Christina Patterson: Why we should be grateful to a young offender's mother

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For some 18-year-olds, being photographed holding hands with your mother would be quite punishment enough. So would the suit. And the tie. Even if it was loosely knotted and worn with a not-fully-buttoned-up shirt.

But for Edward Woollard, the wild-haired schoolboy clutching the hand of his wild-haired mother, this was just the start. The sentence was two years and eight months. The effects are likely to last a life.

Tania Garwood broke down when the judge announced the sentence, as you probably would when your son, who was due to take an A-level in a couple of days, would instead be spending the day, and night, and the next few hundred days and nights, under lock and key with a few hundred young men for whom a missed A-level was unlikely to be a big bonding opportunity. She must have hoped that the 30 character references that were presented to the court, and her son's shame at what politicians like to call a moment of madness, and his full admission of guilt, would have knocked some of those days off. But the judge was not in a lenient mood. He wanted, he said, to set an example. And he did.

Garwood must have wondered how her son would get on in a place where raging hormones and sexual frustration might well ensure that that baby face isn't much of an asset, a place where it probably helps to be a bit tough, and a bit streetwise, and a bit of a fighter, which, those clasped hands suggest, Woollard probably isn't. Many of his new room-mates, or whatever you call people you share a cell, or dormitory, with in a young offenders' institute, will have been in care. A fair few will barely be able to read. Whatever else they all emerge with, at the end of something that had better be a pleasure for Her Majesty, since it isn't for anyone else, it isn't hugely likely to be A-levels.

Perhaps Woollard's fate was sealed when, in that split second on a cold day in November, he decided, on what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration against the trebling of tuition fees, to tag along with a group of students marching, and then breaking into, the building that housed the Tory party's offices, and then to go up to the roof, and then to pick up a fire extinguisher and then, in a moment of God knows what, and Woollard himself probably doesn't, to hurl it over the edge. The fact that there was video footage of the incident, in which he was pretty clearly identifiable, suggests that it might well have been. But the moment we know it was was five days later. When his mother drove him to a police station and turned him in.

It's hard to imagine, when every instinct, in every molecule of your being, has, since the moment you gave birth, been to protect the creature you once cradled in your arms, the creature you wish, in a way, that you could cradle in your arms for ever, how you could march that creature down to the nearest police station, knowing what would follow. I don't know how many parents would do it, and they don't either, since no one can ever actually know what they'll do in a situation where their heart is cut in two. But this parent did. "What he has done is a terrible and awful thing," she said, "which he is paying for now. I brought up my children to take responsibility for their actions. I believe he deserves to be punished. I just hope it is the right punishment."

Is it "the right punishment"? Well, Woollard will, if he behaves himself, which he probably will, be out, on a tag, by Christmas. And what he did, on the crest of a wave of adolescent passion, was indeed a "terrible and awful thing". He is very, very, very lucky that nobody was injured or killed. He is very lucky that he will probably spend a year locked up, rather than the six or so years he would have done if someone had been. He is very lucky that he doesn't have to spend the rest of his life under the shadow of a death he caused. He's lucky to have had the education he's had, which will, in the future, if not now, see him in good stead, and he's very, very lucky to have a mother who understands the terrifying line that divides things being OK from things not being OK, and who cares enough about her son to want him to understand it, too.

There's always a moment, before the raised fist, or the extra drink, or the foot on the accelerator, when life could continue pretty much as before, and then the split-second choice that means it can't. Many people in prison, and particularly those who are in for acts of violence, haven't learnt to recognise that moment, or haven't been taught it, or have experienced it so often that they override it without a flicker of thought. A society can't function without that recognition of a line that can't be crossed without terrible consequences, a line which is actually about recognising that other people are as real as you are, and, in their shared mortality, as fragile.

A society also can't function, or at least it can't function very well, without the recognition that people outside your family are as real as the people in it. There has, in recent years, been a growing emphasis on the "hard-working family" as the seat of all that's good: parents battling for their darlings' rights and now, God help us, even clubbing together to start schools. There's a name for a community that puts family first. It's called a mafia. We should all be grateful to Tania Garwood for reminding us that a functioning society is a whole lot better than a mafia, and that some of its citizens make us proud to be a part of it, and one day maybe their sons will, too.

Lessons in plain speaking from Japan

If you're a world leader's wife, you need to observe a few simple rules. You should be pretty, but not so stunning that female voters hate you. You should be nicely coiffed and nicely dressed. (Think corporate lawyer or smart casual, but never, ever, dress-down Friday.) You should be bright, but not so bright that you suddenly start pronouncing on things, unless they're things to do with charities, health, organic gardening, and children's welfare. And, above all, you should be loyal. You can make a few careful quips about your husband's shortcomings, but these must be along the lines of those job interviews where you're asked about your weaknesses and say "perfectionism". Everything you say, do and wear should scream lovely helpmate rather than bossy power behind the throne.

All of which makes Nobuko Kan, the wife of Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, really rather refreshing. Mrs Kan told reporters in Tokyo this week that she wouldn't marry her husband again, if she had a second chance. "I've already lived this life," she said, "and it's not fun to repeat the same thing. I would," she added, "want to have a totally different life." As if this less than ecstatic endorsement of married life wasn't enough, she went on to say that her husband was a bully who deserved the stream of criticism that was coming his way. "I guess the challenge for him now," she said, "is how will he take it?"

I guess it is. But if he's taken this kind of wifely support for the past 40 years, I'd say that the omens are pretty good.

What we can learn from a natural disaster

Apart from one little by-election, which political pundits treated like the advent of a new world order, the news for weeks has been largely weather. First it was snow, and the effects of it: on shops, on airports, on the availability of Brussels sprouts. Then it was rain. Suddenly great swathes of the world looked as if a child had thrown their Lego in the bath, and was watching it bobbing around.

The miracle in Australia, where an area bigger than France and Germany combined is under water, is that so few people died. The same cannot be said of Brazil, where more than 500 have died in two days. It is, of course, all about infrastructure, and all about government.

In Haiti, a year on from the earthquake that tore it apart, there's still little in the way of infrastructure, and little in the way of government. People who lost sons and daughters, and husbands and wives, are still living in tents. On Monday, one of them was asked if he was angry about the lack of progress. He said he wasn't. "Tomorrow," he said simply, breathtakingly, "would have been the anniversary of my death."

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