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Matthew Parris

A pity that’s afraid to speak its name

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

On the Sunday just passed I sat alongside Polly Toynbee in Manchester as one of Andrew Marr’s two newspaper reviewers on his morning programme on BBC television. Arriving at dawn, we skimmed the weekend papers for stories we might discuss. Polly chose, among others, the latest reports in the Megan Stammers saga; the schoolgirl and the teacher she had run away with, Jeremy Forrest, had been located in Bordeaux; he was in a French jail pending extradition, and Megan had just returned to her parents.

I wondered whether to say what I honestly felt. I sensed it would upset or annoy some viewers. But I’ve generally found it best to stick with one’s honest responses; when they’re clear and strong it’s likely a good many other humans — even if only a minority — will have responded in the same way. One rarely turns out to be spitting into the wind.

When, therefore, Polly, Andrew and I reached this item, I remarked that I’d have made a dreadful magistrate or judge, because surveying the messes that people make of their lives I so often find myself simply feeling sorry for them. Mr Forrest’s and Miss Stammers’s flight abroad had been so hopelessly fantastical, and the whole thing so obviously doomed, that I found pity rather than fury the strongest emotion in my breast.

Polly intervened gently and rightly to remind us that Forrest was Megan’s schoolteacher, and she was only 15, and that to disappear to France with her had been wholly inappropriate and wrong; and of course I know that and had not suggested otherwise. I simply observed that — as a matter of fact — I had rather run out of indignation: they had been so stupid, his dishonourable behaviour wrecking his career, his reputation and (perhaps) his marriage; and she bringing shame upon herself and letting herself, her school and her parents down.

And there we let it rest. Afterwards I learned that there had indeed been a flurry of indignant viewer-reaction; and two friends — neither of them prudes — contacted me soon afterwards warning me to tread carefully over such a story. Their advice was well intentioned and would have been well taken, had there been even a trace of flippancy in my response. But there wasn’t: as I get older I’m finding it harder and harder to want to cast the first stone.

I’m lucky enough never to have felt any flicker of sexual desire for children. I haven’t led a particularly disgraceful life and a reluctance to condemn isn’t, I hope, of the kind that some old roué might exhibit for partly precautionary reasons. Accusation, indictment, stigma, shame, retribution, revenge and even vindictiveness play an important regulatory role in any culture: in what you might call society’s immune system. Of course we must punish. It’s just that in the human car-crashes that litter our landscape, life itself becomes the cruellest punishment for some people. Shame and failure don’t always need rubbing in. And even amid the shambles and degradation that terrible misjudgments bring upon those who make them, evidence of love, of good intentions, of foolish hopes or dreams, can often be found.

I don’t know if I believe in evil but I do know how the word is supposed to be used; and unquestionably there are occasions when (in this dictionary sense) it is used correctly; the vice-rings of abusers of troubled girls may be an example; but these occasions are not as many as, from the run of commentary, you might think; and on the whole the more carefully you scrutinise the whole story, the more the role of pure ‘evil’ seems to shrink. More often it is weakness; folly. More often people let their passions get the better of them. More often, people just cock things horribly up.

Any Spectator reader who has not spent much time, as I have, sitting in the public or press gallery of local magistrates’ or Crown courts should give this odd sort of tourism a try. You can just walk in off the street — yet few uninvolved citizens ever do. Except very occasionally as a witness, I’ve been fortunate so far never to be personally caught up in any court case, either as victim or accused. But I’ve found that a few idle hours spent simply watching the sad parade of defendants and witnesses pass before the bench can make for a tremendously moving day. People mess up in ways you have to see to believe.

How seldom (you will find) are fines or imprisonment of much use, once individuals have got themselves into a tangle sufficiently hopeless to land them in court. That’s not an argument against punishment — if only pour encourager les autres — but (you will find) it acts as a brake on your own moral indignation. A small but by no means negligible minority of our fellow citizens have wrecked their lives, their careers, their finances, their reputations, their relationships, beyond all reasonable hope of repair. With nothing left to lose, this sorry troupe process from court to court, from police caution to police caution, from social worker’s report to social worker’s report, forever tripping and falling, usually through their own damn fault, and growing more wounded and useless with every fall.

In terms of public spending alone, they and their misfortunes cost the earth, tying down huge numbers of police and legal officers, of probation staff, of citizens’ advice bureaux, of GPs’ and A&E surgeries and of local social services departments. In the hurt and loss they cause others, the way they disrupt the social and family networks of which they are part, and — all too often — the -inadequacies they visit upon their own children in a self–renewing cycle of dysfunctionality, these (perhaps) 2 per cent of our fellow-men may account for (perhaps) half the cost of everything the intervening state may do.

I did not agree when David Cameron spoke of a ‘broken society’ — it’s not a whole society — but his choice of the word ‘broken’ was deft. All around us are broken people, or people in the course of breaking, slow-motion. Be as angry at them as you like, as indignant as you must; but it will do no good, no good at all.


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