ALL the boys from the little village school were grouped together in a tight ring. Their attention was focused intently on something in their midst. Something on the ground.
Intrigued, a little anxious, the girl edged towards them.
Something, or someone, in the midst of the group of boys was struggling, forcibly prevented from crying out.
The boys were wrapt, silent. Caught, it seemed, in that edgy place between fascination and horror. That emotionally heightened, disempowered place which is so often the group reaction to violence.
The girl, smaller than most of the boys, pushed in between their legs to see what was happening.
On the ground, held down by two or three of the bigger boys, was one young pupil. A victim, chosen apparently at random, now surrounded by those who were normally his friends.
His boots had been removed and thrown aside. His feet were bare.
And one boy, the largest and most powerful, the self-appointed leader of the gang, was squeezing and pulling the naked toes with a pair of pliers.
Experimenting, perhaps. Punishing, possibly. Probably simply enjoying his power to inflict pain and fear.
The girl, alarmed that the boy’s toes might actually be torn off, reacted rapidly, impulsively.
She threw herself at the ringleader and sank her teeth into the arm with which he was wielding the pliers.
She was seven and small for her age. He was two or three years older and big for his. But she had broken the spell and possibly saved a classmate’s toes.
This is a true story.
Broken Britain in the early 21st century? Or maybe the late 20th?
No, this was the Home Counties in the 1920s.
A shocking event, certainly, but not too far beyond the understanding – or recognition – of children in any land, in any era.
Perhaps because severe mutilation was averted, it never made the news. In fact, it’s probable no adult knew about it at the time.
The small girl was my mother. The memory was triggered this week by accounts of the horrors perpetrated by two other young thugs whose behaviour has made the name of their Yorkshire village infamous.
The point is that what took place at Edlington last year was appalling – and riveting – but something that could have happened anywhere at any time.
Such events are, thanks goodness, rare outside times of war. But not unknown.
In 1993, Tony Blair was horrified, like the rest of us, by the killing of toddler Jamie Bulger by two young boys.
It was, he said, “an ugly manifestation of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name”.
David Cameron, responding to the Edlington case, saw it similarly.
“We are in danger,” he said, “of becoming an irresponsible society.”
Cameron is, of course, leader of the opposition – as Blair was in 1993.
It is in his interests, as it was in Blair’s, to suggest that the sitting government is presiding over a breakdown in social order.
It is also poppycock. Grubby, opportunistic, self-serving poppycock.
The kind of knee-jerk nonsense that seems to be common fare among politicians of all parties.
And which does absolutely nothing to help the professionals – social workers, police, teachers, the care and justice systems – who actually have to deal with the perpetrators and victims of events such as those at Edlington.
For whom such events are exceptional, extreme cases of the kind of thing they deal with all the time.
Not because Britain is “broken”, but because human beings – a very few human beings – are like that. And always have been.