Books: Understand a little more

Philip Pullman praises a brave study of the Bulger case and its impact

As If by Blake Morrison, Granta, pounds 14.99

One day at the zoo I was admiring the gibbons, with their playfulness and charm, when a starling flew down and landed just outside their cage. At once a long arm shot out and seized it. People gasped and cried out in alarm, and then in horror, as the ape tried to pull the terrified bird through the bars.

It finally succeeded and, beating off the other gibbons, it took the starling to a clear branch and began to pull it to pieces. I can't forget the crackings and snappings, the tough white sinews, the lolling shrieking head, and most of all the curious innocent concentration of the ape.

Because, of course, the ape was innocent. It couldn't reflect on what it was doing. And if there's a spectrum running from innocence to guilt - a spectrum marked by increasing consciousness and ability to reflect - then right out at the other end of it there are the likes of Frederick and Rosemary West, who could do so.

Somewhere in between are the little killers of James Bulger. Were they truly evil, or didn't they know what they were doing? Where should we place them?

Because knowing where to place them means knowing how to judge them. Blake Morrison's troubling study of the Bulger case is profoundly concerned with these questions, and shows how difficult it is to come by any answers.

Morrison attended the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993. He stayed in Preston (where the boys' trial was held) for a month, walked the route the children took on that dreadful day on Merseyside, heard the tapes of their interrogation ("Please God, never let me hear a child cry like that again. Or rather, let those who think these boys inhuman hear their all-too-human distress"), meditated on his own children and his fears for them, tried to understand.

The book echoes with references to Macbeth, and that most murder-haunted play is apt. Hardly anywhere else in literature can we learn so vividly and horribly what it is like to be a murderer, to kill and to know fully what it is that we have done.

It's not certain that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables did know, fully, and that is part of the point. Morrison is clear that putting them on trial as if they were adults was grossly inappropriate: "Childhood is a separate place...You can't lock up for life those whose lives have barely begun."

On the other hand, what they did was horrible, and it's right to lock them up for it. But again, the question of whether they could have known won't go away: "To know, and yet not know - the condition of being ten."

Morrison is very good on the appearance of things. So many of our most powerful judgements are made because of what things look like. Would Michael Howard have been able to declare that Myra Hindley should spend all her life in prison, as he did recently, without the continuing presence of that particular brutal-blonde photograph to fuel the public's loathing for her?

Part of our horror at the Bulger case is due to the video clip of the trusting toddler walking away hand-in-hand with his murderer. In this age, we can't escape these visual presences, so we must learn to read them.

Morrison brilliantly describes the look of the bleak streets and housing estates the children walked through on their way to the railway line, and is wise enough not to refrain from comment. "It must have an effect," he says; and yes, it must.

Similarly, he characterises both the appearance of the two boys and his own reactions to it, and then quotes Macbeth once more to warn himself against making judgements based on the look of things. But we must judge, because we are human, and because we are adult and responsible we must beware of the fallibility of our own judgements; but still, we must judge.

At one point I thought the book faltered. Morrison is describing himself putting his little daughter to bed, and he misleads us into thinking that we're reading a scene of seduction. I thought that I could see what he was doing with that story, but it's not the Bulger story.

There was no sexual motive in the killing; or if there was, it was never clearly established. At a first reading, this passage seemed like an error of judgement.

However, I've changed my mind. By making us complicit in a misreading, he's showing us the importance of appearances once more, and always the need to reflect, to be fully conscious.

Which leads to another presence in this book, that of the words of John Major. His statement that "We must condemn a little more, and understand a little less" is the most wicked thing any British politician has said in my lifetime. It is worse by far than Margaret Thatcher's assertion that "There is no such thing as society", which is transparent bluster by comparison.

Of course we mustn't understand less. We can't go back to being children, back to the innocence of the ape. We must go forward into deeper knowledge, painful though that is.

Morrison's honest, courageous and subtle study is an addition to our understanding, not least because it never overlooks the suffering of little James and his family. The ape's innocence made no difference to the starling.

Philip Pullman won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature last year with the novel "His Dark Materials" (Point/Scholastic)

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral