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.

Murder in the outback

Sunday Times, 1 January 2017

During the worst drought to affect Australia in years, the bodies of a young family are found in a rural community. At first sight the murders in The Dry (Little, Brown £12.99) by Jane Harper, appear to be a classic example of familicide, sending shock waves through the small town of Kiewarra. No one realised things were so bad for a young farmer, Luke Hadler, that he would decide to murder his wife and son before turning a gun on himself.

These events come as devastating news for Luke’s old friend Aaron Falk, now a detective in Melbourne, who left town hurriedly years ago. Aaron gets a rough reception when he returns for the funerals, not least because he is one of the few people who doubts Luke’s guilt. It is hard to believe that this accomplished piece of writing, which returns again and again to the savage beauty of the landscape, is Harper’s first novel.

A convicted murderer is the prime suspect in What Remains of Me (Arrow £7.99), a clever, twisty mystery by the American writer A L Gaylin. Back in 1980, 17-year-old Kelly Lund was convicted of the murder of a film director, John McFadden. Thirty years later she’s out and married to the son of McFadden’s best friend, a Hollywood actor. When her father-in-law is shot dead, Kelly has no alibi for the night of the murder. Switching between different time periods, Gaylin places the contemporary murder investigation side-by-side with Kelly’s back-story, revealing a dramatic tale of exploitation and incest.

Simon Kernick’s new novel, The Bone Field (Century £12.99), starts promisingly. Just over 25 years ago, a British couple on holiday in Thailand had a row and the young woman stormed off, never to be seen again. Now her ex-boyfriend wants to talk to a detective, DI Ray Mason, and it’s clear he has something to confess. But before Mason can hear his story, things go badly wrong and the woman’s bones turn up not in Thailand but the grounds of a boarding school in the Home Counties.

It’s a tantalising set-up but what begins to unfold is a mind-boggling conspiracy involving a mysterious assassin, Satanism, sex trafficking and a fast-rising body count. Kernick seems to have taken Raymond Chandler’s advice )when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand) too much to heart. The result is breathless and improbable.

Adrian McKinty has come up with an unforgettable title for the latest novel in his superb DI Sean Duffy series, which is set in Northern Ireland. Police at The Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Serpent’s Tail £12.99) is a line from a song by Tom Waits, and it perfectly sums up the paranoid atmosphere at Carrickfergus CID in the late 1980s. The murder of a small-time drug dealer doesn’t obviously have political implications but it leads back to the activities of notorious police unit, the B Specials, in 1968. McKinty moves seamlessly between action and reflection, and his sardonic tone is a delight.

Europe is failing to help a generation of traumatised children

Eight million child refugees is a mental health time bomb. Ignoring it now would be a terrible mistake

The Guardian, Wednesday 28 December 2016

Everyone knows there’s an international refugee crisis. But there is a vital issue that’s in danger of being missed – the terrible psychological damage that’s being done to millions of children. Such harm is less obvious than physical wounds, but most European countries haven’t had to deal with childhood trauma on this scale since the end of the second world war.

There are now 8 million of these children, according to Unicef, and they make up nearly half the world’s refugees. It’s hard to make sense of such huge numbers, but they break down into heartbreaking individual stories. Earlier this year Stephen Cowan, a council leader from west London, visited the makeshift camp in Calais, hoping to be able to bring a number of unaccompanied child refugees to England. On a mild autumn day, he spotted a young Afghan boy who was shivering and sweating as though he had a fever. “Is he ill?” asked the councillor. The interpreter shook his head. “No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “he’s been in the camp for two months and it’s driven him mad.”

This anecdote will strike a chill into the heart of anyone who knows about the importance of steady attachments for healthy childhood development. Babies recognise faces at a very early stage, and the adverse effects of disrupting relationships with trusted adults – anxiety, insecurity, self-harm, aggression – have been well documented since British psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s research on children, following the second world war.

In the care system, where resources are already stretched, social workers go to great lengths to try to avoid children from broken families being moved between a number of carers. We know a great deal about the impact of being separated from parents, even in countries that aren’t war zones. But unaccompanied child refugees are among the most vulnerable people on earth, and falling into the hands of traffickers is just one of the hazards they face.

In Afghanistan, some families can afford to pay for one child to make the hazardous journey to Europe, often sending a teenage son to travel on his own. Syrian refugees may start out in family groups, but crossing the sea from Turkey or Libya is so dangerous that some children are rescued only after seeing parents or siblings drown. Syria and Afghanistan account for half of the child refugees under protection of the UN refugee agency, demonstrating the destabilising impact of conflict even on those who survive without physical injuries. They are more or less guaranteed to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, something that’s hard to treat in over-crowded refugee camps.

Is it really credible that ministers in the British government don’t understand how much damage these children have already sustained? Or don’t they care? This month it emerged that hundreds of child asylum seekers from the Calais camp who were expecting to come to the UK have had their claims rejected, being told instead to apply in France. Only 750 children have been brought over, even though 1,900 were registered after the camp was demolished. And they are only a fraction of the traumatised children already in or on the borders of Europe.

This is shameful behaviour, even if the British government is afraid of headlines in right-wing papers. The tabloids have no qualms about demonising refugees of any age, along with a kneejerk tendency to reject any theory suggesting that childhood damage has far-reaching adult consequences.

But the sight of middle-aged men in the UK breaking down on TV while talking about being raped as children should leave no doubt about long-term consequences, including broken relationships and alcoholism. There have been repeated calls to wind up the accident-prone inquiry into child sexual abuse, as if its failures of process discredit the claims of thousands of victims. Of course they don’t. And recent claims about systemic child abuse at football clubs have revealed another area of life where it appears to have gone unreported for years.

Sexual assault, of boys as well as girls, is such common practice among people-smugglers that British social workers who started assessing children in the Calais camp discovered that many, if not most, were rape victims. They desperately need foster parents who are used to dealing with children who have been sexually abused, and even then it will take years of hard work before they are able to trust adults.

Instead, country after country is trying to shift the problem on to someone else, ignoring obligations under international treaties and conventions. They are also storing up trouble for the future. Boys (who according to some estimates outnumber girls nine to one among child refugees) and girls react differently to horrific childhood events, with boys more likely to become aggressive, fail at school and get involved in petty crime. In the worst-case scenario, they may be vulnerable to radicalisation by extremists.

Organisations dedicated to helping displaced people have been overwhelmed by demand and are struggling to provide for basic needs, such as shelter and medicines. As a continent, we barely seem to have grasped that we have a generation of severely traumatised children already in our midst, and the catalogue of loss they have suffered is unparalleled since 1945.

I know that resources are severely stretched, but the consequences of ignoring the problem are too awful to contemplate. For their sakes and our own, we need to identify these children and gently seek to teach them that the world is not always as evil or frightening as it presently seems.

 

Rillington Place captivates us because it exposes how little abusive men have changed

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 13 December 2013

Why did she stay with him? It’s a question often asked when a woman is badly beaten or killed by a violent partner. Ethel Christie, wife of John Reginald Christie, whose crimes transfixed the country in the 1950s, appears to have known or at least suspected that her husband was a serial killer.

The couple lived at a rented flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, then a run-down area of west London. The address became so notorious that the street was eventually demolished. Christie abandoned Ethel for nine years early in the marriage, a detail highlighted in the BBC’s chilling new three-part drama series, Rillington Place.

The first episode began with Ethel, played by Samantha Morton, visiting her husband, an eerily convincing Tim Roth, in prison after finally managing to track him down. ‘Do you want a divorce?’ she asks nervously, immediately exposing her sense of powerlessness.

Of course Christie doesn’t because he is a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist who has already begun attacking women. His behaviour is escalating and he goes on to murder at least eight women and the baby daughter of one of his victims. Ethel is useful to him, providing cover and disarming potential victims who might be suspicious of a seedy man living on his own.

She is also undemanding, an essential trait for a man who appears to have been impotent, and able to have sex with women only when he felt in complete control. His modus operandi was to rape victims whom he’d first rendered unconscious, using gas or strangulation.

The Rillington Place murders were extraordinarily bleak, going unnoticed for years because Christie chose his victims as carefully as he chose his wife. Some worked as prostitutes, leading absolutely dreadful lives, and were unlikely to be missed.

Beryl Evans (played by Jodie Comer in the TV series) was a young mother who lived in the upstairs flat with her husband Timothy (Nico Mirallegro). He would now be described as having learning difficulties, and when Beryl became pregnant again she couldn’t face having a second child in such squalid surroundings.

Christie, who often pretended to have medical training, persuaded Evans he could perform a safe illegal abortion. He used the opportunity to strangle Beryl and blame the murder (and that of her daughter, Geraldine) on her confused and frightened husband. Evans was convicted of killing the baby and hanged in what turned out to be a notorious miscarriage of justice. He did not receive a posthumous pardon until 1966, while it took until 2003 to formally clear his name.

Christie went on to murder Ethel and his crimes were discovered only after he moved out of Rillington Place, when a new tenant discovered the corpses of three women behind a false wall. He was convicted of Ethel’s murder and hanged at Pentonville prison in 1953.

These events happened more than 60 years ago, yet they still fascinate. That’s because the themes resonate in the modern world, whether it’s Christie’s cunning manipulation of his wife or the desperate measures women are driven to when they can’t get legal terminations. The idea of Beryl entrusting her life to the creepy Christie is horrifying.

Yet in the US, Donald Trump’s election as President has emboldened opponents of abortion, with a new law passed in Ohio last week which would ban terminations after six weeks. At that point, many women don’t even realise they are pregnant.

The other issue raised by the Christie case is what we now call coercive control. There are similarities between Christie’s treatment of his wife in the TV series and the fictional relationship between Helen and Rob Titchener in The Archers, Radio 4’s long-running soap.

Listeners asked exactly a similar question – why doesn’t she leave him? – as Helen succumbed to Rob’s bewildering combination of charm and menace, a pattern similar to Christie’s behaviour in Rillington Place.

Superficially, the relationships could hardly be more different, especially as wartime London is so beautifully recreated in the TV series. But abusive men haven’t changed much and Christie doesn’t need modern technology – mobile phones and so on – to bring Ethel under total control. A miscarriage shortly after their reconciliation may have left her uninterested in sex, making her the ideal wife for a man chiefly interested in hurting women.

The drama shows Christie undermining her self-esteem, offering little presents at one moment and suggesting she has mental problems the next. He is calculating, praising his victims while they’re still alive so Ethel sees them as rivals, not targets of male violence.

Did she realise that her own life was in danger? It seems likely that she did, especially as a scene in the film shows Christie strangling her until she blacks out. In the 1950s, however, few people understood the dynamics of abusive relationships.

Now we know that some men deliberately set out to demoralise their partners until they have no will of their own. But even in our more enlightened times, coercive control only became a criminal offence at the very end of last year. It’s true that we are better equipped to recognise signs of abuse these days, but the poignancy of Rillington Place is rooted in how easily women can understand Ethel’s situation – one that, even now, never seems like too distant a possibility.

 

Stop calling the football child sexual abuse scandal ‘bigger than Savile’

Daily Telegraph, Friday 2 December 2016

One of the worst things that can happen to a child is being sexually abused by a trusted adult. Football is at the heart of the latest historical allegations, with police forces up and down the country revealing they have been inundated with claims stretching back decades.

The scandal is already being described as ‘bigger than Savile’, something that may turn out to be true in pure numbers of victims and perpetrators. A joint report on Jimmy Savile by the NSPCC and Metropolitan Police identified 450 victims, including 328 under-age children. In the last week alone, police investigating claims involving football clubs say they have received allegations about attacks on 350 people - almost all of them men who say they were assaulted as children or teenagers.

We don’t know the final number yet, but it’s becoming clear that boys were abused by a whole series of perpetrators at different levels of the game, from professional clubs to amateur teams. Greater Manchester police, which is one of 17 forces now involved in the investigation, say they have identified 10 suspects after being contacted by 35 victims.

Some former football players have waived their anonymity to talk openly about rapes and sexual assaults that happened on a weekly, and in some cases daily, basis. Their accounts are harrowing and some men have broken down in tears. Many have praised the bravery of the former player, Andy Woodward, whose description of being abused encouraged others to come forward.

It is a very good thing that the taboo on men talking about rape and sexual abuse is finally being broken. For too long, victims stayed silent because they couldn’t face explaining what happened to them – something that applies equally to women and girls, of course. At the same time, comparisons with Savile are uncomfortable to listen to and risk setting up an undignified competition between victims, all of whom are equally deserving of sympathy.

There are similarities between the two scandals, not least the way in which the allegations have multiplied over a short period. Within days of an ITV documentary broadcast in 2012, revealing claims against Savile by several women, the number of his victims had risen into the hundreds. Something similar has happened since Woodward came forward and many people are genuinely shocked (as they should be) by the scale of what is being uncovered.

There is no doubt that sexual abuse ruins lives. Former footballers have talked eloquently about an inability to trust, substance abuse and other lifelong consequences. But child sexual abuse is a painful enough subject without ranking it in terms of numbers and outcomes - as if there is a ghoulish desire for one to be worse than another. It must be hard for Savile’s victims to hear casual claims that this latest scandal is worse than their own.

There is another difference which may be hard for his victims (and women raped by less famous men) to hear. As soon as Savile’s crimes were revealed, people rushed to his defence. They complained that a much-loved entertainer and charity campaigner was being maligned after death, when he was no longer around to clear his name.

They accused his victims of lying, claiming they were publicity-seekers who had made up stories to get attention. Men from the 1960s and 70s entertainment industry, including a couple who are now serving prison sentences, accused under-age girls of ‘throwing themselves’ at DJs and pop stars.

Every tiresome rape myth was recycled, from blaming the victim to outright disbelief. It is easy to forget, now that Savile is known as a serial sexual predator, that some people were so reluctant to let go of their perceptions of him that they were prepared to traduce his victims.

What we are seeing now is very different. As far as I know, no one has accused the former players who have spoken publicly of lying, or having shady motives. Interviewers have behaved with sympathy, understanding and care not to re-traumatise men who have been through horrific experiences.

This is as is should be. All victims of rape and sexual assault should be treated the same, regardless of whether they are men or women; part of a sweeping historic scandal or an individual attack. I really hope it sets a precedent for the next time something like this erupts. We should never forget that the handful of victims who were brave enough to go to the police during Savile’s lifetime were not believed.

This really is too serious a subject for comparisons. Next time you hear someone claiming that the scandal around football clubs is ‘bigger than Savile’, please remember that the last thing we want is a contest in suffering.