A knife is drawn; a window is smashed. A woman runs away from her bewildered partner, standing, arms held wide apart, in a park. A lightning bolt hits a house in which three unhappy people live, killing the unhappiest of the three. A senior politician exposes himself in public. A hedge fund manager leaves a bar without paying. Four teenagers run down a suburban shopping street, smash a window and grab handfuls of trainers in broad daylight. A spy's naked body is folded into a sports bag; it is zipped up, and he shortly dies. Someone enters a rented holiday flat, lifts a sleeping child from their bed and drives away.
When a disjuncture occurs in our humdrum daily lives, of violence, cruelty or injustice, the observers naturally want to make sense of it. Why are our shop windows being smashed? Why has this child in particular been abducted? What is the reason behind this or that death? And we make sense through turning it into a story. A narrative, with emotions, motives, villains and solutions, smoothing over the chaos of life, and bringing redemption where there may be no meaning at all.
Two life events in the news this week have consistently held out the possibility of being turned into stories. A unique and bizarre event occurs; investigation reveals more possibilities; the guilty are identified, and the innocent ruled out; an explanation or a recovery provides redemption for suffering. That is the way the story ought to go. In the case of the death of the MI6 spy Gareth Williams, and the five-year-ago abduction of Madeleine McCann, the possibilities of storytelling in the conventional sense have broken down. We may have to face the fact that these are not stories, but life.
The desire to tell a story about Madeleine McCann's disappearance is universal. It was an overwhelming red-top preoccupation, and its events fell into the structures of narratology effortlessly. The innocent parents, blamed unfairly; the purity of the child; the disappearance at the edge of civilisation, as the red-tops saw it, were very much to the point of this narrative.
Child abduction is a very rare thing, and the child abduction which promises to turn into a gripping narrative of a conventional sort is rarer still. A 2004 paper by the Home Office reports that successful child abductions by strangers formed only 9 per cent of child abduction cases in 2002-3 – 59 cases. In only 12 cases was the motive sexual, and in only two were serious sexual assaults carried out. In 63 per cent of cases, the victim was recovered within 24 hours. It is worth remembering, too, that "child" here may mean a 15-year-old boy. Not that that lessens the gravity of the crime, but it would, apparently, lessen the narrative power for the audience.
In interesting ourselves in stories of child abduction, we are attending to what Browning called "the dangerous edge of things" – what hardly ever happens. Also, shockingly, it does seem as if another factor might lessen the narrative potential. The Home Office study found that a disproportionate number of victims of abduction by strangers were black – 17 per cent. But it is, apparently, very much harder to interest a red-top newspaper in black victims of crime.
Compare another case, very similar to the abduction of Madeleine McCann. A small black child, Ames Glover, disappeared from Southall in 1990, abducted by a stranger. The case was not much reported on at the time, and has not become well known since. Wikipedia, as good an indicator of public interest as any other, has an article of 7,500 words on the McCann case, and nothing at all on Ames Glover.
The little boy has never been found. And, looking at the circumstances, it seems as if one of the reasons for the public obscurity is that you can't make as good a story out of the Glover incident. It did not occur as a tragedy in paradise, but in Southall. The parents were not rock-solid respectable marrieds, but had already split up. And, I'm sorry to say, it seems to be harder to make a good story out of a missing black child than out of one with blond hair and blue eyes. But both the McCann case and the Glover are equal tragedies. Twenty years after Ames Glover's disappearance, his mother Shanika Ondaatje said, heartbreakingly: "I have lived in the hope that one day I will find out where he is or what became of him." She said it to the Hounslow Chronicle. No one else was interested.
Somewhere or other, Palmerston warns politicians against the dangers of neglecting the narrative argument. Narrative is how we understand the world. We can't be expected to understand the doings of politicians without a story to follow. Nor to make sense of a story without an ending, a crime without a solution and a gratifying villain.
Both public and private life is much more complex than that, in reality – too much has to be left out of the account to allow for a compelling narrative to take place. We cram real-life events into the rough shape of stories that we remember and recognise. That's probably OK. What isn't acceptable is to devote our care, attention and energies to the event with what we consider the best story; the one with the best chance of a satisfying outcome for the hungry audience.
That desire led, in the early days of the McCann investigation, to the naming as a suspect of a local man who did nothing but look like a villain. In other cases, such as the monstrous conviction of the totally innocent Stefan Kiszko for the murder of Lesley Molseed in 1975, the mass desire for a narrative conclusion – the redemptive final chapter of a murder mystery – has led to the destruction of another life, an odd but blameless individual.
The urges of narrative have their own place, and their own dignity. But life does not always conform to its structures. Sometimes a grotesque act happens for no reason anyone could foresee. Sometimes the reasons, as in the death of Gareth Williams, are totally opaque to everyone who knew him during his life, and to everyone who took an interest afterwards. Sometimes there is no final chapter in the library, with all the suspects waiting for the villain to be unmasked. Sometimes you never find out what happens in the end. No – forget that "sometimes". There is no end, and there is no full and complete explanation of what happens, to any of us.Reuse content