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Behind celebration and blame, anxieties lurk

Original Source:  TELEGRAPH:SUNDAY16 MARCH 2008
By Jenny McCartney
Published: 12:01AM GMT 16 Mar 2008
Scarlett Keeling

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 "complicated".

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 order.

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 complicated.

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 them.

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 officials.

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 little.

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.


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