Maybe it’s because I’m (not originally) a Londoner…


Londoners showing characteristic insouciance   & ignoring 40 foot tall spider...

Londoners showing characteristic insouciance by ignoring 40 foot tall spider on South Bank…

Not so long ago, late one evening, a man who lives on our street in north London hammered on the front door. It was my 18-year-old son who heard him and opened it. Rather breathlessly, the man – whom my son didn’t recognise  – explained he had nearly been mugged and had headed for the nearest front door to get away from his would-be assailants.

After waiting a few minutes in our hall, it appeared the muggers had disappeared, so he went on his way.

The next night, he came back. This time, he was carrying a bottle of red wine, by way of thanks for the previous night. My son opened the door again, gratefully accepted the wine, and they had a bit of a chat. It didn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name or which number he lived at on our (not very long) street.

For me, this episode (the attempted mugging bit aside, obviously) encapsulates everything I love about my adoptive home town (of which more, later).

One in three  22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

One in three 22-30 year-olds who move city move to the capital

There was a moment when, as a fairly disaffected teen living at home in Reading, Berkshire, I realised the only place I ever wanted to live was London. It wasn’t the sights, or the shops, or even the fact that so many of the punk bands we wanted to see played here. It was the green Mohican. I was on a busy bus heading back to Paddington station, when a youth, in full punk regalia and foot-high green plumage, got on – and no one took the slightest bit of notice of him. Not one eyelid was batted. This, I remember thinking, is the place for me. Not because I wanted green spiky hair, but because I wanted to live somewhere no one would care if I did. Having seen my mum tell my sister to move out after she came home with an afro perm (for fear of what the neighbours would say), it felt like liberation.

In Reading in those days, anyone outlandish or unconventional would get stares at best, a good kicking from the New Town Boys at worst. The NTB were local hard nuts, who lived around Cemetery Junction – the area featured in the Ricky Gervais film of the same name (although the filmatic version bears no resemblance…). A bit like skins, with crombies and DMs but longer hair, the NTB thought it only their duty to beat non-conformity out of anyone they happened upon.

In London, I was delighted to discover, even the most ludicrous hairstyle wasn’t enough to warrant a second glance, let alone a punch in the face.

It may be that places like Reading have changed in the last 30 years, but perhaps not as much as you might think.

When I was growing up, an elderly man who lived two doors down, put up a sign in his front garden berating the man opposite for regularly parking his car outside his house. On a public road. Not blocking his drive way, or anything. Just parked outside, entirely legally. It probably didn’t help our neighbour’s temper that the family opposite were Asian – still a rarity in that area at the time.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the close where my mum now lives, when one of her neighbours came out to say I couldn’t park directly opposite his drive. I was more amused than annoyed (displaying characteristic Londoner tolerance); explained I hadn’t realised he owned the road, and meekly parked elsewhere. (In fairness, he did have the good grace to apologise to my mum subsequently for being a bit of a prat.)

So what is it about the doorstep incident that cheers me so much?

I love the fact that that the man knew he could call at our door for help, even though he didn’t know us from Adam (or vice versa). I love it that my otherwise streetwise son’s instinct was to open the door to someone in apparent distress. Although not unaware it might be a scam (and we have had plenty of those…), the desire to help overrode other worries. I love it that the man was sweet enough to bring wine, and the fact he went out to buy it the next night, rather than sitting at home worrying about getting mugged again. And I particularly love the fact that, although both wanted to acknowledge they’d done the other a good turn, neither my son or the man felt the need to go crazy and act as if they were now best buddies and ask the other’s name or anything…..

People criticise London for its anonymity, but that is also its greatest strength. With anonymity comes acceptance, tolerance, and suspension of judgement, all qualities which, in my (possibly atypical) experience, tend to be in shorter supply outside the capital.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, recently said London was ‘draining life out of the rest of the country,’ oblivious to the fact that the capital is creating the kind of life for some people that is just not possible elsewhere. No wonder, one in three 22-30 year olds who move city, move to London. The only surprise to me is that when they hit their 30s and start families, 60% of Londoners move out to the ‘burbs. Maybe it’s (largely unwarranted) fears about London schools that does it, but why anyone would want to deprive their children of the chance of growing up in one of the best, most divese cities in the world, I cannot imagine.

When I see the class photo of the daughter of friends who live two hours up the M1, and it is a sea of white faces, I feel faintly depressed and slightly claustrophobic. When I hear the father say their holiday hotel was run by ‘two poofs,’ I reflect that the word ‘poofs’ has probably not been uttered in polite society in north London in 30 years.

As the roll call of dead emerged after 7/7, mixed with shock and outrage was very real pride, that people from so many different countries and cultures, had chosen this magnet of a city as their home, and been rubbing along in the same tube train. The week after the bombings, the cover of Timeout magazine read: ‘London Carries On.’ And, of course, being Londoners, we did. (And, if UKIP leader Nigel Farage feels ‘slightly awkward‘ only hearing foreign voices, may I suggest he stops taking up valuable space on rush-hour trains out of Charing Cross and buggers off back to the 1950s.)

What some perceive as Londoners’ unfriendliness, I would characterise as keeping our noses out where they’re not wanted. Where help is obviously needed, it tends to be forthcoming. The friendliness of the 2012 Olympics was not an aberration, but London doing what it mostly does. Anyone who travels by bus – and invariably witnesses people springing up to offer a seat if someone pregnant, or with a walking stick gets on – can testify to that. Just this week, a friend over from Paris (only two-and-a-bit hours by Eurostar…), who was making a pig’s ear of getting through the Arsenal tube barrier with her suitcase, had two Underground staff instantly at her side offering joshing assistance (while I waited further ahead shouting, ‘Get a grip, woman!’)

Obviously, London isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The journalist Ian Jack recently compared London’s ‘noisy, febrile and decadent’ restaurants (I think it was meant to be a criticism) unfavourably with one he had just visited in Belgium, which was ‘full of middle-class and middle-aged-to-elderly people in forgettable clothes’. Each to their own. What sounds to me like a geriatric ward – quiet, men in white aprons, elderly people eating ‘potato soup and cod’ – is Ian’s idea of a good night out. That’s absolutely fine, Ian. I am a Londoner, and I Do Not Judge (even though you’re wrong).

I am of course horribly biased. All the best things in my life, have happened to me in London: studying, working, meeting my husband (who also grew up in the sticks, and had a map of the Underground on his bedroom wall), setting up home, getting married, having children, the opportunity to forge friendships with all manner of fine folk.

London is not Nirvana. But Londoners should take pride in the fact that, in the main, we don’t care if you’re gay or straight, or somewhere in between. We don’t care if you’re black or white. I’d be lying if I said we’d got to a state of indifference towards transgender people, but I’d like to think we’re starting to get there (thanks in no small part to my good friends at All About Trans), and I’m prepared to bet we’ll do so before anywhere else in the UK. We absolutely don’t care if you keep your front garden tidy (should you be lucky enough to have one), and feel free to park outside my house any time. On a good day, we don’t even care what class you’re from. If you’re here, you’re one of us, and you’re very, very welcome. Just don’t expect us to make eye contact on the tube.

In sickness and in health


My husband, Tim, and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary today (17 December).

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

This is us 25 years ago; on honeymoon, on xmas day, in Venice. No wonder, we are smiling.

There was a time just a few months ago, when I thought we might not get here. Not, as you could be forgiven for thinking (given that nearly four out of 10 marriages end in divorce), because we might decide to go our separate ways, but because in July this year, he nearly – very, very nearly – died.

The details of his sudden illness are not especially relevant here (and that is his story to tell, not mine), but such a close brush with widowhood inevitably makes you reappraise some beliefs and confirms you in others. These are my reflections on a traumatic few months.

Things the medical profession should know, but doesn’t appear to

Patients’ families are not annoyances to be tolerated at best, avoided and ignored, if at all possible. Ill people are not islands. They come with baggage, called families, to which they hope to return. There is little point in doctors employing all their skills and expertise and precious NHS resources to save someone’s life if, by the time they have fixed them, there is no family to go back to because everyone is in pieces, having been driven to the brink of craziness by the medics’ failure to treat them with any kind of respect, or tell them what the hell is going on during what is the most important, difficult and frightening time of their lives.

It is not ok to say to the wife of a dangerously ill patient who was hospitalised while on holiday in Cornwall, that he may be stuffed in an ambulance and shipped 265 miles back to some random hospital in London, if they happen to need the bed over the weekend. Nor is it ok to tell a patient in the early stages of recovering from brain surgery that, now his life is not in immediate danger, you can’t continue to treat him for budgetary reasons. This kind of stuff does not aid a patient’s recovery, however marvellous the surgery performed or drugs prescribed.

To the consultant who couldn’t be arsed to turn up to an agreed meeting the day my husband was discharged, shame on you. It would have taken you 10 minutes. It would have saved us untold distress, when we had already been through quite enough, thank you. When someone is going home after an emergency craniotomy, it is not unreasonable to allow his spouse the chance to ask questions such as: do we have to watch him like a hawk, or can he be left on his own for short periods? Basic stuff, like that.

Things I probably should have known, but didn’t

You can survive a lot longer than you might think on a diet of chewy mints, Pro Plus and tea.

One of the earliest 'selfies'. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

One of the earliest ‘selfies’. Wales, easter 1988. Our first trip together

Cornwall is lovely, but I wouldn’t advise getting ill there. Everything is so far away from everywhere else. My husband ended up in a hospital a three-hour round trip from where we were staying. (Even the closest hospital was an hour away.) If we hadn’t been able to hole-up in a charity-run hostel near the hospital (until I was less wired and more fit to drive), I don’t know what we would have done. Anyone thinking of retiring to Cornwall, might wish to take note.

Casualty is not necessarily a hellhole. It can be the NHS at its finest. When the A&E doctor takes you into a room with pastel sofas, you should brace yourself for bad news. But however bad the news, the fact that it is delivered with such sensitivity and kindness will be really, really appreciated. Casualty doctor, you were a credit to your calling. We met only briefly and in the most difficult of circumstances, but my son still remembers your name.

When it comes to arrogance, QCs (and I deal with them quite often), have nothing on consultants. I used to think the question: ‘What’s the difference between god and a surgeon? (Answer: God doesn’t want to be a surgeon),’ was a joke. I now realise this is not the case.

Sometimes, only a cliché will do. Nurse Cathy at Truro hospital, you were not just an angel, but a star and a marvel. Even in our distress, we know how hard you fought for us. When, after a hellish day’s waiting, a doctor we had not seen before, arrived to announce that no specialist hospital would take Tim, after all (but they would discuss his case at their next regular case conference in five days’ time….), your face was as much a mask of horror as my own. I honestly do not think my husband would be alive now if you hadn’t stayed beyond the end of your shift to argue his case in a way, at the time, I could not.

Having GP friends (even if they are hundreds of miles away) can be bloody reassuring, if you are ensnared by NHS bureaucracy. I will never, ever, forget the response of doctor friends to my increasingly desperate and hysterical phone calls, when we were told there was no transport available to move my husband to a specialist neurological unit. When I phoned them again, this time on the verge of a complete meltdown at the hospital’s intransigence, my friends had already organised the charter of an air ambulance and accompanying anaesthetist.  (In the event, such DIY tactics were not needed because, after much pleading and arguing, the hospital suddenly found a solution…)

Intensive care is an amazing, humbling place. Witnessing every medical device available to the NHS devoted to keeping your husband alive and monitoring his progress, is awe-inspiring. Intensive care nurses have a unique ability to be constantly and reassuringly present, but unobtrusive and almost invisible. Nurse Alan was particularly impressive in this regard. We were also pleased to discover that, if needed, he could get in the face of an elusive consultant. When Alan saw the agony we were in, two days after Tim had been admitted to intensive care and still no doctor had come to talk to us (against the hospital’s own guidelines), we watched Alan go and just stand next to the doctor on the ward, until he agreed to come over to Tim’s bed. That was the first time anyone told us that, despite being intubated and apparently completely unaware, Tim would most likely make a full recovery. It would have been nice to have known a bit earlier that we were safe to dare to hope.

Sometimes you have to shout, literally, to be heard. Sometimes, you have to argue and demand and sob to get anyone to take any notice. Acting like a demented harpy is distressing and draining, but it may be what keeps the person you care about alive.

Things I was right about

That you should not believe all the negative crap you read about teenage boys (hello, Daily Mail!). Ours two sons are:

a) Fairly typical teens, and b) Wise, selfless and mature young men; fantastic in a crisis.

There is no contradiction between those two statements. I can think of no finer tribute to my husband’s abilities as a father than the way his sons reacted to his near demise. Whatever worries I may have for the future, those two going far wrong is not one of them. You were both brilliant, brave and resilient, and I have never been more proud to be your mum.

Animal lovers can be people lovers, too. Among our logistical nightmares, was what to do with the dog and the cat, while we decamped nearer to the hospital. Huge, huge thanks to the two complete strangers who run the local kennel and cattery. Their response to a panicky, middle-of-the-night, email was to phone first thing the next morning and say: ‘Just bring the animals, now.  Do not worry about bringing food or bedding or anything else. We have everything here and you have enough to worry about. We will keep them as long as you need us to.’ Ladies, you helped save this family.

Things I was wrong about

There is an assumption that, when the chips are really down, members of your extended family will rally round to help. Not in every case, I discovered. A couple of other things: uninviting those who are in the middle of a medical emergency from a family wedding because they didn’t RSVP in time, not kind; leaving sobbing messages about how hard you are finding it to cope on the answer phone of someone who is stuck 265 miles away from home, with a husband in intensive care, and two teenage sons scared out of their wits that their father is going to die, also not kind. Nobody likes a drama queen – particularly in the middle of a very real drama.

Whoever said that while you can’t choose your family, at least you can choose your friends was spot on. I would, therefore, like to congratulate myself for my excellent choices.  Friends, you are lovely, lovely, people – and I salute you all. We would not have got this far without you. To those who dropped everything to come to Plymouth, who sent flowers and gifts, and endless, endless, texts and emails, who visited the hospital so many times, who love-bombed us into surviving, there are no words. To the friend who, although more used to five-star luxury, came and shacked up with us in the hostel, without demur; who packed her Kindle and her unrelenting air of calm, and just sat in the waiting room for days on end, so I would have company when I emerged from the ward, I can never thank you enough. To my friend in France who really was there on the phone, day or night, with extreme good sense and wise counsel (even at 3am) – that’s a debt I can never repay.

It won’t be the silver wedding anniversary we were expecting. We’ll have to have that party we talked about another year, but happy anniversary, Tim. It probably goes without saying, we are so glad to have you back.

Alison Saunders has just become the UK’s most senior prosecutor. So what did a Radio 4 profile of the new DPP choose to focus on? Her baking skills.


Alison Saunders is not just the second woman ever to become Director of Public Prosecutions, but also a domestic goddess. Her ability to lead the CPS is as nothing to her skills with an egg whisk, apparently.

Saunders: DPP and domestic goddess

Saunders: DPP and domestic goddess

I know this after listening to Radio 4’s Profile programme on Saturday, presented by Becky Milligan. Of the 13-minute show, nearly six minutes were devoted to celebrating Saunders’ abilities in the kitchen and as a dinner party host. Her controversial (and entirely wrong) 1996 advice against holding another inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, warranted far less – just over two minutes of air time.

While we learned that Saunders makes a mean tarte tatin, and ‘light and fluffy’ cheesecake, we heard nothing about her leading the London CPS response to the 2011 riots (which earned her a Companion of the Order of the Bath). Nor was there anything about her concern that demonisation of young women, particularly if they’ve been drinking, is a barrier to securing rape convictions.

Instead, listeners were treated to a school friend revealing the new DPP ‘can cook fabulous Sunday roasts’; and that when the pair had Saturday jobs on the cream cake counter in BHS, ‘cream cakes proved very popular’. A friend from university explained that, ‘it’s always the food that’s the pivotal point of the evening,’ at a Saunders’ dinner party. This not entirely shocking (or, indeed, interesting) revelation, prompts an almost forensic level of questioning by Milligan about Saunders’ pudding proclivities, which would do one of the DPP’s cross-examining barristers proud.

Becky Milligan: What’s the favourite [pudding], do you think?

Uni Friend: Oooh, well, it’s always something different, I means she’s –

BM: Trifle?

UF: Er, I’d say she takes on more challenging dishes than that.

BM: So, we’re not talking apple crumble.

UF: Well, she does some of the basics fantastically well, but also there’s always something else coming out, I’m just trying to think of –

BM: Prunes? [I swear I am not making this up.]  Um, custard with – what is it that you have could have – what’s the best pudding you’ve ever had?

UF: I seem to remember having a very great tarte tatin, which is challenging to do, and I can remember Alison cooking

E-FIT reconstruction of tarte tatin allegedly baked by Saunders

E-FIT reconstruction of tarte tatin allegedly baked by Saunders

one of those, but equally she will do the crumbles and the basics, as well. There’s normally a good choice there, when you’re being entertained by them.

School Friend: She cooks cakes, puddings. It really is amazing. I think, the phrase, ‘I don’t know how she does it,’ really suits Alison. Joking aside, It is amazing, I have no idea how she fits it all in, actually.

BM: What is your most memorable pudding at her house?

SF: Actually, one of the most recent was absolutely delicious.

BM: What was it?

SF: Wonderful cheesecake that was light and fluffy. It was a cheesecake. It was a new recipe that she tried.

This toe-curling segment, lasting nearly two minutes, is accompanied throughout by music from the Great British Bake Off. The programme then segues, somewhat surreally, into a news bulletin of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, followed by an altogether more pertinent comment about Saunders from the spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

At one point, the former solicitor-general, Edward Garnier MP (to whom Saunders used to report), is even asked

Garnier: had to bake own cupcakes

Garnier: former solicitor-general forced to bake own cupcakes

whether she ever baked for him. (‘I have unfortunately never had one of her cakes….’ ).

I should declare a slight interest, here. I interviewed Saunders as part of the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ research, and found her both impressive and approachable. She subsequently accepted an invitation to a Women in Journalism party, and I can confirm that, yes, she does seem pretty good company  – a point probably worth mentioning in any profile.

But for Radio 4 to subject a senior woman, doing an important and gritty job, to such fluffy, demeaning treatment is just jaw-dropping. Is Becky Mulligan auditioning to be the next Alan Partridge (now that Steve Coogan is winning plaudits as a serious actor)? Would she have asked the solicitor-general if he’d ever sampled any of Saunders’ male predecessors’ cupcakes?

It’s difficult enough for women in public life to be taken seriously as it is, and, whatever the intention, patronising Saunders in this way, can only serve to undermine her authority, both within the organisation she leads, and beyond.

If anyone is left in any doubt as to whether the DPP is more than just a pinny-wearing marvel, she should use her new powers to have Milligan tried for crimes against serious journalism, and acts preparatory to sexism. Trust me. It’s an open and shut case.

Why expanding the electorate to 16 year olds gets my vote

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The Labour Party’s announcement that it plans to lower the voting age to 16  gave newspaper columnists who are opposed to such a move the perfect excuse to trot out the usual tired old clichés about teenagers being spotty, monosyllabic morons.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Tom Utley says the average 16 year-old is ‘largely a nocturnal being,’ known for its ‘chaotically untidyUnknown lair’, and for messily wolfing down ‘industrial quantities of Crunchy Nut Bites’. Utley suggests that ‘Homo Sedecim’ (Latin for 16, apparently) is too unworldly to be given the vote, because he ‘never questions how his food and clothes are provided or how the bills come to be paid. He simply takes it for granted that he will always be fed when he’s hungry.’

How fortunate that all 16 year olds live in comfortable, middle class homes!

Whereas politicians like Ed Miliband only meet teens at stage-managed political events, as the father of four sons, Utley says he knows what ‘real’ 16 year olds are like. It would be ‘a cynical act of folly’ to extend the franchise to 1.5 million ‘stroppy teenagers,’ he concludes. In an earlier column, Utley quipped that, after votes for children, ‘It’ll be votes for sheep next.’

Well, if I were 16 and had a patronising old fart like Utley as my dad, I think I might be pretty stroppy, too.

But it is not just commentators on the right who are opposed. The Guardian’s political editor, Michael White, says 16 year olds shouldn’t be ‘burdened’ with voting, because they already have enough to worry about, including (I kid you not), their clothes and their zits. They should ‘concentrate on their music and having fun’, rather that worrying their zitty little heads about politics, he suggests.

Labour is by no means the only political party to support lowering the voting age. Last year, it was announced that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; and the Liberal Democrats have long supported such a move. Labour’s commitment to the change has not, however, met with universal approval, even among the ranks of its own MPs.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, condemns the policy as an irrelevant distraction from more important issues. It will ‘impress and affect nobody’, he says. Even 16 year olds themselves are ‘apathetic or opposed’ to the idea. ‘But it’s exactly the kind of middle-class dinner party issue that tofu eaters throughout the country get really excited about,’ he says.

Now, I probably eat more tofu than most (being a veggie), but can honestly say that the subject has never, ever, been raised at any dinner party I have attended, middle class or otherwise.

What I have witnessed, however, is plenty of teenagers being caused great upset and confusion by finding themselves at the sharp end of endless government policy changes and increasingly trenchant rhetoric in areas like education.

GCSEs – the exams taken by all 16 year olds and the results of which will have a huge impact on their futures – are now a political battleground. Children who started their GCSE studies under one set of rules and with one set of expectations, have images-1found the goalposts being moved mid-way through courses. In 2012, grade boundaries for English were changed, so that those taking their exams in June were held to a higher standard than those who took them in January. Some children missed out on sixth-form places, as a result. The Qualifications & Curriculum Authority then announced that current students’ speaking and listening marks will no longer count towards their final English GCSE grade; to compensate, the proportion of marks allocated for written exams will go up from 40% to 60%. The changes were criticised by teaching bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders, which said: ‘As a matter of principle, changes to assessments should never be introduced after students have started a course.’

Undeterred, Education Secretary Michael Gove has now decided to stop schools from entering pupils for exams a year early, and to ban re-sits. More reforms are planned.

As a parent, I may be hopping mad at seeing education turned into a political football; I may be outraged on my child’s behalf, at the stress, uncertainty and unfairness caused. But it is not me who is going to be personally affected; it is not my future university or employment prospects which may be blighted because of some politician’s whim. The educating of 16 year olds is unlikely to become less political any time soon, so it seems only reasonable that those whose lives will be directly affected should get a say in who gets to make those policies.

Under 18s also bear the brunt in the equally politically-charged area of criminal justice policy, but have no voice in its formulation or implementation. Teenagers are far more likely than adults to be stopped and searched by police. They are imagesdisproportionately likely to be victims of crime, particularly street crime, yet offences against them are massively under reported and politicians rarely talk about this issue. When ministers (and the media) talk about ‘youth crime’, they only ever mean young people as offenders, never as victims. The British Crime Survey didn’t even bother to record offences against 16 year olds until 2009.

Even while arguing against lowering the voting age, Michael White admits there is a direct relationship between an age group’s propensity to vote and how careful politicians are to protect that group’s interests. Quoting from an IPPR report which showed 44% of 18 to 24 year olds vote, compared with 76% of over 65s, he says:  ‘Guess which group’s benefits (the tabloids never admit pensions are benefits) have been protected by the coalition? Right first time.’

Small wonder then that, shortly after the 2010 election, the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had been paid directly to 16 year olds from low-income households. The percentage of 16 years olds who vote is, of course, currently zero.

The school leaving age was raised last month to 17; in 2015, it will go up to 18. There is what Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, describes as ‘a much greater sense that under 18s need society’s protection, not just from sexual exploitation but from themselves.’ They have fewer rights and responsibilities than before, he says, citing the fact that the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes, knives and fireworks, or hold a firearms licence, has been raised in recent years from 16 to 18.

I don’t say these changes are a bad thing.  Indeed, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more age-related restrictions: for example, I ‘d like us to give serious consideration to raising the minimum age for taking a driving test to 18 (the statistic that the leading cause of death of teen girls is in cars being driven by teenage boys always make me shudder).

But whereas Jones concludes that it would be ‘paradoxical’ to trust 16 year olds with the vote, when they are no longer trusted to buy a penknife, I take the opposite view. In the main, I agree that this age group deserves extra protections. But it is precisely because politicians, apparently with popular support, are increasingly restricting what they can do that these young people should now be given a voice in the political process. Never mind, ‘no taxation without representation’; it should be, ‘no restrictions without representation’.

Thank heaven for Lord Moses: 17-year-olds in custody are children first, suspects second

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Judges are often accused of being detached from the world that the rest of us inhabit. It’s not hard to see why. They are still mostly white and male. Most of them went to private school and Oxbridge. They really have been known to ask questions such as, who are the Beatles?; what is a thong?; and (my personal favourite), whether a defendant who said he’d been to a McDonald’s restaurant had booked a table.

imagesJust once in a while, however, you get a court judgement that radiates so much good sense and humanity, you realise that, on one important issue at least, this judge is no different from we ordinary folk.

The recent High Court judgment about treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody is one such rarity.

Last week’s ruling by Lord Justice Moses overturns an anomaly which allows police to treat 17-year-olds as adults, and thus deprive them of protections afforded younger children, including the right to have a parent with them. According to the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), some 75,000 17-year-olds are held in police custody in the UK every year, and so likely to be better protected in future.

The judgment followed a legal challenge by 17-year-old Hughes Cousins-Chang, who had been arrested in south-east London on suspicion of robbery of a mobile phone. When the college student asked if his mum could be told where he was, the police said no. When she found out about his arrest some four and a half hours later, the police wouldn’t let her speak to her son. After being strip searched and held for 11 hours, the boy was released; no charges were ever brought.

If that had been my 17-year-old being held and me being refused all contact, I dare say I would have been a basket case when he was finally released. I’m delighted, therefore, that Lord Moses ruled the provision which allowed police to treat Cousins-Chang as an adult was a breach not just of his human rights but also those of his mother. The judgment rather wonderfully sums up what being the parent of a teenager is about and is worth quoting at length.

‘The wish of a 17-year-old in trouble to seek the support of a parent and of a parent to be available to give that help must surely lie at the heart of family life…This case demonstrates how vulnerable a 17-year-old may be. Treated as an adult, he receives no explanation as to how important it is to obtain the assistance of a lawyer. Many 17-year-olds do not believe they need any guidance at all. They demonstrate all the youthful arrogance of which many parents are aware. All the more need, then, for help and assistance from someone with whom they are familiar.’

Earlier in the case, Lord Justice Moses had commented that, if it had been his children being detained, ‘my 17-year-olds would not have had a clue’, about what was happening to them.

Lord Justice Moses: 'my own 17-year-olds wouldn't have a clue about what was going on if arrested'

Lord Justice Moses: his own 17-year-olds ‘wouldn’t have a clue’ about what was going on if arrested

Now, I am unlikely to ever meet Lord Justice Moses’ children and know nothing about them. However, I would guess that the offspring of an appeal judge are likely to be better educated and more articulate than most – and possibly have a smattering of legal nous. If even they would flounder when thrust into the alien and hostile environment of a police station, what hope an average 17-year-old?

What hope an average 17-year-old like Edward Thornber, who killed himself after being arrested for smoking dope? Or, 17-year-old Joe Lawton, who took his own life after being arrested for drink driving. In both cases, the police dealt with the boys as adults; their parents weren’t told of the arrests and had no chance to step in to support their sons.

At one point during Lawton’s six-and-a-half hour detention, officers asked if he wanted to ring anyone. His reply gives some indication of the despair and shame he must have been feeling: ‘Not really. What can anybody do?’

Two days’ later, with his parents still unaware of the arrest, Lawton killed himself. He was found with the police charge sheet at his feet. Lawton’s parents believe their son feared his arrest for drink driving had ‘closed the door on his future’. ‘As a 17-year-old, he didn’t have the experience and resilience to cope with it and see past it.’ He had, they added,  ‘been frightened to death’ by the experience.

Both the Lawtons and Thornbers supported the recent court action.

Today’s teens have it drummed into them by schools, politicians and parents (and I am as guilty of this as anyone), that they are playing for high stakes: if they don’t have the best possible CV, their prospects will be blighted in the race for jobs and university places. Is it any wonder that when things go wrong, in the absence of older and wiser counsel, they actually believe a single mistake means an irretrievably ruined future? It’s perhaps no coincidence that both Thornber, who was a former head boy and talented lacrosse player, and Lawton seem to have been particularly ambitious and high-achieving.

The legal quirk that kept their families from even knowing they were in trouble is as heartless as it is illogical. The police station is the only part of the criminal justice system where 17 year olds are treated as adults. Once cases get to court, it has long been recognised that someone their age needs additional support and protections.

Any defence solicitor will tell you that what is said and done in the police station can have serious consequences for the rest of a case. Harm which could have been avoided or minimised by careful, informed advice can be all but impossible to undo later on. A young person, desperate to get home before their parents find out, who admits guilt and accepts a police caution will have no idea of the seriousness of that decision. Until a ruling earlier this year, even the most youthful misdemeanour could be revealed to employers decades later. In one case, a 17-year-old was turned down for a part-time job in a local football club because he was cautioned when he was 11 for stealing bikes. The caution was disclosed again during a Criminal Records Bureau check when he applied for university four years later.

The age at which children become adults is a question for philosophers as much as lawyers. However, it is surely an aberration that someone who is not trusted to buy a drink in a pub, or vote in an election, is deemed mature enough to face arrest, with no sympathetic adult on hand to advise.

This government regularly spouts off about the importance of good parenting. It is to their great discredit then that they opposed the change, claiming it will cost an extra £20m a year (a figure contested by NAAN, which puts it at more like £1.5m). But they can’t have it both ways. Even leaving aside political rhetoric about the importance of families, there have been consistent moves in recent years to make parents legally liable for their children. Last year, over 40,000 of them were fined because of their child’s truancy. In extreme cases, parents of truants can go to prison. Youth courts can now impose parenting orders, and parents can wind up at the adult magistrates court, and fined up to £1,000, if their child continues to misbehave by, say, ignoring curfews.

While the recent ruling is welcome, there is no room for complacency. Even where safeguards exist in the criminal justice system, they are not always followed, as we saw during the 2011 riots, when sleep-deprived children as young as 13 were brought into court at two or three o’clock in the morning, some after having spent 48 hours in a police cell.

At least now, thanks to Lord Justice Moses’ good sense, it is now officially recognised that 17-year-olds should be treated as children first, and (alleged) offenders, second.

Welcome to the world of bullying adults, Paris Brown

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Joshua Unsworth was just 15 when he killed himself after, allegedly, being subject to vicious internet bullying. His heart-breaking suicide was covered extensively in the press, including the Mail on Sunday, which reported that the teen had been ‘bullied to death by trolls on the internet’.

article-2303566-190F7982000005DC-946_634x401The very same day that the MoS reported the hounding of Unsworth, it embarked on some teen bullying of its own, turning the full force of its not inconsiderable firepower on someone not much older than Unsworth, pillorying her as foul-mouthed, boastful, racist and homophobic.

The teen in question was 17 year-old Paris Brown (above), the now ex-youth police and crime commissioner (YPCC) for Kent. As has been widely reported, Brown resigned after the MoS published a series of her particularly brainless tweets, and her own constabulary launched an investigation into her for racism.

Brown’s comments about ‘pikeys’, ‘illegals’ and ‘fags’, are not easy to defend. And I don’t really buy the line from some commentators that these are just the daft things that typical teenagers say. I reckon you’d have to have a fairly low opinion of teenagers to believe that (surely, only those who take their political cues from the likes of the Mail would think it OK to refer to travellers, immigrants and gay people so insultingly).

However, even before Brown’s comments came to light, the Mail had reported her appointment with a characteristic mix of fury and derision. ‘She’s not even old enough to vote, can’t drive and only left school last year [Yes. She’s a teenager!]… As well as her salary, Paris will be given a desk [A desk? She’ll be wanting a chair next…], a telephone and official car – with her own emblem.’

Like much of the media, the Mail rarely has a good word to say about teenagers, who are mainly portrayed as overindulged, feckless or dangerous. The whole notion of the introduction of police and crime commissioners was controversial and has been treated with (at best) scepticism by the press from the outset. It was, therefore, entirely predictable that the first YPCC would be subject to intense and probably hostile media scrutiny. For all her idiocy, Brown has been badly let down by the adults in this scenario.

In the first place, where the hell were her parents when she was tweeting this offensive garbage? (The same parents who were happy enough to be quoted in the initial coverage of their daughter’s appointment, saying how proud they were of her.) Second, why didn’t her employers do more to protect her? Are they really not media savvy enough to realise that, within minutes of Brown’s name being announced to such a controversial post, some journalist somewhere would be most likely be trawling the internet to see what dirt they could dig up about her on Facebook or Twitter? To put someone so young (Brown was 17 the day her appointment was announced) into the media firing line without doing even the most basic checks seems an extraordinary dereliction of duty.

Instead of protecting her, Brown was allowed to be served up on a plate as a the tabloid’s cartoon version of a teenage girl: foulmouthed, ignorant, binge-drinking, drug-taking and promiscuous. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that what the MoS describes as Brown’s ‘vile drug tweets’ (see below) appear to consist of one particularly fatuous quip about wanting to make ‘hash brownies’.)

We’ll never know if Brown would have made a decent fist of being Kent’s YPCC, but we do know there is a job to be done in improving relations between young people and the police. Research into the 2011 riots showed that stop and search is still a source of huge resentment among many young people which skews their attitude towards police. Teenagers are disproportionately likely to be victims of crime, yet invariably treated as offenders (or potential offenders). Crimes against young people are massively under reported. The British Crime Survey didn’t even start recording offences against under-18s until 2009. For any urban teen, mugging – often by people around their own age – is a day-to-day hazard, which is rarely reported or even recognised by the victim as a crime. (Although, my own experience suggests that police treat teen-on-teen mugging seriously, regardless of how little was actually stolen.)

By appointing Brown, Kent’s elected police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes (below, left), showed admirable commitment to meeting the needs of young people (not least because she was contributing £5,000 towards Brown’s salary from her own pocket). Barnes has insisted publicly that she intends to appoint a new candidate, but it would now be a brave teen to put themselves forward (and a reckless parent to let them).

article-2306335-193316C5000005DC-411_634x469Like all good bullies, the MoS doesn’t give up easily once it has a victim in its sights. Despite Brown’s tearful apology and subsequent resignation,  it continued its onslaught against Brown again this week. Accompanying a story challenging Barnes’ claims about how long ago the offending comments were made (‘Paris was 16 when she wrote vile sex and drugs tweets. So why is her ex-boss insisting she was only 14?’), the MoS took the opportunity to republish the worst of Brown’s comments, along with a photo her sobbing at the press conference. The picture shows Brown clutching a sodden tissue and what looks for all the world like a toddler’s security blanket (although to be fair it could just as easily be a scarf).

No doubt Brown has learned a hard lesson. She’s certainly not the first person to come a cropper after tweeting inadvisably – just ask the likes of Sally Bercow and the usually sanctimonious George Monbiot – so let’s hope this horrible episode won’t have completely extinguished the ambition that made her want to be YPCC in the first place.

However, the suicide of Joshua Unsworth is just the latest reminder that teens can be intensely vulnerable to bullying and may lack the resilience of someone older. Having won Brown’s scalp, the Mail and the rest of the media should now do the adult thing and call off the dogs.

Who me? A smug vegetarian? Neigh, neigh…

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I know I usually use this blog to discuss weightier subjects, but I just can’t resist any longer.

For we veggies, the news over the past few weeks just gets better and better, causing us greater and greater merriment.

UnknownHow we smirked at reports that Tesco ‘value’ (now there’s a word that should ring alarm bells whenever applied to meat products) burgers were more Dobbin than Daisy. Even more so when this resulted in some 10 million suspect burgers being removed from supermarket shelves. In the days that followed, supermarket after supermarket, even Waitrose (truly, nothing is sacred) followed suit; then Burger King revealed its burgers were also contaminated with horsemeat. Yesterday, it was reported that, rather than being bovine, some Findus ‘beef’ lasagne is, in fact, 100% equine. It was at that point that I finally cracked. As I heard the news on the radio, I found myself doing a little celebratory dance around the kitchen. (Not, I should point out, because I have anything against Findus. There was a time in my life when I lived on their crispy cheese pancakes.)

Vegetarians may be above eating fowl, but we are certainly not above feeling cocky.  As the FSA gives all British companies a week to test their meat products, we smug non-meat-eaters are waiting, salivating even, for more stomach-churning horror stories.

Vegetarians: not above crowing about horse meat scare

Vegetarians: not above crowing about horse meat scare

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is anything inherently more repulsive about eating horse than any other kind of meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer so eloquently explains it in his majestic book Eating Animals, the kind of animals eaten is wholly culturally determined. Clearly, there is no logical basis for our eating rabbit, beef and lamb, but feeling queasy at the thought of, say, dog, horse and guinea pig.

While the public seems to have greeted the revelations more with humour than outrage, responding with a series of lame (see what I did there?) horse jokes, the official response has been even lamer. The Environment Secretary said the contamination was ‘completely unacceptable’ (no shit, Sherlock!); the head of the Food Standards Agency pronounced it ‘highly likely there has been fraudulent activity’ (ditto); but went on to reassure everyone there was no risk to human health. How she knows this when, by definition, no one has a clue at this stage where the rogue meat came from, is anyone’s guess. A Downing Street spokesperson – displaying more wit than we normally associate with such people – described the situation as ‘distasteful’.

The only person talking any sense seems to be the shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, who called on the government to give guidance on whether people should, at this stage, be eating any processed beef – sorry, I’ll try that again – processed ‘beef’ products. Creagh said: ‘I certainly wouldn’t, but I’m waiting for the government, the experts, the scientists to tell us and issue proper clear guidance.’

(Well, while you’re waiting, Mary, love, may I suggest you take yourself off to the nearest bookshop (if such things still exist) and score yourself anything you can find by Rose Elliott, the doyen of vegetarian cooking (the woman is a goddess). I discovered Rose when I was barely out of my teens and have never looked back.)

Even if the FSA head is right and there are no risks to human health (and this kind of processed, pre-prepared pap is exactly the kind of stuff that tends to get foisted on vulnerable groups, like children and elderly), there is still plenty of cause for alarm. If no one knows where the meat came from, no one knows anything about the conditions in which these animals lived and died. I don’t know a lot about the illegal meat trade, but would hazard a guess that those involved aren’t overly worried about meeting even minimum animal welfare standards.

For anyone tempted by recent events to bin their bacon butties, or kick their chop habit, and join the ranks of the smug veggies, below is a guide to answering the questions you will inevitably face when people learn you are now A Vegetarian:

 Q: Do you eat chicken/fish?

A: No of course not. I just told you, I’m a bloody vegetarian, you idiot!

Q: Do you eat lamb?

A: Huh?!?’ (I have actually been asked this, and given we had just been discussing the fact that I don’t eat meat, concluded that no there was sensible answer I could give.)

Q: Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian?

A: I am not sure you will find that is entirely historically accurate. Even if it is, are you suggesting there is some connection between this and his genocidal tendencies? Also, how come no one ever mentions that every other murderous despot you can think of (Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Stalin, et al) was a carnivore?

 Q: What do you eat instead of meat?

A: Everything else! (Asking a long-term veggie what they eat ‘instead’ of meat is akin to asking someone who has never had an interest in philately what they do instead of collecting stamps.)

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