I find myself in The Spen Valley , as in ‘Batley and Spen’. Like a lot of other people , I learnt last year was the name of a parliamentary constituency. I learnt it through the murder of its young Labour MP by a Neo-Nazi outside her constituency surgery just before the Brexit referendum. The ’cause’ for this appeared to be her liberal, pro-European views.
That and the alarming triumphalism and the ensuing spate of racist attacks that followed the referendum created a feeling of despair in me that I can still touch (like a grief). I decided I should go and see where it happened. I thought I might make some kind of psychogeographic tribute, but I also wondered if I might just be rubbernecking.
There is CCTV footage on the internet of the perp. leaving the scene -eerily good enough for me to instantly recognise the street – and I suddenly found myself parking outside that library , rails festooned with Tour de Yorkshire bikes. I expected to find … something, but what I found was a bewildering gap.
There was no recognition of what had happened there ( or at least no overt visible recognition). I felt instantly uncomfortable in my quest and diverted (looked away).
Lunchtime. Lots of people going about their business. Toddlers and pensioners using the library, but a sense of ‘I Spy Stranger’, which felt clear and familiar. I decided not to take any pictures, and to anonymise the town ( the ones you ll see here are from another small Pennine place nearby)
I remembered that the killer was a local, but also that some of these locals would also be victims of the trauma that had interrupted their business, and might reasonably be wary of another unfocussed middle aged man stalking around the town centre.
There were visibly other things that people wanted visitors to associate with – Joseph Priestley, the Brontes, the Luddites were all old safe history.
Brexit divides have become unspeakable too – I stayed with friends that night who map carefully where their extended family have gone on this, and what they might comfortably (not) say in front of them.
One of the things that is hard to speak openly, is that the death of Jo Cox was the result of that fucking campaign. I can’t prove that of course. Or that the unstable loner might have received the encouragement to buy a sawn off shotgun in the same mysterious way he was able to shout the slogans used by a far right group who are currently infiltrating the British Army and organising terrorist activity in the North of England. But some circumstantial evidence is very strong.
Something sickened in me when I heard the unfolding newscasts . I knew well before the confirmation what had happened . I also knew that a sane society would then have stopped the referendum in its tracks, but that would not happen. By finding out what that place was like I was hoping to travel backwards to a turning point – not to where a crime might not have happened ( although I also wish that), but to one where a belief about the legitimacy of opposing views was accepted, and to the confirmation that this was no longer the case.
I come from another place beginning with B. where a woman was murdered going about her daily business which had something to do with migration. While the murder happened amongst migrant agricultural workers and the response of the local community appeared benevolent, there is no doubt in my mind it was an accident waiting to happen, and that it stemmed in part from a willingness to overlook what desperate lives were going on around us.
And of course, no longer living there, I only have to think about that occasionally. The concern for those who still live there , as in B. , is to forget about it in a way which feels ethical and get on with their lives. They are less likely to want to be reminded that B2 is the place where the body-on-the-bus killing took place ( indeed if you google ‘murder, b2’ you will now find a reference to a detective fantasy on the local steam railway).
I wander around B1 for a little while , trying to decide whether to see it as a crime scene or someone’s home town. An old folks home, a library , some take aways , a car park, an inexplicable one way system. You are unlikely to uproot if something horrible happens there to someone you may not even have heard of. And the view point I have of B1 as a place of horror is also the one that will have been brought to town by the national press parachuting in in the days that follow.. If what happened here changed your view of your safety , or of the reliability of the people round you, you wont casually be making that public. Similarly if you see your hometown classed as a place of unstable rednecks any lingering reactionary sympathies are unlikely to dissolve.
If my view of the incitement of the press and little England xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign is accurate this accident waiting to happen could have happened in a lot of anonymous town centres.
I wonder if I was ghoulish to want to see it. I don’t imagine its a tourism that is welcome , although it is well known along the routes of serial killers and celebrity deaths.
And while the widower and friends of Jo Cox wish us to continue to make the case for tolerance and connection the real legacy of what happened is to make me and others want to recoil and mask our differences.