Visitors to London sometimes complain that Londoners are unfriendly, or at best reserved. To them I have an answer: get a dog. Borrow one for the duration of your stay. Last autumn, I walked George, a two-month-old cocker spaniel, for a friend while she was away. I had help from my good friend John; in fact we took it in turns. It rained every other day, so, like the little old man and woman of the mantelpiece barometer, I walked the dog on sunny days and John did duty on rainy days. This did not go unnoticed.
London is a different world when you have a dog, especially a puppy. Instead of scuttling or shuffling past, avoiding eye contact, Londoners young and old stop to talk to you and make a fuss of your little friend. Surly teenagers in hoods, studs in sunglasses melted at the sight of George, petting him and picking him up — and sounding distinctly uncool.
One of George’s admirers was a girl of about seven. A plain, awkward child, she played by herself in the park. On seeing the puppy, her face lit up and the plainness vanished. Every day — or rather every other day — she rushed up to me, falling over herself to hold him and cuddle him. Naturally we fell into conversation. An intelligent child, perhaps rather lonely, she was curious to know all about the dog, its owner — and my strangely silent friend John, who appeared on rainy days. “Why doesn’t your friend talk to me?” she asked, hurt. I was surprised at the question and, thinking that John was being churlish or impatient, resolved to tackle him about it that evening. “What, are you crazy?” he asked. “I can’t go talking to little girls in parks. I’ll get arrested.”
I remonstrated with him, but had to acknowledge that he had a point. George’s canine charms had failed to break down one of Britain’s great barriers: the barrier between adults and children. It is acceptable — just — for a woman to talk to someone else’s child in a public place, but a man who does the same thing must be a pervert. Has it come to this? How many perverts are there, for goodness sake?
London Mayor Boris Johnson asked the same question in the Telegraph a couple of years ago, when a British Airways stewardess asked him to change seats because he was sitting next to some children: “We have very strict rules.” Johnson wrote:
To all those who worry about the pedophile plague, I would say that they not only have a very imperfect understanding of probability, but also that they fail to understand the terrible damage that is done by this system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority.
There are all sorts of reasons why the numbers of male school teachers are down 50 percent in the period 1981 to 2001, and why the ratio of female to male teachers in primary schools is now seven to one. … But it is surely a huge deterrent to any public-spirited man contemplating a career in education that society apparently regards all adult male contact with young people as being potentially a bit dodgy, a bit rum, a bit you know. …
It is insane, and the problem is the general collapse of trust. Almost every human relationship that was sensibly regulated by trust is now governed by law, with cripplingly expensive consequences.
The cost is not just financial. Starved of robust, normal contact with adults — particularly men — outside the family, children remain infantilized. Driven to school in cars, continually supervised, they live in a bubble, failing to develop common sense and judgment about which strangers and situations are benign and which are dangerous. And it is a lonely bubble, in which adults seem not to care. Tonight, a British current affairs program, recently did an experiment in a shopping mall, in which a child pretended (very convincingly) to be lost and distressed. It took a long time before any passersby — certainly male ones — stopped to help her.
Last week, I met one of Europe’s most successful architects. He told me his parents were extremely poor, and that because his mother had a serious mental illness, his father left the family home.
But they had a neighbor — a man with no children of his own — who noticed his talent when he was young and gave him art classes.
Suppose the neighbor had been a pervert? Well, it’s possible, but is it likely? Here are some statistics on perpetrators of child abuse. As this is an American website, I will take them from a U.S. report, Child Maltreatment:
In FFY 2005, more than three-quarters of perpetrators of child maltreatment (79.4%) were parents, and another 6.8 percent were other relatives of the victim. Unrelated caregivers (foster parents, residential facility staff, child daycare providers, and legal guardians) accounted for less than 10.1 percent of perpetrators. Women comprised a larger percentage of all perpetrators than men, 57.8 percent compared to 42.2 percent. More than three-fourths of all perpetrators were younger than age 40.
Seemingly, the “dirty old man” in the park is the least of a child’s worries. As the statistics show, most abuse, sexual or otherwise, takes place within the family. A particular problem in the UK’s Muslim community is that of forced marriages, and in Islam, a girl is deemed marriageable at just nine years of age. In an article for the London Times on the connection between pedophilia and terrorism, Stefano Dambruoso, Italy’s anti-terror magistrate, is quoted as saying:
The most you can attribute to them is a relationship between men and women different from that of us Westerners, in which — as in many parts of the Arab world — wives are often very young girls of 11, 12, or 13 who because of family negotiations are given in marriage to men much older than them. But that is not pedophilia; it is a question of Arab culture.
Really? One thing’s for sure: a girl of “Arab culture” would not be allowed to play in the park by herself, and so would be safe from the dishonor wrought by an encounter with my friend John and an eight-week-old puppy.
This has to stop. Adults should talk to children in public, whether to joke, teach, comfort, or if need be to admonish. Normal adults, that is. Or are we prepared to leave the field clear for perverts and psychopaths?