Oh, the banality of the language of disaster

'Grisly tasks', 'mangled wreckage', 'tight-knit communities'. Such homogenised, trite phrases make a disaster seem not more but less real
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When the Hindenburg erupted in flames in 1937, the reporter covering the event for radio was so overcome by what he saw that he was unable to continue. "Oh, the humanity," he sobbed, his voice clogged with emotion. His inability to find words adequate for the experience conveyed that experience with extraordinary immediacy and compassion.

When the Hindenburg erupted in flames in 1937, the reporter covering the event for radio was so overcome by what he saw that he was unable to continue. "Oh, the humanity," he sobbed, his voice clogged with emotion. His inability to find words adequate for the experience conveyed that experience with extraordinary immediacy and compassion.

Nowadays, when we hear reporters covering disasters such as the recent train crash in Norway or last year's collision at Ladbroke Grove, it is not the humanity but the banality that hits home. A ready-made journalistic blanket - a blanket coverage, so to speak - is on hand to throw over any catastrophe. Whether it be a shooting in a school, a motorway pile-up or an air or rail crash, the language - give or take a few circumstantial details - is always the same.

An accident is, precisely, the unexpected, the unprepared-for, but the style in which journalists respond to unforeseen events is pre-formatted. It - the language - is, literally, waiting for an accident to happen. Not only that, it numbs exactly the feelings of sympathy it strives to induce. So strongly does one long for something to break the mould of pre-conditioned response that one reads Don DeLillo's fictional account of an aircraft suddenly plunging into a catastrophic dive with hilarious gratitude. Passengers hear the intercom from the flight deck click on, expecting to hear a voice assuring them that everything is under control. Instead, they hear the captain declaring: "We're a silver gleaming death machine."

News reporters do not have the novelist's freedom of invention, but there must be an alternative to the homogenisation of catastrophe. OK, fair enough, rescue efforts often are hampered by bad weather, but it is when journalists go beyond the facts to manipulate our emotional reaction to the "tragedy" that one becomes conscious of the dead weight of cliché. Anything, surely, would be better than the hushed tones with which we are told that people are "trying to make sense of how a journey to work turned into a nightmare", "of how a normal day at the office ended in massacre". What could be easier to make sense of? It is difficult to make sense of Finnegan's Wake or Wittgenstein, but a child can make sense of what happens when one train piles into another and bursts into flames, or what happens when a grievance-deranged former employee returns to work with a semi-automatic and, as they say in America, "goes totally postal".

From the crash/massacre itself, we move to the aftermath, to the "tight-knit community united in grief". The community in question is, invariably, a sentimentalist invention. The architecture of Britain - detached, semi-detached - makes that plain. A negative proof is the way in which the only other time "community" is invoked is to lament its breakdown when whizzed-up teenagers set fire to the house of a pensioner living two streets away. Even if there were a community, how would journalists know it was united in grief - unless such grieving solidarity were manifested by a refusal to speak to journalists in search of what the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh called "the abject as subject"?

The reality - a reality hinted at by the native of Akenfield who remarked to Ronald Blythe, "We didn't really miss the men who didn't come back [from the First World War]. The village stayed the same" - is irrelevant; a journalistic template demands that a community be united in grief. Not surprisingly, the hegemony of the media is such that people tend increasingly to conform to the contours of grief laid down by reports of disaster's aftermath. Just as the presence of TV cameras is often seen as an incitement to riot, so the custom of laying flowers at the site of an accident has been rendered virtually obligatory by footage of people doing so. A tradition has been created almost instantly to provide a visual accompaniment to verbal cliché. Additional support is provided by images of people hugging and sobbing, consoling and inconsolable. To drive the point home, though, we have to have an interview with someone - a trauma-hardened fireman, ideally - who breaks down in tears mid-answer. The American novelist Andrew Holleran is right: "Tears on TV are like the come shot in a porn film."

Meanwhile, "the grim task of sifting through the mangled wreckage" is under way. In fairness, the task can be "grisly" rather than "grim", and the wreckage "twisted" rather than "mangled", but, just as we have become so used to soap powder brand names prefixed by "new improved" that the words have bleached themselves of meaning ("same old"), so "grim" and "grisly" are devoid of grimness and grisliness. The more you pile on words to staunch the drain of meaning, the faster the leak proceeds. To convey properly the horror at Ladbroke Grove, one would have to have spoken of the horribly horrible horror of carnage - sorry, I mean carriage H for Horror.

Let's be clear. I am not lacking in compassion. On the contrary, it is compassion that makes me wary of the cynical language of pre-packaged pseudo-compassion. It is not that I am lacking in the milk of human kindness - but I do not appreciate being fed the long-life, UHT substitute (convenient though it is in emergencies) as though it were the real thing. For that, we need look no further than the famous opening of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts": "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters." The reason for that, Auden goes on, is that, far from insisting on a ubiquitous, unifying grief, they recognised that suffering takes place amid much indifference, "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

 

A shorter version of this article was broadcast on Radio 4's 'Today' programme. Geoff Dyer's most recent book is 'Anglo-English Attitudes' (Abacus)

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