I wish it was still called the Whitsun weekend. I liked the sound of it, despite the bleak poems: Sylvia Plath’s Whitsun (‘we picnic in the death-stench of hawthorn’) and Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings, with the poet’s train journey from Hull to London on a Whitsun Saturday’as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled a sense of falling’.
Whitsun is also Speech Day. For weeks, picnics are planned, intricate social orders put in place, food assignments made (four dozen brownies). Parental pride the 17-year-old son whose main interest in life is fly-fishing has won the Augustus Fleet Poetry Prize (not Larkin, not Plath, but his mother thinks it’s good). But between the concept and the act falls the rain: torrents that have left fields flooded, pitches sodden. Cricket matches, house tug-of-war, picnics and, finally, Speech Day itself cancelled. Prizes are presented without the roar of applause, and as soon as Sam collects his, he races to the Tube. We laugh at the clich?’Hi, I’m on the train. Made it by 30 seconds’.
A few hours earlier on this Whitsun Saturday, another student made it onto another train. Like Sam, Tom Grant had just completed his exams the day before, and, like Sam, was an only child spending his Whitsun break at home, taking a cross-country train so that he could take his bike. Older than Sam by two years, Tom was in his first year at St Andrews, one of the top three universities on Sam’s list. Think about the joy his parents felt when Tom got all As in his A level exams, when he got a place at St Andrews to read medieval history and Arabic. Imagine their pride as they watched him captain the foot-ball team, play rugby, accept prizes for academic success, for ‘Cadet of the Year’.
Talented, special, fun, normal. His parents say that Tom loved his iPod and had it with him most of the time, so he was clued up on the survival tactics drummed into boys as soon as they acquire objects of desire: hand over the iPod, the wallet, the watch. Forget heroic and brave. Assume the muggers have a knife. Wipe the word ‘coward’ out of your mind. Surrender. Survive.
But that’s if you are being mugged. What if you see a man beating up a woman? Or a child? What strategy then? Be the indifferent stranger? The silent witness? We raise our children according to our values (defend the weak), but out in the real world these values are like an ancient language that is no longer spoken. It’s like feeding our children organic bananas while the planet is dying from global warming.
There is a secret code of motherhood: if you gave me the choice between saving everyone on that train on Saturday or saving my son, I would grab hold of my son and run into the wind. But I know it would be a temporary salvation. We can only save our children by going out into the world and fighting. Fighting for an end to the anomaly between the legislation for knife crime and gun crime. Fighting for a campaign of stop and search. Fighting for metal detectors in schools, trains, shops, so that it is impossible to get anywhere carrying a gun or a knife. Yes, we have to deal with the causes of crime, to change the culture of fatherless, jobless, violent young men. But that is so huge. First, we have to begin by making the street safe.
There will be bunches of flowers with sad notes to Tom Grant, just as there were for Kiyan Prince. But the sorrow and the pity will not give Tom’s parents their future, their son, their life. We need more than flowers to persuade us that we are living in a civilised place, to take away the death stench of hawthorn, the sense of falling.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 8, 2006.