A challenge to notions of community

It was all wrong. The clear sunshine of a perfect early summer’s day, the Lakeland countryside at its most beautiful, half-term in a small rural community: again and again, among those interviewed as the full horror of the last day of Derrick Bird unfolded, the same question was asked. How could such a thing happen in a place like west Cumbria?

In contrast to the mystery surrounding what caused an apparently likeable man to become a mass murderer, the response to his rampage has been distinctly predictable. Violence of this kind is out of place in the countryside. It belongs to a different, inner-city script.

In fact, as Hungerford and Dunblane have proved in past decades, it is precisely in small, inward-looking communities that the strains and miseries of one life can lead to the destruction of others. The general surprise that the life in the countryside can be violent and psychologically complicated reflects the way the clichés of fiction have leached into real life. Having watched our cosy TV dramas on a Sunday night, we like to think that fields, woods, birds and clear blue skies are incompatible with the ugliness and violence of modern life. Their mere presence, the lazy assumption goes, will make people nicer to one another, families less dysfunctional, lives generally less unhappy.

The truth is rather different. While there is more friendliness in the countryside, and more engagement in the community, that sense of belonging can often come at a price. Far from being softened by the privilege of space, air and scenery, rural existence is sharper, more highly coloured, than life in towns and cities.

It is naive to think that scenic beauty will be reflected in the souls of those that live near it. Families tend to be more closely knit in the country; that is, they can go wrong more disastrously and inescapably. There is a stronger network of friendship and support; that is, it is far easier for someone to feel alienated, excluded and alone. Social life revolves around a small community; that is, getting away to find a new perspective on problems can be difficult, or impossible.

Indeed, the whole idea of community can often be misleading. Those who live in the country for any length of time quickly discover that, within every rural community, there are countless smaller groupings. At first, it may seem that parts of the county are different from one another. Soon the variations between neighbouring villages become clearer. Finally, even the villages themselves will be seen to contain simmering factions and sets.

Add to those competitive groupings the feuds and vendettas between extended families that can last generations, not to mention the relatively new opposition between the incomer and the true local, and a nightmarish potential for stress and conflict takes shape. And in the countryside, unlike in the city, it not only easy to get hold of a 12-bore shotgun or a .22 rifle, it is part of everyday life. Under these circumstances, no one should be entirely surprised that now and then a fragile psyche cracks and exacts a terrible revenge for unhappiness upon the innocent.

The murders committed by Bird were a ghastly, random tragedy, but they contain reminders of small, often forgotten truths. Village communities contain different needs and vulnerabilities than are to be found in urban ones, but they matter every bit as much when it comes to government policy and funding for health, education and policing. Shops, post offices, libraries and pubs are more important to sanity and healthy living in isolated parts of the country than anywhere else.

Indeed, this week has shown that, when they are tested in the public eye, these communities tend to remind the rest of the country of the good and civilised way of dealing with social trauma. What has been notable in the news coverage from west Cumbria has been the sanity and kindness of many of those who have been interviewed.

A local GP, talking on Radio 4, quoted a colleague’s wife as saying that people needed to have a story in order to come to terms with what had happened. “It won’t take away the pain, but it will help them understand.”

The media will develop their own stories about Bird over the next few days, but the most important and lasting narratives emerge beyond the headlines in the decency of those who have every reason to be bewildered and enraged. Those interviewed – people on the front line of suffering – have reacted to unthinkably horrific events with a sense of profound sympathy and common humanity. The press will soon be bandying around the over-used words of outrage which are trotted out on these occasions – “evil”, “monster” and so on – but the people directly affected have spoken with restraint, even of the murderer himself. Bird was “just an ordinary, sociable bloke,” said his local landlord. “All I can say is that the person we’ve been following on the news today is not the Derrick we knew.”

A similar tone of moderation and good sense has been evident in interviews with the deputy chief constable of Cumbria, Stuart Hyde. Too often, after major crimes, there is a niggling sense that police officers in the spotlight are rather more excited, emotional or outraged than is entirely professional. Hyde has been a model of reassuring calmness, quietly making the point that the best way to deal with the crisis was with local officers, who knew the local people and the local area.

There is a lot to be said for the west Cumbrian way of dealing with crisis and tragedy. Asked by an interviewer what she knew about the murder of her father, the daughter of Michael Pike, a retired trades union negotiator, replied that she was not particularly interested in those details. What her father believed in, and what was important now, was a celebration of life.

As the miserable tragedy of Derrick Bird and his victims unfolds, with many a psychological profile and endless features about gun licensing or medical care in rural areas, it is the wisdom of those local voices – the policeman, the doctor’s wife, the publican, the daughter – which is worth remembering and valuing.

Those are the stories which should endure, reminding us of the best of humanity, rather the worst.

Independent, Friday, 4 June 2010