Where Will It End?

Zoë Sharp

I’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours now, staring at a blank open document, wondering how to begin. My problem is not that I don’t know what to write (see Rob’s ‘Rati blog from yesterday) but more that I’m not sure how best to tackle the subject.

Anyone who’s seen the news over the past week will be aware of the events in my home county of Cumbria. For those who aren’t familiar with the details, last Wednesday morning a fifty-two-year-old cab driver called Derrick Bird walked out of his cottage, armed with a .22 rifle and a shotgun, climbed into his car and went on what’s best described as a rampage, shooting dead twelve people and injuring a further eleven before finally crashing his car and taking his own life.

It’s shocking, yes. Answers are being sought, but I fear that none will be found. People are asking what could have been done to prevent such a thing occurring, and it’s not very reassuring for anyone to think that events of this nature – awful though they are – are impossible to predict and prevent. There will always be the quiet man who suddenly snaps, without warning.

The day after the killings last week, I received an email out of the blue from BBC radio, asking me to write a short essay on Derrick Bird’s actions from a crime writer’s perspective, which I duly did. I mentioned the piece in the blog on my own website last week, and I understand the recording also went out on the World Service.

In it, I made that point that although it may be difficult for people personally touched by this tragedy to understand why anyone would want to read about fictional crimes in the name of entertainment, they do. Crime novels are a constant feature of the best-seller lists, and the category most-borrowed from UK libraries. They provide order and closure and answers where in reality none exists. A form of escapist comfort that there is a world people can retreat into where justice will prevail.

If you’re robbed or mugged in real life, for example, the reality of the situation is that the police are probably not going to catch the people who did it. Even if they do, the perps are most likely going to get off with community service, and you’re never going to see your belongings again. You’re going to become a victim twice over, because the fear of crime is often so much greater than the risk.

But we are a crime-writing community. We don’t just write about crime, but we talk about crime, think, eat, sleep and frequently dream about crime. That does not mean that any of us are going to go out and actually commit a crime. There are limits to how far even a method writer will go in search of authenticity in their work.

And we certainly do not expect any of our readers to be suddenly turned into monsters, just from reading something in a book. As writers of books that touch on sometimes horrific subjects, we offer vicarious thrills, like a rollercoaster ride. Readers know they’re going to be scared, but also that nothing bad will happen to them, and they can get off at the end.

But that hasn’t always been the case. In the early days of rollercoasters, fatal accidents frequently occurred. And, when they did, people flocked to try their luck, just as they flock now to the scene of such dreadful events, with an almost mawkish desire to be seen at the scene. One radio journalist I spoke to said he interviewed several teenage witnesses to Derrick Bird’s crimes whose testimony he could not use. “They sounded too excited,” he said sadly, shaking his head. “That won’t last, of course.”

And it has now emerged that the night before the massacre, Derrick Bird apparently watched a Steven Seagal movie, ‘On Deadly Ground’, and parallels are being drawn that this somehow inspired him to act. Yes, there have been studies done on the link between violent movies and computer games and violent crimes, but I feel the underlying tendencies must surely have been there already. I have to own up to a guilty pleasure – I happen to like several of Steven Seagal’s movies, but I’ve never had any desire to run amok on a battleship.

The day after the news broke, I received an email cancelling several library events I had in the area. They were due to be part of Cumbria Libraries’ ‘Midsummer Murders’ series. I can understand the reasoning perfectly, because now you look at it, the name does make you wince. But although one of the events was scheduled for the little library in Seascale, which is one of the directly affected towns, others were spread out across the far side of the county – the third largest in the UK, incidentally, at 2613 sq miles. Cancelling rather than postponing all crime-writing events throughout Cumbria seems a little harsh.

Fellow Cumbrian crime writer, award-nominated Diane Janes, was due to have her new book, THE PULL OF THE MOON, discussed on Lakeland Radio today, as it had been selected as the June choice of the Big Read Book Club. Two days ago, the book was pulled as the book of the month, citing the tragic events as cause, and particularly as the funeral of the first of the victims was this morning. Diane is understandably upset by this, as her book has nothing to do with guns, massacres, or even Cumbria, and Lakeland Radio covers the south rather than the west of the county.

Of course, nobody wants to cause unnecessary grief or trauma to the victims or their families. That goes without saying. And if relatives of the victims live in the catchment area of the radio station, it would be dreadful if they heard talk of crime as entertainment and were upset by it. But I worry how far this will go, from proper sensitivity into political correctness, and then on into censorship.

What are your thoughts on this, ‘Rati?

This week’s Word of the Week is meretricious, meaning of the nature of or relating to prostitution; characteristic or worthy of a prostitute; flashy or gaudy. From the Latin meretrix, a prostitute, from merere, to earn.

37 thoughts on “Where Will It End?

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not to be unsympathetic to the events, I don’t think it’s right to cancel the other events. The world goes on. It seems society currently is either over-sensitive to the point of ridiculousness or overly de-sensitized to real life. I can only shake my head because I don’t have any answers.

  2. Karen in Ohio

    Before 9/11, a date which has become so iconic that you need no other information to understand, my business partner and I were well on our way to a successful web business. As of 9/12 everything in the US–everything–ground to a screeching halt. The stock market dove, citizens as far away as Alaska walked around in a daze, and social efforts were completely halted. In my own business, too: Contracts about to be written were forgotten, contracts that had been written were canceled, and we finally decided to close up shop a mere six weeks later.

    So even though the Cumbria massacre was on a different scale, it was still traumatic to the entire country. Probably, if you look at the entire population of the UK vs. the population of the US, there would be a comparable scale of damage. The idea that violence of that dimension and scope and unpredictability could happen anywhere, anytime is shocking and mind-numbingly terrifying.

    The potential for such violence has always existed, of course. It’s just that such a dramatic reminder of our own humanity and vulnerability permeates our consciousness after such an event, and our thin veneer of denial is cracked wide open.

  3. Cornelia Read

    "our thin veneer of denial is cracked wide open." Karen has it exactly right.

    I love your description of what you said in your radio essay, Zoe.

    I read Lee Child’s 61 Hours on the plane ride home from my Dad’s memorial service. There were a number of people shot in the head in the book, and yet it was the perfect escape for me, a Lee’s books always are. It’s that sense of justice prevailing, personified by Reacher, that makes them so healing for me, I think.

  4. Jake Nantz

    I personally think the individual or group of individuals who came up with "Political Correctness" should be dragged into the street and set aflame.

    Then kneecapped.

    Then gutshot.

    Really people? Are we so afraid of someone breaking decorum to say something foul that we have a whole "shush-ing" community to prevent anyone from even having the opportunity? My God Zoe, this is certainly a tragedy, but why on earth did they feel the need to pull that woman’s book from the radio program? I may not agree with a damn thing Don Imus, or Howard Stern, or Al Sharpton, or Glen Beck, or any other number of extreme-viewpoint idiots says, but whether it’s in poor taste or just a radical and (IMO) stupid point of view, I just change the damn channel.

    Seriously, I’ve got a gas can, a Louisville Slugger, and my revolver…let’s go track these people down and bring some insanity back to this whitewashed and too-sane world before the puritans come back and drown us all for "witchcraft."

    Oh, and if anyone is thinking that what I said to start this rant was in poor taste considering the circumstances….that’s kinda the point I was trying to make. Don’t like what I said? Then cluck your tongue, tsk tsk away, shake your head, and GFY, because I stand by it.

    (By the way, we’re very glad you were safe in all of this, Zoe.)

  5. Karen in Ohio

    Uh, Jake? Isn’t that the kind of insanity we’re already talking about, using a gas can and a revolver to "solve" a problem?

    I’m hoping you meant that in an ironic way, but it didn’t come off that way.

  6. Louise Ure

    I appreciate the libraries’/booksellers’ desire to refrain from offending the families of the victims, but canceling the discussion or promotion of crime fiction is not the answer. Those families will be bruised be even gentler winds, they’ll be reminded and offended by a thousand other things that were never intended to harm them either.

    I remember my embarrassment years ago at describing my lunch as "tasting like road kill" to a colleague whose sister had just died in a traffic accident. "Don’t worry," she said. "I can’t shut myself off from every conversation, TV show and song on the radio just to stay in this protected bubble."

  7. Lance C.

    As awful as the Cumbria murders are, the situation sounds like a normal week over here on the other side of the Atlantic.

    You should probably be thankful you live in a nation that can still be shocked and outraged by a mass shooting. Over here, a mass shooting may not even make it to the front page of the newspapers unless the body count goes into double digits, or the victims are small children or attractive blond white women. A few months ago we had a stretch of a couple weeks in which we had one of these events somewhere in the country about every other day; I doubt anyone except the victims’ families still remember.

    Having a book event cancelled is probably a small price to pay for the knowledge that what happened in Cumbria is still a freakish, extraordinary event in your homeland, not simply part of the landscape.

  8. Judy Wirzberger

    While I believe much of our writing has gone too far in portraying blood, guts, and gore, there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for more. We have certainly traveled a distance from the time when piano legs were covered and gentlemen could be aroused glancing at the curve of an ankle. Thoroughly Modern Millie will always be with us and only when readers stop buying certain types of books will things change – which way depends opon which books are popular.

    The world is large and multi-faceted, as are its people, philosophies, values and murderous tastes. I like crime fiction because, even Dexter, brings justice to an unjust world.

    As we move forward, it is our individual responsibility to form the community we wish to function within, to set the values of our society, and from my little cubbyhold of the world, protect the freedom we all enjoy. I believe the events should have been held and those who agree or disagree show their believe by attending or not attending.

    Rather than beaucratic bullshit. (oops! scuse me)

  9. shb

    I agree, Jake. Just change the damn channel.

    But then every time I see an oil soaked bird trying to raise his wings out of the BP fuck up of the millennium, I start to daydream about baseball bats. Must be all the crime fiction I read.


  10. Dana King

    I could understand postponing events like yours, given the time and location. Canceling makes it sound as though they’re never going have such an event again, and we all know that’s not true.

    As for Diane James and Lakeland Radio, does anyone really think those most directly affected by this will be listening to interview programs on the radio? These poor people won’t be offended; they won’t hear it. Probably won’t even be aware of it.

    As a Yank, I have to remind myself That England is about the size of Alabama, so national news for you affects an area only about as large as ur 28th-largest state, so it may well be more acutely felt than a similar event in Florida would be to a resident of Oregon. Still, all these cancellations seem a bit much.

  11. Jake Nantz

    Yes, Karen.

    Irony – (n.) 1) the use or organization of words, unintentionally or (in this case) intentionally, to indirectly depict a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs.

    Example: "Ironically, Nantz proposed that people should take up arms and violence to combat the establishment’s use of political correctness to ‘quiet’ the PR of a book that may offend those dealing with the aftermath of someone who recently took up arms and violence against innocents."

    The whole point was to be over-the-top in the opposite extreme to show just how foolish, ridiculous, and dangerous an overly politically-correct response, or ANY response that is too extreme in one direction or another, to such a horrible tragedy can be.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    "It seems society currently is either over-sensitive to the point of ridiculousness or overly de-sensitized to real life."

    I think you nailed it with that one.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    Events like the Cumbrian shooting are not unknown in the UK. We had a similar thing in Hungerford, and then Dunblane. The difference with this one is that Derrick Bird was mobile. I believe he carved a trail of destruction for about 40 miles, so although no one town will be associated with this event, it does mean that the whole of Cumbria will be associated with it.

    But, this is a localised tragedy. I can still remember sitting watching 9/11 unfold live on CNN, watching as the towers came down. At the time the estimates of the casualties were well into five figures, and I thought, ‘The world is never going to be quite the same again after this…’

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Cornelia

    Knowing when you pick up a crime book that the bad guys will almost undoubtedly lose and the good guys will almost undoubtedly win, is soothing, in its way. I’m glad Lee – and Reacher – were able to provide you with that place of escape at such a time.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Calm down, dear ;-]

    I have to agree with the principle of your argument, if not the fine details. Political correctness is one of my bugbears, and this country seems to be getting worse and worse for it.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hey, Karen

    "Uh, Jake? Isn’t that the kind of insanity we’re already talking about, using a gas can and a revolver to "solve" a problem?"

    Erm, if your problem is needing to catch something to eat and your firewood’s wet, then a gas can and a revolver might just do the trick… ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    "Those families will be bruised be even gentler winds, they’ll be reminded and offended by a thousand other things that were never intended to harm them either."

    Beautifully put, Louise, as always. (You see, you have – and always will have – the soul of a writer…)

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lance

    "Having a book event cancelled is probably a small price to pay for the knowledge that what happened in Cumbria is still a freakish, extraordinary event in your homeland, not simply part of the landscape."

    You put things in fine perspective, my friend.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    Sadly, it seems that human beings are a bloodthirsty lot, hence the rubbernecking that goes on as drivers travelling in the opposite direction to the scene of an accident all slow down to have a look. In past times, public executions always drew a huge crowd.

    Perhaps we are just a flawed design?

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi shb

    Environmental disasters are always horrifying and enraging – particularly as this one seems to be happening in long-term slow-motion, and there seems to be a lot of talk but not much action when it comes to dealing with it.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    I think you’re absolutely right about the people most affected probably not wanting to listen to the radio much.

    And I had no idea if your Alabama analogy was correct so I looked it up. Alabama is 51,700 sq mi, and according to my 2005 US map, it had a population then of 4.4 million. The UK is 94,000 sq mi – more the size of Colorado – and has an estimated current population of 62 million. Not making any points, just thought you’d be interested to know ;-]

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Jake, you have to remember that ironic tone of voice doesn’t come across well – if at all! – in print. I know smiley faces are considered naff, but I use them all the time in emails, comments, etc, just to show my words should not be taken entirely at face value, and are often said with tongue firmly wedged in cheek.


  23. Karen in Ohio

    Jake, I’m relieved to know you were using irony. But since I don’t know you, it was hard to tell. Friends?

    Zoe, the Gulf situation is being dealt with, but unfortunately every effort to stop the seep is failing. I listened to a long interview this morning with Admiral Robert Papp, the head of the Coast Guard, on the Diane Rhem show. He outlined some of the efforts, but my god, trying to contain this thing must be like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon, it’s so massive. It was good to hear certain things from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, as there is so much disinformation, speculation, and downright erroneous info floating around.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for this superb post
    Although my next segment on Murderati will have to do with over-writing, I’m thinking about the dangers of brevity today . . .
    In addition to many of the fine comments today, I think we’ve also become a society — a world — of impatience, of speed. In order to satisfy our craving for faster, faster, we’re acting even more nowadays without taking time to think things through. Inappropriately canceling events or reading in the knee-jerk way you describe is indicative of taking an easy way out. "Oh, this might offend, so let’s just can the whole thing."
    I see these broad sweeping gestures everywhere and don’t know how to counter them except through conversation and blogs, what you’ve done here, to get people to slow down enough to think rather than merely react, merely retreat into a fearful and superficially safe place.

  25. Robert Gregory Browne

    Why is everyone so afraid? Afraid of hurting other people’s feelings? Afraid that the boogeyman is going to get us? Afraid of our neighbor because he doesn’t share our political beliefs? Afraid because the news tells us the world is crumbling? Afraid because the earth is rebelling against us for abusing it? Afraid because our friend got some strange disease and we think it might be contagious? Afraid to let our kids watch a movie or play a video game because it might turn them into a rampaging killer?

    Every single day I hear echoes of Chicken Little, and we’re told we have to be careful, we have to walk on tiptoes, we have to watch what we say and what we do because someone might be offended—and if that happens the sky will surely fall.

    I don’t mind being considerate. I don’t mind holding my tongue in polite company. I don’t mind being cautious about what we let our kids see and do.

    But fuck being afraid. And I’m sure as hell not going to write like I am.

  26. Judy Wirzberger

    Geez, I love this site! Thanks Zsingle o single E. Loved how you put that gun and gas can to use.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    I’ve been watching the reports. Isn’t the stuff squirting out at something stupid like 9000psi? An absolutely crazy problem to try and deal with.

    Glad you and Jake are friends again – you could always settle it by arm-wrestling, though ;-]

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Pari, you put it wonderfully. People take instant action because the means to do so is with us constantly.

    And you’re quite right – time to slow down a little, I feel.

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Wow, Rob – bravo!

    I have a theory that there is a plan to keep us constantly afraid – of SARS, of bird ‘flu, of global warming, you name it. Just the right amount of fear paralyses people.

  30. Murderati

    There’s having a bit of sensitivity to circumstance, and then there is using a tragedy to further your own agenda. Political correctness aside, we can’t protect ourselves from everything. What one person loves, another finds deeply offensive, and vice versa. It’s maddening, but the way of the world. Jake’s solution is perfect, if you don’t like something, turn the channel (page, stations, etc.) I’m tired of all the tiptoeing too.

  31. Zoë Sharp

    JT – I thought it sounded like you, but you never know. I’m always hopeless at recognising people on the phone when they don’t give a name…

    And Karen, Jake – how sweet ;-]


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