Melanie McDonagh: The shadows cast by unresolved traumas

The release of Dr Kelly’s post-mortem report may not serve its intended effect, which was to bring about the desired end to any modern trauma –closure
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The Independent Online

If there's one thing we've become good at, it's living in the present tense.

The internet, instant news, instant updates, means that no sooner does something happen than we're on the case, Twittering, sharing our reactions, in some cases driving the events we're observing in a flurry of interactivity, everything from The X Factor to the Iranian democracy protests.

So it's a curious feeling being hauled back five, seven years to what seems like another world. If we've got a dodgy sense of history – this week we learned that some schoolchildren think the Spanish Armada is tapas – about the relatively distant past, it's also true that it takes very little time for quite recent events to seem very far off indeed.

One of those events was the death in 2003 of Dr David Kelly, which occasioned any number of conspiracy theories. That affair seems like another world, but it was brought right into the present when the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, yesterday authorised the issue of the post-mortem report into the death. The move seems intended to quash the conspiracy theories, to help us move on from Iraq, something this Government seems as keen for us to do as its predecessor.

As it happens, Dr Kelly's post-mortem report says that his injuries were consistent with self-inflicted blade wounds. Hmm. Only in August, several distinguished medical practitioners wrote to The Times to say that it would have been very odd indeed if he were actually to have died from a haemorrhage, unless he suffered from something like leukaemia.

The release of the post-mortem report, then, may not serve its intended effect, which was to bring about the desired end to any modern trauma – closure. It may simply have given a new spin to a long-running obsession. But if there is a lesson here, it is that there is no mileage nowadays in withholding information from the public – the post-mortem was originally suppressed to save Dr Kelly's family's feelings. All that did was confirm suspicions of conspiracy. We may be just picking scabs off an old wound, but it had to happen sometime.

And what of that other, grim instance this week of being revisited by the unwelcome past? The inquest into the deaths of 52 people in the London bombings has brought the events of 7/7 home to us all over again. Some of the bereaved families were opposed to this inquest – though most had been anxious for an official inquiry immediately after the event. Several felt, quite justifiably, that, since we know pretty well everything about the bombing, there really isn't much point to it.

Dania Gorodi, whose younger sister, Mihaela, died with 25 other people in the Russell Square Tube attack, said: "It's not going to resolve any issues. I don't think it can bring anything except closure. And if the only purpose is closure, it should have happened sooner ... it took me years to deal with the anger. I don't want to feel angry again."

John Falding, whose girlfriend, Anat Rosenberg, was killed on the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square, felt the whole thing was redundant. "I don't see the point of the inquest," he said. "... We know the verdict will be unlawful killing. It can't be anything else."

Well, quite so. But it's not that simple. One feature of contemporary news coverage is that its scope is rather greater than our capacity to absorb it. Of course, we found out a great deal about the horror of what happened underground immediately after the bombing. But there was simply too much information, too much comment and analysis at the time, to take it all in. We moved on all too swiftly from the event itself, to the survivors' stories, to the attribution of blame, to the analysis of the causes. In that tumbling succession of news and visual images, quite a lot got lost. I followed the event as closely as anyone at the time, but I didn't realise, as we found in this week, that some survivors had picked their way through the wrecked carriages, taking photographs of the carnage as they went. Makes you think, that.

I didn't know, or I had forgotten, that some of the victims were left dying in agony for half an hour because there were health and safety regulations that forbade firemen from descending into the abyss to help the wounded, even though they may have wanted to. That's the power of an event coming back to haunt us; you can take things in more slowly second time round, and feel the anger all over again.

And it's salutary to realise that, even if the rest of us had moved on from 7/7, for survivors, time does not march on so readily. One testimony this week was from an insurance broker, Michael Henning, who was 10 feet away from one of the bombers when the bomb exploded. "It feels completely real to me now as we speak," he told the inquest. "I can feel the right hand side of my face tense up right now. I can feel the heat."

That sense of the past being here in the present makes a mockery of the idea of easy closure. And it makes our present fixation with moving on as rapidly as possible from any disagreeable event seem very shallow indeed.

We can bury the past, it seems, only when it has been honestly explored and given its own post-mortem.