Sunday, May 30, 2010

today : crime and the city

As the 'Crossbow Cannibal' case still unfolds, and still appears high in the headlines, it is all anyone is talking about in Bradford. There's not too much to say really, apart from sympathising with the victims, pointing out that they didn't deserve their fate. Then there's the mention of the Ripper, and the fact that Bradford only ever seems to be in the national news for negative reasons. The Ripper, The Fire, The Riots, The Sharon Bezhenivsky shooting, and now this.

On the way back from dropping my car off for a service yesterday, that's what the taxi driver and I discussed. In the background the local radio played vox pops of people saying much the same.

I spoke to a couple of friends. One works at the University and his journey to and from work took him past the cordoned off areas where the police are still searching. The TV satellite trucks and occasional news helicopter are, even after a few short days, routine. The reports on Saturday of a new set of body parts found in the River Aire inspired more pictures of the scene on the news channels and more activity was evident when I drove past there on the way to and from a friend's house on Saturday afternoon.

But there is something else. However macabre and unpleasant the reason, there is a measure of excitement to be had from being physically close to the news. Even in the modern age where media so saturates our society that giving an on-mic or on-camera interview almost comes as second nature to members of the public (in the past I remember that people behaved differently when cameras and microphones were around. There was lots more mindless waving behind the reporter's head, and whatever the topic, the general public would intersperse their comments with outbursts of nervous laughter), the sight of the TV trucks and the fact that familiar, routine places are up there on the screen, is to a degree glamorous.

A few years ago I was teaching the first lesson after lunch when we heard a number of sirens fairly close by. Soon after, a police helicopter swooped low over the school and hovered low for several minutes a few hundred yards away. It was a hot summer day and the classroom windows were open. The noise from the helicopter was pretty deafening and the lesson plan went completely awry.

It was only later that, on the way home, I found out what had happened. The local petrol station, just up the road from the school, was completely cordoned off and police were everywhere. It was the one I'd been to at lunchtime to buy a sandwich and a drink, and that particular day I'd also volunteered to collect cigarettes for a few of the staff. Stopping off at another nearby shop - the pharmacy, I soon found out what had happened. Two women waiting to collect prescriptions told me. A car containing two people had pulled in to fill up. As the driver went into the shop to pay for the fuel, another car screeched onto the forecourt. Two men got out, approached the first car and fired several shot into it's side window, instantly killing the man inside. They then calmly got back into their own car and screeched away in a haze of blue tyre smoke.

It was a drug-gang execution. Another customer's car took a a couple of bullets but there were no injuries.

After a couple of days, things just carried on as normal. I'd often stop there on a morning to buy cigarettes or a drink. Many times I'd use it to fill up. And of course, I parked on the exact spot where the murder happened. The exact spot where someone was shot in the head several times in cold-blood. Executed.

Even now, a few years later, I occasionally drive past or stop off there.

At the time, the proximity to myself, my colleagues and my students, genuinely disturbed me. The petrol station shop relied on the school for much of its trade. There was a daily, pretty much constant, stream of people going from school to the shop and back. Even though the rules said they should not have, plenty of students would walk the few hundred yards from the school during free lessons or break-times, to buy their own drinks, sandwiches and cigarettes. I was there that day, just about 15 minutes before the murder. Any of my colleagues could have wandered or driven up there to buy some mints or matches or milk.

I am currently a witness to a crime myself. I can't really talk about it as it is ongoing,but it's a crime of violence. I saw and heard some stuff and the police asked me if I would act as a witness. Talking to the cop who took my statement he said that about 60 percent of the cases he was called out to involved violence. Domestic assaults, drunken fights, people beating others in the street, arguments between neighbours, gang stuff. If we look for it there is plenty of violence around. Lots of it. We like to pretend that we live in a cosy little world. Civilisation, if you like. But it's all a question of perspective. Ask a detective, or an A&E doctor and they will tell you that civilisation is not quite as civilised as we imagine.

Cases like the recent Bradford murders are fascinating because they remind us of how close we are to the things we don't like to contemplate.

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