Blake Morrison's prize-winning and moving memoir of his father prompted some critics to question his use of highly personal material. His new book, As If, is based on the James Bulger trial, and also includes hard-hitting personal passages. Here he talks to Jan Dalley about the controversial mixture of event, memory and emotion that he has made his trademark
Sunday 09 February 1997
BM: In the autumn of 1993, I was invited by the New Yorker to sit in on the James Bulger trial. I was editing this newspaper's book pages at the time, which meant, if I did go, taking unpaid leave, putting friends and colleagues under strain, and running away from my family for a month - all for a piece that would only be commissioned if, at the end of the trial, the New Yorker decided there hadn't already been too much coverage in the US. So naturally I said yes. In the event the article did get commissioned and published. But afterwards I found I was still brooding about the trial and that there were things I'd barely scratched the surface of - hence the book.
JD: Why do you think the case caused such a stir?
BM: The rareness of the crime, to start with: a child child-killing. The fact that the security camera at Bootle Strand had got the abduction on film - that terrible poignancy we all felt at seeing events unfold and being helpless to stop them, since security cameras (this was something else we learned) are there not to provide safety for people but to protect property. And then the sheer length of the walk, two and half miles, from the shopping centre to the railway line where James Bulger was killed, not a furtive walk but one that took him along busy streets while traffic was at its peak. And the fact that so many people said they saw the toddler crying or being hit, and a couple of women even talked to the trio and were told the little boy was lost and the big boys were taking him to a police station - and yet no one intervened.
JD: There was a good deal of sensationalism in the media coverage of the case. Do you think you'd be guilty of the same, in publishing a book about the case?
BM: Well, understandably the media found the case sensational, yes. Man kills child; sad to say, that's routine, an item for page 7. But child kills child, or children kill child: that's a story. You can say the newspapers went overboard. But they didn't invent the shock and revulsion people felt. There was a kind of wound in the nation's psyche, a feeling that some kind of critical point had been reached. I seem to remember Tony Blair speaking of the killing as a "hammer-blow to the nation's sleeping conscience, urging us to wake up", or words to that effect.
As for my book, which is highly critical in places of the media coverage, no I don't think it's sensational. I would say that, wouldn't I? But I do feel it's an attempt to make people think about the case again when, naturally enough perhaps, they'd prefer to put it behind them. It's not the grisly details I want to remind them of - though some details are important - but the extreme youth of the killers.
JD: Isn't there a danger of prurience nontheless?
BM: I'd have thought anyone wanting a cheap thrill would be very disappointed. That's partly why I start in the Middle Ages, with the Children's Crusade of 1212, just to make it clear this isn't that kind of book. What haunts me about the case isn't the gory detail but the mythic elements pervading the everyday setting. Take the famous security still of James Bulger being led by Jon Venables: the small hand in a bigger hand - it's a classic image of trust that's come down to us from endless paintings, and nursery- rhyme illustrations, and Startrite shoe ads, and so on. And because they violated that image, Thompson and Venables were charged not only with the death of a child but with the death of childhood itself. Or take the pictorial representation of the trial on television or in the papers: on the one hand, the blond, smiling victim, "Jamie" (who wasn't called that: his parents knew him as James), on the other, nameless, faceless Boy A and Boy B being transported to court each day in an armoured van, like dangerous animals. There was an agenda of Good versus Evil which even the jury found it hard to evade.
JD: The judge thought the boys might have been influenced by violent films. What's your conclusion?
BM: I don't believe this was a copycat killing inspired by Child's Play 3. But I do believe prolonged exposure to violent images can't help but have an effect. There is a drawing Jon Venables did after seeing Hallowe'en which suggests the film did deeply disturb him. To that extent, I think the scorn that met the judge's remarks was misplaced.
JD: Can you explain the title of your book?
BM: "As if" is a phrase which children today use to express cynical disbelief: come off it, get real, in your dreams. But as a trope it's traditionally been a prelude to magic, analogy, a sort of lift-off from the quotidian world. I treat the difference as symptomatic of a loss of hope and belief in our culture. We live in a much more knowing and disenchanted society than we used to. The disenchantment affects every- one and everything, including how children think and how we adults perceive them.
JD: There are so many aspects of the case that point to howling omissions and errors in our educational and social services. Did you hope your book might have an effect on the law, or childcare policy, or anything of that sort?
BM: Well, I didn't want to hit readers over the head with this, and it may be grandiose to hope a book can influence anything - but yes, and that's what the last chapter is about. Quite simply, Thompson and Venables, as 10-year-olds, did not have the same sense of right and wrong, and of life and death, as an adult would have. And yet they were tried in an adult court and held fully responsible for their actions. I think that's wrong, and that the law needs to be changed. (If children of 10 really are mature and fully responsible, the logic would be to let them serve as jurors in adult courts. I don't think many people would be happy about that.) I also wanted to highlight the fatuousness of John Major's remark on juvenile crime, in the wake of the Bulger case: "We must condemn a little more, and understand a little less." I hope it's an epitaph for his government.
JD: But isn't there a danger that the liberal conscience involves a crippling of moral certainties? Don't we have to have some absolute moral standpoints?
BM: The liberal conscience has to be defended, absolutely, but yes, there can come a point where you fudge the truth in order to avoid passing judgement. Here you have to say, quite clearly, that these boys did kill James Bulger and therefore - however penitent, and however much progress they're making - have to be detained in secure units for a considerable time, certainly until they're 18 or 21. But the liberal conscience will also insist that the boys be accorded some common humanity, which the tabloid press and Michael Howard (one of the worst Home Secretaries this country has ever known) seem unwilling to grant them. And it will also question the justice of the trial they had, and Howard's 15-year tariff.
JD: One of your most memorable poems is "The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper". You felt an almost obsessional fascination with the James Bulger case. Why does violent crime interest you?
BM: This is going to sound odd to you, but it doesn't especially. I don't read thrillers, or "true crime", and I skipped most of the newspaper reports of the West trial. What interests me about Peter Sutcliffe is his misogyny. And what interests me about the Bulger case is what it says about the differences between adults and children.
JD: When you are following the "walk" the two boys took, you rather surprisingly write: "I want to bring them back here and take the bricks from the wall, rip the sleepers from the tracks, and teach them to be human." Are you afraid of violence in yourself?
BM: There was a moment, up on that railway line, when I felt a surge of rage, incredulity and vengefulness - and to acknowledge those feelings gives you an insight into how a victim's family might feel. But in reality I know I'm very wimpy.
JD: As well as discussing the Bulger case, your book contains a good deal of personal material. Why is that there?
BM: I hope the personal material isn't self-indulgent. The real story of this book is the tragedy of three families. But I took the view that you can't understand the experiences at the heart of the case without thinking about what it is to be a child or indeed a parent. So there are places where I look back at my own childhood, and places where I think about my own children and my care of them. It's true my childhood was quite unlike Robert and Jon's, rural not urban, middle-class not working- class, Fifties- hopeful not Eighties-cynical. But there are certain experiences common to nearly all childhoods, and moments most of us can recall where we were cruel or violent, say, and had we been less lucky could have ended up doing something terrible. (Of course, I may be the only person in the world with things in the past to feel ashamed of. But I doubt it.) Once you admit that, it becomes harder to see the boys as "evil monsters" or "freaks of nature".
JD: You don't think you're "using" your family?
BM: I hope not. There are important areas of privacy I still preserve. I'd also like to point out that I don't actually name my children in the book - children traditionally have this privilege of anonymity, and I think it wrong that the trial judge allowed Robert Thompson and Jon Venables to be named by the press, which deprived them of a protection that juveniles are supposed to enjoy.
JD: Aren't you in danger of taking the confessional genre too far and of blurring the distinctions between public and private?
BM: I confess I'm baffled by this word "confessional". I've always thought of myself as rather reserved and secretive. It's true that I sometimes discuss matters on the page which I'd never have the courage to speak of in person. But that seems to be part of the point of writing. And it doesn't feel brave: maybe reckless and probably stupid, but not brave, which is a word better kept for Scott of the Antarctic or Redmond O'Hanlon. In fact, I'm always rather shocked when other people are shocked by what I've written. Why would anyone be disturbed by a description of masturbation nearly 30 years after Portnoy's Complaint? And why should there be any essential difference between me describing an erection when a small child sits in my lap and a Martin Amis character describing the same experience in The Information? (It's on page 195 if anyone wants to look it up.) One scene may be invented, and the other not, but presumably the phenomenon itself isn't an invention: both narrators are discomfited by it - erections may produce children, but children aren't supposed to produce erections - and it's the discomfiture which both books explore.
The point about all the more candid and intimate material in the book is to close the gap between Us and Them, and stop the demonising of those two boys. And I didn't feel I could make people think about their childhoods without the example, or incitement, of my own memories and reflections. A degree of personal humiliation - self-disserving though it may be - is a price worth paying if it gets people thinking.
JD: But some people may be provoked in the wrong way. The passage where you describe undressing your daughter, for example ...?
BM: Well, I'd hoped to play a trick on readers there, at the end of which, realising it was a trick, they'd be shocked, yes, but would also be forced to reflect on the issues of child and adult sexuality that follow. Because this, too, goes to the heart of the matter. In one of his interviews with the police, Robert Thompson, asked about some "dirty marks" on his clothes, misunderstands and says "What? Like sex marks?" I found that a very haunting phrase, because sex does mark this case: there was a strong suggestion that James Bulger had been sexually abused before being killed, and if that's so then either a) his attackers must themselves have been sexually abused, or b) they had acquired a precocious sexual understanding through the sort of "natural" exploratory sexual-discovery games children play among themselves.
JD: You could be accused of breaching another taboo here, it seems to me. Some of those interview tapes about the possible abuse of the little victim were not played in court, partly to spare his family's feelings. You write: "There's an understanding on all sides: go easy - the case is bad enough without fondled willies and batteries up the bum." Yet you go into it all, at some length. Do you feel that's justified?
BM: Yes, because if sexual abuse was a motive, that needs to be explored. Yet four years on, it's really only Gitta Sereny, in this newspaper, who has addressed this key aspect. The question of what's pleasure and what's abuse, what's exploitation and what's innocence, what's harmless curiosity and what's guilty complicity: these aren't only part of the Bulger case.
JD: Some parts of your book have a fictional quality and you've said in the past that you do add some fiction to the mix of memory, event and feeling. Isn't that rather a tease, to write a book that is "true", and which purports to be searching for truth, yet to have other bits which are made up?
BM: It's not that I'm making anything up: you're right, if I did, it would destroy the whole contract with the reader, who in a book like this expects to be told the truth. But I do use some of the devices of fiction: in a way I had to, because with both my last book, about my father's death, and with this, everyone knew what the ending was going to be, and there had to be surprises and digressions to ward off a feeling of inevitability. It's also true that some of what I've written is self-dramatising rather than self-revealing. Susan Sontag has said "Some people are their lives, others merely inhabit them", and if you're in the latter camp, as many writers are, there's a distance that enables you to dissect yourself without it hurting. The most non-fictional of passages can feel, as you write them, like fiction.
JD: So can you envisage yourself writing something purely fictional now?
BM: After "The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper", my father's death from cancer and the battering to death of a small child, I think it's got to be a novel, set in springtime, about a golden dormouse called Skippy who falls in love and discovers true happiness.
`As If' is published by Granta this week at pounds 14.99. Blake Morrison will be reading and signing copies of his book at : Waterstones, 83 George St, Edinburgh, 10 Feb, 7.30pm; Waterstones, 91 Deansgate, Manchester, 11 Feb, 7pm; Waterstones, Dublin, 12 Feb, 6.30pm; Books Etc, Charing Cross Rd, 13 Feb, 6.30pm; Waterstones, 6 Bridge St Cambridge, 17 Feb, 7pm; Ways With Words Festival, Southwold, 21 Feb, 6.15pm; Purcell Room, South Bank, 22 Feb, 5pm.
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