From dark to light

03 February 2017

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TO THE chair of tourism, it is “the heart of the North Wessex Downs”. To those under the age of 40, it is an innocuous Berkshire market town. But to those of us of a certain age, Hungerford is something more: the town that, in our historical imagina­tions, was the site of the first mass killing of innocents by a gun-wielding crazy: the proto-massacre.

People in Hungerford do not like the word “massacre” used to de­­scribe the events of August 1987. In fact, they do not like people talking about it at all, as Alan Dein discovered in Aftermath (Radio 4, Monday of last week). Sixteen people died at the hands of Michael Ryan that day, and almost every­body in Hungerford knew at least one of them. The sound of low-hovering helicopters still fills people with anxiety, and another reporter in pursuit of a cheap tragedy story is hardly the therapy they crave.

So it is to Dein’s credit that his documentary was rich in recol­lec­tion and reflection, without feeling the need for a grim narration of the events themselves. And his choice of interviewees demonstrates the sort of place that Hungerford still is: a place where the Mayor, the Vicar, and the GP are called upon to ex­­press the voice of the community.

There is a good deal to Hunger­ford other than Ryan. There was William of Orange, who planned the Glorious Revolution in the pub; and Eisenhower, who addressed the allied troops on Hungerford Com­mon. In a rare lapse into cliché, Dein opined that Hungerford “has come a long way from that dark place”. The truth is that there is no place either good or bad but think­ing makes it so.

While Aftermath described a community shaking off emotional baggage, then One to One (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) told us something about the process on an individual level. Laura Rutherford is the manager of the Carlisle branch of Samaritans — a job that neces­sitates her taking on the woes of others without any of the reciprocity of normal human interaction. When somebody tells you over the phone of the catastrophes that have been visited on them, you cannot console them by saying that the very same thing happened to you last month.

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The injunction against sharing case-stories extends to partners; which means that Samaritans have established their own systems of off-loading. It is a “Who cares for the carers?” question that is pertin­ent in a volunteer organisation whose members will, from time to time, experience the same levels of emo­tional deprivation as the rest of us.

Not that it is all about talking people down from tall buildings. Ms Rutherford’s calls have included advice on what to cook for tea; which might be shorthand for “I’m suicidal,” but might equally mean, “What should I cook for tea?”

Space enables just the swiftest of thumbs-up to Radio 3 for its Friday-morning poem slot on Breakfast (weekdays). Hearing Ted Hughes read “The Warm and the Cold”, with its quasi-liturgical recitation of fantastical similes, was the best thing by far in a desolate winter’s morning commute.

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