One criticism that is often levelled at academics is that they are very detached from the world they are seeking to explain. Quite often this feels very accurate in my case, although I’d just be pleased to have the term ‘academic’ levelled at me.
Most of my studies are split between Sunderland University and my little study at home in Walker – the garden has increasingly replaced the office in the last few months. I am constantly aware that in these relaxed and cut off surroundings it is easy to become completely detached from the reality of what you are studying. Namely, crime and execution. This week however, that dramatically changed.
While reading the Newcastle Town Council debate in 1844 on the efficacy and failings of capital punishment, on which I blogged last week, I was sent a message by an old friend saying “I think someone has been stabbed right outside your back garden.” Naturally, I was very shocked and it says as much about the information age as it does about me, that my immediate reaction was to search the internet rather than step out of the front door.
On searching online I found that a 24-year-old man had been reported stabbed on the cycle path directly behind my house – a story that soon spread to the Nationals – some even included photos of my house! My immediate reaction was a mixture of guilt and relief. Initially I thought how lucky I was, as myself and my girlfriend walk that path everyday and pass that exact spot. Then I was consumed with a sense of guilt that I hadn’t seen it or been there to help in any way, I had been splitting my reading between the garden and the office all morning and had been blissfully unaware that this scene had been unfolding.
The body was believed to have been found at 11am and this is on a very busy public cycleway (part of the coast to coast route). What has since unfolded is that the suspicion of ‘murder’ has been dropped and police are seeking ‘no third party.’Either way this is a tragic story and I do not wish to dwell or speculate on any of the details further. What I do want to mention is my reaction and how it has informed my approach to my study.
One of the key debates regarding the press, pamphlets and printed media in the period I am covering, especially in the mid to late C18th is the rise of more sensationalist reporting on crime. There are many reasons for this, from the lifting of various duties on papers allowing a flourishing of the press to an increasingly literate audience base. Whatever the reason, crime was immensely popular and very much still is. Arguably, it was ever thus,
It is Sunday afternoon….you put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of The World…In these blissful circumstances, what is it you most want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.
George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder., Tribune, 15th Feb 1946.
This insatiable desire to find out the details of crimes is often carelessly disconnected from the reality of crime. Several commentators have talked of a sort of pornographisation of crime, especially with regards to particularly gory crimes.¹ There is something about being directly confronted with the reality of crime that throws the horror of it into sharp relief. There is nothing salacious or exciting about someone losing their life in such circumstances and there is no getting away from what an awful waste of a life any young death is.
Another thing that this incident made me realise was how quickly my subconscious mind made assumptions about my immediate surroundings. I say this, realising this may present me in a bad light – but I feel it is important for understanding the effects of crime. After brief reflection, I put aside all previous pleasant and very enjoyable and safe experiences of my immediate surroundings and told myself that it was now an unsafe place to go. I also began to look differently at things as i travelled round in case I saw anything suspicious. I find this partly informative about myself and partly informative with regards to my study as it is often the pressure of ‘perceived’ crime, however accurate, that leads to changes in the law. My thought process was coloured entirely by speculation and as it turned out, misreported facts, rather than personal experience.
It is exactly this sort of fear and unchecked paranoia that makes me glad we live in a country that has removed the death penalty and for that matter heavily licensed the ownership of weapons. It is not to say that an emotional response to crime is not valid, at the very least it is unavoidable, but it is essential to have a system that checks against our most reactionary responses.
It’s back to the garden office for me.
1.See Vic Gatrell, The Hanging Tree
This weekend I was in London performing my duties as the best man for one of my oldest friends. The day was a great success and included a boat trip up the River Thames past Tower Bridge (sadly i didn’t get time to pop in for my studies) and onto the Dickens Inn – it seems even in my time off I can’t escape my period of study.
It’s a trite thing to say, but the irony of doing a speech was not lost on me, given that I study last dying speeches that are often presented in front of rowdy and sometimes drunken crowds, by terrified and nervous orators. For a brief moment i felt their pain more acutely than normal, but luckily i did not die on the stage.
Finally, I want to say a special thanks to my actual oldest (in years known) friend Clare and her boyfriend Riccardo for their hospitality in London. They have put me up twice now in Angel and their kindness is greatly appreciated.