If you don’t come from Cumbria, or perhaps the north-west, though you may have visited the Lake District you probably won’t have been to Whitehaven. It tries hard these days to be a tourist destination: it’s one of only two “gem towns” in Cumbria, the other being Cockermouth, famous for Wordsworth and the terrible floods of 19th November 2009 when the Derwent and the Cocker broke their banks. Whitehaven’s right-angled, grid-plan of streets is thought to have been the model for New York; John Paul Jones attacked it in 1778; Washington’s grandmother, Mildred Gale, was born there; it boasts some of the finest Georgian buildings in the country; it has hosted a maritime festival in its harbour since 1999. But it’s outside the Lake District and it’s urban. In Grasmere or Ambleside, strolling up Catbells or pushing hard up Stickle Ghyll, riding the pleasure boat on Windermere or sitting in a teashop in Hawkshead, you can pretend the urban world is remote; you can act out, gently of course, the fantasy that this is the real England; a rural place, a quiet place, a place of healthy pursuits, fresh air, hardiness and heartiness. You can forget there are such things as ASBOs and you can get nostalgic for the comforting beauty of nature. At the time of the July 1981 riots in Moss Side and Toxteth, Willie Whitelaw, interviewed in his home in Penrith, just an hour’s drive north of Whitehaven, said that when he saw the events on television he wondered what was happening to England, but then he looked out of his window and surveyed the acres of his beautiful estate and knew that was the real England. Cumbria is a place of fantasy, as its best writers know.
When I qualified as a teacher in 1977 my first job interview was at Whitehaven High School. I naively imagined it might be pleasant to live on the edge of the Lake District: walking in the hills every weekend, cycling round Coniston, being close to nature. I’d been brought up to value the hills. My grandfather’s brother, Bruce Clucas, was a poor man’s Wainwright who once encountered the editor of the Lancashire Evening Post on top of a peak and challenged him to publish guides to local walks. Over twenty years or so, great-uncle Bruce’s routes appeared weekly and were collected into little volumes, Thirty Rambles, Forty Rambles, which sold like Kendal Mint Cake to the working classes who wanted to escape the factories, the smoke, the terraced streets, the noise, the rowdy pubs, the vulgarity of industrial towns like Preston where he lived and worked. He started as a part-timer in Horrockses Mill at the age of 12 and retired at 65. He was a typical working-class autodidact and had a neat little library of several hundred serious books. Into his 90s he was still signing up for weekend courses on Love In The Novels of Thomas Hardy or The Industrial Revolution in Lancashire. The walking doesn’t seem to have done him any harm: he lived to be 99.
My interview coincided with the Windscale inquiry of 1977 which took place in Whitehaven Civic Hall. BNFL wanted to establish an oxide fuel reprocessing plant (THORP) at the Windscale facility and seemed to be facing little opposition until an article in the Daily Mirror in October 1975 got public disquiet simmering. Peter Shore, Secretary of State for the Environment set up the inquiry and appointed Mr Justice Roger Parker to head it. It ran from June to November 1977 and granted BNFL everything they asked. Shore, very cleverly rejected the BNFL application for full acceptance of the report which was published in March 1978 and invited parliament to debate it, thereby granting the company putative democratic authority. Sellafield, as it is today, employs many in Whitehaven. Derrick Bird worked there as a joiner till he was sacked for minor theft in 1990. He was in his early thirties at the time. His father was still alive. He was still married to Linda. There were no disputes over wills. Theft from workplaces is of course common. People tend not to see it as theft. But when you work in a nuclear installation taking things home is a bit different from dropping a few pens in your handbag or shoving a half a ream of paper up your jumper. The people of West Cumbria depend on an industry mocked in Cumbrian novelist John Murray’s masterpiece Radio Activity as “the biggest liar in the world”. Murray once lived in Cleator Moor, just a few miles from Whitehaven. One of his friends is the writer Frederick Lightfoot whose parents were the publicans of The Hound Inn, Frizington where ordinary bloke Derrick Bird used to drink. Now in the north of the county, in Brampton, close to the Debatable Lands he loves so much, Murray is the author of eight novels and a collection of stories, Pleasure, which won the Dylan Thomas award in 1988 . He co-edited the fiction magazine Panurge with David Almond, the children’s writer whose Skellig was a great success. Apart from his time at Oxford where he studied Sanskrit and a brief spell in London, Murray has lived all his life in Cumbria. His novels are set there. He knows its many accents inside out. He dislikes the Lake District, stays away from Carlisle, has little affinity with the West Cumbria where he grew up but loves Brampton and north Cumbria. His novels imaginatively render the life of this big, remote county and its odd characters and connect it to the world at large. In his latest, The Legend of Liz and Joe, Joe Gladstone runs a guest house whose would-be occupants have to write an essay to gain admittance, Joe not wishing to cater to the dull or ignorant. On its first page is the line “…and be assured that some of those slavering countrymen will only be happy when they have potshotted more or less everything that moves.” This is in response to an hysterical letter in the local media about the scourge of grey squirrels. The narrator recalls when the reds were just as sought after. In Cumbria, shooting is a solution.
If you think Cumbria is a quiet, twee place populated by gentle, uncomplicated souls remote from the corruptions and machinations of the city, read Murray’s novels. Their hilarious plots are complemented by lunatic or near-lunatic characters. Nowhere will you find the tourist board image of good folk in boots and anoraks heading off for a healthy day on the fells or replenishing their energy with a cream tea as the sun sets behind Skiddaw. Cumbria, like everywhere is a real place and a locale of the mind. The events of 2nd June brought the two into collision. How could such things happen in a peaceful, rural county ? How could such things be done by an ordinary bloke ?
I took the train from Preston the day before my interview in 1977. I remember feeling pleased I’d found a job to apply for in such a nice place, though I’d never been to Whitehaven. The Lake District I knew quite well. My first holiday independent of my family was at the age of fourteen in 1965 when Pete Southworth and I packed our saddlebags and cycled up to Ambleside for a week’s youth hostelling. We covered sixty or seventy miles on our first day, but after that the distances declined dramatically. We met other teenagers and did what teenagers like to do: we hung out. We were all supposed to be walking or cycling, but the attraction of wasting hours doing nothing but being together and talking ( about nothing) was far stronger than the desire to conquer peaks or clock up miles. Most of us were urban: Preston, Birmingham, Chester-le-Street, Newcastle-under-Lyne, Leeds; we exchanged stories about the places we lived. It was exciting to know young people all over the country were doing the same things, part of the same culture; much more exciting than tea shops and cagoules. And there were girls. This was the first time I’d been away from the admonition of parents and teachers in mixed company. The possibility of a snog was ever-present. But it didn’t happen. I remember well one of the lads we met. A few years older than us, he was a fan of Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and modelled the quiff he was endlessly combing on his hero. He sang Kramer’s songs all the time too and though he never said so, obviously imagined himself a future pop star. I’d never met anyone who so obviously acted out the fantasy that was in millions of young heads. I didn’t like him. I found him vain, cynical and arrogant. But he got to snog the girls.
Two years later I went to the Lakes for a walking holiday with my mates Pete Nightingale and Ian Carter. We went swimming in Rydal Water and when I came out, numb with cold, I found I’d gashed my foot. A girl at the youth hostel who was training to be a nurse in Sunderland patched me up. We sat on the grass in the grounds and she cleaned the wound with antiseptic before putting on butterfly bandages. She told me it really needed stitches and I should have had a tetanus jab. She was older than me and very calm and sweet. I fell in love with her for the afternoon because she was pretty and kind. But I didn’t get to snog her. We drank under-age pints in the Salutation in Ambleside and stumbled back to the dorm feeling very grown up. Couples disappeared from the hostel common-room into the night and there was talk of heavy petting. My boots didn’t get muddy.
Nevertheless, sitting in the rocking carriage as it made its way north, I was still prey to the myth of the Lake District idyll. I was travelling in the direction of simplicity and authenticity, away from the dirty urban, the rush, the noise, the posturing, the pub fights, the racism, the football hooligans, the high-rise flats and small-town small-mindedness. I was heading for Wordsworth’s country. When Wordsworth was told the Lakes couldn’t match the Alps he said: “Don’t confuse sublimity with magnitude.” I was bound for sublimity. I’d booked into a little hotel and the first person I met after checking in was a young scientist giving evidence to the Windscale inquiry. He was absolutely opposed to THORP. He considered the inquiry a joke. He made me feel very ignorant because I didn’t understand the science and hadn’t kept abreast of the inquiry. I had a drink with him in the hotel bar and then went to explore the town. Talking to him had made me slightly gloomy, or at least dispelled the mood of the train journey. Here I was in Whitehaven and what was going on ? According to the young scientist a whitewash and a stitch-up to let the powerful interests of BNFL prevail. Some sublimity.
What did I expect to find in Whitehaven ? There are some places which though small are intriguing, but I walked from one end to the other in minutes and found nothing to make me feel it had that quality. Exploring every street in the town centre took no time at all. Just about everything was shut. Few people were about. This was small, small town and I quickly got the feeling it wasn’t the kind of place where there were disparate communities and the possibility of getting to know a like-minded circle. By the time I’d walked round for an hour and had a half in an empty pub, I was pretty sure it wasn’t for me. There were clear signs of economic decline and none of imagination. Those silly sentiments I’d had on the train evaporated. I went back to my hotel room knowing if I was offered the job the next day, I’d have to turn it down. There were four of us for interview, one was a garrulous young woman who had been educated in the school and felt she was the front-runner. I liked the place. It had a very good feel: serious yet relaxed. The pupils were well-behaved and polite and you could tell from their faces and demeanour they were a pretty happy lot. The Headteacher was pleasant too: the interview was informal. I kept wondering when the chat was going to end and the interview proper begin. And then it was over. They offered me the job and were disappointed when I had to say no. I explained why: I didn’t think I could live in Whitehaven. I’d thought being close to the Lakes would appeal to me, but the town was a place I couldn’t belong. I was sorry, but I didn’t think I’d be happy there. In those days, you got expenses for attending interviews, otherwise I’d’ve rung early and said I was withdrawing. On the train home I thought about looking for jobs in Manchester or London. When I walked out of the station, Preston seemed a metropolis in comparison to Whitehaven.
Close-knit communities: one of the many clichés that have informed the reporting of the events of June 2nd in West Cumbria. The assumption is that in such communities people find support and comfort. You don’t expect, therefore, men to pick up guns and go on the rampage in a close-knit community. In what kind of community then would you expect such behaviour ? A loose-knit one ? One week after the carnage the Rector of Whitehaven described the violence as “inexplicable”. Inexplicability and bewilderment have characterised the reaction, not only of the media, but of the local population, and perhaps the country as a whole. Is this because, if a man had killed twelve people in an hour in Moss Side, Manchester or Bootle or Brixton, if someone had run amok on the Blackbird Lees estate in Oxford, then everyone would have found that explicable: poverty, drugs, alienation, violence. I’ve just watched a BBC news report about the tributes paid in West Cumbria today, 9th June, one week on, and it began with a reference to “rolling hills” and the “Old England”. Do hills stop people being violent ? Is massacre something new ? What kind of world did Derrick Bird belong to ? What kind of culture shaped his mind ? Much has been made of the fact he’d lived all his fifty-two years in West Cumbria; this in a society which prides itself on social mobility. The sentimentality of course, like mine on the train in 1977, is that he wanted to stay because he belonged, because the community was close-knit, because Cumbria is a place folk don’t want to leave. Perhaps. But maybe it’s also a place they can’t escape. Derrick Bird’s father, Joe, was a manual worker. Derrick left education early. What were his chances of ever breaking away from this place where everyone knew everyone else’s business, where there was no space to be anonymous? The city provides relief. You can always go somewhere where people don’t know you; they don’t know your twin brother is much more successful or that you’ve a record for petty crime; you can walk among strangers. But in a close-knit community almost everyone knows everyone. All the same, Derrick Bird had his secrets. He didn’t go to Thailand just for the scuba-diving but his use of prostitutes and his falling for one of them and sending her substantial sums of money weren’t the things that made people testify to what a nice, ordinary bloke he was. If Derrick Bird was an ordinary bloke, we are in very serious trouble.
Glenda Pears, manager of L&G Taxis in Whitehaven said Bird was “ a real nice man.” Councillor John Kane said he was “very placid…very quiet” and “kept himself to himself.” Sue Matthews, a telephonist at A2B Taxis said he was a “quiet fellow”. Peter Leder who spent the evening of Tuesday 1st June with him and to whom Bird said on leaving: “You won’t see me again”, judged him “an outgoing well-known guy, who everyone liked.” His next door neighbour but one, Ryan Dempsey, thought him “very approachable”. Michelle Haigh of The Hound Inn described him as “a normal bloke”. It was said of him he liked “tinkering” with cars. Tinkering is just right : harmless, aimless, easy-going. This was how Derrick Bird was viewed. In his close-knit community where people are supposed to know one another so well, among the rolling hills of Old England, this man who harboured murderous thoughts for years was universally judged to be an innocuous, good chap. On the evening of Tuesday 1st June he argued with fellow cab drivers. It was petty stuff but afterwards he shook all their hands and said: “There’s going to be a rampage tomorrow.” It was well known he owned guns.
The night before a man goes berserk and kills twelve people he says there will be a rampage and no-one responds. He tells a friend he won’t see him again and the friend does nothing. This is remote, quiet, peaceful Cumbria, a cockstride from the pretty teashops and homely pubs beloved of walkers; a place where barristers , journalists, consultants and headteachers have second homes. This is Old England. This is a place of close-knit communities. People don’t flip and commit mass murder in a place like this. Oh yes they do. What’s more, they tell people they’re going to do it. When a man leaves a friend in the early hours and says he won’t see him again, isn’t he trying to alert him ? Isn’t he calling for help ? When he formally shakes hands with all his colleagues and tells them tomorrow he’s going on the rampage, isn’t he asking to be listened to ? How come people in close-knit communities in Old England don’t know how to read these signs ? Why didn’t someone ask him what he meant ? Why didn’t someone report his disturbing comment to the police ? Why didn’t someone put two and two together and see this was a man in a desperate state, a man about to tip over the edge ?
The myth that has generated such puzzlement and disbelief is that there are parts of Britain (Old England, the rolling hills, close-knit communities, Willie Whitelaw’s real England) where contemporary culture doesn’t penetrate. People there are supposed to be different. They’re not like the harassed folk of cities, they’re quite different from the kids who get ASBOs and ASBIs on the big estates of Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or London. They’re peaceful gentle people who live close to nature. They are the myth we create to stop ourselves seeing what a crazy culture we have created. Whitehaven is an urban place. It has a troubled estate, Woodhouse, built in the 1920s and 30s which underwent regeneration from 2009. The Marchon chemical works used to be close by but only the rusty gates which once let the trains from the factory through are a reminder. Over the past thirty years most of the houses have been sold off to their tenants or housing associations. Like most estates in most towns and cities, it’s not a place you’d live unless you have to. You wouldn’t come here looking for Old England, nor for close-knit communities. It’s on the route Derrick Bird followed on the morning of 2nd June.
Woohouse doesn’t fit at all with the view of West Cumbria paraded in the media since the killings. It has never been mentioned. No-one has even hinted that this part of the world is touched by the same economic and social problems as the rest of Britain. Whitehaven used to be a mining town. As early as 1670 Sir John Lowther was developing the industry. Over a period of three hundred years seventy pits were sunk in the area. Five hundred men died in pit disasters. As recently as 1947, a hundred and four men perished in an accident at William Pit. Old England. Rolling hills. Close knit communities. David Cameron’s perfunctory visit to Cumbria to express sympathy, shake policemen’s hands and trot out the cliché that we may never know what made Derrick Bird flip, is typical of the behaviour of our elite. Cameron can have little idea how it feels to grow up and live somewhere like Whitehaven if you come from the working-class and are ill-educated. The papers have inevitably run articles by psychiatrists who talk of Bird’s paranoia, his acting out, how the killing would have briefly relieved him of his low self-esteem. But Derrick Bird, Birdy to his mates, was an ordinary bloke. Is this our collective mind ? Are we all quietly paranoid, do we act out fantasies to lift us from our poor self-esteem, do we harbour murderous desires to those closest to us, are we capable of suddenly doing terrible violence to strangers ?
Perhaps the inexplicability of what happened on 2nd June lies in its likelihood. We don’t believe it can happen because it will, and that is so terrible we escape into myth. If we were to admit that Hungerford, Dunblane and West Cumbria are the kind of events a culture like ours is going to throw up from time to time, we could hardly continue to believe in sleepy little communities constituting the real England. These terrible mass killings by deranged individuals, haven’t happened in the expected places. You may be safer in Whalley Range than Whitehaven. One important fact about Whitehaven, of course, is that it isn’t multi-ethnic. That’s why it can be recruited to the myth of Old England, real England. Indigenous white folk live here. Good old Anglo-Saxons. There are no race riots in Egremont or Seascale. None of the tensions, therefore, of the big cities or the little towns of East Lancashire, once proud working-class communities where employment has collapsed and resentment of immigrants is an easy response. But Birdy was a Cumbrian born and bred. Why wasn’t he content ? Why was he a tortured man ? And why is a tortured man an ordinary bloke ?
The things that drove Birdy over the edge are experienced by millions in our society whether they live in Finchley or Frizington: family breakdown, loneliness, money worries, excessive use of alcohol, seething resentments, constant petty humiliations that accumulate till they feel overwhelming. Birdy was an ordinary bloke. He tinkered with his car in front of his house. He drank with his mates in the pub and liked the crack. He went scuba-diving. Your neighbour may be the next to pick up a gun and go ape. The reason we’ve responded with collective bewilderment and have striven so hard to elaborate the myth of Cumbrian Old England, is that our culture is constantly pushing people to the edge but we don’t want to believe it. Side by side with a worrying budget deficit and national debt is record personal indebtedness. Mr Micawber is right: to be sixpence this side of debt is psychologically vital. To be six pence the other side is to be undermined. Money is not a thing, as was pointed out long ago, it’s a social relation. To owe someone money is to be in their power, unless, as Balzac pointed out, you owe them so much they are in yours. Birdy was worse than in debt: he owed money to the Inland Revenue. He was a tax evader and they were coming after him. Though he’d accumulated a tidy £60,000, his savings would be wiped out. His brother David, a manual worker like his father, lived in a £500,000 farmhouse because he’d engaged in a bit of lucky land speculation. Birdy lived in a £90,000 terrace. To be kind, you’d call it modest. To be honest you’d say it was down at the bottom end: a front door straight onto the street, no nice bay window. Dull, drab. Not many people in Whitehaven or indeed in West Cumbria live in properties worth £500,000. To have that kind of house in this part of the world is to be rich. This may seem laughable to David Cameron with his £2.5million London town-house and his £750,000 home in his constituency, but Whitehaven is not the Home Counties. There are no stockbrokers, commodity traders, million-pound-per-annum bankers. Cumbria is remote from the centres of power even if it was chosen for the digital switchover. Birdy had been hit hard. After his divorce he didn’t manage to establish another relationship. He had a record for minor crime. He didn’t earn much. He tried to better himself by cheating the taxman (like the rich). He made a fool of himself over a Thai prostitute. Life had dealt him a poor hand. His resentment grew. He hated his mother and told one of the women he paid for sex in Thailand he was going to get a gun and kill all those who’d wronged him. Futile to point out that objectively the wrongs weren’t great. Like the Billy J Kramer fantasist I met in Ambleside in 1965, Birdy was engaged in what John Keats called: the pursuit of identity in a world of circumstance. The only identity he could find was what we sweetly call, after our American cousins, “loser”.
We are an urban people who live in atomised communities. If Old England existed, there would be no way back to it. Emma Bovary believed that certain places on earth must produce happiness, like a plant which flourishes in a particular soil. We cling to similar delusions. Geographical community and identity. The wealth enjoyed by David Cameron and George Osborne is impossible without the urban life which atomises and alienates. The rich, like Willie Whitelaw, prefer big houses in the country with lots of land and the pretence they represent real England. Urban life forces us to create new forms of community, not close-knit and based on topography, but loose, wide and founded on shared preoccupations and interests. How was Birdy to do that ? How was he to find a viable identity in his very limiting circumstances ? We shouldn’t be surprised that people find unbearable the pressure of being exhorted to aspire while experiencing themselves as “losers”. We shouldn’t be surprised when they flip. Nor should we be surprised if they happen to come from little towns in Cumbria. One thing’s certain: what happened on 2nd June will happen again and we shouldn’t be surprised if the perpetrator comes from a village in the Cotswolds or a sleepy town in Dorset. If your neighbour shakes your hand and says there’s going to a rampage, if your friend says he won’t see you again, if someone you know to own guns starts to behave oddly or say weird things, be on the safe side, warn the authorities.
In October 1985 I spent my honeymoon in Outgate near Hawkshead. We had a little cottage. A piece of Old England. My colleagues poked fun saying we’d get a week of rain, but the days were clear and cold. We walked the hills, had lunch in pubs, cream teas in little cafes, dinner in Quince and Medlar , Cockermouth, before going back to light the coal fire in the cosy living-room. Idyllic, for a week. But after 2nd June I was very glad I didn’t take the job in Whitehaven.