Friday, 4 June 2010

Just incredible, really

In case you are not British, or you have been in a coma for the last three days, let me fill you in. The day before yesterday, one Derrick Bird, a taxi driver, went on a shooting spree up in Cumbria and killed twelve people. The incident is at present inexplicable and like to remain so for ever. Of course it is very, very sad. That is as much as I want to know, really. So I am pig sick of the way BBC radio news is sucking the incident dry. First, we had endless interviews with the members of this ‘tight-knit community’. They can’t believe it.

‘We can’t believe it,’ they say.

‘Just incredible, really.’

‘He seemed a normal guy who liked a pint,’ they say, liking a pint being as normal as anyone can get in British terms.

‘Absolutely stunned. Out of the blue. He seemed that ordinary.’

In all fairness, people cannot be expected to say anything else at such a time, so why does the PM programme feel the need to play us dozens of variations on the same predictable theme for three days? And so many criminals do seem normal – is it worth pointing out? A few years ago, news reports spent a lot of time telling us that a murderer of prostitutes in Ipswich lived in an ordinary semi. Just as well they did, for we might otherwise have supposed he lived in a turreted castle with bats hovering round the tower.

About now, we are getting onto the next news phase, which is everybody ‘paying tribute’ to the dead, even if, as in the case of David Cameron, they didn't know any of them from Adam. On the news and in the papers these tributes are as heart-rending as they can be tarted up to be. 'Seventy-eight year old apple-cheeked widow Doris Crollicks, an ex-nurse, was innocently tending her hollyhocks outside her cottage, having just returned from spending her pension money on sweeties for her grandkids, when…' Look, it was a tragic incident which has scarred a lot of people for the rest of their days. We can empathise. Because we can empathise, we have no need to have the tragedy rubbed in. It is all beginning to remind me of the way Hollywood movies have to spell out ‘p-o-i-g-n-a-n-t m-o-m-e-n-t!!!’ with simpering strings in case our cloddish brains fail to register the appropriate emotion.

Thirty years or so ago, I saw the mother of one of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper being interviewed after Peter Sutcliffe had been convicted and jailed. Her reaction was very British. In answer to the journalist’s inane and intrusive questions about her feelings towards the man who had killed and dismembered her daughter, the lady maintained a calm and dignified demeanour that won her praise from The Sun, of all quarters. She said she was not bitter, presumably recognizing that Sutcliffe was mad as a shit-house rat. She wished he was not here and that her daughter was, but that was as far as she would be drawn.

I recalled that interview some fifteen years later while watching a mother on Greek TV. The man who had killed her son had just been released from jail, and she was not best pleased. She gave it all she’d got. Howled and wailed and cursed. If you read Greek, you will be able to reconstruct the scene better than those who need the translation, so here are both:

She said: ‘Ο δολοφόνος του παιδιού μου! Ο δολοφόνος του παιδιού μου!!!! Να σαπίσει μεσ’στην φυλακή! Να του φύγουν τα μάτια! Ο δολοφόνος του παιδιού μου!’

This means: ‘The killer of my child! The killer of my child!!! May he rot in prison! May his eyes fall out of his head! The killer of my child!

What a difference, I thought. In Britain, you are greatly admired for strangled self-restraint: in Greece, nobody will believe you feel anything unless you play to the gallery. Naturally, like any other strangled, self-restraining English male, I felt the British way was preferable. But I was behind the times. I wasn’t in England for the death and funeral of Princess Diana, thank God, when the nation went all blubbering tears and warm wee-wee, and some idiots said that the English had come of age at last, showing their emotions instead of bottling them up, dashed load of nonsense. I was here when Madeleine McCann was abducted, though, and was mystified at the reactions some people of my acquaintance had to her mother’s appearance on the telly. In my view, Kate McCann was showing the same sort of dignity in public as the lady whose daughter was slaughtered by Peter Sutcliffe. In their view, however, while a full-on Greek number would have been over the top, she ought to have been visibly fighting back tears and sounding choked when she was interviewed. The absence of visible grief was taken for the absence of grief tout court. Very stupid, in my view.

So I will be happier when the Cumbria shootings have finally been wrung dry, and very real private grief returns to being real and private where it should have stayed all along, instead of being turned into entertainment for the nosey and sentimental.


Sarah in deepest, darkest Lomellina said...

I'm with you on the Cumbria reporting.

Avoiding all the spin off stories.

It's not news at this point, just vultures circling.

vilges suola said...

Absolutely. And all the betting on why he did it... like we could ever know.

jk said...

Sadly, the media always react like that when a huge tragedy occur - they show no respect to the those personally affected since all they care about is being sensationalists. On a lighter note, your parallels between the Greek and English reactions to sad events was spot on. Having lived in Greece almost all my life I've witnessed more than a few τραγικωμικές καταστάσεις. However, my English genes must be stronger because I've never been able to take all the drama seriously ( I have been known to get the giggles at Greek funerals when the μαυροφορεμένες γιαγιάδες start screaming over the grave: Κωστάκη μου, παλλικάρι μου, γιατί μας άφησες τόσο νωρίς... Kostakis of course being a) over 80 years old or b) unknown to them and they're just doing it out of habit or c) somebody they hated when he was alive).

vilges suola said...

I know, the self-indulgence always strikes us as funny... I really get pissed off with the 'we are so uninhibited emotionally' nonsense in Greece because so often it seems to me at any rate that th eemotion you meet with most often is self-righteous indignation, which must be the most impotent of emotions.

Fionnchú said...

I will share this with a friend; we were talking about how after her mother died last year, my friend asked her own friends not to respond in the usual platitudes, but to tell her honestly how they felt. Few dared to, as most fell into the time-tested, mealy-mouthed routines that most of us seem expected to recite when tragedy hits. It's easier for convention, in journalism as in personal etiquette, to trundle out the phatic phrase, the gushing tribute.

vilges suola said...

True. I've only read one truthful comment on the dead, recorded by Alan Bennett in 'Writing Home':

'You worked with Edith Evans, Charles. What was she like?'
'She was a miserable cow.'
More theatrical memories are of this nature than is ever let on.

Michael said...

LOL at the 'tight-knit community' excerpts, so trite.

And your concluding line is exactly what I felt when I stayed with this Guildfordian family over the Easter. Their choice of television program gave me the impression they were so sentimental, and very nosey, as individuals.

It's funny that I'm now thinking to myself that I would never want to adopt the British or the Greek ways of dealing with tragedy. I suppose it comes from my largely Chinese upbringing. News headlines in Hong Kong go: "13 dead, 42 injured, after bus falls from highway", and what we, as receivers of this news, ponder, goes something along the lines of: How many people suffered head injuries? How many children were in the bus? Was it the bus driver's fault, or the Highway Department's poor construction work? Is anyone suing? What is the bus company, or the Highways Department, going to do to ensure that this does not happen again?

I think the British don't hold a candle to our aptitude for self-restraint. Sugar-coating issues is such an overused tactic that sugarcoating in itself now begs for empathic reactions. You've got to be cold, rationalist automatons if you truly want to bury things beneath the surface.

Vilges Suola said...

We once held self-restraint in great esteem, but no more. I personally think that's a great pity but I'm a dinosaur.

Michael said...

That rhymed.

Vilges Suola said...

Well spotted. It doesn't scan, though.


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