In Every Corner

Friday, 3 February 2017

There has been a film going round my social media contacts, originating, I think, from a Danish television channel. I liked it very much, once I had got over the resentful expectation that I was about to be manipulated. And I was manipulated, but it was done with skill and the outcome was elegant, not directly of financial benefit to the makers. In the end, I can’t be sure that it is so very different from what I do in writing my book. Here’s a thought, we both are saying, what do you think? There is commerce, somewhere along the line, but not necessarily as a taint, not necessarily as the engine of the act.

The film took a large number of people and divided them into boxes according to categories that made them superficially alike - high wage earners, ex offenders, the elderly. The moderators then asked them to re-form their groups according to non-visible categories; who had been the class clown, who felt lonely, who was a step-parent. It was a simple, clear way to demonstrate something I have tried to articulate in Twice the Speed of Dark. 

The ways our society divides are complex and various. Sometimes the boundaries seem impermeable. Our current political landscape seems hellbent on establishing unbreachable boundaries predicated on faith, even as churches and mosques try to mend the divisions. Perhaps the most damaging and widespread division is between rich and poor, between demographics that would, in simpler times, have been defined by class. The experiences of others, those outside of our group, are perceived as having nothing in common with our own. Our disinclination to get involved with people from a different wealth or class grouping grows exponentially as the difference in access to opportunity and income creates fear and mistrust on all sides. 

We had, I think, thought we were mostly over reacting to differences occurring for so crude a reason as our skin colour. But of course, I am a white woman, living in a liberal town. Racism may not be visible to me on the high street where I live, but it is increasingly clear that this has been far from the experience of non-white friends and fellow citizens. These days the boot in the wasps nest is not a twelve hole, obsessively polished Doc Marten. It is some kind of Oxford lace up on the end of a suited leg. It is frighteningly mainstream. 

This inability to connect outside of our tribe is the central jumping off point for Twice the Speed of Dark. Anna, who is herself bound and emotionally handicapped by unresolved grief, is appalled at the hierarchy of care that the news applies to victims of war and terror, according the most outrage, the greatest presumption of the news consumer’s willingness to care, to those victims nearest to and most like themselves. She is driven by her discomfort with this presumption to write portraits, to claim a human kinship with those far away, those whose lives she may know little about culturally, but whom she feels none the less, she knows. She imagines the dead, recognising what makes them different, and, more importantly, what we all share. 

 

Chapter 8, Twice the Speed of Dark

She fills her thoughts instead with her legion, her tailor-made ghosts. They sadden her yet she is beholden to them, her dead, her ghosts, her numbered souls. Stuck between invented life and real death, a no-man’s land of water and wood and dusty city. She dreads the news, but scours it for further numbers to be added to her new tribe. She looks up lazy points of information, life in Baghdad, life in Afghanistan, life in Somalia. She looks up whether women have businesses, whether houses have glass in the windows. How does an ordinary man live in Northern Pakistan? The first results for that question give information on drone strikes. So her guess is an ordinary man in Northern Pakistan lives at least some of the time in fear. 

How much does the machine of life inform the person? A frightened man is a frightened man in any corner of the world. A disappointed woman, a shy child, a beautiful youth. A hungry soul, a beaten wretch, a pompous fool, they live in every corner. A loving heart, a soothing hand, a graceful arm, an aching back, thinning hair, a generous smile, the beauty of a child’s profile. These things are not changed by whether church is on Sunday or prayers are on Friday, or if god has no claim on any day of the week. There is no impact if houses are wooden or built of stone, if skies are cloudy or the ground too hot for bare feet. These things would exist if the body were clothed in floor length gowns or denim shorts. These things existed in the time of powdered wigs or mammoth hides. They will exist forever.  We and the dead are the same, she thinks. She would know them. She does know them.

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