There is nothing so absurd, wrote Macaulay in the middle of the nineteenth century, as the spectacle of the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality; but now the spectacle is sinister as well as absurd. To make up for its lack of a moral compass, the British public is prey to sudden gusts of kitschy sentimentality followed by vehement outrage, encouraged by the cheap and cynical sensationalism of its press. Spasms of self-righteousness are its substitute for the moral life.
On no subject is the British public more fickle and more prone to attacks of intense but shallow emotion than childhood. Not long ago, for example, a pediatrician’s house in South Wales was attacked by a mob unable to distinguish a pediatrician from a pedophile. The attackers, of course, came from precisely the social milieu in which every kind of child abuse and neglect flourishes, in which the age of consent has been de facto abolished, and in which adults are afraid of their own offspring once they reach the age of violence. The upbringing of children in much of Britain is a witches’ brew of sentimentality, brutality, and neglect, in which overindulgence in the latest fashions, toys, or clothes, and a television in the bedroom are regarded as the highest—indeed only—manifestations of tender concern for a child’s welfare.
There is no more powerful stimulus to emotional dishonesty than a guilty conscience, which perhaps explains why for a few days—but a few days only—the country was transfixed by the joint trial of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr. Huntley was accused of the abduction and murder of two ten-year-old girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in the hitherto tranquil, or at least unnoticed, town of Soham in Cambridgeshire. Carr stood trial for perverting the course of justice by giving Huntley a false alibi.
It was the second time that the case had caught the nation’s attention, to the exclusion of almost everything else. The first time was when the two little girls, who were best friends, went missing, on the evening of August 4, 2002. They slipped out of Holly’s house, probably to buy candy, at about 5 PM, and never returned. The two-week search for them, which finally uncovered their bodies in a ditch near the Lakenheath Air Force Base, was the largest manhunt in British history. The press extensively reported every false lead; people who hardly believed in God lit candles in churches around the country and prayed for the girls in public. Because the two were wearing T-shirts in the Manchester United colors when they disappeared, a huge banner, asking for information about their whereabouts, was unfurled in the Budapest stadium where Manchester United was playing in the European Cup. The Daily Express, a newspaper owned by Richard Desmond (who first made his fortune in pornography with titles such as Horny Housewives and Asian Babes), offered a reward of $1.8 million for information about the whereabouts of the two girls. This offer soon led to the arrival of thousands of sightseers in Soham, hoping to turn up the bodies in the fields surrounding the town and claim their reward. The police were inundated with thousands of calls of the flying-saucer-sighting variety.
Television stations aired an appeal to the abductor by David Beckham, the blond soccer superstar (the girls were wearing soccer shirts emblazoned with his number when they disappeared). Among the people of Soham who made tearful appeals on television to the abductor to return the children to their homes was the man who killed them, Ian Huntley. He emerged as an activist in the search, helping to arrange the police press conferences in Soham and even consoling the father of one of the girls. The window of his house displayed a banner asking the abductor for the safe return of the girls.
Huntley, the caretaker of the school they attended, was discovered almost at once to be the last man undoubtedly to see them alive, but his girlfriend, Maxine Carr, misled the police by claiming to have been with him for the whole evening on which they disappeared. But after ten days, it emerged not only that there was material evidence to connect Huntley with the disappearance, but also that Carr had lied to the police. That day, she had gone to Grimsby, her hometown, to visit her mother. The police took Huntley and Carr into custody; the bodies were discovered soon afterward.
Such was the scale of the publicity and ersatz emotion generated by the murder of the girls that British soccer crowds, notorious throughout the world for their propensity to drunken vulgarity and primitive violence, observed a minute’s silence before the following weekend’s games. Ten thousand bouquets, liberally admixed with teddy bears and poetic effusions, were laid around Soham Church, often by people who had come hundreds of miles: it was Princess Diana all over again. Before long, a nursery offered a new pink rose named after the Soham tragedy (at an introductory price of only $36).
The case revealed the moral swamp that is contemporary Britain. Embarrassingly for the police, two of the investigating officers were themselves arrested soon after the discovery of the bodies for having child pornography downloaded onto their laptop computers. The press treated Huntley and Carr as if their guilt were already established beyond reasonable doubt—as if no presumption of innocence were necessary in their case—so much so that the trial judge had to consider whether they could receive a fair trial at all. And true to the principles of mob rule, whenever the accused appeared in court at preliminary hearings, a crowd of several hundred gathered outside the courtrooms, screaming, shouting, hurling eggs, and demanding the re-institution of the death penalty. They would have torn the accused limb from limb, had they been allowed to do so.
Oddly enough, many mothers saw fit to bring their young children into this melee. The children were clearly terrified, and many burst into tears, but the vengefully self-righteous crowd did not see its conduct as a form of mass child abuse. On the contrary, the mothers said they had come to demand the protection of children from perverts and monsters.
In one of the more minor scandals of the case, a photographer from the News of the World, a sensationalist Sunday newspaper, got himself hired as a guard in the high-security prison where Huntley was awaiting trial and succeeded in taking forbidden photographs of the most hated man in Britain. In his job application, the photographer had given a nonexistent company as a character reference and used a false personal address. Moreover, those who hired him had failed to notice that his passport stated that he was a journalist.
The trial took place 15 months after the murder. It dominated the press and the airwaves for the six weeks it lasted. Huntley’s defense was that he found the girls outside his house; Holly Wells was having a nosebleed. He took the girls indoors, to his bathroom, where he had run a bath for himself. Sitting on the edge of the bath while holding a tissue to her nose, Holly slipped into the water and drowned. Jessica Chapman screamed, and to quiet her Huntley put his hand over her mouth. The next thing he knew, she had slipped to the ground, dead.
Maxine Carr, his girlfriend, who had been away in Grimsby, said that she misled the police because she believed Huntley to be innocent, and because he had told her that he had once been accused of rape. He said that he could not face false accusations again. Blinded by love—or possibly in mortal fear of him were he acquitted—she said she had been with him at the time the girls disappeared. Despite the fact that she had not participated in the actual killings, she was quickly branded a second Myra Hindley, the notorious Moors murderess, who with her associate Ian Brady had kidnapped, tortured, killed, and buried at least five children on the Lancashire Moors in the early 1960s, and who, until her death in prison last year, had remained a symbol of absolute evil.
The jury took a surprising length of time to come to its verdict. Doubtless it had trouble deciding whether Maxine Carr knew of Huntley’s guilt when she lied to the police. If she did, she was guilty of a more serious offense than if she didn’t. In the end, the jury opted for the less grave offense. But it found Huntley guilty of the two murders, and the judge duly sentenced him to two life terms.
It goes without saying that his crimes were appalling—but it did not go without saying. On the contrary, one commentator in the Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting tabloid, wrote what was virtually an incitement to murder. “Hanging is too good for him,” he wrote, as if to recall the infamous anonymous pamphlet of 1701, “Hanging Not Punishment Enough.” “He knows what prison dishes out to those who abuse and kill children. Hopefully now that justice has been done, he will receive it.”
He appeared, in other words, to be appealing to prisoners to kill, rape, or maim Huntley, apparently unaware that the great majority of prisoners in Britain have themselves fathered and then abandoned their own children, leaving them to a social environment in which neglect is the best that they can hope for, and abuse is what they most likely will receive. Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that the Daily Mirror has a large circulation in that market niche.
After the trial ended, much came out in the press about Huntley’s past. He was, it appeared, a sexual offender who had never actually been convicted of anything, but who had been once charged with rape and had come to the notice of his local police on several occasions. He and his girlfriend had moved to Soham for a new start in life; and when he applied for the job of school caretaker there, a police check, now mandatory for all would-be school employees, failed to reveal any of the suspicions raised about him in the past. The public seamlessly transferred its fury, at least if the press was to be believed, from the man himself to the police, for having failed to prevent the monster from having been hired. Hysterical fears of Ian Huntleys lurking everywhere raged: surveys demonstrated that a majority of parents feared more than ever for the safety of their children, and a tenth of adults even said that the Soham murders would discourage them from ever having children.
The stories told about Huntley to the papers hardly reflected well on British parents or British society. One girl, Laura, revealed how Huntley, then aged 18, had sex with her when she was 12, more or less by force. Her mother, when she discovered what had happened, did not call the police.
Another girl, Janine, related how she had moved in with Huntley when she was 15. Where, one might ask (but no one in the British press did ask), were the parents when this happened? The relationship did not last, however: “He was cheating on me with a lot of other girls as well, including some of my friends at school,” Janine reported. She left him just after her 16th birthday.
Karen told a touching story. When he was 18 and she was 16, she “fell for him,” but he was so rough with her when they had sex that “it put me off doing it again.” Nevertheless, she continued to see him until he became too jealous and possessive. “Those gorgeous eyes that girls always spotted could be evil as well as charming,” she recalled. Unfortunately, though, she met him again in a pub five years later, by which time she was engaged to be married. “Now he was a man. We were laughing and getting drunk. He was charming me again, and I fell for it again.” The happy couple went back to his home. “He locked the bedroom door. Then his mood changed. He overpowered me, got on top of me, and forced me to have intercourse.”
You might have thought that by then she had had enough of Mr. Huntley: but no. Their relationship continued, though not for long. “It only lasted a short time before his then current girlfriend threw stones at the window.” Karen added, “I couldn’t tell anyone [about him] because I was engaged.”
Louise, when aged 11, met Huntley at a fun fair and was flattered to be attractive to a man of 22. He took her home and had sex with her. He persisted in his sexual activities with her until she threatened to scream. But Louise continued to see Huntley until “the relationship petered out as he chased other girls.” He was then living in the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else.
Huntley threw Alison down the stairs when she was 16 and had told Huntley that she was pregnant by him. They had already been living together for several months (that is to say, before the legal age of consent), and he had already beaten her unconscious with a pool cue. So far as anyone knows, Alison’s parents had done nothing to intervene in the relationship, nor did they exercise any kind of control over her.
Chantel was 15 when she met Huntley (then 21) and moved in with him. Her parents actually helped her to set up a home with him, thus being willing and knowing accessories to what the law says is a sexual crime. Her father, a plumber, said, “We did everything we could to help them set up home together. . . . He even worked with me for a while.”
Huntley then imprisoned and starved Chantel, locking her in their dingy bedsit for two weeks. In the end, she collapsed from weakness, exhaustion, and dehydration, and went to a hospital. Her father continues the story: “I was so livid when I found out, but I did not want to get into any trouble with the police by dealing with Huntley myself.” What did he do, then? “We just had him run out of town. He was told he had better move out in no uncertain terms.” It takes no great effort of imagination to know what those terms would have been. Actually, the father did not want to go to the police because he had acted as his daughter’s pander: for, unlike Huntley, he could not plausibly have claimed not to know his own daughter’s age.
Yet another woman had a child by Huntley. She was 15 when she and Huntley moved into a bedsit together, “despite protests from her parents, who were alarmed at their daughter having underage sex with a man six years older than she,” according to the story she related to the Daily Mirror. They did not go to the police, however, and the couple soon moved in with Huntley’s mother, who was apparently perfectly prepared for her son to live with a 15-year-old girl. (After the trial, she called for the death penalty for her son.) The girl’s parents were not quite as powerless as the story suggests, however, because once Huntley had been accused of rape, they banned him from seeing the child he had had with their daughter.
The police tried to investigate another case of a girl who had sex with Huntley before the age of consent, but neither she nor her mother would cooperate with them.
Huntley was once married. His wife knew that he had been violent to other women but married him nonetheless. Within a short time, he had performed a termination of pregnancy on her by the method usually employed by men like him: he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach.
She left him soon after, going to live with his father. There, she realized that “she had strong feelings for his brother”—whom she subsequently married.
The one charge of rape lodged against Huntley had to be dropped for lack of evidence. The complainant alleged that he had raped her while she was on her way home from a nightclub. But she had been videotaped dancing with him earlier that evening in the nightclub, an episode that she was too drunk to remember. The police decided, not without reason, that a witness who could not remember important periods of the material time because she was too drunk to do so would not cut a very convincing figure in the witness box, especially in a case in which it was her word against that of the accused.
All his victims describe Huntley as a jealous, possessive, controlling kind of man, who wanted to be the sole focus of a girl’s attention, no matter how flagrantly unfaithful he was to her. This, certainly, was one of the reasons commentators offered as to why Maxine Carr should have been prepared to lie on his behalf: in effect, they theorized, she had ceased to be an autonomous, thinking being and had merely carried out his will. Her mother, on the other hand, suggested another reason: that she was so deeply and madly in love with him that she wanted to protect him at all costs.
On the evening when Huntley was murdering the two girls, however, Carr went out to a nightclub in Grimsby where, after a few drinks, she attempted to have sex with a 17-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man, baring her breasts to them both. She had gone to the club in the company of her mother, who saw everything. Nevertheless, her mother did not see anything in her daughter’s conduct to make her revise her view that the love of her life was 100 miles away, in Soham. The headline of the article in the Times about Maxine Carr on the day following her and Huntley’s conviction was: A QUIET HOMELOVING GIRL WITH THE FATAL KNACK OF FALLING FOR THE WRONG MEN.
After the trial was over, press commentary concentrated exclusively on the failure of the Grimsby police to inform the Cambridgeshire police of Huntley’s proclivities. It is true that they failed, with lamentable inefficiency, to carry out their statutory duties. But the press devoted not a single word to the social meaning of Huntley’s encounters with underage girls, to the existence of so many complaisant and complicit parents, or to the sluttish public drunkenness among young women that is to be seen in the center of all British cities and towns and that makes so many allegations of rape impossible to investigate. (The police often ask my opinion in such cases, the latest one being a young mother of three, who, entrusting her children by different men to a babysitter, went out for the night, got so drunk that she could not remember how she arrived in a strange man’s bedroom, and then, on waking, cried rape.) There was no commentary, either, on the reasons why so many young British males are jealous, possessive, and controlling in the fashion of Ian Huntley, or why, with the exception of the murders themselves, his behavior was not so very much out of the ordinary. In a democratic age, only the behavior of the authorities is subject to public criticism; that of the people themselves, never. This is a modern version of Rousseau’s doctrine: if it weren’t for the authorities, the people would be good.
As for the national outpouring of ersatz grief, reminiscent of the scenes that followed the death of Princess Diana, it surely spoke not of feeling but of an egotistical inability to feel, compensated for by outward show. The British seem not only to have forgotten but would no longer even be able to understand the words of their national poet:
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.
Insofar as there were people—other than the girl’s relatives and friends, of course—who truly mourned, it was not only for the death of the children but for the death of childhood.
Photo: Yuliya Movchan/iStock