Nobody this side of the indecently callous would wish to rain upon the parade in Machynlleth on Sunday. As it slowly wound its way through the streets towards the local church, we turned away, then watched, then turned away again from the raw faces of people who had spent six days in search and hope that dwindled to despondency and despair.
So here we are once again, expecting forthwith to learn more than we would ever want to know, while understanding none of it. I don’t get it and good money says you don’t get it, either.
But here’s the thing. If we — reading, reasoning, thinking grown-ups — cannot make a shred of sense of these nightmares, what on earth do we imagine a child to make of them? If we ache and tremble and fear for our own, how much worse must the terror be in the pulse of a six-year-old? So why did we see children by the many dozen — far more than could possibly know one five-year-old – carried upon shoulders to join a parade provoked by thoughts so macabre that we would normally banish them to the far distant side of the Brothers Grimm? And how can we bear the certainty that, should April Jones be found dead, this was but a dry run for her eventual funeral, which total strangers would travel miles to attend, with children in tow and a picnic in the boot? Making a day of it.
Our greedy gawpers all have pretty words for what they do. They are ‘showing support’, or ‘paying tribute’. All of it nonsense, of course: families of tragedy have no use for a stranger’s support and you do not pay tribute to the passive misfortunes of victimhood. What they will be actually doing is indulging their own prurience by wallowing in a peculiar pornography of public grief — and fine, if they really, really must. But most people, for good reason, at least have the common sense to shield children from run-of-the-mill, sexual pornography. Quite why this version should be exempt, given its even more potent content, is beyond me.
It was not always thus. When I was young and when my own daughter was a child, newspapers were hidden and broadcasts curtailed if they carried stories to scare us witless. What we now call ‘stranger danger’ was explained sternly rather than graphically, and certainly not by real-life examples. With pictures. No doubt this is, in part, why so many believe that the incidence of such cases has risen since those days; it hasn’t, not a jot. But the fuss then was kept for the afflicted, not dished as drama for the surge of a nation’s adrenaline, and the main reason for such discretion — or, yes, -censorship — was the protection of the innocence of children.
Some of the change is obviously due to communications technology, whereby children know about all sorts that we might prefer they did not. But the move from ‘They’ll find out anyway’ to proactive inclusion by parents is, I suspect, partly attributable to the infamous Death of Diana. None among the tens of thousands of children brought along to line her funeral procession knew Diana, so for them, as for millions more watching at home, this stranger’s demise was probably not only their first sight of a coffin, but an introduction to death as spectator sport.
By three years later, when Sarah Payne was murdered, countless parents took children from near and far to place the now-ubiquitous teddies beside the ditch where her body had been found; I can still remember the terror in the eyes of a girl, perhaps eight, as her mother urged her to kneel and place her Paddington Bear with the rest.
On the day that Madeleine McCann should have started school, other four-year-olds (four!) helped build a candlelit shrine at the deliberately empty desk once intended for Madeleine — just so that all the little kiddies, who never knew Madeleine in the first place, do not forget that there are bad guys out there who steal toddlers from their beds. And Mummy and Daddy can’t do a damn thing about it, either.
What intrigues me is what the parents might offer in explanation to their wide-eyed babies. ‘Sarah was playing by her Gran’s house, just like you do, when this man came along and…’ And what? When, this -summer, Ceri Fuller became one of altogether too many men prepared to kill his children to spite their mother, other children — way too young to have bought garage bouquets themselves — laid the traditional ghastly, cellophane-wrapped decaying foliage as they ‘paid their respects’. What had they been told? That three children had been stabbed? One at a time, while the others watched? By whom, exactly? Oooh: by their Daddy!
It is, for an adult, largely a matter of choice whether they avert their gaze or dwell upon the horror in the world. But can it ever be appropriate for parents — or anybody else — to envelop their children in the same mantle of horror? Moreover, if they do, will they then be surprised if their children are fearful, anxious and distressed, indoors and out, day and night, with or without family and friends?
There are those who pompously propose, in apparent defence, that children ‘deserve’ the truth — when we all know perfectly well that, in the interests of their continuing happiness and security, they deserve nothing of the kind. Children deserve to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; they deserve Mr Tumble of a Saturday morning (even if the rest of us don’t) and they deserve Peppa Pig’s living proof that swine are built in two dimensions. They deserve their instinctive suspension of disbelief and they deserve parents who will guard it for them.
Back here in the real world, it is quite bad enough that a child has been lost. The damage to her and to those closest to her will never be mended. To damage a whole lot more, while we’re at it, seems to me a funny way of marking such unbearable events.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012