Frances Lawrence: Don't define me by tragedy

Her husband's killer may be about to go free, but she has new horizons. Cole Moreton meets... Frances Lawrence
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The Independent Online

The boy who killed her husband has grown into a man. There is a real chance he'll be let out of prison within weeks, freed to walk the same streets as Frances Lawrence. She has opposed his "premature release" and expressed anger at the legal ruling that means he cannot be deported to the country of his birth, Italy. But this month Learco Chindamo is due to face the parole board, 13 years (almost to the day: the anniversary is a week tomorrow) since he stabbed Philip Lawrence in the chest outside a school in west London, not far from where Mrs Lawrence is now sitting.

There have already been photographs of him walking around the city, enjoying temporary release as part of his rehabilitation. A year ago, when it was suggested that he would be given a new identity by the State, Frances Lawrence declared it a "total and very brutal shock". So you would expect her to have a lot to say about his release now, imminent as it seems. You would be astonished if she didn't, after 13 years of fighting – in her own words – for justice. Wouldn't you?

"I don't want to talk about that," she says. "Sorry. Am I annoying?" No. Surprising, though. And worrying. She speaks so softly it is hard to hear at times, then without warning and in an instant she is loud and firm. She sits on the edge of an armchair in her spotless dining room, with her hands clasped between her knees, leaning slightly as if trying not to be seen. Weren't those photographs disturbing? "I'm sure people must be thinking that," she says. No more.

Now I really am worried. A year ago, just before the parole board was originally due to review the case (which was postponed) Mrs Lawrence claimed to have been the subject of a campaign of intimidation including malicious phone calls and death threats, a burglary (confirmed by police) in which only documents relating to Philip were taken, and an attempt to drive her off the road. It all started, she said, when two men appeared outside her home and warned her that "people might get angry" if she spoke about Chindamo again.

The Daily Mail quoted her as saying: "I can only assume these horrible things are in some way related to Philip's death and my efforts to get justice." Was all of that true? "Hmm." So the obvious question, in view of her silence, is this: has it carried on? "It has done." Oh no. "But I really can't talk about that. I have been talking to various people about that."

Is that why she's silent? No answer. There are other possible reasons, too, of course. One may be an unwillingness to comment ahead of the parole board. Another is the desire to say only positive things ahead of the Philip Lawrence Awards, which will be presented in London on Tuesday, in a ceremony hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald and watched by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. The awards are a celebration of the good things that young people can do. They are also part of this 61-year-old woman's ongoing attempt to escape from under the weight of the thing that happened on a winter's day in 1995.

Philip Lawrence was the headmaster of St George's School in Maida Vale, west London. He saw a gang of teenagers attacking a 13-year-old boy outside the gates and went to stop them. He was stabbed in the chest. And that's it. Just like that. One afternoon, Frances Lawrence lost her husband and a huge part of her life and began to be defined by others as a tragic widow. "I hate that more than anything," she says, loudly now, writhing in her seat. "It's so insulting. Philip would have hated that. It's horrible."

This is another reason for not speaking about Chindamo. "I don't want to be defined by things that have happened to me. Tragedy. It's a dreadfully depressing thing to think, you will be defined by this for the rest of your life." She looks around the room, which is decorated with tasteful prints and posters for art exhibitions and nice ornaments like the bird – a crane, I think – that stands close to her chair, on the whitewash wooden floor. It's like a show home. Or a safe, neutral space in which to receive people without giving too much away. The family photos must be somewhere else. That phrase is still on her mind. Tragic widow. "In one way, that's exactly what I am ... and in another way, not at all."

The awards are the opposite of tragic. Jacqui Smith and the Secretary of State for Schools, Ed Balls, will see Flava, the hip hop dance group that did so well on ITV's Britain's Got Talent. They'll meet teenagers who are using theatre, film, mentoring and even fruit and veg deliveries to fight prejudice and get a voice, and use it to speak out about racism, being a refugee, living with a disability or growing up in care. Small, determined groups of young people doing unglamorous things, for whom a £1,000 cheque to their project, a day out in London with Sir Trevor and a chance to bend the ear of the Home Secretary is a really, really big deal. And it happens because Frances Lawrence refused to go under.

"When Philip..." (there is a pause, as if it is just too hard, too direct a thing to say) "... died, I had politicians of all parties beating a path to the door." She was appalled that "Philip became the catalyst for all this negative press about young people. I found that really rather hurtful. I had four young children myself at the time." Her three daughters ranged from 19 down to 13 and her son, Lucien, was just eight years old. "I wanted to say there were young people who did wonderful things, and to try to inspire others to follow that path."

The awards have funding from the Home Office, but Jacqui Smith is not likely to get an easy ride. "We've had an awful lot of home secretaries," says Mrs Lawrence. "They often seem moved by the stories and quite humbled, which is good, because sometimes politicians can seem quite arrogant. But I still wish they'd listen a bit more. I do feel that sometimes words are said and promises are made, and yet there's not really action." Things seem worse than ever now, she says. "It's really difficult to believe that we live in the 21st century and yet the people who write the nominations use words like 'these young people live in abject poverty'. How can that be? I get myself so cross..."

It makes me wonder what Frances Lawrence does to escape, if she ever can? "Oh I dunno. My interests ... 'my interests?' it's like you write on a school essay." Her voice tails off. If someone could convince her she had done enough, it was okay to kick back for a while, what would she do? "Ah, well that would be writing." Fiction? "Yeah. I wouldn't write about... er... what's happened." Even now, there is no language for all this that she is comfortable with. I tell her about a friend who lost his wife. He threw himself into his work. After a while, he went out with someone else. He was fine. Then he fell apart. He couldn't do it any more. The grief he had been evading flooded back. I ask her, just for advice, how long the evasion goes on for? "Oh I think it goes on for a long time," she says with a half-smile. Then I realise what she's saying. Is it still going on for her? "Probably." We sit in silence.

"To be completely and utterly honest," she says after a while, "there are still repercussions that I would have never have known about.... There is always that undercurrent of great sadness. Sometimes in the minutiae of daily life I'll think – as I'm sure everyone who is bereaved does, it doesn't have to be murder – I'll think.... Oh, you know..." The gas bill. The roof. The car. These are the sorts of things that snag people up, that catch them out suddenly in the middle of the afternoon. "It's the responsibilities one has to take on, really. I am the most impractical person. Hopeless. There are things that are tricky. It would be nicer to have Philip here to sort them out with really. That doesn't change."

Their children are grown up now. Her eldest is a doctor, the middle two daughters are teachers, and Lucien is "a political activist, an artist". He was an actor, and the Ron Weasley understudy in the Harry Potter films, wasn't he? "Oh, he's long grown out of that. But he's still doing film. Obviously, emotionally they're all pretty raw."

Preparing to leave, I ask if it has ever become possible to think about a relationship with someone else? "You don't really expect me to answer that do you?" Well, I say feebly, she would ask me if our roles had been reversed. "I may well do. But I don't see what that's got to do with...".

No. Neither do I, to be honest. Frances Lawrence did not win X Factor. She did not go in the Big Brother house. She thought about standing for office but "didn't want to be someone who got voted in on the back of a dreadful tragedy". She didn't ask for any of this. She hasn't gone under, she isn't giving up. She wants me to stop asking nasty questions. She wants me to write only about the awards of which she is justifiably proud. She wants me to go away. So I do.

Philip Lawrence Awards 2008: Celebrating the good things young people do

Sir Trevor McDonald hosts the 12th annual Philip Lawrence Awards at the Bloomsbury Theatre in central London on Tuesday. The hoodie hip-hop dance group FLAVA will perform, after starring on 'Britain's Got Talent'.

One of this year's finalists is dare 2b different from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, a group of disabled teenagers helping themselves and others to take up new challenges. They have had a special rock climbing wall made, and are laying a path through a wood so members can help with conservation. "I have cerebral palsy and I'm in a wheelchair," says Tom Halton, 16. "Before this I was really depressed and had no hobbies."

Other finalists are:

Chatback

Young people in Dudley, West Midlands, making films that dispel myths about their lives in care.

Kingswood Youth Theatre

Asylum seekers and refugees meet with Glaswegians to share stories, creating shows.

Nessie Club

Canal boats in Cheshire used as a safe space for workshops on anger management, drugs and other issues.

Reclaim

Mentoring, training and lobby group in Manchester, trying to prevent youth violence.

Think

Educating teenagers in Knowsley, Merseyside about issues including drink, drugs and sexual health.

Value Life

Responded to the rise in gun and knife crime in north London by organising peace walk and working in schools.

Yobs

Fresh fruit and veg delivery to older people in Ayrshire by bike, overcoming prejudice between generations.

Young Muslim Voices

Use meetings, film and sport (football tournament with Arsenal, mosques and the police) to give Muslim young people in north London a say.

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