Bullying

4th May 2001 at 01:00
BULLYCIDE: DEATH AT PLAYTIME. By Neil Marr and Tim Field. Success Unlimited pound;14.95. From Success Unlimited, PO Box 67, Didcot, Oxfordshire OX11 9YS. Tel: 0700 2244383.

See www.successunlimited. co.ukbooks or www.bullycide.com

More than half a century ago, I was a thin kid, useless at sports, with sticky-out teeth and glasses. I must have been five when I was first locked in the outside toilets at school, and left to realise that I was going to pay for being different. Like many bullied kids, I emerged unscathed, partly because I could lose myself in books, partly because I learned how to make the other kids laugh, and partly because as I went through secondary school I was lucky enough to find good teachers and real friends.

I hardly think of those times now, and I've genuinely forgotten most of the actual incidents. But some of the feelings came back when I read in this book the story of Steven Shepherd, who in 1967 was hounded by bullies. Steven lived in Ince, near Wigan. He, too, had, as one of his contemporaries remembers, "those daft specs and Bugs Bunny teeth". Sadly, Steven could find no escape route, and in the end wandered into the countryside and lay down to die of exposure.

By opening their book with the story of Steven - the boy who, as they say, "willed himself to death and became Britain's first recorded bullycide" - the authors make their purpose clear. Bullying, they tell us, is more terrible for the victims than most of us like to acknowledge. It can cause children to take their own lives - they estimate 16 a year.

In pushing the message home, they tell us about the bullied children who have taken their lives more recently: children such as Denise Baillie, 15, who overdosed last year on her mother's pills; Marie Benthamwho, in 1999 at eight years of age, hanged herself with her skipping rope. And, perhaps, most horrifying of all, 16-year-old Lucy Forrester. In 1994, says the book, Lucy "took a coil of the copper jewellery wire she used in her junk-gem hobby, spun it into a thick strand and attached it to a metal bracelet on her wrist. Then she hurled it over the 24,000-volt live electric line at the local railway station". It was her fifth, finally successful, attempt at suicide.

Neil Marr is a journalist, Tim Field a consultant on both adult and child bullying. They intend to shock, and they succeed. If the book reminds heads, governors and parents that you can't let up on being alert to bullying, it will serve its purpose. Although the tragic stories dominate the book, there's lots of practical advice, too, and a comprehensive list of helpful organisations, publications and websites.

I feel less comfortable with some details. While Field and Marr prefer the term "target" to "victim", they are still tempted to demonise the bully ("too cowardly to pick on someone their own sizeI when given a taste of their own medicine immediately run whingeing to someone in authority"). But, as the authors' own research shows, most bullying is done by quite average children who have followed the crowd, thinking through the consequences of what they are doing. It's an angry book, and anger may have intervened.

The moral principle - at the core of every school's values - that says "hate the sin, love the sinner" holds good here. It's the key to any hope of making bullies stop.

This is an excellent book, though - a call to action and a cry on behalf of unhappy children (and adults, because workplace bullying is the subject of some of the stories).

GERALD HAIGH


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