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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing