The parents of murdered teenager Jimmy Mizen talk to Joanna Bogle about how to save Britain’s coarsening culture We meet on the steps of Westminster Cathedral. Barry Mizen is a genial, friendly man with a warm smile, and from the start, even as we are walking to a coffee shop and making general conversation his presence and his message is some how one of reassurance and encouragement. We get talking about the planned papal visit and its problems: he’s unfazed by sneering Foreign Office memos, Hitchens-led hostility, media inaccuracies. “When someone is unfairly attacked there’s going to be sympathy,” he says. “We’ll find that people will back him in the end.” Barry and Margaret Mizen are a couple with a message: they want people to discover faith, hope and love – and they have a special right to a hearing because this message comes from their hearts and has emerged following a family tragedy which hurtled them into national headlines. Their son Jimmy was killed in a random attack in a local shop when he was just 16, dying in a pool of blood after a youth threw a heavy glass dish which shattered, slicing a central artery.
Jimmy had gone into the baker’s shop to buy sausage rolls. His killer had tried to barge past him to be served and attacked him in anger. Jimmy’s brother was also present and in Jimmy’s last moments was cradling him in his arms, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
That was two years ago. This month, May 2010, would have been Jimmy’s 18th birthday.
“In the beginning, all we had to keep us going was our faith,” he says. “Today, that’s still the most important thing. I wake up every morning knowing that Jimmy is safe. He is with God.” Margaret Mizen emphasises that she’s “just a mum. I haven’t got a complicated message. But I go to church because I love God – and I know what it means to believe.” The Mizens brought up their nine children in the Catholic faith and Jimmy was always at Sunday Mass. “Like most people, we have our standard place in church where we always sit, and there’d be Jimmy, turning up a bit late and squeezing in beside us, or you’d suddenly be aware of this great presence as he walked up to Communion past our pew – he was so tall. He was a gentle, loving boy. He struggled a bit at school, but the one subject where he did was well in Religious Education. After he died his teacher showed us his work and presented the certificate that he would have gained. Jimmy had a complete grasp of the message on love, respect for every person, God.” In the months following Jimmy’s death, the family simply tried to cope. “One of our daughters has Down’s syndrome, and every time one of us went out she’d be worried that, like Jimmy, we wouldn’t come back. And all of us missed Jimmy so terribly. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d just be holding Barry’s hand and praying”.
But already Barry and Margaret had made an impact by their courage and dignity in the face of the tragedy, and their refusal to speak with anger or vindictiveness about the killer. “We only wanted justice. And that was done by the court.” Barry’s voice is calm, and there is a complete absence of any sign of anger. “Right at the beginning, the media had picked up a statement that we made when we came out of church. I believe that the words we spoke then were given to us by God. And we still stand by what we said then, that we have to get rid of the anger and hatred and fear that we see in this country. We have to discover faith, and a message of hope to the young.
“We got these huge piles and piles of letters from people, and we realised that we were meant to do something.” And the “something” turned out to involve speaking in schools and youth groups – and in prisons and young offenders centres – and last week included a big prayer gathering in front of Westminster Cathedral. It was attended by people from all denominations and include other families who have been victims of violence. Frances Lawrence, widow of murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence, was among them.
The message of the service was “Building a legacy of peace”, and the Mizens are emphatic that this means a personal commitment by indi viduals. Barry doesn’t mince his words. “Britain has become a nation of people who are so angry and confrontational. It is acceptable to blame each other, to demand retribution, to demand the personal right to behave just as we want all the time. And we aren’t going to be able to legislate our way out of that. We must do it ourselves.
“It is possible to change attitudes. No one now thinks that it is acceptable to sneer at people of a different race. We can make it equally unacceptable to take pride in getting angry – the idea that it is all right to say: ‘You don’t want to mess with me’, to lose your temper, to be as nasty as you want. Somehow people have become convinced that it’s acceptable to do that, and it isn’t.” Asked what they think Britain most needs, the Mizens don’t hesitate. Margaret says it’s all only too obvious. “Sounds simple – but it’s love. And that includes family love. We’ve been to talk in schools where there are a majority of pupils who have never enjoyed a family meal, where only one child in a class has a dad at home, where teachers will help a child to get clean clothes because no one at home can be bothered to do the laundry. There are children who just don’t have a chance, because the adults in their lives aren’t putting them first. Love is sacrificial – it means giving, it means doing something for some one else and not just doing what you want.” Because of their refusal to demand retribution for Jimmy’s killer, and their emphasis on reaching out to the young and building a better future, the Mizens have brought attention to their beliefs and their family life that they never sought. “We’ve become a curiosity,” Barry admits: “There was this fascination because we didn’t call for harsher punishments or sound angry. But the point is that the perpetrator of the crime destroyed the image of God in killing a human being. Justice had to be done after that. But just talking about punishment isn’t enough. You could have a prison on every corner and we would still have this anger and hatred and violence in Britain. What is needed is a fresh spirit.” One of the first places where the Mizens spoke publicly was the New Dawn conference at Walsingham, an annual Catholic gathering which the family had always attended. “Jimmy used to love it – he helped with the food and other arrangements, and it was always a happy time. So it was something special for us to speak there. And we felt the love and support of everyone.” But it wasn’t easy: memories of happier summers flooded back.
They are still sustained essentially by their faith. Margaret emphasises that she doesn’t try to give theological explanations for what the Catholic Faith means to them both. “When we receive Communion, there’s a sense of unity with Jimmy, because in God you are break ing through the barriers that separate heaven and earth. And there’s also this strength that comes from the Faith. I’m probably not expressing this very well, but I’d like to say to Catholics: be proud of your faith. It’s the most important thing. Don’t downplay it or try to pretend it is less than it is.” Would they like to meet Pope Benedict? “Absolutely.” And Barry adds: “People need to hear what he has to say, they need to hear the truth.”
Catholic Life: Page 10