Why we will remember little Arthur
His horrific death shocked us all to the core because cases like this are now mercifully rare.
Even by the grim standards of our regular, self-imposed diet of misery, the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes left an angry welt, a vivid scar across many people’s mornings last week.
Thousands struggled, on social media and over the breakfast table, to maintain their composure and articulate the revulsion they felt at this act of incomprehensible cruelty. They were angry and bewildered that adults could so mistreat a child in their care. Many more expressed regret, self-recrimination even, that they had allowed themselves to be lured so unthinkingly, into the inner sanctum of despair that awaited those who clicked on the audio track of young Arthur, lamenting pitifully that no one loved him, that no one was coming to get him, that his life was miserable beyond most of our capacities, thankfully, to imagine.
I’m afraid, or rather, I’m relieved, to say I didn’t get that far. Rail crashes, bomb blasts – I can be as much of a ghoulish tragedy tourist as the next man. Not this time though. This passage in the BBC report I read, was enough to dissolve the laptop screen before me into a mist. I knew I wouldn’t have the stomach for anything more direct.
‘Following the verdicts, the jury asked if they could hold a minute’s silence for Arthur, which they were allowed to do. They were also excused from sitting on another jury for life.’
That was all it took to actually release the tears. Just the proxy of a proxy, the merest hint at the trauma the jury had suffered, let alone the actual victim.
If such exceptional measures were considered necessary for those that were exposed to the worst of it, I decided, then to briefly acquaint myself with the basic facts would probably be adequate for me.
However, with one oft-repeated and heartfelt plea that I saw on Twitter, I do, very gently, have to take issue.
Because an awful lot of people wanted to know what this hideous act told us about our society, about how badly it has gone wrong, how appallingly it had failed young Arthur, and how lost in the woods it now is, compared to the world they thought they knew.
When really, if our reactions to this story, if not the horrific crime itself, tell us anything at all, it is how grateful we should all be, that we live in a world where the murder of a helpless young child like Arthur is so shocking. That it seems so utterly bleak, so impossible to integrate into our worldview, that we are stunned into silence, hot tears and mystification, is a good thing.
Because there was a time, and not so long ago, when it would barely have been even remarkable.
I have personal reasons for having taken an interest in the history of violence, as experienced by children. My own father had a rough start in life but, as he’s always been at pains to emphasise, it could have been so much worse.
When John Denis Evans was born on 31 March 1930, his parents had been married all of three months, since Christmas Eve 1929, to be exact.
Whether the degree of necessity, if not coercion, which that interval suggests – not to mention the wedding date itself, the marital equivalent of buying Christmas presents at the petrol station – had any impact on the rosiness of the honeymoon period or the long-term health of the marriage, we will never know. His mother was dead before her first wedding anniversary, let alone my father’s first birthday.
Tuberculosis was a killer in the pre-penicillin era that peers down at 2021’s miserly death toll from heights of morbidity that we can, again thankfully, barely comprehend. At its peak in the early 19th century, it caused around a quarter of all deaths. As Death Stars go, ‘consumption’ was a Betelgeuse to our measly Covid-19 sun. And even in the 1930s, TB was a prime suspect for a young woman, at least one who had survived childbirth itself.
Thus began my father’s childhood, spent largely in and out of various foster homes, and dependent on the kindness of strangers, if sometimes extended family. In time, my grandfather found a second wife, welcomed my father back into his new home, and sired a second child – only to then find himself burying her unfortunate mother, too.
Back out in to care my father went, with his new half-sister Margaret. His father’s third wife, herself a war widow, was his last, and lasted. This marriage had no children but she raised my father, by then in his teens, and young Margaret, with a degree of devotion, good sense and affection that any child would be lucky to know.
Her name was Ivy Evans, which was invariably shortened in conversation to Ivy Ev – a near pun the cruel irony of which was luckily lost on us at the time. I was a teenager myself before I learned that she was no blood relation – but she was the tough kernel of decency and determination at the heart of our entire family and no one was better loved, or more loving.
It was many years later that I noticed that John and Margaret are the British equivalents of the German names often abbreviated to Hansel and Gretel. I have often wondered whether John and Margaret enjoyed that Grimm tale of a wicked stepmother, entering a widower’s home and demanding the immediate and pitiless termination of the previous incumbent’s offspring as soon as hard times arrived. Perhaps they did, and remained oblivious to the parallels. The fact is, even if defanged, those stories remain popular in Pantomime and Disney animations, as do Snow White, Cinderella and the rest. Gruesome almost beyond belief, this suggests that tales of children in danger, being raised away from their birth mother, create a delicious frisson to this day.
Indeed, the trope of the new wife and her murderous hatred for the spawn of the old is among the most entrenched in our folk literature. The details, from the gingerbread houses to the talking mice and glass slippers, may be striking and memorable, but the general thrust didn’t get there by feats of imagination, but observation.
Whether it was those tales or his awareness that others were getting rougher treatment a little closer to home, my father has never discounted the luck he had. He encountered nothing worse in his various homes from home, than fatigue and the occasional bout of impatience from the women to whom he was dispatched. And that, as a bright and industrious schoolboy, he was yanked out of school at 14 and put to work to earn his keep, by one foster family who, understandably perhaps, did not see the value of the long-term investment in study.
I thought about all this recently while reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is an account of the myriad ways in which life has become less violent, and violent deaths less frequent, especially in the postwar era – despite what everyone thinks. Pinker reinforces his message with a level of detail in the descriptions of cruelty and sadism of times past, that one might almost begin to suspect he relishes sharing, were it not for the calm lucidity of the prose and the life-long quest he has been on, to share Enlightenment values and convince us of their continuing importance. Anyone who ends the book unconvinced has got a job on their hands presenting an opposing case as well supported as his.
Pinker’s survey ranges from the grand-scale brutality of warfare and state-sanctioned murder, of torture and abandonment to death in rat and disease-infested jails, all the way down to the private and domestic, and the counter-intuitive decrease in one’s chances of getting mugged on the way home from the pub. But none of the chapters are more harrowing than those detailing the horrific things that adults, and especially those in loco parentis, once thought nothing of meting out to the young.
Eliminate even that check and as Pinker points out, the embrace of infanticide is perhaps most shockingly found in the words of that most heroic of Englishman, Henry V:
‘Why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.’
Just to be clear, that’s not Henry warning his troops what the foul French are capable of. That’s him issuing a warning, to a village, of what will befall it if its inhabitants fail to offer unconditional surrender.
Such tales are universal throughout history and across the world. Or rather, as someone once said in a slightly different context, where you find no written record of such cruelty, that is not an absence of misdeeds, but an absence of literacy. We should be awfully grateful that such things are now so overwhelmingly the stuff of period, not contemporary, drama.
Nor has this horror been long banished. Pinker quotes studies that demonstrate just how recently our reckoning has begun. Between 1990 and 2007, the physical abuse of children in the US has fallen by more than half. And perhaps more encouragingly still, attitudes have changed dramatically. ‘In 1976’, notes Pinker, ‘when people were asked, “Is child abuse a serious problem in [the US]?” 10 per cent said yes; when the same question was asked in 1985 and 1999, 90 per cent said yes.’ (My emphasis.) Pinker notes similar trends for the UK.
None of this is to exonerate those who should have been looking out for young Arthur. There are very serious questions to ask, not least about the threat to punish those who were trying to wave a red flag, about the reluctance of social services to think even the obvious, let alone the worst, of his bruises and other marks of abuse. And there are questions to ask, too, of the terrible toll that lockdown has taken on the social cohesion that is our best defence against horrors like this happening behind too-long-locked front doors.
But we should never forget that when cases like this emerge, they are not something new, but something ancient, horribly ancient, that has somehow survived, improbably, into our increasingly safer and more civilised world. They are like petrified remains of a previous eco-system, or the diseases locked into the carcases of long extinct animals, that occasionally break out from beneath the melting permafrost of the far north and release their spores back into the world. They are a danger and a disgrace, but they are not the way things are going.
We are fortunate almost beyond measure to live in a time and a place when so few fates resemble Arthur’s, that we are able to remember his name. And that’s exactly what we should do, as we redouble our efforts to prevent his case becoming anything more than a horrific warning, heeded.
And yes, if you have children, hug them close, and tell them that they are loved. And if you have parents, who raised you well and with patience and care – well, you know what to do there, too.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian. He is currently on tour with his show, Work of the Devil. You can buy tickets here.
Picture by: West Midlands Police.
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