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Wednesday, 25 April 2007

slugs in the living-room and architectural racism

In the office we work with our backs to televisions; typing, flicking through webpages, picking up phones. Typing. Behind our backs, pictures flash and headlines shout, unbeknownst, until someone turns around to reach for a book or a cardigan. Then, one day, you hear an audible intake of breath, or, if it's bad enough to warrant sharing, an utterance, an 'Oh my god', a low, awe-laden 'wow'.

Surely never a mystical instinct or an overwhelming sudden awareness of distant human suffering forces us to turn to 24-hour news and catch a breaking feed, the ticker tape of doom so unequal to its task, so mocking of our attempts to track tragedy, all over the world, now, as it happens now, and now.

Nevertheless, someone will glimpse capital letters on a red banner at the bottom of the screen, and sooner or later we will feel the need to stand around one television, for it is better to digest traginews en masse, to swear under our breaths but just loud enough to make ourselves heard, to feel the visceral thrill of knowing some kind of history is being made, and to believe, inanely, that by watching a screen, we are somehow present.

When the news broke that a number of university students had been shot by a gunman in Virginia, U.S.A, we were working on other stories. That week's international magazine cover was to have been some timely comment on European politicians; I had been asked to research a gently worshipful piece about the Queen. All were pushed to one side by the enormity of the Virginia story; a story that seemed to call to editors by name, demanding grand, funereal gestures; a new, black cover, numerous interactive build-out features online, a sombre, horrified, aghast tone.

There had been a tragedy. Terrible loss on a large scale and in horrific circumstances. Panic and terror and pain, all too easily imaginable. And yet.

As the self-reflexive media would eventually point out in the days to follow, 33 dead would have been a moderate to good day in Iraq. reports 34 civilian dead on the 7th of April, 56 dead on the 6th of April. On the 18th April, 140 "shoppers, vendors in market and construction workers, commuters" were killed in Sadriya market, Baghdad. 4 times as many as had died that day in Virginia Tech.

And every single day, for weeks, months, years, Iraqi innocents are dying. As Polly Toynbee shouted through the vacuum, "THEY BELONG TO US!" (,,2061826,00.html), for "This is our war, our fault, our bloodshed for aiding America's reckless and incompetent invasion and for failing to stop civil war."

So why is it that a random killing spree in a university town in the States exercises our imagination more than the surplus of death served up daily elsewhere?

I was at a loss to understand why Virginia Tech upset me more viscerally than Iraq. I felt nauseous for the rest of the day after watching the BBC breaking news footage of the American university massacre; the wide-eyed, numbed survivors with arms interlinked, the photos of the killer. Why was that more upsetting to me than seeing the bombed shards of buildings in Baghdad, innumerable photos of blood-spattered children or the same dazed look of terror in Iraqi victims as had shone from the eyes of the American students?... Was it simply, shamefully, because the Virginia Tech students were "white"? I believe that a degree of unconscious racism possibly, inexcusably, played some part in my empathy weightings, just as it explains in some terrible way the horrifically protracted global inaction over genocide in Darfur. But that wasn't just it. It's a kind of racism, maybe a step-brother or a cousin. Both come from the same ancestors: prejudice, fear and a lack of imagination. But I'd argue this had more to do with landscape than it had to do with skin colour.

It was only when I thought about the slugs that I got it.

So. The slugs.

The house we rent is a characterful four floor Victorian terrace house, 5 bedrooms and a sweet overgrown garden. It's charming in a rickety, under-maintained but homely way and I love it. But recently the contented safety I felt within its four walls was disturbed. We discovered a criss cross of shiny slug trails one morning, decorating the carpet of our living room. The glittery remnants of a slug disco. Later, a dinner guest picked up her discarded handbag from the floor to find one of the small creatures had taken up residence. Yuck.

Slugs in themselves are not particularly pleasant of course but the disquiet and unease I felt was entirely disproportionate to their presence. I think the reason was: by crossing from their proper place - the dark, unlooked-for damp of a plant pot somewhere down the garden path - and somehow entering the manmade enclosure of OUR HOUSE, the slugs had monumentally broken the sequence and structure of things; the separation of outside and inside; garden and house; grimy, slippery animality trespassing on all our attempts at cleanliness and control. Thus they signalled chaos, loss of control, the futility of human efforts.

A familiar trope in good horror movies is the way the worst terrors of all are initially prefigured by small disruptions in the natural order. At the beginning of Hitchcock's "The Birds", the heroine is pecked on the head by a gull. It's only a peck but as she takes her hand away from her head, there is blood. So in the same way, the bizarre and unlooked-for entrance of slugs into our carpeted living-room signalled nothing less than the possibility of apocalypse.

What's this got to do with Virginia Tech and Iraq?

Here's the thing: I wonder if Virginia's tragedy was somehow more emotive for me, because it was the perfect example of the random and the uncontrollable entering the order we have worked so carefully to create, the order that defines western civilization, for whose sake we go to war, go shopping, go to therapy, go to Ikea. For whose reason we send our young people to the safe bastions of controllable chaos that we call universities.

Imagine your house. It's best to imagine the cheapest, smallest house you've ever visited actually. Imagine what that would look like to an alien who just landed on earth. It would look weird: millions of people, all building little arbitrary structures to hide inside, all putting up walls and making glass windows as a compromise with the sun. Spreading carpet where there used to be grass. Installing front doors with locks and doorbells and letterboxes.

All of this, this fortressing of ourselves, is designed to keep out A LOT. Not just slugs but also snails, foxes, magpies, burglars, axe-murderers etc etc.

Physical boundaries, walls and roofs serve to delineate the order we wish to impose on the world in general. Thus our architecture takes on an identity that is deeply linked to our sense of order and security. And perhaps one of the reasons we find it much harder to relate to Iraq or Darfur than to, say, Virginia Tech, is a kind of architectural racism. Because in our naive, ignorant understanding, we fail to recognize the order in unfamiliar architecture. Thus the images of disorder, of structures being broken in foreign lands, are less shocking and less meaningful than those in the places we recognize. At some level we think, breakdown in a desert is almost no breakdown at all. It's like the three pigs and the wolf blowing down the house made of straw. No-one's surprised.

Really I suppose I'm talking about relating to a way of life. If we can't relate, if we can't imagine inhabiting a place, "walking around in someone's shoes" as Harper Lee would say, then we don't care so much. Because our own interests are not under threat. It's hard for the average Londoner to imagine living in a village in Darfur or Iraq, even before the war, and that makes it a lot easier to distance ourselves from the victims who need our help most.

We should care. So what's the answer? In terms of Darfur, I wonder whether the best thing would be to make a film that emphasized those elements of human life that are familiar to as many people as possible. For that you'd need a documentary team to go and follow a family for a number of months, spending time recording all the common human experiences of family, relationships, the voicing of basic human needs, the great silence meeting those needs. That we can all relate to. We need to see the things we recognize at an unconscious level being threatened and then perhaps we will make the threat our own. And maybe, just maybe, we will be galvanized into action.

1 comment:

Mark Fletcher said...

unbeknownst is a vey good word.