The Monarchy

As you know by now, Prince Andrew is accused by a woman known as Jane Doe 3 of being ‘forced’ to have sex with him when she was a teenager. He was named in court documents in the US and the tabloids have been full of further salacious claims. Buckingham palace forcefully denies these allegations. The story will not end there, but for now that is all we can say on this particular scandal. It should, however, raise questions about our monarchy, its role and position, the devious, secret way it operates.

The Magna Carta was signed eight hundred years ago. In June 1215, rebellious Barons got King John of England to sign a charter that guaranteed them status and entitlements and protected the Church from royal interference. The document did not give every subject fundamental equality and rights. It was a charter by and for the upper classes. Still, there will be events marking this much mythologized moment throughout 2015. Ok, so, let join in with this latest national commemoration, part truth, part fantasy. It may encourage us all to contemplate and renew our faith in liberty, freedoms, fundamental human rights and democracy, which came much later.

But how can we renew our faith when the family at the top of the social structure undermines every one of the ideals and principles that our nation proclaims at home and abroad? The incantations sound hollow and meaningless. Lets us go back to Prince Andrew, the prodigal son. The Palace has never denied that he has, for years, been cavorting with insalubrious billionaires and vicious autocrats. Human rights? Why should an ageing, playboy Prince care about those? Prince Charles is matey with Arab despots too. The next time you feel the urge to denounce Robert Mugabe, remember these Royal appeasers. Yes Blair, Clinton and Bush also had these unsavoury friendships. But they lost power, eventually. Our Royals can carry on sleazing indefinitely.

Freedom of speech and expression is held up as a shining British value. But the Queen and her brood can and do stop the media and authors from pursuing legitimate investigations, from asking tough questions. They come down so heavy, seasoned journalists shake with terror and give up. The BBC has been stopped from broadcasting two programmes fronted by Steve Hewlett, a seasoned and much respected multi-media man. If we, the people, had been allowed to watch the programmes, we might have seen how the palace used scheming spin doctors to erase Diana from national memory and to replace her with Camilla and how Charles goes way beyond his constitutional role and so on. I don’t blame the BBC. Lawyers employed by the royals are like Alsatians, fiercely protective and very sharp. Imagine what the reaction would be if, say, Tony Blair stopped the BBC from broadcasting a critical programme on his activities. Britons would be outraged. But with the Royal family, there is only quiet acquiescence. We are subjects after all, the great brainwashed.

The Queen, Duke, her children, and grandchildren are not covered by the freedom of Information Act. We may not know how much money they have and earn, certainly not how much they pay in tax. Those barons who got the Magna Carta signed knew more about royal finances than we are allowed to know today, this age of glorious transparency. Once in a while, we get to hear of private jets and costly jaunts, but the conversation is quickly shut down by a largely loyalist fourth estate. What about power? As Owen Jones writes in his book, The Establishment, ‘ In practice…members of the Royal family have a powerful platform from which to intervene in democratic decisions. Prince Charles, the designated successor to the throne has met with ministers at least three dozen times since the election…’His correspondence with ministers is still kept from the public eye. Transparency is for only for plebs and politicians, it seems. The royals sit among the clouds, at the summit of the secret state and look down on us.

If we accept this accept this settlement we cannot be a proper democracy. When some – whether wicked, stupid, or even wonderful- inherit limitless privileges and untold wealth, and are handed the highest positions in society, we, the rest, are lesser beings. Humans in Britain are not born equal, cannot be equal. ( Incidentally, the Queen has not yet visited a food bank or breakfast club for hungry kids. Too grubby that sort of thing.) We will not have a credible meritocracy until this unholy edifice is dismantled. I know monarchists will say privileged families are found in strong republics too and that this system gives us stability and unity. All bosh. Wealth is indeed passed on by the rich everywhere, but they are not subsided by their nations, and they are not revered as immortal beings.

Britons don’t believe in God much anymore. They hate politicians too. Instead most of them worship the Royal family. William married Kate, had a baby, became the stuff of fairy stories and celestial dreams. But the nation cannot stay in this reverie forever. Reality will call. I hope I live to see that day.

The Independent, 5/1/2015

 

Working Class White Kids and Education

 

White boys and girls from poor or working class families are attaining lower grades in school than are those from immigrant households. Those of Chinese and Indian backgrounds are at the top, followed by Bangladeshi, African, Pakistani and Caribbean pupils. The Education Select Committee, in a report published today, confirms these findings. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted finds this gap intolerable and indefensible : ‘ [Immigrants] have added value to this country’s performance…where families believe in education, children do well…There is absolutely no excuse for any parent, whatever their ethnicity, for not protecting their children’.  

He is right. Why are British kids who most need to break out of the cycle of deprivation still unable to do so, after major government reforms and hopeful initiatives?  How can this be acceptable? I am an immigrant whose children have done as well as I wished for them and better. But I am not gloating, not triumphant at all.  As someone of the left, I find this research data depressing and troubling . Poverty does make some difference to how a child does- not eating properly, for example, affects concentration. But, as Wilshaw emphasises, non-white families still seem able to get their children  to strive and get good results. Some highly successful black and Asian pupils went to large comprehensives and made the best of what was on offer. Aspiration lifted them, made them fly. BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed and Steve McQueen the academy winning director of 12 Years a Slave both went to Drayton Manor High school, close to where I live. I know several high achieving Caribbean men and women whose single mums taught them to work hard and be the best. Bangladeshis were near the bottom of the list but ten years ago, and now the children of waiters and those running takeaways are entering Oxbridge and parliament.

Our family was economically insecure, dysfunctional and unhappy. My mother was determined I would have a better, brighter life than she’d had: Education, she used to say,  is a passport. You cannot carry your money and things with you if you have to move to another country. But nobody can steal your brain, what you know, your exam results, your certificates. Though she didn’t speak good English, she would turn up every month at my school in Kampala, Uganda, to talk to teachers about how I was doing, my best and worst subjects. I was rubbish at maths and physics so she got me extra lessons and paid for them by sewing shirts and dresses for teachers of those subjects. Of course it was embarrassing, but I know her fervour drove me. About ten years ago, a neighbour, a mother of Pakistani origin begged me to teach her English and her son too in the evenings. In exchange she made me lovely food and even offered to clean my house for me, an offer I declined. She was a fast learner and her son, Akil, is now studying medicine.

We migrants are these days resented by many in this country, but as Wilshaw says, we do have so much to offer this nation. I have mentored white working class children from families where no one had faith in schools. They didn’t see the point. I can’t understand this indifference, this inability understand how learning- not the lottery or lotto- delivers real winnings, the way to a better life.

Teachers,  with some superhuman efforts, can manage to get white working class pupils up to speed. We saw the idealism and commitment of  such educators in Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex on Channel4. A number of schools that years ago were written off as ‘sink schools’ have been turned round by heads who saw potential instead of irremediable failure.

What are the underlying causes of this persistent underachievement that seems unresponsive to policies, inspiration and excellent educators? Fatalism about class may be one factor- the embedded notion that no one should get above themselves. Another reason could be suspicion of success. Some working class families fear that their children will be lost to them if they become middle class. I am guessing here and trying hard to empathise. But if I am honest, I can’t understand these anxieties and attitudes, and nor would most of the poor of the world. 

The truth is that parents of white children lagging behind need to be more engaged, more proactive, more interested and properly pushy. Wilshaw is suggesting fines for those who don’t read to their kids, don’t ensure homework is done and that attendance is good. I can see why he thinks it’s time to get tough. But punitive measures could backfire. A far better idea would be to educate parents so they are up to the job. After all they are just repeating the patterns of their own upbringing.

About ten years ago, I was invited to talk at some community schools in west London about my career, life story ambitions and all that. Two of them in west London were trying out what they called ‘family learning’. The schools were open in the evening and mums and dads were encouraged to come in to study the same subjects as their kids and to understand the importance of active parenting. Children did their homework in one corner and at times helped parents to solve maths and science problems. Most of the school intake was from a large housing estate, which had severe social problems and ethnic tensions. But in a quiet classroom with dedicated teachers, tensions seemed to subside and all parents, including those who were white and disadvantaged,  seemed to develop essential parental skills in the process. Some had brought their infants in buggies. I sang old nursery rhymes to them and some of the mums asked me to write them out because they didn’t know the words. I found that truly sad.  I don’t know if family learning still goes on. I hope it does because it was making a huge difference to the community and to the pupils’ results.

How’s this for another idea? As most migrants have the work ethic, ambition and faith in education, we should arrange for white working class children to live with them during holidays. A while ago TV programme makers took lazy, unmotivated white kids to live with families in India for a few weeks. Though there were many sulks and tears, rebellions and furies, they came away chastened, serious and more mature. I have sometimes taken on such kids too, usually after teachers have asked me to, and though it was tough, at least three out of five did  benefit from being brainwashed by this immigrant. One is studying to be a TV cameraman, another a teacher. You have no idea how proud that makes me. And here is an offer: I’ll do the same for another young person from a poor white background, hopefully with encouragement from the family. Other immigrant professionals could do the same. Every little helps.

Sir Michael’s passion and mission is laudable. These still excluded children of our nation deserve a better future , a chance in an increasingly competitive world. Their parents need to wake up and step up. And the rest of us must do our bit too. As they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child.

 The Daily Mail, June 2014

 

 

 

Planet Green

Planet Green

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Biblical floods, submerged habitations, devastated, distraught people who have lost everything. This is turning point for me and, I assume, millions of others. I wasn’t daft enough to be a climate change denier, but  was just not that much  into green politics and environmental science. This is, I think, the first column I have ever penned on the subjects. My spouse, in contrast, is eco-aware and one of nature’s dedicated proselytisers. In the past when he started up about recycling, fossil fuels, deforestation or agricultural vandalism, I would sing Boney M songs loudly to cut out his words. ( He can’t bear Boney M).  Yes, frivolous and immature. After reading Germaine Greer’s latest book on the Australian forest she bought and returned to the wild, I had started thinking more deeply about the planet and human recklessness. Then came this washed-out  winter. Shock and awe have been followed by buckets of guilt. Guilt is good if it leads to personal and political reappraisals and candour.

Something seriously bad is happening to climate patterns all around the world. Typhoons, droughts, flood and famines have destroyed parts of our beautiful planet. But all that was happening out there, to other folk, often dusky and wretched, those who have been thought of as the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, perpetually needy. Though millions of pounds were raised by charities, concern was not sustained. Just last November, Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines. I had forgotten all about the cataclysm until I saw Simon Roberts’ heartbreaking pictures of the makeshift shacks survivors still live in. ( They are on the Oxfam website).  The 2004 Tsunami was different because several westerners were, tragically, swept away. Questions were asked if such catastrophes were getting more frequent, ferocious and were partly man made? Those become urgent as our isles deal with fierce weather onslaughts on people and places.

Surely most obstreperous refusnik feels duty bound to rethink orthodoxies, beliefs, behaviours, policies and biases? Some clearly can’t or won’t. Though most sceptics have been spookily silent recently, agitated Nigel Lawson has been coming out with bizarre explanations, blaming, among other ‘evils’, wind turbines, tilting, like pathetic old Quixote at windmills. His son, Dominic, is also a fundamentalist denier. These two and others within the ( hopefully ever smaller ) band of doubters want total proof and unconditional causality- knowing such absolutes are impossible at this point. They have yet to produce substantial, uncompromised, peer reviewed  research to prove there is no climate change. Or to reveal their links to businesses which may or may not affect the views they hold and disseminate. Their contemptuous disregard for facts and evidenced based theories should make them irrelevant. But the media just loves some mavericks and so they get to sound off and confuse the people, especially the undecided. After these storms, one hopes, Britons will listen less to these ideologically driven, right wing refuters.

On to another fave right wing  bogey- the  big, bossy state, which steals all our money and spends it on  pen pushers, lesbian fests and cruises for prisoners. Many of those same moaners, I reckon, have this week been blaming the Environment Agency and DEMANDING to know what the government has been doing/ will do to stop rain from falling on British soil and swamping their good lives. They now want big government, a sturdy nanny to take care of them and wipe their tears. Their anger and pain is evident and understandable, their demands right and just. Perhaps now they will stop their silly moans and pay taxes nicely. Only governments- local and national- and international bodies can plan for future climatic disasters and respond when crises arise.

Human relations too have been profoundly altered by the deluge.  Rushing and rising water recognises no class, race or wealth differences. Nor do humans when they are caught up in calamities. Preconceptions about groups wash away. Victims and those who go out to rescue them have to cooperate or sink. I have been struck by the camaraderie in the worst hit areas, the willingness to help, to share pain, treat each other with respect. Sure the farmers are angry with townies and vice versa, and there have been some disgraceful mutterings from Ukip types about how we should cut overseas aid, but that is all talk. When they have to, British men and women seem able to muster empathy and generosity towards strangers in distress. As they have this fortnight.  

In the volatile times to come, we have to  do our little bit for the environment. I promise to try harder. Anti-social rightwingers calling for the state to back off need to wake up and grow up. The wrathful rains have kindled kindness and resilience. The selfish among us must now know that without cooperation and mutuality, our citizens are vulnerable and perilously weak.  After this transformative winter, nothing can be as it was.   

The Independent, 17/2/14

 

 

 

   

Ladywood Blues: Where are the dads?

 

Ladywood in Birmingham is one of several districts where, according to a new report, seventy per cent of children are raised in households without fathers. I went up to see the neighbourhood, talk to residents, find out what their lives were like. In a community centre, a bright and welcoming haven, I met Naz, a twenty-four year old black man. We sat in the canteen and talked. He was thoughtful, candid and completely trusting. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, an argument broke out at the counter between five, youngish men. You could see that one bloke was moving beyond words to violence. It all happened fast, like a chip pan fire. The cook, a big, authoritative bloke, tried but couldn’t quell the flaming fury, though he did get them to move out to the street. Kids and mums hanging out near the centre quickly cleared off.  Chairs were hurled, horrible threats made by two of the men while the others tried to stop them.  And then, suddenly, the rage was spent and they slunk away in different directions.  An old man, sitting on a wall, said to me, ‘ See them? Not their fault. They don’t understand discipline. Had none as kids, growing up only with them mothers. Fathers all gone.’ I had no way of verifying that but I assume he knew the lads well enough. It is a tight little community.

Back to Naz who was eleven when his dad died: ‘ But he wasn’t around anyway. I didn’t feel anything at the time. And then when I had kids, I started to feel the loss. Maybe my life would have been different had there been a father figure. Kids I knew in our family who had dads were different. So having a dad does change you. My mum’s made me an independent, caring person. I could do better. But its hard ’ When much he went to prison for drug related crimes and has tried to go straight since then. But it is impossibly tough out there. Ladywood has a bad name and there are no jobs; the police, I was told by a priest, were too often heavy handed. Naz, I felt, was struggling against the odds and against himself. His two girls aged four were born to different mothers. ‘ So’, I asked him, ‘You’re repeating the pattern?’ His answer:  ‘I’ve done wrong, I admit it. One of my daughters is strong, the other is not. Her mum blames me. I know I have to be there for them and I will be.’

Most people in this locality are either unemployed or on desperately low wages. The local MP, Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, is, I was told by her staff, deeply concerned about the endemic poverty and lack of life chances.  And yet the roads and shop parade are clean, well kept, the parks too. I saw no graffiti or other signs of wilful destruction of the  habitat. Two people racially abused me, but most were kind and open. The only thing that spooked me was the silence and lack of people around the estates. Where were they? In the evenings, I was told, the streets turned mean, but this was daytime. Maybe it was the terrible weather.

Outside a boarded up shop, a fourteen year old, white girl talked to Rebecca Myers, a University student who was helping me with this article. The teenager wanted to remain anonymous: ‘Some of my friends prefer being brought up by just their mums. Some do miss the dads- them not being there to, like, look up to them, to have that father figure. One of my friends gets upset about it sometimes, cos she just misses him- she’s never really seen him before and she just feels like something’s missing. These kids never had a chance to know the dads’.

 

I stopped three eleven year old girls on their way home from school. Two were black and one white. Did they live with their dads? Yes, they said, in chorus, bright smiles across their young faces, as they walked on. Then a few moments later they turned and came back:’ Actually we don’t’ said one, a little sheepishly. ‘That’s just what we say’.  There were moments during this visit when I just wanted to cry for, with the children and adults I met. This was one of them.

Miranda- not her real name-, thirteen and mixed race, dressed in a very short skirt, was rowing with her mother near the park. Rude words flew between them like flying knives. They didn’t want to talk to me, but I still gave them my telephone number. When I was on the train back, Miranda phoned:  ‘Yeah, I miss him. She [her mother] hates it but I miss him. Why shouldn’t I? He used to come sometimes and buy me stuff but she stopped him. So when this guy started waiting for me outside school, gave me stuff, I went with him and his friends. They treat me nice, like’ ‘ Who were the guys? ‘ I asked her. She put the phone down. There was no number on my phone so I couldn’t ask her again.

A man, 28, and of Caribbean descent, who wouldn’t give me his name, accepted that: ‘A lot of people here grow up without dads and it does affect them. But then I just think, it’s an excuse, you know? There’s no excuse for behaving badly. Girls, I think, tend to become more “out there” too young. The way I see it, they are seeking male attention.’ Another man of similar background was worried that ‘boys react more violently, angrily, without self control. Man, I am scared of them.’ He lives with his partner and children and has a job with the local authority.

A gang of four lads- white and mixed race- were, at first, a bit aggressive, but relaxed when one of them recognised my face from telly. In their late teens they were the ‘men of the house’, devoted to their mums who were raising them. They wanted to be seen as tough dudes, fronts they must have grown as little boys.  Father’s Day, was ‘shit’, meant nothing to them. None was in education or training and don’t want to be.

The lone mums were eager to talk about their anxieties. Nicole, 23, has a daughter Egipt, aged two: ‘It’s sad. All children need a male figure as well as a female figure. If I had a son, it would be worse for him because he couldn’t ask his dad questions and things. My dad wasn’t in my life and I’ve always looked for that in a relationship- a father figure. My daughter’s getting to that age where she asks: “Where is he?” And I don’t know how to answer those questions.’ Does it help to be in an area where lone parents are a majority? ‘No because the children miss it regardless- they still feel alone. That’s why a lot of kids rebel. They are looking for a way to take out their anger.’ She is caught in a trap. She wants, she says, to work and show her daughter a better way, but childcare is too expensive.

Tracey, white, who was a single mum from the age of sixteen, concurs that too many ‘bad kids, doing weed and bad things because they haave no father to teach them better. Boys think I can do the sex thing, get a girl pregnant, do what he did’.

Yusef, a Somali dad with an autistic son, introduced me to his neighbour Rachel, a lone, white mother of a pale, young boy with golden hair and an older, black/mixed race daughter. Rachel looked exhausted and seemed nervous and wary.  Her son’s dad did not keep contact but the girl’s father did see her regularly and they had a good relationship. Another young woman, Scottish, with two sons, said she was in a refuge trying to escape her abusive husband. That was an important reminder that sometimes not having a father is a safer option than living with one who is volatile and violent. One of her boys kept wandering off, and when a man with a van smiled and called him over, he sped off to him. It was creepy and terrifying.

Elaine, 42, an incredibly perceptive woman,  would make a brilliant social worker.  But she was, for now, stuck: ‘ There weren’t many single mothers in my mum’s day – whereas it’s the norm now.  Everything changes when you have a baby. It’s easy for the man to just get up and walk away and start again. I kind of forced it with my daughter’s dad and then thought, what am I forcing this for? My dad, who was with my mum for life, gladly did it. I feel in a rut cos like other mums I can’t do a full time job because childcare is expensive. ‘ Does her daughter miss her dad? ‘ I don’t tell my daughter anything bad about her dad. Some women do that and it is as damaging. I tell her, your dad chooses not to be here but he loves you. If you are disrespectful to that image she holds in her heart, she might seek that imaginary person, love in bad places to replace what she thinks she should have had..’ Certainly Miranda, above, is in that groove and many of the young girls ensnared by grooming gangs were too.

The local convenience store is run by Asbhogal Singh, wise, unflappable, and a substitute father for many: ‘These children have no good male role models, aren’t parented properly. So every day, I personally try to help them, talk to them, teach them manners, make things happen. I brought my children into the world, so must be responsible for them. Their parents don’t think like that- because no one taught them. Girls now are behaving worse than boys. Even our Asian girls- I have seen three, with babies, living alone. It’s just not right’

Ladywood is a microcosm, an ecosystem you now find across the UK, US and many other countries where families of all classes first broke into small nuclear units and then that unit disintegrated creating chaos. Right and left wing ideologues fight each other;  fathers demand their  ‘rights’ and lone mums, bemoan their own lives- rightly so- and some them become hopeless parents. Children, the real victims, have no voice.

There are, of course, such girls and boys can come through and do well. During the two world wars, millions of men died and it was the norm for kids to be brought up by their mums. Only a minority seem to have gone under- maybe because there wasn’t wilful abandonment and extended clans and communities held such children aloft. My father failed us in most ways but other  men- neighbours, uncles, mosque leaders and family friends  gave me fatherly love, care and warnings. Most fatherless kids here and now don’t have these networks. Additionally, primary schools have few male teachers and so the good male figure is completely absent.

We can’t let this betrayal of children go on and on. American researchers have found that the self esteem of girls is seriously undermined without dad by her side. Some mature early biologically, physically grow up too fast while still lost in childhood terrors. Boys meanwhile display more delinquent behaviours and cannot manage their anger. Some studies found links with sexual violators. The US department of Health and Human Services conclude that ‘fathers bring positive benefits to children that no other person is likely to bring’ Children in intact families do better at school, are more independent and secure. Obvious really.

The organisation Addaction which helps alcohol and drug addicts is trying to address this issue with commitment and integrity. CEO Simon Antrobus told me:’ We are not saying that growing up without a dad means you will run into problems. But we did find that many of the people we were helping, especially in our young people’s services, had fathers who were absent from their lives. It is important to investigate how much of an effect an absent dad had on someone’s well being’.  One of their reports, Dad and Me was written by criminologist Martin Glynn, himself raised by a single mum. Glynn is a passionate man who really understands the emotional undercurrents in young lives and what he calls ‘father hunger’.  He has evidence which shows that children abandoned by dads are full of self loathing, are drawn to out inadvisable role models- gang leaders, older lovers and worse.  There is no proven causal link but absent fathers are a common factor in prisoners, groomed girls, addicts, rioters, self harmers and suicides among the young.

Obama, whose own dad was useless, is spearheading a responsible fatherhood crusade in the US, a new civil rights movement. Though we have many projects and policies here, there is no big sense of mission to save these kids. Back in Ladywood, a pretty, young, white girl asked me for money, first sounding ferocious and then pitiful: ‘ I’m hungry. Me mum’s at work. Don’t have a dad.  I can’t get in.’ I gave her cash and she ran to the chicken and chip shop. What next for her? Will she end up a lone mum? I expect so for she knows no better and society just doesn’t care enough to break the cycle.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Mail in July 2013

 

Stuart Hall: The Sentence

 

I wanted to go to Preston Crown Court to witness Stuart Hall finally paying for his crimes against children. Something came up and I couldn’t. Just as well. I might have shouted at the judge or created a scene not allowed in our sombre houses of justice. Some justice. After pleading guilty to indecent assaults on thirteen girls, Hall got a mere fifteen months, two weeks per victim. The Judge decided that his sentences would run concurrently. It would have been ten years without his kindly adjustment which has wiped out the individuality of the girls, their particular experiences and pain. They’ve been turned into a shoal of fish, netted in by the ‘opportunistic’ paedophile. Thieves  stealing flash mobile phones have been put away for longer.

I have considered Judge Anthony Russell’s remarks carefully. Maybe he thought he was being objective and sensible, when in reality he was being unjust and unforgivably lenient, appearing to fall over himself not to cause the famous/infamous TV presenter too much discomfort. Hall did those terrible things but is old, so a ‘custodial sentence would be particularly difficult’ for him. Really? Our prisons are full of old men who never got any such tender, judicial consideration. The crimes were ‘historical’- a ghastly, distancing  word,  as if they happened in Tudor times. The victims are alive today and some still disabled by those memories and the failures of their family, communities and institutions to protect them. He gets a shorter prison term in effect, because he was able to hide his perversions for so long. Tell me how that makes sense or can, in any way, be right or fair.

Hall has only confessed to these thirteen crimes and got a 25% discount for that. He initially denied the charges and attacked the women, complained about vendettas against people in the public eye, celebs like himself.  Some of those he violated have not come forward and a rape charge has been denied and kept on file. I believe there are other serious accusations which now will never come to court. The victims will feel they are worthless and powerless again, exactly what Hall made them feel when he was abusing them.

Make no mistake, this criminal was confident he could do what he wanted and not pay a price. And how right he was. He knew how to get a shorter sentence, what crimes to admit. He has even made sure his house ( and probably other assets) were signed over to his wife so any civil case for damages will be limited by those astute decisions. And then he had all those dependable friends, middle class worthies, who gave him excellent character references in mitigation. One was Patricia Macmillan, a volunteer and chair of the East Cheshire branch of the NSPCC who praised his charitable donations, yes, really. She has now stepped down and is disowned by the charity. Like Savile, Hall clearly wiped his filthy acts  with banknotes.

Today, just as the many, many sufferers of other abusers were feeling strong enough to speak out, this judgement tells them not to take that step because it will only end in more tears and renewed grief.

 

Why do I feel especially churned up about this case? Not only because the sentence is so perverse, but because I found myself instigating this investigation, and over the months cooperated with the exceptionally committed Lancashire Police detectives who worked on the cases.

It started with a letter I received from one of Hall’s victims. Newspaper journalists and columnists get a lot of correspondence from readers wanting to share their problems or get help. Gratifyingly,  they trust and confide in us, even in these post-Leveson times. But this letter, three pages long,  was different from any other I had ever received. It was typed, anonymous and arrived in an envelope. As I read it I welled up- maybe because I have a young daughter- and, at first, thought it was just one more tragic tale I would have to read and file away. But the words and scenes graphically described haunted me. They will haunt you readers too. None of this was tested in court and so remains unproven.

The woman said she had decided to write to me because she was enraged to learn Hall was awarded an OBE and because she felt, after the Jimmy Savile revelations, the time was right: ‘Finally it seems our culture is thinking differently about sexual predators. Everything Stuart Hall did to me was dishonourable…once again I saw that oily perma-tanned creature on the television and had to leave the room. ( How do I tell my husband why I want to scream, vomit, throw a brick through the television screen?)’  Then she gave details which were blood curdling and made me lose that sense of security which keeps us sane. When in school in Manchester, he handed her a school prize and invited her to visit the BBC studios, telling the head teacher and her parents that she had the potential to be a good TV journalist. Everybody was flattered, most of all the shy, pretty and studious little girl. And so it began, years of being subjected to sexual acts, some, she alleged, violent, which left blood on the sheets. She went back again and again, because he had groomed her so efficiently. There are many other horrifying descriptions and accusations in this letter I dare not reveal because I must protect this woman.

I believed her story and was so disturbed by it that I took the letter to my local police station even though I was worried about wasting police time. There was, after all, no name or address or any clue about the sender.  After a two hour wait with patient punters and impatient drunks – one of whom vomited on my shoe- I handed it in, not at all sure any actions would follow.

Four days later I had a call from DC Phill Rukin of Lancashire police, who had called to inform me they had received the letter and were starting to investigate Hall, until then not on their radar. They kept me in the loop and even located the letter writer with whom I finally had a conversation two weeks ago. She sounded relieved but still a little frightened. I cannot imagine how utterly betrayed she must feel now.  She has learnt that human beings deny truths they cannot bear to face up to and thus allow evil to carry on. And that some of those at the top of society, who have the responsibility to punish evildoers are also unable or unwilling to discharge that duty.

Judge Russell is, I fear one of those. But he is not alone. Just two weeks ago in Plymouth Crown Court, artist Graham Ovenden was convicted of the sexual abuse of three girls aged between 6 and 14.  And the goodly Judge Graham Cottle decided in his wisdom to hand out a 12 month suspended sentence, because Ovenden’s ‘steep fall from grace and tarnished reputation’ were punishment enough. He blindfolded and assaulted the young  girls and remains arrogant and unrepentant. David Hockney and Sir Peter Blake defended the paedophile. I looked at the some of the pictures- the girls are blushing, scared, as they stand before us, thin and nude, totally vulnerable. They sell for over £30,000 and Ovenden is still thought to be one of the greatest artists in the world.  The girls are not human, just objects for an image maker.

The same distorted arguments are made for child porn online. It’s freedom, say libertarians, while the courts release users with a nod. Nobody asks how those porn acts were filmed, where, by whom,  who the poor children are and what these filmmakers are doing to their bodies and heads.

That vomit on my shoe is proving impossible to clean off, a permanent reminder of how sick decent Britons must be feeling about Hall’s sentence.  The Attorney General has been asked to review both the Ovenden and Hall sentences. Don’t hold your breaths or expect proper retribution. The tariff may be increased slightly to calm down public opinion. Victims will have to swallow their rage, put up and shut up. That’s the system, the way it is. Has always been.

Daily Mail 11/7/2013

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a weekly columnist on the Independent