Read The Sleep of Reason: The James Bulger Case Online

Authors: David James Smith

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #True Crime, #General, #Biography & Autobiography

The Sleep of Reason: The James Bulger Case



For Petal

Hold childhood in reverence, and do not be in any hurry to judge it for good or ill. Leave exceptional cases to show themselves, let their qualities be tested and confirmed, before special methods are adopted. Give nature time to work before you take over her business, lest you interfere with her dealings. You assert that you know the value of time and are afraid to waste it. You fail to perceive that it is a greater waste of time to use it ill than to do nothing, and that a child ill taught is further from virtue than a child who has learnt nothing at all. You are afraid to see him spending his early years doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy, nothing to run and jump all day? He will never be so busy again all his life long. Plato, in his
which is considered so stern, teaches the children only through festivals, games, songs, and amusements. It seems as if he had accomplished his purpose when he taught them to be happy; and Seneca, speaking of the Roman lads in olden days, says, ‘They were always on their feet, they were never taught anything which kept them sitting.’ Were they any the worse for it in manhood? Do not be afraid, therefore, of this so-called idleness. What would you think of a man who refused to sleep lest he should waste part of his life? You would say, ‘He is mad; he is not enjoying his life, he is robbing himself of part of it; to avoid sleep he is hastening his death.’ Remember that these two cases are alike, and that
The apparent ease with which children learn is their ruin. You fail to see that this very facility proves that they are not learning. Their shining, polished brain reflects, as in a mirror, the things you show them, but nothing sinks in. The child remembers the words and the ideas are reflected back; his hearers understand them, but to him they are meaningless. Although memory and reason are wholly different faculties, the one does not really develop apart from the other. Before the age of reason the child receives images, not ideas; and there is this difference between them: images are merely the pictures of external objects, while ideas are notions about those objects determined by their relations.


by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762



Title Page
The James Bulger Case
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26

Everything in this book is true to the best of my knowledge. This is a work of non-fiction, and there is no imagining, invention or embellishment of what happened.


There have been some changes of names to protect identities in accordance with the orders of the trial judge.



The people who deserve most thanks for any merit in this book had better remain anonymous. They wanted to see the story told truly and without prejudice. They gave me their trust and confidence, and their friendship. Neither money nor favours were ever asked for, offered or given. Many other people on Merseyside were willing to give me their time and cooperation, despite the sensitivity of the subject. I owe them all a thank-you. Merseyside Police offered considerable assistance, within the limits of their own concern about the disclosure of evidence in advance of the trial, when the bulk of this book was researched and written. I’m grateful to all the officers who helped me, but special thanks are due to Jim Fitzsimmons, Albert Kirby, Brian Whitby and Ray Simpson. I’ve characterised one or two police officers in the book. This doesn’t mean they solved the case on their own. I hope readers will see them as representative of the many officers involved in the inquiry. Thanks also to Dominic Lloyd and Jason Lee of Paul Rooney and Co., solicitors for Robert Thompson, and to Sean Sexton who represents the family of James Bulger. I was grateful for the advice and support of the editor of this book, Mark Booth, and my friends Dominic Ozanne and John Pickering. Dominic, more than anyone, contributed to the structure and shape of the narrative. Thanks, randomly, to Jane Gregory, Georgina Capel, Julian Browne, Tim Hulse, Rosie Boycott and Sue Douglas. Thanks to Jamie Bruce, because he deserves it. Some time before James Bulger died, I met Dr Gwyneth Boswell of the University of East Anglia who had produced a report for The Prince’s Trust about young people who commit serious crimes. Gwyneth and the report taught me a great deal and, in a way, her insight was a starting point for
But my best and wisest ally, as usual, was Petal, who listened, read, transcribed, and tolerated my complete absorption in the case. I wanted to acknowledge the anguish of the parents and wider family of James Bulger. I hope they will appreciate the spirit in which this book was written, and forgive me when I also acknowledge the suffering of the two boys who were responsible for the killing, and their families.

The James Bulger Case

James Bulger is buried at Kirkdale Cemetery in Liverpool, which is just about midway between Kirkby, where he lived, and Walton, where he was killed by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in February 1993. At his death he was a month short of his third birthday. When I last visited the grave in the early spring of 1996 the substantial white headstone had been inlaid with James’s photograph – an enduring image of a cherubic son, all blond hair and toothy grin. The inscription betrayed nothing of his fate: ‘Goodnight and God bless, little innocent babe.’ The plot and surrounding area were scattered with toys and flowers, one bouquet left with a card signed ‘From a father in Reading: The pain of mourning never goes, the reason for your loss, only God knows.’

God knows, indeed, why James Bulger died. It is as true now as it was then that the murder has never really been explained and the motive for the crime remains a mystery. This book, the result of considerable research and a painstaking, sometimes distressing assembly of the facts, was my attempt to offer some insight and understanding.

I had gone to Liverpool within a few weeks of the murder, rented a small house there for the duration and soon found myself at the heart of the case, well connected to some of the participants.
The Sleep of Reason
was first published a year later in 1994 and, such was the interest in this case, it went on to be reproduced in numerous editions and translations around the world.

By that spring of 1996, when I went to pay homage at the cemetery, I was getting ready to write a lengthy new magazine article. I was still in contact with Ann Thompson, the mother of Robert, who was then three years into his detention and still only thirteen years old. Ann had knitted bonnets – helmets, she called them – for my newborn daughter, whom I had brought to see her. As we sat talking in her home, the phone rang and it was Robert calling from his secure unit. Ann told him I was there and offered me the phone to speak to him. I held up a flat hand in refusal – that conversation would have got both of us into trouble – and later, when I dropped Ann at the unit for a visit she pointed out the distant figure of Robert, who stood watching from a window.

When my article appeared it described something of Ann’s life – she would often sit watching television clips of Denise Bulger, the mother of the victim, which she had recorded on video. She would imagine going on television herself, setting the world to rights, saying things that really were better left unsaid – ‘If that child had been wearing reins this would never have happened’ was one – and generally letting everyone know how much she cared for and believed in her son and was suffering on his behalf. Ann Thompson had suffered a lot over the years and felt all that suffering acutely.

She had left Liverpool and was living with her family under an assumed name, but she went about in a state of perpetual dread at being unmasked – the guilt and fear were so powerful they seemed visible to her. I said it was as if she felt she had a neon sign on her head: Mother Of Bulger Killer. Missing her home, she would become maudlin, listening to Daniel O’Donnell songs such as ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’ and reminded herself of her old life by cooking scouse, which I described as a one-pot dish made with cheap cuts of meat. I also referred to Ann’s VHS player as a ‘tired old video recorder’. She was upset and thought I had patronised her and, after a difficult phone call our contact came to an end. It was a tricky relationship and, perhaps because I liked and respected her in spite of everything, I had often worried that I was simply exploiting her for my journalism. I knew that Ann was always grateful and relieved not to be judged by the people she met and I could see from the start that her own wretched childhood had left her vulnerable and poorly prepared to become a caring adult.

But, of course, the case had provoked a great deal of judgement, not just of Ann and the parents of Jon Venables but of their sons, too. From the beginning I had tried to encourage the view that James Bulger’s murder was a tragedy for three families, but that was not how most people thought, and both  politicians and the media seemed keen to exacerbate the furore it had caused. Some police officers would claim to have looked into Robert and Jon’s eyes and seen evil lurking there. (Probably they were looking at fear and trauma in two small children.) The
newspaper printed a coupon which over 20,000 readers took the trouble to cut out and complete and post to the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard: ‘Dear Home Secretary, I agree with Ralph and Denise Bulger that the boys who killed their son James should stay in jail for life.’

In fact, as I later discovered, life was not long enough for Howard: he had wanted them to serve a tariff – a minimum sentence – of twenty years, which was two lifetimes for ten-year-olds. He was restrained by advisers and instead set the tariff at fifteen years, still nearly double the recommendation of the trial judge, who had said that eight years would do. Howard’s mistake – and his undoing – was to admit that he had taken note of
readers in reaching his decision. In late 1999 the European Court of Human Rights concluded that he had been wrong to take public opinion into account. The decision should have been left to the judiciary.

The European Court also concluded that the two boys’ human rights had been infringed by putting them on trial in an adult court – Preston Crown Court – in October 1993. They were so very clearly too young to cope with such a traumatic experience, on top of the horrors of their crime. But compassion for them was in short supply. Both boys would recall the feeling of being stared at in court: Venables had counted in his head to avoid listening, while Thompson had determined never to betray his feelings to those around him during the trial.

I would later learn just how disturbing it has been for Jon Venables, who asked his parents if they thought James was in the courtroom too. No, his mother had told him, James was in heaven. Venables then asked if they thought James could hear what was being said in the courtroom. At the end of each day in court he had taken his clothes off, saying he could ‘smell the baby’ on them or ‘could smell James like a baby smell’. He wanted the clothes he had worn in court thrown away when the case was over. Venables’ remorse was so great that he imagined a baby James growing inside him, waiting to be reborn.

Throughout the trial the two boys’ identities were protected by court order, they were known simply as Child A and Child B. Following their conviction, the judge succumbed to media pressure and agreed they could be named – a decision that had far-reaching implications the judge could not have foreseen. Had he been able to, he might have taken a different decision. The boys’ lawyers have since argued that the naming of them greatly added to their trauma. It also gave focus, and impetus to the public mood for vengeance, and helped to create a very real threat to their lives, in perpetuity.

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