Putting the World to Rights

By way of a twisted anniversary celebration, Twitter and other usual outlets are fanning the flames of the murder of Jamie Bulger by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. At the time of the murder, twenty years ago this week, the two killers were barely eleven years old. The ongoing debates from the case are little different to those which bother letter writers and phone-in shows today; the death penalty, parenting, responsibility of children in the eyes of the law, influence of violent programming, and whether convicted criminals should be allowed to have a life beyond prison.

To mark the anniversary of this gruesome crime, there has been another spate of alleged photographs shared of Jon Venables. The photograph joins many others which have not, and may never be, verified. They are shared around with one of many different intentions  – a warning to him as much as others, a gleeful ‘target’ to locate like a clue in some weird manhunt gameshow. With a new name and new identity, Venables continues to be tracked down in the name of justice and revenge, as the chosen symbol by a generation scarred by his actions. For as long as he remains free, he remains chased.

Whoever the photograph actually shows, as it may not be the now 30 years-old Jon Venables, the face has been reduced to a meme, sentenced to life as a Facebook status, website warning, messageboard icon. The photograph is also, if it is him, illegal to share, making those who do liable for contempt of court charges. 
I’ve seen both the ‘new’ photograph and a montage of others which might, or might not, show the face of Jon Venables. He looks ordinary, normal, a bloke who could work in a garage during the week and behind the bar on weekends. He could resemble any number of blokes his age, and indeed does. For people who may only be thirteen years old today, the age I was at the time of the murder, he would pass them in the street without causing a flicker of recognition. 
As it might be obvious to regular readers, I believe revenge is not justice. I’m always wary of chasing after criminals long after their time is spent.  I dare say even most ardent Christians would struggle to rest their hands upon them in prayer, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable reliving the details of the case, but for people now to demand life-long sentences strikes me as uncomfortable and illogical. There is no understanding the reasons for killing Jamie Bulger. though incomprehension at the lack of humanity is no good cause to hound someone around the world in the name of ‘justice’. 
You don’t bring back the death penalty on the back of a trending topic.

When Jamie Bulger was found murdered on the railway tracks south of Bootle, the atmosphere at my High School was icy, uncomfortable, heavy. A teacher mishearing some boys sharing a joke, one of them me, began berating us for disrespect and offensiveness. Her eyes were red from fresh crying. She may have still been crying as she admonished us for cracking up in laughter on the day so many felt their hearts break.

I’m not someone who denies the power of Twitter to get into the shadowy corners of life, tracking down injustice or just poking a sharp stick into places which long felt protected from ‘the little people’. I celebrate the Internet and its power in swimming against the tide. It’s a right for people to feel empowered and strengthened.

However this doesn’t mean that anarchic mob-rule can be allowed to flourish in the name of ‘justice’. Hunting down Jon Venables is not acceptable behaviour. He’s been caught and jailed since his release, and has since left jail to live another life with a fake name and back-story. Justice caught up with him twice, and may do again. It doesn’t need crowds of Twitter users who believe themselves above all and every law to track him down for no purpose. What ultimate consequence do people want? To find him and kill him? Lock him away in an attic somewhere? To drag him to a police station under the accusation of being a lifelong criminal walking the streets?

Is it “justice” being sought, or “revenge”? What kind of catharsis do people seek when they identify a killer’s alleged identity in defiance of the law?

Whilst in London earlier this year, I overheard a couple (jaw-droppingly good looking bloke, infeasibly attractive woman) talking in academic tones over coffee and an iPad. The conversation dealt with her view that people had “visceral fears”, and how her study into the subject had shone light on the prejudices which come from nurture as much as nature. I remembered this conversation for some time – not least because it’s rare to hear someone use the word “visceral” in real life. There will never be peace for the parents of Jamie Bulger, or any of the parents whose children were killed in the years before or since. There will never be peace for the killers, either, whose lives will always be tethered to their crime, whose names and faces will be plastered on-line as virtual “Wanted” posters.

If it is human nature to be prejudiced against injustice, if it is human nature to hold a visceral fear, we’ll never be free from the mob rule chasing justice. I’m uncomfortable with the conclusions of all this.

telly addicts

So, farewell then, analogue television.

From tomorrow in two English regions, and Wales, the second installment of the national switch-off begins. For people of all ages an era ends: for my generation it is perhaps the final installment of a gradual up-grade process from the four channels in the 80s, through basic Cable television, to the ability to pause live programming in a fashion not even predicted by the usually excitable studio of Tomorrow’s World.

Looking back through my memory banks shows just how important in my life the box in the corner of the room has been. As a child, I was particularly over-excited by regional-opt outs, icons and logos, anything it would seem except the programmes themselves. The faintest echo of the Children In Need “Let’s go round the regions” anthem still filters around my head, a triumph of my anorak nature and the ability of the Beeb to write a catchy tune which could withstand the slight delays inherent in switching from the studios in Edinburgh to a car-park outside Eccles. If you want to help – DRUM – help Children In Need. It’s all flooding back….

In the early years of cable television in this area, I would tiptoe to the front room to channel flick until the sun came up. In later years it was, I concede, more to do with the promise of untold thrills during The Adult Channel’s preview adverts, although at first even the chance of watching a channel close down that wasn’t the BBC interested me something rotten. In those days – how odd does that sound, and yet how true! – BBC One still closed down, playing the national anthem over a spinning globe before fading to black.

As a defender of the licence fee I hope talk of “top slicing” the funding to other channels does not occur if the consequence is a weaker, lesser BBC. That most of my viewing and listening comes from the BBC is not just an unwillingness to channel-surf; I happen to prefer most of the Corporation’s output to that on ITV and, sadly I have to say, a lot of what is now broadcast on Channel 4. There was a time when it felt daring and exciting to watch 4, often with the sound turned down and a pillow under my bedroom door to ensure nobody spotted I was watching The Word, or the “red light zone” themed programming seemingly broadcast for the benefit of my youthful development (if I can phrase it that way).

Channel 4 maintains some high standards, although even its own time flagship programmes Cutting Edge, and Dispatches, have become sensationalist and boring.

Tomorrow will mark the next-step in the advancing of Britain’s digital broadcasting age. I must look back with some nostalgia at the advances of yesteryear which somehow seem terribly quaint by today’s standards: flick a switch on a channel now to access the all-day broadcasting schedules of a hundred channels, on the former Cable North West service there was one screen with a scrolling schedule information display and a 30-minute cut-off.

Maybe the box in the corner will be pushed back even further into the shadows if television-on-demand, iPlayer, downloads and so on continue to become more popular with the viewing public. Maybe television itself will cease to be thought of in terms of separate channels and networks as commitment to single brands continues to dissolve. All I know is, the manner of watching the screen has certainly changed beyond all recognition but the little child inside is still humming the theme tune to Live & Kicking and wondering if he’ll ever see the HTVWales logo again…..

backstory – family wedding

“Church”. To my family, to all Wiganers truth be told, it should rhyme with “first” and “worse”. And so it did, at the wedding for people I cannot recall by name, in a year lost in memory. The church was blue, Methodist, in Bryn. The wedding between a man I had never met before in my life and a woman who was the daughter of the daughter of the sister of somebody else.

This being Wigan, you could walk from house to house meeting relatives with no more struggle than if you were setting out for a ‘paper and some milk.

(Incidental memory: my grandmother, finger running down the small print of a phone directory tapping, running through the names of people who had died, to her knowledge.)

What did I wear? Cannot remember. A school-shirt, possibly, one of dad’s work-ties. Hair cut no doubt. My sister? A blank too. I recall only very specific things, like watching a video late at night with the sound down.

What I wore then cannot be recalled. I stood next to my grandfather with his booming singing voice in fine form. My voice was muted, slightly scared. The whole atmosphere was stifling, maybe it was the weather. It wasn’t just the weather, it was the service, which was quite fervent and traditional. The service was led with some emotion by a man, who was old, I remember that. Or do I remember it? The view I have through my memory is of the wall behind him, which was blue, and on which was painted a caption, the only word of which I can recall with any certainly is “JESUS”. Maybe it was “SAVES” although that doesn’t sound very Methodist at all.

He was saying – the man, not Jesus – that essentially the happiness of the wedding was all well and good but didn’t we realise that in the eyes of God we had pretty much failed Him and there was not a single pot of jam more we could sell or apology we could pray that would save us. We’d just have to work bloody damn hard every single minute of our lives until we died. He didn’t say “bloody”. He sure as Hell said “damn”.

(Incidental memory: my grandmother wearing the same dress as another guest. It was my sister who spotted this, I remember.)

This was my only family wedding. Which is unusual, given the closeness of the upbringing. I have had two funerals, only one of which was family, although close (to me) family members have died. The closeness of the family unit is as odds with geographic elements. And other elements too, which are easily resolved, if either side of us took the time to resolve them. I wish I could recall more than just trivial highlights, though. We must have had drinks after – did I have a drink? Such things were frowned upon, small “c” conservatives. The Methodist element of the equations were, for want of a better word, diluted.

We must have had drinks, then.

(Incidental memory: a distant relative, near the Bryn railway station. A garden, square, with birds. Something fleeting runs through my long-term memory, as though I am staring at a photo album on top of a camp-fire, photographs flicking and turning and racing up through the heated air.)

backstory – jumper

Preston College Students Union office, before “the troubles”. A friend of mine has suggested I am in someway showing off by turning up, head to toe, in clothes bought that weekend with my wages from my first ever job. Maybe I was. No, scratch that: I was not. Assuming it was a joke, (it was a joke), showing off was the last thing on my mind, given I was wearing a fisherman’s hat, skin-tight army-print t-shirt and a corded jacket. Jeans, certainly, but they were old. Or so I assume.

But purchasing clothes, then and now, is not something I do with great haste or enjoyment. It is something of a chore, like buying shoe-polish or replacement lightbulbs. I remember the incident with a grey jumper really clearly, not least because my mindset (behaviour?) remains fairly similar now.

The store was Officer’s Club, which exists today but not where it once was. The original store was tucked away in another part of the Fishergate Centre, above what once was the cafe (what was this called? The Station? No…The Platform? No…It was called, WhistleStop, I remember now. There was a miniature train which ran along a track fixed to the ceiling. It did not whistle. Or stop.)

So, then, Officer’s Club. It was from there I bought a blue jumper, sky blue, with a design like a jagged rainbow on the front. “Oh Jesus,” said my dad. “Oh God,” said my sister. My dad was not one for bothering with the purchasing of clothes, with the kind of attitude suggesting that any bloke who spends more than a few minutes down the market buying a jumper is showing the kind of behaviour which would have him expelled from the army. At the back of my mind then and now such a forceful piece of Wiganer logic remains. Absent-mindedly checking out the fabrics and prices of every rack in the store is a worrying trait in anybody not a grandmother or teenage girl.

So, the jumper. I had walked in, spotted the familiar sense of feeling ‘watched’ and ‘scrutinised’, and how awkward I felt being in a clothes store, even if it was Officer’s Club with its constant discount offers and endless sales. I would have liked a grey jumper, found one, bought it, left. On discovering it was sleeveless, a kind of tank-top affair, my mother did not take “It’s fiiiiiine” for any kind of excuse, taking me back to the shop to exchange it for something more suitable. She actually said to the guy behind the counter, “He thought it was a jumper”. Maybe I looked away at this point, studied my shoes. Else I was already looking away.

Lessons have been learned, but not heeded or remembered all the time. Only two years ago I returned from a retro clothes store in Manchester with a yellow-and-blue Adidas top (and very nice it was too), in the size “oh eck this is a bit tight”. Refusal to try clothes on in store (for fear, and it is fear, of resembling someone who wants attention from staff) will forever be my downfall.

Dad was right, though.

Sleeping with John Peel

Bad memory and the passing of years has reduced the number of bands I can claim were introduced to me by listening to John Peel to just one – The Sundays. Over many years, though, I would go through the ritual of taking the kitchen radio from its home on top of the microwave, settling down to sleep with my ear close to the nutmeg-grater style speaker, for a night of tuning into various radio stations at low volume.

“Tuning in the radio” – there’s an anachronism if there ever was one. Moving an aerial across all manner of angles to avoid the bleeding of French or German voices into a favourite song, or finding obscure regional radio stations by accidentally tuning out of something you wanted to keep hearing. I recall an exchange between radio presenter and caller on Manx FM (“I have never liked the English, I’ve got a gun!”, that sort of thing).

But where has all that gone? I own a multi-band radio (including the scanning frequencies for police radio and CB enthusiasts, both gone the way of electronic glitches and whistles. By rights I should by now earn a living as a glitch-core DJ armed with hours of unique samples). By turning the dial only by the most tiny of fractions, multi-language commentary, unusual soundtracks, and regional accents, seep through the crackle and white-noise. The modern digital radio stations have none of this romance of discovery or research; channels are pre-programmed, labelled, categorised. There’s no accidental stumbling over a song or joke or sporting event.

I love iPlayer to bits but even late-night radio is stored so it can be listened again in the morning. Or during lunch. Or never again. I remember during the yesteryear midnight hours Radio Five in its pre-sport days used to have very funny comedy shows. Where is the romance of accidentally tuning into the BBC World Service when it can be found on Sky or Freeview?

Adults of a certain age will recall, too, the yearly or twice-yearly ritual of buying a new television only to spend most of that day shouting “Mum! What’s on three now? Channel 3, channel 3, ITV, is it adverts now?” while using an increasingly bruised thumb to tune-in the channels by hand. The sheer joy of stumbling over HTV Wales or S4C has been replaced by….Well, nothing. There’s not even the accidental channel-hopping of Italian adult movies as used to occur – not frequently enough! yells the 14-year old me – when Cable North West was in its infancy.

Maybe this is all very well and good, but there’s Zane Lowe now (well, okay, he was around in my youth too….) And iTunes coupled with Wikipedia as a kind of new-music “tag-team” means the liklihood of Steve Lamacq launching someone massive as once may have been true (Star 27, oh what could have been….) is diminished. Not killed entirely, but as with most parts of my memory of things the Internet Age as clearly altered entertainment and pastimes for good. Television has changed forever, in both technological terms and content. Radio has a new “sound with pictures” existence on-line, webcams and podcasts more common than “tune in again this time next week”.

I won’t forget those late nights, though. Muffled sound, Shipping Forecast, and the late great John Peel, as signposts to a time which will not return again. Some of the concentric circles of fashion have clearly be severed.

polling stations

My grandmother is dead. Has been dead since August. Some form of therapy in the writing of that, I suppose. A word is on the tip of my tongue, what it is….Catharsis? No…but why that word springing to mind? These things occur regularly. Such frankness is ostensibly refreshing insofar as it appears to suggest a “closure”. Nothing quite does close the feelings, though, so technically ‘closure’ is an insult. But yeah, this is a tangent. My grandmother is dead.

She would tell me how proud she was of the right to vote. I recall being taken to the polling station nearest to her house when I was very young and her breaking the law by taking me into the polling station. Preesall Court was not a legal building, it was formerly an old peoples home and was now some form of ‘drop in’ centre. Before her health faded I would always walk to the polling station with her, in which she would always cause a little scene of some form such as turning around with an unfolded completed ballot paper in her hand, waving it like a flag, asking if she had completed it correctly. My mum was not happy when I told her that gran had voted for the SDP, years ago now, when I was walking from school. Such clear memories are unusual; so matter-of-fact and dull but clear, if a little eaten and worn, green around the edges.

Like Offred describing visits to hotel rooms in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale I would journey around Preesall Court in the guise of both voter and party activist to search out every inch of the building. My first vote was there, in 1998, dressed in white t-shirt and army print combats. You could say this was typical fashion of the age or just of me, but again I note how strangely vivid the memory of that dress remains. The t-shirt had a design on the front of a woman in a bikini, I think, with a building behind her [the Taj Mahal, maybe, but something similar in design certainly].

Boredom had set in among the electoral staff who sat behind their tables playing with modelling balloons. For thirty seconds, if that, I participated in the little game we call democracy, and have played the game ever since.

Preesall Court had a wheelchair ramp, as standard, a black banister, black doors with ‘graph paper’ style glass. Inside the first room was a chair, no maybe two chairs, and a table on which leaflets and magazines had been placed. One magazine was a catalogue for meal-on-wheel customers, full of stews and curries and desserts and soups. The wallpaper of the first room had faded, maybe it had once been purple.

When my parents divorced the house move meant a change in polling station. The second for me to visit was a Methodist church directly opposite our house; I could see the place from the front room window. The layout was unusual from what I can recall; the ballot boxes were directly on the left, party activists had to hang around outside looking like greeters from rival churches hoping to persuade wavering members of the congregation to try somewhere else.

My first house move away from parental control was on the other side of town. The polling station there was another church although I cannot fathom what denomination. The layout was difficult for party activists who had to sit on stairs behind the narrow doors which opened out into a square [vestibule? No…foyer?]. Electoral staff lay hidden in a hall-like-room to the right: they technically broke the rules by allowing me to take the torn-off stubs of voters electoral cards.

From here the next station in which to enjoy the game of electoral chance was a school set among terraced housing. I got to the door before polls opened, was met with some chortled surprise, and voted without much thought. Most recently was another church, and another 7am call from me in my typical style. The staff seemed slightly clueless about their role, asking someone for a signature if I remember. The ballot boxes were positioned directly opposite the doors.

For all my years as a party activist I have not seen to much difference in the buildings used as polling stations. I hear and read stories about fish & chip shops being used, and private estates, and pubs, but none of that here. Schools are the most common. Classrooms taken over for a day, so everyone has to navigate through wide corridors and spot the arrowed signs in cluttered noticeboards. Churches are popular and there seems no problem with any branch of Christianity. Temporary huts can be used, with poor saps sitting outside handing out ballot papers in rain and wind. I admire the constancy of it all; churches, schools, the stubby pencils. Something evocative, stable.

My gran always used to complain about politicians but also gave no time for those who did not vote. She admired the power of the cross in a box, the strength of the ballot box. Those little huts, rooms, ballot boxes, they all were symbols of her life. What is the word on my tongue now…paradigm?