Our shallow grief over public tragedy

The emotional displays over tragic incidents are not a measure of compassion, but of sentimentality
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The Independent Online

On Sunday, a planned broadcast of the classic children's film, The Railway Children, was pulled from ITV's afternoon schedules. The alteration, the announcer solemnly intoned, was because of the "tragic events in Berkshire". Am I the only person in Britain who finds this fatuous little gesture absurd?

Whether it was meant as a mark of respect to the dead, or as a nod of sensitivity to the bereaved, this decision was crass. The distance between a charming story about children who love trains, and a train derailment in which a child dies along with six other people, is vast. The idea that the latter should have any link at all to the former, even in these tragic circumstances, is utterly contrived

The announcement itself was contrived as well. I suppose it is possible for some silly television executive to believe that viewers would be distressed and insulted by the very idea of a film starring trains being screened in the aftermath of a tragedy involving the same form of transport. I suppose too it is possible that some members of the public might be hysterical enough actually to declare themselves distressed and insulted by such a juxtaposition.

Whether such incontinent emotionalism ought to be pandered to is the main question here. I would say not. But even if one decided that it should, then the announcement of a "change in our published schedules due to circumstances beyond our control" would surely be the form of words least likely to cause further hurt, and least likely to point up the nasty associations that so concerned the television company in the first place.

The really lip-curling thing about this exercise is that ITV comes across as straining to involve itself in an anticipated emotional response to horrific events, and keen to advertise its compassionate credentials in whatever way it can. Such accusations are close indeed to those voiced by Simon Heffer in The Spectator, which got its editor, Boris Johnson into such trouble.

Heffer, in an ill-tempered article inspired by the execution of Ken Bigley in Iraq made the mistake of accusing the people of Liverpool of "wallowing in grief" (as well as grossly misrepresenting the Hillsborough tragedy). But the truth is that "wallowing in grief" is by no means confined to the people of one British city. There are people who love nothing more than a good old self-righteous weep-in all over the country, and frankly, if they want to make gross idiots of themselves at every possible opportunity, then they're welcome to.

What's worrying though is how prescriptive this emotionalism appears to be, and how difficult it is to stand against it. I think we ought to be able to assume that when another human being dies an untimely, cruel or unhappy death, we feel sorry for their loss and their suffering. These days though, unless you're out there declaring your grief in as vast a public arena as possible, it's assumed, on the contrary, that you don't care at all.

But these emotional displays are not a measure of compassion. Instead they are a measure of sentimentality.

This, despite our protestations, is not a compassionate society. It is quite natural for us to feel sorrow as we look at the lovely faces of Anjanette Rossi and her nine-year-old daughter Louella, who both were killed in the Berkshire disaster. But for the family of Brian Drysdale, who was yesterday named as the driver of the car who caused the crash, this is an unimaginably awful time as well. They must shoulder his loss, as well as the knowledge that he was apparently responsible for the deaths and injuries of so many others. Yet on past experience - the vilification of Maxine Carr most recently - those quickest to reach for the tissues are quickest also to condemn less straightforward, more nuanced, victimhood.

This is a trend that is notable not just in times of national mourning or vengeance, but in the entire temper of our times. Interestingly, as Simon Heffer sought to brand Liverpudlians as the sole progenitors of the grief industry, he himself was displaying the flip side of the simplistic emotional narrative from which springs the very phenomenon he professes to hate. For while "innocent victims", decent people caught up in tragic and unique events, are venerated so very publicly, the vulnerable who are always with us - the old, the disturbed, the weak, the poor - are constantly blamed for their own vile and disgusting victimhood.

Heffer hates Liverpool because he perceives it as being full of members of the "underclass", people who are workshy, live on handouts and are the architects of their own misery. He sees it as a city that needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps but somehow isn't doing so. He does not see it as a city that simply has a vast number of problems that a sympathetic ear could discern as not necessarily self-inflicted. Just as the media is striving to point up the simplistic narrative of the Berkshire disaster - by publishing erroneous reports about the car-driver screaming "I want to die" as a "hero cop" tried to persuade him to get off the line - Heffer himself is just as keen to hone his own simplistic narrative. His though, is a narrative that demands not compassion but condemnation, not sentimentality but a total refusal to empathise.

And Heffer is not alone in his macho right-wing callousness. How can a society so caring and compassionate, so sensitive and sweet, that it cannot bear the sight of Jenny Agutter in the wake of a train crash, also be a society which venerates tough rhetoric on all "scroungers", recoils at the suggestion that child criminals need understanding, and still harbours hopes that nearly a hundred people crushed to death a decade and a half ago only had themselves to blame?

Does sentiment help the parents of severely disabled children who, it was published last week, are routinely in serious debt because there are few adequate grants available to help them give their stricken children the equipment that they need? Does it moderate the misery of old age in a "care" home that mocks the very word?

How can it be a society which puts more women, more children, more of the mentally ill in prison than it has ever done before, also shudders at the supposedly inappropriate screening of a children's film?

The most ironic thing about this rail crash is that despite the pronouncements of the RMT, the cries for unmanned level crossing to be somehow abolished, and the demands for the money somewhere to be found to improve technology on our railroads, it is pretty clear that it was the motorist, not a rail fault, that caused it. This man's mental state may be central to our understanding of what caused the crash. Whether or not he was undergoing treatment at the time remains to be seen.

But all the same, it is part of the hypocrisy of our car-loving culture that the front pages of our newspapers know better than to afflict their motoring readers with daily pictures of the children who are killed and maimed each day on our roads. The newspapers are no more likely to do that, than commercial television was likely to announce that in the wake of the Berkshire disaster, it was pulling all the car advertisements from its schedules. The families of car-crash victims weep alone. There are far too many of them, for their suffering to be a rare and awful event. And anyway, saving them would mean changing our own habits.