The news that nine-year-old Shannon Matthews had been found
alive on Friday, hidden by her alleged abductor in the base of a
divan bed, provoked astonishment, then jubilation. Television
presenters on rolling news channels scrabbled frantically for
details of the rescue. Relatives, friends, and Dewsbury locals
expressed their unconfined joy: by evening, the impromptu street
parties and children's discos were in full swing.
All that is understandable: for a child such as Shannon to be
found alive after being missing for 24 days is almost unheard
of. The one story more powerful than that of a lost child is
that of a child found when hope had almost gone. Therein lay all
the elements of a fairy tale satisfactorily resolved. But one
little word in the police statement hinted at a different story:
the circumstances of her disappearance, it said, were
That is, perhaps, the word that has defined Shannon's life so
far. She is one of Karen Matthews's seven children, by five
different fathers. The shifting male presences in her life must
have taken a bit of adjusting to. The current stepfather is
Craig Meehan, a 22-year-old fishmonger, whom relatives alleged
had been violent towards Shannon and her siblings - a charge Mr
Meehan has vigorously denied.
The man who allegedly abducted Shannon is Mr Meehan's 39-year-old
uncle, whose own children were taken into care some years ago.
After her rescue, Shannon was reunited with her mother, but she
has been made the subject of an emergency police-protection
When Shannon, who has been described as "timid", emerges from
police questioning, she is unlikely to feel like joining the
party. She may very much wish to keep what has happened to her
private. But that may be difficult to do: by dint of a heavily
publicised ordeal, she is now a kind of celebrity.
We have become accustomed to treating the disappearance, death or
recovery of children as a sort of cathartic public theatre. The
long hunt for four-year-old Madeleine McCann has been followed
by Shannon's disappearance and the rape and murder of
15-year-old Scarlett Keeling in Goa. Such cases arouse strong
public sympathies, certainly, but frequently also the fiercest
censure of the families involved at the very moment when they
are at their most vulnerable.
In the case of the McCanns, a degree of public anger focused on
their decision to leave their three children alone while they
went for dinner with friends nearby. In that of Scarlett
Keeling, her mother, Fiona MacKeown - who has eight other
children and a complicated personal life - has been harshly
castigated for permitting her daughter to remain with a
25-year-old male tour guide and his aunt while the rest of the
family travelled elsewhere.
A front page in the Daily Mail last week advertised an opinion
piece with the tastelessly emphatic headline: "Sorry, but I
blame Scarlett Keeling's mother". There was little mention of
the culpability of the men who allegedly gave Scarlett drugs,
raped her and left her on the beach to die.
In the cases of both Madeleine McCann and Scarlett Keeling, few
would question that their parents made a misjudgment for which
they have paid a truly terrible price. Yet the nasty fury that
has frequently been directed at those unfortunate parents, most
often by other parents, suggests something deeper at work. So
profound and constant is our fear for our children, that upon
hearing of such cases the mind searches furtively for some
parental error that rendered them vulnerable: if we don't make
the same mistake, the reckoning goes, our own will be all right.
The reality is, of course, that it is impossible both to
eliminate all risk from our children's lives and to allow them
and us to live sanely and happily. In general, parents are a lot
closer to the kind of decisions taken by the McCanns and Ms
MacKeown than many would like to admit.
The answer of most parents, I think, to Scarlett's request to
stay on in Goa would have been "no". But what of a request from
a 16 or 17-year-old girl to go on holiday in Britain with
friends from school? Despite the assurances to anxious parents,
there may indeed be evenings in clubs and bars, with alcohol and
perhaps drugs in the mix. At a certain point, one must have the
discussions, deliver the warnings, and then trust enough to let
a teenager go.
Both the finely balanced decisions and the fears are so tricky to
negotiate that it is tempting to reduce them to simple, knowable
dramas: in Shannon's, The Child Lost and Found; in Scarlett's,
The Neglectful Mother. A more disturbing truth to face is that
the reality of risk, both for them and for us, will always be
Homework is useless. Discuss
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which represents
160,000 teachers, will debate a conference motion this week
which has the potential to bring unconfined joy to millions,
whether angst-ridden children or worn-out parents. It will
propose abolishing homework entirely for primary school
children, and cutting it back for teenagers.
Children have long demanded less homework, along with later
bedtimes and unlimited access to the television. But the level
enforced by schools has now become so excessive, it seems, that
a substantial proportion of adults is finally agreeing with
Over the years, in tandem with the growth in childhood obesity,
the weight of homework has crept up. Now even primary school
children are chafing under its burden, and teenagers are
regularly wrestling with it for two or three hours a night. The
result, opponents say, has been to render pupils resentful of
school and their parents' attempts to enforce its dictates.
I don't remember doing any homework in primary school, and in
secondary school - save for the occasional essay - it was mostly
a sensible matter of memorising vocabulary, or doing a few sums.
I was deeply resistant to any suggestion of scholastic "extras",
and bolted out of the school gate the second the bell rang. The
result was that not only did I quite enjoy school, but I had
plenty of time to loaf around the house reading anything I
fancied, from my grandmother's People's Friend magazines to my
father's historical biographies: a pastime which, one way and
another, has served me pretty well.
Homework has its place as a means of briefly consolidating what
has been learnt in the day, and occasionally provoking deeper
thought, but it should have strict boundaries. Today, miserable
adult Britain has begun to impose its dreary culture of long
working hours upon its children, imposing endless fact-finding
assignments and constant testing for the benefit of box-ticking
The result, far too often, is that the poor little beggars are
permanently worried and overburdened. Instead of wanting to
drink deep from the well of knowledge, they grow up to find
their thirst has been extinguished altogether
A capital invention gets a cash injection
Last week London was voted the dirtiest and most expensive city
in Europe. This statement is so obviously true that there is
little point protesting. Those of us who live in the capital
become dully habituated to its pocket-emptying prices, which
cause money to melt like ice cream under a burning sun.
We only take account of it when friends come to visit, and spend
the evening peering into their wallets and mulling over whether
they were robbed on the Tube, until they realise that everything
is in order: it was the city what done it.
In London's defence, however, it must be said that many of its
most magnificent sights are free: its public museums and
galleries, and its glorious array of parks. If one set forth
determined to avoid frittering money on pizzas, lattes or ice
creams, one could emerge culturally enriched for surprisingly
One would, however, still find oneself paying top dollar for a
call of nature. In response to complaints about the inconvenient
lack of public conveniences, certain councils have now erected
large, fancy, self-cleaning facilities which charge 50p per use.
As I stood outside one last week, fumbling for the necessary
change, a rather hollow-eyed woman rudely pushed ahead of me
with her cash suspiciously at the ready, saying in a loud, fake
voice: "I'm dying for the loo." She was accompanied inside by
her hooded, dilapidated male companion.
That's London prices for you, I thought ruefully, when even the
junkies don't balk at paying 50 pence a go for a nice, restful
place to shoot up.