Off the back of a lorry
The reason that Balzac has survived so well as a novelist, it seems to me, is that he was never frightened of piling on detail which must have been familiar to his contemporaries. Through him we really learn how a Paris street looked and smelled in the first half of the last century. Modern novelists, when they are not exploring their own psyches, tend to write in a sort of shorthand whereby shared perceptions are taken for granted. As a result, few people will ever know in years to come what it was like to live in the second half of the twentieth century.
Even newspapers now take too much for granted. One can only arrive at important truths about our society obliquely. Last week I was idly reading through the account of a teenager's sex life in the Daily Mirror, 'My Life of Sin,' by Julie Hills, when I arrived at such an important truth.
Ms Hills, eighteen, may seem in many ways the typical British teenager, with healthy, normal appetites and a healthy disrespect for authority. Removed from her parents as being beyond their control, she was early taken into care at St Charles's Youth Treatment Centre run by the Department of Health and Social Security in Brentwood, Essex, for children with 'behavioural problems' and put on the contraceptive pill.
At fifteen she was being taken out drinking in pubs by a member of the staff who laughed when she stole her glass. 'She thought it was a right giggle.' And so it was, of course. Another member of the staff helped her escape, but she always returned when she grew bored. Her earlier sexual adventures were mostly conducted on the landings of the Treatment Centre, where other couples were often to be found doing the same thing.
'It was quite common for the staff to: run errands for the kids,' she says. 'We would send them out to get our fags—even the tenyear-olds smoked.'
So far, so good. Nothing very unusual there, of course. We all want the kiddies to have as good a time as possible. Many mums would probably welcome a little help from the local authority if they were honest, especially when it comes to running errands for the kids, and few mums have the time nowadays to see that their teenage daughters take their contraceptive pills every night. One may not be quite as knowledgeable about working-class life as the real experts —Marie Proops perhaps—but one gets the general drift.
After a few years at the Centre, having reached the legal age of consent, Julie was allowed out to live with a married man, while still being technically under the Centre's care. The married man promptly set her to work as a prostitute but she must have been a negligent pupil at the DHSS's 'Finishing School for Young Crooks,' as it is known, because she was soon picked up by the police for soliciting.
Ah well. Even the best schools can't win every time. Then I noticed a seemingly unimportant entry in the news story which revealed that the cost of a single pupil at the St Charles's Centre, where staff out-number pupils, is £500 a week, or £20,000 a year (hard to say which, as the Daily Mirror, which repeated the figures several times, appears to regard them as interchangeable. What, after all, is a mere six thobsand pounds per annum either way where a disturbed kiddy is concerned?).
The Mirror's main interest in the story, so far as one could tell, was that some of the staff might have been 'having sex' with some of the pupils. This suggestion appeared to shock the Mirror deeply, but nobody who has received a public school education in this country will see it as quite such headline news. As my old father used to say, schoolmasters must have some compensation for the endless tedium of looking after children, and I suppose the same is true of all the myriad occupatiOnal therapists, psychiatric counsellors and child-care experts who attend upon the disturbed youngsters of Brentwood. What interested me in the story was the extraordinary cost of being a pupil at this treatment centre.
For those readers who do not suffer from the thrice-yearly crisis of trying to find money for school fees, perhaps I should put this figure in perspective. According to the 1977 edition of Whitaker's Almanac*, fees at Eton are £1800 a year, although I am sure they have gone up considerably since Whitaker went to print. This is beaten by Winchester, Westminster and one or two others, but it is among the top for Headmasters' Conference schools. Now it is true that these highly privileged children are at school for only thirty-six weeks in the year, but even so the cost works out at exactly £50 per week at school, as against £500 per week (or possibly £384.62p, if one takes the lower figure) at St Charles's Youth Treatment Centre, Brentwood.
Those of us who are not civil servants can only gape at the Department's ability to spend money in this way. How on earth do they manage to stuff £500 (or possibly £384.62p) into every child every week ? Of course, government departments have ways of spending money which we can only dream about. Members of the staff who run errands and buy the children their cigarettes are almost certainly receiving £6,500 a year,
Spectator 23 April 1977 rising to £12,000 and £13,000 a year according to their specialist qualifications. For the same money, each of the children could be set up with a butler and cook, a valet or lady's maid and chauffeur. If any undisturbed citizen wants £500 a week to spend on himself, he will need to earn something like £220,000 a year—the pre-tax aggregate of the top eight Members of the Cabinet with the grossly inflated salary of Dr Bernard Donoughue thrown in. One disturbed kiddy is judged more valuable in real money terms than the lot of them.
As might well be the case, but my point is rather more subtle than that. When Ms Hills was following her brief career as a prostitute, she charged her customers £10 a time, according to the Daily Mirror. Perhaps that is the going rate in Brentwood. I don't know. Perhaps her superior training showed itself only in the value for money she gave, or perhaps her rates were higher than must. Whether the benefit went to her customers or to her patron, the married man to whom she was sent by the Treatment Centre, the fact remains that the operation had been heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. And the moral to be learned from the sad history of Ms Julie Hills is surely that we are approach' ing a time when all the good things of life must be sought somewhere among the byproducts, the spin-offs and the little bits and pieces which fall off the back of the publicspending juggernaut. Whenever a farmer in the part of the country where I live wants his drive resurfaced he first applies for all the available government grants, then he takes the moneY to the gypsies, who manage to produce wads of tarmac which have mysteriously fallen off the back of a Council lorry. Others make friends with Council roadmen and get it done that way. Others again may go so far as to join the Council, and get them to do it as a public service—I don't know. All I do know is that it is out of the question for an pprriicveaste citizen to pay for it himself at current
A friend whom I visited recently in one o the Home Counties had a particularly fine display of spring flowers. He told me he got them free from the London Parks Author —apparently they aren't allowed to sell the surplus created by dividing bulbs and have to give them away. of In the past, when I counted the number my close relations who were living on th: dole, or on various forms of public assistanc e like the Foreign Office vote, the DeferIcr budget, the National Retraining Scheme, sometimes used to think myself superior as practically the only wage earner—and Certainly the only foreign exchange earner--; among them. Now it occurs to me thiatni! have a new car—a glittering foreign toe ousine, with automatic gears, comforla"-t's seating for eight and a top speed of 110 the per hour—for only one reason, that __ Water Authority decided to buy an unfi ar_lued able valley from an uncle of mine who d soon afterwards.
We are all guilty.