BY LAURENCE FITZGERALD
It all started twenty years ago. I remember it clearly like it was yesterday. It was a Sunday. Usually that meant a lie-in. Yet on the morning of the 31st August 1997 it was different, on that date Sunday mornings changed forever. The usual sequence of events was violated. On that day my mother abruptly roused me from my slumber, earlier than usual, something bad had happened. I registered anguish, pain and sorrow. Someone I knew had obviously died.
It was the day Princess Diana died. I didn’t know Diana personally and, looking back, I recall not caring that much – I was only thirteen after all. Will cricket on the park be cancelled, I wondered? Then the memories fade. I only mention this, because in my mind, that’s the definite date that these mass orchestrated displays of public empathy started. Of course it’s now a common breakfast routine – an English tradition along with bacon butties, beans on toast and suicide bombing.
That was August 1997, but this is 2017. Empathy is one thing, but now increasingly public reaction, opinion and indeed anger to serious society-changing events is being managed. We’ve moved on from empathy management – it’s now the era of anger management.
Take the horrific events of the past three months. In every case public reaction has been closely monitored and managed. We are told to hope not hate, to carry on, to sing ‘don’t look back in anger’, to be passive spectators, a hash tag on twitter, a face in a crowd of mourners. Then the game changed, the Grenfell tower burnt to the ground – and everything was exposed in the ugly charred mess. Islamic terror has a predictable routine and that’s fine, get used to it – but not this time. A poorly maintained matchstick masquerading as a block of flats was not part and parcel of living in a modern global city, and surely not one which imports cheap labour and masquerades it all in the name of diversity, no matter how horrendous the living conditions.
No, it was all Theresa May’s fault and her cabal of vicious Tories. People are understandably angry, why? asked a Channel 4 news presenter to distraught residents. And the headlines: ‘Justice for Grenfell: the march for answers’, ran the Independent; the Metro ‘Arrest the killers’; ‘May takes cover’, the Times; the Guardian: ‘Warnings were ignored’. Television news coverage ran in a similar vein. Repeated questions of ‘Why are you so angry?’ replaced the ‘How do you feel’ we’ve grown so accustomed to.
Now compare the headlines say after the Manchester terror attack: ‘Young lives stolen by terror,’ went the Guardian; ‘Together’, beckoned The Manchester Evening News; “We (heart) Manchester”, frothed the Scotsman. News presenters begged us to call in, to express platitudes of unity, love not hate, but definitely not anger. Anger was viewed with suspicion, wayward, if not outright racist – targeting a particular community, as the common expression goes. How can you be angry at a time like this? He’ll calm down once he regains his senses.
And then there’s today. As I write, another terrorist attack has happened, this time bizarrely (or perhaps not so, given heightened tensions) targeted at Muslims outside the Finsbury Park mosque – carried out by a non-Muslim. This morning will go down as one of those mornings. Anger will be politicised again and this time it’ll be aimed at Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins or whoever. The same people who claim terror has nothing to do with Islam – despite all evidence to the contrary – will now be spitting bile at how this latest attack was all the fault of a columnist in the Daily Mail – ridiculous to say the least and totally hypocritical.
But, history is on an endless cycle of live, die, repeat, and it’s worth remembering that Nero played the fiddle when Rome burnt during the great fire of AD 64. He died four years later – and will be remembered among classicists as a reckless, bizarre character who brought about his own destruction. The Roman historian Suetonius claims that Nero was responsible for the fire and he watched it from a tower, singing about the destruction of Troy or whatever equivalent they had to Oasis in those days – he wasn’t angry, he’d just given up – lessons from history are always invaluable, especially when it’s the classics.
Laurence is a writer, originally from Burnley. He blogs here about society, politics, food, culture and writes for a variety of publications. He has travelled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. He lives in Manchester with a King Charles Spaniel called Winston.