‘Boys A and B’ – and a murder that shocked us all

In 1993 Jamie Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre, tortured and murdered. His killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were too young to be named at the time


Bryan Appleyard
Thursday 06 October 2016 19:20 BST

25 November 1993

Crowds gathered when Boys A and B first appeared at the youth court. Abuse was screamed at the police, press and any passing vans that might contain the defendants. ‘‘Kill the bastards,’’ they cried, ‘‘A life for a life.’’ Photographs the next day showed distorted faces, arms flung wide in anguish and imprecation. ‘‘They’ve got to take out their frustration on someone,’’ said a policeman at the scene, ‘‘you can understand it.’’ And, as the crowd dispersed, the shouters, the kickers and the screamers claimed, with some small degree of satisfaction, ‘‘to have done their bit for justice’’.

Only those still corrupted by banal conceptions of human progress can doubt that those angry people would, given the opportunity, have lynched Boys A and B and torn them apart. Like maddened mobs throughout history, they wanted their rage to be sublimated with blood. And, again like so many other mobs, they sensed a purity in their mob desire, the purity of justice.

Justice, however, is the one thing that cannot be had from the James Bulger murder. Justice offers catharsis, completion, an ultimate balancing of forces, a closing of the book so that life can go on. But the mob sensed that, unless they kicked and screamed, they might be denied these things. They felt that the terribly reasonable forces of law and order were inadequate to the task of closing this particular book. And, from the beginning, from those first grainy video shots in the Strand Centre, Bootle, we all felt the same.

This murder could not be reduced or contained. Dinner parties fell silent, newspaper pages were hurriedly avoided, television channels changed. Nothing could be done or said. This murder was the worst of our time.

The awful singularity of the case was clear from the beginning. The face of James was a perfect summary of blond-haired, blue-eyed, innocent attractiveness, and the severed, bloody carcass on the railway line a meticulous image of its total, futile desecration. Then there were the video shots, haunting and unclear as if a shimmering field of evil surrounding the three figures had fogged the optics. Then the precariousness of it all: at any moment it could have been stopped – the few yards or seconds that separated James from his mother, the witnesses who saw the boys but none of whom felt they had seen enough to take action.

Then the long walk, the fatal progress to the railway line – two-and-a-half miles of dragging, kicking and cajoling James. Then the detailed practicalities of the killing, the messy difficulty of violent death, the bricks, the 22lb railway fishplate possessed of such evil magic that one juror could not even touch it…

It was a slow-motion killing in daylight, in public, a nightmare of impotence. In space, ran the movie caption, nobody can hear you scream. The foggy videos of this dream Bootle had no soundtrack.

They all noticed these terrible absolutes. ‘‘There are no words in the English language,’’ said Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, ‘‘to describe how I feel.’’ ‘‘This,’’ said the coroner, Roy Barter, ‘‘is the most dreadful and shocking murder inquest I have had to open in the last 25 years.’’ Even Labour’s Tony Blair seemed to be testing the limits of meaningful political language when he spoke of such crimes as ‘‘hammer blows against the sleeping conscience of society’’. And, most poignantly, Kirby, clutching at the vain hope, the decent human faith that the proximity of evil would be obvious, manifest, said during his search for the killers: ‘‘No human being can contain the fact that they have been responsible in a child’s death.’’ Clearly Kirby is a good man – better, at least, than the world he is obliged to contemplate. For the truth is that many human beings have quite successfully contained such facts.

Reason could not soothe these feelings. Some might say terrible things are happening daily in Bosnia, or remember Cambodia, Waco, My Lai ... James is one boy, look at these piles of skulls, these rivers of blood. But the global perspective is usually meaningless and never more so than in this case. This victim had a name, a face; he was taken in a drab shopping centre from outside A R Timms, the butcher. People like us saw him and failed to save him. We could so easily have done the same. This was our own special slice of evil, we owned it, it belonged to us. And the weird presence of all those international journalists at the trial rammed the point home: the death of Jamie Bulger was a little, English-flavoured death. Even the violence-hardened Americans found this death unusually – what is the word? – resonant.

Equally, reason could not explain away these feelings. Doubtless, now the trial is over, there will be long, reasonable explanations of what James’s death proves. Perhaps Boys A and B were exposed to violent videos. Ban them. Perhaps their home lives provide exemplary evidence of the collapse of family values. Legislate. Perhaps teachers and social workers failed. Reform. Perhaps poverty spawned delinquency. Vote Labour. Something must be done, anything. But James is still meaninglessly, inexplicably dead.

Reason fought back with technology. A new device was being rushed on to the market that would trigger an alarm if a toddler strayed more than 15 metres from its mother. And we had, after all, caught them on video. Nasa offered its video enhancement resources, usually employed to read the terrain of distant planets, to help examine dream Bootle. And then there was the queasy fascination with the whole forensic apparatus. At last a touch of comedy. There was Catchem – the Central Analytical Team Collating Homicide Expertise and Management – and Holmes – the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System. The first acronym evoked a sudden, decisive swoop by the forces of good, the second the possibility of a benign, brilliant computer in a deerstalker, righting wrongs with a touch of fabulous genius. Boys A and B did not stand a chance. With DNA, videos and computers we caught them.

The comedy was in the hubris, in the vain belief that catching them was all we had to do to close the book. Yet, even after they were caught, that long walk to the railway line still happened, they still did it, they still found something in James Bulger worth killing.

Unreason sought the usual, touching expression. ‘‘James RIP’’ said a banner held up at a Liverpool football match. Criminals came forward to help the police, showing that even the hard men had hearts that revolted against this extremity of hardness. The now familiar shrines of still-wrapped flowers appeared at the tainted sites. The attached notes said James was with the angels. Priests and politicians spoke of the good that might come of this – more closely protected children, the drawing together of the community, the consolations of collective grief.

Television reporters employed their most deadly, deadened cliche to claim that people were ‘‘coming to terms’’ with what had happened, as if there were some transcendent deal to be done with evil. But, of course, there is not. Evil is the enemy, that is all, there can be no deals, no peace.

Finally one thing is clear: the James Bulger murder was special. All the talk, all the silence could change nothing. It happened. And its singularity, its unique potency sprang from one, glaringly obvious fact: it was done by children upon a child. This is what gave the case its hard, irreducible core. For the feeling is that the locking up of two 11- year-olds, for however long, is not enough. It could not satisfy the craving for balance and justice.

Of course they knew right from wrong; of course they were as surely in the grip of evil as any adult killer. But they were still children. The interrogating detectives used talk of computer games to put them at their ease. In the dock and when arrested, Boy B cried like any child whose mischief has been exposed. ‘‘What about his mum?’’ he asked. ‘‘Will you tell her I’m sorry?’’

Children are closer to chaos and magic, both black and white. Some parents have wondered if, given the right circumstances, their own offspring could do the same. Fleeting naughtiness is suddenly seen as a glimpse of the worst and the darkest that we can do. Lord of the Flies is evoked, the improbably thin veneer of civilisation, the need, when the chaotic time comes, for the blood of the weakest, the most vulnerable and close.

Remember Boy A’s pathetic attempt at reasoned denial. If, he said to the police, I had wanted to kill a little boy, I could have killed my brother. Pointless, of course, to tell him: that is exactly what you did.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in