'Pee the bed] Witchy-coo]': Are children as ready to be cruel as they are to be good? Andrew O'Hagan recalls the savage tricks he and his young school friends played on the old and weak

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IN SENTENCING the two 17-year-old girls who murdered pensioner Edna Phillips Mr Justice Scott Baker, addressing the pair at Cardiff Crown Court, said: 'You are evil products of the modern age.'

I was born in 1968, so the modern age probably started for me some time in the Seventies. We were youths with an unholy mixture of instincts both good and nasty. I've long reckoned that few parents then really knew who their children were. They knew nothing of their bright-eyed passion for danger and would have denied the existence of what was an unfathomable desire for miniature glory and the love of one's peers. That was all outside of the house, and outside of the house seldom came in - unless it broke through in the form of report cards or social workers or the much-dreaded local constabulary.

My family, consisting of two young adults and four small boys, came to the Ayrshire coast as part of a tidal-wave of what was then called 'Glasgow overspill'. The idea was to find a new life away from the depression of that famously hard and crowded city. My parents undoubtedly thought of it as a place in the sun, since it was next to Saltcoats - a place with a beach which they'd often been brought to as children themselves. Before long, gangs of children had formed on the housing estates of the New Town and were busy in their pursuit of games based on cruelty and group victimisation. We'd often chance it and push those games to the point of damage: the moment of delirium where fun goes awry and someone gets hurt.

Gangs of diminutive toughs would now and again battle it out with contemporaries from rival schools, throwing bricks and forming hellish, kicking scrums around hated opposite numbers. Outside of religious bigotries, most excuses for violence were dreamt up on the spot during chance encounters: times when truanting youngsters - out for a long lunch - would positively seek someone to punch or spit at. The two legendary gangs in our town were 'The Cumbie' (short for 'Come ahead and fight') and 'The Priesty' (deriving from an area of Glasgow named Priesthill) - that's the way they thought of themselves: in capital initials, in which form they scrawled the names on every desk, cubicle and bridge they could claim for their own. These gangs existed more as a pair of opposing ideas than anything else, and most kids, even those like me who seldom fought, had an idea of what side they were on. There were several schoolfriends of mine who carefully scratched 'Young Tiny Priesty' into their arms with a scalpel dipped in Indian ink.

In the summer of my ninth year I got the chance to travel from place to place in the van of a local washing-machine engineer. The guy didn't mind my being there and encouraged me in my idea that I was his apprentice. Shadowing him, I got to go into the houses of a lot of strangers. Often, these were the homes of very old women who lived alone. I recall the pensioners still: large, grey women with tight, flowery dresses and smelly houses. Many of them were endlessly being harassed by children from the neighbourhood. Standing idly one day beside some rattling old Hotpoint twin-tub - the only kind the engineer seemed able to fix - I watched a group of children repeatedly run up and down the woman's path, ringing the bell and running away.

She went back and forth to answer the door and always no one was there. Though I said nothing, I knew what was happening. One of our favourite ways of harassing adults was to keep knocking on the door and running away (it was a game that went by different names: Door-a-bella, Chap-door-

run-away, White horses). It drove people mad.

This particular old woman was in a terrible state. She said it happened non-stop and that they shouted through the letter-box, scratched names on her door, trampled across her back garden, climbed through the windows, stole things from her and two of them had begun slapping her in the street. Her way of dealing with it was by trying to befriend the children, asking them their names and giving them sweets. The day we were in, after a long bout of banging at the door while the engineer did his thing with the twin-tub, the old woman opened the door to a boy and a girl who'd said, through the letter-box, that they wanted to give her flowers. I was standing at the back of the hall when she opened it, and I saw them throwing crumpled dandelions in her face, shouting 'Pee the bed] Pee the bed] Witchy-

coo]' whilst punching her arms and grabbing her hair.

The engineer chased the kids away that day, but I'm sure they'd have been back the next, peering through the woman's letter-box. The kids had it worked out, they were effective and calculating. They had the bug for terrorising incapable elders. There are, of course, degrees of cruelty just as there are degrees of goodness. The children I knew played up and down both of those scales for years, without ever showing a special aptitude for the extremes of either. Children can spot weakness - and the opportunities to exploit it - with an eye so keen that it never failed to shock adults.

There was a training farm for young men with Down's syndrome, just over from our housing scheme, on the other side of the railway bridge. The public lives of those young men were made really unbearable. It was common on Sunday mornings for a squad from Todhill, as the farm was called, to make their way across the bridge and over the playing-fields that led to the local churches. Packs of boys would wait for them. Some on bikes, some running, would pursue the men - shouting at them, poking them and ramming them with their Choppers or Grifters or whatever fat-tyred vehicle they rode upon. There was also a handicapped woman named Jean whom adults insisted on identifying as a 'right character', someone who was game for a laugh. In fact, I never saw her laugh once. Youths chased her, calling her Mad Jeannie. She was forever being assaulted by pugnacious kids throwing clods of mud. Her windows were broken and her clothes were stolen from the line. Until the day she moved away, that woman and her family never had a minute's peace in our town.

We created situations like these in the full knowledge that it wasn't right to do so, but with no understanding of its being unacceptable. It was both accepted and ignored, written off as the kind of thing all kids did at a certain age. Youths who were no longer children would target certain vulnerable adults for harassment and abuse: pensioners, invalids, non-whites, non-Scots, stammerers, swots and tinkers. I remember a Chinese Glaswegian who ran a local Bible-class called 'the Sunshine Hour', which was 60 minutes of bedlam for kids with nowhere to go on a Friday night. I won't catalogue the viciousness of the treatment that man received. The last I heard, police caught a couple of school-

leavers stuffing toilet-rolls into his car exhaust pipe.

Schoolteachers with an obvious difficulty - being shy, or useless with the strap, or incapable of keeping control - would be homed in on, verbally abused in the street and followed outside of the school gates by menacing boys and bands of gum-smacking girls. In my modern studies class - where we learnt about China's Four Modernisations and the American system of government - there was a competition to see who could be belted most by a certain young, nervous woman - Miss McCallum.

Pupils had cottoned on to the fact that she'd only call on the help of one of the heavy-weight, much-feared teachers if she was sworn at. Methods of torturing the woman can only be described as having been psychological. She was unstable and everyone played on that: stealing her chalk, pretending they couldn't hear her or understand her polite English accent. The rumour had gone round that she'd spent time in Ailsa, a local psychiatric hosptial. I'll never forget the last time I sat in Miss McCallum's class, watching her have what I now reckon was an acute nervous breakdown in front of 30 bawling 12-year-old kids.

In Father and Son, Edmund Gosse wrote that 'we attribute too many moral ideas to young children.' We probably do. In the years I've been talking about, and in the children I've mentioned, most of the moral ideas attributed - not many - were attributed in vain. Our favourite adults, those that looked like good models for the future, were the least moral ones. In our smallish space, and away from the TV, that usually meant the school janitor. In one local primary school, over a period of less than 10 years, the playground was swept first by a man who later got 14 years for gun-running for the UDA; his successor drank on the job and danced in the playground and eventually stepped in front of a bus; the next one kept reporting school break-ins until it was discovered he'd stashed the 'stolen' television and office equipment in his private boiler-room; and the last of the group was fired for child-abuse.

The tabloids have announced the end of civilisation, judges identify an upturn of violent behaviour in the modern age and the Prime Minister believes it is now time for society 'to condemn a little more and understand a little less'. Before we do any of these things, perhaps we should inspect our own biographies and look again at the social details of our respective towns and cities. It may be time to exchange the noose for the mirror.

The writer is Assistant Editor of the 'London Review of Books'

(Photograph omitted)

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