HAVE children ever been more demonised than they are today? 'Little horrors', people call them, and hardly a day goes by without some story of brutality and lost innocence: six-year-olds wrecking a house; an eight-year-old holding up a sweet shop at gunpoint; a 12-year-old raping a pensioner. Above all, there was the Bulger case: abduction, murder, two 11-year-olds truanting from childhood straight to hell. 'Evil', said the tabloids. One policeman compared them to the Krays.
But as Gitta Sereny's articles for this paper and David James Smith's book The Sleep of Reason have shown, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were the products of a world made by adults. And however terrible their crime, it haunted us in part because of its familiarity: child abduction is a standard theme of fairy-tales (think of The Pied Piper of Hamelin) and was also the starting-point for Ian McEwan's recent novel A Child in Time; child cruelty and violence is something we know about from Shakespeare, from Hogarth, from Lord of the Flies, even from Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
So why the moral panic about a newly brutalised, out-of-control younger generation? Maybe it's because many parents today recall their own Fifties and Sixties childhoods as comparatively safe, free and unsupervised, forgetting the nasty bits and imagining one long Famous Five bicycle trip or camping jaunt. Or maybe it's an ancient hositility: fearing and envying children as our usurpers, we fall back on stereotypes - devils, angels, take your pick.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in Rousseau, Blake and Wordsworth, the child was romanticised as a messenger from God, innately pure, wise and gifted, an inspiration to grown-ups. There is a passage in George Eiot's Silas Marner which imagines an angel leading men away from destruction: 'a hand is put in theirs which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and that hand may be a little child's' . . . . . . paintings and photographs, those child angels become eroticised, their purity a tease and come-on. And even in the most idealised 19th-or 20th-century portraits of children asleep, ill or tearful, one can glimpse dark adult motives.
So it goes on. The great modern myth is of the litte ones having power - children in adult clothes, children with deep voices and dangerous weapons, children possessed by the devil - while we big ones feel like Gulliver on Lilliput, powerless and tied down. It's this myth which the Bulger case has been made to serve - when in reality most child murder victims (and there are many each year, meriting only brief mentions) die at the hands of their mothers, fathers and stepfathers.
Not long after the Bulger trial I went back to my old childhood home and found it empty, vandalised, a ruin. 'Bloody kids', the neighbours said, pointing at the smashed windows, and of course it seemed a kind of desecration of childhood - my childhood, anyway. But then my childhood was long left behind, anyway, and wandering round the vacant rooms I felt they symbolised something else: how, once we lose touch with childhood, it becomes an empty space, a blank screen, a tabula rasa, where we project or act out our fantasies. And what childhood and children are really like doesn't enter the picture.
The poem opposite, in which some of these ideas are explored, formed the basis for a documentary film made with director Susanna White and producers Jane Root and Elizabeth Levy. 'Poem' may be going it a bit: the words were written to accompany archive material, interviews, extracts from films and advertisements, old cine films and newly shot footage, and I thought of the lines as flints to spark debate, a seminar in blank verse not a unified poem for the page. But the text here, cut down and re-shaped, gives the idea, I hope.
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