SCHOOL’S IN

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

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GROWING-UP IN PUBLIC

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

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OBESITY ROLLERS

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

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OUT OF SIGHT

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

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LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX

001-copyThere is an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which Bart is told the facts of life in characteristically clumsy fashion by his father as the camera then pans away to an aerial view of Springfield whilst Homer’s son and heir criss-crosses the landscape, running to and from the homes of each friend to pass on the news; upon learning the truth of what their parents did, Bart’s pals react in identical fashion – with utter disgust. My own awakening was less dramatic, provided by the BBC in its most benevolent mode. Thanks to my personal Radio Times archive, I can narrow down the day to May 3 1977, when the Beeb’s schools & colleges service screened the first episode of ‘Merry Go Round: Sex Education’.

Hearing words such as penis and vagina in a non-playground context provoked the odd snigger in the little library where we normally viewed less revelatory schools broadcasts, but all my memory can recall from the transmission is film of a baby being born. Back then, of course, fathers – let alone children – were effectively barred from being present at the moment when the latest addition to the family arrived; Frank Spencer’s weird request to attend the birth of Betty’s baby was met with hilarity by the audience viewing ‘Some Mothers Do Ave Em’ in 1973, so seeing this on a schools programme was quite an eye-opener.

I honestly can’t remember if I knew where babies came from at the time I watched ‘Merry Go Round’, but I don’t think it was something I was that curious about. My mum had one when I was five, and I never once asked her how it had ended up in her stomach. Yes, I was aware that women had sex appeal courtesy of the culture, whether Benny Hill, page 3, the ‘naughty cinemas’ in the city centre, or what my dad referred to as the ‘lorry drivers’ magazines’ he sometimes kept stashed in the shed. But I don’t think I equated any of that with babies. Sex itself was merely a rude word associated with tits ‘n’ bums, and being a child in the 70s was sometimes akin to living in a saucy seaside postcard. Other than the naked breasts that caught my prepubescent eye in the Daily Mirror’s comic strip, ‘Garth’, I don’t recall being that interested.

Backtracking to when I began school at the age of four-going-on-five, I’d honestly never heard the word sex. All I was interested in was comics, fantastical monsters, and the nascent Glam Rock scene; one of my earliest school memories is singing my own interpretation of ‘Blockbuster’ with my first bezzy mate in the playground the day after The Sweet had performed it on ‘Top of the Pops’. What did I care about sex education then? Were I undergoing the same process today, I’d find that sex education was part of the infant school curriculum and the mysteries of reproduction wouldn’t be withheld for another four years; they’d apparently be there straight away, alongside learning the rudimentary basics of maths, English or geography. No longer prolonging ‘innocence’ (for want of a better word) may be deemed the sensible approach, but is it the right one?

I don’t know why I had a soft spot for certain girls in my various classes during the years leading up to May 1977, but I would claim them as ‘my girlfriend’ as a consequence; merely causing my embryonic heart to skip a beat was enough justification for the label, even if the unfortunate maidens were unaware of it. I won’t name any of them on the extremely rare off-chance they may stumble upon this post, but they were no more girlfriends of mine than any of the TV Goddesses who had a similar effect on me through this period, whether Susan Dey in ‘The Partridge Family’ or Katy Manning on ‘Doctor Who’. Sorry to use the same word again, but it was all extremely innocent. Sex didn’t come into it. I simply warmed and responded to feminine beauty.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced that sex and ‘relationships’ education will be compulsory in all English schools from the moment schooling begins. Ms Greening said that children will be taught about ‘safe and healthy relationships’ as soon as they are indoctrinated into the system. I have no qualms with children receiving such lessons when they’re on the cusp of puberty and are potentially poised to encounter sexual intimacy; the high teenage pregnancy rates in this country make such knowledge essential if they’re to be reduced. But four-year-olds?

What the hell does a four-year-old know or want to know about ‘safe and healthy relationships’? Most four-year-olds are still prone to going to the toilet in their trousers. They eat their own bogies. They bite their toenails. They think ‘poo’ is the funniest word in the English language. They can barely read or write and don’t know how to tell the time. They’re still working out how the world works, and that doesn’t include ‘safe and healthy relationships’ – or, as described by Russell Hobby, General Secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT – ‘appropriate relationships’. Exactly how is an ‘appropriate relationship’ defined to a four-year-old?

Fair enough, if we’re in the Paedo Park, warn them against talking to strangers; I had that courtesy of ‘Charley Says’ when I was a kid and I also received the same advice from my parents. I didn’t need a union leader to tell me what was appropriate or inappropriate, and being hounded by dirty old men promising puppies hardly constitutes a ‘relationship’ anyway.

Perhaps this is a knee-jerk response to the so-called scourge of internet pornography; but though the theory goes that porn is accessible to any age-group in 2017, porn was equally accessible forty-odd years ago, albeit in different forms. No off-school roam around a playing field or woods was complete in the 70s without stumbling upon a discarded copy of some gentleman’s magazine; generally soft-core, of course, but still highly visible. It maintained its mystique then because we had to wait until we reached the age of nine before the great mystery was unveiled.

I don’t personally believe that, by the time I was old enough to act upon my natural impulses, I’d been held back because I hadn’t been taught about either ‘safe and healthy’ or ‘appropriate’ relationships as a four-year-old. Looking back, it’s nice to think I was spared all that shit for so long.

© The Editor

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THOROUGHLY MODERN MINI

mini-2At one time, TV documentaries opened viewers’ eyes to previously-hidden worlds rather than simply reflecting their own prejudices about a particular social demographic back at them. A good example was the award-winning ‘Gale is Dead’ in 1970, which shone an unflattering light on the grim underground subculture of heroin addiction and the tragic demise of an unloved teenage graduate of the children’s home conveyor belt that succumbed to it. Five years later, another programme in a similarly sympathetic vein profiled an eleven-year-old boy from County Durham who was being held at a secure unit for disturbed children on account of him being a prepubescent pyromaniac. Anyone who witnessed the TV debut of Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper would have been instantly aware that here was a remarkably intelligent, sharp, and charismatic young individual that society didn’t know what to do with.

Mini emanated from a working-class background with a God-fearing Irish mother and an archetypal Northern English father who disciplined his children in the way he himself had been disciplined – the parents of Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ writ large. His rebellious instincts asserted themselves at an early age, traversing a familiar path of shoplifting and playing truant before settling on the unusual outlet of starting fires; one such fire took place in Mini’s own home which, unbeknownst to him at the time, was occupied by his father. This resulted in him being taken out of a normal school environment and placed in the kind of institution that was a dumping ground for children who kicked against the pricks without knowing why.

Franc Roddam, the director of the 1975 documentary (who later progressed to the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’), had the kind of access to closed-door institutions that would be unimaginable now; he was able to film inside the secure unit Mini was being held at and record the rehabilitation process of the time as it was practiced not just on the programme’s ‘star’, but also the other inmates, whose faces aren’t pixilated. We see the chillingly cold panel that decided Mini’s fate and condemned him to an adolescence under the strictest supervision, keeping him away from the society they regard him as a danger to; and we see the way in which the psychiatric profession used children like Mini as guinea pigs for the latest experimental techniques, without any real care and consideration for how little they would prepare him for release back into the community as an adult.

I first became aware of Mini a decade after his initial television exposure, when the memorable BBC2 documentary strand ‘Forty Minutes’ broadcasted a follow-up film to the 1975 original; in it, we caught up with Mini ten years on, viewing his eleven-year-old self on camera for the first time and struggling to deal with the real world after a lengthy spell being utterly institutionalised by the facsimile society of the care system.

He was making a lonely living as a Butlin’s-style entertainer, performing a magician’s act before bored holiday-makers and trying his best to cope with an environment that the system hadn’t prepared him for. The programme ended on an uncertain note, with the viewer left hoping that Mini would manage to forge a future for himself that would see him finally bury his demons.

We might like to imagine we’ve moved on in the forty-plus years since Mini’s TV debut; but data relating to the children in this country currently being detained whilst another Star Chamber – or ‘Youth Offending Team’ – decides what to do with them suggests not a lot has been learnt in the intervening half-century. There are 10 secure children’s homes in the UK, some of which have held the likes of Mary Bell and the James Bulger killers, Robert Thompson and John Venables. The real problems seem to arise when the children reach 15 and are then eligible to be transferred to a Young Offender Institution. The statistics speak for themselves. Under the old-school Borstal system in the 1930s, the average re-offending rate was around 30%, whereas the modern equivalent is closer to 75%. It doesn’t sound as though its successor is working.

As with the early Nick Broomfield production, ‘Juvenile Liaison Officer’ (made the same year, but deemed too controversial to transmit at the time), the access granted to the director of the original documentary on Mini Cooper – perhaps in an aim to highlight the ‘progressive’ nature of the reformed post-Borstal system – wouldn’t be the same today. Fear of litigation born of this country’s compensation culture and an increasing inclination to cloak so many of our invisible institutions in a veil of secrecy under the guise of security means fewer of us are actually aware of what goes on behind those doors than we were forty years ago.

But these developments imply they have something to hide. The public sector homes don’t wish to expose their management’s inflexible adherence to a rulebook they stick to with fastidious arrogance, regardless of how much damage it might do to those in their care; and the private sector’s natural sense of competition means they don’t want their competitors to take notes when they get it wrong. How can either attitude fill the parents of children in care, let alone society at large, with confidence in the system?

When filmed at eleven, Mini Cooper wasn’t to know he’d eventually be released back into a society he wouldn’t be an active member for years; at that age, each week seems to span a month, and his upset at being informed of the committee’s decision to keep him under lock and key is heartbreaking. His struggles to survive in that society ever since his release hardly suggest the system prepared him for it. He clearly had potential for greatness; that much is evident on-screen. But the fact that society had no defined role for him to slot into, no available means of harnessing his intelligence, is a damning indictment of that society; locking him up until he came of age was a short-term solution leading to a long-term problem.

Thankfully, for Mini Cooper at least, he finally found his niche in life by turning to writing, chronicling his eventful life in the book, ‘Mini and Me’; anyone who has followed his fortunes via the series of follow-up documentaries to the original has been rooting for him all the way, and there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing him succeed at last. But how many Minis didn’t? How many secure unit survivors have been in and out of prison during the same time frame, nabbed as kids and never breaking the cycle, offered nothing more by the system than being another minimum wage drone because rehabilitation as it stands makes the mistake of trying to turn such kids into everything they rebelled against in the first place?

© The Editor

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CONSENSUAL HEALING

coca-colaThe profile pictures of columnists in what used to be called the broadsheets are often an accurate pointer to the sanctimonious smugness of the scribe and his or her musings before the reader has even read them. The image of the Grauniad’s socialist-in-residence Owen Jones that appears on the paper’s webpage announcing the sacking of the crafty cockney Eric Bristow from his Sky Sports pundit job matches his pompous declaration that ‘Eric Bristow’s toxic tweets matter. These attitudes silence victims’ – a statement lifted from the piece I couldn’t bring myself to even look at. Like so many in his position who pose as an inquisitor of the consensus, Jones summarily fails to question any of the historical child abuse narrative and accepts it wholly as fact. The irrelevant viewpoint of an ex-darts player is a convenient red herring that gives Jones the green light to release the moral high-horse from his stable instead of addressing the actual issue.

The gruff opinion Eric Bristow tweeted in response to the spate of ex-footballer confessions over the past week or so is precisely what anyone with half-a-brain would expect a man of Bristow’s background and age to tweet; it wasn’t exactly ‘sensitive’, but if I want ‘sensitive’, I put Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ on the turntable, not 2 Live Crew. It is the unvarnished blokeiness of Bristow that has always been at the core of his appeal to those that like him, just as it is with Nigel Farage or Jeremy Clarkson. Maybe he should keep his opinions to his boozing buddies, but isn’t Twitter supposed to be a democratic forum where everybody is entitled to their say, a cyber Speaker’s Corner for the masses? That’s the theory, anyway.

When George Osborne copyrighted the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ (one he should rightly be tarred with forever), the context in which he intended it to mean anything has been utterly transcended by everything else it can be applied to in this repressive, censorious society populated by timid, obedient schoolchildren masquerading as adults, terrified of being out of step with the rest of the class. Whether online, on campus, in media of both the print and broadcast variety and (especially) in public services, the fear of ostracism and exclusion from the crowd breeds the belief that if we all agree to pre-conditions in how we speak, think and respond then we’ll finally achieve the inclusive Utopia that Coca-Cola once portrayed when it tried to teach the world to sing.

Producing the next generation of consumers that will keep the economy on an even keel is a patriotic duty that opting out of risks vilification from the hypocritical harpies of Mumsnet, whose own concept of unity is rooted in an untruth because no mother dare admit her children have robbed her of her independence and taken away her identity. As someone whose morning routine is soundtracked by Radio 4, this is something I have never heard aired on ‘Woman’s Hour’, and I doubt I ever will. If Eric Bristow can lose his living because he tweeted something ‘offensive’, can you imagine the kind of punishment awaiting a prominent female in the public eye if she admitted she wished she’d never had the children that have become effective parasites draining her of all sense of who she is? Yes, we’re all in this together, none more so than that hotbed of competitive self-deception, motherhood.

Many of you may have read last week’s post, ‘A Social Disservice’, and this is a kind of sequel to that one, even if it might appear I’ve taken a roundabout route to it. But I think so much of the bureaucratic brickwork that the mother of the child I diplomatically referred to as X has come up against in an effort to retrieve a life for herself is mirrored in the wider world. It’s just more pronounced in the arena of social services and the detachment of management level, where patting one’s self on the back and earning Brownie points at dinner parties for proclaiming ‘I work with disabled children’ to an anticipated round of applause is the extent of actual involvement, as far removed from the reality of being cooped-up with a child suffering from extreme autism as WWI generals were from the trenches.

X was collected from four days in the care of the State last Friday and once back in the bosom of the family home reverted to feral type, reminding her mother why she’d deposited her in that care the previous weekend. X’s deterioration over just the last six months has rendered even the limited tricks that could once be used to momentarily occupy her completely redundant. In care, an entire team are employed to reduce X’s appetite for destruction, but the social services expect her mother to do the work of four or five people around the clock, 24/7, subjecting herself to continual assaults of biting, scratching and screaming for all of X’s waking hours. The individual members of staff attending to her in care have been subject to the same treatment, yet have to make excuses for it in order to accentuate the non-existent positivity that their box-ticking training requires.

X’s mother was informed a panel would review her situation at an unspecified future date, a Star Chamber hearing at which she would not be allowed to present her case nor provide the video evidence of X’s behaviour. Instead, an inexperienced social worker who has never even met X in the flesh would be there on her behalf, to submit a report compiled from an interview with X’s mother that (unsurprisingly) wouldn’t suggest any members of that panel take X into their homes for 24 hours to see for themselves precisely what X’s mother has to deal with. This virtual Soviet trial would then decide the future of someone not entitled to attend, with the umpteenth social worker to have dealt with X’s case during her short life being the mother’s proxy representative. This is the kind of farce that forces parents such as X’s mother into taking dramatic action.

The authorities are not accustomed to parents challenging their authority and questioning their wisdom because the parents are usually so mentally and physically browbeaten by the experience of looking after their problem children that they have no energy to fight back. X’s mother knows if she doesn’t take this stand then her life is effectively over. On Sunday, she rang the same emergency number she’d rung the previous weekend and after the phone was answered by a human being, the moment she explained the situation she was immediately transferred to an answer-machine. So staggeringly ineffective are the social services, someone in a similar position even advised X’s mother to dial 999 instead. She didn’t, but she dispatched an email to all parties with a vested interest in her continuing to endure a nightmarish excuse for a life and made it clear she wouldn’t be collecting X from school again on Monday. She stuck to her word and refuses to collect her at the end of the week.

The pressures on X’s mother following her actions, not only from the facsimile togetherness of the mother’s union, but from a system that expects her to fulfil a duty no sane person could stomach for as long as she already has before heading for the nearest bridge, is a consequence of a mindset that demands subservience to a consensus nobody signed-up for. And yet the consensus is there – in the social services, the DWP, the NHS, the police force, the media, online, f***ing everywhere. Oppose it at one’s peril, but for God’s sake oppose it. If you don’t, we’re finished; and the future will be a boot stamping on a human face, forever – although O’Brien neglected to mention it will be a smiley one. After all, we wouldn’t want to frighten the children.

© The Editor

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A SOCIAL DISSERVICE

virgin-maryKeeping wild animals as pets is never advisable, though it has been a regular affectation of the wealthy and eccentric; Dickens had a pet raven, Byron had a pet fox, Josephine Baker had a pet leopard, and there was the famous story of Christian, the lion cub purchased from Harrods (!) in the late 1960s by John Rendall and Anthony Burke, who kept the big cat at their home in London for more than a year until the difficulties of the arrangement became insurmountable. Christian was eventually reintroduced to the wild by George and Joy Adamson, the right environment for a creature unsuited to the enclosed spaces of the urban jungle. The feral characteristics of a wild animal whose natural instincts are in conflict with those of their human owners and the living conditions humans favour make such unnatural captivity ill-advised.

Children are supposed to be the antithesis of wild animals in the home, though the place of the most badly-behaved in it is sometimes indistinguishable from wild animals; children are essentially indulged pets for the first few years of their existence – at least until they start school. Many children are now able to get away with a good deal more than their parents could when they were the same age, for the unfashionable implementation of discipline and respect as administered during the childhoods of most reading this post has diminished with each successive generation. The deification of children by the media and its celebrity whores has elevated the mother figure back up to the level of the medieval Virgin Mary and the children themselves to the saintly cherub embodied by Baby Jesus. Any contradiction to the consensus condemns mothers who can’t keep up with the standards set by the Breastapo, whilst the child itself can rule the roost in open denial of its angelic status.

But what if the child is ten-years-old with the mental age of a nine-month-old baby? We all know how useless and essentially boring babies are – wailing, nappy-filling tyrants who can’t even stand on their own two feet – yet imagine what they could do with their limited intelligence were we to transplant their underdeveloped brains into the body of a fully-grown child. Every random thought that entered their head when confronted by the unfamiliar and the new would be something they could physically react to rather than stare and cry at. Chaos would ensue. And that’s precisely what happens with the mercifully-rare extreme autism some unfortunate children are afflicted by at birth – the ten-year-old with the nine-month-old mental age mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. This particular child exists and we shall call her X.

X has profound learning difficulties that are incurable. She has no social skills and her ability to interact with others is severely limited. Her incompatibility with other children means her relationship with her siblings (from whom she is segregated) is minimal. She will never be able to lead a normal life. She cannot speak and can only express herself verbally through the most basic vocal noises. If the day’s routine veers from the pattern X dictates, usually by accident than design, an incendiary tantrum erupts. At such moments, X lashes out at herself and her mother with a fearsome strength that will increase as she grows – biting, scratching, punching and kicking. It is extremely difficult to reason with X or to explain a situation to her. She lacks the mental capacity to process such information and cannot understand why her mother won’t simply drive her around in the car, going nowhere for hours on end.

X puts many non-foodstuffs into her mouth, and is doubly incontinent. She views bodily waste as no different from any other substance. Her sleep does not adhere to any regular pattern. She can wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and expect the day to progress as though it were 8 or 9. X has to be watched every moment of her waking day, placing an exhaustive burden upon her mother; her behaviour and the need to monitor her at all times makes a normal life for her single parent mother impossible and X’s mother has no extended family to call on for support.

Even a relaxing necessity such as eating a meal, watching TV or reading a book uninterrupted, something the rest of us take for granted, is impossible to undertake in X’s presence. X attends a special needs school during term time, with her needs attended to by a team. When the holidays come, however, X’s mother copes alone with occasional support staff. Bereft of her term team, school holidays are a challenge for X and her mother. Changes to X’s routine induce anxiety and upset, increasing incidents of both self-harm and harm inflicted upon those around her. X’s oblivious antisocial behaviour limits the time she can spend outdoors and amongst the public, narrowing her world considerably. Her quality of life is as poor as any able-bodied person could possibly experience.

But, of course, we have our wonderful Welfare State and its social service offshoot to aid and assist mothers of children such as X, don’t we? That unimpeachable gift to the nation that only wicked Tories and right-wing advocates of private healthcare dare to criticise is there to help, no? Think again. Oh, if your idea of a way of helping the mothers of children like X is to throw money at them because it’s cheaper to do that than to entrust the lifetime care of X to the State, fair enough. Overburdened by unnecessary referrals in the fallout from both Savile and Baby P, run along the lines of box-ticking bureaucracy with timid, naive staff trained in rigidly upbeat false positivity that negates common-sense realism, and weighed down by the layers of management that provide its beneficiaries with a comfortable career of paid holiday, pension-guaranteed detachment from the frontline parental war zone, the whole rotten system is the Circumlocution Office turned up to eleven.

This weekend, confronted by a relentless physical assault from a child whose rage is vocally manifested as the kind of screaming that makes a car alarm sound like Beethoven’s Ninth, the sleep-deprived, battered and bruised mother of X removed her earplugs and called the social services to take the wild animal masquerading as her daughter away into permanent care. Nobody rings such a number unless they have reached absolute breaking point, yet the response of the social services confronted by their worst nightmare was to try to dissuade X’s mother; when that failed, she then received a lecture in which the threat of ‘child abandonment’ accusations was implicit. Let the ivory tower-dwelling management Olympians take X into their home for 48 hours and see how they cope. It won’t happen. X’s mother has been astute enough to video X’s rages as evidence, and glass houses are susceptible to stones, after all.

I have been a long-distance recipient of X’s worsening behaviour over the last twelve months, and the fact that she has to sleep within an effective cage in order to prevent her from running away emphasises how unhappy she is with her living arrangements. The physically and mentally drained mother of X has undertaken her maternal duties above and beyond the call of duty, living a life few could possibly picture unless in the same situation. She has done everything humanly possible to appease X’s unimaginable condition, but she has finally arrived at the point of no return. If the social services cannot be there for children such as X, what is the bloody point? And, better still, how the hell can we retain outdated pride in it? If X was an adult in a relationship and had treated her spouse as X had treated her mother, the police would have been involved and there would no doubt have been a high-profile court-case. But a child? No, children don’t do that. They’re angels. And their mothers fail the audition at their peril.

© The Editor

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THE GREAT ESCAPE

2016Robert Vaughn, who has died aged 83, was one of the good guys. After becoming a familiar face in a string of movies during the early 60s – most notably the classic western, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – he ascended to international household name status with his role as Napoleon Solo in the iconic 60s US TV Spy series, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’. Running from 1964-68, it capitalised on the success of the Bond movies; Ian Fleming even contributed to the formation of the series, one of the last creative projects he was involved in. Starring alongside expat Brit David McCallum as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin, Vaughn had found a well-paid steady job, yet potentially jeopardised his newfound fame and fortune by being one of the first star names in the States to speak out against American involvement in Vietnam, long before it was fashionable to do so.

The tide of popular opinion regarding Vietnam turned Vaughn’s way in the late 60s and his career wasn’t damaged by his brave stance. He played a memorable part in the legendary Steve McQueen movie ‘Bullitt’, and in the early 70s he decamped to the UK to take the lead role of Harry Rule in the last of the great ITC series, ‘The Protectors’. Co-starring Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt, ‘The Protectors’ was produced by Gerry Anderson for Lew Grade’s stable and despite following the flamboyant formula of escapism laid out by the likes of ‘Jason King’ and ‘The Persuaders’, it was fairly unique in its novel use of genuine European locations (rather than the standard ITC stock footage), and boasted one of the best theme tunes of its era in the Tony Christie-sung ‘Avenues and Alleyways’.

Vaughn remained in demand even at a relatively late stage of his career, starring for eight years in the noughties BBC series ‘Hustle’ and even appearing in ‘Coronation Street’ shortly afterwards. His death, announced the same day as that of Leonard Cohen (the two were born just a couple of years apart) is one more to add to a depressingly lengthening list this year, one more individual who I never personally met but whose earlier work impinged upon my consciousness, leaving residue that continues to provide curious comfort in ways that I can’t seem to find elsewhere.

Although not able to access the likes of Netflix myself, I have friends who can and who are kind enough to download the best of contemporary television such as ‘Black Mirror’ or ‘Broad City’ onto memory sticks that enable me to tune into the kind of shows mainstream TV has opted out of. I like them a lot, but the majority of my leisure viewing time tends to drift towards television featuring actors who are dead and grace my screen like the cathode ray ghosts they now are. There’s something about archive TV that has an extra magical element woven into it, something the new naturally cannot possess. I suspect it’s the association with the world we inhabited as children or the mystique of the one before we were born, a world we will never inhabit again, but one we can partially revisit by peering through a two-dimensional window. Quite why doing so serves as a visual narcotic in a different century with a different agenda is a strange symptom of this day and age; but it works.

It could be ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ or it could be ‘Man About the House’; it could be ‘The Onedin Line’ or it could be ‘Crown Court’. It’s an ident of a long-gone ITV company, a theme tune, an opening title sequence, a pair of sideburns, a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, a street bereft of parked cars, shop windows with £sd currency emblazoned on the special offer stickers stuck to the panes (or decimal currency with ½p included); it’s also audio – the warm dulcet tones of a Wogan or a Young or even a Bates; it’s unearthed off-air recordings of late night Radio 2 programmes from 1973, with easy listening instrumentals played by the BBC Midlands Light Orchestra direct from Pebble Mill in Birmingham; and that then evokes a now-demolished building whose foyer hosted a lunchtime TV show with avuncular friendly faces like Donny MacLeod, and you remember being sick off school and you can taste the Lucozade as you wait for ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’. It’s a multitude of Madeleine Moments for the disillusioned and dejected, adrift in a 24-hour sound-bite of fast-food for the head that leaves it cold and empty.

The DVD has been incorporated into the escape pod once reserved for cannabis, alcohol, amphetamines, acid, ecstasy and simple straightforward sleep; and like all of them, it is transitory and temporary. But it keeps me from punching people who deserve it – and those c***s know who they are. I’m not talking about public figures, but nonentities who will never amount to anything due to their crippling mediocrity. They make the lives of those I love miserable, and while my c***s may not be your c***s, we all have them and we all want to unleash our rage upon them. But we don’t. We escape. We preserve our liberty that way and are not incarcerated in the prisons of the state, merely those of our own minds. So, RIP Robert Vaughn and everybody else dead and gone who played a part in something that helps me unwind and escape. You will never know of the service you continue to provide.

© The Editor

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ALONE AGAIN (NATURALLY)

home-aloneAs if Michael Gove’s copybook wasn’t blotted enough via his perennial blunders as a Minister, not to mention his shameful, backstabbing bid for power in the aftermath of Cameron’s Brexit exit, he’s excelled himself now; he and his wife Sarah Vine – one of many Fleet Street columnists whose profile picture tells a thousand stories about the wonders of airbrushing – have committed a social and moral crime that conjures up horrific images in the minds of millions, images that will be hard to extinguish once they’ve appeared. I know it’s a gruesome thought, but it has to be said: Mr and Mrs Gove are party animals.

The one-time Prime Ministerial hopeful and his missus attended a function for SIX hours, one that would have involved drinking and dancing. If you can, just picture the scene. Not nice, is it? Oh, and while they were doing this, they left their 11-year-old son at the hotel they happened to be stopping at. I don’t know about you, but I think the 11-year-old being spared the sight of his mum and dad gettin’ jiggy to the strains of ‘Blurred Lines’ shows remarkably benign concern on the part of his parents.

The Goves apparently informed hotel staff they’d be back by 9.30pm and didn’t return till 1.30am; according to the Sunday Mirror, which broke the story, a concerned night porter found Gove Junior ‘wandering the corridors, asking where his parents were’. The image of the borderline-teenage son of a former Cabinet Minister checking with a porter at a £250-a-night Cheltenham hotel in order that he could delete his evening’s browsing history before his parents got back is one that evokes the worst kind of Dickensian poverty and is indeed a damning indictment on modern society. No wonder the country is up in arms at this latest act of despicable behaviour by the intellectual darling of the Notting Hill Tories.

As I suspect most reading this were, like me, raised by parents who regarded helicopters as necessary tools of air forces and rescue services as well as the playboy playthings of 70s Radio 1 DJs, the ‘shocking revelations’ courtesy of the Sunday Mirror will probably provoke little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

On my one and only trip to Spain when I was a few months away from making it to the age of eleven, my own parents ‘deserted’ my six-year-old brother and me for probably the same number of hours as the Goves abandoned their son in order that they could attend one of those do’s that came with the obligatory monochrome photo of a Spanish waiter pouring cheap plonk into said parents’ mouths from odd-shaped bottles.

I recall we relished the freedom to roam a hotel free from parental eyes; we only wandered the corridors in the sense that we enacted scenes from ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and ‘The Professionals’. We were left a bit of cash so we could scoff crisps, drink pop and play on the pinball machines. I remember it as the highlight of the holiday.

Post-McCann, of course, parents leaving their children alone for more than a minute means they are failing in their duties and breaking the sacred code of modern parenting. That Gove Junior had been left behind to look after the family pooches actually shows his mater and pater to be responsible dog-owners, but even that admirable gesture will be swept aside in the chorus of condemnation by professional parents within media circles as their avowed aim to infantilise their offspring even when they’re on the cusp of adolescence is challenged. Again, I cannot help but think back to my own formative years and how many times I found myself home alone.

‘Don’t open the door to anyone while I’m gone’ was the extent of the advice issued by my grandma as she prepared to depart for her bingo night with her friend Jean. My granddad was at the pub, but even at the age of eight, I was deemed sensible enough to be left in their house for a few hours on my own during my regular school holiday stays there. My grandma wasn’t going to surrender her weekly outing just because I happened to be present, and my granddad wasn’t going to do likewise re the local hostelry. I had complete control of the TV set in their absence, which itself was a rare treat when I’d become accustomed to my father strolling into our living room at home and abruptly switching off whatever children’s programme I’d been watching so that he could catch the end of the cricket.

I wasn’t ‘abandoned’ or ‘neglected’ by my grandparents; they didn’t chain me to a piss-soaked bed in the cellar while they pursued their usual socialising. They saw nothing wrong in trusting an eight-year-old to be left in their house of an evening, confident he wouldn’t scream the place down or phone the police, and they were right to do so. I loved it. It made me feel grown-up.

A couple of years later, when my parents were both working well beyond the time school closed for the day, it would be my responsibility to collect my younger brother from the infants school opposite my own and take him home (a spare key was obviously required for me to enter the premises); it would probably be an hour or so before my mother was the first parent to arrive back, and neither she nor I thought the arrangement a sign of parental neglect because it wasn’t.

Three or four years before that arrangement was established, my parents would occasionally pop over to another house on the street and spend a few hours with neighbours whilst my brother slept on oblivious and I was allowed to read in bed; they saw this as perfectly reasonable parenting, and I can see now that being given a small sense of self-sufficient independence at a young age helps to stretch the apron strings so that they eventually snap of their own accord at the correct time.

Deeply unfashionable opinion it may well be in this age of cotton wool mollycoddling, but continue to treat children as though they were three or four-years-old when they’re into double figures by denying them both time to themselves and some form of responsibility will leave them utterly unprepared for standing on their own two feet, not to mention being utterly incapable of being able to cope with their own company. But if adolescence has now been expanded well into one’s 20s, I suppose it is logical that childhood is expanded well into one’s adolescence. Yet again, it would seem Michael Gove is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

© The Editor

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