The British papers have been full of news of Arthur Heeler-Frood a 15 year old school boy who chained his bicycle by a village green in rural Devon on his way to school, bundled his uniform into a plastic sack and escaped through the theatre gauze of a blue horizon with just a small rucksack and £350 in cash. For ten weeks he was missing. The note he sent shortly after his disappearance said he was bored with his life and running away was something he ‘had to do’.
Picture the scene:
- Sobbing parents on breakfast television.
- Police images of the clothes he was wearing.
- Photos of Arthur in the press, pictures of Arthur on the internet, Arthur now, Arthur younger, Arthur on holiday with his brother and sister and Arthur alone his intense gaze holding the viewer, inscrutable .
But despite CCTV and a vigilant public Arthur had disappeared into a shadowed space where the surveillance camera and the internet do not reach.
And then, when it seemed he was gone, possible dead, he turned up on the train ten miles from home and making his way back to his parents. Arthur had been reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London before he left and inspired by the tale he had lived rough in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
We’ve been rooting for Arthur, and so have others, wanting him to turn up but only when he was ready. Yes it was thoughtless to put his parents through so much pain and uncertainty but at 15 maybe he didn’t think about the outcomes of his disappearance, maybe the need to run obscured the implications of temporary escape? I don’t pretend to know but by all accounts he is a clever guy, passing his exams a year yearly with fantastic grades so I’m not surprised rural Devon failed to inspire and excite.
I was reminded by Arthur’s disappearance of my favourite book, Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch. Welch was hailed as a the genius of sorts when he was writing in the 1940’s following an accident when at twenty he was knocked off his cycle, and he remained a semi-invalid dying at only thirty three in 1948.
Maiden Voyage tells the story of Denton doing an Arthur (or Arthur doing a Denton) and rather than catching the train to a school that bored him running away in the other direction. I was give the book by my Dad when I was about 15 and it made a huge impression on me, not only because the writing is beautiful but because it was the first book I had read where the author clearly like guys rather than girls. If you haven’t read any Denton Welch start here, his other books are wonderful but sad, written by a man who was unwell, longing for youth and health. Having spent my teens as a Denton fan seeking out all his books, poetry and paintings long after he was fashionable it’s a great pity he is almost forgotten except for his doll’s house in the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London.
So what of Arthur? He’s home, presumably with Mum and Dad who are both Artists. I’m rather missing him and his moment of escape but I hope he will be given the freedom to continue his first tentative steps of a learning journey beyond school, the frame of the CCTV camera and the world of boxed and wrapped expectations.