Back in 2005 I worked in an old factory converted into small office space. Someone once told me that radar was developed in that building, down an alley over the road from the tennis courts of Highbury Fields, but I’ve never seen any evidence to support it. Three years later a pretentious novelist would tell me of how he shrugged off writers’ block by beating a less pretentious writer to a humiliated heap on those same courts, the balls bouncing to an imaginary sonar ping. These facts aren’t really relevant; it’s just another one of those odd coincidences that seem to puddle in my life.
The summer of 2005, there was just the three of us working for this small company in a room within the factory. The intensity of the working environment, the same few people all day every day, was, with hindsight, a little odd. You became too caught up in one another. The boundaries of working life were completely eroded. It was like working with your best mates, or your family: At once brilliant and intensely frustrating.
The telephone rang. I answered. It was one of our clients, just checking in. ‘I wanted to make sure you were all okay.’
That was nice of him, I thought, not yet realising what had happened that morning. The seventh of July, 2005. The day London exploded.
The next morning, the tube was back up and running. I put myself on the Northern Line at London Bridge. I had never seen the carriages so empty at eight o’clock. On a normal morning I had to lever myself into the crush, be crunched up against someone’s armpit, cheek to cheek, face to face, almost an intimate brush of contact between us. On the eighth of July 2005 there were four other people in the carriage. One of whom stood, nervously, against the door. There was a palatable sense of grief, outrage and fear in the air. Tension between us and something unsayable, something not fully understood drove a pressure into my guts which was only alleviated when the doors opened five stops later at Kings Cross.
The attacks in Paris last week reminded me of the London bombings. In many ways, such a connection is absurd. There are a hundred thousand tragedies around the world every single day, but Paris feels closer to home. I don’t know the city as well as I know London, obviously, but it is the place I’ve been too most frequently outside of these shores. Five visits over almost twenty years hardly make it a second home, but it is enough to make it familiar. There are streets I recognise, the geography remains inside my head. I watch a film set in Paris, see the men getting on the Metro and the scene feels hyper-real. The subtle sounds beyond the reach of the microphones, the smells, the temperature; all these things that aren’t conveyed through the screen, my imagination plugs the gaps because it remembers.
Paris’ tragedy seems worse than London’s, at least today. Not just because those killed were targeted for their art, which feels a little close to the bone for any creative person, but because the victims weren’t random. The deaths in London, almost ten years ago, were mindless and horrific, but the individuals weren’t singled out for perceived slights against the perpetrators’ beliefs. To target someone for humour, for making a joke, for satirising something which needs to be reminded, at times, that it shouldn’t take itself so seriously, seems more vicious.
Free speech is a complicated idea. The mindless support of it gives rise to Fox News’ intriguing opinions (“Birmingham is a no-go area for non-Muslims”) and the UKIP brigade’s Political Correctness gone mad fallacy. It is important to remember that there is a difference between free speech and being needlessly rude; there is difference between being humorous or satirising something and being crass, puerile or offensive. One is the carefully constructed, construed, argument or denouncement; the other mindless. Political Correctness, or perhaps reality in Fox News’ case, may be occasionally over-cooked, but it is full of good intentions. The balance between stepping out of its parameters and slipping into something more hazardous, or indeed sending up an opinion by playing it out to the logical conclusion, is a tricky one to strike. The route home from the Edinburgh Festival is littered with failed comics is littered who couldn’t manage it. (Okay, so some of them still, somehow, manage to make a living out this basic failure of humanity; Roy “Chubby” Brown, I’m looking at you).
I’m not very familiar with Charlie Hebdo, but I was struck by the cover of this week’s memorial issue. The racial stereotyping in the cover – despite the otherwise more complex message it was trying to convey – did seem a little lazily simplistic. Even in our visual humour I thought we (as in humanity) had outgrown this sort of thing years ago. As a message of ridicule, I prefer the directness of a series of banners which are from years ago but have returned to the internet recently: stop killing people, you fucking twats.
And yet one doesn’t go around massacring people as a form of criticism. I don’t threaten any number of dire yet, to me, strangely popular authors with physical violence. That’s just madness.
The world has many reasons to be resentful, to feel aggrieved with each other. Citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan are entitled to be seriously cross with the Western allied forces – spearheaded by the USA and UK – who have buggered up their countries for the best part of a generation, even if it was with the best intentions. Devout Muslims around the world are welcome to be irate at a cultural invasion that the internet and satellite television bring. It must be depressing to find your values eroded by Miley Cyrus of all people.
I appreciate all that, and I understand how repellent it must be for the millions of peaceful people to be condemned as something else by the likes of UKIP and Pegida in Germany party, to be blamed by small-minded, frustrated people for all many of things which aren’t your fault. But response has to be to rise above it. People should not descend into the futility of assuming violence will solve anything.
The likes of Nigel Farage think it’s funny to rage against a society of political correctness, but no restraints, no self-control about what we say and do ends in bullets. I don’t mean that the staff of Charlie Hebdo were to blame – humour, done well, and satire, done rightly, should transcend offense. You can use humour to break the mould, to say controversial things, without being cruel – you use humour to create a mirror in which people become disgusted by themselves.
The correct response is not violence, but well argued deconstructions, or – even better – satirising the satirists, returning fire with your own jokes.
Instead, it ended on Friday in the clatter of machine gun fire around Paris. The tumbling spent bullet cases, white hot, coming to rest on the ground which, over the centuries, has seen more than enough blood. Hundreds of years of bigotry and futile petulance, of hatred and violence over things as immaterial as thrones and marginal variances in belief and supposed slight to honour, and we still find ourselves stuck in the same cycle. Another twenty bodies join the countless, mourned today, forgotten eventually. This isn’t revenge. This isn’t anything other than a waste.
Read the sign. Stop killing people. Say something funny instead.
With thanks to the thoughts of Patrick Hudson.