Victoria Lane

Give Charlie a break

The boy’s gone to jail. Isn’t that enough?

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The boy’s gone to jail. Isn’t that enough?

I was watching the news on the evening of 10 December, some follow-up reports about the student protest the day before, and saw a clip of a young man wielding a mannequin’s leg — shod in a lady’s wedge-heeled boot — as he declared that he and the other protestors were ‘very angry’. He didn’t look that angry; actually he looked extremely placid and was obviously in a chemically altered state. My first thought was: Charlie! And then: you haven’t hidden that leg very well.

Charlie Gilmour is now in prison for his activities at the protest. But when he was two, I had just left school and had a gap-year job as his childminder. We spent our days making cars out of piles of leaves while his mum (then a single parent and a journalist at the Sunday Times) was at work. He was a remarkably sweet-natured child and is still, I swear it, a nice boy. I last saw him in November, round the time of his 21st birthday, about a month before his big day out. He always did have a streak of mischief, and it got disastrously out of hand on 9 December.

I hadn’t seen the papers, but it turned out he was on the front of most of them, pictured dangling on the Cenotaph. Not good. A deluge of photos followed. He’d been everywhere that day. He was so busted. He was in the Daily Mail wearing a scarf Zapatista-style and juggling a rock. He was running away from a pile of pamphlets in the doorway of the Supreme Court, which he had, it was reported, tried to set on fire. Anyone who knows Charlie at all, is familiar with his wayward sense of humour, could see this was pure anarchistic posturing — a joke.

Oh, he was an idiot that day. It’s stupid to treat a protest as a party. It’s stupid to get off your face and it’s unbelievably stupid to swing on a monument that turns out to be the Cenotaph, offending many, many people, and kick a shop window, and sit on the bonnet of the Prince of Wales’s police protection vehicle, waving as if you’re a carnival queen, even if the car has just run over your leg. He got the attention he sought, in spades.

So Charlie, rather than the organised thugs in balaclavas, became the face of the protest. There followed great waves of hate from the tabloid readers of middle England (and from America) — a level of opprobrium that remains out of all proportion. ‘He should be barred from all university’s [sic]. he [sic] is a mobster and will never atone’, wrote ‘Derrick’ on the Daily Mail website, a remark since given the green thumbs-up by 1,335 people. The abject apology Charlie issued — in which he said how terribly ashamed he was, that he was swept up in the excitement and had not realised that the monument he hung from was the Cenotaph — did not appease these people.

Nor does the 16-month jail sentence given to him last week. Cue lots of comments along the lines of ‘Do your porridge you little shit’, and some crowing about jail rape.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise it’s not all about the affront to our glorious dead, but about resentment — and fair enough, but you sort of wish the people posting these comments would realise it too. I don’t want to play down his actions that day, but when people point to his wealthy family and imply that this makes his behaviour worse, I want to say that if he were from a more mundane background, things would be easier for him now. For a start, his name would have already been forgotten.

Even Judge Nicholas Price seemed to admit that Charlie was being penalised for being privileged when he said: ‘I have to take into account that you have had many advantages which are denied to most young men who come before this court.’

Last month a boy the same age as Charlie was in another court for a particularly nasty burglary. He grabbed the female shopkeeper by the throat and smashed her against a wall. The judge gave him 160 hours of community service and a few compulsory sessions with the Youth Offending Service to help him ‘address his behaviour’.

The thing is that most of the time when you read the papers you don’t know the people involved. It’s easy to believe the details you are given and slip into moral outrage. But here is someone who, although he behaved like a complete twat, I know not to be dangerous or violent or bad. I know he’s not even a complete twat.

Anyway there it is. Sixteen months, as an example. But as I say, Charlie is likeable. He is already making friends at his holding prison, where he spends 23 hours a day locked in his cell. He plans to read history books and hopes to be allowed back to Cambridge for the final year of his degree. He’ll make the best of it.