The killing of children by children is always a truly grievous occurrence in human affairs: one from which most of us who don’t work in the legal or policing or penal professions – and thus aren’t required to look in the abyss – will recoil and throw up our hands instinctively. This may in part be because the suffering of children – so deeply unforgivable and at the heart of that Dostoyevskian theodical challenge to the notion of a kind and just creator – becomes impossibly paining and complex to us when a child is killed by his or her peer. The child-victim can only ever be a sad exemplar of innocence; by contrast the child who kills is quite often depicted in the wider societal debate as hopelessly depraved. Even if one sees the latter perception as unenlightened, the question may linger: how does one redeem oneself, arrive at a spiritual understanding of one’s crime, return to and rejoin society, when one has done such a thing at such an age?
Whatever we feel as individuals it seems there is little societal consensus as to the question of whether a child who takes the life of another should be spared the full weight of the law that would come down on an adult killer, and further made subject to special cares in respect of their possible rehabilitation; or whether such a child, guilty of such a terrible offence when so young, should be considered always as a possible threat to society on account of some special, integral wickedness.
No consensus, no… but mercifully we do have fine and brave writing on this subject, none better than David James Smith’s The Sleep of Reason: The James Bulger Case which was made available in Finds near the end of last year, and includes a new preface in which Smith addresses the events surrounding the re-arrest and return to prison of Jon Venables in 2010. I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who wants to consider this painful moral tangle of thorns. Readers seeking a reminder of the facts in the tragic case of James Bulger will find much to ponder in the BBC True North documentary below, directed by Julian Hendy.
“It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.” Thus Charlotte Bronte writing after her visit to Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace for the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851: that legendary pageant of imperial industry held in the 15th year of Victoria’s reign (with, had they but known, a further half-century still in store.) 150-odd years later, in the Diamond Jubilee of HM Elizabeth II, the machine built around London’s hosting of the Olympic Games is now making a strenuous effort to promote a present-day sense of ‘Greatness’ around Britain’s productive or creative or presentational capacities. We’ll just have to see how that one turns out. But anyone with an interest in the history of such national showcases will want to take a look at a pair of titles new to Finds, Nikolaus Pevsner’s High Victorian Design and Michael Leapman’s The World for a Shilling.
Pevsner took the view that what the Exhibition pointed to in the character of 1851 Britain was ‘thirst for information, faith in commerce and industry, inventiveness and technical daring, energy and tenacity, and a tendency to mix up religion with visible success.’ Today? Information we certainly desire and consume at wizard-like speed. In commerce we trust, though we’re currently and rather gloomily getting up to much less of it. Meanwhile industry has become rather a lost and fondly-remembered father-king, and as for the prospects of revival we worry whether we have quite enough ‘inventiveness and technical daring’ – or adequate and tangible faith in what we have of it.
However the Calvinistic idea that visible success is a hallmark of heavenly favour – a phenomenon on which Max Weber wrote with such vigour – has certainly gone to live behind a glass case in some museum of misconceptions. In short the Great Exhibition of 1851 belongs most eminently to a thoroughly bygone era, and Pevsner and Leapman offer invaluable retrospective assessments of its merits. The future historians of 2012, meanwhile, have already got a glut of material to start sifting…
“The late social theorist and anarchist Colin Ward who, as he put it, “wandered around new towns for 40 years” and steadfastly believed in their aspirations, remarked how by the early 1990s they had “become old towns for the new generations growing up there”. People had grown old and died in those houses, entire generations had come and gone. As O’Hagan wrote, “some things had gone well with the new town idea; other things had not gone well at all”. Yet, seen from our current cramped perspective, that underlying breadth of vision is still admirable, embodying a social morality that we, apparently, can no longer afford. For [Wilson's protaonist] Sylvia Calvert, at least, the new town was a new beginning…”
You sometimes hear said, with appropriate regret, that these days we talk so much about ‘communities’ in the hope of disguising the fact that so few of us live in them. True or not, communities can at least thrive even by longer-distance connections that are made by fellow-feeling rather than proximity; and this is particularly true, I think, of writers – writers in genres maybe above all?
I hear now that the crime novelist Celia Dale passed away on December 31 2011, not far short of her 100th birthday – and I hear this because Martin Edwards, himself a well-regarded practioner of the crime novel, has noted her passing at his blog and suggests that he might even have been the first person to post an obituary tribute, in which he hails her ‘spare and highly effective style, coupled with a good deal of insight into human nature.’ (Edwards also collated some useful extant praise: ‘The late Harry Keating said that she had “the accuracy, understanding and quiet wit of Jane Austen”, and Susan Hill lauded her as “a past mistress of the bizarre truth behind normal facades”.’ Elsewhere Ruth Rendell is impressively on record that ‘Celia Dale’s writing is quiet, clever, subtle – and terrifying. I can’t think of anyone whose stories of suspense I appreciate more.’
It was our pleasure at Finds to reissue a quartet of Dale’s best novels back in 2008, and you will find more information about them by following these links to our pages for A Helping Hand, A Dark Corner, A Spring of Love, and Sheep’s Clothing.