Childhood cruelties
March 25, 2010 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Andrew O’Hagan writes in the London Review of Books on the James Bulger murder. It really should be read in conjunction with his earlier piece from 1993 to fully appreciate his stance. Previously [1] [2]

I know it's rather black to find humour in this event but the escalating 'eat the 38 William books' exchange (in the letters section at the end of the 1993 piece), had me falling over.
posted by tellurian (25 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
He writes well and I wasn't as put off as I might have been by his relentless self-absorption, but I sure the fuck hope he got Jill Tweedie's explicit permission to publish this:
The Guardian columnist Jill Tweedie called me after my first piece appeared. I didn’t know her, but she was crying on the phone, saying there were things that she’d done in her past, childhood cruelties, that she had never recovered from, never even told her husband about.
posted by languagehat at 4:35 PM on March 25, 2010

This is one of those cases where I'm glad there are sane, right-minded people in the world, because I just cannot hold this case in my mind and emerge with a rational response to it. I'd have killed these two boys, their families and everyone who ever knew them or lived near them, and fucking salt the earth all around Liverpool, in an attempt to scour whatever-that-made-them from the surface of the planet. But I know that's just the caveman in me hooting and grunting. I can't think about James Bulger, and I hate the case and I hate myself every time it comes up.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:52 PM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tweedie died in 1993, so I'm guessing that's a can't-libel-or-misquote-the-dead situation.
posted by vickyverky at 4:58 PM on March 25, 2010

Yeah, I was a fucking rotten little shit of a kid too and the person I am now would beat the person I was then to within an inch of his life. But even my primitive little child's brain knew certain things and had certain ideas about unreasonableness and self-limitation. The Bulger case is pure, wanton, sociopathic malice.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:00 PM on March 25, 2010


For everyone involved, really. Even the miserable fucked up Venables.
posted by Artw at 5:02 PM on March 25, 2010

I recently read Gitta Sereny's Cries Unheard, about Mary Bell (formerly the most notorious child murderer in Britain before Venables and Thompson). Bell was painted by the media as a devil child, a bad seed, although her horrific home life and sexual abuse were not brought up at her trial. Sereny's book seems to show that Bell didn't really understand that death (she strangled two younger boys) was forever, something they wouldn't wake up from. That may have been because she was frequently choked into unconsciousness by her prostitute mother and her clients before she was raped.

I haven't read too much about the Bulger case since it happened, but Venables and Thompson seemed to live feral, violent young lives, just like the ones O'Hagan describes -- and, indeed, remembers living himself. It's chillling to read this. I don't see how Venables and Thompson won't ultimately be outed by the tabloids, or by a baying crowd.
posted by vickyverky at 5:07 PM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

"The news in the last few days that Venables would stop people in the street to tell them who he really was, tell them he was Jon and he was one of the pair who had murdered the little boy in Liverpool, leaves me forlorn."

Uh, non-UK readers seem to be missing something. Did Venables off himself, do something else horrific, what?
posted by mwhybark at 5:09 PM on March 25, 2010

Well, the Wikipedia link seems to suggest that he was tossed back into jail for some undisclosed reason.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:12 PM on March 25, 2010

Apparently, he did some drugs and more recently, got into a fight at work

I was expecting something much worse-- but that doesn't sound like particularly unusual behavior for a man in his 20's, especially. Not good behavior-- but hardly murder or rape.
posted by Maias at 5:13 PM on March 25, 2010

Sereny's book seems to show that Bell didn't really understand that death (she strangled two younger boys) was forever

That's the creepiest part of the Mary Bell case, I think - she actually showed up at the home of one of her victims a few days after killing him, asking with a big creepy grin if she could "see him in his coffin". She thought it was just a big game and that hurting people was just how people behaved.
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:26 PM on March 25, 2010

I think a good deal of self-absorption (or introspection) is necessary and welcome in writing on this topic, when there's so much bluster and bravado in the rest of the media.
posted by stammer at 5:58 PM on March 25, 2010

If you get a life sentence in the UK it technically means that you go on serving it until you die. Although you can (and most often will) be released from prison sometime down the line you are still be 'on license' which has a lot of terms and conditions applied to it. If you break any of these you can be returned to a prison to continue your sentence. The authorities are particularly severe if you get involved in any further criminal activity, even if it seems pretty mild. I remember reading in Erwin James' prisoner diary in the Guardian where he told of a case where a guy had been accused of a very minor fraud or similar (he had set up his own business when he had been released and by the sound of it screwed up some paperwork), found not guilty but was still took back into prison to continue his life sentence.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:59 PM on March 25, 2010

I read the 1993 article back when this happened and I have remembered it ever since -- especially the parting story about the 3-year old and the construction site.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:59 PM on March 25, 2010

The UK Children's Secretary is really "Ed Balls"? Holy shit!
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:07 PM on March 25, 2010

I spend at least a day a week (sometimes more) working out of the Salvation Army building next door to The Strand shopping centre. I grew up just two bus stops down from the railway line where Thompson and Venables killed James Bolger, and often walked the route that they walked with him. It's hard to be around the area and not spend much time thinking about the things that happened.

Particularly so because Bootle is one of very few traditional old-fashioned working class communities left, where everyone tends to know each others business, and kids are still allowed to roam the streets precisely because people know that everyone will keep an eye out for them. While people from over-protective middle class backgrounds might wonder why nobody stopped them, it just wasn't that unusual for kids of that age to be left in the charge of their younger siblings while they went to the shop for sweets or whatever.

I used to hang out on those same railway lines where the murder took place. There's an area of waste ground there called the Seven Sisters, because there are seven small ponds -- the biggest of which were big enough to swim in. There was an adult man used to spend a fair amount of time hanging out there as well. We always believed him to be a gay man with an interest in teenage boys, because he'd hang out watching us swim and giving us cigarettes, but I never heard of him forcing his attentions on anybody.

One day, there are maybe eight or nine of us there -- some from my school, some from others -- sitting around, smoking, doing nothing in particular. I suppose I would have been 13 or 14 at the time -- the rest of us about the same age -- when a gang of five or six other kids, perhaps a year older, no more, came along and alleged that Tom (I'm pretty sure he was known as Tom the Hom) had molested his younger brother.

It didn't take long before the whole group of twelve or thirteen set upon him with a savagery that I'd never witnessed before or since. Five or six of us were really going for it, with two or three of those doing things that could have easily have been fatal. Another three or four were just going through the motions -- getting in kicks and blows to be seen to be going along with the group. And maybe two or three, myself included, did nothing at all, but stood around and watched. Sickened, perhaps. Half-heartedly intervening, to say that he'd had enough from time to time. But cautious about the prospect of being seen to be overly sympathetic, lest we also be tarred with the same brush.

Tom didn't die, as far as I knew. But it was more through luck than judgement. When people are dropping paving slabs on your head as you lie unconscious on the ground, it's always going to be a strong possibility. But we never saw him hanging around those ponds again, so who knows how it all turned out?

I've always had a peculiar sympathy for Thompson and Venables as a result of that afternoon. What they did was a terrible, terrible thing, but children with a normal upbringing don't usually go around killing babies, and I had some first hand knowledge of how easy it could be to get sucked into somebody else's retarded plan when you're that sort of age.

There but for the grace of God, and all that stuff...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:31 PM on March 25, 2010 [21 favorites]

I know it's rather black to find humour in this event but the escalating 'eat the 38 William books' exchange (in the letters section at the end of the 1993 piece), had me falling over.

As a kid, I too had read every single one of those 38 William books. I owned most of them, despite the fact that the last three or four sucked. I'm thinking here of William and the Pop Group in particular.

Consequently, the thesis that William was a transgressive role model for British children, despite his haute bourgeois background, is one that has a great deal of purchase with me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:45 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Grief is not an achievement, doesn’t confer power...

It would be nice if our culture could remember this.
posted by Faze at 8:04 PM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

If he has been looking at child pornography, as alleged, or getting into knife fights, as also alleged, then we might acknowledge that this is what routinely happens in the lives of adults who lost their childhoods, who were abused themselves, who can’t go home again, and who might be condemned to spend their lives in a cycle of harm and rescue.

No, it is not routine. I am sick of seeing this repeated. Plenty of people who were abused do not look at child porn or get into knife fights.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:03 PM on March 25, 2010

I read the 1993 article back when this happened and I have remembered it ever since -- especially the parting story about the 3-year old and the construction site.

So did I, and I always remembered the children signaling each other at their windows after dark. It's sobering for me to realize that O'Hagan is a young man; I had assumed for years that the writer was talking about the 50s or 60s, not times quite so recent.

And PeterMcDermott... Jesus. I'm sure O'Hagan shares both your relief and your (is it too strong to say?) shame.
posted by jokeefe at 10:11 PM on March 25, 2010

Fantastic writing - his point that adults can unmake their childhood every day left me staring out the window for quite some time.

And to derail, head to the LRB classified section and read the personals - they're legendary.
posted by dowcrag at 3:07 AM on March 26, 2010

"The British papers were in their favourite mode, evident again this week: mixing vengeance with sentiment, while exuding prurience and humbug. Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, is being paraded as the proper arbiter of justice: as if the mother of a murdered child should call the shots, should be the one to decide what ought to be done with the killers. She is not to be challenged: who in their right mind would seek to challenge a grieving parent?"

This is very well-written. The British papers can be as disgusting as anything.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:31 AM on March 26, 2010

It's a bit breathtaking to see this said outloud:

Yet we need to challenge [Bulger's mother], because that also means challenging the moral stupidity the media’s use of her represents, the urge towards counter-violence that always seems to make sense to the mind of the average working-class Briton. Of course she wants the boys behind bars for ever. She wants their rights taken away. Which of us, given the horror, would never be tempted down that road? No matter what the law says, a sense of entitlement nowadays devolves to the families of murder victims.

As someone who's watched activists in multiple US states fail to ban the death penalty partly because lobbyists for the other side always, always trot out victims' families (never mind those that testify that capital murder trials stretch out their suffering via the courts to decades, and many survivors have testified there is still no closure at execution). I can't imagine a writer in this society dare to question whether or not the (normal, natural) bloodlust of surviving family members should be a legal consideration in deciding whether or not the state should kill.
posted by availablelight at 6:17 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

These are great articles. The media trainwreck around Thompson and Venables has been horrific to watch. I love the LRB - and subscribe - it has great, intelligent writing on such a broad range of topics, and it's about the only place you're going to find stuff this thoughtful.

and the LRB personals were the subject of my first FPP
posted by handee at 6:57 AM on March 26, 2010

Sorry, but I really don't believe for a second that Venables and Thompson thought that the Bulger child they murdered was powered by batteries...
posted by A189Nut at 4:51 PM on March 26, 2010

I'd say O'Hagan needs to revise his premise...he seems to start from the presumption that while he is basically a fine person he was involved in some shit when he was a kid that was bad, and that Venebles and Thompson are a merely a few shades further out on that spectrum. I think killing cats for sport and beating other kids raw means he was a sick little twist and the wonder is that he ever grew out of it. Seriously, his brother goddamn burnt down the primary school? Maybe he grew up in a rough neighborhood but that ain't falling anywhere near the belly of the bell curve in terms of normal childhood escapades. It's one thing to remember an incident or two which got out of hand --- Peter McDermott's reminiscence above for me would fall into that category. But O'Hagan describes a pattern of behavior, of brutality, that I don't think is typical at all....I dunno, I didn't grow up in Scotland or Merseyside in the 80s. The fundamental ignorance of children can harden into a terrible callousness, in the right place and time. But the fact that every teenager in the history of time has told their parents "I wish you were dead," doesn't mean we all have a little Graham Young inside us.
posted by Diablevert at 7:48 PM on March 26, 2010

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