Children of James's town

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The Independent Online
A WARNING message flashed up on the screen. 'The city is full of dangers of every shape and size,' it read. 'Three children have gone missing.'

The console beneath flashed and buzzed. Beside it Peter Ashton, 17, was pushing cash into the next fun-providing machine in the Edwardian amusement arcade. 'The arcade gets chocker with kids,' said Peter. 'There's not much else to do here really. I was here on Friday when he disappeared: there were two kids asking for cash nearby. I haven't got any. I've been trying to get a job for a while.'

Through the window of the arcade two policemen stood by the large poster at the entrance to the Strand shopping centre in Bootle, where, last Friday, two-year-old James Bulger was pulled by two children, aged about 11 and 13, towards his death.

By his body were found a tin of enamel paint and a pack of batteries. Both came from shops in the Strand, sheltered, warm, a favourite haunt of bored children, including those who shoplift and beg for fags, or money - for drink, for video hire, for change for amusement arcades, where 20p can buy two minutes of excitement.

There is certainly not much money or fun easily in prospect. Unemployment in Liverpool has run at twice the national average since 1938. Unemployment among the young, the 18- to 24- year-olds, stands at about 32 per cent.

For teenagers, the road ahead is likely to be as bleak as the cold trail young James walked that Friday. Breeze Hill is as windy as its name, past the reservoir, the church, through the back ways to Walton. Did it look as barren to those boys? Through a child's eye the landscape is different: more promising of adventure. There is the scaffolding that leads to a high roof, here loose panels tacked to the windows of an empty house, and there the gaps in the fencing that give access to the railway line.

On Cherry Lane, beside the embankment where James's body was laid, almost within sight of the back windows of the police station, flowers of remembrance are still being brought. Three 13-year-old girls from round the corner had come to look at them again.

They were in half-term dress, bright clothes and lipstick, ready to go down town and hang around. When they were younger, they said, a year ago, they, too, used to climb on to the embankment to play, and on to the roofs of the buildings around, and into the tombs in the cemetery. One of their friends, they said, used to tie his ankle to a pipe and then throw himself off roofs, or, for a change, throw himself in front of cars. Why?

'For a laff,' said Elaine. 'It's boring here. You just get into trouble. Trying to get a laff. Down the Strand there's caffs. You hang around. Or sit at home and watch Re-Possessed on the video.'

The danger is that there are other ways of spending time. 'There's the scallies,' said Elaine's cousin Lisa. 'Gangs of scallies, about 20 round here. Smash windows, break into cars. Smack-heads. The busies don't take much notice. You know, busybodies. The police.'

We walked across the road. Two grimy boys were looking through the window of an empty shop. 'Scallies, see?' said the girls. 'Dad's unemployed and the kids are on drugs and petty crime.'

Out on the streets, they said, bored children clustered in gangs, which they called, in hopeful imitation of telly criminals, 'firms', led by 'cocks', long- haired 16- or 17-year-olds, daring each other to smash windows and steal from shops. 'It's the scallies who ask for money and ciggies on the streets. They like to be thought dead 'ard,' said Elaine, thoughtfully. 'Dead 'ard.'

The shopping centre at the Strand now is scally-free, full only of anxious mothers with toddlers on leading reins, and watching police. Liverpool's branch of the Save the Children Fund, which has heard the same tales of scallies and drugs and children playing chicken across busy roads for a laff, would like to start a project here to give 8- to 12-year-olds more to do, and to co- ordinate groups already working on drug abuse and unemployment.

A whole table of 8- to 12-year-olds sat in one of Kirby's caffs. 'Scallies say - gis your money,' said Jason, 10. 'You have to run like hell.'

A round seven-year-old face was just visible over the table's rim. 'I had my ball taxed off of us,' it said sadly.

A group of boys was standing outside a newsagent's in the shopping centre. Kids were barred from going in because of scallies, they said. The scallies' activities mean that children are barred from many places, and watched suspiciously. 'Mostly scallies are between 14 and 17,' said David Gilfillen, 14. 'But you get scally tabs, about seven, who hang around them. The big ones pick on little kids. Not us. Throw drink at nine- year-olds and spit at them. Think they're dead 'ard.'

Dead 'ard. In the courts it translates into longer words. 'Selfish, uncaring, and generally cold.' That was what they called a girl of 12 when she was sentenced in 1992 for killing an 18-month- old girl. She had been subjected to violence herself. Mary Bell, who killed two boys, one four, one three, when she was 11, was also thought hard, unfeeling. She had spent much of her time on the streets, and had nearly died several times in childhood as a result of 'accidents' in the home.

If the grimy children who took James away and hit him on the head on his long walk did murder him, their story is likely to be one often told.

With righteous indignation, the mob was out, intervening in Snowdrop Street in Kirkdale this week against an undersized 12-year-old whom the police had arrested. It was, of course, too late. It was, of course, the wrong child. He was released, having been eliminated from police investigations.

Interventions, to save James, to save the children who dragged him away, did not come in time. Instead, the decade- long cycles of deprivation, anger and violence roll on. Leaning against the shop, around the corner from the Victorian grimness of the laughably named Snowdrop Street, and Pansy Street and Woodbine Street, were two youths. 'Have you got a fag?' they said. They were Damian Regan, 17, and Gary Dean, 16. Neither had work or any hope of it. They thought, like almost all the children and adults I talked to, that if children were found to have murdered young James, they should be hanged, or, at the least, tortured.

(Photograph omitted)