I have a confession to make. In the past, I have had frequent, intensive contact with children. There were boys, sometimes as young as eight. There were primary schoolgirls. Over a period of a couple of years, I would drive to the White City estate in London, collect boys in my car and take them football training or to a Sunday morning boys’ league game in Fulham.
Later, I managed an under-11 girls’ football team in the playground of the school my daughter attended. Throughout these activities, photographs were taken, sometimes of the children playing football, occasionally holding a trophy. It gets worse. Shamelessly, I used these experiences to write a series of children’s books about a girls’ football team, and even visited schools and libraries to talk about them.
It is the kind of thing which could no longer happen without a full process of bureaucratic involvement. Today, I would be obliged to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority, furnishing it with proof from the police that I had no record of criminal behaviour involving children. I imagine that, rather than undergo that weird, demeaning procedure, I would leave someone else to manage the football team.
That would be a shame. In fact, the discouragement of parental involvement in the activities of children by law, form-filling and, above all, embarrassment is both idiotic and harmful. I thought – in fact, I know – that what I was doing was socially helpful. Most of the boys in my son’s football team came from one-parent families. Ferried around London by myself and other parents, they mixed with children from different backgrounds. They learned how to win and, rather more frequently, to lose. On one occasion, they got out of London to the country – a first for some of them. The girls in my daughter’s football team would simply not have been able to play the game they loved.
The sincere busybodies behind the new vetting and barring legislation are unlikely to understand how profoundly corrosive this organised change in the relationship between adults and children will be. For them, the great and honourable goal of child protection is all that matters. Yet childcare will not just be formalised by the new law; it will be sexualised. There is a good reason why the vast majority of parents who are happy to help out with the children of others will find the idea of having to clear their name first morally insulting.
The assumption that every adult is a potential abuser infects everyday life, turning the most straightforward act of friendship and social contribution into something dubious and sleazy. Even the phraseology used by the Children’s Secretary – “frequent and intensive contact” and so on – reveals how paranoiac, how dirty-minded our culture has become.
There is something faintly chilling about a government which seems so eager to see wrongdoing at every turn and to safeguard its citizens by removing its freedoms. The protection of us all against the forces of terror have been used to justify ever greater intrusion into our private lives. Now a fear of crimes against children is deployed to justify establishing a vast register of 11.3 million people allowed to work with children.
The problem with control by paranoia is that it rarely works. The loss of freedoms can be seen as a triumph for terrorism. A system of paedophile-clearance affecting millions of ordinary citizens makes the world seedier, nastier and probably, because it turns behaviour which was once taboo into a daily reality, more dangerous.
Truth butchered like a lamb to the slaughter
There can be few sheep who have led such productive lives as the late Marcus, until recently of Lydd Primary School in Kent. Having been hand-reared by the children until the age of six months, Marcus was this week slaughtered and his meat raffled off to pay for piglets for the school farm.
It was all part of an impressive project which had been designed, said the headmistress, “to educate the children in all aspects of farming and everything that implies”.
Sadly, the madness that afflicts some people when they come into contact with animals has had a terrible effect on the people of Lydd. There were threats to burn down the school. “Let poor Marcus live and send the headmistress to the abattoir,” read one Facebook message. The tabloids have run pictures of tearful tots. A silly celebrity, Paul O’Grady, offered to buy the sheep.
One mother described the head teacher as a murderer. Another, who is seeking legal advice, moaned that her daughter was actually contemplating vegetarianism.
That is what happens in 2009 when a school tries to show children the truth about food.
Even players get sick of the beautiful game
Here is a story which deserves a contemporary cartoon by H M Bateman: The Professional Footballer Who Did Not Want To Be Rich and Famous.
Its hero is a 22-year-old goalkeeper called Shane Supple who, until recently, was on the brink of a successful career. He had played internationally for the Republic of Ireland under-21s and was in Ipswich Town’s first team.
Then, quite suddenly, Supple announced that football was not for him and told his manager, the fearsome Roy Keane, that he wanted to go home. Within a few days, he had sold his house in East Anglia and returned to Ireland. His ambition, he now says, is to be a policeman.
There have been various theories as to why Supple abandoned such a promising and lucrative career. Before the season started, his team stayed at an army barracks and were put through a tough, two-day assault course at the end of which, rather oddly, a pig was slaughtered. “They said the pig would not feel it, but the pig shrieked,” said the goalkeeper.
Yet it was the culture of football, not the shrieks of the pig, which made his mind up. During his few years as a professional player, he became sick of the money and the lifestyle and yearned for a quieter existence.
The brave and sensible former goalkeeper seems to have no regrets. “I am a bit different in my mentality,” he explains.