A troubling subject

The 1970s were when I turned from a child into a man, passing through an all-boys grammar school and then on to university and earning a living.  From what we know now, this was a dangerous period with sexually predatory men in politics, entertainment, sport and the Catholic church but this all passed me by at the time.

My days at Bristol Grammar School taught me some ancient Greek (mostly forgotten), how to play cricket (mostly forgotten), how to think (you can decide…) and how to distinguish between a Marsh Tit and a Willow Tit (I can usually manage that still though I see neither as often as then). I made lots of friends, many of whom I am in touch with still.  Two, unmarried, masters at the school were the mainstays of the school natural history society and they took groups of us out in the school minibus to local birding haunts on alternate Sundays through term time.  These day-trips were opportunities to socialise with other school kids of all ages across the school and also to learn, mostly through osmosis rather than any deliberate teaching (as far as I can recall), more than the rudiments of bird identification.

And nothing inappropriate happened to me, nor I’m sure to any of my schoolmates. But it is difficult to imagine that such an important part of my growing up (for it really was important) and such a joyous part of it, would be as easy and natural these days. As a society we are now more fearful, more informed of potential dangers, more scared of litigation and perhaps more world-weary than how I remember those days in the 1970s.

For me, the 1970s was a decade almost completely lacking in angst – getting my French homework done on the bus in the morning was one of the more stressful parts of the early 1970s and passing a few exams at university provided some of the tensest moments of the late 1970s.  Apart from that, it was a decade of happiness, fulfillment, hope and personal development – at least that’s how I remember it. It was just what I would wish for any young person these days in that period of emotional and intellectual growth before having to earn a living (which I postponed for as long as possible).  And that is why I am disturbed and saddened when I hear of what was going on in others’ lives at a time when I was largely care-free.

And it makes one wonder what was going on in nature conservation circles at that time, and since, in terms of infiltration by paedophiles.  Football is now going through a flood of revelations of illegal activities in the 1970s and 1980s at least.  How likely is it that nature clubs and bird clubs were completely free of any wrong-doing?  I’d guess, though I certainly don’t know, that it was ‘unlikely’.


17 Replies to “A troubling subject”

  1. Agree it’s troubling and perplexing. Yes, I like many, identify with and recognise your carefree childhood.
    But we must not forget the monster in the room:
    Most child abuse, sexual or otherwise, occurs within the family (close and/or extended). When you do the stats, stranger-danger is almost a myth by comparison.

    1. Then there’s the hideous parallel: on average 2 women per week are murdered in the UK – not by strange men but by their partners or ex-partners.

  2. Yes, growing up in the mid 60s, was pretty similar, and knowing what we do now, very fortunate to have the childhood we did. We’d always been taught not to talk to ‘strange men’, but I think it was the Moors murders that took away our freedom to roam, living in the NW. Things were never the same afterwards. We’d walked & biked over the fields, making dens etc. and can still feel ‘connected’ to the natural landscape as a result. It saddens me that the Wildlife Trust events for youngsters never seem to have many participants. If only all schools would follow their lead.

  3. Like Mark’s, my adolescence took place in the 1970s and I am glad to say that I never experienced anything untoward from any of the various adults who played a role in my life nor was I aware of any rumours of inappropriate behaviour by any of these adults. Whilst every case of sexual abuse of a child is appalling and some abusers were/are clearly very prolific I suspect that in absolute terms such abuse is/was rare.

    This is important to recognise because it is easy to become over fearful about the dangers facing children nowadays and over protective as a result. Fear of ‘stranger danger’ leads many parents to keep their children in the house or under constant adult supervision nowadays, depriving them of the joys of roaming that I and many others of my generation enjoyed as children, yet attacks by strangers are very rare and I am sure no more common now than they ever were (though admittedly the volume of traffic on the highways has increased since the 1970s making the roads a genuinely more hostile environment). Now, fear of paedophile abuse will perhaps lead some parents to withdraw their children from sport and other organised activities – including perhaps bird-watching groups, and I wonder if what is lost will outweigh any reduction in a very low level of risk.

    Of course this does not mean that we should not take sensible measures to prevent abuse. In the present crisis it appears that some football clubs were a lot more sensible than others in their approach to managing the risk of abuse (I believe Charlton Athletic has been held up as an example of good practice) and it is also apparent that – as with abuses in care homes – many people in authority were hideously guilty of prioritising the reputation of their club/home/organisation over the well-being of the children and therefore turned a blind eye to evidence of abuse or swept it under the carpet. Every organisation that runs adult-supervised activities for children should be aware of and honest about the risks and take suitable precautions to prevent paedophiles from exploiting the opportunity to access children but I very much hope that the present crisis will neither stop parents from allowing their children taking part in sport or other organised activities nor deter innocent adults from wanting to lead such activities.

  4. Like you, I too had a very free childhood, and would regularly disappear into the North Downs for a day with only a dog for company and no-one thought anything of it. I had one uneasy encounter with a dodgy teacher at school, which with hindsight was a lucky escape, but was otherwise untroubled. I think society at large has paid a huge price for being so risk adverse nowadays, and will continue to do so if things don’t change.

    Not least I’m concerned by the way that we don’t teach children to be self reliant, don’t allow them to make mistakes and to get into scrapes any more. Armed with the knowledge that bad people do exist – and as others have pointed out, the dangers are mostly in the circle of family and friends not outside it – we should be empowering them, not keeping them in our sight at all times. I suspect that with what we know now, they are safer from external dangers than ever before.

    On the other hand in my circle of acquaintances I know far too many people who were abused or neglected in some way in their childhoods, and that’s one of the other reasons I feel strongly that the focus on stranger danger paedophiles is misplaced. Most kids whose childhoods leave them emotionally damaged in some way suffered at home, and usually not because of any overtly sexual behaviours. It was not because they were allowed to roam the hills and woods and then met with a man in a dirty mac. But the idea that there’s too often an abject lack of love in the home is a much tougher thing for society to admit – so much easier to find an “other” to blame.

    Our awareness of how paedophiles operate also means we now have a very good idea of what good practice looks like, when it comes to how organisations are run, so it’s much easier for a parent to ask the right questions nowadays. That’s a huge step forward. And if a child does have an unhappy home life, having at least one adult who is a reliable and secure figure in their lives can make all the difference, and organised activities can be the one place they can find such a person they can trust. By “protecting them” we’re risking removing that lifeline.

    Good practice protects everyone, but can never protect absolutely. That’s why we should give our kids as much freedom, and as much awareness and self reliance of their own, as we can.

  5. If I hadn’t been bitten so firmly by the birdwatching/natural history/nature conservation bug in the 1970s, I doubt if I would be anywhere near so interested today. But make no mistake, those of us who came through those times unscathed are survivors – and are definitely in the majority. Others were not so lucky. The abuse I received at the hands of a few naturalists didn’t stop my enthusiasm for nature, but it affected me in other ways. Similar abuse, and fear of it, certainly stopped some of my friends joining in with natural history activities. Sexual and other forms of abuse, both historic and current, are live issues, and any person or organisation that chooses to ignore that – and some big ones still do – is not only putting young people at risk, but also in danger of further alienating the general public from nature conservation and the institutions that help deliver it. Prevention of abuse – safeguarding – is not straightforward. It doesn’t happen by accident. It requires open vigilance, clear training and procedures, etc. It also requires balance so that opportunity isn’t stifled by fear. That can be done and schools, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have long had good systems in place. To help them and others, I really wish parents would ask more questions of the groups they leave their children with. Ask what the safeguarding procedures are (not just whether legal checks are in place), and if you don’t get the right answer, walk away.

    1. Just following up on Mark B’s comment. In a past life one of the volunteers in the organisation I worked for at the time turned out to have an extensive collection of nasty pictures. I was sent to the court hearing to see if our name came up (it didn’t – though he had other interests incl youth football).

      It seems that he was a looker rather than a do-er, and he was duly jailed for his part in financing the abuse that generated the pictures he liked to look at. But from the start, I was pretty confident that he cannot have done anything untoward in our company, because no-one could do anything untoward in our company. We had systems in place to make sure of that.

      All of which speaks well of the standards of protection in that organisation, but is also a reminder as to why we all have them. Until you know you’ve had a corporate “close encounter” its easy to be complacent, or think they’re a pain (like H&S) , but they’re really not. They are essential, and I wouldn’t let any kid of mine go to any club that didn’t have them in place and act upon them.

  6. Are we to anticipate any revelations in the near future? If so, what PR tack should we take because the shooting and anti-enviro lobby will use them to torpedo the whole rewilding and grouse banning cause. We need to have a script ready to combat that, is anyone working it and is there a list of “suspects”, these are the questions I hope will be being asked privately. In public it would be better to pretend that this issue did not exist in the movement until any revelations break.

    Navel gazing posts like this will probably not be helpful overall and I can just imagine the usual suspects are drawing up their own blogs along the lines of “Mark Avery admits child abuse endemic in early environmental movement: why should we trust these kiddie fiddlers with managing our country”” etc and so on. It is just giving the enemy ammunition. If someone does come forward here with evidence or anecdote then it could prove disastrous for all that we are trying to achieve. However, if we can dig something up on the shooters and maybe something that we can make stick on one of the more high profile lords and lairds, now that would be useful.

    1. I rather hope that these awful crimes do not get used by anyone wishing to push an unrelated agenda. I would assume that paedophile tendencies are not particularly associated with any political outlook, social origin, etc but people with such tendencies are drawn to situations where they can gain access to children. Such situations are widely distributed across society – sports clubs, boarding schools, childrens’ homes, choirs, scout groups, youth groups and so on (though of course this does not mean that all or even most have necessarily been infiltrated by paedophiles). The fact that a paedophile is discovered abusing young footballers does not mean that there is therefore something sexually dodgy about everyone coaching kids at football and the same would be true with regards to any other activity whether it is leading young conservationists or teaching youngsters to shoot game.

      1. What you say is true, but we are in the post-truth and pro-agenda era. If the environmental pressure groups do not control our image carefully then be assured that the anti-environmental and pro-shooting lobby will do so with vigour. It is a sad reflection of the times, but pragmatism and a cynical eye on image and opportunity will serve the cause far better than the truth would in such cases.

        1. Random22, quite irrespective of the fact that I am a member of the shooting community, I am very disappointed by your response to Mark’s sensitive post.

      1. No, but I am worried I might one day have to regret the responses to it. By all means deplore what I said, but don’t ignore what I said.

    2. Random22 – no doubt your intentions in posting this comment were good, I’d certainly like to think so. However, there is so much that needs to be challenged I barely know where to start:

      “what PR tack should we take … In public it would be better to pretend that this issue did not exist in the movement until any revelations break.”

      Exactly the wrong approach, and one which has caused so much additional pain and suffering to abuse victims and catastrophic damage to the reputations of those organisations implicated in trying to bury the bad news or not responding adequately. No-one should take a “PR tack” in response to claims of abuse by those in a position of trust; that is a dreadful suggestion to make. If any accusations were to surface in any organisation connected with nature conservation the vast majority of those involved in these organisations would no doubt be absolutely horrified and seek to uncover the truth first and foremost.

      “if we can dig something up on the shooters and maybe something that we can make stick on one of the more high profile lords and lairds, now that would be useful.” Now that is so offensive as to almost defy belief, and is an appalling way to respond to a post as thoughtful as Mark’s. The subject of historic child abuse has nothing whatsover to do with arguments about driven grouse shooting – no it would not be “handy” if someone in the shooting community was implicated, it would be absolutely awful – for their victims, their victims families, for the organisation they were part of, for everyone concerned. It would not “strengthen” any arguments by conservationists about DGS, it would be entirely irrelevant to them – no such revelations are needed in support of any case either for or against any form of shooting or any action to improve the conservation status of threatened species and habitats. Surely you must realise how offensive that is to everyone who has been working on raptor conservation as well as to those in the shooting community – however passionately differences of views may be held I am certain no-one on either side would ‘exploit’ any case should it emerge. Did you take a moment to consider how a victim of abuse would feel reading your words? (I should add I have never suffered abuse of any kind myself, having had the good fortune to come from a loving family and have had nothing but positive role models both in childhood and adult life; I write these words with what I hope is an attempt at some kind of empathy).

      I find your comment deeply disturbing and I think you have abused the trust Mark has given in enabling free comment on this blog. It might have been better if you hadn’t posted it – it might also be better if you withdrew it now and apologised for it.

      1. I shall not withdraw it and I stand by it, however I will comment no further on the subject beyond this post. I will say that if you think nobody on the pro-shooting and anti-environmental side would not try and exploit any such allegations then you are not paying attention to current political events 1980s to present, and also if you think that the pro-environment groups should not a have plan to do similar then you are part of the reason that progressive groups are so often on the back foot and losing ground.

  7. I was never offered the chance to see some puppies, or given sweets by a stranger.
    Perhaps I was just lucky.
    I would hope that, one day, soon, wildlife crime will be looked upon in a similar manner as racism and paedophilia are looked upon now.

  8. As a species we’re rather poor at assessing and evaluating risk; many are fearful of flying when what should worry us, statistically, is the car journey to the airport. Press reports and the media distort our understanding of risk, particularly where our children are concerned. It is very difficult to strike a balance between being overprotective and allowing children the sort of freedom many of us growing up in the 1950s, 60s and even 70s enjoyed. There is some evidence to suggest that children given more freedom are better at assessing and understanding risk than those who are tightly corralled who, when things go awry, are less able to cope.

    Although one can never underestimate the level of harm abuse does to individual children or that there was a failure to recognise abuse in the past, I think that suggesting that it was a “dangerous period with sexually predatory men” overstates the case. Reading the press, for example, one might be forgiven for thinking the whole of Westminster was overflowing with paedophiles. However, taking into consideration the time period involved and the number of active politicians during that period, the number of paedophile politicians probably isn’t too much different from that in society as a whole.

    Growing up in the 50s/60s we were vaguely aware of ‘dirty old men’ existed but I’m not sure any of us actually met one. Living at the edge of a conurbation we explored the countryside at will in large part because the roads were far less congested and traffic much lighter. Cycling was then a mode of transport, not the constant dicing with death it is today. Despite a brief panic during infant school when a classmate was killed in a local park (the result, it transpired, of a children’s game gone wrong) our freedom to explore in packs was never stifled.

    I was fortunate to fall in with a small group of like-minded pupils at school whose interest in wildlife was self-generated and did not depend on a school club or a helpful teacher. Later, when I in turn, became a teacher in the 1970s there were still active ‘school clubs’ run by enthusiasts. As the years passed, teaching became more stressful and time-consuming, concerns also grew about children going home later than usual, there were increasing demands of ‘health and safety’ assessments and other problems all of which meant that teaching unions increasingly warned staff about the potential problems in running groups. This gradually killed off the clubs and the ability of teachers to run them.

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