Last week, I had an email from a reader. When I say a reader, I mean a reader, or perhaps I should say a former reader, of The Independent. He’s one of a number of readers who have been emailing me for years.
I’ve never met him, but I know quite a lot about his life. I know about his wife. I know about his family. I know what books he likes and what makes him cry. And he knows quite a lot about me. From reading my column, every Wednesday and every Saturday, and then just every Wednesday, he learnt quite a lot about the way I think about the world, and also quite a lot about me.
He felt like a friend. He feels like a friend. Quite a few of the readers I never met, but who wrote to me about the thoughts they had after the thoughts I had, felt, and still feel, like friends. When I was ill, they wrote to me. When I went into hospital, they sent me cards, and flowers. When I went back to work after a big operation three years ago, they sent me cards welcoming me back. One sends me a card every year on the anniversary of that day. He’s the only person who knows, and has marked, the anniversary of that day. This year, when the card arrived at The Independent, I’d already left.
“I don’t like 24-hour news,” said the reader who emailed me last week. “It strikes me as being a monster that demands constant sustenance.” He particularly disliked, he said, “this business of parading grieving people in front of the cameras”. He disliked it so much that he had tried to avoid the press conference given by Lee Rigby’s family, but had been looking for the weather forecast when it flashed up on the screen. When he saw the face of the young woman who said, or tried to say between her tears, that she was “proud” to be Lee’s wife, he gasped. It was then he realised that the grieving widow at the heart of a tragedy that had shocked a nation, and caused a prime minister to call a meeting of his top advisers, was someone he had worked with, and knew.
I was sitting on a bus, listening to the radio, when I heard the news. I looked out of the window at the London streets, and thought of that other street just a few miles away. I thought about how we’ve all got used to sitting on buses, and walking down streets, and going off to meet friends for drinks while hearing, or reading, on the phones we carry everywhere, that other people’s lives have been blown apart.
Just before six, and just before I arrived at the place where I was meeting a friend for a drink, I heard something else. The men, said the man on the radio, had shouted “Allahu Akbar”. The murder, he said, was now a suspected terrorist attack. I did what too many of us now do. I grabbed my phone. “Oh no,” I tapped. “Woolwich murder now a suspected terrorist attack. My heart,” I tapped, “goes out to all Muslims.”
As soon as I tapped “tweet”, I wished I hadn’t. I knew that whatever I’d said, it was too quick. “Well, MY heart,” said one young woman immediately, “goes out to the man HACKED TO DEATH in broad daylight in our once great capital city London”. What, said a man, “about the guy who got his head chopped off?” My heart, said another, “should have gone out to the victim’s family”. I was, said another, “a liberal nutjob”. Why, said another, was I using the opportunity to say something “political”?
Someone said that what I’d said was “patronising”, and I had to agree it was. I didn’t mean it to be, but it was. It sounded, I realised as soon as I sent it, like a pronouncement from a Pope. But “political”? How could it be political? My heart did go out to Muslims. I thought of all the Muslims I knew, and of how they’d be thinking, as they so often had since that terrible day 12 years ago, which set one chunk of the world’s population against another chunk of the world’s population, here we go again.
When it came to sympathy, it soon became clear, you had to make a choice. If you felt a pang of pity for one group of people, you couldn’t feel a pang of pity for anyone else. People seemed to think that you could actually hear about the brutal murder of a man on the streets, and not feel sympathy for the people who loved him. They seemed to think that you were meant to say, straight away, to people who didn’t even know him, that your heart went out to his family. They seemed to think that you really did have to state such an obvious fact.
The backlash kicked in, of course. People “of Muslim appearance”, to use the phrase Nick Robinson used, and then wished he hadn’t, have been abused and attacked. Mosques have been targeted. An Islamic cultural centre just a few miles from me has been burnt down. An Islamic boarding school has had a “suspicious” fire. The students were asleep in their beds. Things unfolded as they usually unfold when mad, bad people do mad, bad things and say they’re doing them in the name of God. A prime minister calls a special meeting. Politicians talk about changing laws. People who don’t like immigration talk about how much they don’t like immigration. People who do like immigration talk about British foreign policy, as if this was some kind of excuse for butchering a man in a street. And two mad, bad, stupid, men get their photos on every front page.
And the pundits speak. Oh yes, the pundits speak. The pundits think David Cameron shouldn’t have gone on holiday. The pundits think David Cameron should have gone on holiday. The pundits think MI5 should have done better. The pundits think MI5 can’t be in every mad, bad person’s head. The pundits hear a piece of news, and then another piece of news that follows on from that news, and they think they should say something about that first piece of news, and then they think they should say something about that second piece of news, and they think that what they say should be firm and clear.
I know. I’ve done it for years. For years, I’ve gone to bed listening to the news, and woken up listening to the news, and wondered what I can say about one of those things in the news that will seem, or sound, firm and clear. A column is an argument. A column’s like going to court and not knowing whether you’re going to be arguing for the prosecution or defence. The clock’s ticking, the editorial conference is looming, and you have to make your choice. So you do. In the minutes available to you, you do, and in the hours that follow you try to back up the choice you made. Sometimes, when you see the column in the paper the next day, you agree with what you said. Sometimes, when you see it, you don’t. The more you know, the harder it gets. The more you know, the more ridiculous it seems to even think about trying to be firm and clear. The more you know, the more you know that being firm and clear is something you can only do if you’re playing a game.
Games have their place. They have their rules. They work on the pitch, and on the playing field, and on the tennis court, and they work, or at least they partly work, in Parliament and court. If you want to learn, if you want to think, if you want to make decisions about very difficult things like how you balance freedom with the need to protect the citizens of your country, then you have to play some games. You have to listen to arguments. You have to listen to arguments you haven’t thought of before. Arguments are interesting. Arguments are fun. But there are times – when, for example, you’re thinking of a young woman who will never see her husband again, and who will, for the rest of her life, be haunted by an image in the small hours of the night – when arguments can sound an awful lot like noise.
Two days after the events in that Woolwich street, I picked up a book. It’s called The Burgess Boys. It’s by an American novelist called Elizabeth Strout. It’s about what happens in a small town in America when a lonely misfit – in this case a white, Christian lonely misfit – throws a pig’s head into a mosque. His family can’t work out why he’s done it. He doesn’t know why he’s done it. All he knows, and all they know, and all the local Somali community knows, is that what he’s done has blown a lot of lives apart.
Some people in the novel hate the Somalis. They hate their customs, and their way of life. Some just see them as a burden “to be borne as one bore bad winters, or the price of gasoline”. They don’t see much to celebrate in a community too traumatised by war, and often too unskilled, to work, a community which dreams only of a time when it can go home.
But Elizabeth Strout does what a novelist should do. She sees what has happened from the point of view of the Somalis, who can’t forget the terrible things they’ve seen, and from the point of view of the local people, who can’t understand the way the Somalis live, or what they say, and from the point of view of the mother, and uncles, of the boy who’s done a terrible thing he doesn’t understand. Like one of her characters, she has “the ability to fall feet first into the little pocket of someone else’s world”. And as she does this, she brings the same cool, clear, sympathetic gaze to every character, and every life. “I think,” says one of her characters towards the end of the novel, “there is no perfect way to live a life”. I think she thinks that, too.
There are better ways to live a life, and there are worse ways to live a life, and there are ways to live a life, which involve taking another life, that almost everyone can agree are wrong. But there are, as Strout’s character says, no perfect ways to live a life, and too much instant opinion seems to imply there are. There are subjects which need a bigger canvas than a sudden burst of polemic,and subjects which need a much, much bigger chunk of time. If you want to read something beautiful and true about the culture clashes we nearly all now live with, and the young men who hit the news because they feel the need to stamp their despair on the world in blood, then read this novel. Do it, because to write, or read, or hear, something beautiful and true about anything almost always takes time.
The reader who emailed me about his terrible shock last week told me, in another email, about the books he’d read. I’ve been telling him in emails about the books I’ve read. I’ve been reading novels again for the first time for years. I haven’t had time for fiction. When you’re hooked on “24-hour news”, you don’t have time for fiction. But you can read the news for hours every day, and tweet your responses (your sometimes stupid responses) and read other people’s responses (their sometimes stupid responses) and learn a lot about things that are happening in the world, but not all that much about the human heart.
I was at The Independent for 10 years, and it’s the readers I miss most. I miss those emails that catapulted me into “the little pocket of someone else’s world”. I hope some of you will find me here.