I try to do work, but my mind keeps going back to Woolwich. It shocks and horrifies in so many ways that the brain feels battered, trying to take it all in. It is, most of all, so un-British. A man ranting on a city street, his hands shining with blood, fanatical hatred in his eyes, his familiar London accent at odds with the extremist platitudes falling from his mouth is not what one expects, in this country.
We are not the nation of warm beer and cricket and maiden ladies cycling to church which John Major once nostalgically conjured up. I’m not sure Britain ever was that, even in the lost age to which Major was clearly harking. Blighty is, however, a battered old warrior, who has been round the block more than once. Extremes have not flourished here, in recent history.
It might have been a wild, untamed place, centuries ago, when the Marcher Lords went untrammelled and kings and their favourites were murdered in unspeakable ways. There were crazed extremes when the country divided into Roundhead and Cavalier. But when Europe was torn with internecine strife in the 19th century, Britain did not join that particular party. There was no 1815, no 1848; no barricades in the streets of London as there were in Paris or Vienna. (Admittedly, the British did protest for specific reasons: they rioted over the unjust Corn Laws, and marched for the Chartists. But these were movements of quite a different kidney.)
Later, in the twentieth century, when the Fascist and Communist movements roiled Europe and Russia, the equivalents of right and left here petered out into damp squibs. The Blackshirts could gain little purchase. The Communist Party of Great Britain was characterised through much of its history by squabbling and swerves in policy, before it finally disbanded.
In its recent history, Britain really does seem to exemplify the middling sort. In contemporary life, there is absolutely nothing to compare to the God, Gays and Guns wing of the Republican party in America. No member of the House of Lords would ever take to the floor to insist that the world was created six thousand years ago and that this should be taught in schools, as has been expressed by august senators. (This is not swishy one-upmanship; Blighty has other weaknesses to American strengths.)
There is, even now, in the sometimes intemperate age of the internet, a sense of restraint, pragmatism, stoicism. The best way to be beloved in Britain is not to be passionate about any cause (this is considered a little too much and dicing with dullness) but to be ironical and self-deprecating. Humorous self-deprecation may be the defining characteristic of ordinary decent Britons. Even in usual conversation, the centre holds; the Goldilocks principle applies. The classic British rejoinder to the polite question of How are you? is Not too bad, thank you.
So what happened yesterday had layers of ramifications to its shock. It was not just an horrific murder in itself; it was The Extreme, walking and talking on a London street. And then, out on the internet, other extremes began to join in. Send them all home (who? where?); time for Britain to grow a backbone; Enoch Powell was right. This last one made me genuinely puzzled. ‘But,’ I said to my mother, ‘the Tiber is clearly not foaming with blood.’ Some of the comments were so vile I do not have the heart to write them down here.
The English Defence League and their cohorts began to join in. There was a strong flavour of Take Our Country Back. From whom was not explicitly stated; the foreign, the other, the in any way different, I could only assume. The irony was that the killer who spoke to the camera was a Briton, born in Romford, whilst the incredibly brave woman who talked calmly to him, as he held his bloody knife, who tried to distract his attention away from vulnerable mothers and children, was not British at all. Are we supposed to send this extraordinary person back too?
Just as I began to despair, to believe that my reading of the British character was all wrong, that perhaps it was the nuts and lunatics and extremes who now held sway, the gentle voice of reason began to assert. People called for calm, begged not to meet hatred with hatred. One man who lived in the neighbourhood said he was just going to get on with his ordinary life, because that was the British way.
It is hard to remain reasonable in the face of such visceral horror. I suppose it is human, in some ways, to want to find a scapegoat, demonise The Other, identify a neat, convenient group to blame. But extrapolation is a dangerous and misleading game. One Muslim does not mean all Muslims. By this warped logic, one might as well say that since 93% of the prison population is male, all men are criminals.
There is also the almost congenital inability to process risk. When something like this happens, there is always a shout for hard-line tactics, the cry to ramp up the war on the terrorists. But in the cool halls of statistics, where fact lives, you are six times more likely to die in your bath than be killed by a fanatical fundamentalist. (Latest figures: annual deaths in bathtubs – 29; averaged annual deaths over the last ten years by terror attacks – 5. Those numbers are from England and Wales; there do not seem to be national figures.) Are we to insist that everyone take showers? That is before one even goes into the big numbers, the ones that run into annual thousands – road deaths, suicides, poisoning, falls.
I think the thing that makes me saddest is that in amidst all the noise, the central tragedy gets lost. There was a brave man who gave honourable service to his country who is no more. He will have family and friends and comrades who mourn him. The ragged shouting voices do not honour their grief or his passing, but merely try to hijack a human loss for their own, frightened purposes.
Just one picture today, of these Scottish hills, which always act as consolation for me when the inexplicable happens: