Operation Yew Tree’s first conviction – why is it so significant?

It’s been some time since I wrote about the fallout of Savile, and the investigations into the sexual abuse of children. Yesterday, Max Clifford was found guilty of eight counts of sexual assault against young women, and girls as young as fifteen. Within the case heard at Southwark Crown Court, there was an account of sexual abuse of a girl who was twelve, but as this was alleged to have taken place in Spain, it could not be heard in a British court of law.

But why is the conviction of Max Clifford so significant?

It is significant on many levels – for his victims, for all victims of sexual abuse, for Operation Yew Tree, and for us, the public as protectors of our children.

The process of justice is a long and painful one. Clifford was first questioned in December 2012, and arrested in April 2013. A year later his case went to trial. His victims, who would have given their evidence to bring about his arrest and trial, have been in the justice system long before the cold arm of the law reached out and knocked on Clifford’s door. They endured his abuse many years ago, and for most, kept it quiet, but because of Operation Yew Tree, they chose to speak to the police. This might have happened eighteen months ago, perhaps. Perhaps longer. Since their statements were taken, they will have been living with their own stories in a more public domain, not knowing what it might mean, if anything at all. It is a brutalising process, and because of them, their bravery, their conviction, this sex offender has been found guilty. Who knows what the victims feel, but let us hope that they feel that justice has been done to them. I know from my work, as evidenced in the stories in Hurt, this isn’t always the case – because the nightmares, the fear, the repercussions live on. In this, I pray that his victims can feel proud of the strong women they have become. They have helped bring down a monster.

And this is why it is significant to all victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Convictions are hard to come by, and against the weight and burden of the justice system, it can be a wholly daunting process. But, this must give hope. The system is changing, with the police and CPS promising more support to those that have suffered under the violent abuse of sex offenders. The criminal justice services want to listen to victims now, which seems a sea-change to where it was only five years ago. Operation Yew Tree has played a major part in this, but as have the victims who are collectively saying ‘this is no longer acceptable’.

Operation Yew Tree has been lambasted as being a celebrity witch-hunt, looking for scalps, and after some unsuccessful cases, here is a massive achievement. Raking over crimes of the past, crimes where there is little forensic evidence makes for challenging convictions. This success will give Operation Yew Tree more credibility, quieten the cynics, and perhaps encourage more victims to come forward. In the absence of ‘hard’ evidence, it is the consistency in the stories (and I don’t mean ‘made up’ in choosing this word, but the lived experiences of the abuse) that help build a picture of evidence beyond reasonable doubt. I remember hearing that this struck the early investigators of Savile, just how extraordinarily similar the ‘method’ of seduction, abuse and subsequent threat. It must have been the same for the jury in the Clifford trial. If there are to be more convictions of these prolific sex offenders, then possibly more corroboration will help.

Lastly, I think that this is extremely significant to us, the public. People who work with the victims of sexual abuse know that most sex offenders and paedophiles do not have the appearance of grimy, scaly monsters. They are ‘nice’ men – caring, considerate, people who you’d want to give your children to. And here we have a very public profile of a sex offender. Charismatic, charming, influential – but also very manipulative, cruel, deceitful and determined. We, all of us, need to recast the image of a sex offender, and look around us, because they will be among our children today, in our schools, our clubs, our churches and possibly, our lives.

Today Operation Yew Tree can celebrate the achievement of this last trial, and today the work must also continue anew, because although it is a landmark, there is still a long road ahead before we can end the sexual abuse of vulnerable children and young people.

Book review – The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Kindle Edition)

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The Book Thief is set in war torn Nazi Germany, in the impoverished Himmel Strasse of Molching.  A ten year-old girl, the protagonist, and her brother are sent to new foster parents, but the boy dies en route.  Her new ‘Papa’ teaches her to read, and so develops a love of words, which will ultimately save her. She steals books to read to herself, and a Jew hidden in the basement, and those sheltering from bombs dropped by the Allied Forces.

When I first picked up the book, I did not think that I was going to enjoy it.  The voice of the narrator seemed a strange choice, slightly awkward, pedantic and somehow a bit soulless.  It was only when I realised that it was Death that it made sense – and I was intrigued to read more.  There is a tinge of genius in this choice of narration; the black humoured voice is clever. That said, I did not like the structuring of The Book Thief – the questions, headlines, summaries – I skipped reading them, as they added nothing to me, if anything, were slightly annoying.

What I liked about this book was its ordinariness – the portrayal of the spoils of war from people on a very poor street, Himmel Strasse (ironically, Heaven Street).  The narrator narrates in an uncomplicated way, mirroring the told experiences of Liesel Meminger, the protagonist.  This edge of innocence is charming, in a kind of ‘good will save the day’ kind of a way, which seems to echo throughout the book.  The characters are well drawn, and likeable, particularly ‘Papa’ and Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend.

Zusak pushes Liesel to the limits, and the degrees of tragedy and abandonment thrown her way are exhausting.  It is no wonder that Death has a soft spot for her.  Her own reactions become more shutdown, somehow.  It is one way of coping with the levels of destruction, but, and here is a flaw for me; there is a lack of abject fear portrayed in the characters.  It is war, after all.  Can the folk of Himmel Street really be appeased by a ten year-old girl reading to them?  I am still to be convinced.

The Kindle Edition was particularly frustrating, for the book within the book and the story of The Word Shaker – it was too small on the Kindle to read and could not be expanded.  I was able to stretch it on the iPad, but I’m not sure that it was worth it.  It was a bit sycophantic, and not necessary in terms of character or plot development.  A tighter edit here, for me, would have been preferable.

That said, The Book Thief is haunting at times, and some of the images have lingered long.  The boy with the hair the colour of lemons receiving his kiss, at last, is very moving.

Overall a book, that despite itself – the structure and necessary trimming – works. I read it through to the end, and it left me with some things to think about, which is a minimum that I ask for in a book.

Book Review: Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

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A baby is born in 1910, and dies before taking a breath.  The same baby is born and lives, and dies again and again.  Atkinson takes this central premise, and asks what if there are second chances, third, or perhaps even forth?

Life after Life is a stunning book, one that had me pondering not only during the reading of it, but long afterwards.  It is a truly gripping book, which takes you backwards and forwards through time, with episodes visited from different – not quite perspectives – but sequences. For me, it was pure genius, although I imagine that the to-ing and fro-ing might leave some readers a little giddy. Continue reading Book Review: Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

My writing week – at last!

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At some point last week, I realised that my WIP had largely lain neglected for six weeks.  This, I thought, was not good.  What happened?  Somehow a couple of weeks of things, mounted in to more, and I hadn’t climbed the stairs to my garret.  This week was different. Continue reading My writing week – at last!