“The careless maintenance from year to year, in this, the capital city of the world, of a vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice, a breeding place for the hulks and
jails, is horrible to contemplate.”

—Charles Dickens, the Daily News, March 13, 1852

When Dickens wrote about the “ragged schools” that so pitifully attempted to address the problem of London’s uneducated underclass, he was less moved by their pupils’ physical wretchedness, which was extreme, than by their spiritual poverty, which he saw as absolute.  Yes, he was affronted by the squalor in which they were forced to live; yes, he was outraged by the injustice of it.  What drove him to near despair, however, was not that, of material things, they had so little but that, of morality, they had nothing at all.  “The first distinctions between right and wrong are, from their cradles, perfectly confounded and perverted in their minds,” he wrote.  “They come of untaught parents, and will give birth to another untaught generation . . . there is no escape or chance for them in any ordinary revolution of human affairs.”  Dickens believed that, if decent folk were to see for themselves inside the prisons and ragged schools of that time, they would be “shocked, pained and repelled” by much that they would learn there: “but nothing they can learn will be one thousandth part so shocking, painful, and repulsive, as the continuance for one year more of these things as they have been for too many years already.”

Though it is shocking, painful, and repulsive to acknowledge it, 150 years after Dickens wrote those words, the moral ignorance that he lamented still confounds the consciences of countless underclass children.  Our own designer-trainered paupers have riches Dickens’ barefoot urchins could not even have imagined; spiritually, however, they are just as poor, if not poorer.  I have seen inside today’s prisons (for nine years, I was a prison visitor), and, for six years, I taught in the contemporary equivalent of a “ragged school.”  I have seen for myself the survivalist selfishness that passes for a moral code among many at the very bottom of the heap.  I have taught children who have learned from their parents that, when you cling to existence at the very margin of society, you have to snatch anything you can when the chance presents itself, regardless of any irrelevant rules about who actually owns it; and that you should always say whatever best serves your own interests, regardless of any objective notion of truth.  There are, of course, exceptions to this general pattern of behavior, and there is, no doubt, as much (or as little) nobility, decency, and magnanimity among the poor as among the rich.  But while, in other classes, the possibility that you might do wrong is at least acknowledged, in the underclass, right is what serves your purpose, and wrong is what other people do that frustrates it.

Last August, the BBC broadcast a radio program that put this perverted philosophy under a painful spotlight.  “It’s My Story: The Witness” was an extended interview with a member of a “girl-gang” who, three years ago, when she was 12, claimed to have seen the murder of Damilola Taylor on a run-down London housing estate.  The ten-year-old victim, who had only recently come to England from Nigeria, had been stabbed with a broken bottle and left to bleed to death in a stairwell.  The pitiless cruelty of his fate caught the imagination of the nation, and newspapers offered large cash rewards for information leading to a conviction.  A fortnight after the event, the girl contacted police and told them that a boy she knew had admitted to her that he was a member of a gang of four that had committed the crime.  She was taken into a witness-protection program, given a new name—“Bromley”—to conceal her identity, and interviewed over time and at length.  After a while, she changed her story: She had not been told about the killing but had seen it with her own eyes.  The police knew that they could not secure a conviction without her evidence, and they looked after her carefully before the case came to court.

Quite how well they cared for her emerged during the trial.  They bought her clothes, a pet gerbil, a mobile phone, and numerous meals and took her on trips to the seaside.  Quite how badly she behaved in return became a matter of record, too.  After setting fire to her bathroom, she was thrown out of a hotel she had been put in; when there were complaints about loud music, she was thrown out of the flat she was moved to.  During an eight-day stay at one hotel, accompanied by her mother, she ran up a bill of over £2,000; the mother’s bill was only a few pounds less.  The taxpayer paid both.  The police asked Bromley not to contact her friends before the trial, but she made up to 60 telephone calls to them every day.  When the phone in her room was taken away, she borrowed another one, plugged it in, and ran up a further £380 in charges.  She made one call from her mother’s room that cost £226.  She was bored, she said.  A policeman took pity on her and lent her his personal CD player.  She sold it.  It emerged that she had not behaved much better when at school.  Her teachers described her as disruptive, dishonest, and attention-seeking.  She had threatened fellow pupils with scissors, kicked and punched a maintenance worker, and grabbed control of the school’s P.A. system.  She had done, it would appear, whatever she had felt like doing at any time, regardless of the consequences for others.

If Bromley was not a very good girl, she was an even worse witness.  At one point, she lost her temper with the defence barrister, swore at him, and stormed out of the court.  The jury was shown video tapes of police interviews in which she laughed as she sang, “We’re in the money” and “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” when mention was made of the £50,000 reward.  She was never to collect it; her credibility was comprehensively demolished during the trial.  She had waited two weeks before coming forward to offer evidence; she had expressed crude enthusiasm at the prospect of gaining the reward money; she had admitted that the first version of events she had given the police had been untrue.  Why should any subsequent story she might tell be believed?  The judge ruled her evidence unreliable.  The case collapsed.  The four boys she said she had seen attack Damilola walked free, even though they had boasted of their guilt during their detention—a fact that the judge ruled should not be reported to the jury.  Nobody else has been charged with his murder.

Bromley paints herself as a victim in the interview she gave the BBC.  It is an accurate characterization, though she shows no sense of understanding that she is more than anything a victim of herself.  Since coming under witness protection, Bromley has been moved 39 times.  Terrified of being found by anyone who might seek revenge for accusations, she and her mother now live at a secret address, protected by intruder alarms, extra locks, and a guard dog trained to attack on command.  “My life’s ruined,” Bromley tells the interviewer.

I have to stay in all the time, can’t go to school, can’t get education, when I’m older I can’t get a job.  I’m just going to be another bum in the world.  Someone else who’s going to be low life on social, that’s what’s probably going to be me, mate.

For all Bromley’s awfulness, it is impossible not to be moved by her fate.  “I always feel sad,” she says.  “I can’t feel happy; there’s nothing happy.  What’s ‘happy’?” she asks.  It would indeed seem that “there is no escape or chance for [her] in any ordinary revolution of human affairs,” for, in Bromley, “the first distinctions between right and wrong” are certainly confused, if not “perfectly confounded.”  Why did the case collapse?  “It’s all down to the police and they know that.”  But surely it was because she lied in the first story that she gave them?  “No, I didn’t lie, I only said that I wasn’t there, that ain’t lying—yeah, it’s lying but not proper lying.  I’m not lying about the boys that did it, I told them the correct boys.”

Perhaps Bromley’s most telling assertion comes when she is asked if she is now sorry that she sang “We’re in the money.” “No,” she says, because she knows that she didn’t go to the police to get money, and people shouldn’t “judge me by how I act.”  If people shouldn’t judge her by her actions, that leaves only her thoughts; as only she knows her thoughts, nobody else can judge her at all.  The absurdity of such a position is all too obvious to any adult with the power of rational thought, but Bromley’s indefensible self-defensiveness is far from unique in the underclass that is always with us.  I have taught countless inner-city teenagers that refused to cross the boundary to the “age of reason” that the old Penny Catechism said was reached at “the age of seven, or thereabouts.”  Forever frozen in childish selfishness, their encounters with the world around them are a ceaseless cycle of sulks and tantrums, punctuated by the outbursts of violence that their inevitable frustrations produce.

Thus, when Bromley acknowledges that she has a short temper, she does not apologize for it; even less does it occur to her that she should try to master what others might consider to be a failing.  Reminded that she swore aggressively at the defense barrister under interrogation, she says, “Good, I should have slapped him.”  The court should have been able to take her on her own terms, she insists: “It ain’t my fault that I didn’t make a good impression, this is me, I can’t change myself.”  By her own account—one cannot say “on her own admission,” for that would suggest that she acknowledges herself capable of doing wrong—she displayed the same attitude at school.

I wasn’t always bad but could be bad if I wanted to be bad.  I didn’t like school because they don’t ask you to do something, they tell you you have to do it, and I don’t like people telling me what I have to do, I like doing it in my own time, I like having my own space.

It is clear that Bromley uses “want” or “like having” to mean must have, or, rather, must have—or else!  Listening to that wireless program, I could hear in Bromley the voices of countless damaged girls I have taught in the past.  The face my imagination attributed to her was of one of the most recent of my pupils—a 15-year-old who had been excluded from two schools for a catalogue of self-centered outrages perpetrated upon anyone who happened to be in the way of whatever whim was controlling her at the time.  I remember how pleased I was to learn that my pupil had managed to find herself a Saturday job serving in a supermarket.  When I asked her how her first day’s work had gone, she replied, “Very well!” and showed me the set of false fingernails that she had stolen from her new employer, boasting that she had served several of her friends with goods for which she had taken no payment.  When I suggested that maybe she shouldn’t have done those things, she looked at me as if she had been addressed by an imbecile.  “Don’t be stupid,” she said.  “They pay so badly, they deserve it; and anyway, if I want stuff, why shouldn’t I have it?”

Attitudes like that are common in today’s “untaught generation,” as they were no doubt common at the time that Dickens wrote his piece for the Daily News.  Youngsters like that lie or tell the truth as it suits them and react with the same outrage whether it is their lies or their truths that are called into doubt.  In Bromley’s case, her outrage at being thought to have fabricated her evidence just for the reward money was so great that she refused huge sums offered by tabloid newspapers for her story and accepted no fee for her interview with the BBC.  In it, she says nothing that could persuade anyone that she should be considered truthful; one is left wondering, however, whether she might once have told a very significant truth.  If poor, damaged, confused young Bromley were ever to be read Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf, it is unlikely that she would understand its moral, even now.  But she might have a better appreciation of how the boy feels at the end of the story than any scholar fluent in classical Greek.