I am sitting with the tv running in the background and CNN+ is reporting on the killings in Cumbria yesterday. It seems to me that disasters, whether natural or provoked by humans, always come as more of a shock when they happen somewhere familiar; the connection to others, the there-but-for-the-grace-of-god feeling, and the familiarity of the background in the scenes we are watching on tv make us feel as if we were there. I don’t mean that the sense of horror is more than watching crumbled buildings in Haiti, or terrifying videos of tsunamis in Asia, but the shock, as we take in the fact that things happen in comfortable surroundings, where we have moved about carelessly, is sharper. It’s not supposed to happen where we feel safe.
Once it was announced the other day that the BP oil spill was moving closer to the coast of Florida, a state I know, compared to Louisiana, which I don’t know, I could visualize it much more clearly. Reading about the air crash in Buffalo last year made me tremble because I’d flown that route a few times. And Cumbria is like my second home, I have friends and family there, so there were some anxious moments yesterday, until the news became clear and friends checked in one way or another.
One of the things I really appreciated about Tenerife in those first years of living here was how safe it was. I could take the kids to the beach, and if they made new friends, or were out of sight for a short time I didn’t have dust in my mouth or a panic attack . Returning late at night from a party or dinner there were no terrors lurking in the shadows. It was like living in a 1950s Hollywood movie, which, in fact, was exactly what I wanted for my kids – the sort of freedom I’d enjoyed at that age.
I ‘ve been aware of the creeping changes over the years – friends have been burgled; I had a handbag stolen; stories of street thefts; as my kids morphed into teenagers, knowing I should worry if they went to certain areas of town where drugs were peddled – but not much violence, so there was less fear than in some places.
Over more recent years I became aware of more changes, and these violent ones. Living over a bar in Los Abrigos, a small, and during the daytime quiet fishing village, I heard, and occasionally witnessed, frequent arguments, which sometimes became violent. The newspapers and local tv now regularly carry stories of robberies of supermarkets, jewellery shops and gas stations with violence or threat of violence. There was a much reported incident last year of a policeman in a bar along the coast trying to force a young woman to go with him for dubious purposes.
One my own personal nightmares came true last year. I was woken at 5am by my son (newly arrived back from 7 years living in the US) ringing the doorbell, and asking for taxi fare. He paid the taxi, and came back up, and it was seemed to me that he was very drunk, so I did what all good moms do, made sure he was in the recovery position, threw a blanket over him and left a bucket and a towel by his bed. If it’s not habitual (and it very much isn’t with Guy) then I figure everyone is entitled to cut loose once in a while, especially when the job for which they came back for, and for which they had such high hopes, has crumbled into dust. Of course he was still asleep when I left for work later. During the morning as I got phone calls from him and his friend, a story began to emerge. I’ll go straight to it, because you don’t want the long version.
Guy’s friend was on the first day of a vacation from England, and the two of them had gone surfing the previous afternoon. They’d left their boards at the surf shop, and still dressed in board shorts and reefs they’d gone in search of food. The bar in which they ate was on the fringe of the notorious “Veronicas” area of Playa de las Americas. They had a couple of beers with their meal, and at some point those beers were spiked with drugs. Basically, after that neither of them remembers any more of the night. Guy’s first memory was ringing the doorbell, and his friend’s was waking up, fortunately in his own bed. Neither of them had their cellphones, wallets/money/cards, watches, jewellery or sunglasses. Of course it could have been worse had they been girls they could have been raped as well. Presumably the drug used was, or was something like, a “rape drug”.
For Guy’s friend it was the loss of his holiday money (fortunately he’d left his passport with me that day), and a day of vacation wasted at the police station, cancelling cards and arranging money to be transferred. For Guy, who, living here, was carrying less, it was the loss of an ID card which was a souvenir of his university days in the US, a pendant I’d given him for Christmas, and a favorite pair of sunglasses. And for both it was a profound sense of the loss of the control one likes to have over one’s life. It dents self esteem, and having hours one can’t remember is scary. Me? I was bl**dy angry, mainly a maternal reaction, of course, and secondly anger that people can mess with another’s life this way. It isn’t just the theft; it’s the disruption to one’s life, and the messing with another person’s psyche which disturbs me more.
Two stories from people close to me: The daughter of a friend, parking outside her house, coming home from working in a bar, around 1 am, was surrounded by four guys. She deftly got back into the car, locked it and called the police on her cellphone, but even that didn’t scare the guys away, they continued to bang on the car, and she drove off, afraid that they would break a window. So that story didn’t have too bad an ending, considering what the alternative might have been. But I just can’t get my head around what they guys wanted; robbery or rape? In either case, why didn’t they give up when it looked hopeless? Didn’t they know that neighbours would call the police? I know for a fact that the police in that area are on the ball, so it wasn’t a case of “they won’t turn up” or anything. My friend was travelling in Indonesia and South Asia at the time, areas deemed by many to be unstable and dangerous, yet here was her daughter being threatened on her own doorstep.
Story two has a less happy ending, but still could have been worse. A friend who owns a small bar in a working/residential area, nowhere near a resort, had a customer who refused to pay for his meal. He closed the door of the bar and began to dial the local police (which is the correct procedure), when the customer stabbed him twice in the chest. He was rushed to hospital and had emergency surgery, and was ok. My friend is a great humanitarian, an almost compulsively hard worker, very kind, intelligent and well known in the local community. Why would some punk think he can just kill people over the price of a meal? It turned out, when I visited the friend in hospital, that the guy was known to him, and in fact, he’d loaned him money in the past, and…… the guy was a known drug user. I cannot begin to tell you the effect this had on my friend’s life because it’s too personal to him, just let me tell you that the bar never reopened.
Even now I’m not sure whether we should be blaming drugs or the underlying social issues, or what, and what are those social issues anyway?
It just seems to me that there is a huge lack of self esteem, a lack of direction in people today, that they need to boost their fragile egos by taking drugs or overindulging in alcohol, or maybe even killing people randomly, and it goes without saying that if people are feeling like that in such huge numbers then something is lacking in their education and homelife. There is a lack of basic morality which would have been unthinkable in the 60s or even 70s, after that I am not sure. I lump this attitude in the same category as telephone cold calling and time share touting. It’s a lack of respect for other people, a lack of acknowledging their right to their own, personal space. Maybe it’s because there are so many of us occupying spaces now, that it’s too overwhelming to think about connecting with people in the way we used to.
It’s a shame that this island has lost its innocence in that way. It lost it on a time line I could watch and observe, which, somehow, seems more shocking, but I have to say that overall, if you’re thinking of visiting, you don’t need to worry. It certainly isn’t any worse here than the noise and police sirens I heard in sedate Guildford the other week! And it is, largely, confined to certain areas. Stay away from The Veronicas in Las Americas and from San Telmo in Los Cristianos if you are here on vacation in the main resorts, and even then, nightlife doesn’t get going until midnight usually.
The question in Cumbria now is why and how. How did the killer get to be in possession of these guns? Right now it’s looking as if he had at least one of them legally. Gun laws are much stricter in the UK than in other countries, especially compared to the US, but in country areas it is much more normal for guns to be around a house. At the time my kids were born we were living in an old farmhouse, with no neighbours for half a mile in one direction, and farther in the other. My husband had a licence for a shotgun, hunting was his hobby, and occasionally we had a fox or some other reason for keeping one around, as farmers and country dwellers often do. When he was away, I used to sleep with that gun under my bed, and there is no doubt in my mind that I would have used it had there been a threat to my children, even though the law forbade it. Illegal or not, that’s not the same in my book as taking your gun and going out to kill people. There’s a lot of investigating to do before we know how he came to have the guns, but that’s a question which will get answered, because the guns can be traced if they are legal, and if the investigations turn up a loophole then it can be closed. That’s how it works there.
Why, may never be answered. Everyone who knew him will have their opinions, but unless he talked it over with any of them, it will never be certain. The press is reporting a family dispute over an inheritance and a difference of opinion with a work colleague, even taken together these shouldn’t put anyone over the top. It seems he was working – which a lot of people aren’t these days. Maybe he wasn’t earning much. For sure I’ve been avoiding using taxis for years now, because I haven’t been able to afford them. Maybe he felt ignored, passed over, and wanted to do something to make sure he would be remembered, and he didn’t care what it was. Yet, these sorts of things have happened to people since time began I suppose, cavemen must have disagreed about how much of the side of deermeat belonged to whom, and over whose job it was to light the fire, once it was discovered! We used to to talk things over with people, get it off our chests, when did we stop doing that? Was it when computers absorbed our leisure time, or was it the tv, or was it the radio? How far back does this go? Or has it always been like this? Is it simply that nowadays something happens in a Cumbrian village and a half hour later friends in California are texting to ask if you are ok, something that would have taken a whole day to make the news when I was a toddler, and a good hour when I was a teenager, and then it would have to have been huge news like the murder of JFK.
But how could he have ended up so angry without anyone noticing or trying to help? It’s not as if he lived in a huge, impersonal city, where he could easily have slipped under the neighbourhood radar, he lived in a small, country town, the sort of place we imagine escaping to partly because it will be friendly and everyone knows each other. A lot of people, in fact, do retire to the Lake District. A country village in the Lake District is our idea of escaping the evils and stresses of modern life, not the place we expect to find the ultimate nightmare.
What is so wrong with society these days that a man can sink to this level without anyone noticing, and that he feels justified in killing people? When did we stop caring about each other? I shouldn’t end a post with a question, but I just don’t have any answers.