Two small faces have dominated the news over the past week – Madeleine McCann and Rhys Jones. These children have been the focus of huge media attention. We have all asked ourselves if the intense publicity is down to both sets of bereaved parents being attractive, middle-class and articulate, but these are remarkable stories, model parents or not. Other children have gone missing, other teenagers murdered by their peers over the past few months, and yet these two particular youngsters have galvanised the public in a remarkable way. Suddenly we are all experts on both cases.
Meanwhile, the trial of Jacqueline Simpson continues in the same city where Rhys was buried, painting a very different picture of childcare in contemporary Britain. Mrs Simpson denies manslaughter through gross negligence – her five-year-old granddaughter Ellie was mauled to death by a pit bull terrier in her living room last New Year's Day. Mrs Simpson admitted in court that she let the dog into the house in the middle of the night and had smoked up to 10 spliffs, drunk a couple bottles of wine, as well as taking sleeping pills and anti-depressants on the day of the attack. It hadn't affected her judgement, she said, as she had smoked the same amount of cannabis every day for 25 years.
We are obsessed with our children's welfare to the point where the issue has replaced the NHS, the economy, our hidden tax bills and soaring mortgages in terms of the key problem that's got to be addressed. Last week, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservatives seemed to be competing to announce as many initiatives involving youth as possible. Gordon visited a school with Ed Balls, the children's minister, and promptly announced that it was much better than the old school because it was new. Well, no, Gordon, I think you'll find that generally there's nothing wrong with old schools and Victorian buildings, if money is spent on them, and quite often small, human-scale architecture produces better results than big impersonal boxes.
But I digress. Mr Brown launched the first of his consultations with the public at a school in Bristol, and promptly announced that after clamping down on gambling and supercasinos, he was now focusing his attention on young people watching violence and pornography on the internet (by setting up yet another review), as well as re-examining 24-hour drinking.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron teamed up with boxing champion Amir Khan for a photo opportunity to announce a 21st-century version of National Service for school leavers which involves leaving home for a residential stay, perhaps in army barracks, making a gift, an enforced period of silence, some voluntary service and a certificate at the end, presumably to show potential employers that you are not going to nick anything or draw a knife on the receptionist.
And diet was back on the agenda again. Following a report which found that some food additives radically alter children's behaviour, the Foods Standards Agency declined to issue a ban on the E numbers in question, claiming it was a matter for parents. Another report found that there's so much salt in the crap kids eat that children as young as four are now suffering from high blood pressure.
There are plenty of existing laws in place to deal with young people who get caught up in gun crime, drunken behaviour, video violence and pornography. Why waste millions on yet more consultants and so-called experts, when the answer to our obsession with our fat, violent, drunk and badly educated kids lies right in front of us. Children are bred by parents – and generally brought up by one or more of them – and it's clear that in big cities such as Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and London there are very different kinds of parents. No matter how many fresh "initiatives" middle-class blokes in suits in Westminster might come up with, they aren't going to make any difference. Parents are voters – it's always easier for politicians not to do anything that will make their lives tougher, isn't it?
I never blame kids, ever. Send mum and dad (if you can find him) on this newfangled National Service. Ban mum and dad from watching crap telly, eating crisps and shovelling shit full of E numbers in their mouths. Stop demonising kids.
Women of Wetherby, do not stand for this
A po-faced group of young women (none larger than a size eight, and all under 25) stare out at us from our morning papers. What's going on? Debenhams has decided to rebrand itself – photographing groups of men, women and children in designer merchandise, cleverly calling the groups after non-existent clubs – so we have the Pimlico Arts Club, the Biggleswade Hot Air Balloon Club and the Hastings Ladies Kickboxing Club. This waif-like miss in her short red coat, who holds a heart-shaped sponge as if it is a holy relic, is part of a tableau entitled Wetherby Women's Association. Knowing Wetherby in North Yorkshire well, I can't imagine this parody of the Rylstone Women's Institute (which gave us the Calendar Girls) will go down too well. Not many in the Wetherby WI would get any of this gear over their elbows – and I think they've moved on from tea cosies and fairy cakes.
Debenhams is a great place for cheap bags and coats by leading designers – often in larger sizes – but this ad strikes me as a bit patronising about the WI and dear old Wetherby, to say the least.
Pavarotti and the joy of two big blokes in a kitchen
The death of Luciano Pavarotti meant that for a day, at least, the sound of raw, 150 per cent emotion blasted out of our radios as "Nessun Dorma" got played almost every hour. I met him only once, at the party after his amazing concert in Hyde Park when the heavens opened and Princess Diana got soaked after he asked her to put her umbrella down so that people behind could see.
Around this time I went to a TV festival in Cannes and got drunk at a party with Peter Ustinov. The next day, we had an entertaining lunch and he persuaded me to put the BBC's money towards a programme in which he would interview Pavarotti. How could it fail? A legendary raconteur and music buff spends a day in the home of the most famous singer on the planet.
What did I get? A bizarre documentary starring two bearded middle-aged men wearing billowing shirts and voluminous shorts standing in a swimming pool, giggling. Two large blokes hanging out for hours in a kitchen discussing their favourite foods while Pavarotti whisked up lunch. Two massive fellows sitting down eating spaghetti and talking with their mouths full, while drinking bottles of wine. The maestro's operatic career barely got mentioned. I had been hoping for a serious in-depth assessment of Pavarotti's work, with backstage gossip about top conductors and sopranos he worked with thrown in for good measure – the result was more like a remake of The Blues Brothers in Italy.
It was hilarious, and I hope that the BBC digs it out of its archives and reshows it.Reuse content