A couple of days ago something genuinely terrible happened. My eldest child ran away from a park where he was playing with a friend after school. It all happened in a split second; the two boys were messing about, not wanting to go home, much to the irritation of the adults. Then they suddenly vanished.
The boys were missing for two hours – the longest two hours of my life – and luckily were found in one piece about 2 miles from our house. A young couple (whoever you are THANK YOU) handed the two boys into the police and they were delivered home safe and sound.
Images of Jamie Bulger flashed through my mind as I sat outside the house, as my husband desperately cycled around the area. It was absolutely horrific and I hope he has learnt his lesson so it never happens again.
However, despite the sheer awfulness of the event, it has restored my faith in human nature. The police were brilliant – all of the local force plus the TSG (usually used for riots) were out looking for the missing boys. The local community was equally amazing – parents from the school, friends and neighbours were out combing the streets, parks and estates for the runaways. It was a horrible time but I felt genuinely supported by my neighbourhood. I have written before about how much I love where I live – Kentish Town in North London – and the kindness of the people around me has made me realise that I do live in a very special place.
The headmistress of the local school was also fantastic. Quite a lot of the teachers had been concerned by the police helicopters and reports of the missing boys. So when I appeared in the morning and gave her the full low down on the events of the previous afternoon, she called a special assembly to let all the kids in the school know why running away was a very bad idea. Apparently a lot of the children had been very frightened by what was going on, so her words struck a chord.
Again, proof – if proof was needed – that Margaret Thatcher’s infamous ”there’s no such thing as society’ is the bigest lie ever told. We are not a collection of individuals; we belong in communities and neighbourhoods, underpinned by the institutions of civil society – like the police and the education system. This is not Cameron’s Big Society – the initials B and S stand for something else in my book – or woolly Blue Labour nonsense.
This is about a civilised society, where people look out for each other at grassroots level, while the state is funded adequately and staffed by highly trained professionals That is, police officers, teachers, doctors, firefighters etc – who know how to respond appropriately in times of crisis. One cannot replace the other; both work together to make the world a safe and tolerable place to live in.
I also thought about the benefit cap, which is having the effect of driving lower income people out of London, especially out of areas like mine where market rents are high and property prices ridiculous. Communities are stable if people are allowed to put down roots – people in the area know me and know my kids and are therefore mindful to look out for them.
Luckily I own my flat so I will not be moved on unless disaster strikes. But lower income families are being driven out of their homes by this horrible policy, away from the neighbourhoods where people know them and their children. A child wandering around an area where people have known him for years stands a much stronger chance of staying safe than a child who has to move every few months to find a new place to live.
My child and his friend have hopefully learned the lesson that running away is a VERY BAD idea. My faith in human nature has been restored and I’ve seen just how much support you can get from a strong community when bad stuff happens. So let’s stop moving people away from the friends and neighbours they rely on, just because they can’t afford the overpriced rents the ‘market’ has decided on. And let’s think twice about cuts in police, education and youth services – the very foundations of our civil society.