Sunset over Whitehaven
A man of no significance
When I switched on breakfast news early this morning, there was a man standing on a hill above the town of Whitehaven. The interview had been filmed yesterday afternoon. It appeared to be warm, an English early summer warmth, nothing special. The man, not far from old age, was dressed above the waist only in a vest. What he was wearing below the waist could not be seen. White hairs sprouting from his chest, he was not a pretty sight. Twelve people had been murdered in the town and surrounding area earlier in the day, yet this is what the man allowed himself to wear while being interviewed for the BBC. He was testifying to the ordinariness of Birdy. That is really all he had to say: that Birdy was ordinary.
But what is ordinary? Is it ordinary for a man in his late sixties, on this day of all days, to dress in this fashion? Where is respect for the dead? Or for his fellow citizens? It is the sort of ordinariness we see in the streets of Britain the moment there is a glimpse of the sun.
A tiny point (of course), but a reminder that there is nothing particularly virtuous about ordinariness or ordinary people.
Within 60 seconds of the start of Channel 4 News last night, we were being assured by the presenter ('live from Whitehaven') that this is a close-knit community. A few hours later, other journalists were informing us that the same close-knit community was now 'coming to terms' with the killings. What this phrase means, how the journalists knew, and what terms they have in mind, were not divulged.
By early this morning, in the surprising absence of hard facts, the journalists had been reduced to talking to each other. The streets of Whitehaven were deserted, just as they had been during the Channel 4 programme last night. Only journalists were above ground. One woman told Bill Turnbull: 'It's a notoriously quiet and peaceful community'. Bill nodded. Both seemed to find it incomprehensible that 'something like that' should happen 'somewhere like this'.
Notoriously quiet and peaceful. It is worth reflecting on the odd use of the adverb. Perhaps the journalist intended to say famously or notably, but with her preference for notoriously she may have unwittingly stumbled on an awkward truth. It raises the possibilility of cultural illusions, wilful or otherwise, about the character of British life.
Potentially at least, there are three illusions about the Cumbrian incident.
The first illusion is that any town under a certain size – around 25,000 – is inevitably a close-knit community. Exactly the same thing was said about Dunblane in the spring of 1996. It was repeated so often in the days and weeks of communal grief that it would have been almost treasonable to challenge the perception. But it was not true of Dunblane, essentially a pleasant commuter town handily placed for the two major cities and for the University of Stirling. The idea that everyone in Dunblane knew each other and looked out for each other, that it was a community in the old-fashioned organic sense, was born of nothing more than media sentimentality and the need for a convenient label.
If it was not true of Dunblane, is it any truer of Whitehaven? I don't know. But let's assume that Whitehaven is indeed a close-knit community in more than a journalistic shorthand sort of way. It does not make it any likelier that Whitehaven conforms to our idealised vision of that harmonious and caring, mutually supportive, community which we understand as close-knit. J M Barrie, son of Kirriemuir, was among the first to articulate an alternative view of close-knit communities as sour and petty, riven by personal animosities, places of stifling conventionality, where grudges are nursed, scores settled, any form of eccentricity or striking individuality frowned upon. No one should be in the least surprised that close-knit communities breed dismay, defeatism and occasional exhibitions of madness. In Kirriemuir, however, they shot only rabbits.
The third illusion returns to the theme of ordinariness and the presumption that it is necessarily healthy. A term increasingly being applied to the dead Birdy is that he was a 'man of no significance'. I heard that phrase being used on television this morning. The context was disturbing on two counts: first, the assumption that to be a person of no significance is somehow desirable, that there is an emotional health inherent in an individual's insignificance; second, that people of no significance are the last people you would expect to go around murdering others at random. On both counts, the opposite is true.
It was people of no significance who murdered millions of Jews. On breakfast television, they would have been called ordinary.
In another Cumbrian town this weekend, the Appleby horse fair begins. In the newspapers a few weeks ago, there was a great discussion about whether the local police would be armed for the occasion. There was a general expectation that they would be indeed be carrying guns to deal with any trouble from the gypsies. This morning, that feels more than a little ironical.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review