June 21, 2008

A Glimmer of Hope in the Dark

By Deborah Orr

Teenagers, eh? Let's just admit the awful truth. They are, on the whole, absolutely enchanting. It is an awesome thing, to watch children as they change into adults, a wonder of nature and of culture.

This holds true even at the times when they are at their most confused and miserable, because among the many things they think that you don't understand is that you really have been there - or thereabouts - yourself, and that you do know how painful the whole business can be. Hopefully, anyway.

I can't say, however, that I've endured the there - or thereabouts - that 163 girls under 14 endured last year. Government statistics released this week confirm that this number of very young women underwent abortions in Britain in 2007.

What must it be like to have experience of intercourse so young? To manage the growing awareness that you may have become pregnant? To reach certainty that this catastrophe has happened to you, and to have to tell your family, and then your doctor? Or to go into hospital, and be operated on, then wake up sore and bleeding and groggy?

It must be devastating, presumably. But it must also be an ordeal that is ultimately drenched with relief and release, like waking up from a nightmare.

For each of these 163 girls, the experience of pregnancy and abortion must seem like a great wall that sets them apart from their peers. The loneliness of their panic and fear is probably a large part of the bleakness of it all. It is a world away from the heart- warming view of teenage pregnancy conveyed in the recent film Juno, pictured right.

Yet this horrible detail is also a positive one, in broader sociological terms. Considering the cultural and sexual pressures that teenagers nowadays are under, considering the many depictions of young people as violent, drunk and sexuall irresponsible, this number is actually quite reassuringly small. Girls in their early teens are not quite falling into the moral abyss that the media fume about and parents fret about.

Despite the widespread headlines - such as yesterday's in The Independent declaring "Abortion rate hits record high among under- 16s" - there was nothing but good news in the latest abortion figures. A leap in teenage abortions would be distressing indeed if it signalled a leap in teenage pregnancies.

But instead, this 10 per cent surge took place at a time when teenage pregnancy rates were in fact running at a 20-year low. Many fewer babies were born to under-age mothers last year.

While the Government and progressive agencies are right to suggest that this shows that their policies emphasising sex education and access to contraception may be working, it is also worth bearing in mind that young people themselves, with the support of their parents, last year made more sensible choices, given the opportunity, as well. They are given nowhere nearly enough credit for that.

As for the rest of the abortion figures, they were uniformly positive. Yes, more abortions were performed in Britain than ever before. But there was a commensurate increase in live births as well. The proportion of pregnant women seeking terminations has stayed at the same level for five years now. The proportion is stable.

And much improved - from the viewpoint not only of women undergoing terminations, but also from that of the medical staff administering them - is the proportion of women having operations at 12 weeks or less. This now happens in nine out of 10 cases. Those controversial abortions about which we have heard so much - at 24 weeks or more - accounted for just 0.1 per cent of abortions.

You can take the girl out of Croydon...

Alexandra De-Gale is the latest figure of controversy to emerge from the Big Brother house. She emerged entirely unwillingly, having been removed from the Channel 4 reality television show after indulging in a number of angry and largely inexplicable tirades against other housemates, when she perceived them in various tiny or imaginary ways to have been failing to show her adequate "respect".

If some blacked-up member of the Ku Klux Klan had managed to infiltrate the series in order to reassure all the most racist elements in Britain that their fears and prejudices were entirely justified, they couldn't have done better than deluded, screwed-up De-Gale. The woman's only understanding of what was right and what was wrong was that if something suited her, it was right, and if it didn't suit her, it was wrong.

De-Gale's tirades included threats that her gangster friends in Croydon were watching the programme, would know who had been voting against her, and would find them when they left the show.

In an unfortunate outburst of onomatopoeic alliteration, she expressed the meaning behind her hints with the phrase: "Pow, pow, pow."

She now explains that this was all just a bit of banter. "That's how I talk," she said. "We always say 'bullet pop pop pop'. That's an expression that we make, or 'pow pow', that's an expression as well."

She appears honestly unable to understand how anyone could possibly have found her intimidating, because she's just a normal young mother, saying normal young mother things, in a normal young mother context.

These, sadly, are the most frightening utterances that this unfortunate young woman has given voice to yet. Her insecure and shallow self-regard appears almost nihilistic, which is why she was quite unable to moderate her behaviour for the cameras, or even to understand that this was something she might have to consider doing.

The fact that she has been removed from the programme offers Channel 4 executives the opportunity to argue that their "social experiment" is "relevant" and "moral" because Alex displayed aspects of an influential mindset that wider society, like Big Brother, rejects.

It could never be considered moral, though, to burden one individual, however misguided and unpleasant they may be, with notoriety as the embodiment of a casually aggressive and self- centred attitude that many people see as one of the great social problems facing Britain today.

Now that De-Gale is out of the house, she is telling the media that she is "the victim". It is exactly what one would expect someone displaying aspects of De-Gale's own disturbing pathology to say. It won't help either De-Gale herself, or others who share her skewed values, that thanks to Big Brother, the assessment is now, in her case anyway, painfully true.

The blind leading the hungry

There is a weird restaurant in London called Dans le Noir, which invites diners to eat and drink in pitch darkness, waited on by blind and partially sighted people.

When I first heard about this place, which has a parent branch in France, I mentally crossed it off as a venue I would never visit. It seemed facile to me, the idea that one could pop out for a novelty evening, chowing down as usual while pondering whether this was what it was like to be blind. (No, I don't think it can be, unless blind people only ever want or need to sit about making conversation and having food served to them.)

Cajoled by my family, though, I found myself being led by Cyril into profound darkness, propelled to my seat, told the carafe of water was in the middle of the table, and to shout if I needed anything.

"Yes," I wanted to shout. "I need to know what the point of this is."

But if there was a point, the staff were keeping very quiet about it. The idea is that one's other senses are heightened if one is deprived of one of them. Accordingly, all the other diners sounded really loud, all the invisible food tasted really sweet, and all the evening smelled like a pile of bullshit.

The only good thing about it was that none of my fellow diners knew that I had spent most of the two hours we spent there with my eyes closed and my chin in my hands, waiting for it all to end.

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