Category Archives: Blog

The Sunday Times Magazine: Falsely accused of rape: is the justice system biased against men?

 

I noticed his hands shook as he spoke. He looked different to how I had expected. More boyish, less confident. But then what should somebody accused of rape look like? He’d suggested we meet for tea in the Delaunay, just off the Strand. He used to come here often, but now he feels self-conscious in the city, nervous about being recognised. The other day in Starbucks the woman making his coffee suddenly realised she knew his face from paparazzi pictures of him walking, head bowed, into court: the man accused of raping a woman at the Houses of Parliament.

For 14 months, during which time he turned 24, Samuel Armstrong stood accused of two counts of rape and two of sexual assault. Then, last December, at Southwark Crown Court, after last-minute evidence was presented that undermined his accuser’s story — evidence that had been withheld from his defence team — all charges were dropped.

His legal case is over, but it is not clear what he has won. “Victims of sexual assault talk about being violated,” he says, “the fact that their autonomy is taken away. One of the things that false allegations do is take autonomy away from accused individuals. Now there is an image of me scarred into the public psyche. I have been robbed of the chance to live a quiet behind-the-scenes life.”

Armstrong’s is one of several recent high-profile rape trials that have collapsed due to the emergence of last-minute evidence — often electronic, from phone and computer records — or evidence not being disclosed correctly by police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to defence teams. The Oxford University student Oliver Mears lived branded as a rapist for two years after a woman accused him of attacking her at a party in July 2015. Days before his case came to trial, evidence from a diary — which had gone unexamined — revealed his innocence. Isaac Itiary, a 25-year-old father, spent four months in prison on remand after being charged with raping a child under 16 last July. He insisted the girl had claimed to be 19. Crucial texts confirming his story emerged only two days before his trial, causing all charges to be dropped. And the criminology student Liam Allen, 22, spent almost two years on bail and was charged with 12 counts of rape and sexual assault. In the opening days of his trial last December, text messages supporting his case came to light.

In January, after these and other trials collapsed, the CPS announced that every rape and serious sexual assault case in the country was under urgent review. Earlier this month, Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, announced she would step down in October, at the end of her five-year contract with the CPS.

In rape cases, police and prosecutors are expected to disclose evidence that could assist the defence or undermine the prosecution, but this evidence is not being shared enough or only at the 11th hour. Such failures of disclosure may be the result of insufficient investigations by police and prosecutors, but there are fears they signal a more worrying trend — an unconscious bias by the CPS in cases of sexual assault. Where once the police and criminal justice system were criticised for their treatment of alleged victims — often not believing their stories or subjecting women to heavy-handed cross-examinations about what they had been drinking, how they dressed and previous relationships — now the pendulum has swung the other way.

When Saunders became head of the CPS in 2013, she promoted a focus on female victims. In rape cases where the complainant is known to have been drunk, Saunders put the onus on men to prove explicit consent. She advised prosecutors to examine alleged rapists’ previous sexual behaviour and encouraged women to seek advice from a rape counsellor if they woke up in a man’s bed with no memory of the previous night.

Meanwhile, those accused of such crimes continue to be named, but their accusers remain anonymous.

On Saturday, October 15, 2016, an unnamed woman told police that Samuel Armstrong had raped her the previous night. Three officers handcuffed him on the pavement outside his shared Clapham flat that day, as people watched.

“I just felt a real sense of shame,” he tells me. At Brixton police station a “big group of police officers” watched him strip, took swabs and gave him a grey prison uniform. It was a “wholly dehumanising” experience that left him feeling profoundly alone. By the time he was allowed to call his parents he was “very, very upset. My dad’s in the construction business and we’re not really the sort of family to get emotional. That was probably the first time since I was a teenager we had an emotional conversation.”

We meet again at his family home, in Danbury, Essex, where roads weave through woodland, past fields of sheep and red-brick cottages. Armstrong answers the door in beige jeans, white shirt and pink socks. He has pale-blue eyes, neat hair and awkward, fumblingly English mannerisms. As he says himself, he is geeky and shy. “I’m relatively boring, quiet, reserved.” He is so slight that when he sits on the sofa and crosses his legs, his body folds over itself.

It sounds romantic, the way he recalls that Friday night in 2016. He was working as chief of staff for the South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay and had gone out in Westminster with friends. Eventually, he says, only he and the woman who would later accuse him of rape were left. They had been out drinking together before. It was “quite a flirtatious relationship”. She would send him late-night messages, “uninitiated, about her bikini wax or Brazilian — I don’t know the difference. It did seem that she was flirting.”

YOU CAN READ THE FULL FEATURE HERE: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/falsely-accused-rape-men-reveal-deepest-shame-gvxh88f9w

The Sunday Times Magazine Interview: Annie Lennox

The face is instantly recognisable. The cruel cheekbones and soft blue eyes. The masculine jaw and finely arched brows topped by a peroxide pixie crop. It is a face whose melancholy beauty has launched six solo albums and countless tours, won an Oscar, Grammys, Brits and Ivor Novellos. Now, at 63, it is framed by horn-rimmed glasses and is, according to its owner, wrinkled. But that is not what looks so different about it. It is that Annie Lennox is laughing. She hasn’t written a pop song in years. Instead, she is happy.

I do wonder, fleetingly, if she’ll be the Diva her debut solo album proclaimed. But right from the start, she is warm, sincere and so modest that at one point she starts talking about what she’d do “if I was, like, some real A-lister person”. She has always “tried to avoid red carpets, tried to keep my head down. This whole world of celebrity they talk about now, it’s completely vacuous. I can’t stand the star bullshit. I’ve realised over the years just how uncomfortable it makes me feel.”

These days, she spends much of her time in a cottage by the sea in South Africa, “a very good place to just tuck in”. But tonight she will perform at Sadler’s Wells in London. It will be her first gig in the UK for more than a decade and, of course, it sold out in seconds.

Lennox has stated she may never compose more music. “Oh, years ago the muse left me,” she says. And with that, she has shed a profound sadness. “I don’t know that I had to be unhappy to write, but I often was unhappy and the feelings were predominantly painful, sad and melancholic. There is a beauty in that, without question.”

In the 1980s, Eurythmics specialised in bittersweet, effervescently tormented pop — a juxtaposition that makes Sweet Dreams the perfect pop song. Or Here Comes the Rain Again. Or a whole back catalogue of masterpieces. After Lennox’s relationship with Dave Stewart disintegrated, her lyrics as a solo artist in songs such as Why and No More I Love Yous addressed her pain even more explicitly. Music has never been about entertainment for her, but “expunging, really coming from a sad place … I was expressing an angst that women especially have lived with.”

She grew up an only child in a working-class family in Aberdeen. “That time and that place, people were very formal with each other. There wasn’t hugging and kissing. Life was tough so they had to be stoic. There was stress and tension in our house, but I think the whole of Scotland was stressed and tense.”

She felt isolated in childhood. She felt pain in adulthood. When I ask what finally helped overcome her depression, she smiles. “I’m married to a wonderful man.” She wed her third husband, Dr Mitch Besser, who runs a leading South African HIV charity, in 2012. This despite vowing — after her first year-long marriage to a German Hare Krishna devotee, Radha Raman, then a 12-year union with the film producer Uri Fruchtmann — never to wed again. “He [Besser] loves me and tells me that he loves me every day. I feel seen, heard and understood. Throughout the majority of my life I don’t think I found that kind of unconditional love from anybody.”

Was it hard to meet a man not threatened by her success? “It was. Men find it difficult, yes. I think it is intimidating.” She also changed when she became a mother — she had her first daughter, Lola, in 1990, then Tali in 1993. “It was so profound. I had never experienced that feeling like that. I think that’s what it’s been all about — seeking connection.”

YOU CAN READ THE FULL FEATURE HERE: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-magazine-interview-annie-lennox-on-depression-feminism-and-why-shes-standing-by-oxfam-rzs89k297

The Sunday Times: Katie Glass: want to lose weight and cure heartbreak? Start weightlifting

Fed up with binge-eating and gaining weight, Katie Glass reluctantly signed up for a 12-week boot camp where you train with a group. Could she stay the course?

FAT FRIDAY
How did I get so fat? Where do you want to begin? The comfort eating? The yo-yo diets? The operation last year that trapped me in bed for two months? After which, comatose on morphine and watching The Sopranos, I felt my last muscle wasting to fat. Then, recently, I broke up with my boyfriend and started a new relationship with Häagen-Dazs. Whatever my excuse, here I am: overweight in my thirties and in need of a fix.

I have done diets before. Boy, have I done diets. I’ve done more of them than Bruce Forsyth did tap-dance routines. I have tried boot camps, paleo, keto, LighterLife, vegetarianism, Slimfast (and fags). I’ve flown to the Mayr clinic in Switzerland and spent a week living on Epsom salts and colonics. I hope this fitness journey might involve a luxury resort where I can spa myself thin. Unfortunately, my editor has other ideas.

LOOKING FOR TOUGH LOVE
Evolve Fitness is a strip-lit basement gym in London’s financial district. It is an area buzzing with City boys who aspire to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Evolve specialises in 12-week muscle-building body transformations. In three months, they can (possibly) get me ripped.

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Image: James Cannon

Evolve’s gym has one treadmill, one rower and one bike. The rest of it bangs with men pumping iron and making sex noises. The course I’m enrolled on, Evolve’s Warrior Tribe programme, promises “one of the toughest experiences of your life”. “Can you eat, sleep and train like a warrior?” the blurb in their brochure asks. I find myself answering out loud: “No.” Absolutely worst of all, it is a group programme. If there is one thing I hate more than working out, it’s doing it with other people.

DAY 1 “FOOD IS FUEL”
At the first session, I meet my group. I’m one of 10 “warriors”: Chris, Alex, Tim, Rob, Hasnain, Minjoo, Emma, Javier and Jojo. Most of them work in the City and already look suspiciously fit. Our trainer, Lee, who looks like Kit Harington on steroids, gives us a name: the Spartans. We are put on a fancy machine that hums lift music while scanning your body to measure weight, muscle density and fat percentage. I am too ashamed to tell you the results. Lee takes my “before” pictures and I cannot look. Then we are issued with our diet for the first two weeks: there will be no booze, no carbs — and therefore no potatoes, pasta, bread or grains — and no sugar, including fruit. We will eat only lean protein (chicken, turkey, tuna), occasional fatty protein (steak, salmon, nuts) and leafy greens. Anything that adds taste, such as mustard, is verboten. Rob asks what he can put on a stir-fry and Lee suggests “air”. Days will consist not of breakfast, lunch and dinner but meals one to five. Meal one might be two steaks and eggs. Meal three, a protein shake. “Food is fuel,” says Lee, who is the anti-Nigella. “Not everything has to taste good.”

DAY 2 TAKING THE STRAIN
Our first week involves three hour-long sessions, each taken by a different expert beefcake. Workouts revolve around a weightlifting programme that comprises compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups — such as squats and deadlifts, which simultaneously work the glutes, quads and core — and exercises that focus on specific muscles, such as triceps dips, or walking lunges for hamstrings.

Everyone in my group is fitter than me and worryingly enthusiastic. Emma, Javier, Rob and Jojo have done the programme before (which feels like cheating). Minjoo runs triathlons. Still, during the first session I keep up through a series of push-ups, sit-ups, biceps curls and squats. After, I am sweating profusely, but full of energy and feeling smug. This is going to be easy!

DAY 3 TAKING THE PAIN
My entire body hurts. My arms are agony, my legs torture. My ass, in particular, is killing me, presumably because I’ve never moved it before. My stomach twinges in a place where my abs must live.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/katie-glass-want-to-lose-weight-and-cure-heartbreak-start-weightlifting-dhgh3k5mz

Feature Image: James Cannon

The Sunday Times: The Magazine interview: pianist James Rhodes on his childhood sexual abuse and why he’ll always speak out about mental health

If you have read James Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental, you will not have forgotten it. If you have not, do so now. I cannot write anything about Rhodes more affecting than he has written himself.

Instrumental is his harrowing account of the horrendous sexual abuse he suffered for years as a child, at the hands of a PE teacher at his north London prep school. The book never shies away from discussing the graphic physical and mental fallout: the serious spinal injury it left Rhodes with, requiring three bouts of surgery; his depression, OCD, self-harm, alcoholism, breakdown, drug addiction and suicide attempt in a psychiatric hospital. It is a book filled with anger, sadness and torment, yet also, wonderfully, it is the story of how Rhodes transcended trauma through a profound love of classical music.

Shortly after Rhodes’s ordeal began, aged six, he heard Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor and was transported: “It was like magic. It suddenly made sense of things.” Later, this passion led him to carve out a career as a concert pianist, despite having no formal academic musical education. The first classical pianist to be signed by Warner, his unpretentious style has seen him called the “Jamie Oliver of the grand piano”. Alongside six albums, he also produced a campaigning Channel 4 series, Don’t Stop the Music, addressing the importance of music education in schools.

Instrumental sold more than 150,000 copies and found Rhodes legions of fans (75,100 on Twitter). After his first wife tried to get the book banned, it also landed him a £2m court case that cost him his second marriage and almost his sanity. His new book, Fire on All Sides, chronicles his mental state since. The title, a stage direction from Don Giovanni, describes Rhodes’s feelings about life most of the time. That it is “hot and dangerous and my world is either about to melt or collapse”. Yet rather than let those thoughts consume him, the book explores his struggle to change, ricocheting between optimism and crippling self-doubt. At times, Fire can feel self-indulgent — not to mention foul-mouthed. (It opens with Rhodes saying if he met Bach, “I don’t know if I’d punch him or blow him”.) Yet it’s also a brilliant, jangling opus to Rhodes’s frantic mind, his writing more powerful because men are rarely so emotionally candid.

Given the turmoil of Rhodes’s internal life, he seems surprisingly chipper in the flesh, springing along the street to the Ivy Cafe, ordering a hearty shepherd’s pie. His hair is wiry and wild, as if he’s been electrocuted, which suits his frenetic personality. He’s fun company: in scruffy jeans, a grey hoodie and a coat, when the photographer asks him to unbutton it, he quips: “Aren’t you at least going to buy me a drink?” But as we eat, I realise he’s checking himself out in a mirror over my shoulder — he is a self-confessed narcissist.

He appears to have a wonderful life — shuttling between London’s Maida Vale and Madrid: “f****** paradise”. He’s dating a beautiful Argentinian actress, Micaela Breque, who is “gentle, calm, kind” and, at 28, 14 years younger than him. (Like all complicated men, women throw themselves at him. He gets through two wives and two girlfriends over the course of the books.) She’s a fan he met via Instagram a few months ago. He’s shortly off to Argentina to meet her parents.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-magazine-interview-pianist-james-rhodes-on-his-childhood-sexual-abuse-and-why-hell-always-speak-out-about-mental-health-xklz0zmxl
Image: STUART MCCLYMONT FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE. SPECIAL THANKS TO STEINWAY HALL, MARYLEBONE

The Sunday Times: The Interview: the rapper Professor Green on his marriage to Millie Mackintosh and Britain’s problem with class

You wouldn’t want to meet Stephen Manderson in a dark alley: a looming 6ft 2in of stubble, covered in tattoos that stamp his knuckles and climb his neck.

On one side of his face runs an angry, jagged red scar, the relic of a knife attack. His accent, like his image, was hardened on the streets of east London in an area of Clapton known as “murder mile”, where his teenage parents left him to be raised by his grandmother: six of them in a three-bedroom council flat. It’s an upbringing that gave him the street swagger to forge a rap career where, as Professor Green, he has become one of the most successful voices in British pop, drawing inevitable comparisons with America’s most famous white rapper, Eminem.

Green erupted onto the scene in 2010 with a catchy INXS-sampling single, then a duet with Lily Allen and a profusion of awards. Three albums later, he’s built a hardcore base of fans (and some 2m Twitter followers) through his music, and more recently his BBC documentaries exploring society and subjects including his father’s death, dangerous dogs and the legalisation of cannabis. If some are surprised by this pivot from rapper to documentary maker, he shrugs — “It’s all social commentary.”

His tough image belies a fragile, sentimental soul — one of those tattoos displays the name of his great-grandmother, Edie. On Instagram, he posts about scented candles between pictures of him cuddling his girlfriend, the model Fae Williams. “I’m not nasty, I’m not rude or abrasive, I like to be quite gentle,” he grins, when I tell him I’d be scared to meet him at night. “Humans have a really bad habit of just joining the dots.”

Green’s aura was softened, too, when he made a profound documentary discussing his father’s suicide, when he was 43 and Green just 24. “I didn’t know if I wanted people to see me that vulnerable. Everyone said, ‘That must have been so cathartic.’ It f****** wasn’t. It was just painful.” His other BBC programmes revealed his skill for drawing out other people’s vulnerabilities. Now he’s back, exploring the prejudice and lack of social mobility facing working-class white men, this time for Channel 4. “When you talk about what you know, that’s when you have a voice of authority, innit,” he says. That “innit” is important: the way Green speaks, like the way he looks, are all relevant to the classism we’ve met to discuss.

This was the year people from backgrounds like his were supposed to be given a voice; now Green’s voice seems to be one of the few cutting through. Theresa May had promised, in her maiden speech as prime minister, to “help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”. Those ambitions lie in tatters, following Alan Milburn’s resignation earlier this month as chairman of the Social Mobility Commission. Milburn quit because he said the government lacked “the necessary bandwidth” to ensure their “rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”. This rift seemed, in part, to fuel the Brexit vote: 70% of people who live in council houses and 78% of those with no formal qualifications voted to leave Europe, according to a study by the social research institute NatCen.

Green is perfectly positioned to comment on class and social mobility, finding himself in that rare territory usually inhabited by footballers. He has earned enough to mingle with the rich kids — he was married to the Made in Chelsea star and Quality Street heiress Millie Mackintosh — but remains an outsider among the Establishment. When I suggest he’s now middle-class, he baulks: “I can’t be!” He still has the “same anxieties and insecurities” as all working-class boys. He can reel off examples of the classism he’s faced, such as the dinner party when someone went around shaking hands, then got to him and threw him a “Safe” and a fist-bump. “I said, ‘Would you bark at a dog?’ ” He’s had the Pretty Woman treatment in upmarket shops, where “people do look at you as if you’re going to steal something when you walk in wearing a tracksuit”.

In the documentary, Green follows six boys. Among them are a Del Boy entrepreneurial type, an ex-convict dad, a builder turned model and a maths genius — the son of a manicurist — dreaming of Cambridge. Green knows the struggles they face. Classism, he says, “is still acceptable. You couldn’t use a racist or homophobic slur on the front page of any newspaper in this county, but you will see ‘chav’.”

He’s equally critical of the fetishisation of working-class people. “You walk through Shoreditch and it’s, like, how much money can we spend to look poor? It’s crazy. It does my nut in.” He’s angry about the widening class gap in the area where he grew up — Clapton is now full of hipster coffee shops — and he feels it all the more because of his own new-found wealth, which is estimated at £3m. “It’s just exclusion,” he says. “I go to the shop every morning and pay £3.50 for a flat white, but there’s a lot of people in the area who can’t afford to do that.” He knows what it’s like to grow up on a council estate staring at an unreachable City lifestyle. “It’s like having your face pushed up against a window — it’s a dangling carrot, it’s the life you’re never going to have.”

He observes that when such areas improve, it’s often at the expense of locals, who “seem to get moved on and moved out. Things get privatised and you don’t have guaranteed rent . Then it becomes social cleansing.”

His view of the class divide is perhaps more acute having been married to Mackintosh for almost three years. While Green was becoming a weed dealer in east London, she grew up in a £1.4m Bath townhouse and attended Millfield, a £12,000-a-term boarding school. Their relationship gave him a searing insight into class, “in the same way it would if you married someone from a different county, because you learn about their culture, their ways, their history”.

Is it that extreme?

“Yes, because things that are normal to them are completely foreign,” he says. “I’ve been in places and felt a bit like a novelty. Meeting certain people’s family members and almost having to prove myself.”

When he lived with Mackintosh in Chelsea, Green says he had “nothing in common with anyone apart from the old eccentrics, who I loved — you know, passing me their spliff outside the pub. And parents who’d actually worked for their lot.”

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-interview-the-rapper-professor-green-on-his-marriage-to-millie-mackintosh-and-britains-problem-with-class-cqm77cgj9

Image: ALEX LAKE FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE. SPECIAL THANKS TO AJ GODDARD, DEPTFORD

The Sunday Times: Katie Glass: with no family, I’ve learnt to embrace my festive freedom

The festive season used to conjure painful memories for Katie Glass. Now she enjoys not having anyone to answer to.

When I was younger, Christmas was agony. I was a teenager when my family fell apart: within a year, my mum and stepdad separated, I moved out of the family home and my relationship with them disintegrated. A few years later, my father died. During that time I found anything family-related difficult. And Christmas was unbearable.

For most of the year I got by without family. On birthdays I made my own fun with friends, I bought my own eggs at Easter and avoided Mother’s Day. But December — when Christmas descended, the shops shut and my diaspora of friends scattered home — always felt like the cruellest month. The festive season, after all, is about family. Everything, from the mince pies in Tesco to children’s toys in shop windows and adverts featuring happy families scrabbling for their favourite Quality Street, was a sad reminder of what I had lost. Some years I went to the family homes of friends, others were spent with extended family, and I always had fun. Not having my close family around meant I built relationships with other people, which I was grateful for. But there was always a moment — when they were arguing over their gran’s plum pudding recipe or snuggling up to watch EastEnders — when I’d have to sneak off with something in my eye and the feeling of missing my mum.

I thought I was doomed to hate it for ever. But, over time, my attitude changed. It helped that for years I worked in hospitality. I’d volunteer to do as many shifts as I could and spend December 25 frantically ferrying roasts, then getting drunk with the chefs. There’s nothing like serving squabbling families to put your situation into perspective. But mostly, among the ragtag crew drawn to catering, I didn’t feel like such a misfit. I found friends with their own reasons for not going home. Among journalists that also turned out to be true. And gradually, instead of hating it, I began to embrace my freedom. Now some of my favourite Christmases are the ones I’ve spent with friends.

There are advantages to a family-free festive season. The biggest relief is you can be yourself. You don’t need to worry about how much you drink or revealing your true thoughts about Brexit. You don’t need to mind your Ps and Qs, as I was reminded when I spent last year with my ex’s parents and got told off for “swearing like a sailor” by his mum.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/katie-glass-with-no-family-ive-learnt-to-embrace-my-festive-freedom-6sbw6w3mmhttps://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/katie-glass-with-no-family-ive-learnt-to-embrace-my-festive-freedom-6sbw6w3mm

The Sunday Times: County lines — a new form of modern-day slavery

Inner-city gangs are trafficking children to sell drugs in towns and villages across Britain — a practice known as “county lines”. Why are their victims being criminalised?

I used to worry about his education and what he’d want to be when he grew up. Now I worry he could end up dead.” Sarah looks down at her hands clasped tight on her lap and starts to cry. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a son pass away, but that’s how it feels — that sense of loss.”

Theirs had been a “calm, loving family”. Sarah and her son, James, had always been close. Her family doted on him. “Spoilt rotten,” Sarah says, remembering how “every weekend, without fail, we’d get together as a family for dinner and he’d be doing a little performance”. They had a good life in London. Sarah worked in the City. Sometimes James would join her at her office, playing on the spare computer, legs swinging under the desk. They took holidays at their second home in Spain and did things together every weekend. But when James started secondary school, things changed dramatically.

Well-mannered, bright and popular, it was in sports that James shone. He represented the school in rugby, basketball and football. In hindsight, Sarah wonders if her first warning should have been how out-of-character it was when, one week, James refused to go to practice. He just didn’t feel up to it, he told his mother, who reassured his coaches he would be back next week. Then he refused to go again. “Initially, I thought maybe he was doing too much, with training in the week and matches on weekends. I thought perhaps he needed a break.”

Then James started coming home late. “Really late for a 14-year-old — 8pm, 9pm, then, on a few occasions, after midnight,” says Sarah. He’d make excuses — claim practice had overrun, or he had been with mates. “He was getting older and I assumed it was the usual teenage stuff of wanting to hang out with friends. I got upset with him, but that only seemed to escalate the situation.” James started disappearing overnight, then for weeks at a time, returning dirty, dishevelled and anxious. He refused to say where he’d been. His mother tried “everything”. She grounded him, confiscated his mobile, questioned him: where was he going? Who was he with?

“Nothing worked — he would go out anyway,” says Sarah, explaining that, by then, James’s behaviour had drastically changed. “He would spit in my face and call me names. It’s so hard to expect anyone to imagine it. What I didn’t know then was that normal parental boundaries wouldn’t work, because he was under duress.”

One day when James was 15 he jumped out of a window at their home and disappeared for three months. Frantic, Sarah searched his bedroom, finding a train ticket to Norfolk. Not long afterwards, she heard that James had been spotted at a mainline station. Sarah reported her son missing to the police, but it would be months before she learnt the truth.

James had become a victim of an alarming and underreported form of modern-day slavery affecting British teenagers. Police and local authorities call it “county lines”. It involves young people being recruited by inner-city gangs, put in cars or on trains, and trafficked hundreds of miles away from their home to seaside towns and small villages. Once there, they are given a mobile phone through which to sell drugs, usually crack and heroin. By running these telephone lines in different counties, city gangs have expanded their operations outside the saturated markets into new territories.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/county-lines-a-new-form-of-modern-day-slavery-9lzw8kss2

Image: GETTY