Paul Vallely: If life makes no sense, we resort to detail

When bad stuff happens, as in Cumbria last week, we can't resist inserting ourselves into the story

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It started, for us, with a phone call. It was a relative from far away who knew exactly where we were on holiday in the Lake District.

There's a madman on the rampage with a gun, they said. He has shot people all across Cumbria and the police have told everyone to stay indoors in certain areas, including Hawkshead. Frankly, I did not believe that the tiny village where we regularly rent a holiday cottage could be included. It is so small as not to be on many people's maps, unless they are looking for the little place where William Wordsworth went to school. But I put on the television and there it was. He was in Boot, half an hour away. We were one of four named villages where he might come next. We texted all the family to get back from the village and locked the doors.

Within an hour the man was dead and we were back in the garden, though it didn't feel quite right to go fishing as we'd planned. In any case there was something else to do. We had to start, like everyone else, to make sense of what had happened.

An hour later our next-door neighbours returned, looking shaken. Over the garden wall they told us the tale of how they had been in a queue to get over the narrow bridge near Boot when the gunman had careered over it. His car had one tyre missing and was driving on the metal of the wheel. He smashed into the car at the front of the queue. Not long afterwards he returned, in a different car from which the back window had been smashed out. Our neighbours had been taken into the hall at Dalegarth station, surrounded by armed police, and told to keep away from the windows. At one point they had been told to dive behind the counter.

We were greedy for all this detail. Yet even as I was listening another conversation came back to me which I'd had with several psychologists not long after a previous outrage. We were discussing the kinds of things people had said to me on the streets of Leeds in July 2005 after four local youths from there had gone down to London and exploded suicide bombs on the Underground. People had said very odd things in the aftermath. Now here I was doing the same thing.

The first thing about situations of societal trauma is that the words pour out. Speech fills the vacuum that is created when everyday assumptions are shattered. Even post-modern existentialists find it hard to accept that bad stuff just happens. The human instinct is for narrative. So we seek sense through story. We turn human stories and human faces into moral fables. We crave facts to create links where none seem to exist. We rewind the past and, through the lens of hindsight, imbue it with extra significance. Our urge is to live, as Wordsworth put it, "not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory".

Indeed, my experience of interviewing people over the years, is that people have the need to say something, even if that something does not make much sense. We often resort to clichés. When I was a young reporter, whenever there was a fire the local paper would always quote some eye-witness as saying "it was like Dante's Inferno" – though the acquaintance of the local population with early Renaissance Italian literature may have been slight.

The clichés do not have to be accurate but they add a vigour and vivacity to language that would otherwise elude many speakers. We navigate by exaggeration, an evolutionary psychologist told me, and we all know how to decode such linguistic devices.

After traumatic incidents such as those in Cumbria, we all have to make new sense of a world which no longer coheres in the way it did yesterday. Because everyone is doing the same thing, there is some comfort in the shared experience and safety of being part of a crowd.

People become closer through the exchange. The tellers enjoy the telling because it confers status in a society that values gossip. The more dramatic the piece of information, the greater that kudos. Our instinct speciously suggests that closeness to an event can be emotional as well as physical. It is why we place value on the reported testimony of a friend of a friend.

We are all very over-impressed by personal contact, another psychologist had told me. The purveyor of gossip is a person of power, someone to be respected, which often gives a competitive edge to the process, with people trying to outdo the stories of others. For the listener, information about a big threat is desired because having knowledge – any knowledge – makes us feel safer. It restores the illusion of control.

Detail is important. The man next door told us the make of the cars the gunman had been driving. He told us how the man whose car had been damaged got out to remonstrate with him, and demand the gunman's insurance details, but – how fortuitously – the car had careered on. Such detail is what establishes a relationship between our everyday normality and the momentousness of what has just happened. It is part of coming to terms with the disturbing experience of having discovered that evil wears an everyday face and lives among us.

Those who knew the gunman can be heard going through the same process on television: "He was a quiet, pleasant guy who liked a drink and enjoyed scuba-diving and motor-sports" – that is, just like the rest of us. And yet he was a multiple killer.

Repeatedly, the contrast is between the banality of those assertions of normalcy and the sheer improbability of what has emerged, which shatters our working assumption that other people are always like us. When we find they are not – or can flip into doing something as incomprehensible as Derrick Bird did – it taps into our deepest fears. We tell our stories to fill the gaps left by those fears.

And we drag ourselves into those stories by adding unrelated minutiae from our own daily existence into the experience. It is striking how many speakers weave into their story apparently unrelated details from their personal circumstance. "I heard about it while I was in the Post Office," said another neighbour, wilfully underscoring the contrast between everyday normality and these extraordinary events.

People want, a clinical psychologist told me, to integrate themselves somehow into this big event. By contrast, those who have genuine links to the gunman, like his friends and relatives, crave dissociation rather than the reverse. They avoid the spotlight or restrict themselves to expressions of surprise and shock.

For the rest of us it is, as the local lad Wordsworth put it, an intimation of mortality. One sunny Wednesday morning, 12 people got out of bed and made plans for the day as the rest of us did. But they did not go to bed that night. "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting", the poet wrote in his ode Intimations of Immortality, and there are "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears".

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