Pinocchio had Jiminy Cricket to act as his conscience. I have a teenage girl and a little shoeless boy, as mine.
It started with a call to the office from one of our ambulance service contacts: A teenage girl has fallen 13 floors from the stairwell in the tower block opposite the Hackney Gazette office.
– Des, you go check it out.
I wandered over to the tower block unsure what I would find. To my horror, I found a group of screaming teenagers, a completely flustered caretaker and the mutilated corpse of the unfortunate girl. The ambulance and police began arriving just behind me. This was a monumental fuck-up. I should not have been first on the scene but proximity had screwed me.
Some of you may have the courage to watch the footage from Aleppo. I don’t. When I see the suffering of children in Yemen, Syria or Africa, somehow I still see that Hackney child and the terrible damage that had been done by the head-first fall bouncing between the concrete lips of 13 sets of stairs. I was shocked then and I am shocked still to remember it. I was only 24 at the time but it still comes back to me in my dreams a quarter of a century later.
Journalists don’t get trained to deal with trauma. It must make journalism/reporting unique in terms of the professions that come into regular contact with death in all its terrible forms.
One of the reasons I got out of news journalism was that I knew I did not have the courage to cover war zones. I had all the gravitas and dignity of a studio-bound Fox News presenter. You know the type, chubby dude with a small moustache who reads the autocue with the dead eye of a supermarket trout on ice. Plenty of journalists want to be Westminster junkies, others, showbiz hacks.
But as a young man, I wanted to change the world – simply because I believed then that it could be radically changed. I don’t believe that anymore. But then I did. I had read Hemingway, Milligan’s war diaries, Robert Graves and the War Poets. I knew where human life was being lived at its extremes and to my mounting dismay, I knew I couldn’t face it if I was ever asked to do so. Admittedly, the chances of being asked to do so were small. But it didn’t matter because I KNEW. I believed then and now that you have no hope of changing the world unless you’re prepared to stand in the muddiest, most dangerous fields, facing the lies and violations of the dirtiest, most dangerous foes. But knew I was a coward – or eminently sensible. Take your pick. I knew as soon as I processed that realisation that I had to get out as I had nothing real to offer after all.
Luckily, I didn’t see that much death as a reporter – maybe 5 incidents. But I will always remember the stairwell girl and the aftermath as the most traumatic of those I did see.
In 7 years as a reporter for the locals and Fleet Street I covered quite a lot of tragedy. Despite what I’ve just said, I developed quite a thick hide. You had to. There was no help. Journalists at the time would meet in pubs, tell their stories and the recounting was all banter on the level of “how many notches on the bedpost of horror do you have?” I realise now that there was no collective experience and that all of my many colleagues over the years must have had similarly tragic but unique experiences. Some must have been very badly affected by them. No-one seems to stay a reporter for that long. It can’t just be the bad pay. I’m sure I felt it would have been a sign of weakness to admit to that at the time.
I left journalism and started in TV and, dreams aside, all the horror went away – though some of the music showcases I attended were pretty bad.
But three experiences have been visited upon me in the last 10 years which have made me realise, only fairly recently, that my hide is no longer as thick as it had become. My nerves are once again exposed. I’ll say up front that I believe this to be a good thing but it has lead me to experience the last ten years more viscerally.
I’ll deal with these three experiences chronologically, though in reality they form one giant pressure upon me.
To begin with, there was my first trip to India.
From the moment I landed I was in love with almost everything about the country – the food, the people, the scenery, the smell, the vibe. But the poverty. Oh the poverty.
We were over for a wedding. Around the house of the wealthy family we were visiting was a small village. Here lived many children, smiling, but running around with bare feet. Their clothes were dirty and each item probably one of only two options they had.
The people I travelled with from the UK were kind and decent but there were lots of strange and disconcerting things happening around us. For example, the children of the village would come into the grounds of the house. No-one took any notice of them. I remember thinking: They are like cats. Who pays attention to cats? Dogs you are on your guard, rats you are on your chair. But cats?
No-one took any notice until they got too near the table. Then one of the maids or the aunty of the house would come after them with a broom. They were too quick for her but it appalled me. I said to one of the men, jokingly, through gritted teeth, “if she hits any of them with that broom, I’m gonna hit her with that fucking broom.”
One night a giant marquee was set up for food. At the end of the marquee, the entrance had been roped off. Recalling all those terrible cliquey nightclubs, all of us in the tent were being given VIP status by the rope. We were the eaters. On the other side of the rope, the children of the village stood staring at us. I found it almost impossible to eat, knowing the hungry children with no shoes were there.
I tried to give them all a few rupees but was warned it could harm them if the men of the village found out and tried to beat the location of the money out of them. Helplessness defined.
At the end of the meal, the chefs started tipping curry into bins. I was outraged and intervened immediately, appealing directly to the group of fat Indian gentlemen sitting around, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars.
“I want to feed the children please,” I said. Shazna and Kamal said they wanted to do this too.
“Go ahead – if you’re prepared to do it,” one of them laughed.
We lined up some chairs and invited the children in. They sat beautifully and the three of us (and maybe more because there were lots of good people there but I remember it being just us 3) dished out the food
At the end, one of the old men cheered and started a singalong – a pisstake singalong – of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Look, my eyes are welling up now at the thought of it. I have never been so close to violence. I was shaking with rage. I could not breath for fear of the tears and another certain wave of laughter from these old men if I showed them. I was literally full of something up to the middle of my throat. I said to Shazna: “I have to go upstairs now and cry for a bit before I hit someone.” I believe punching your host’s guests is bad etiquette in India.
A few days later, Shazna and I set off travelling to Shimla etc but as the trip wore on we could not forget the children. We both agreed to go back to the village and buy the children new clothes even though it meant cutting our travelling short by a few days.
We explained what we had to do and the lovely people we had been staying with provided us with a translator and off to the market we went. It caused a buzz amongst the children and we gathered them all to explain. We tried to make a list of sizes and sexes of everyone we could find. “We must buy a few extra just in case we’ve missed anyone out,” said Shazna.
And we did. I think we bought 20 or 30 outfits in bulk from the market. We got back to the village and invited the children one-by-one to give them their new outfits.
What’s that thing YOU have? What’s that moment of horror that has stayed with you always? The thing you would do anything to change?
I’ll tell you mine. Let’s call him Boy 31. He was the boy we had no clothes for. The boy who had not been there for the head count. The boy we didn’t allow enough contingency for when we bought extra clothes. I still see the look of disappointment on his face and it will stay with me forever.
The mothers of the village thanked us anyway and I have a photo on my piano of the children looking away from the camera. I often wonder what happened to them all. But the picture reminds me to keep perspective. A lot of people say they have these kinds of tokens but I’m not convinced they always have the power people ascribe to them. However, mine does. I only have to look at that photo of the children and I think of Boy 31. Whatever my bullshit problem is, I will never feel as bad as that boy looked that day in the Punjab as every other child in his village got a new shirt/dress/trouser outfit.
The second thing that happened, is that a year after that trip, my daughter Zizi was born. As she has grown, so of course has my love for her. I read what happened to Debbie Reynolds after Carrie Fisher’s death and I thought: “I hear ya Debbie.”
The fear of something happening to the person you love most in the world is clearly quite disabling for some, unless you work to understand the privilege that same love bestows on you. So you just embrace it.
What having a child has also done for me is to make the horror of the news reports from Syria or the sweatshops of Africa and China that involve children – children who could have been Zizi – literally unwatchable. Every child pulled from the rubble of Aleppo is Zizi. Every still of a child picking prawns in some muddy field is Zizi. Every account of child prostitution in Thailand is Zizi. I have never been so furious with the status quo and the failure of the supposed radicals to stop fantasising about the Illuminati or Wikileaks, and actually do something.
The third thing that happened was a double event – the Fostering and Adoption films I was commissioned to make last year.
For the adoption film, I was asked to make a film that told the truth about adoption warts and all. It is still being used to show prospective adopters the true process and to let them know the difficulties they all will face. The adoption authorities covering north London have an umbrella group. They need people to adopt but they need to weed out the people who haven’t thought it through yet. Hence the films.
My crew and I planned to spend a week filming for each film with a handful of families. I thought it best to pre-interview the parents first to get a handle on each case and work out any obvious sensitivities.
I sat in my office with the phone and began listening. I don’t want to be pornographic so I won’t tell you the details but suffice to say one family were dealing with the fact that both their boys had been repeatedly raped and assaulted by their natural father.
One day, the new father innocently said “It’s nearly Father’s Day. Are you going to make a card for your old dad?” He meant himself of course. But you know when you’ve said the wrong thing – albeit colloquially. Both boys went into immediate meltdown and they and the adoptive father were both crying. I was shaking too on the other end of the phone listening to the father tell the story.
“But that wasn’t the worst thing,” continued Mark the father. “We had a new puppy. The boys were at the table drawing when I noticed the puppy had peed on the kitchen floor. I went over to the puppy and said ‘That’s it, you’re going back.’ Both boys started crying and begged ‘Please don’t send us back, we want to stay with you.’”
It was at that point I had to ask Mark if I could call him back. I was as broken as he was. During the course of that week, this happened 3 or 4 times as I heard the backgrounds to the different cases.
To begin with, I felt bad about this. Unprofessional even. Then one day I realised that perhaps I had finally been re-sensitised, my thick hide scrubbed away.
If only the thick hide had been in place all those years ago in the early days of my journalism career when I blundered into that stairwell. The other things I have mentioned can upset me to think about them, but the tower block incident is the bogey-man of my dreams.
A day or so after the accident I was sitting in the living room of the girl’s mother, comforting her as best I could. She had agreed to see me. Journalists get a pretty bum rap on this front but as a local journalist I only ever felt welcome in these situations. After sudden death there are lulls for the survivors. Time that needs filling. Many are keen to talk, share their remembrances and pay tribute. It’s the waves many of us have experienced after a loved one’s death: Tears and laughter, tears and laughter, tears and laughter.
So there they are the boy and girl who stand for all the children I cannot protect and nurture. The girl from the stairwell and Boy 31.