Had he lived, or rather, been allowed to live, James Bulger would be 19, going on 20. I don’t need the internet to know this (though the journalist in me did make me check) because he was born less than a year before my eldest son. Worldwide, many children die before their third birthday – thousands upon thousands in countries where life is held cheap – yet it is the name and face of James Bulger that come to mind and the agony of his mother, Denise, who had been out shopping with him when he was abducted, that I have remembered as my son has passed life’s milestones, recalling that a small boy of around the same age would not be having a first day at school, taking GCSEs and A levels, or going on a first date.
If that all sounds a little melodramatic, then perhaps I should explain how it felt, 17 years ago, to be the mother of a two-year-old boy who hears that a two-year-old boy has gone missing. How I changed the way I brought up my children when I heard that a two-year-old had been murdered by two 10-year-olds. As the chilling details of James Bulger’s abduction and death became public my heart filled with dread. It felt as though the very worst evil had descended on the world. Horrified, saddened, shocked (even though I’d reported on a child killing case in court during my newspaper days), I went to the Mothers’ Day service at my parish church taking my infant daughter and son along to try to make sense of the world. In my heart I felt people who were “good” should somehow stand together against the forces of “evil” – Harry Potter morality, if you like. My Christian upbringing might have been muddled over the years, but the essential tenets still hold true. We should all hold up our wands and throw as much light as we can muster into the sky to disperse the dark clouds gathering above.
After the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson one of the senior officers in the case bore witness to James Bulger’s injuries in a weekend newspaper supplement. I forced myself to read every word – though I can’t bear horror stories or even watch a thriller film – because I felt I must and because I wanted to understand more and condemn less. I’m not sure I found understanding, the article raised so many more questions than it answered, but despite the officer’s conclusions (he condemned more and understood less as a result of what he had had to see), I could only feel Venables and Thompson had been twisted by violence inflicted on them, that they lacked guidance and a moral framework and were incapable of empathy as a result. I didn’t think locking them up and throwing away the key was the answer. I hoped wiser people than me would find a way to rehabilitate them.
As a consequence of James Bulger’s murder, my children were never allowed out of my sight in a public place when they were small. My son had to either wear reins or an elastic handstrap or walk with his hand on the buggy to ensure I knew where he was at all times – my daughter too, when she was old enough to protest she wanted to toddle along. If I had to go to the loo when we were out we all crammed into the same cubicle. When they were a little older and wanted to ride their bikes in our quiet cul-de-sac, I would be outside as well – along with or sharing duty with, the mother next door, who felt the same way. When I started working as a magazine editor, and my eldest son, then aged 10, walked the half-mile from his city-centre school to my office, under strict instructions to follow the same route every day, from the time school finished I would watch the clock until the receptionist announced he had arrived. If he was as little as five minutes late I would be panicking – walking down the street to find him, heart in mouth. I’ve no doubt a whole generation of teenagers grew up in the shadow of James Bulger’s murder without realising it – without reading a word about it or knowing why their freedoms were curtailed. Statistically, your child is no more likely to be abducted now than they were when I was small. There were horrors then too, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers as they came to be known, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966.
I had always hoped, because of their extreme youth at the time of their crime, Venables and Thompson could be straightened out, could find redemption in their new lives and new identities and so I have barely given them any thought – though the recent court case involving the torture of two small boys by two brothers in Edlington brought back those horrific memories. My thoughts have always been with James Bulger and his parents. Then yesterday’s news that Jon Venables was behind bars broke and I found myself unable to feel any hope or pity for him. The Home Secretary and Justice Secretary have remained tight-lipped about which of his terms of release have been breached, but I’m relieved to know that the force of the law has been imposed on someone who doesn’t take his chance to start over, given all the resources that have been spent on him. He has had opportunities to put his past behind him – chances that the parents and family of James Bulger feel bitter about. Though I don’t want to take an interest in the latest news, I feel I must. I feel, somehow, I owe it to that very small boy, who never grew up to play rugby for his school, Facebook his friends, enjoy his first driving lesson or look at universities with his girlfriend. I feel I owe it to his parents, who can never know the comfort and warmth of their 6ft-plus 19-year-old son coming in to say goodnight before going to bed, as mine did last night.