Thomas Sutcliffe: Our lust for certainty is making us cruel

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The Independent Online

From the very first reports that Madeleine McCann had gone missing from the holiday apartment where she and her family were staying, the event has been yoked by journalists to another kind of story – the primal fictions of fairytale. This was a story, according to several commentators, that was not just grim but Grimm too – recalling the power of fables in which a beautiful child is swallowed by something that has emerged from the dark.

The allusion attempted to conjure something of the appalling unreality of such a vanishing, but it also inadvertently acknowledged that, for everyone but those intimately connected with the family, this was a story we encountered not just as empathetic readers but as knowing consumers of narrative. We understand how stories work, how they are shaped and what constitutes a satisfactory ending – which, cruelly, is not always the same as a happy ending. And, hard as it might be to admit to it, this was a good story in that sense. To say that it did not bore us would be an absurd understatement.

As the McCann coverage degenerates, though, I can't help wondering whether that appetite for narrative isn't directly implicated in the squalor of the press attention and the brutal ordeal the McCanns have had to endure more recently. It isn't the folk story that's causing the problem either, but much newer kinds of storytelling, which have diminished the gap between deferral and gratification – those indispensable components of all "good stories" – to the point where we are incapable of seeing the real world straight.

One pertinent example in the McCann case would be the hugely popular CSI series which, whether in Miami, New York or Las Vegas, regularly delivers the potent analgesic of forensic solution. Never mind that the itch was illusory and artificial, the scratch soothes anyway. And we resent its failure to turn up in Portimao, where forensic science is realistically inconclusive.

It isn't just the specific subject matter that counts, though, but our modern impatience as consumers of stories. The hunger for crafted resolutions is thousands of years old, but has there ever been a time in human history when we have been able to gorge ourselves so greedily on endings and plot twists? It's unremarkable to go out to the cinema to watch one end-stopped narrative, come home to catch up on the latest twist in a television soap and then retire to bed to read a thriller.

News bulletins respond to this modern avidity. But unfortunately it seems it isn't a craving that is appeased by feeding. We demand novelties and if they aren't forthcoming we become dismayed and even strangely vindictive. In the case of the McCanns the public have even been invited to write an ending themselves. Phone-in callers are encouraged to sketch out a narrative in which the parents are villains or victims, based on nothing more than their prejudices.

It isn't fiction though – and the only stories that should be allowed to colour our thinking about the case are real ones; the stories of the parents of Azaria Chamberlain and JonBenet Ramsey, arraigned and vilified because life wouldn't supply a neat ending as swiftly as the public appetite required. The modern world's cornucopia of fictions, endlessly spilling out solutions to the temporary enigmas they've created, have atrophied our ability to live uncomplainingly with uncertainty. The least we can do in this case is to wait patiently for the hard facts.

Helicopter to heaven and hell

The sad death of Colin McRae and his passengers led to the appearance of a phrase that has a paradoxical familiarity in such stories: "the Twin Squirrel helicopter has a good safety record". It's paradoxical because you generally only encounter it after a fatal crash. I'm sure it was used when Matthew Harding died in 1996 in the same helicopter and I know it was used when the businessman Phillip Carter died with his son in another Twin Squirrel. Which prompts one to ask, a good safety record compared with what exactly? Only, one presumes, other helicopters – a form of aircraft that defies gravity in an unnervingly overcomplicated way. Compared with not owning a helicopter at all you'd have to say it really doesn't look that great.

* I saw the ad for the Alpha Course the other day – the one that reduces human life to a 60-second industrial process, concluding with two diagrammatic coffins toppling off a conveyor belt. "Is there more to life than this?" asks the final strap line, to which the only answer is "Yes of course there is, you fool" – preferably voiced loudly enough to be audible throughout the multiplex. Indeed, the advert seems to me to exemplify one of the fixed vices of evangelism, which is its tendency to libel and belittle this life in order to make the dubious charms of the next one appear more saleable.

Of course, if you genuinely think that the rich complexities of love, romance, marriage and childbirth – their tribulations and their joys – can be fairly represented by two stick figures prodded together in a factory and instantly spawning two more little stick figures, you may well be in the market for a bit of consoling eschatological fiction. I'm not buying it myself.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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