If you are what you do, what are you when you stop doing it and you still are? on retirement and politics by me in The New Statesman.
It’s beginning to feel as if the beat of our lives is marked by acts of human violence and stupidity. Our lives mostly consist in routines of work and play, and intermittent moments of spring, summer, art, literature, comedy, music – all those items in the world that gain our attention or inattention and allow us pleasurably to think or tick over idly. But regularly and inevitably both the routine and the pleasurable moment are ruptured by an event that first makes itself known as a vague ‘something is happening, somewhere’ on Facebook, Twitter or a ‘Breaking news headline…more later’ email from the BBC. You gather the severity of the event with only the minimum of information in the blandest of presentations, as if the anxiety and quality of the dreadfulness has seeped into the neutral format, or as if we know we must expect these irruptions in our lives and this is how they start. The Tweet that reads ‘Something is going on in Woolwich’ or ‘Boston Marathon halted’ is like an old fashioned telegram. You can’t ignore the potential for disaster, no matter how mildly expressed the first notification is. I feel now that every good moment in my life is stalked by a shadow of what might and what will happen to darken the day. The ‘something happening in Woolwich’ is particularly ominous to Londoners because we know the ordinariness of the place and the street and only something very bad could lie behind the ’something happening’. The language gets bolder and becomes increasingly absurd because of the setting – not far away, not war torn, not ‘other’: ‘man with a knife…gunfire…beheading…’ You want to stop noticing the coverage, but it starts to take up more and more of your timeline (or lifeline) and become more and dreadfully detailed. Then people witnessing it start to be quoted saying that ‘it was like watching a movie’. But it was real, they silently add, which doesn’t make it any more real.
In fact, it is still, if you are me, or most people in this country, not happening ‘here’. Woolwich becomes a word with new meaning, and it will never sound the same again. Placenames as a rule are quiet and not attention seeking. The innocuousness of placenames (Gothenburg, Cambridge) is what keeps your town and street harmless, normal. Woolwich has lost its normal. In real life, which is where we all are, people don’t kill people that often. When they do, when the killing gets close to you, you and your place becomes everyone else’s ‘somewhere else’ and the name starts to have a new meaning in the language. Before we know the names as places we have never been to, might go to, have been to, in which case the parts we know are summoned into our minds when the name crops up. When something hideous happens in them, which has no bearing on the actual place itself, the names buckle under the weight of their new signification: the island of Utøya …the Boston…the Munich… abu Ghraib…Auschwitz…Dunblane…Borodino…Fukushima. Attached to the bad thing that happened there forever, the place names like the events themselves freeze and become a kind of fiction in the same way that the events are ‘just like a movie’. Too close and the unacceptable becomes fiction, although, oddly, we often praise the fiction we like as ‘true to life’. There is a space between our lives in our place, and the ‘something happening’ which is breached when the event comes too close. People in Woolwich who lived nowhere near the street on which the violence occurred were interviewed, and repeated, as if they knew it was expected of them ‘Woolwich is a very quiet place to live in. We all live here very peacefully together’.
When the world’s discontent speeds up both ‘there’ and here, it begins to feel as if it’s only a matter of time before the name of your street will change from being the place where you live, to the memorial for unspeakable acts. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to turn on the news because there are too many places rattled off one after another, their names standing for the murdered, mistreated, overwhelmed who happened to live there when the ‘something’ happened, or was happening and couldn’t be stopped, or will happen if we (we?) don’t do something to stop ‘something’ happening. I’ve always thought it important to look at the world straight and really know as much as you could about what is happening in it where you are not. But with time and age, so many coded names have accumulated that you can almost hear the next one coming when its still far off. Even events I enjoy, and at which I have no expectations of disaster hold the germ of the human condition. Wimbledon is about to start. I don’t much follow tennis, but I watch Wimbledon every year, a neat little one-on-one competition that television does perfectly. I don’t enjoy the nationalism that is displayed when a British player is on court. I tend to hope for the other one to win. I especially cringe at the success of Andy Murray, no only because of the ghastly jingoism of the audience, but also because I know that if he wins, he will be interviewed and written about and someone will inevitably bring up the fact that he was a child in the school where 16 children and one adult were killed in Dunblane in Scotland. Murray, like the town itself, is stuck forever with a catastrophe he essentially had nothing to do with, except that he was there. It hangs over him as if his being good at tennis is some good that resulted, which in some way comforts us for the sudden madness in a town, for the British, not quite far away enough. It is a huge burden to have been there, but awful to carry it with you through all your good and bad achievements. Another boy who survived the massacre was found guilty two years ago of attempted rape. He, like Andy Murray and Dunblane itself, is stuck forever with what he experienced in what was once his ordinary home town being linked to whatever he does. It is because of the event, or is he ‘ungrateful’ for the gift of having survived? It is impossible to get the normal back once it has gone. It is the basis of our fear of children ‘growing up too soon’. A loss of innocence, the most normal of all normality, we like to think, hovers over us all, people and places. Each time something happens somewhere else, we are reminded of how fragile the normal is. The waiting is exhausting.
[This is a piece I wrote in June for my monthly column in the Goteborg-Postens.]