the early 80s, but that would’ve been the closest I came to sharing his space. Otherwise, he and I occupied very different worlds. However, his death – coming so soon after the passing of other greats from the same footballing era such as Peter Lorimer and Colin Bell – nevertheless resonates beyond the online obituary or 30-second news headline followed by the weather forecast. Why? Well, he and they were Gods of youth, walking tall at a time when I was small. An impressionable kid saw these guys in the pages of ‘Shoot’, watched them exhibit their talents on TV, attempted to replicate those talents with jumpers for goalposts, and sometimes pinned their pictures to his wall. They were partners in a childhood contract that nobody who’s risen to prominence in the last 30 years could ever enter into.

Such glamorous luminaries were in their prime when eyes were wide and in need of an exciting alternative to adult role models whose austere authoritarianism hardly worked as a great PR campaign for the grownup world that kid would one day have no choice but to belong to. They had a head start over later members of the household name fraternity, in possession of a sentimental seniority that will always place them in a very special elite constellation of stars. They were pivotal to a period in which they were the key ambassadors of the future, representing a wholly positive and inspirational idea of the future as a land of limitless possibilities. Sometimes it’s often hard to recall a moment when the future wasn’t an ominous spectre hovering over the present, a malignant shadow suggesting more of the same but even worse; yet, the autumnal adult perspective hasn’t always been the sole viewpoint. It just feels that way. No, there was once another concept of tomorrow, one that every personality to drift into one’s nascent vision during formative years pointed the way towards.

As a child, you are quickly made aware you are not the finished article, that you will eventually be the same height (or even higher) than the parent towering over you, that you won’t be at school forever (thank God), and that – on paper, at least – you could become anything you want to; you just need someone somewhere to present you with a range of tantalising options. Yes, you too may one day juggle a ball like Frank Worthington or play guitar like Ziggy played guitar; you may climb Nelson’s Column without a harness like John Noakes or wander around quarries in Surrey, escaping alien life-forms with a mini-skirted sidekick and dressed in a velvet jacket-and-cape ensemble – like Jon Pertwee. These guys made you believe the future was worth waiting for as long as it was their future and not the dull, workmanlike future of the teacher or the parent or the priest, or whichever everyday adult figure dispensed discipline and attempted to indoctrinate the child with a dreary design for life that had no appeal at all. These colourful characters were vital as living, breathing, indisputable evidence that the adult world didn’t necessarily equate with mortgages and insurance policies and a dozen other fatal attractions. They planted a seed that we continue to carry around inside us even if we’re not always aware it’s there. Whatever destiny lay in wait for us once we graduate from the University of Life at which they were our tutors, the interior imprint they left behind remains a precious, indelible stamp reminding us who we once were when they were helping to mould us in the most benign of fashions.

Often I see the individual on his or her path through life as a giant Airfix kit in the process of being put together by a team of people over time; the team is an ever-changing unit – as one person leaves, they’re replaced by another; and whilst some drift in and contribute one piece to the kit before drifting out again, others stick to the job at hand for several years. And, of course, the kit is never finished; new bits are constantly being added and other bits that used to fit but no longer do are removed. Sometimes people can enter our lives, dramatically reshape it, and are then gone in a blink; yet they have often altered us far deeper than someone who studiously stuck around much longer. Similarly, those we never met and simply observed from a distance can exert a significant influence by hovering over us for decades, with their point of entry enhanced for life if it came early enough in proceedings.

I think this is why we occasionally feel deeply affected when a person of note we never personally knew passes away, especially if they’ve been an omnipotent fixture that has always been there and always should be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the passing of a huge pop cultural figure whose influence was undeniable – a David Bowie, for example; sometimes we’re caught by surprise when it’s somebody we didn’t even realise meant something to us; sometimes it can be a minor character we never imagined was as intrinsic to that tapestry as the characters dominating the foreground – an actor, a TV presenter, a comedian, and even a politician. As long as they were present at our birth or in the room as we began to explore it, they count, whether we know it or not; indeed, we often only know it when we hear they’ve gone, because when they’ve gone that little piece of them inside us is gone too – and that was part of us.

It’s bad enough watching those who are still around get old. We don’t want them to age; we want them to always be at the peak of their powers; we want to them to remain frozen in their prime, even if that means we’ll gradually catch up with them and eventually overtake them. Their dismaying deterioration acts as an uncomfortable mirror on our own and their fate serves as a depressing premonition; if they didn’t wrinkle and wither, maybe we wouldn’t either. I don’t want Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan to be pushing 80; it just doesn’t seem right. And when a character like Frank Worthington leaves the pitch, the childhood XI loses another irreplaceable player at a time when the sub’s bench is noticeably empty. I dunno. I guess the best we can hope for is extra-time – and maybe a replay. It’s a game of two halves, after all.

© The Editor


Self-isolation? They only had to ask and I would’ve gladly provided the expertise; but maybe the Gove suspicion of experts lingers. Last year – or was it the year before? – I went a full week without speaking to another soul in person; and I didn’t even have the flu. It’s a talent of sorts, and one that makes doing what I do that much easier. But it’s been there a long time. The fear that closed schools will naturally entail stay-at-home parents minding the little ones means fewer employees available for the potential coronavirus battlegrounds. How much easier it was for my own parents when my school shut its gates for the actual holidays. They worked; I stayed at home – alone; a younger sibling had to accompany my mother to her workplace, but one of the few advantages of my seniority came into play and I was entrusted with the responsibility of being daytime housekeeper aged ten.

It’s easy to underestimate the expanse of the canvas presented to an imaginative child when he has the whole house to himself from breakfast till teatime; next to being locked overnight in a sweetshop, it’s about as good as it gets. The possibilities certainly seemed endless for me. With little television output and none of those newfangled video-game things to keep me entertained, the normal no-go areas were opened as temporary adventure playgrounds. The greatest battle of WWII never fought spanned several interior continents as the Airfix infantry climbed mountains (the staircase), fired down on the enemy from the hills (the sofa), fought crocodiles in the kitchen sink, waded through father’s Cossack shaving foam cunningly disguised as Arctic snow in the bathroom sink, patrolled thick, dense jungles (mother’s potted plants), and requisitioned the record player in order that Holst’s ode to the Bringer of War could provide a suitable soundtrack.

The dramatic exploits of toy soldiers and their Action Men brothers-in-arms was one outlet; but of more lasting significance were the tape recorder and the pencil-and-paper combo. The tape recorder, enabling the production of DIY TV and radio programmes, was the midwife to the not-so secret identity of Victoria Lucas 38, the reprobate responsible for the likes of ‘Buggernation Street’ and dozens of other wholesome videos that prompted YouTube to place me on their blacklist of demonetised undesirables; the pencil-and-paper combo, on the other hand, eventually led me all the way to this very post. Neither of these modest achievements could have been possible had all that home-alone time been exclusively devoted to kicking a football or riding a bike – both figured, but were secondary pastimes.

Fast-forward to a tacky 80s drinking den-cum-nightclub, the kind of venue where Del Boy and Rodney might have sipped cocktails they imagined made them look sophisticated. T’was there that the four-piece electric band I’d been the frontman of were booked to perform in 1989 – only, the band had collapsed the week before and the gig was honoured with just the two of us: me on vocals and Paul on acoustic guitar. I wore a feather boa. It wasn’t up there with The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but enough friends were dragged along to clap and they did their duty. Somebody saw fit to record it and there still exists, somewhere in my possession, an audio cassette of said performance; I can’t bring myself to listen even 31 years on, but at least it no longer remains the last occasion in which your humble narrator stood before an audience.

It’s been a strange week, mind. At 2.30am on Thursday, I was to be found braving the long-neglected top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, searching for a bag of brown rice that an online recipe reminded me I owned. It was there, but I had to remove all the other half-finished foodstuffs fighting over limited shelf space to get to it – lentils, flour, soya sauce, hundreds-and-thousands, Ovaltine; indeed, all that was missing was that one-time back-of-the-cupboard staple, Bird’s Custard Powder. Alas, like everything else, the brown rice had bypassed its expiry date by at least two years. Items purchased with the optimistic anticipation of future feasts that never happened had met the sad fate that befalls the relegation of a healthy appetite to the lower leagues. It was an oddly melancholy ceremony, rooting through what felt like the belongings of a deceased relative and then binning these now-inedible articles once imbued with the promise of banquets that went uncooked; finally, I was confronted by a shelf that would’ve shamed Old Mother Hubbard. I said it had been a strange week.

Stranger still, three decades on from a pale-skinned Shirley Bassey and his acoustic sidekick, the week began with yours truly standing up and reciting a trio of self-penned poems before an audience that applauded. And I didn’t even know any of them. The venue was a local arts/community centre I only realised existed this year, and it was hosting the monthly event that is known in poetic circles as an ‘open mic night’ – i.e. anyone can get up and read aloud something they’ve written if they get their name down in time. I was just a spectator last month – my first visit; but I wasn’t intimidated, the atmosphere felt welcoming, and I figured I could do it. Therefore, this month, I got there early and vowed to do it. So I did.

Pre-match preparation focused on both the right poems and the right voice. The latter was finalised via recording several poems as though broadcasting them on the Third Programme; it was important to me to ensure my diction was top notch and that every word was clearly heard. Some poems are better read in the head than read out loud, and it was through recording and listening back that I discovered which had the best rhythm for a public airing. Content mattered too. I deliberately selected a couple of poems looking back to childhood listening and viewing habits, ones I figured might chime with an audience whose average age appeared slightly more advanced than my own; sandwiched between this pair was one dealing with the annoying habit time has of moving the goalposts of perception – and that’s not a reference to an imaginary collaboration between Aldous Huxley and Gordon Banks.

Having published four collections of poetry in the last couple of years, I had plenty material to choose from – and I must have looked very much the pro, reciting from an actual book rather than the notepads or sheets the other participants clutched at the mic. After two solid decades devoted to prose, returning to verse had been an unexpected response to an emotional crisis that demanded an instant creative response as a means of keeping me sane. I used to write nothing but verse at one time, though most was done with the intention of music being added; it rarely was, and the jottings of the 90s remain buried in a binder. Life experience has promoted me into a different league since then.

After reading my third and final poem, I confessed to the organiser of the event I’d been just a little nervous, though she insisted it didn’t show; she also confirmed my belief that the subject matter of the poems might register with the lives of others, as had a friend who told me she was returned to her classroom in 60s Ireland when she listened to the evocations of my own in 70s England. Reading them aloud was something new, though I’m not getting carried away. I’ve learnt not to cultivate great expectations anymore, and the expulsion of romanticism from my vision means I can see clearly now. An excess of hope only ever spawns false dawns, anyway, so it’s best to resist it. I’ve just finished my first collection of short stories, but I don’t regard myself as the new Roald Dahl; I wrote them because I can’t stop. If people like it, great; if they don’t, I’ll still keep producing it. I’m a one-man cottage industry, and self-isolation comes with the territory – handkerchief or no.

Closedown Poem (BBC2 Revival) from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

© The Editor


Ken Dodd once said it was the greatest gift that he possessed, but happiness remains problematic when it comes to a defining description. ‘Forget your troubles; come on, get happy’ sang Judy Garland, yet one doesn’t need to see Bridget Jones doing an impersonation of Liza Minnelli’s mom to be aware of how happiness effectively eluded Dorothy throughout the brief 47 years she spent as an all-round entertainer. When David Bowie released an album in 1977 with the far-from upbeat title of ‘Low’, the coke-fuelled black clouds encircling the (allegedly) Nazi-saluting Thin White Duke suggested listeners were in for quite a walk on the wild side; yet Bowie’s genius was to marry a despairing line such as ‘Pale blinds drawn all day/nothing to do, nothing to say’ to the most joyous of melodies in ‘Sound and Vision’; hell, he even roped-in Mary Hopkin for backing vocals. And as much as I love them, Radiohead wouldn’t do that.

Painting a portrait of darkness comes easier to artists than attempts to portray the flipside; light is far harder to encapsulate either on canvas or in verse than shade. When they try, they inevitably fail – or the critical reception they receive persuades them that the task is a fruitless one. Whenever Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles domestic bliss was manifested in song, he tended to be torn to shreds by critics and – early on – by his former musical soulmate as well. Perhaps the problem was that McCartney’s concept of happiness (or his methods of portraying it) diverged from that of those paid to review his releases – though their concept clearly diverged from that of the record-buyers who continued to provide Macca with hits; and this, in a nutshell, is what makes happiness such a tricky proposition to put into words that speak to everybody. It is entirely relative.

Private passions that constitute many a Saturday or Sunday are often as incomprehensible to outsiders as the chosen pursuits of those outsiders are to the practitioner they cannot fathom. Renovating steam-trains can be as alien a hobby to those who queue-up to cheer on, say, Northampton Town FC during drizzly midweek November evenings down in League Two as much as it can be to those who spend a small fortune ordering an LP from Japan that they already have half-a-dozen different copies of, merely because the label or sleeve design vary from the rest, despite the track-listing being identical. Whatever makes you happy, eh?

Music that has generally dealt exclusively with ‘feel-good’ factors is routinely written-off as disposable, though I’d argue a landmark of pop perfection such as ‘Dancing Queen’ probably required more work putting into it than ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’; that’s not to say Abba’s polished jewel in the 70s crown is superior to Dylan’s nightmarish end-of-the-world tour de force at all; both have their place. But just because one embodies joy and the other embodies despair doesn’t mean the latter is entitled to special privileges in the critical canon. To my ears, pop culture artefacts encapsulating emotional extremes at both end of the spectrum coexist as a necessary yin and yang if music is supposed to provide a soundtrack for all that life has to offer. You can’t have one without the other.

Whenever official bodies attempt to co-opt happiness and impose activities they imagine will inspire happiness on the population, I tend to recoil. I had the same reaction to organisations such as the Scouts when I was a child; and for all their merits as raisers of funds for undoubted good causes, the likes of Children in Need and Comic Relief provoke a similar response in me as an adult. Being told to smile because you’re not starving or being pressurised into having ‘fun’ because others can’t have it is unnatural; genuine happiness when it strikes is generally a spontaneous sensation impervious to planning. Announcing in advance when one should feel happy always reeks of tactics once employed by Butlin’s redcoats or the Radio 1 Roadshow to me – at times even reminiscent of being ordered to radiate fake joy during the taking of a childhood photo on a miserable family holiday. The very personal nature of what actually constitutes happiness in the individual does not always make it a communal experience; granted, it can do when it comes to a Cup Final or a big gig, but such events are atypical as a rule.

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is noted for its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, incorporating the concept into an index that measures the wellbeing and happiness of its people, rating such a theory as highly as other governments value Gross Domestic Product. The Constitution of Bhutan regards the collective contentment of its populace as being as important to the nation as the usual economic considerations, and the UN was sufficiently impressed to instigate its annual World Happiness Report from 2012 onwards; the current holder of the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ title is Finland, though the Finnish probably didn’t have to worry about competition from Syria or Yemen when the votes were counted. As always, happiness depends on multiple factors when it comes to a nation as much as it does the individual sons and daughters of that nation.

Now is perhaps not the best of times to undertake a happiness survey of these discontented isles, though previous attempts at gauging the mood of Britain have often yielded surprising results. Apparently, the peak of recorded happiness for the population of the UK remains 1976 – yes, the supposedly bleak mid-70s, the era of the Three-Day Week, industrial disputes, strikes, IRA bombs and The Bay City Rollers; maybe the Long Hot Summer of that year played its part, though the democratisation of must-have accessories and household appliances along with the social mobility that had yet to stall probably helped. It’s also worth remembering a large proportion of the population at that time would have lived through the Great Depression, WWII and post-war Austerity, so I would imagine colour TV, central heating and affordable housing seemed satisfactory consolations for any minor hardships.

So, no – happiness can never be entirely quantified either by the compilers of statistics or artists attempting to capture it in art; it is down to the individual, and even the individual cannot necessarily explain why one thing inspires happiness and another doesn’t. Moreover, unless one happens to be a puppy, happiness is a transient state that can go as quickly as it comes. The agony that arises from its departure is in the not-knowing when – or if – it will return, for the addictive nature of personal happiness can create a craving destined to disappoint. I know with absolute certainty what the single happiest moment of my life was without question, but I also know that moment exists now solely as a memory and will probably never be surpassed; and that’s shit. But that’s life. It is rough and it is smooth, so come on. Get happy.

© The Editor


Around three years ago, this here blog inadvertently began to take on the shape of a broadsheet obituary section; a remarkable number of famous names fell like dominos in a short space of time and each had made a significant enough mark on me to warrant my noting their passing in a post. No idea what was in the water in 2016, but the legends that shuffled off this mortal coil at the time would’ve been better advised not to drink it. Anyhow, the pace of passing away thankfully seems to have slowed down since then and I only feel compelled to devote a post to the loss of an important figure now if they’d contributed in some shape or form to the person I am today. Bearing in mind what I do for ‘a living’, there’s no way I can let this day go by without paying tribute to Terrance Dicks.

Now, whilst I appreciate his is not a name universally acknowledged, to those in the know – and whose childhoods existed in that surreal cultural bubble called the 1970s – Terrance Dicks was an alchemist of the imagination as much as Lewis Carroll or Kenneth Grahame had been to previous generations. Not only was he ‘Doctor Who’ script-editor during one of the programme’s greatest purple patches (from 1968-74); he also authored the essential novelisations of the show’s stories that were the only method of reliving them or visiting them for the first time in a pre-VHS, DVD and On-Demand era. The first-ever ‘proper’ book I read that didn’t have more pictures than words in it was penned by Dicks – ‘Doctor Who and the Web of Fear’; I wrote my first-ever ‘proper’ book after reading it. Terrance Dicks therefore prised open doors to me that have remained at the very least ajar ever since.

Denied the means of replaying favourite episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ over and over again on a screen, children of the 70s had no choice but to replay them in their heads – something that would have been considerably more difficult had not Dicks painted the Time Lord’s landscape with such vivid and dynamic descriptive expertise. Free from the restraints of a BBC budget, the worlds the Doctor visited (and the creatures that inhabited them) could be visualised on the page of a Target paperback in ways today’s younger fans can’t possibly comprehend. As much as I would’ve loved to have been able to access any Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker adventure on TV whenever I felt like it as an eight-year-old, looking back I’m glad I couldn’t. What the novelisations did was to really facilitate the means to re-imagine them, means that have enabled me to see other worlds and inhabit other imaginary lives from then on, not to mention creating my own – something I couldn’t have done had not Terrance Dicks showed me how.

After co-writing a handful of episodes of ‘The Avengers’ in the late 60s, Terrance Dicks joined the scriptwriting team on ‘Doctor Who’ at a point when the series was faltering in the ratings and beginning to seem as though it had run its course. The exhausting work schedule for all involved in a show that was almost on all-year round (in the manner of a soap) pushed the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton into retiring from the role, and with British television’s monochrome era coming to a close, many figured ‘Doctor Who’ would be just another casualty of the change into colour. Dicks had other ideas. When Dicks was promoted to script-editor, Barry Letts took over as producer and the combination of their respective talents saved the series; the inspired casting of Jon Pertwee undoubtedly played a major part in the transformation of the show’s fortunes, but the men behind the scenes were the ones who rerouted the direction of the programme and took it to unprecedented heights of popularity and success.

The Doctor was now exiled to earth by the Time Lords, which was handy on account of the increase in alien invasions of the south-east poised to take place. With the Tardis temporarily out of action, he was forced to work alongside a military organisation called UNIT; specialising in the unexplained, UNIT was led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a character played in consummate officer-class style by Nicholas Courtney; the ‘Brig’ became the Watson to the Doctor’s Holmes. Letts & Dicks then thought it right the pair should have a Moriarty, so they created the character of The Master, played with sinister charisma by Roger Delgado. Augmented by female sidekicks such as Katy Manning’s Jo Grant and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah-Jane Smith, the UNIT ‘family’ provided the Doctor and the viewer with a solid foundation for repelling the forces of evil and proved a winning formula throughout Dicks’ tenure as script-editor.

Dicks also assembled a formidable team of talents to pen the stories that enraptured millions every Saturday teatime; the likes of Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker and Dave Martin may have severely tested the patience of set designers and monster manufacturers in Shepherd’s Bush, but they gave children with latent imaginations permission to imagine. Some of us have never stopped imagining.

After five years at the helm, Letts & Dicks decided to time their departure with that of Jon Pertwee; but just as the leading man passed on the baton to an actor who pushed the bar even higher, the most successful double act in the programme’s history to date handed over to Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, confident the series was in very safe hands indeed – which it was. After writing the adventure that inaugurated the Tom Baker era, Terrance Dicks finally left ‘Doctor Who’, though in a way he never really did. Not only did he contribute a further handful of stories to the show in the late 70s, but his authorship of over 60 of the Target ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations through the remainder of the 70s and into the 80s ensured his involvement with the series remained a source of income as well as a means of regularly exercising his storytelling talents. He later became a permanent fixture on the generous extras accompanying the DVD releases of ‘Who’ adventures from his era.

If, like me, your time at school was more a case of learning how to survive a beating than learning, the inspirational teacher archetype as portrayed by Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ or Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ was pure fiction. You therefore had to find that inspiration elsewhere, looking to individuals operating in other arenas to fire the imagination and stoke the curiosity for genuine education. Television was once abundant in such towering tutors: James Burke in the field of science, David Attenborough in natural history, and – through his stewardship of ‘The South Bank Show’ – Melvyn Bragg in the Arts. When it came to an introduction to the written word, for me Terrance Dicks played that part. I’ve travelled far and wide in terms of that word since, but I wouldn’t have been on such an invigorating journey had not Dicks packed my rucksack with paperbacks and sent me on my way. I owe him.

© The Editor


One of the many highlights on the landmark 1968 Kinks album, ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ is a song called ‘Do You Remember Walter?’ The narrator fondly recalls a childhood sidekick in a series of anecdotal reminiscences that celebrate Walter’s semi-heroic status – ‘Do you remember Walter playing cricket in the thunder and the rain?/Do you remember Walter smoking cigarettes behind your garden gate?’ Gradually, the tone of the lyrics alters as the narrator acknowledges his wistful curiosity over what became of his old mate will no doubt be dampened by the inevitable and humbling reality of time passing – ‘I bet you’re fat and married/and you’re always home in bed by half-past eight’. The singer of the song concludes with detectable melancholy, ‘Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago/Walter, if you saw me now, you wouldn’t even know my name.’ The song speaks volumes because we all have a Walter and we’ve all wondered ‘Whatever happened to..?’

Take Joey. Joey was my first ‘best mate’ when I started school, the first kid who joined me in a playground re-enactment of a ‘Top of the Pops’ performance from the night before (‘Blockbuster’ by The Sweet, in case you were wondering); barely six months after I started school, however, my parents relocated us all to another part of town and the friendship ceased to exist overnight. The last time I saw Joey was the summer of 1973, and that’s where he remains in my head. As children have a slim grasp of a past too brief to linger in, their permanent presence in the present means they can shrug off the loss of one friendship and quickly move on to the next without dwelling on it; I did just that several times over the next couple of years, when my family imposed nomadic social mobility on my education. I thus became accustomed to the idea of friendship as a short-term arrangement; but as the casualties began piling up, I eventually started to wonder where those fading faces had faded to.

What just one standout vignette in an entire LP of them says about absent friends is both touching and potent – how the flesh-and-blood of the here and now invariably dissolves into the ether of memory as tomorrow supersedes today. People it can be impossible to imagine our lives without will all vacate the present tense and find their way to the cemetery of friendship in the end; and the longer we live, the more crowded that cemetery becomes. When a resident of it gatecrashes our thoughts without warning – an unexpected intrusion often triggered by stumbling upon something they were associated with – we pause, attempting to picture their face. We try to reconstruct that countenance as it might have aged when we were no longer looking at it; it’s a mental equivalent of those strange imagined impressions of the adult that a missing child could have morphed into, ones the police produce to complete cold cases. We can’t quite do it, though, for lost friends are indeed the living dead, frozen phantoms preserved in our internal graveyard that never grow old.

Yes, it is true that we can disentangle ourselves from family if we so wish, though the intricate web of emotional blackmail many families survive by can make such a move a minefield; with friends, it’s different. Friends were our choice, those we instinctively gravitated towards because there was a connection we discerned that meant more than a mere shared surname. As the old saying goes, you can judge a man by the company he keeps – and the choice of our friends is an expression of us as individuals. This is especially important when we are children.

As a child kicks and pushes its way out of the infant egg, part of the hatching process is establishing a life beyond the confines of mum and dad; forming friendships is a crucial aspect of that process, enabling the child to make its first independent mark in the world free from the parental CCTV. We therefore naturally develop a possessive bond with our chosen companions that can sometimes manifest itself as loyalty blinding us to faults and failings we prefer to believe are the exclusive province of those we didn’t pick for our private football team, i.e. family. What, indeed, does it say about us or our judgement should our cherished friends be exposed as owning feet composed of clay? When they betray or abandon us, it hurts because we expected better from them; we anticipate being let down by family, but not by friends. Forgiving is hard enough; forgetting can be even harder.

Social media can put people back in touch, this is true; but is that such a wise endeavour? I know one friend who has done just that more than once and the outcomes have not always been happy; sometimes it’s best to leave well alone and keep the recollection intact and unsullied by the passage of time. Charles Dickens carried a torch for adolescent sweetheart Maria Beadnell, his first love; but the torch was abruptly snuffed out after years of burning bright in his heart when he met up with her in middle age, long after she had roused his nascent passions; he imagined she would still be as he remembered her. She wasn’t. Indeed, any form of high school reunion can be fraught with dangers that stretch back decades. We never forget the friends who let us down, but do we recall the ones we let down? Who knows what bitter resentments we may have inadvertently fostered in the memories of others? We may be disappointed to see our own Walter ‘fat and married’, but what of those to whom we are Walter? Memory has the capacity to be a uniquely selective tonic.

Each act of my existence has come with its own repertory company of players, and very few have remained with the company for long. There is rarely any crossover between productions either; there tends to be a fresh crop of actors for every new script. Such a scenario often imbues the leader of the company with a rootless insecurity and a feeling of belonging nowhere; this is a direct outcome of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em blood brothers of childhood. There are times when I envy those who have stayed in touch with most of the friends they’ve made in their lives; there are other times when I wonder if such a network can be as much of an impediment to personal progress as family can be. Granted, some friends had a sole role, that of facilitating the next phase; once the next phase was here, they had gone; others should have stuck around a little longer. Some I don’t miss and have no desire to reunite with whatsoever; others were worthy of eternity and their disappearance left behind a black hole that still radiates the sense of something missing, something that would have continued to enrich my life had it remained.

One of the trickier elements of this constant changing of characters is that there can be gaps between an outgoing cast and an incoming one – and these gaps have a habit of gradually widening on each occasion they come around. At the moment, I’m reduced to monologues; I recently staged a one-man show that spanned seven days, playing to an empty theatre every night. But, hell, I’ve been here before and I’ve always managed to recruit an audience eventually. I ain’t panicking. I guess at times it can be hard not to envy the child’s lack of a past and stoic ability to forge ahead free from being haunted by the lost; the only thing a child can glimpse when he looks back over his shoulder is a void – and it’s far better to have the void behind than in front, for sure.

So, yes, to answer the question posed by Ray Davies fifty years ago, I do remember Walter – lots of Walters. But where are they now, those collective Walters that contributed so much to the weaving of this tatty tapestry now looking distinctly frayed at the edges? No idea, but thanks for the memories, wherever you are – hopefully healthy, wealthy and wise, passing through the lives of others like you passed through mine.

© The Editor


Aged three, I guess the saddest sentence in the English language for me was ‘It’s time for Andy Pandy to wave goodbye now’; it was infancy’s equivalent of ‘I’ve met someone else’, though at least the end-of-the-world dejection was diluted by the promise of a return visit to Andy’s place the following week: ‘But he’s coming again soon.’ And he did, as did all of the inhabitants of television’s toy-box, despite the fact I had no say over my rationed encounters with them. They were my friends before I had real friends, and I regularly indulge in pre-school reunions now that I’m no longer dependent on broadcasters to determine when I can see them again.

As much as I loved the characters when a member of the target demographic, I also loved the worlds they lived in – worlds that seemed familiar, but not quite. Mary, Mungo & Midge may have resided in a 60s tower block, but it was one of those ‘moonbase’ 60s tower blocks as they looked on the architect’s drawing-board before being built – sleek, space-age, analogue erections surrounded by green and pleasant land, as though these buildings had sprouted from the soil like beautiful, synthetic mushrooms; it was a modernist marriage of architecture and nature that never happened, a future that failed to arrive.

The wider townscape of this tower block’s location was a similarly simplistic palette of pulsating primary colours, presenting an idyllic urban environment on a par with those illustrated in the Ladybird books of the era. If a child had designed this imaginary garden city, I wouldn’t have been surprised; ditto Festive Road, address of Mr Benn, or Trumpton. When young children portray their surroundings in the galleries that decorate classrooms, their impressions generally stick to an endearingly primitive template that bears little resemblance to the actual surroundings their parents would recognise as home. Yet, chances are these parents would have depicted the world in an identical fashion when the same age, the age in which the visual is still the senior partner to the verbal where self-expression is concerned. At what point do we cease to see the world through our original eyes? And why, by the time we are in a position to shape that world, are the end results are so bloody ugly?

It was exquisite timing that the shows my generation watched with mother were all produced at the back-end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s; the creations of Oliver Postgate, Gordon Murray, John Ryan and David McKee belonged to a brief moment of English pop culture in which a child’s vision of the world was transplanted from the infant interior to the adult exterior. Amazing footage of the Technicolor boutiques lining the King’s Road from this period bear it out; the lysergic Alice in Wonderland vibe of the shops spills out of the child’s enchanting imagination and onto a grownup monochrome pavement in a way that gleefully contradicts the accepted narrative of maturity; the wares on display also have a childlike charm that adults usually lose and rarely recover.

There’s a distinct difference between childlike and childish, however. The former is the retention of an optimistic, prepubescent perspective on aesthetics that can sit comfortably alongside more advanced attitudes to topics the prepubescent mind struggles with. By contrast, the latter is a thumb-sucking rejection of the childlike, a voluntary regression into the facsimile womb of so-called ‘kidulthood’, a onesie-clad Neverland that refuses to progress beyond the safe space of its own emotionally-retarded playground and responds to any incursion of the adult world with tears and tantrums. Childlike can be compatible with ‘grownup’; childish is wilfully negative and has little connection with the genuine child that is always desperate to be older than it actually is; the genuine child is forever looking forward to a world it has already designed in an imagination bursting with brilliantly bonkers ideas, inventing an exciting adult landscape that is uniquely childlike in its conception.

I have friends whose homes are an Aladdin’s Cave of delightful kitsch and individual eccentricities, decorated with broken old toys and other ornaments with the sole function of raising a smile. But these friends are not intellectual imbeciles; they have merely achieved an admirable equilibrium between child and adult that blends the best of both worlds to form a better one. When governments award multimillion-pound contracts to private companies to take charge of our environment and its institutions, the only beneficiaries are those involved in the transaction. I know if my aforementioned friends were awarded such a contract, we’d all benefit; they’d not only do it for free but they’d transform neighbourhoods so they resembled Pepperland before the Blue Meanies got their hands on it. Most five-year-olds would do the same; their 35-year-old selves, on the other hand, designed what we’re lumbered with.

A childlike side can be a potent aesthetic weapon worth utilising and I only wish more of those who design and construct our surroundings did. Perhaps then the look of our schools, workplaces, homes, hospitals and streets wouldn’t instil such depression whenever we have cause to be there. Our environment acts as a mirror; we see grey, we feel grey; we see ugly, we feel ugly – ulcers begat ulcers. There’s not much knife-crime in Chipping Norton, I’ll wager. Lest we forget, Oscar Wilde’s response when asked in the US why American society was prone to violence was ‘Because your wallpaper is so terrible’. Think about it.

The system drills the childlike out of most children and the adult that emerges as a fully-processed sausage at the end of the conveyor belt has been remade and remodelled to live by an approved script of league tables, life insurance, pension schemes, profit margins, mortgages, and an absolute absence of imagination. He has nostalgic moments of wistful remembrance, recalling his five-year-old self; but his education has taught him he cannot connect with that child and he consequently believes him to be irretrievable. He isn’t, though it depends how far one has been absorbed into the system or how much one has become one’s mother or father without putting up a fight.

Trying not to entirely lose the view of the world when seen through the wide eyes of a child isn’t easy and it is true that some circumstances are more conducive to it than others. Similarly, there is always the temptation to cling to the childlike simply as a refuge to flee into the comforting embrace of whenever headlines overwhelm and enrage. But it can be salvaged; it needs to be. I’ve resisted evoking the Jesuit motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, but it’s a saying that retains its relevance if turned round: ‘Give me the man and I will give you a child of seven’. He’s still there in all of us, and he still has a lot to offer. Don’t ignore him. I am he as you are he as you are me – and we are all together.

© The Editor


A school uniform may be resented by those with no choice but to wear it, yet the sullen adolescents slouching against bus-shelters this morning have merely exchanged one uniform for another – one day dressed in their regulation designer teenage attire and the next back in the straitjacket dictated by the educational institution selected by their parents due to its standing in the league tables. One mass-produced outfit trades on the illusion of individuality and the other is sold as a constricting concession to The Man, but both cynically feed the consumer appetite, either that of parent or child. The latter I sighted earlier today are now at the stage Alice Cooper once sang of – ‘I’m in the middle without any plans/I’m a boy/and I’m a man’. Envy them? Thought not.

The aforementioned veteran shock-rocker has regularly cited the inspiration for his biggest hit as being the moments leading up to the last school bell that heralds the summer holidays, moments he rightly recalled as being amongst the highlights of childhood. Even a childless person can’t help but notice those moments have been and gone for another year now, however; a sudden alteration in the apparel of the urban parade as of today is something one can’t help but notice, though I must stress at this stage of proceedings I have no midlife leanings towards the female variety resuming the route to the academy. Who would dare these days, anyway?

No, I was simply made aware that school was no longer out because of the proliferation of identikit brats cluttering the pavements in the manner of chattering wheelie-bins. Mercifully, most of my social media brothers and sisters have either avoided or have passed the proud parent bombardment, so I haven’t had to endure any forced smile mug-shots of their offspring in freshly-ironed and starched blazers this week. Not that I don’t feel sorry for those caught in the competitive crossfire of parental one-upmanship; in fact, I have no qualms in declaring I’d much rather have been a schoolboy then than now – even if then would seem virtually Victorian to today’s press-ganged classroom crew.

Assembly – the daily induction: a hymn to sing, a fable from the Bible, a round-up of results involving the numerous school sports teams, a slap across the skull from a patrolling teacher as swift punishment for talking, the occasional gust of wind provoking sniggering, and every once in a while a lecture on the evils of some vandalism committed by a villain nobody will name – all conducted in the chilly environs of a hall that can double-up as a dining room three hours later. Not long after the half-asleep multitudes are herded off to their respective classes, the unmistakable aroma of boiled slurry begins to seep into the space, though the belly will have to wait for the dubious gastronomic treats; lucky belly.

Those wooden rubbers designed to erase chalk text from the blackboard could very nearly have an eye out, as they would have said on ‘Blue Peter’ if the school experience had been realistically portrayed on the programme. As a teacher’s weapon, the wooden rubbers competed with a ruler or a register when deciding which would serve as the quickest means of altering a daydreaming pupil to the lesson when hurled in their direction. Running the gauntlet of staff sadism was a tricky business that, if done with the correct amount of cheeky chappie nerve, could ensure a legend that would last a lunchtime; if done wrong, detention alongside the swivel-eyed school yahoos awaited.

Those I knew who did as they were told and got on with their work probably enjoyed careers of clerical social-climbing and mobility once graduating from our glorified Borstal; they were fortunate they could do so while it was still possible. Their equivalents today can look forward to university (which was a rare privilege at my alma mater), albeit bankrupting their parents in the process and saddling themselves with decades of debt as their degree qualifies them for soul-destroying telesales that won’t even pay their astronomical rent, never mind entitle them to a home of their own. Some progress.

We are also intermittently informed by our tabloid press that today’s schools are hotbeds of violence – both physical and sexual; coppers are often on site; bullying initiatives are part and parcel of the curriculum; CCTV and weapons searches are apparently regular fixtures. Never had any of that at my school, but I fail to see how the violence could possibly be any more vicious and endemic than it was during my tenure. The most severe punishment a teacher can dish out to an unruly ‘student’ today is temporary suspension; they can’t administer six-of-the-best let alone a clip round the lughole, yet they could more or less indulge in any assault when I was at school, and it was sometimes hard to decide who were the scariest – the staff or the more psychotic pupils.

Okay, so institutionalised violence emanating from the staff-room may have been outlawed, but pupil power has its own downside. Not that any parent would want to accept this could be the case at their own child’s school – after all the trouble they went to when moving into the right catchment area and ferrying their offspring to the gates in Chelsea Tractors? No wonder they react to any fictional portrayals of school that dwell on this violence with such fury. ‘Grange Hill’ was the bête noir of parents for the first few years of its existence; surely characters such as Gripper Stebson were pure fantasy? Yet, the kids recognised this council estate Flashman in an instant. Only when the cast were applauded for the ‘Just Say No’ campaign did the show achieve the parental pat on the back.

I doubt schooldays were the best days of anyone’s life, merely an introductory episode to the equally joyous workplace or dole queue; I certainly don’t look back at mine with any fondness, that’s for sure. Yet, at the same time, I wouldn’t swap places with the poor sods enduring it today. I would imagine the environment they currently inhabit is a good deal less intimidating than the one I inhabited at their age, but the prospect of joining a workforce with the longest hours in Europe and diminishing rewards at the end of it makes one wonder why the whole lot of them aren’t bunking off. Mind you, that would put their parents in prison, wouldn’t it? I guess not all new laws are bad.

© The Editor


One of the many dreaded factors in introducing one’s boy/girlfriend to one’s mother has always been ‘the potty picture’. The best tea-set being dusted down and mum bizarrely transforming into an air hostess when serving it is an uncomfortable enough experience; but if the new other half passes muster, chances are the childhood photo album will then be excavated. And, naturally, every childhood photo album opens with a baby sat on a potty. Why do mothers feel the need to a) capture a crap on camera and b) show it to one’s partner decades later? It remains a perplexing aspect of parenting that non-parents like me will always be mystified by. Perhaps it’s a symbolic surrender of emotional ownership and an acknowledgement that the other half will at some point in the relationship see said partner on the loo too. As a portrait of man and woman’s mutual vulnerability, sitting on the loo is probably a greater leveller than death.

As horrific as this handover ceremony has been for generations, the one saving grace of it has been that the ritual takes place behind closed doors, only endured by those present in the room. Not for the first time, be thankful the visual documentation of your formative years was restricted to the Kodak Brownie or (at a push) the Super-8 cine-camera. Imagine you’d been born on the cusp of the millennium or immediately thereafter. The potty picture would be the opening image in your online gallery of embarrassment, shared with, if not necessarily the world, then your mother’s circle of family and friends and – as a consequence – their offspring and their family and friends.

Eight out of ten mothers (probably) think their little angel is inherently superior to any other child on the planet, so are instinctively compelled to broadcast this information to anyone within earshot; backstage at the Miss World contest must seem like a veritable picture of communal harmony compared to the level of competitiveness at the school-gates. The Yummy Mummy movement, bolstered by the celebrity mother industry, daytime TV, dozens of websites, and a plethora of ‘How To…’ guidebooks, has turned this traditional rivalry between mums into a deadly game of one-upmanship that now has an additional dimension that takes it above and beyond the parochial battlefield – social media.

Twenty-first century boys and girls are the first generation to have their entire lives so far uploaded to a worldwide database, using the lead character in ‘The Truman Show’ as a blueprint for growing-up. It’s not a pleasant thought, especially when one considers they’ve had no say in the matter. From the initial ‘aaah’ shot to appear on Facebook barely days (or in some cases, hours) after the sprog’s arrival all the way to the ‘first day at school’ shot, the internet has been utilised as cyber apron-strings by mothers too blinded by their perfect child to appreciate the future ramifications of their actions.

Another element of crass Americanisation to pollute British culture, the aforementioned ‘first day at school’ shot takes its place alongside even greater demands on the parental coffers such as the insidious establishing of ‘the prom’ as an end-of-term beauty contest; not only does the latter introduce a new financial burden previously reserved for Catholic parents and their communion dresses, it also places pressure upon the children themselves. It was bad enough when this alien tradition infiltrated high schools; the fact it has now seeped into the primary school social calendar means mothers now have yet more opportunities to earn online bragging points whilst bankrupting themselves in the process.

The generation who welcomed the internet into their lives from adolescence onwards have already become accustomed to documenting every aspect of their existence online, but the generation coming up behind them, who will have never known a time without it, have had it thrust upon them as a normal state of affairs. It’s too early to say how this will shape their self-perception in years to come, but the threat of these images remaining accessible for eternity was something as worrying as Facebook’s refusal to allow the accounts of the deceased to be deleted – until, it would appear, now.

Yesterday it was announced by Matt Hancock, Digital Minister (yes, that’s a real job title), that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation laws are to be transferred onto the UK statute book in an overhaul of Britain’s own data protection laws. The most encouraging upshot of the proposals is that it should not only be easier for people to withdraw their consent for personal data to be shared online, but it should enable people to request the removal of childhood photographs uploaded by parents years before. In theory, this could spell the end of the potty photo’s online life.

Anyone well-versed enough in cyber practices will of course be aware that it’s hardly rocket-science to copy and paste an image from the internet, so the chances are some images can be uploaded over and over again in perpetuity; but at least the proposals in this new bill might provide the unfortunate cyber star with some legal clout to get his or her own back on Mommie Dearest. The right of the individual in question to upload childhood photos of their own choice is something those of us who grew up in private already have – as the image illustrating this post demonstrates. And I will always defend that seven-year-old’s right to have worn those trousers.

© The Editor


The votes have been counted and verified, and the pies have been eaten; the results can be announced! Yes, the latest statistics reveal England’s leading Fatty Town is Rotherham, followed by another South Yorkshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Doncaster; hot on their heels is Halton in the North West. Waddling its way towards the top spot, Rotherham can boast more fatties amongst its population than anywhere else in the country; just under half of the town’s entire population are overweight, with 32.6% classed as obese.

Apparently, as much as a quarter of the population of the entire UK are now obese, but even though 40.4% of the English are overweight and 24.4% obese, England isn’t as abundant in blubber as Scotland, according to the NHS; last time the NHS looked, 27% of Scots were obese, with Wales ranking at 22%. The figures that awarded Rotherham the unenviable heavyweight crown were collated between 2013 and 2016, though England’s fattest geographical region is the North East; 41.5% of Tyne, Tees and Weir-siders are overweight, whereas 27.1% fall into the obese category. The Yorkshire & Humber region runs a close second, with the East Midlands behind that.

In a sense, the statistics paint a wider picture of what our own eyes are telling us whenever we’re out and about. A couple of times this week, I’ve been sat in a friend’s car whilst she’s popped into a shop on a retail park, and as I observed passers-by, I reckoned well over half of them were what could genuinely be called fat. When I was a child, fatties weren’t unheard of, but they were certainly less prevalent than today; most classes at school had the token fat kid, and most of us had a fat uncle or aunt; though there’s no doubt they were a far rarer sight than today, almost something of a novelty.

The blame game is inevitable when such a dramatic alteration to the national character as this occurs. Using my own childhood experience, I know for sure instant and frozen foods certainly existed, though they co-existed with meals consisting of fresh vegetables and the dreaded ‘greens’ that had such an unsavoury reputation. With parents raised on the legacy of wartime digging for victory and grandparents still possessing vivid memories of days that might go by without any food whatsoever, it was no wonder the importance of greens and meals cooked from scratch remained high. This thinking also extended to school dinners; but in order to make the far-from desirable recipe of cabbage, beetroot, spam fritters, lumpy mash and hard peas remotely tolerable, the prize at the end of this gastronomic obstacle course was a pudding bathed in custard, awarded to everyone who managed to grin and swallow their way through the first course, and washed down with that most basic of table wines – water.

Anyone of a certain age will recall that the chocolate bar Milky Way used to be advertised as ‘The sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite’, with the emphasis on can. This carried clout with kids of my generation; if this statement was broadcast on TV, then it had to be true – right, mum? Therefore, it’s okay to guzzle one before teatime, yeah? It was also a canny tagline by the manufacturers because eating between meals was so frowned upon at the time that a chocolate bar sold as a sweet that wouldn’t interfere with the compulsory cleaning of the plate might just be a smart way round the unwritten rules of the nation’s children’s diet.

It’s no wonder the corner-shop did a roaring trade in penny sweets both on the way to and on the way back from school. Such cheap confectionary was within the budget of most kids (even those who helped themselves when the newsagent fatally turned his back) and wasn’t considered substantial enough to damage appetites for the next meal. The main accusation levelled at sweets was that they rotted your teeth if taken to excess, so most parents tolerated them as long as they were consumed in moderation. A proper chocolate bar boasting a big brand name or even a packet of crisps were a little pricier and therefore had an air of ‘treat’ about them, something one could look forward to perhaps once a week, though not much more often than that. They even used to print the actual price of the item on the wrapper then, as if to emphasise the gulf between it and the more accessible penny varieties stocking the shelves.

The sudden colonisation of the country by the burger-bar, something that seemed to happen from the second half of the 1980s onwards, is regularly blamed as the biggest cause of rising child obesity, and there’s no denying the proliferation of such fast-food quick-fix solutions to the headache of being a weekend dad haven’t helped. But the collapse of the old system when it comes to a daily dietary regime probably has more to answer for than the cure-all option of a Big Mac & Fries – specifically, the gradual abolition of the not-eating-between meals rule. Many of today’s parents had their childhood eating habits governed by the old order, yet unlike their own parents, have decided not to impose it on the next generation, instead turning their kitchen cupboards into an all-you-can-eat buffet. They no doubt blame McDonald’s or blame the electronic gadgets that keep their kids indoors even when the weather is ideal for playing-out. But they should really look a little closer to home, and in the mirror.

Outside of the actual food consumed, the subject of exercise is also unavoidable. One wonders how much of an impact the selling-off of school playing fields to developers and the cutting of extracurricular sporting activities have had, let alone the establishment of ‘the school run’, whereby walking to and from school has been superseded by the internal combustion engine. Throw in the reluctance of parents to let their children loose come summer holidays for fear of the prowling Paedo and it’s no wonder their offspring are waddling as much as their parents are.

Food that is deemed good for you today – sugar-free, organic and deprived of artificial colouring – is expensive and therefore only within the regular budget of the relatively affluent, whereas food that is deemed bad for you – loaded with sugar, salt and all those other tasty ingredients that clog-up arteries – is not only affordable for those on low incomes, but also more available. That the South East and London register at the bottom of the obesity chart speaks volumes, but idleness and ignorance play their part too. It is possible to eat healthily on a tiny budget; cooking healthy food is as cheap an option as opting for a pre-packaged and processed ready-meal crammed with chemicals, though why that message is failing to get through could be down to simple laziness. I myself purchased some broccoli and a courgette this morning, costing less than a quid. Carrots, cabbage, onions, lettuce and the rest remain cheaper than any packet of pound shop frozen plastic; but you can’t just bung them in the microwave for ten minutes. Say no more.

© The Editor


Anyone who has seen either the original 1977 BBC version of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ or its even more graphic cinematic interpretation from a couple of years later will certainly be aware of just how brutal a system the old Borstal could be. Yes, the film was a work of fiction, though few doubt it was a pretty accurate dramatisation of conditions in such institutions at the time the initial play was penned by Roy Minton. With the first ‘Play for Today’ incarnation deemed too violent to be transmitted, director Clarke took the same route as Dennis Potter when his own ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ had been banned from BBC screens a year earlier: he restaged it as a movie. By the time it was released the Borstal system was more or less defunct, replaced by detention and youth custody centres. The name Borstal continued to linger as colloquial shorthand for such locations, however.

Since the Criminal Justice Act 1982, the ‘short, sharp shock’ eye-for-an-eye approach to punishing young offenders not yet old enough for proper prison has had to compete with demands for a more humane attitude based around constructive rehabilitation and an increasing awareness of the social environments that have bred criminality. It’s something of a conundrum, balancing the need to punish and make residents aware they’ve done wrong, without resorting to the excessively harsh disciplinary regime of the old Borstal model. If the system tips too far in one direction, exaggerated comparisons of Young Offenders Institutions with luxury hotels are regularly aired in right-wing tabloids as an example that whichever party happens to be running the country is too ‘soft’ on crime.

What does society do with children who don’t adhere to the rules and regulations dictated by that society or simply don’t fit into it? Those who end up being sent to a Young Offenders Institution as a last resort are presupposed to have reached an age where they can distinguish between right and wrong; those suffering from severe mental disabilities are similarly exiled from the frontline of day-to-day living, placed in care units that are both intended to attend to their special needs and to spare society from their uninhibited behaviour. The latter children are deemed to be blameless; they know not what they do. The former were traditionally regarded as wicked, not even able to boast the excuse of lunacy; therefore, they had to have the badness drilled out of them by Borstal.

A greater acknowledgement of the conditions that give rise to criminality amongst the young – social depravation as well as abuse of a physical, sexual, and psychological nature – have permeated thinking when it comes to what to do with such children in the last few decades. Attempting to break the cycle of offending before it becomes a habit is a tough task if the children released back into society then return to the same environments that bred them; moreover, the importance of not modelling the establishments on gaols – and therefore them not merely being ‘prep-school prisons’ – means it’s a difficult path to traverse. There is also the fact that some of the children have committed extremely serious crimes and are unarguably a danger to both the children around them and to the outside world.

Today the High Court ruled that a 16-year-old inmate of Feltham Young Offenders Institution in south-west London had his human rights breached by being kept in solitary confinement for upwards of 22 hours a day. Denied interaction with other residents and the access to education to which he is legally entitled, the boy – who apparently suffers from serious mental health problems – was detained at Feltham last December and is due for release this month; the cause of his detainment has not been revealed. In response to the ruling, the Ministry of Justice has declared that ‘proportionate and justified segregation’ is necessary in some extreme cases, though Feltham itself has been previously criticised for its treatment of residents; HM Inspectorate of Prisons recently claimed 40% of boys were locked in their cells throughout the school day whilst 30% had only a couple of hours a day in which they were let out of them.

Unless one is an ex-inmate, only those who have either family members (or the family members of friends) encased in such institutions can have any inside knowledge of the way in which they operate. They remain something of a secret society within society. If a Young Offenders Institution or a care unit containing mentally-handicapped children is to receive a prearranged visit from inspectors, the elements that cause concern for parents are discreetly swept under the carpet for the duration. It’s not too dissimilar to when my mother was a school dinner-lady; she once told me when inspectors were due the headmaster would ensure the most troublesome pupils were given a day-off in order not to give the inspectors the impression the school was a hotbed of antisocial anarchy. Had the inspectors simply turned up without warning, the airbrushed impression of the school they received would have been replaced by a far truer picture of the establishment.

Having a friend whose mentally-handicapped child is resident in a care unit, I’ve received several stories of the realities of such an institution, ones that rarely (if ever) leak out to the wider world and ones that certainly don’t fit the image anyone without an emotional investment in them might have of how they function. Avoidable accidents are commonplace, usually due to members of staff whose excess pounds prevent them from being as nimble on their feet as they should be when looking after children with an abundance of energy. When food budgets are often spent on meals the said members of staff can enjoy at the expense of the more problematic residents, who may not be willing (or able) to consume them, one has to question who is actually benefitting from the vast amounts of money diverted into these institutions.

Some of the stories that have emerged from the likes of Feltham bear an uncomfortable resemblance to scenes from ‘Scum’, whereas some of the stories I’ve been told of those institutions reserved for the mentally-handicapped often recall the equally nightmarish fictional portrayal of the old asylums in another disturbing play from the turn of the 80s, ‘Walter’. This whole subject is one of the most challenging society has to deal with, and one cannot but sometimes come away from it concluding that society isn’t dealing with it very well at all.

© The Editor