I was nearly tempted out of my sick bed by a chance reading of a Guardian piece which claimed to have uncovered 43,00 – that’s forty three thousand in case you glossed over the figures – cases of child abuse in a 21 month period. Noooo! An extra 43,000 victims? Another 43,000 queuing at the compo agency? Surely not, can there be anyone left in Britain who has not been a victim of something or other? I subsided back into the pillows on further reading whereby it turned out that these ‘victims’ – half of whom were ‘black or ethnic’ – teenage boys incarcerated in youth offender establishments, you know, the hulking great 6′ 2″ Jamaican lads from South London sink estates who’ve been convicted of gouging out someones eyes with a crowbar, who have been ordered to strip to ensure that they are not carrying a machete into prison with them. Apparently these brave
lads sorry, children, have been describing the practice as ‘undignified’, leading ‘to feelings of anger, humiliation and anxiety’. Not as much anxiety as the staff ordered to care for these ‘children’ would have felt if they had not ensured that they didn’t have a 12″ carving knife strapped to their left leg no doubt, but right on cue, out came a leading children’s rights campaigner to describe the ‘practice of children being forced to expose their naked bodies to adults in authority as institutionalised child abuse’. Knowing that they would be strip searched had led to a mere 275 of them being daft enough to still be concealing a weapon or other illegal item – and that apparently is sufficient to describe the practice as ‘unnecessary’. Give me strength.
I lay there thinking of my recent trip to England, and the village where I lived for ten years or more. It had a railway station, a rare omission on Mr Beeching’s part; no ticket office any longer – and how we used to amuse ourselves telling the Americans who had flooded the area that in order to catch a train you had to wave the train down as it passed through the station. You didn’t of course, it stopped there anyway, but the sight of those shed sized marines desperately jumping up and down and waving their arms like Benny Hill on speed was one of the great joys of our village life. The village didn’t have much to support itself on, surrounded by sand dunes and impermeable flint-stone – but it had survived and prospered. The sand dunes were full of rabbit warrens; the rabbits duly caught, skinned and sent down to the tanneries of East London by train to line the gloves of the gentry. The flint was discovered to be just the thing to ignite a spark in gun powder, and generations of the men folk had sat and laboriously chipped away at the flint to supply the flint lock pistols in both sides of the American civil war. When the lump of flint grew too small to safely chip, they took it home with them, and when they had a large enough pile, they set to and built themselves a house with it – beautiful houses that glistened like rose cut diamonds as the sun danced on the cut facets of the ‘knapped’ flint. The river was never teeming with fish, but just a mile up river was Elvedon, where the elvers, the baby eels, first started their journey. By the time they reached our village they were plump and tender, a much desired delicacy in the East End of London. They too were trapped and skinned and sent on their way by train.
Every time I see ‘Operation Elvedon’ in print, I think of old Kenny Adams, the last of the eel trappers, who would punt past my house each sunset to lay out his traps. The punt his Father had made was gnarled and twisted, as was Kenny, both nearing the end of their life, but still useful. Still independent. Still functioning. Kenny didn’t need a grant from the countryside commission to keep his craft alive – he did it because it was what he had always done, he knew no other way. Now we have a generation to whom ‘Elvedon’ means only a scrap between the left and the right wing media, scores of journalists being dragged out their bed at daybreak by demoralised policemen.
Michael Gove is determined that children aged 8 – 11 will have 99 hours of history lessons to absorb the full range of key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut, and Edward the Confessor. Blimey! I can hear the sniggers from here when they get to Cnut. They’ll be rushing down to the local t-shirt printers (one in every town nowadays) to have their ‘FCUK’ t-shirts adapted to read ’FCUK Cnut’. More dispiritingly, it may be the tattoo parlour that they visit….
When I first went to live there, long before the M.11 was built, it was a village in time warp. The beautiful Georgian houses inhabited by an army of single, elderly spinsters. The Misses Summers – not sisters, but elderly ’companions’, one the daughter of the local vicar who had set her up with a sweet shop in the High Street, since she was minded to never marry, and her companion, the decidedly masculine and muscular village barber, possessor of a moustache that would have been the envy of many a man. They lived their life, to ripe old age, in harmony within the village without any Equality legislation, or necessity for ‘hate speech’ laws – and a generation of children learnt that there were different lifestyles available to those who chose not to emulate a heterosexual lifestyle. One side of the sweet shop contained the marble barber’s sink where the ‘tweedy’ Ms Summers, as I came to know her, would attend to the men folk’s hair, the other half was lined with glass jars of home made boiled sweets, the ‘sweet and timid’ Ms Summers domain. I still have some of those jars, and yesterday Mr G hung the small pine cupboard in our new kitchen where Ms Summer displayed her other sideline, the lethal fireworks she sold once a year. The barber’s sink came to rest in a house we restored in Herefordshire – I still mourn its loss.
There was Ms Murrel, and Ms Fox, neighbours in grand houses, quietly tending the village church, relaxing after a life time teaching the village children how to read. Olive, who had once given birth to quads, light years before disposable nappy manufacturers gave you a life time supply of their goods in response to such an event – light years before disposable nappies had been invented. She had soaked and scrubbed, washed and dried a mountain of the terry towelling originals in her time, with na’er a ‘social services approved’ assistant carer in sight. Uncomplainingly. Only one of the quads now lived, a man of limited intelligence, cared for dedicatedly by Olive. The huge and elegant mansion with its sweeping gardens down to the river had been sold ‘by social services’ to care for her son after her death, and now, I discovered last week, was owned by a London businessman who rented out its vast rooms to some dozen Polish families gainfully employed digging up carrots in the surrounding fields, washing them and packing them like sardines for the Londoners who would be appalled to find that carrots grew in dirt. Their cars and surplus possessions littered the gardens, the cast iron conservatory was gone, the sweeping garlands of roses trained over iron hoops, collapsed and neglected.
And Muriel, whom I lived next door to for so many years. Sister to Olive. They had come to live in my house as young children. Their father had been a footman at Buckingham Palace, returning on the train when leave permitted. When he died, Muriel had stayed at home to care for their Mother, when she too died, a small part of the house had been kept back as a home for Muriel, I had bought the rest of the house. I can remember locking myself out of my house one night when I had the flu and had popped outside to get something from my car. It was a freezing cold night, and I was just in my dressing gown. I knocked with some trepidation on Muriel’s door, unwilling to disturb her so late at night – ‘come in my dear’ she said, ‘I’ll pop the fire on for you’…she had been sitting listening to the radio, knitting herself new socks, no fire, on that freezing night. She wasn’t short of money, just of that proudly hardy generation that put on an extra cardigan when the nights grew cold – and did something useful.
Now Muriel had gone, discovered lying in her home, dead for four days they say, by the postman. Her only friend in the village had been on holiday – there was no one else to miss her. Her house was full of Polish electricians, busily rewiring the cold store for carrots…
I thought how all these women had been my role models in my formative years. My Aunty Ailsa, drafted into the war office in Liverpool, progressing to being in charge of the contracts division at the Ministry of Defence, unmarried until she retired, daily doing battle with the salesmen from Decca and Marconi over multi-million pound sales, triumphantly independent to the end of her days. Aye, and Ms Jones, Ms O’ Neil, and all the spinsters at Duncroft, who taught us that it was possible to stand on your own two feet, to look after yourself, to provide for yourself.
In the 30 years since I moved to that village, we have had Women’s Lib, Equality legislation, a burgeoning welfare state, an army of social workers, a state that wishes to be responsible for every facet of our lives – and a public that is shocked when a judge gives a woman 37 years for a brutal murder; the TV announcers last night were running through the list of people who should have been held responsible for that murder; the supermarket who sold her the knife, mental health workers, the policemen, the Doctors, ‘her mental state’, although that is something she was patently aware of herself, having made three telephone calls saying she felt like killing someone…
Children, women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, the unemployed – they’re all victims now. Victims of whom? Well, there’s only one group left! White, middle class, heterosexual men…it can’t be long now before they are outlawed.
My, what progress we have made in 30 years. If Michael Gove wants to teach history, he might usefully start by going back 30 years and teaching a bit of social history, of how people lived without recourse to hundreds of billions of social welfare fund, without feeling victimised or traumatised by life. He’ll be teaching it to a generation who genuinely don’t realise that they can just get on with life, make the best of what is around them, enjoy, and live to a ripe old age.
As far as I am aware, not one of those women failed to make it to at least 90.