Acceptable danger: the sky is the limit?

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Scariest school run

Paranoid parenting and the “protective” coddling of cotton wool kids are rightly being challenged these days even from such a professionally risk-averse source as Britain’s Health and Safety Executive. Over-protection has made children prisoners in their own homes and led to an epidemic of obesity. It renders them timid and fragile as well: even mild criticism is enough for the snowflake generation to fall to pieces, and the intolerance of robust debate among students of this mindset has become so debilitating as to present a grave threat to free speech.

In the face of these alarming trends there is increasingly a consensus that a bit of adventure in childhood is healthy, and is needed in order to grow towards real maturity. But where are the limits to be set? And on what basis?

A glance at the above photo of what has been dubbed the world’s scariest school run, in China, is enough to remind us that too much is sometimes demanded of children, rather than too little. In this case children as young as six from Atuler village in Sichuan province have to scale a sheer rockface over 2000-feet high to get home from school, using rickety ladders. But this isn’t even  the most dangerous part, which is an exposed path on the cliff without a vine ladder. A number of kids have slipped. And, yes, fallen to their deaths. But this is a poor part of the country; without an education and job prospects the future of every pupil would be bleak: just as the cliff punishes error without mercy, there is even now in this modern “Communist” country no universal welfare safety net to break their fall into hunger and malnutrition, which afflicts up to 15% of the population. Life may have been more secure for many in the days of “cradle to grave” workplace support in state enterprises, before the reforms of the late 1970s.

So, horrific as this climbing ordeal is, the risk-taking is rational in the circumstances. It is simply a harsh necessity for the villagers, not unlike the fierce training and initiation rites of young warriors in tribal societies constantly at war with each other. In those societies, where the warriors depend for their lives on the strength, skill, endurance and courage of their comrades, the apprenticeship often seems more gruelling than the warfare itself, featuring rituals than can involve being beaten, slashed and scarred, circumcised, sub-incised (don’t ask: it’s hideous), brutally raped, and made to leap over pits full of sharpened stakes. So, not only must children face danger bravely but these ordeals also have the effect of weeding out the weak. It is an education system in which failing your exams means death – and in many places, such as ancient Sparta, the weeding out started at birth, when puny-looking babies were simply left on a mountainside to die.

But if exposing children to danger is inevitable in societies with fewer viable options than our own, what are we to make of embracing serious risk when it is not necessary? Spain, for instance, is a wealthy modern country. There is high unemployment right now but people are materially quite secure and well-fed. Their last war was generations ago, in the 1930s; they do not need to train children for physical courage. Yet they have some very lively traditions that do make such demands, including the “castells” of Catalonia, these being human towers up to more than 30ft high, typically topped by a child, who may be only five years old, or even four. This crowning glory of the castell, or castle, is called the enxaneta. The origin of the name is lost in obscurity but one suggestion is that it comes from a regional word meaning  “little arrow”, or the tip of an arrow.

Castell

What is far more certain is that the child enxaneta who daringly climbs so high and so precariously invariably shoots an arrow of pride into the heart of his – or her – community.  It is pride that belongs to them all, for it takes a takes a whole village or town to provide the manpower, organisation, cooperation, skill, community spirit, determination and sheer courage out of which these towers are built. Both the pride and the courage are supremely symbolised in the enxaneta’s triumphant final act at the summit, which is to raise one hand aloft with all fingers spread, a gesture evoking the stripes of the Catalan flag.

Make no mistake, these towers are dangerous. The Catalonia Department of Culture has sponsored a FAQ claiming serious injuries are rare, based on an estimated collapse rate of the towers of only 3%; but you don’t need to know much about gravity to understand that bodies tumbling down on top of each other from a great height will do so with fearsome force. The words promoting a documentary film on the towers gives a more realistic impression:

Human towers are medicine for the soul. You risk your life for a moment of sublime camaraderie and community. Trust is paramount. All it takes is one shaky foot and the entire tower falls, sending you and hundreds of others tumbling into the air, onto each other and then onto the pavement.

You risk your life. The life of a child enxaneta is at risk. This is no exaggeration. A child died in 1983. More recently, Mariona Galindo, aged twelve, died of head injuries after falling from a nine-storey human tower at her home town of Mataró, north-east Spain in 2006. As for broken bones, they must surely be a more common occurrence.

But this level of risk is apparently fine by the Spanish authorities. And the United Nations, committed to upholding children’s rights (Article 6, right to “survive and develop healthily”;  Article 19, right to be protected “from being hurt and mistreated”; Article 36, right to be protected from any activity that “could harm their welfare”) has explicitly said the human towers are A-OK: the UN cultural agency UNESCO has declared the castells to be part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”, no less.

Quite right too, in my view, although I am sure I would be struggling with the idea as a parent. I would die of anxiety if a kid of mine were taking part, in fact I am pretty sure I would be too scared to let it happen. The first  word that came into my mind when I saw that word enxaneta was anxiety: surely it had to mean “the anxious one”, or else the one whose parents were worried sick, praying on the sidelines, unable to watch.

Tough one, isn’t it? But a quick calculation based on the festival schedules shows that if you make allowance for practice runs there must be thousands of castells built each year, and my estimate from this is that in terms of the death rate, at least, they are only slightly more dangerous, if at all, than children’s exposure to road traffic accidents. Every death on the roads is tragic, of course, but going back to a society with no motor traffic would inevitably entail leaving behind many benefits of the modern world as well as its perils.

We could do without castells more easily, but just look at their positive side. Just think what it must be like for the successful enxaneta, basking in the glow of parental and communal pride! Just imagine the excitement, the sense of having really lived that day, and the confidence they would take from such a magnificent achievement. They will take away a belief that “I can do it”, a mindset of huge benefit when brought to all sorts of new challenges, be it learning how to cook, or swim, or even playing a musical instrument and mastering tough maths. Such self-belief is priceless, and it may last a lifetime. That is surely a prize worth having.

Is there a message for (or about) Kind people in this?  I think there is, because children’s abilities and confidence on their journey towards maturity will be enhanced or held back depending on the degree to which they are allowed to explore and discover things for themselves, both in their geographical environment – breaking out of the domestic prison into their town and country surroundings – and their social environment, meeting and engaging with new people, including Kind ones.

As Lenore Skenaze, founder of Free-Range Kids, has pointed out, parents who allow this are not irresponsibly taking risks. The risks in reality are vanishingly low, while the attempt by helicopter parents to eliminate all hazards from their kids’ lives can actually leave them more vulnerable to harm because such parenting leaves children helpless as babies. Even the most vigilant  “helicopter” cannot be airborne constantly, so where’s the protection in the downtime?

Skenaze was dubbed The World’s Worst Parent after allowing her nine-year-old  son to ride the New York subway on his own in 2009. But then she wrote a book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) explaining why allowing kids some independence makes sense. And now there is a burgeoning Free-Range Parenting movement.

“A lot of parents today,” Skenazy says on her website, “see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up. We parents have to realize that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters choice or independence.”

She has a lot of sensible things to say about how Stranger Danger has been over-hyped, and she has even had the courage to point out that very few strangers, even when they are registered as sex offenders, are dangerous types of the kind who might kidnap and rape a child. Also, as she says in her website FAQ, the confident, independent youngster who is used to talking to strangers, will be much better equipped to smell a rat if some guy is trying to lure them into the back of a van. For one thing, they won’t be afraid to yell out and appeal for help to another stranger, knowing full well that most people are OK and would be keen to stop an abduction – and that goes for Kind people too.

*****

Enxaneta: This documentary produced by Televisió de Catalunya is not in English but the spectacular tower-building action speaks for itself, and the emphasis is on the highest climbers: the kids who reach the top.

Forces of Nature Taster This brief trailer related to the BBC’s Forces of Nature programmes features seven-year-old enxaneta Carla. The cinematography is superb, as might be expected from a prestigious BBC science documentary series.

Forces of Nature with Brian Cox – 1. The Universe in a Snowflake This is the full one-hour programme in which renowned physicist Dr Brian Cox uncovers how the diversity of shapes in the natural world reflect the rules that govern the universe. In Spain he shows how an attempt by hundreds of people to build the highest human tower reveals the force of gravity and how human bodies can be organised to counteract it, briefly but in fine style. The entire programme is well worth watching but the human towers sequence starts around five minutes in and lasts about seven minutes.

 

 

So-called abuse was ‘best thing ever’

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The talk is all Brexit here in Britain, from breakfast to bedtime, and quite rightly so given its huge importance – that and the political shenanigans that have foisted a new prime minister on the country and threaten to shatter the main opposition party. But Heretic TOC is going to show Brexit the exit today as there has also been a lot of Kind news that should not pass unnoticed: not just the now horribly routine draconian sentences but a thoroughly mixed bag of significant stories, with glimmers here and there of resistance to the mainstream abuse narrative. Forgive me for trying to cram a pint into a half-pint pot, but it may be best this time if I pass fairly briskly from one item to another, giving lots of links to fuller accounts.

Let’s get the really nasty stuff out of the way first. Particularly shocking to me personally was a long sentence imposed on one of two guys who had been leading members of Paedophile Action for Liberation (PAL) back in the 1970s. They were Doug Slade, then serving as a petty officer with the Royal Navy, and Chris Skeaping, a racing driver. Slade was sentenced  earlier this month to 24 years for truly “historic” sex offences – over 50 years ago, in 1965 – after being extradited from the Philippines; Skeaping awaits sentence. Along with child welfare officer Ian Melville, they were blasted as “The vilest men in Britain” in the tabloid Sunday People’s exposé of PAL in 1975. PAL collapsed in disarray as an independent organisation soon after that and was eventually incorporated into the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which I later chaired. None of the PAL leaders ever became active in the running of PIE and I do not remember any of them even becoming members, though they may have done.

I met Doug and Chris on a couple of occasions, though. While they were never as committed to the political side as some of us in PIE, they struck me as decent enough guys who would never have been coercive in their relationships with youngsters. The salient point about their case, I suggest, is that it would not have happened but for the Daily Mail, who say they “persuaded” one of Slade’s former young boyfriends in the UK to shop him to the police. Once that happened, it was possible for the authorities to get him back from the Philippines last year, where he had been living as a “wealthy businessman” by this time. In other words, the complaint was not spontaneous. Even an NSPCC spokesperson quoted in the Mail’s account implicitly concedes that Slade’s offences were with boys who could well have been willing at the time.

For sheer vindictiveness, though, it is hard to top the response of compo king solicitor Peter Garsden, who has insisted that Slade’s sentence was too light, based on the malignant dogma that “sexual abuse imposes a life sentence of suffering on any victim”.

Fortunately, the falsity of this overworked mantra was made apparent in other news this month, about the chair of the Scottish government’s inquiry into historical child abuse, Susan O’Brien QC. According to the Guardian, published correspondence revealed that at the end of one training session O’Brien referred to a survivor of child sex abuse who had described it as “the best thing that had ever happened” to them! For letting the cat slip out of the bag in this way, O’Brien was threatened by a government minister with the sack, even though her inquiry was supposed to be independent. Clearly she was not going to be able to do the job without government meddling so she resigned. Good for her! It was the second such resignation in double-quick time. Panel member Michael Lamb, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, quit a week before saying the inquiry had been “doomed” by government interference. Good for him! Not good, though, for the credibility of government inquiries in this field.

From the vindictive and the meddling to the downright inhumane. In breach, I would say, of the human right to a private and family life, jailed footballer Adam Johnson was banned from talking to his own daughter because he had broken a sex offender rule stating that he was not to contact children. Guards had overheard him on the phone to his 17-month-old baby daughter after the couple’s mother passed the phone to the child. But the only offence that had put him in prison was of consensual sex with a girl of 15. There was never any suggestion that his own baby was at risk, so enforcement of the rule was utterly unnecessary as well as destructive and cruel.

Inhumane in a different way was the prosecution of a man thought to be the oldest defendant in British legal history, who appeared in court last month at the age of 101 charged with historic sexual offences against three children. His trial has been scheduled for December. Even supposing he makes it that far, which must be in doubt, one has to wonder what purpose is served by hounding him towards his grave.

OK, that’s all the really bad news out of the way. So what chinks of light can we discern? Well, never mind mere chinks, how about this for a great big sunbeam: A judge has allowed a paedophile music teacher to continue working with children after hearing letters of support from 12 of his pupils’ parents. A Daily Mirror report said that Neil Deller, 42, was charged after child porn featuring images “of girls as young as three and bestiality” were found on his computer. But he continued to give private lessons following his arrest two years ago and the parents of many pupils wrote positive references about him. These were presented to Judge Christopher Ball QC who spared Deller jail and refused to ban him from teaching children aged under 18.

Well done Judge Ball! He clearly has balls, as he could easily have been spit-roasted in the media for such a bravely unfashionable decision – although he has just retired at the end of an often outspoken and controversial career and perhaps felt he had little to lose. Congratulations, too, to the independently-minded parents who gave the teacher their support and made the judge’s action possible.

Parents were backing a teacher in trouble on the other side of the Atlantic too. Alexandria Vera, a 24-year-old English teacher, found herself pregnant, apparently by a pupil who was 13 at the start of a sustained relationship. In unusually sympathetic and understanding newspaper coverage, a story in the Santa Monica Observer pointed out that all concerned – the teacher, the boy and his parents – were Hispanic and that “in traditional Mexican culture, teenagers are allowed to have sexual relationships, and couples where the woman is older than the man are commonplace and not denigrated”. The parents had known and approved of the relationship, letting the boy stay with Vera overnight.

Charged with “continuous sexual abuse of a child”, Vera was granted bail last month. Her trial is expected to start any day now. Unfortunately, if she is convicted of the felony charge in question, it looks as though the judge will not have any discretion to take Mexican culture into account. A harsh sentence will be mandatory.

On the celebrity front, things are looking up for veteran pop star Sir Cliff Richard following the high-profile police raid on his Berkshire home nearly two years ago, conducted as part of an investigation into an alleged historic sex offence against a boy in 1985 – though the police in this instance used the euphemism “non-recent”, as though embarrassed (as they should be) by their destruction of people’s lives decades after the event. Or in this case non-event, as it seems, because the CPS finally announced last month that there is “insufficient evidence” to support a prosecution. And just a couple of days ago Sir Cliff launched legal action against the BBC and police for turning his life upside down. The Daily Mail had earlier reported that was about to start a £1mn action for worldwide damage to his reputation after the beeb filmed the police raid on his home. Good luck to him!

Broadcaster, writer, politician and chef Sir Clement Freud, meanwhile, who was himself accorded national treasure status like Sir Cliff, avoided the latter’s problems by very sensibly dying in 2009 while the going was good. This was well ahead of the open season on celebs that began with the posthumous fall from grace of that other once-dazzling knight, Sir Jimmy Savile. So why is “Clay” Freud, as he was known to family and friends, better off dead? If an ITV documentary (which I have not seen) and a Daily Mail report are to be believed, it is because he had at least a couple of sexual dalliances with underage teen girls, one of whom claims he “brutally raped” her later on when she was 18. I’m not sure how seriously we can take the rape claim but the rest does seem highly credible, on the basis of reported admissions by the old boy’s widow: Lady Freud, accused of setting up a three-in-a-bed scenario with herself, a 14-year-old girl and her husband, doesn’t exactly seem to have worked hard at indignant denial. Instead, she meekly apologised for Clay’s feet of clay.

Now another bit of good news: well, good in a way. Stephen Rice, a producer with the Australian TV documentary strand 60 Minutes, has been sacked. I do not know Mr Rice and would not normally celebrate an individual’s career setback, but I must confess to a warm glow of schadenfreude over the reputational damage caused to 60 Minutes from the disastrous misadventure that got the producer and the show into deep trouble in the Middle East, when four crew members found themselves locked up in Beirut for two weeks by the Lebanese authorities, suspected of complicity with a child abduction. A tragically broken family is at the heart of the disaster and that is certainly no cause for joy. But good could come of it if 60 Minutes is made to behave more responsibly in future. It was this same low-grade, grossly sensationalist TV series, it may be remembered, who interviewed me when I was trying to defend my friend Charles Napier at the height of the Westminster so-called VIP paedophilia scandal. 60 Minutes was among those media outfits that chose to believe and play up the now discredited lies of several fantasist opportunists who had concocted bizarre, obviously suspect, and gravely defamatory yarns about VIPs, including Edward Heath, the late former prime minister whose main achievement was to take Britain into the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union, which the nation has just voted to leave…

And so, perhaps inevitably, back to Brexit. My final glimmer of light in this blog comes from the day of the referendum vote itself. That is when I heard on the radio about a new report by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) drawing attention to the continued plight of prisoners who remain on indeterminate (IPP) sentences in the UK, despite what the PRT described as “near universal criticism of the sentence from judges, Parole Board members, HM Prisons Inspectorate, the Prison Governors’ Association, staff, prisoners and their families”. Steven Adrian Freeman, my successor as chair of PIE, has been languishing in prison on one of the sentences long after completing the 30-month “tariff” originally set by the court in his case.

Justice secretary Michael Gove said in a recent speech “there are a significant number of IPP prisoners who are still in jail after having served their full tariff who need to be given hope that they can contribute positively to society in the future.”

Without all the Brexit turmoil, Gove might well have decided it was time to scrap the IPP. But new prime minister Theresa May takes over today and Gove could be out of his job when she picks her new cabinet. Or he could be told to get on with it. May herself has already made some encouraging noises, hinting that she wants to be a reforming leader and sounding almost like former opposition leader Ed Miliband. Perhaps she will look favourably on prison reform. We can only hope that time will be found for legislation that includes the abolition of IPP. But many good ideas are bound to be crowded out, and the new government will inevitably find much of its time taken up by Brexit.

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