Monday, March 12, 2007


Stop Backing Away From Necessary Confrontations

Another excellent piece by Nick Cohen in this week's Observer. Something he said at the end, that 'backing away from necessary confrontations will have a disastrous effect', really struck a chord with me and will, I hope, with others.

It has to do with the increasing prevalance of muggings among schoolchildren — a hot topic at the moment if pieces like this in the Times are anything to go by.

My son Max was waiting at a bus stop outside his school the other day with a friend when another kid, in school uniform (!), approached him and asked him for all his money. Max told him that he didn't have any money — thanks to Ken Livingstone, kids don't need money to travel on buses in the capital — but the junior mugger wasn't to be put off, and attempted to search him, saying: "If you're lying, I'll beat you up". Max stood his ground and refused to let himself be search, implying that he would be prepared to punch his assailant if he had to. At this point the kid ran off, and Max's self-esteem, often brought low by bullying (he's one of the 40 per cent of children on the Autistic Spectrum who suffer regularly from bullying) soared.

Naturally, we reported the incident to the school, but not without some careful consideration. Since he started at secondary school we've been flabbergasted at just how much of this sort of criminal behaviour goes unreported because of the fear of repercussion, but Max was adamant that it should be reported. "If I don't report it, I could be standing at that bus stop in five year's time, and the same kid could come along and I'll have to give him my money, because he'll have a knife."

The school launched an intensive investigation to find the perpetrator, but despite hours of work, they were unsuccessful. Until…

Max was walking through the school playground the other day, saw a kid gesturing towards him and saying to his mate that that was the kid he "tried to mug the other day, but he got rude." The game was up. Max faced the kid up and reported him. We're not sure what'll happen now, but it's a good school, so with any luck the whole thing will be dealt with effectively, the would-be mugger's parents will be informed, he'll get a good lesson in the difference between right and wrong, and his fledgling criminal career will be over before it gets properly started.

With any luck. As a friend of mine who teaches in a rough state secondary told me: "It's probably the best thing that can happen for these kids. If their behaviour is brought to the attention of the school there's a chance they'll get the attention they need to nip it in the bud."

So, a good outcome, a necessary confrontation, on lots of levels.

What terrifies me about all this, and I'm sure it's terrifying lots of parents, even if not all of us gets the chance to shake our fists on national television like Richard Madeley, is the casual nature of all this. The way that Max's assailant was talking to his friend implies that it is as normal for the budding criminals to perpetrate these crimes and talk about them as it is for the victims to talk about them as a necessary rite of passage for kids growing up in most towns and cities across the UK.

Just as Jane Gordon in the Times points out, kids now refer to these incidents as 'stop and search', or talk about being 'taxed', all of which downgrades it to something which seems vaguely acceptable. There was a terrifying incident recounted in the Living With Teenagers column in the Saturday Guardian's Family section a week or so ago, where a teenager told his mum about being violently mugged, then begged her not to 'over-react'.

My husband works occasionally in a further education college, teaching some of the more disadvantaged kids, and he took the opportunity to ask why it is that kids pick on each other like this. According to his class, kids like Max — long-haired, grungy, into rock music — fall into the category known as 'neeks', who are the new geeks as far as I can gather. Neeks are easy targets, apparently, because they'll give up what they've got without a fight (presumably they've all got parents who tell them, quite rightly, that things are less important than people, and that sometimes it's better to hand stuff over rather than risk being hurt). That explains why particular kids are more likely to be targeted than others, but it doesn't even begin to explain what it is that motivates children to mug their peers. Where are they getting the idea that it's alright to do it?

Of course, when you ask that sort of question everyone cites cultural influences — violent themes in the sort of music and films popular with kids — but I'm not buying that. There are plenty of kids who are fed a diet of inappropriate entertainment who still know the difference between right and wrong. Broken families are blamed too, but again, there are plenty of kids from broken homes who set shining examples of how to behave to others. There are myriad reasons why kids do what they do, and a set of circumstances which might tip one kid over the edge into criminal behaviour might have quite the opposite effect on another. I'm sure plenty of kids just do it without thinking about the effect it will have on their victims and their families or what the consequences might be if their victims are brave enough to report them.

The only thing that is certain is that if children get away with this at such a young age (Max's assailant is in year 8, making him 12 or 13 years-old), it sends a message to other kids that they can get away with it. Standing up to bullies is never easy, but if kids insist on not reporting incidents, on telling their parents not to over-react and on using language which downgrades it to the level of minor playground scuffles, they have accepted it, and it ain't going away any time soon.

Of course, the government could help by ensuring that every child gets to go to a good school within walking distance of their home, but that ain't going to happen any time soon either. While they concentrate their energies on making sure that the children of christians can be educated with those of other christians, those of muslims with others from an islamic background and so on, ad nauseum, the situation can only get worse. And anyway, my kid goes to a good school which is literally a two-minute walk from home, and he still cops it.

Our children have a right to go about their business without worrying about whether they're going to be violently attacked between home and the bus stop, just as we do. Their language may make them seem blasé about it, but deep down? Trust me, they're terrified, and if we encourage them to back away from necessary confrontations, and back away from them ourselves, we are letting them down — badly.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Women of Courage

This wonderful woman spoke last night at an International Women's Day event called Women's Rights, The Veil and Islamic and religious laws. Although she spoke in Farsi (the chair kindly translated for those of us unfamiliar with the language) her warmth, charisma and courage provoked an overwhelmingly emotional response from me and the pals I went to the do with. The other speakers — Maryam Namazie, Sonja Eggerickx, Ann Harrison of Amnesty International, and Taslima Nasreen, were equally inspiring, especially in view of the fact that most of these women have to live their lives under constant threat from the religions and regimes they criticise.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Never thought I'd say this…

Excellent piece from the Times that I missed when it appeared at the end of Feb. Since he made the transformation from MP to meeja personality in 2005 Michael Portillo has appeared vaguely normal and quite compassionate. I find myself warming to the guy. Now there's something I wouldn't have believed I'd ever say back in the bad old days.

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