Monday, 12 March 2018


There was an interesting article in last Saturday's Times, by Clare Foges, an author and former Downing Street speechwriter, about faith schools and homeschooling. Her thesis - and I probably do her a disservice with this prĂ©cis - is that faith schools promote division and 'other-ness' at a time when we should be prioritising inclusion and coherence.

I didn't go to a faith school, as such. Admittedly, when my school was founded in 1525, faith was taken as read, and when I was there, we had a religious assembly every day, just as we had done at prep school. I suppose if I had been virulently anti-Christian, they would have excused me, but I am at heart a conformist, so I went along with it. But in those days, our most illustrious old boy was the Jewish Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, so there was no whiff of the evangelical.

Anyway, the article set me thinking. I am, perhaps, more acutely attuned to the advantages or disadvantages of faith schools, as my parents are Glaswegian - my mother, as a child, was forbidden from playing with some of the other girls on the strength of the colour of their blazers - and my ex was from Northern Ireland, though she'd been at a cross-denominational school. It means, I suppose, that I know the territory. My prep school was not openly faith-based, but the headmaster was a firm Christian, and we sang hymns every morning; Friday was quirky because it was 'request day' - we could call out numbers from the hymnal and the music teacher would bang them out, somewhat inexpertly, on the piano.

The question is, therefore, are they a good thing or not? The results suggest they are. As far as I am aware, all the research indicates that faith schools produce better examination results than comparable non-denominational state schools. Certainly, in the North East, where I grew up, the highest-performing non-independent schools topped the league tables, and even some of the private schools were church-orientated. Why should that be? Is it because the attract the best and brightest teachers, pay better wages, have a better curriculum? Or is it because they can be selective about the pupils they select? I tend towards the latter view, though I think one can fuel the others.

But all of it brings you - or me, anyway - to a wider question. What are schools for? Are they merely exam factories, designed to crank out the best possible results from their consumers? Or is there a wider societal function, to prepare young people to be members of the kind of society want to have? Foges pretty clearly thinks the latter, and thinks that faith schools are an impediment to it.

I'm in two minds. I know that faith schools can sow division. When they were growing up in 1950s suburban Glasgow, my parents had virtually no Catholic friends. The power of the Orange Order was still strong, and sectarianism was rife. When I was growing up in 1980s Sunderland, I had no idea of - nor interest in - the confessional background of my friends. You could tell Sikhs, of course, by the turbans, but I vividly recall my oldest friend telling me he'd been confirmed a few years earlier, and I asked "As what?", knowing his mother was French and therefore probably Catholic. A look of doubt crept over his face and he said "I'm not really sure".

And yet, I'm a great believer in freedom. If parents want their children to be raised and educated in a specific confessional atmosphere, then so be it. If that leads to greater academic success and performance, more power to their elbow. I cannot see that it is the business of the state to say that children will not be taught in a religious context. (I have always found it deeply ironic that the United States, which enshrined separation of church and state in its constitution, has one of the most faith-based polities in the world.)

So I am conflicted. I see the dangers of children only associating within their own community. But I can't tell parents they should not do so. It's a little like single-sex schools (both of my schools were boys-only). The evidence suggests, as far as I know, that  girls flourish in a girls-only environment. However, you can't have girls-only schools without also having boys-only institutions. What did it do for me? In academic terms, it was probably the right thing - there was no embarrassment or, God forgive, flirting in classes. But it left me wary of girls until I went to university, and probably to this day, at the age of 40.

I was lucky at sixth form. We were an all-boys school, but there was an all-girls school literally across the road. We co-operated on drama and music, and many of the braver boys (not me!) socialised with the girls. Some of the girls joined us for extra-curricular lessons; what was then called PSE, but I don't know what they call it now. So there was contact. We were separate but connected. And I think that was the ideal. If only faith schools could make similar arrangements.

I offer no conclusions. This is merely a spark for discussion. I know people who hold very firm views in both directions; I, though I can be very judgemental at times, find it harder to be definitive. Cohesion vs freedom. The good of society vs personal choice. I just don't know.

Saturday, 3 March 2018


I turned 40 last autumn. It really doesn't bother me (that much), though I didn't get the same adrenaline rush as when I turned 30, and felt like I was  a grown-up. But that, and my father dying the next month, has made me think a lot recently about the ageing process.

I don't know why it should be, but when I read the papers - which I only really do at the weekends - I am always drawn to the column of birthdays. For some reason, I have a fascination for people's ages, whether it's to tut and say "They look a lot older than that", or to marvel that someone I thought had been dead for years is still plugging on. I felt the same when I heard that Billy Graham, that cheery old anti-semite and con artist, had been gathered unto his imaginary maker at the age of 99. I can't explain this fascination with the inexorable progress of time, but it exists, nonetheless.

I noticed it again today reading the Times magazine, which has an excellent interview with Sir Michael Caine, who will turn 85 later this year. How can that be? How can the star of Zulu, of Alfie, of The IPCRESS File, be not only a pensioner but considerably exceeding life expectancy? Money helps, of course, I suppose, and by all accounts he lives a pretty healthy lifestyle. Fair play to him: not my scene. Better to die in your cups than live on your rations, or something like that.

Anyway, whenever I saw a juicy titbit in the birth columns of the papers, I used to text my Dad. "Can you believe X is Y years old?" He would do the same. We'd also mark deaths in the same way: "RIP James Garner", or whoever it was, especially if they'd reached a ripe old age, or, conversely, had keeled over unexpectedly young.

I now wonder if that was a monstrous act of tactlessness. When my father was - eventually, after a lot of medical shortcomings - diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he knew it would kill him, short of stepping in front of the proverbial bus. My stepmother tells me he didn't want to know the details of how it would end, only whether it would be painful or squalid (answer: probably not). But here was a man in his mid- to late 60s, being confronted with the reality that he had a few years left, and, barring extraordinary luck, not more. No 85th birthday for him.

Should I have stopped with the texts? Were they painful reminders of the mortality which was closing in fast? If I'm honest, and this is shameful, it never crossed my mind. He didn't stop, either: the texts continued to flow. I like to think it was because he didn't like to make a fuss, to make a scene. He would creak and groan sometimes - one of the side effects of multiple myeloma is osteoporosis, and his back and leg gave him pain - but it was always a mutter, never a shout (at least not that I ever saw; I'm sure my stepmother saw much more pain than I did).

Maybe it even helped. I can't tell. We never talked about the end, and he never saw it coming as quickly as it did. Maybe I did the right thing in pursuing service as normal. I do hope I did.

Which brings me back, solipsistically, to myself. Forty years old. Realistically, that's beyond middle age. We're over the hump. The clock is ticking. In his last, heart-rending interview with Jeremy Paxman, when he was undergoing experimental treatment with minimal hope of success, the great Christopher Hitchens was asked if he was afraid of death. "No," he said, before qualifying that. He wasn't afraid of death: if you're as convinced an atheist as he was, how can you fear the state of simply not being? It would be absurd. What he feared, he said, was a grubby and sordid dying, a very different thing.

(He also, I think, feared a deathbed conversion to some form of theism, which is entirely understandable - think of Voltaire being asked to denounce the Devil and saying "This is no time to be making new enemies!" - but would have been anathema to his thinking, living self. Still, he was alive to the potential weakness, and explained it to Paxman.)

My father's death was the first I have ever witnessed, and I suppose it won't be the last, if I am spared. I still have a parent and two step-parents, whom I wish long and happy lives, as well as a step-grandmother. It will probably happen again.

Where is all this leading me? Maybe nowhere. Short of a trip to Dignitas - euthanasia can wait for another day - we can't choose the time or, to an extent, the manner of our passing, though I think UK doctors are still allowed to administer medication under the umbrella of the 'double effect' rule; that is, you know it will kill, but that is not the primary intention. Medical ethicists can correct me on that if I'm wrong.

I suppose the lesson for today is this: do things now. Because you never know. I had a dearly beloved colleague in the Commons who succumbed to cancer at (I think) 33. She was the brightest of bright sparks, a music DPhil and a brilliant clerk, who could do anything. I regret with all my heart that I didn't see enough of her when she was in what turned out to be her last days, but I can say I danced at her wedding. I think, often, of what she might have achieved, how her life with her husband might have turned out. Don't put things off. Carpe diem, as Robin Williams famously intones in Dead Poets' Society. Because you just never know.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Let it snow

I was born in the late 1970s and grew up in the early '80s. I don't think I'm exaggerating, but we had more snow then. More white-covered Decembers and blizzardy Januaries. And, do you know what, I loved them. It's hard to pin down exactly why; partly it's an aesthetic thing - I think snow looks nice, though I have a contrary hatred for grey-brown slush which is unfortunately snow's inevitable corollary. But I also like the dampening effect snow has. When you go out in any decent amount of snowfall, which we rarely get in the UK now, there is a muffle that seems to descend on the world, a sort of silencer which makes footfall less noisy and which just seems, oh, I don't know, the lower the volume of everything. I like that.

This past week we have been going though an unusual cold snap. I read a meme on Facebook which said, more or less, "In the UK, this is called 'The Beast from the East'. In Finland, it is called 'Wednesday'." I'll come back to that. It is certainly the case that back in the mid-1980s, snow was something to be enjoyed, something which, at best, might call for your school to close. I understand that it is a different proposition for commuters who have to get to work, and I admit to shedding a small tear of pride at the story in the Daily Mail of the NHS radiographer who walked three and a half miles to do a 13-hour shift, then walked back again. She's the sort of person who - entirely vicariously - makes me fucking proud to be British, and proud to have the universal healthcare we have, whatever faults it has (and it has faults - discussion for another day).

I'm conflicted about the "snowmageddon", as one former colleague dubbed it this week. Yes, it's easy to ridicule our pitiful attempts to cope with what was, in the south of England, at least, not more than a light crust of snow. What about Canada? What about Sweden? They cope. Yet a couple of centimetres of the white stuff, and trains and cars and trucks grind to a halt. And, prima facie, it is ridiculous. We are, after all, as Len Deighton noted, about as far north as Labrador, yet we wilt at the faintest hint of properly cold weather.

Yes, but. Cold weather of the sort we've seen this week is extraordinarily rare in the UK. Maybe it's global warming, maybe it isn't - I'm not getting dragged into a Piers Corbyn-style argument about it. I'm not a scientist, so, unlike many in the public sphere, I won't speak whereof I do not know. But I have observed, over these past 40 years, that we rarely suffer severely cold weather. So it would, surely, be a ludicrous over-reaction to prepare every year for something that probably won't happen? Canada and Finland and Sweden and Norway have these conditions every year, so of course - of course - people are prepared - snow chains on tyres, well-stocked shelves, the whole nine yards. If we did that, we'd just look daft.

I have seen real cold. A few years ago, the family decided to take in the New Year in rural Vermont. It snowed heavily, and was minus 20 degrees outside (imagine my friend Hugh's delight when he discovered the Jeep he'd hired proved to be 2WD). But, up there in the Green Mountains, they know it's coming. Stowe, after all, is a popular ski resort, and they rely on the winter weather, rather than panic at its coming. I loved it. I loved standing on the snow-clad veranda with Hugh and my beloved Dad, smoking cigars late at night. But there is not here.

What's my point? I'm not sure I have one. Except for this - we just all need to calm down. As Danny says in Withnail & I, "This too will pass". Work from home if the trains are disrupted. Wear chunkier shoes (though I am wearing suede brogues with leather soles, and, you know what, I'm not dead). Choose your heaviest coat, and maybe a scarf. But it's not the end of the world.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018


Last night, well after I should have gone to bed, I was listening to music, and wavering on that border between wakefulness and sleep. As it happens, I was listening to Duke Special's enthralling Adventures in Gramophone. He is that rare thing on this side of the Atlantic, a singer who sings entirely unaffectedly in his native tones. Compare and contrast, for example, Sir Elton Hercules John, who seems to think that "Sorrah" seems to be the hardest word to say. Well, clearly for him. (I don't hate Elton John, for the record, but he is a serial offender.)

I don't claim to have a particularly acute ear for accents, though as a result of my upbringing I can distinguish between Mackem and Geordie, for example. It's not an easy business, but if you spend 18 years listening to both, it's achievable. There are also - and here I will hold up my hand - some accents I don't like. I don't care for the Brummie tones, despite having friends who grew up with it. And I generally hate, pace my dear friend Mike, the Scouse twang. Actually, I suspect Mike might join me in that if he's honest, but he's Liverpool born and bred.

It works the other way too. My parents are (were, in one case) Glaswegians, and I can hear the broadest Glasgow patter with a sense of warmth and belonging. Probably my favourite Glaswegian phrase, of someone who is particularly mean, is "He widnae gie ye a spear if he wiz a Zulu". And I love love love Stanley Baxter's Parliamo Glasgow: if you haven't seen it, look it up on YouTube. It's a work of genius.

Back to Duke Special. He's a Lisburn boy, though based in Belfast now, I believe, and, I suppose, no longer a boy. I first fell in love with him when I fell in love with the ex, as they were both from County Down and had, in fact, been to the same school, though were not contemporaries. I know many people won't share this view, and may in fact take quite the opposite, but I love Northern Irish accents. Yeah, yeah, there are romantic reasons for that. But I love the timbre, the cadence, the nuance that can be packed into a few words. I can, I think, distinguish between different varieties of it: astonishing, really, that different intonations can be crowded into six small counties. My ex's mother is from Fermanagh, and her sounds were distinctly different from her Down-raised children.

There is also, in Northern Ireland - and let's not be coy about it - a different tone between Catholics and Protestants. It sounds absurd when you type it, as I just have, but if you listen to, say, Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson, they don't speak in the same way. Their intonations are different, and, to natives if not to me, instantly recognisable. I don't know how it arose (although accents fascinate me, I know very little about how they developed) but it's true nonetheless.

So I admit to loving Ulster accents. Which is not to say I deprecate or abjure voices from the South. There is something about the (cliche klaxon) Irish brogue which is very attractive. The Irish Senate, a mad but great body, includes a man called David Norris, an independent and campaigner for gay rights, who has the most wonderful accent. I met him once, at Leinster House, and could have listened to him for hours. Again, YouTube, people. (Oh, all right, you lazy tikes: You won't be disappointed.

I sometimes wonder about accents before the widespread advent of sound recording, especially with regard to Ireland. What did Edward Carson sound like? Or FE Smith? Or Oscar Wilde? (Carson and Wilde had been friends at TCD: when the latter heard that the former was to prosecute in his libel trial, he remarked "No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend.") For that matter, what did HH Asquith sound like? Was he a good speaker? Or Bonar Law?

I will end on this coda. Some of my friends are aware that I have a massive crush (if a 40-year-old can be said to have a 'crush') on Dr Lucy Worsley, of the Historic Royal Palaces. Maybe it's infantile, but there we are. I do. Mostly it's because I am deeply susceptible to clever woman; partly it's because I think she's very pretty; but part of it is the rhotacism. I don't know why it should be, nor wherein me it comes from, but that slight speech impediment - I feel bad even calling it that - makes my heart burst with fondness. I find it utterly charming and compelling. I don't think it's a childhood thing, as I never developed feelings for Violet Elizabeth Bott. Maybe I need therapy.

Friday, 23 February 2018


Now, I like fine dining as much as the next man (though I'm not a fan of the fuss and faff of the Heston Blumenthal school of clever-clever haute cuisine). However, I will also hold my hand up to liking fast food. Burger King over McDonald's - if nothing else the fries are incomparably better - but I also have a weakness for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Colonel's smiling face can be seen just round the corner from me, on Lavender Hill. Years ago, I used to live literally opposite a KFC, and I vividly remember going in late one night just before they were due to close, and turning people away, to be reassured "No, no, we cook for you!"

So it was with some avidity (is that a word?) that I have watched this week's crisis in the Colonel's supply chain. My local branch has remained open, and has been well-stocked with chicken; oddly, it has been the side orders which have been unavailable. I do like the beans, but have been denied. It has been a tough old week for their comms people, I dare say: at one point, I read that something like 750 of 900 branches were closed. Nor does KFC lack for competitors in the fried chicken market. Off the top of my head, I can think of Chicken Cottage, Chicken Corner, Texas Fried Chicken, Dallas Chicken and Ribs… People will vote with their feet.

Today, KFC put out an apology in the Metro. It featured a bucket, emblazoned with the letters "FCK" and the strap line "We're sorry". And I thought it was a brilliant move. Some people on social media have become suddenly po-faced - is swearing now part of standard English? (Yes, always has been, at least since Chaucer) - and some have wondered whether an apology was the right thing to do. Of course it was. I've always thought a good motto was, if you fuck up, own up.

It took my mind to trains. Don't worry, it's not as random as it sounds. We've all been inconvenienced by delayed or cancelled trains or Tubes. We've all fumed at the lacuna in our journey or the late arrival at work or wherever. But, if you're anything like me, the blood pressure drops considerably when a representative of whatever operating company it is says "Sorry". It's an acknowledgement that they've got it wrong.

I'd go further than that. Fuck up, own up, and explain. I may not be representative, but if I know why my train/Tube/cable car is delayed, I am put in a much more forgiving mood. At least if the explanation is patently honest. To take the Tube as an example, if I'm told there are severe delays due to a passenger being taken ill, or to a points failure at so-and-so, I'm likely to think, well, OK, that's unfortunate, and annoying, but I can see the chain of events. These things happen, no-one is perfect.

Honesty is the other watchword. If a train is half an hour late, tell me that. Don't tell me it's 15 minutes late, then another five, then another five. That will boil my blood. If you know what the situation is, front up to your customers (remember when we were passengers?) and tell it like it is. Yet companies seem not always to understand this, and try to limp along on what I suppose they regard as damage limitation. It doesn't work.

So I thought KFC's advertisement was a master-stroke. They've taken it on the chin, owned up to something (which, from reading the stories in the press, wasn't actually their fault, but the fault of DHL, their new delivery company) and have, I hope, engendered a degree of goodwill. My local branch still doesn't have any beans, but you can't have everything.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Chance encounters

As those who know me will attest, I quite like going to pubs on my own. I don’t want to sound anti-social, and I much prefer going with friends, but if I want to read, or write, or leaf through the weekend papers, I’m very happy doing so in a moderately busy pub. In an ideal world, “moderately busy” is key. I want to get a seat, and not be hemmed in, but at the same time I want to experience, vicariously, the buzz of human interaction, people talking to people, the warmth of friendship at a distance.

One of the perils of being alone at a pub, which I fully accept, is that sometimes other people – maybe also on their own – will sit at your table. I don’t mind this too much, if they ask first; it really boils my piss when they plonk themselves down uninvited, and they will often get a growled “No, please, help yourself”, usually at a volume which they just might hear, but generally not. It’s not too much of an imposition, and I accept that as a lone gunman I cannot expect to occupy three or four seats which paying customers might otherwise make use of. I’m not that selfish.

So it was last night. I got to my local, the Falcon on St John’s Hill, at about 7.00 pm, and, to my delight, found one of the comfy wingback armchairs free, into which I sank gratefully, intending to write for maybe an hour before I headed for home. It’s dark in the corner snug, but it’s cosy as well, and I find it quite a conducive atmosphere. The chairs are leather-covered and studded, like a gentlemen’s club, and the wine is passable (though, last night, in a comedy of errors, they ran out of wine glasses, so I found myself drinking out of a goblet designed for Belgian beer).

After about ten minutes, a woman, in mid-telephone conversation, pointed to the empty chair opposite me and asked if I would mind if she sat there. Well, she asked, so I smiled politely, and said that would be fine. I noticed, without eavesdropping too much, that she had that enviable to switch from fluent English (clearly her native tongue) to fluent French. She was American, I think, or possibly, given the French, Canadian. She also pronounced the word “about” oddly, which leads me perhaps to the latter conclusion.

Anyway, I continued to peck away at my keyboard (I am a very poor typist, never having been taught and being just old enough to have written school essays by hand). I’m wrestling with a short story which is either an insight into young love or just therapy for my younger self – I still can’t tell, and I may need an outside opinion to tell me.

During a pause in tapping away, and after she’d finished her telephone calls and bought another drink, she looked at me and said “You’ve got to make me leave after this one.” I gave my best smile but my heart sank. She was a talker. I assured her I would, and, to be sociable (which does not always come naturally to me), I made vague noises about this being my last drink as well.

“So what you up to?” she asked. I explained, though I could easily have lied, that I was trying to write a short story, and initially my implication was “And I’d like to get back to it”. But suddenly we fell into conversation about writing.

I know what most of you are thinking. This is unremarkable. But for me, it is not. I don’t talk to strangers in pubs, beyond “Excuse me”, “Thank you”, and “Yes, that’s fine”. Yet here I was talking about Hemingway with someone I’d met – if you can even call it that – five minutes before. She was obviously well read, more so than me, I’m sure, and very engaging company. I offered my opinion that one of the greatest short stories ever written is Hemingway’s six-word epic: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. Just typing those words makes me well up.

(Sidebar: I don’t care for children, as my friends know. But I know people who have lost sons and daughters both before and after full-term, and I cannot imagine, simply cannot imagine, the heart-rending grief it must entail. It subverts the natural order of children burying their parents, and robs mothers and fathers of the vessels into which they must pour all their hopes and ambitions. I don’t know how – if – they ever recover.)

She – her name was Andrea, and she was a psychologist, as it turned out – was on her third glass of wine, having spent the day seeing 25 suicidal or self-harming patients. I certainly didn’t begrudge her the release. I’m not built for the so-called caring professions. My father was a psychologist, my mother used to work with damaged and disruptive children, but nope, sorry, just not happening here. Perhaps I’m unusually unempathetic.

The conversation turned, as we both drank our wine, to the relationship between creative sorts, in this case writers, and addiction. Papa Hemingway, already mentioned, liked a drink. I mentioned William Faulkner, who drank himself to death but supposedly never wrote while under the influence (which I seem to recall Hemingway, who hated him, disputed: there’s a quotation which I can’t find about Don Ernesto saying that he never touched a drop while writing, and that “I leave that to Faulkner.) Andrea brought up Scott Fitzgerald, who was capable of the most beautiful prose but was clearly a raging alcoholic. And we also mentioned Truman Capote, whose tastes were broad but was clearly the addictive type.

Why should this be? Is it so, in fact, or were we self-selecting? One theory, which popped into my head and I advanced tentatively, was that for creative people, the world was just too much, too fast, too frenetic, and they needed booze or drugs or just cigarettes to slow things down to a manageable pace. I wish – well, a little part of me does, but without the self-destructive urges – that I could classify myself in that group, that my head was so full of ideas and fizzing with genius that I needed to anaesthetise it. Not so. Plots come to me very slowly, sometimes never at all, and sometimes turn out to be junk. But I wonder if there’s a grain of truth in the hypothesis. I know some writers keep a notebook by their beds so they can scribble down notions that come to them, or fragments of dialogue, or characters, that come to them in the long watches of the night. Sadly, it is not so for me.

Another idea we tossed around was that writing – and maybe other artistic disciplines too, though I have no experience of them; I could draw passably well as a child, but I could never paint – is in itself an addiction, a need to put words on paper. So maybe it is the case that being a writer is a product of an addictive personality, and merely one facet of it. Writers will turn to alcohol and drugs just in the same way as they turn to the keyboard or typewriter, and with no less dedication. I’m not sure.

A final notion that Andrea posited, based on the experience of her 15-year-old son, who had just been expelled from his second school, was that creativity grew out of a rejection of authority, and that perhaps addiction, in whatever form it took, was a continuation of that. After all, drug-taking, for example, is thumbing your nose at The System, which tells you what you should do, what is good for you, what is acceptable. There might be something in this. Writers – artists in general – are often anti-authoritarian. Think of Orwell, or Kerouac, to take two relatively recent examples. Or de Sade, to go back further. To shock is to entertain.

We reached no firm conclusions, and then the glasses were empty. I kept my promise to chase her out, and out she went. She said – ha! – she looked forward to reading my first book. Well, I don’t think that’s all that likely. But what had begun as something I’d regarded as a grinding observation of social niceties had become a rollercoaster of ideas and notions. I regret I didn’t catch her surname. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see her again, unless she turns up to my first book launch. Which is a shame. Next week she has five days straight of suicidal patients. Maybe that’s why we started with Hemingway.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Children who kill

I'v been thinking a lot about James Bulger recently, I suppose because it's the 25th anniversary of his tragic, violent, appalling murder. It is still hard to comprehend that two small boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, only 10 years old, could commit an act of such cruelty and savagery. The latter, of course, has recently been imprisoned again, this time for child pornography offences, and his mind must be a swamp into which I, certainly, would not care to peer.

(Interestingly, the angle taken by the Daily Mail, stereotypically to the point of parody, has been to wonder why it is that Venables, from a "respectable" family, has reoffended, while Thompson, a "feral" child - yes, they used that word - has not, so far as we know. Isn't that a thing?)

I was at sixth form when James Bulger was killed, so I remember the case, and the horror of it, quite well. I was also taking a PSE studies module in law, so it interested me, though not, I hasten to add, in any morbid way. It was more procedural. There was widespread controversy about the way Thompson and Venables were treated, whether it was appropriate that they were tried in an adult court in front of a wigged and robed judge, and they remain, according to Wikipedia, the youngest convicted murderers in "modern English legal history".

At the time, under English law, the maxim of doli incapax applied. A child under the age of seven was taken to be incapable (incapax) of knowing it was doing wrong (doli). Between the ages of seven and 14, a child was presumed to be incapable of knowing right from wrong, but the presumption could be argued against. (Doli incapax was, I gather, abolished in England and Wales in 1998, a few years after the Thompson/Venables trial.)

The verdict of the judge in the trial was that Thompson and Venables should be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure until they were 18, after which they would be released on licence. Venables, as we know, reoffended several times and is back behind bars. But eight years? Really? It seems a pitiful return for a human life. As I have written here several times before, and I reiterate, I am not a lawyer, so I am not sure what options were open to the trial judge. But it seems an awfully low tariff.

The question to which I come back again and again, however, is this: did the two boys know what they were doing? Just as I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a criminologist nor a psychologist, so these are merely layman's observations. But it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that they did. They knew they were doing an unconscionably wicked thing, and the way they placed Bulger's body on a railway line to make it seem as if he had been killed by a train suggests a degree of premeditation. (There has also come to light evidence of sexual abuse, the details of which Bulger's mother, Denise, declined to know at the time, and who can blame her?)

From this stems a wider point. If a child will do this to another child, at such a young age, is there any hope for rehabilitation? Can a mind so warped, so - I don't shy away from the word - evil ever be changed? In Venables's case, his recurrent charge sheet suggests not. Yet, so far as I am aware, Thompson has led a blameless life since his release. Being a North-Easterner by birth, I am also put in mind of Mary Bell, who in 1968 was convicted of the manslaughter of two toddlers. My mother, who used to work in what was then called an approved school, met Mary. She served 12 years in prison, and has since lived under a series of pseudonyms, collaborating with the Austrian writer Gitta Sereny on an account of her upbringing and crimes in 1972. Again, so far as I know, Bell's life since her release has been blameless.

So how do we account for this? How can a child do such a wicked thing, and yet prove not to be himself or herself wicked? After all, we would not release Peter Sutcliffe and think "Well, he probably won't do it again" (and in fact I have read rumours that Sutcliffe may now be implicated in more killings). People often talk of children going through "phases". Can killing be one of them? Does the bloodlust merely go away?

I cannot answer any of these questions, I merely pose them. They are important because they go to the heart of how our criminal justice system treats underage killers, who, while thankfully vanishingly rare, nonetheless exist, and, if history is any guide, always will do. Do we exert the full weight and panoply of the law, because of the gravity of the crimes? Or do we, by moderating it, in some way already start down the street of understanding rather than condemning? I just don't know.