Death of innocence
THERE is death and there is death. At one end of the scale are the old who die of natural causes and in his unexpected best-seller, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Blake Morrison wrote a raw and compelling account of the death of his father. Now he moves to the other end of the scale: the murder of a child. As If published next month, is a brave and unsettling investigation into the killing of three-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys on Merseyside.
We sit amid the happy muddle of books and papers in the sun-filled room he calls his basement, but which is barely two feet below the garden of his south London house. Blake Morrison, an elfin Pied Piper of a man whose voice still betrays his Yorkshire boyhood and who bubbles with love of life, at first seems an unlikely candidate as chronicler of death. What lies at the heart of both books, however, is less death than childhood.
"Bay calling them monsters and freaks and by having them tried in an adult court we are in danger of forgetting that first of all, these two boys were children. I wanted to try and describe the childhood experiences that we all have, or a lot of us have, that make more understandable what happened on that railway line.
Before the Father book, as he refers to it, Morrison was best known as a poet and running through all his work there is a sense of returning to original places and trying to make sense of it all. Poetry is now something he does only occasionally ("You are speaking to an ex-poet," he admits sheepishly).
Although the book's original impetus, the Bulger murder, remains the central narrative, around it Morrison threads his own journey in coming to terms with what happened. Two elements connected yet unconnected: for a poet, even an ex-poet, a familiar mechanism.
"You write the poem to discover what the relation is. When I began this book I felt instinctively that there were insights to be had in the Bulger case which involved looking at childhood, to think what it is to be a child, thinking about being a parent."
Like everyone else, Blake Morrison watched the unfolding of the Bulger case on television. But unlike the rest of us, he attended the trial that followed and everything changed. Although he knew the accused were only 10, he had been ready to believe that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were, in effect, "surrogate adults", teenagers in all but chronological age.
"That they had violent natures, or violent upbringing of a kind that would make them much older, as if they had got through life very fast, like Salman's Rushdie's recent novel with the man who grows at twice the speed, and each year has two years of experience. The original video images even suggested that. The police originally thought they were looking at 13, 14-year-olds. The first shock was the tininess of them, how small they were, and how they really were 10-year-olds and how they had these tiny voices.
"This case was so emotional and in other ways powerful. And the trial offered few answers. It's not simply a question of why did the boys do it? But why did it seize the British and, indeed, the world imagination in the way it did? Why did it hit us more than, say, the West case, although that has resonance enough, or Dunblane?"
So many things contributed to the public's sense of horror from the never-to-be-forgotten security video to the sheer number of adults who saw some of what was happening, including a small boy being hit.
"Even with all the things which made it an instant No 1 item on the news, it was still just another abduction, another murder of a child." Until the arrest of two 10-year-old boys. "That was what gave it such a kick." And it's back to the hierarchy of horror.
Murder by men is commonplace, by women much more rare. As for murder by children - it is unthinkable. "It's the hand-in-the-hand thing. The big hand of Jon Venables, and the little hand of James Bulger. That is such an image of trust, an image that has been used so many times, and here was its new meaning of a child being led away to death."
When the Father book was published, Morrison was amazed to discover the extent to which people recognised and identified with things which he had previously taken to be "private family stuff that I always worried would not have any meaning to others". This gave him the confidence to draw once again on his experiences of childhood, both as a boy and as a parent of three children, who he identifies only by their initials S A and G, not only to give them an anonymity that was denied the 10-year-old defendants, but as a nod to "sagging" Liverpool slang for playing truant, which was what both boys were doing that fateful Friday.
Does he not worry about involving his children in this way? "I use this family, not as particularly typical, but to describe recognisable emotions in children and adults. I don't feel I have disclosed any terrible intimacies. Embarrassing maybe but not traumatising."
YET much in As If is shocking. Not because of what it reveals about Morrison, his children, or indeed Thompson and Venables but in what Morrison forces you to see in yourself, including a parent's sexual response to a small child, which has already garnered him negative publicity.
"It's interesting, to do with the fiction, non-fiction thing ... In his last novel Martin Amis had a character who is sitting with a small child, and finds himself with an erection. Does anybody take any notice of that? No, because it's fiction and also because the men who read it will say, oh I know about that, I know that happens."
Although Morrison accepts that there was a sexual dimension to the killing, he does not believe it was the driving force, but he acknowledges it does raise the issue of whether one of the boys might have been sexually abused himself. "It makes you think of children's sexuality. Do children do this sort of thing anyway automatically for themselves or is it something they learn from adults?"
Morrison writes about his own sexuality with a raw honesty. "There are things here I've written down but I would find impossible, or almost impossible to say to anybody in person. Like the infamous masturbation scene in the Father book, I've never read that when I've done readings in book shops though I've done quite a few since the book came out. There are certain passages I would never read."
He doesn't see this opening up of himself as an indulgence. The response he got from the Father book showed that his non-fudging of the painful realities of life and death had touched people in a way they had never been touched before. "It's a way of communicating. What's the point of writing if you don't do that? That's what communication is.
"People say, how brave. But I say, no not brave. Maybe stupid, maybe unguarded. Particularly with the English there is this notion of reserve, certain things you don't talk about, whether it's how much you earn, or sex or childhood or whatever it is. You keep that for the therapist and we don't want to know about that thank you very much. And I understand those kind of feelings. I used to feel reserved and introverted. And I am still relatively quiet In company.
But within the context of both books, such use of himself as material is completely justified. "I'm dramatising myself. That doesn't mean to say that there are not other intimacies, other secrets, other areas of privacy that I feel I should preserve. To an extent I feel I must. As long as you feel here's always a bigger secret that you don't want to talk about, it enables you to talk about the smaller ones."
Even though his admitted misdemeanours fall well short of the cruelty and violence shown by Thompson and Venables, he does lot believe that they were somehow inherently different.
"Although I tend not to think that my children are capable of that, or even that I am, most of us have the capacity to do terrible things, where in order to be part of a group or a pair we find ourselves dragged into doing what we wouldn't normally." In adults the obvious analogy is sex, where one partner puts pressure on the other to go further down the road than her or she wanted to.
"IN childhood this happens all the more, because you're less formed and you can find yourself doing a violent or cruel thing on the spur of the moment for peer group approval, all because you have a fuzzier or less developed sense of the difference between right and wrong and the difference between life and death ultimately.
"Then the question arises, if that's so, how do we define responsibility and how do we punish children in these cases? The lobby that says some people are so evil they can never progress and the only solution is to lock them up and keep them there, is not allowing for moral progress or atonement: an utterably bleak view of human nature. Nothing I saw or read led me to think these boys would go out and do something terrible again."
But Morrison also recognises that many people still believe in evil and original sin but hopes that As If will at least challenge such fundamentalists.
"I think there's a far broader band of people who were vaguely troubled by the trial and by the media coverage but didn't want to read much about it because they found the details too distressing. I think I'm trying to address those people and make them think about the continuing confusion that we have about the differences between children and adults - or the non-differences - and the myths of childhood and innocence, and make them think about it again."