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Sunday 20 April 2003

An exasperated and final letter to P O'Neill

YOU'RE a narrow, ignorant, self-absorbed, stupid little bore, P O'Neill. Nostalgic for your days as the feared school bully, you can't bring yourself to accept the responsibilities of adulthood and stand on your own two feet. You were the dim boy in the class, the one who couldn't grasp what most of your fellow-pupils knew - that you get what is worthwhile in life by working hard and trying to get on with people. There were quicker and simpler ways to achieve success, you thought, as you beat and robbed your classmates and frightened the teachers. 

Coaxed along by social workers, you began to show some signs of growing up. You can wipe the slate clean, they said, if you take the same exams in citizenship as the others, and they provided you with a battery of remedial teachers. 

Patiently, and shutting their eyes to what you were still up to behind the bike sheds, the grown-ups gave you rewards for any evidence of good behaviour and recommended you be let go to sixth-form parties. Even when you threw up, landed a punch on someone you didn't like or pinched someone's wallet, in the hope of a quiet life they said, 'Hasn't P O'Neill done well? He's stopped setting fire to the school and hardly ever shoots anyone these days.' 

A lot of other boys got pretty fed up, for they felt that while they were getting no rewards for their normal good behaviour you were being patted on the back just for behaving less horribly than in the past. 'There have to be sticks as well as carrots', cried some of them, but the social workers said that was old-fashioned thinking. What was important was to bolster your self-esteem. 

In that spirit they jumped to attention when you whinged about it not being fair that someone else had better trainers or that one of the swots had done well in his exams and duly bought you what you wanted and had the examining board rig the system so as to give you extra marks for being backward. The school magazine was filled with photos of you eating your dinner with the knife and fork you usually used to attack the caretaker. 

On speech day, guests of honour were asked to make a special fuss of you and give you awards for managing to write a few lines on an exam paper. 

You're a vain little bastard as well as everything else, P, so you went to considerable efforts to spruce yourself up for the cameras and you cultivated a creepy smile that conned many onlookers into thinking you were really a sweetie at heart who had been patronised in the past by clever boys and needed only encouragement to blossom into responsible adulthood. 

The day you scraped through the citizenship exam was a cause for neighbourhood rejoicing. Admittedly a couple of cross boys said you'd only passed the exam you should have passed years before if you hadn't been so stupid and inattentive, but they were chided for being negative. 'We must all be kind to slow learners', wrote the head teacher on the blackboard, and, grumblingly, most of the class tried. 

You remember that the head of the school down the road, who's always been a bit of a meddler, wrote a letter saying you should be allowed to be a prefect. (Your own headmaster was a bit peeved when he added that even if you joined his school you couldn't be a prefect there, because his pupils were too refined to put up with you.) 

Some of the boys made a fuss about you being a prefect, since you still ignored school rules and held on to your catapult and Swiss Army knife and still did nasty things sometimes to boys who didn't bow and scrape. 

But always there were the voices of grown-ups saying, 'P O'Neill's turned over a new leaf. He just needs a little more time to get his head together. And, after all, he's doing better than that moron Johnny Orange who sits in the corner sniffing glue and throwing stink bombs and sticking his compass into every passing bum.' 

And then at the request of your head that philanthropic Yank arrived to tell the whole school that there would be cream buns and lemonade for everyone if you agreed to behave as well as all the other prefects, to turn your back forever on your bullying years and your petty crime and show the others you meant it by throwing your weapons on the tip. 

But you couldn't do it, P, could you, because you just can't yet face being a grown-up and relying on your powers of persuasion rather than intimidation. Nor can you bear to earn your living honourably rather than by stealing and cheating. 

Instead you started the familiar whinge all over again about how you hadn't understood the rules when you became a prefect and therefore you could have anything you wanted without giving up anything. So no one got the buns and the lemonade. 

Social workers and teachers and other prefects and visiting speakers and even the head down the road thought that after all the effort they'd put into giving you individual attention and extra tuition you'd develop into a normal human being. 

'Patiently, and shutting their eyes to what you were still up to behind the bike sheds, the grown-ups gave you rewards for any evidence of good behaviour' 

Now some say you're just a dreary little retard who can't learn from experience; others think you a coward who's afraid to break with his past; and many think you're a moral degenerate, a thug, a small-town hood who should have been put in an institution years ago. 

What everyone - even the head down the road and the most soft-hearted of social workers - now agree is that they can't stand your narcissism or childishness or arrogance or lies anymore. 

There are big problems facing the school and the neighbourhood: the grown-ups have no more time to waste on you or Johnny Orange.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards