Last week's conviction of the Jordans marks the end of the official action in respect of child abuse at Haut de la Garenne a generation ago, and the final flurry of publicity about it. By coincidence, while the Haut de la Garenne scandal has been refreshed in my mind, I have also been reading “Boy”, the non-fiction reminiscences of his own childhood by the mid 20th Century author Roald Dahl.
Dahl's book sheds light on the inspiration for the various bullies, sadists, ogres and psychopaths that so dominate his fiction. He paints a grim picture of life in upmarket private sector schools in the inter-war years. Boys were frequently beaten savagely with canes for trivial misdemeanors, or even mere unfounded suspicion of them. One incident he recounted was of the Matron filling the mouth of a snoring boy with soap flakes to stop him. Soap in a child's mouth struck me as having a resonance with the tales of the abusive “carers” in Jersey's Children's Service.
The question that has so perturbed us in the pampered 21st Century has been “How could they have allowed such things to go on?”. As I closed the book after reading the chapter about The Matron, I suddenly saw the answer:
The upper-middle class boys Dahl went to school with were being prepared to become officers and gentlemen in manhood. Perhaps they were somewhat damaged as individuals by the process, but the pay-off was that they left school able to submit to harsh and rigid discipline and able to face painful physical injury with calm courage and fortitude. In a time when there were major wars to be fought, their country needed men like these as leaders on the battlefield, and it had them in adequate supply.
But as well as being the officer class in war, they were also the professional class in peace. And they brought their battle-ready public school values to their civilian careers, too. Moreover, most public school boys were proud enough of their education to wish it on their own offspring, in turn.
Dahl's generation would have been the senior lawyers and administrators of Haut de la Garenne's most controversial days. In their own boyhoods, their fathers would have paid good money to have them brutally physically and psychologically abused, and called it giving them a good education. They would also have signed most of their own sons up to more of the same. How could we expect these men to have raised an eyebrow at the regime that prevailed in most children's homes of the day? These poor orphans were being treated to the key features of an expensive public school education for free. It is all very well for us to look back now and say such things have no place in our society in 2011. It wasn't 2011, it was 1965 or 70, and it was their call that such things did have a place in their society, then.
I can fully sympathise with feelings of the care leavers that their sufferings have still not been sufficiently acknowledged, let alone compensated. Dahl wrote his disturbingly vivid account of institutional child abuse nearly sixty years afterwards, and he made it plain that he still seethed with rankling resentment of his experiences. But, to be fair, the only valid context, in which to judge what was done then, is against the values of the time. Thus, I don't think there is much hope of any bigger apologies or gestures coming forth. We must simply be grateful that this is one respect in which the world has changed for the better.
However, in saying that 1965's child care should be judged by 1965 standards, I imply the corollary that 2011's child care should be judged by 2011 standards. This is quite another can of worms. It seems, from the occasional report or investigation, that Jersey's Children's Service has not kept pace, and too much still goes on that would have been all in the game forty years or more ago, but no longer is acceptable in the more enlightened and caring society that we like to think we have become since.. Then may have been then, but now is now. Jersey needs to catch up.
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