Thursday, April 26, 2007

Musical history lessons #23

The way British society perceived young offenders and how to deal with their needs underwent a seismic shift back in 1969, mainly due to some epoch-defining research released by government social think-tank The Beatles, led by eminent child psychiatrist Ringo Starr.

In the introduction to the group’s groundbreaking paper Octopus’s Garden, Starr explains how he himself would like to reside in one of the eponymous suboceanic compounds. But as the forceful yet beguiling argument continues, we realise that Starr is in fact suggesting these special recreational units should be used as asylum centres for troubled young people. “Oh what joy for every girl and boy,” writes Starr, “Knowing they're happy and they're safe.”

Harold Wilson’s Labour government was quick to respond to Starr’s calls for reform, and by September 1970, over 190 of the centres had been set up around the UK. Initially, they were a great success, providing unruly youths with a range of activities with which to fill their time.

However, because - as Starr had specifically stipulated in his paper - there was “no one there to tell [them] what to do”, the centres soon became hotbeds of anarchy and violence. Problems also arose due to the fact that the gardens were underneath the sea and often deliberately hidden, meaning many poorer families from inland urban communities found them difficult to access.

The government withdrew their support, and by 1973, the last octopus’s garden was closed down. But to this day Starr’s idealistic vision remains an inspiration to those working in youth justice.

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