JANET STREET-PORTER: Like the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree, the death of Elianne Andam must mark a turning point for those in power. Mindless violence can't be the headline that sums up life in Britain in 2023

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The felling of a beautiful tree, beloved by millions reduced to me to tears. On hearing the news, it felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach.

What has British society come to if a 16-year-old teenager thinks it’s OK to saw down an iconic tree in the middle of the night? What warped mindset could possibly think such a violent act is ‘fun’?

A tree can’t fight back. A tree isn’t carrying a weapon. A tree is simply a living object of beauty.

It’s shocking, brutal and numbing – as if a friend has been snatched away without warning.

The tree at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland stood alone on a particularly bleak section of the 84-mile route, and was filmed and photographed millions of times. Every day, hundreds of visitors have come to stand at that tree, many from thousands of miles away, other countries, other landscapes.

The remains of the tree at Sycamore Gap next to Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland today

The remains of the tree at Sycamore Gap next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland today

People found the tree a source of solace, a place to sit quietly and reflect. It was a pilgrimage site. When things were tough, there was the tree, swaying in the Northumbrian gales. Standing firm, through hundreds of years, different governments, wars and a ghastly pandemic.

Now, if the youngster the police arrested is guilty of the crime, a teenage vandal has made his (and it will be a male who is responsible) mark, by driving up to this beautiful tree under cover of darkness and sawing it down. If he has done it, I weep for the family and the teachers of this person – because he has been failed by them – if he thinks that this kind of behaviour deserves praise or adulation in any form.

If someone will murder a tree, where will they stop?

It sends a message way beyond our shores, where ordinary people are grieving the loss of a national landmark, a place which seemed a constant in our turbulent lives. You didn’t have to be a walker to visit the tree, it had featured in movies, TV series, on postcards and in books. It had been voted tree of the year in 2016.

And now it’s a stump.

WELL DONE THE BRAINDEAD THUGS OF MODERN BRITAIN.

If the felling was done by the 16-year-old, it tells the rest of the world that Britain can’t bring up it’s kids to respect nature, love harmless beautiful things. That people think it’s OK to hit out and cause damage that can’t be easily fixed. Once a tree has gone, it’s gone. It’s not a car where you can get a replacement bumper. Or a broken arm or leg you can get fixed. This tree was living and now it’s just a lump of wood. The same morons that fell trees probably think carrying a knife is perfectly OK too.

Forensic investigators from Northumbria Police examine the felled Sycamore Gap tree today

Forensic investigators from Northumbria Police examine the felled Sycamore Gap tree today

In 1998, I had walked over Hadrian’s Wall near Sycamore Gap accompanied by local lad Sting, filming a series for BBC2. The weather was windy and grey and Sting kept up a speedy pace – he is famously fit. Born in Wallsend, in 1951, he grew up nearby. Then, the Roman Wall which stretches from Bowness on Solway in the West right across England to Wallsend, wasn’t easy to walk – in places, footpaths had fallen into disuse. Sting and I didn’t encounter anybody on our blustery day out. But in 2003, the entire wall was opened as a National Trail, with proper signs and easier access, and I walked the entire length with a friend, slogging up and down the moors and hillocks – this time in sunshine.

Since then, literally millions of people from all over the wall have enjoyed this historic route, and – in the process – spent time at Sycamore Gap. A huge influx of visitors revived tourism in the area, helped small businesses like pubs and cafes and hotels. Last May, the route celebrated its 20th anniversary.

And now, it’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. People are laying flowers and messages around the broken stump. Park wardens are saying there ‘may be a chance’ the stump could sprout a new shoot.

But if one thing sums up broken Britain in 2023, it’s that sad stump at Sycamore Gap.

Earlier the same day that the sycamore met its demise, a far worse act of mindless violence occurred. It was just another autumn morning in the rush hour and 15-year-old Elianne Andam was standing by a bus stop in South London, on her way to a private school her parents had scrimped and saved for her to attend.

Elianne Andam, 15, was stabbed to death in Croydon as she went to school on Wednesday

Elianne Andam, 15, was stabbed to death in Croydon as she went to school on Wednesday

Minutes later, she was dead, apparently cut down with a large knife as she tried to protect a friend. A 17-year-old boy has been arrested and charged.

There are no words to describe how Elianne’s parents must feel. She is the 16th teenager to be murdered in London this year. A completely pointless, horrible death.

Carrying a knife, or any kind of blade has become normalised amongst young people who live in our gang-ridden towns and cities. The people who carry the knives do so because they fear being attacked and can’t see any other way to protect themselves.

Handwringing won’t achieve anything. There needs to be a concerted effort by parents, teachers, politicians and police to engage with young people and protect them from their peers.

Successive governments have cut funding for teenagers, closing clubs and sports centres, removing places they could congregate under supervision after school has ended. Closing schools for months on end during the pandemic. Cutting police foot patrols. Allowing mobile phones into classrooms or on school premises.

Flowers pictured today at the scene of Elianne Andam's murder on Wellesley Road in Croydon

Flowers pictured today at the scene of Elianne Andam’s murder on Wellesley Road in Croydon

I’ve said it so many times – youth are the life blood of our future. So why deny them the resources to grow and learn to thrive?

In the vacuum, violence is seen as manly, a reflection so much of youth culture which glorifies excess in all it’s forms. Since Covid, the numbers of kids being kept out of school has soared. Some fear bullying, others have experienced mental health issues from months of isolation in lockdown. Their phones feed them a diet of porn and invasive social messaging from their peers.

The simple business of travelling to and from school has become dangerous – more boys under 16 are getting stabbed on the way home, if they stray into another postcode. No wonder home schooling has soared. And what about the kids who aren’t getting any education at all?

The death of a lovely young girl in South London is shocking. A human life has been snatched for literally no reason. Like the felling of the tree at Sycamore Gap, the death of Elianne Andam must mark a turning point for those in power.

Mindless violence can’t be the headline that sums up life in Britain in 2023.




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