Mark Steel: Sixties nostalgia that hid the horrors of Jersey

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The Independent Online

One striking aspect of the child abuse allegations being investigated in Jersey is that they took place in an environment of charming 1960s discipline that so many people scream we should get back to. It was a time without hoodies or political correctness, when children were taught respect and the bobby on the beat was not afraid to give young scallywags a clip round the ear and ignore their allegations of mass abuse, because back then everyone knew their place, especially children. So, jolly policemen would call out to them: "Good morning, David, everything's in order I hope. What's that – you've been beaten, half-strangled and tortured? Well, that's all part of growing up, I'm afraid. Now don't let me see you walking across the grass by Mr Filbert the fishmonger's again or you'll get a smack across the legs – that's private property is that."

So if there was more honesty about old English country life, books such as the Famous Five would have chapters that ended: "Mister Widdlebury and Rusty the Red Setter delivered the milk churn to the vicar's wife. 'Would you like some Swiss roll?' she asked, 'The servants have just baked it fresh'.

'I'm afraid I can't,' said Mr Widdlebury, 'I've got to get back to the cottage to shackle a child to a wall with manacles before opening the batting against Todworth.' Later that day, as Mr Widdlebury celebrated scoring the winning runs, Aunt Norma came to visit with her delicious mint and lemon scones. 'What's that dreadful screaming coming from the cellar?' she asked. 'Yes isn't it ghastly,' said Mr Widdlebury.

'Never mind, I've got an idea,' piped up the vicar, 'why don't we drown it out with a spiffing sing-song round the piano.' And everyone had a splendid time singing 'All Things Bright And Beautiful', especially Rusty!"

Yet it is almost customary for every politician to get nostalgic for a mythical age of polite, safe, decent Britain. Maybe in Jersey the old politicians say: "We need to get back to the values of the 1960s, when you could go out all night, leave your door open and know that no one would come in and rescue the child you were keeping hostage."

Or there are the columns, such as the one in The Sun just before the Jersey story became public, that went: "Let's get back to respect for teachers, proper school uniforms, and discipline – including the cane." It was a similar line of thought that led to the weakest argument I have ever heard put by anyone, when a cabbie told me: "I got whacked with a cane for misbehaving every single day for years when I was at school, and it taught me never to misbehave again."

Another way of putting the argument for caning is that you should wallop a child while you can get away with it because you are bigger than them, and that should ensure they grow up never thinking they can go round walloping people just because they are smaller than them.

On top of that, back in the idyllic values of the "know your place" 1960s that are so revered, almost all sexuality was seen as seedy and grubby, especially in rural areas. In those days, a leaflet advising teenage boys would probably contain sections like: "If you think you might be homosexual – suppress it, boy. It's the temptation of Satan, so next time you feel aroused at the thought of another man, chew a lightbulb until your throat is all lacerated. That should sort it."

The more disciplinarian and religious the society, the more it seemed to produce suppressed and twisted people, some of whom took the logic of insisting "children should know their place" to an abominable conclusion.

But it is not just because of a few sick individuals, it is a result of a set of values, which is why the rest of the community keeps quiet about it, until it is discovered decades later. So rural Ireland is packed with tales of priestly abuse from those times, almost the entire male population of the Pitcairn Islands was arrested for it, and now it is Jersey's turn.

Even today, some of the spokesmen from Jersey have popped up to make comments such as: "Obviously, this is all very regrettable, but we really mustn't let it spoil our delightful tulip festival, which I urge everyone to come and visit on 14 March."

And surely the lesson of all this is that the place could have done with the teenagers all being hoodies in the 1960s. How much misery could have been avoided if, each time they received an unexpected visit from a "carer", they had leaned into his face and snapped: "Blood, you's disrespectin' me. Now you leave my crib or I mash you up, innit."