Darling little 'itlers with mucked-up genes

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The Independent Online
I PONDERED Lady Olga Maitland's revelation, alas all too credible, that there is in her quiet, leafy Surrey constituency of Sutton a gang of arrogant children that has stolen pounds 1.5m worth of goods, earning up to pounds 2,000 a night by selling the loot.

At least six of them have been arrested more than 20 times each for burglary and car theft, then released back into the community, there to offend again. Because of their age, they are above the law - a sort of aristocracy of crime, justified sinners, a delinquent elect.

Did old Wordsworth, I wondered, start it all? He has us coming as children into this world trailing clouds of glory, with heaven lying about us, a heaven to be dispersed only by shades of the impending prison-house.

Was it he who first robbed our society of any true idea of what children (or some children) are, or can be, really like - and thus, incidentally, of any true idea of what we ourselves, the children of those children, are really like?

Poets were described by Shelley as unacknowledged legislators of the world. Is it perhaps time that these wild usurpers faced the electorate?

I don't deny - who could? - that some children come into this world trailing clouds of goodness, wisdom and talent, of potential distinction in feeling, thought or creativity, of glory if you like. Others also, or instead, trail clouds of what used to be called original sin. They trail bad genetic clouds, dark clouds of mental instability or incapacity. Did Wordsworth not notice that? His friend Coleridge did, when he pointed out that the world is not a pretty goddess in petticoats, a la Rousseau, but a madman confined with difficulty in a straitjacket. In our own day, William Golding, now alas dead, noticed this in a cloud of flies.

Some children are already fallen, though not without hope: they are in need of grace and redemption. Others again will trail clouds of benevolent or arrogant barminess. They may become social workers or other compassionate carers, determined to protect the fallen from the severe discipline or punishment they urgently need. A Sutton mother pleads for her son, fruitlessly arres-

ted and released 33 times, to be 'caged' for his own good.

Led astray by the glory- trailers, our enlightened contemporaries seem to regard children with a sort of well-intentioned but ill-founded contempt. They see them as nothing more than innocent, helpless and hapless dependents. They ignore or implicitly despise the emergent independent logic and free wills of children, which may tend powerfully to evil. They rule out the possibility that children trail clouds of innate cynicism and unsentimental shrewdness.

Some children, more and more perhaps these days, are sharp enough to recognise and profit by a society that has dropped its guard and abandoned most sanctions against their wrong-doings.

Incidentally, could any society but our own (oh, and the United States: it must be spreading), actually set up Childline, to incite children to delate by telephone their elders as child molesters?

Something like this went on in occupied France, where grudges were settled by anonymous delation to the Gestapo. Such public-spirited zeal, however, was never widely admired.

Has Ms Rantzen no idea of how mischievous children can be? No memory even of how mischievous she herself was? Perhaps she wasn't mischievous, but somehow she has never struck me as a natural goody-two-shoes (Ferragamo, of course). There is a certain glint in her eye. I am half sorry to see her go.

I wonder if I could have resisted the temptation to denounce my pedantic maths teacher as one who felt boys' bottoms? Was I then an exceptionally awful child? Oh no, not exceptionally . . .

A more disillusioned appraisal of children's characteristics was once, if not now, current in working-class demotic speech - 'a real little limb of Satan', 'a Tartar', 'a demon' or 'proper little devil', 'a terror', 'a regular little 'itler'. Social workers now disdain such crude argot. A pity?

I have grandchildren of my own, incidentally, on whom I dote. Their parents will be reading this stuff, if at all, with more than their usual apprehensive suspicion. 'Dad's off raving about children: does he mean ours?' Oh, of course not, nor any Independent readers' dear children either. I mean those others. But we may remember with awe that Hitler had a mother, of whom he was said to be very fond.

NO ONE in the Second World War could see the US army work in Normandy and north- west Europe without forming a tremendous respect for it. It was always can-do, let's-get- up-and-go. Regardless of opposition, it stormed and forged always ahead. Its discipline loose but effective, its optimistic spirit unquenchable, it was undaunted by the prospect even of heavy casualties.

Something about the US military since seems from the outside to have gone badly wrong. It has plenty of bombs and missiles; but it now relies on them to accomplish all things - 'nothing bombs and missiles can't do'. Yet bombs did not fix Hitler. Bodies on the ground did that. Nor did bombs fix Ho; nor have they so far fixed Saddam. They seem to have perked him up, as drastic pruning perks up a rose.

A morbid fear of American casualties, a decadent determination to avoid them at all cost, seems now to cloud US military thinking, to thwart its will. American business (and ours) lies unfinished all over the place. Granted, we in Europe can't talk. We never begin our business at all, let alone finish it. The Falklands were an exception - the last?

Granted, too, that no one but a lunatic could value casualties for their own sake. And a healthy fear of casualties may happily avert unnecessary and fruitless wars. By contrast, an unhealthy fear of casualties can actually nourish, as in Bush's and Clinton's America, illusory hopes and dreams of short, savage, even frivolous bombing wars without risks or costs to the attacker. Such wars achieve little or nothing. They therefore have to be repeated, like fixes of some noxious drug. And the risks and costs are always still there, perhaps festering and breeding, though the attacker is deluded that he has averted them.

Apart from the physical risks and material costs, the attacker may also ignore at his peril the moral risks and costs. Kipling warned in Recessional, 'if drunk with sight of power we loose wild tongues that have not Thee in awe'; 'for heathen heart that puts her trust in reeking tube and iron shard thy mercy on Thy People, Lord'. We hear those awful words and tremble. Are they audible in the White House?