All My Pretty Chickens

 

God said to Abraham "Kill me a son",
Abe said "Man, you must be putin' me on".

 

The English like dead children. They like them a good deal more than they like live ones.

Dead children are perfect angels. They exist only as school-photographs, or in the home-movie never-never land of happy holidays. You don't keep snapshots of when you smacked them, or when they said you were the shittiest mummy in the world. If they die young enough, those things never happen. A dead baby stays a baby for ever. They shall not grow up, as we that are left grow up.

Live children are little devils. Out of control, drug addicted, yobs. They need to be thrashed, or made to sit more exams, or sent on improving courses in ballet and boxing. If you take your eyes off them for a moment, then the live devil-child will kill the dead angel-child.

We are also funny about the physicality of dead children. There's a superstitious attachment to child-graves, much more than to the graves of adults. The idea of life ending before it has begun is so strange that we simply deny it, and imagine the child continuing to suffer, in the dark grave, exposed to the rain and the snow. There was far more outrage about the (certainly scandalous) case of doctors performing un-necessary autopsies and medical experiments on the bodies of dead children then there ever is about the sufferings of live ones. The actual live kid being thumped in the shopping mall is still a potential little-devil, after all. Corpses are a kind of photo, frozen in time. Violating the corpse is violating the memory; violating the platonic ideal of the child.

Dorian Grey, Peter Pan.

No-one can imagine what a parent who actually loses a child goes through; and we can forgive them any number of mildly eccentric mourning rituals. If they feel the need to have a second funeral to bury the organs "harvested" by some NHS Davros, then who is going to condemn them? But unfortunately, we can all imagine what a person experiences when someone else's child dies in tragic or horrific circumstances.

We absolutely love it.

Its a form of human sacrifice. We don't know what god we are sacrificing to, but we need to see innocent people killed. Women are good; children are better; little girls, best of all. The death of a famous man can become a subject of black humour, as with Elvis Presley; or his death can be simply denied, as with Elvis Presley. The deaths of Marylyn or Diana are the single controlling facts about their lives. Jeeves's story about the mortal remains of Diana being reclaimed in a strange posthumous rite is fairly obviously not true, but it is also horribly believable. Diana's body is most important part of her. No-one claims to see a still living Princess of Wales working in Tescos.

English literature is replete with child-sacrifice. Chaucer's Prioress revels in sadomasochistic joy about the little Christian boy whose throat was slit by the wicked Jews. Shakespeare gives us aspartame glimpses of the little Princes in the tower and McDuffs children, so that we can better enjoy their deaths. In the Bible, the literal sacrifice of Isaac passes in a line--Genesis is primarily concerned with the faith of Abraham. But the English Mystery Plays linger for pages and pages over the cruelty of the scene. Hey guys! We get to kill a little boy, with God's permission! "Must you kill me father; couldn't you spank me instead? Well, then, let me take off my tunic, it would be a shame to spoil it. Please blindfold me. Don't tell my mother what you did."

Other people's children. Sacrificial victims, whose only purpose is to die, so we can have the pleasure of mourning them.

Last summer, the great British public suddenly found itself on first name terms with two little girls whose entire public identity was first as abductees, and then, sadly, as murder victims. We claimed to feel close to them, even though we knew nothing about them, apart from the fact that they had been murdered. And what football team they supported, and the gruesome coroner's report. A public funeral was held, and transmitted on live television: a TV newscaster voiced it in precisely the same voice he used, three months previously, for the Queen Mum. The reading was "though I speak with the tongues of men and angels". There was a poem likening the dead child to an English Rose. (No-one dared to say that, however sincere the sentiment, strong rhymes which go AA BB always come across as un-intentionally comic.)

Every time the Priest celebrates Mass, Christ is literally sacrificed again, or rather, every Mass is the same, trans-temporal event as the Crucifixion. That is what "ritual" means. In the same way every innocent death is now a participation in and re-enactment of the death of Diana. Princess Die. The gate to the highest level of celebrity heaven is open to everyone. All you have to do is be lucky enough to get murdered.

Dying is reality TV like everything else. We do it exceptionally well.

The murder of a child creates a little angel that we can mourn over; but it also creates a new devil for us to hate. A child dead in a road accident does not experience apotheosis, because our enjoyment of mourning cannot be counter balanced by the still more intense pleasure of pouring out hatred. When a child (someone else's child) dies by another's hand, our joy is complete. Just as we can go and lay flowers at a strangers grave; so we can also stand outside a court and experience a strange, pentecostalist release as we screech for the death of a new folk-demon.

The fact that we know that this demand for death can never be granted probably increases our enjoyment of the scene. When there really was a death penalty, all this hatred was poured out in a single dramatic moment. This spoilt the fun. A split-second of spine-breaking catharsis deprived us of the receptacle for our hatred. Worse, it turned the hate-figure into a new sacrificial victim. Regardless of what she has done, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the killer at the moment of her death, especially if she takes it like a man. The can-do United States manages to have it both ways; making murderers act out highly sentimental, theatrical and bizarrely non-punitive death-scenes only after they have served ten or fifteen years in jail.

I often wish that the police had just stepped out of the way and allowed the mob to lynch James Bulger's killers in 1993. When the child-murderer is himself a child, then hanging the murderer would allow us to enjoy the death of a child and the punishment of a child-killer at the very same moment. This would have been the final resolution of the infanticidal myth; hell's fury spent and the dark gods satisfied. Society might have experienced closure and moved on.

On 15th November 2002, Myra Hindley died after serving 36 years in prison. The daily newspapers, claiming a power of discernment which even the Pope disavows, reported that she had gone to Hell. (Query: Is it logically possible to simultaneously believe in hell and want someone to go there?) The Daily Mail suggested that it was unjust that she had died peacefully, although it was not clear what they proposed to do about this. The Sun expressed outrage that sick Myra had, er, made donations to "Save the Children." The charity subsequently stated that it had refused to accept her money. The Sunday papers revealed that she continued to revel in her crimes right up until the moment of her death; that she carried secrets of other murders with her to the grave; that she died crying for her mother; that she had been helped on the way by prison officials anxious to circumvent the question of any eventual release; that she never showed any remorse for her crimes; that the remorse she showed was not sincere and that creatures such as her are incapable of remorse. The mother of Keith Bennet, whose body was never found, expressed disappointment that Myra was dead because she wanted her to suffer. Her dearest wish is to recover her son's body and give him a funeral in which a horse-drawn hearse with glass sides would pull him through the streets of Manchester. Like some gothic heroine, she walks around the Moors, in the hope of stumbling on the body of her dead child, calling his name.

This all comes from British newspapers and can therefore safely be regarded as fiction. But what powerful, mythological fiction! These people--all, at various levels, victims, and all, at various levels, insane--are vehicles for the closest thing to a religion which our society retains. The bereaved Mother, who suffers on our behalf, and hates on our behalf. The high priestess, who kills on our behalf, and is hated on our behalf. The child angel, who dies on our behalf, and thus enters into the perfection which our own children can never attain.

In a grotesque parody of the Queen Mother's lying in state, the police placed a 24 hour guard on Myra's body: they claimed to be concerned about "revenge attacks". The hospital disinfected and re-decorated the room where she died. No under-taker within two hundred miles was prepared to handle the funeral: it was felt that paying customer would not want their loved ones to lie in a chapel of rest which had once he occupied by a murderer. The cremation took place at 7.30 in the evening. At precisely the same moment, in London, Prof Von Hagans began the first public autopsy for 170 years.

 

 

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