The rape boasts of Adam Johnson show victim-blaming is still with us

The video of the disgraced footballer claiming that he wishes he’d raped his 15-year-old victim is shocking – but the myths he repeats are all too common

The Guardian, Friday 21 April 2017

Perhaps he misses an admiring crowd. Perhaps he feels he has nothing to lose. Who knows what persuaded the disgraced former England footballer – and convicted sex offender – Adam Johnson to speak quite so candidly about his crimes. But Johnson’s remarks, caught on video and published by the Sun, offer a staggering insight into the mind of a man who last year lost his job, career and reputation over sex offences with an underage girl.

Professional footballers are notoriously arrogant but Johnson’s claim that he wishes he’d raped his 15-year-old victim is in a class of its own. This, remember, is a man who is serving a six-year sentence after a trial in which he admitted two counts of grooming and sexual activity with a child, and wasconvicted of a third offence of sexual touching. (His second appeal was turned down only last month.)

Yet his response to a fellow prisoner who points out that he didn’t rape his victim is to say: “No, I wish I fucking did for six years [his sentence].” This is the bragging and bravado juries don’t get to hear, and almost the worst thing about the video is the way fellow prisoners egg him on.

At his trial at Bradford crown court, Johnson apologised and claimed to feel “ashamed” of his behaviour, but the video tells a very different story. After just over a year in prison, he has concluded that nothing is his fault. He dismisses his crimes as “fuck all” and complains that he has little chance of reviving his football career in the UK because “do-gooders” will try to stop him playing again. He blames his fame for the fact that he has ended up in prison, claiming he would have got off with a caution if he hadn’t been well-known.

It’s a repellent performance, complete with Johnson making crude comments and gestures about his victim. But what’s really striking, once viewers get over the initial shock of witnessing Johnson’s expletive-laden self-pity, is that he regurgitates every myth in the book about rape and sexual assault. It’s a list of gripes directed at the victim, her family and women generally, accompanied by a whine that he didn’t even – brace yourselves – get his “cock out”.

Like every man who has ever been charged with sexual activity with a girl below the age of consent, Johnson claims he believed his victim was 17 or 18. It’s completely untrue, as he admitted in his very first police interview and later in evidence at his trial. Yet, of course, he goes on to complain about how she was dressed. He says she wore tight jeans and turned up at the Sunderland ground after matches, asking for pictures and a signed shirt.

This is the unexceptional behaviour of a teenage football fan. But Johnson’s wrath extends to the girl’s family, whom he accuses of going to the police solely because he was well-known. The myth of the gold-digger comes up time after time, even in cases like this one where the victim has suffered torrents of abuse for having the courage to come forward and tell someone what’s happened.

It’s rare to hear sex offenders speaking so freely about what they’ve done, ditching any pretence of the remorse they feel they have to show in court. The most startling thing about Johnson’s rant is his belief that men are the real victims in rape cases, at risk of being falsely accused by women who are too drunk to remember a sexual encounter. His understanding of the notion of consent is woefully inadequate, yet it appears to be shared by some of his fellow inmates.

At one level, it’s astonishing that Johnson has learned so little from his trial and conviction, suggesting that British prisons desperately need to provide education programmes for sex offenders. At the same time, it’s hard not to think that his bravado and lack of remorse are symptomatic of a much more widespread problem.

Every year, the figures for rape and sexual assault keep going up. The police and the crown prosecution service are more sensitive to victims than they used to be, but juries are a different matter. The crude language of the Johnson video is rarely heard in court but it isn’t just in prisons that victim-blaming finds a receptive audience.

Singe-minded pursuit of the truth

Sunday Times, 16 April 2017

Child sexual abuse is rarely out of the headlines these days. It is a tempting subject for crime writers, but calls for sensitive handling, and Isabelle Grey never loses sight of the impact on victims in The Special Girls (Quercus £19.99). This is the third novel in her impressive series featuring a detective based in Essex, and it begins with the murder of a young psychiatrist at a summer camp for girls with eating disorders. When DI Grace Fisher discovers that the doctor in charge of the camp was accused of child abuse 20 years earlier, she finds herself at odds with the detectives who cleared him.

The difficulties posed by historical accusations are well-known and Fisher encounters all of them as she tries to gain the confidence of traumatised young women. But she pursues the truth with single-mindedness in this brave and harrowing novel.

Iceland’s award-winning crime writer, Arnaldur Indridason, has always been more interested in the recesses of the psyche than forensic science. The Shadow District, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker £12.99), is the first in a new series, and begins with a murder in the present day. But a link with a crime committed 70 years earlier allows Indridason to explore his signature theme, the inescapability of the past.

Like his gloomy detective Erlendur Sveinsson, who featured in the novels that made Indridason’s name, his latest characters are haunted by things that happened decades ago. Back in the 1940s, when Iceland was occupied by American troops, a local woman was found strangled in Reykjavik. The crime appeared to have been solved but the killing of one of the lead investigators, now aged 90, casts doubt on the inquiry. Scenes set in wartime Reykjavik brilliantly capture the tensions of a small city coping with an influx of foreign troops.

With his fast-moving plots and unsparing accounts of violence, Jo Nesbo is about as far removed from Indridason as it is possible to imagine. But the past is about to catch up with his troubled detective, Harry Hole, in The Thirst, translated by Neil Smith (Harvill Secker £20). Hole has left front-line policing, but the savage murder of a woman in her own flat by someone who drank her blood brings him out of retirement. He suspects the culprit is a serial killer he failed to catch, but intense media interest forces the police to enlist an expert on vampire killers. Whether such people really exist is one of Nesbo’s trademark teases, and the novel ends with a stunning cross-country chase.

The tidal mudflats of Essex provide an atmospheric setting for The Restless Dead (Bantam Press £12.99), the latest novel from the bestselling Simon Beckett. His forensic consultant, David Hunter, is called out to help police identify a decomposed body that has been in water for weeks. Detectives think it is the missing son of a wealthy local businessman, but Hunter finds anomalies that don’t fit the theory. This is a tense, gripping read, even if the plot is overcomplicated towards the end.

Why the more successful you are, the more dangerous your relationship could get

Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2017

No woman is immune from domestic abuse. It affects those from all kinds of backgrounds. Indeed, in some cases it appears that success actually increases the risk of violence.

Concerns about the welfare of former Spice Girl Mel B, whose real name is Melanie Brown, have surfaced in recent years. The 41 year-old has appeared in public with visible bruises and abrasions which, at the time, she explained away, claiming to have fallen and hurt herself.

But she has painted a very different picture of her marriage since filing for divorce from the producer Stephen Belafonte, who has consistently denied allegations that he has been violent towards his wife.

Brown has now taken out a restraining order against her husband of a decade. Documents filed with a court in Los Angeles lay out a catalogue of alleged abuse, including claims that Belafonte punched and choked her, as well as forcing her to have sex with him and ‘random women’.

One of her key claims, which will be horribly familiar to organisations that help victims of domestic violence, is that Belafonte’s behaviour got worse as she became more successful.

Brown alleges the abuse followed a pattern in which her husband ‘would beat me down to let me know he was in charge’. She claims he was so jealous when she filmed a segment with the singer Usher for the X Factor in 2012 that he punched her and split her lip. Another claim refers to the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, when Brown was due to make a high-profile appear with the Spice Girls.

The day before, according to Brown, her husband punched her and pushed her to the floor, causing carpet burns on her body. The marks were so visible, she claims, that Belafonte forced her to tweet that she had injured herself by running in heels.

Many victims of domestic violence will hide the violence they are subjected to, suffering crippling feelings of shame and fear of their abuser. Brown’s allegations, if true, offer insights into a form of abuse that often hides in plain sight- not least because it’s commonly thought that a successful, rich, apparently confident woman cannot be a victim.

The link between poverty and domestic abuse is well-known, with research published by the Office for National Statistics showing that women who live in poor households are three times more likely to become victims. But that doesn’t mean that affluent women have nothing to worry about, with a Norwegian study pointing to a specific risk to women who have a higher income or education that their partners.

The research, published three years ago, highlighted the effects of a perceived power imbalance within relationships. Crucially, it identified some men’s inability or refusal to cope with having a successful partner as a key factor.

“Violence or control is used as a compensation for the partner’s weak position in the relationship, and may thus be regarded as an attempt to balance what is perceived as an uneven division of power,” said sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland.

The same theme is emerging in new TV series Big Little Lies, where the character played by Nicole Kidman is abused by her husband when she decides she wants to return to work. To outsiders, the idea of marriage as a contest is unpleasant and disturbing. But in this type of toxic relationship, the man is initially attracted towards a successful woman, using her to big himself up.

As time passes, however, her success turns from a source of self-congratulation – a form of reflected glory – into something that makes him feel small and neglected. Brown’s court documents contain allegations that suggest that her husband was supportive when they first married, at a time when she claims her self-esteem was low, but changed dramatically when her career took off again in the US.

Power can be as significant in some abusive relationships as economics. Women may assume they’re safe because they have a supportive partner, who makes a point of telling friends how well they’re doing. But men who seemingly like a ‘mentor’ role sometimes feel very differently when the woman they see as their protegee begins (in their warped view of the world) to outperform them.

Domestic abuse comes in many forms. What’s important is to spot the signs – and make sure every victim gets the support she needs to escape from a violent partner.

The Final Curtain

Murder in Minnesota with a Shakespearean twist kicks off Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 March 2017

Lady Macbeth has always had a bad press. In The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann (Quercus £12.99) by Mindy Mejia, the actress playing the role in a high school production is found stabbed to death on the opening night. Mejia lives in Minnesota and the victim appears to be a typical teenager from the mid-west, brought up on a farm with loving parents and a brother serving in Afghanistan. But someone hated her enough to mutilate her face in a fit of intemperate rage.

The local sheriff is a friend of Hattie’s father and he has known her from birth. But he discovers that she was a gifted actress in her own life, playing different roles with her best friend, boyfriend and a married lover who immediately becomes a suspect. The links with Lady Macbeth are obvious and Mejia exploits conventional ideas about female manipulation, only to challenge them as the novel unfolds. This is a haunting piece of fiction, full of characters whose self-obsession leads directly to tragedy.

Samuel Bjork’s first novel, I’m Travelling Alone, was a runaway success. His second, The Owl Always Hunts At Night (Doubleday £14.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, features the same close-knit squad of detectives based in Oslo. It begins with the ritual murder of a 17-year-old girl whose body, half-starved and surrounded by feathers, is found in a forest after disappearing from an institution for troubled teenagers. The only thing in her stomach is animal feed, a detail that eventually links the murder to a ring of voyeurs. Two books into this stark but compelling series, Bjork’s trademark themes are the lethal intersection of technology with child abuse and misogyny.

Summary Justice (Little, Brown £16.99) is an all-action court drama by John Fairfax, who will be better known to readers of crime fiction under his real name, William Brodrick. He has adopted the pseudonym for a novel featuring a newly-qualified barrister, William Benson, who also happens to be a convicted murderer. Benson protested his innocence and used his time in prison to read for the bar, but now he’s out and no one will help him with his first case. It’s a murder trial, due to start in four days, and it looks hopeless until a solicitor who saw him convicted at the Old Bailey offers to help. This is the first novel in a series and it takes time to set up Benson’s history, but once the trial gets going it really takes off.

Rob McCarthy’s terrific second novel, A Handful of Ashes (Mulholland Books £14.99) marks a second outing for his amateur detective, Dr Harry Kent, a medical examiner for the police. McCarthy is a medical student, providing invaluable background for Kent’s job, and the book’s highly topical subject is whistleblowing. It starts with a routine call-out to the apparent suicide of a junior doctor who has been suspended after raising concerns about a well-known heart surgeon. Kent quickly realises that the death has been staged, plunging him into an explosive confrontation between grieving relatives and the medical establishment.

 

Screen Surrender

Literary Review, March 2017

Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching

Adam Alter, Bodley Head £18.99

When I was a child, I had a number of relatives who kept the TV on all the time, turning down the sound with obvious reluctance whenever we came to visit. Conversation was conducted with furtive glances towards the flickering screen, as though we couldn’t possibly be as interesting as what was displayed on it. There is nothing new about a preference for the latest technology, as it then was, over interaction with actual human beings.

What has changed is the sheer diversity of technology and the speed with which it is updated, creating the (apparently) irresistible temptations cited in Adam Alter’s book. Home computers, smartphones, virtual reality devices: we are already, in only the second decade of the 21st century, inhabiting a world which would have looked like science-fiction not so long ago.

I rarely watch TV and I’m not on Facebook but I do have a smartphone. When I began reading Alter’s book, I wondered whether I might be spending too much time checking emails and Twitter, but an ‘Internet Addiction Test’ in the first chapter established that I’ve nothing to worry about. Most of his advice for avoiding over-use, such as keeping smartphones at a physical distance some of the time, had already occurred to me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the dystopian world that Alter opens out in the book. It is packed with individuals who spend entire days playing computer games, wasting money on gambling sites and fretting about how many ‘likes’ they have on Facebook. Alter doesn’t mention the 45th President of the United States but Donald Trump is a striking example of someone who is unable to stop posting score-settling tweets in the early hours. Sad!

Alter’s book is about behavioural addictions rather than the more familiar substance addictions. He is an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University but he writes in an engaging journalistic style, using interviews and academic research to demonstrate the amount of time people spend online. Some of the results don’t seem that surprising: users of an app designed to track smartphone usage discovered that they were spending between one and four hours a day on their phones, for instance.

A much bigger piece of work, in which a group of researchers at the University of Southern California reviewed dozens of studies, came up with an estimate that 41 per cent of the population had suffered from at least one behavioural addiction in the past 12 months. Their definition was very broad, including addictions to gambling, love, sex, shopping, exercise and work as well as the Internet. So was their list of negative consequences, which ranged from damage to relationships to ‘involvement in dangerous situations, physical injury and impairment, financial loss, or emotional trauma’.

I was still digesting this claim and trying to square it with my own experience when I came upon another study, this time suggesting that ‘up to 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming, or porn.’ That’s pretty alarming, on the face of it, and it sent me scurrying to the notes at the back of the book. The figure actually appears to derive from a study of the impact of ‘problematic Internet use’ by a group of American students on family relationships, which may not tell us much about the behaviour of the wider population.

There is no doubt that Alter’s speaks to a widely-shared anxiety about the impact of technology on human beings. At the same time, one of the biggest problems created by the Internet is mentioned only in passing in Alter’s book. Women’s organisations and children’s charities are hugely worried about the effects on adolescent boys of viewing violent and degrading porn on their smartphones, skewing their expectations of relationships. This is sometimes described (not by Alter) as an addiction, an approach I find deeply troubling. Watching videos of women being beaten and raped is a choice, and one that deliberately ignores the pain that is inflicted on victims, many of whom have been trafficked or otherwise coerced.

He does write about World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game which he describes as ‘one of the most addictive behavioral experiences on the planet’, but he doesn’t mention its citation at a notorious murder trial. Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, spent virtually an entire year playing it. Most players of computer games don’t become mass killers but it is a vivid example of the complicated (and notoriously difficult to unpick) relationship between online behaviour and real life.

I would have liked this book more, I think, if it looked beyond the impact of behavioural addiction on individuals. Vast generalisations such as the one at the end of the book – ‘half of the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behavior’ – demand social and political context. I’m not convinced by the claim, but let’s say for a moment I’m wrong. Why, then, isn’t Alter isn’t curious about the impact of all this mind-numbing activity on our critical faculties, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the rise of mendacious politicians like Trump?

Hats off to Justin Trudeau, the only world leader able to strip off with dignity

Canada’s prime minister has managed to succeed where Cameron, Blair and Putin have all failed: a bare-chested snap that prompts neither horror nor hilarity

The Guardian, Thursday 2 March 2017

Oh go on then, if you insist. There aren’t many world leaders I could bear to look at without a shirt and I suppose the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is near the top of the list. Pictures of a young Trudeau, leaning against a window sill with curly hair and dark glasses, are claimed to have “broken the internet”, which is what we say now when a lot of people all look at the same thing.

Trudeau looks a bit like Jim Morrison, whom older readers will remember as the tragically good-looking lead singer of the Doors. Despite sharing a first name and initials with another singer, Justin Timberlake, Trudeau has sensibly avoided the competitive world of showbiz and opted for the safer milieu of politics. It is part of his job to meet other world leaders, most of them men, and even with his shirt on he outshines just about every bloke he shares a stage with.

Trudeau prompts these swooning reactions because he’s operating in a limited field. I’ve never liked the line that politics is showbiz for ugly people, but beauty (especially male beauty) isn’t the first thing most of us look for in a potential leader. That doesn’t mean male politicians aren’t sometimes preposterously vain, a proposition demonstrated every single time I look at Donald Trump’s hair, but they aren’t used to being judged on their appearance in the way women are.

When Theresa May launched her bid to lead the Conservative party and then became prime minister last summer, she gave the impression that she’d planned every public appearance down to the last detail. She’s been around long enough to know that it’s childishly easy to distract supposedly serious political commentators with a pair of faux leopard-skin shoes.

Male politicians have to do something more dramatic to break the internet and few have the confidence – or the gall – to attempt it. I suspect it comes naturally to Trudeau, who is strikingly at ease with his own body: he accidentally photo-bombed a beach wedding in Canada last year when he strode past in a rolled-down wetsuit. It is undeniably a form of display and carries risks, even for someone as confident as Trudeau, because being looked at is traditionally associated with femininity.

It didn’t do David Cameron a lot of favours when he appeared bare-chested on a beach in Cornwall in 2013, looking overweight and uncomfortably red from his time in the sun. But upper-middle-class men aren’t brought up to parade their masculinity, which is entwined with ideas of restraint honed by generations of military forebears. The then prime minister looked a great deal more relaxed posing with a pint in his hand, and his shirt back on, later that day.

Cameron and his predecessor, Tony Blair, were both mocked for having “man boobs”, an unpleasant neologism that confirms the link between displaying the male body and feminisation. I don’t suppose either of them enjoyed the scrutiny or the sarcastic comments, which would have been unimaginable half a century ago. We live in a much less deferential age these days, which is no bad thing, but the line between fame and celebrity is blurred. Few world leaders aspire to the status of heart-throb but Trudeau, deliberately or otherwise, appears to have it.

One of the reasons he gets away with taking his shirt off, I suspect, is that it doesn’t feel as though he’s trying to prove something. The same cannot be said of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose stripped-to-the-waist appearances always take place in the context of rugged, masculine, outdoor activities. Putin usually shows off his bare chest while standing in a river, preparing to do battle with a monster fish, or balancing on the back of a stallion. It causes hilarity everywhere but Russia, where the president’s hyper-masculinity feels like a response to the country’s loss of empire and prestige.

In the last few months Washington has become a lot more macho, dominated by a group of golf-playing business cronies in their 60s and 70s who hanker for the days when men were men and it was acceptable to talk about “pussy”. It’s impossible to imagine Trudeau doing that, and I suspect that his version of masculinity – cool, modern, metrosexual – will prove more enduring in the end.

Trump’s fragile male ego craves the drug of adulation

The president’s hyped-up behaviour at his Florida rally was an alarming display of his neediness. Maybe he should have his own theme park

The Guardian, Monday 20 March 2017

Therapy has never been so expensive. At the weekend, it cost American taxpayers millions of dollars to fly Donald Trump down to Florida so he could hold a session with thousands of adoring fans after another trying week in the White House. At a cost of roughly $3m per trip, it would have been cheaper to hire Dr Freud but, sadly, aides who tried to contact him discovered he has been dead since 1939. Instead, the 45th president of the US invited on stage a man who later revealed he has a 6ft cardboard model of his hero and talks to it every day.

Let’s just pause and think about that. This is a leader whose ego is so fragile, he wants to appear on stage with someone most of us would change seats to avoid if he sat next to us on a train. I should point out that Trump chose this particular supporter to appear beside him after he saw him being interviewed on TV before the rally. Ignoring the advice of his security officials: “He said, ‘I love Trump’ … Let him up. I’m not worried about him. I’m only worried he’s going to give me a kiss.”

It is an alarming insight into how Trump (though, not just Trump) operates. Few politicians, no matter how thin-skinned, have displayed such neediness nor demanded such displays of unconditional love from their supporters. Neediness is not usually considered attractive in men who like to be thought of as tough, but Trump is rewriting the rulebook on masculinity.

The trick all along has been to disguise neediness as empathy. When Trump talks about love to the crowds who turn out to see him, they think it’s what he’s offering. In reality, it’s what he demands from them, needing it to fuel the endorphin rush that keeps him going. You can see this process in action as he gets hyped up on stage, prompting a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of personal attacks, weird fabrications and outright lies.

In this emotionally charged atmosphere, it doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a terrorist attack in Sweden on Friday evening, as Trump wrongly implied (“Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden”), because his supporters care about a deeper species of “truth”. Needless to say, this kind of agitated excitement is not a good state for a world leader, especially when he has access to the codes that fire nuclear missiles. But Trump craves it, and he will go on craving it.

Adulation is a dangerous drug for politicians, sometimes affecting those who should in theory be immune to it. Jeremy Corbyn spent years as an obscure Labour backbencher, and the transformation, when he unexpectedly found himself addressing adoring rallies during a couple of leadership contests, has been astonishing to behold.

Corbyn never looks more relaxed than when he arrives to address a theatre full of cheering supporters, coming alive on stage in a way he never does in TV interviews or at press conferences. He shares Trump’s irritation towards even mildly critical questions, instantly reverting to talking about his “mandate” in the same way that the president still boasts about how many votes he got in the electoral college.

This is as much about a type of masculinity – wounded, self-pitying, quick to anger – as it is right or left. Like any patriarch, Trump is protective of the women around him, launching an intemperate attack on a department store that dropped his daughter’s clothing line, but he expects an embarrassing degree of servility in return. His most senior female aide, Kellyanne Conway, recently tweeted in terms that suggested she was auditioning for a part in a rewrite of The Story of O. Corbyn was visibly annoyed when he was challenged over his failure to give top jobs to women in his first shadow cabinet – something he has since rectified, but it was a telling omission.

The trouble with this kind of politics is that it exists, in the long-term, to shore up the fragile ego of one man (and it usually is a man). The symbiosis between leader and supporters is so close that it’s hard to interrupt, existing outside the more or less rational sphere conventional politicians are used to occupying. For the exceptionally loyal base that turns up at rallies, it doesn’t matter if the polls are terrible, because they aren’t part of the inner circle. Here’s the crucial point: when the identification is so close, giving up on the leader would be like giving up on yourself.

I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t build a theme park where Trump is president for life, presiding in a replica Oval Office and flying in a pretend version of Air Force One that never actually leaves the ground. And I’m sure Corbyn would be happier in a fictional Labourland, holding as many Cuba Solidarity meetings as he likes, than leading the party into the next general election. We would have to pay for busloads of extras to provide cheering crowds, but it would be cheaper in the long run.

A horrible combination of circumstances – reality TV, distrust of politicians, a fightback against feminism – has landed us in this unenviable situation. The danger of treating politics as therapy for emotionally needy men is too enormous to allow it to last.

Who’s Watching Her?

Sexual predators stretch detectives to the limit in Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 February 2017

In real life, the police are still catching up with new oppor­tunities for crime provided by the internet. Sexual predators are now able to target their ­victims online, a development that plays a key role in Stav Sherez’s chilling new novel, The Intrusions (Faber £12.99). The plot goes way beyond online harassment, opening up a nightmare world where young women can be observed at home by teenage boys and men via their computers.

Sherez’s likeable detectives, DI Carrigan and Sgt Geneva Miller, have no idea that such com­munities of voyeurs even exist. Carrigan is facing an internal inquiry into a case that featured in an earlier novel, and he’s ­distracted when a young woman reports the abduction of her friend from a bar in West London. Both girls suddenly felt unwell and staggered outside into an alley, where the witness saw her friend being helped into   the backof a van by a man she initially thought was a paramedic. That was three days ago and she’s heard nothing since.
The best crime novels are often at the cutting edge of rapid social change. The Intrusions forces Carrigan and Miller to catch up with sinister developments in internet surveillance, leading them to a sadistic killer. But it also demonstrates how easy it is for girls to disappear in a milieu where violence against women isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Sympathy for victims is one of Sherez’s trademarks, and he is becoming one of the most humane and original voices in crime fiction.
Nuala Ellwood’s memor­able first novel, My Sister’s Bones (Viking £12.99), is about damaged people who fail to see what’s in front of them. The story is set largely on the Kent coast, where a war reporter, Kate, has returned to her childhood home following her mother’s death. Kate is suffering flashbacks to her dreadful experiences in Syria but she gets no respite in England, finding an alcoholic sister who has no contact with her grown-up daughter. Her brother-in-law seems to be at his wits’ end, offering support but revealing a neediness that makes Kate uncomfortable.
Sorting her mother’s effects brings back painful childhood memories of Kate’s father’s violence. As she takes pills to deal with insomnia and PTSD, she glimpses a child in the next-door garden where no children are said to live. No one believes her but Kate persists in asking questions, with jaw-dropping consequences. This is harrowing fiction that skilfully draws parallels between the effects of civil war and domestic violence.
The long-term impact of conflict is central to A Thousand Cuts (Bloomsbury £12.99), the latest in Thomas Mogford’s fine series of crime novels set in Gibraltar. His protagonist, Spike Sanguinetti, is an introspective lawyer whose habit of helping waifs and strays means his practice isn’t exactly thriving. In the new book, he takes on a particularly unappealing client, an alcoholic accused of harassing a local GP, and is reluctantly drawn into investigating the man’s troubled history. It seems to be connected with an incident in 1940, when a bomb was planted in the Rock’s naval dockyard and two British ­servicemen died in the blast.
A young Spaniard, who was known to have connections with supporters of Franco and Hitler, was tried and hanged. Sanguinetti begins to think the man was framed but his inquiries are interrupted by a series of brutal murders, one of them targeting the owner of his favourite ­restaurant. Gibraltar is a small place and Sanguinetti finds ­himself with a number of elderly suspects, including a close friend of his family. This is a traditional and ­thoroughly satisfying crime novel.
E O Chirovici is a journalist, originally from Romania, who lives in Brussels. The Book of Mirrors (Century £12.99) is his first novel written in English and it has been snapped up in almost 40 countries. The book is teasing and artfully constructed, telling the story of an unsolved murder from different perspectives. The victim, a preening psychology professor at Princeton, was blud­geoned to death in his isolated home back in 1987. Now a literary agent has been sent early chapters of a book, written by one
of the people most closely involved and promising to reveal the identity of the killer. But this is only the beginning in a twisty novel full of unexpected developments and untrust­worthy characters.

By ignoring sex education, ministers are risking children’s safety

Lessons at school can protect children from online threats, but politicians would rather bury their heads in the sand

The Guardian, Friday 27 January 2017

It’s a long time since Theresa May and most of her cabinet were at school. When she was doing her O-levels, no one was sexting and teenage boys weren’t goggling at violent porn on smartphones. I think it’s unlikely that the future prime minister had to wear shorts under her school skirt to protect herself from being groped, as some teenage girls have taken to doing. But that doesn’t mean May and her colleagues have any excuse for ignoring what’s going on in schools today, from sexual harassment to homophobic bullying.

They’ve been warned by MPs on the women and equalities committee, in an excoriating report that revealed the “shocking scale” of sexual harassment in schools. They’ve been told by the campaigning organisation Stonewall, which published a survey three years ago in which 86% of secondary teachers said they had encountered bullying of gay pupils. They follow the news, like the rest of us, and they must know about dreadful cases in which girls and boys have been tricked into meeting paedophiles who disguised themselves as teenagers online.

They have also been told by just about everyone that the best way to keep children safe is to insist that every school in the country teaches high-quality sex and relationships education (SRE) and the broader subject of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – no ifs, no buts, and no exemptions for faith schools. Teachers’ or parents’ embarrassment is not a reason to deny children absolutely essential information about how to avoid sexual predators, online or in real life.

After the “grooming” scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities, you might think this was a no-brainer. Yet ministers have done everything but stand on their heads to avoid it. Last week Conservatives in the House of Commons were accused of filibustering a bill sponsored by Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, calling for PSHE to be made compulsory in all state-funded schools, by making lengthy speeches about the bill that preceded it. A change in the law isn’t necessary, ministers have claimed, because Ofsted is checking that the subject is being covered and will pick up any inadequacies during inspections. Just over a year ago a Home Office minister, Lord Bates, said: “We expect sex and relationships education to be taught in all schools. In fact, it is inspected by Ofsted as such.” A similar point was made last year by Lady Evans, then a government whip and now leader of the House of Lords.

Presumably they had in mind Ofsted’s latest inspection framework, introduced in 2015, which made considering the effectiveness of PSHE “more crucial than ever” to the judgments made by inspectors. Now, though, that argument (like all previous ones) has been blown out of the water. It turns out that Ofsted is barely looking at SRE when it inspects schools, according to a detailed analysis by the British Humanist Association.

The headline finding, from a study of more than 2,000 primary and secondary school inspection reports for 2015-16, is that sexual health, safe sex and related subjects were almost entirely absent. Sexual harassment and sexual violence were not mentioned at all, while sexting appeared in just 17 reports, despite having been identified as an area of major concern by the government. Porn was mentioned in a single report, as was HIV/Aids, which appeared in relation to “emerging economies” in a geography lesson. Only one in seven reports referred to LGBT issues.

Back in 2013, Ofsted said that the provision of PSHE was “not yet good enough” in 40% of schools. It is hard to believe there has been a massive improvement in the meantime, yet fewer than 1% of the inspection reports examined by the BHA made any criticism of schools’ coverage of the subject. To be fair to Ofsted, it should never have been given the job of making up for the government’s failure in this area. If SRE isn’t compulsory, some schools will say they don’t want to divert scarce resources from other subjects or that they can’t find room in the timetable. Others will use it as an excuse to avoid topics, such as homosexuality and safe sex, that they find uncomfortable for religious or ideological reasons.

What all this means, in blunt terms, is that the government is coming up with one excuse after another to avoid doing one of its most basic jobs: protecting the next generation. We know girls are being sexually harassed at school, pressured into posing for photos that may be used to threaten or humiliate them, and suffering abuse from boyfriends whose expectations have been warped by online porn. We know that gay kids are being bullied, and children of both sexes are vulnerable to predatory sex offenders.

For several years now, senior police officers in London have been telling me that compulsory sex education is vital to keep children safe. A few months ago, I heard a senior civil servant talk about the staggering number of crimes against children that are being facilitated by the internet. This is not the cosy world May grew up in, when sex and reproduction were covered in biology lessons and mobile phones didn’t exist.

It is not even the world of 17 years ago, when the government published its outdated official guidance on SRE. Children are encountering sex at a much younger age than in earlier generations, but a head-in-the-sand government is refusing to make sure they are well-informed and safe.