Archive for July 10, 2010

Death in Rothbury

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 10, 2010 by telescoper

After a restless, uncomfortable night I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am BBC News on Radio 3. The lead item was the death  of Raoul Moat by his own hand in the small Northumberland town of Rothbury. Moat was released from Durham prison last week, and proceeded to Birtley where he shot his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, killing him and wounding her. He then made his way north to Newcastle where he shot an unarmed police officer, carried on to Seaton Delaval on the coast where he held up a chip shop, and eventually wound up in Rothbury early this week. The small town and its environs were flooded with armed police but they didn’t find Moat until last night. After a long standoff, Moat eventually shot himself apparently with a sawn-off shotgun.

I don’t mind admitting that this story has unsettled me on several levels, which is why I’m writing about it here. I’ve found doing this blog quite cathartic on some past occasions and hope it will do the same job again now.

I suppose the first thing to explain is that I was born in Newcastle. Although I haven’t lived in the North-East for a long time, I know many the places that feature in the Raoul Moat Saga pretty well. For example, Moat’s attack on the police officer in the Denton area of Newcastle was just a matter of yards from where I used to get the bus to school when I was a kid, although the location has changed quite a lot since then; the incident happened at the junction of the A69 and the A1 western bypass (which hadn’t been built when I lived there). That spot is only a half a mile or so from where my mother lives now. I never imagined  such a familiar and friendly  place would appear on the BBC News as the scene of a shooting!

Rothbury too is a place I remember well. When I was very little we never travelled far for our holidays – we couldn’t afford to – but the upside of that was that I got to know some of the beautiful places on our doorstop. Few people know how beautiful Northumberland really is, in fact, even those that live there. Rothbury is a place that features in some of my earliest memories as a child, especially  the River Coquet with its stepping-stones. That’s exactly where the last acts of this tragedy were played out in the early hours of this morning.

The thing is that as I’ve got older I’ve, for some reason, started to regard such childhood memories as especially precious. I often think of certain places in Northumberland  – such as Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Seahouses  – because they remind me of a much simpler time, before the world got complicated. Rothbury used to be among them. Now I realise I’ll never be able to think of paddling in the river there without also thinking of Raoul Moat. The place has changed forever. The Rothbury of my mind is now dead.

When I got home from the pub last night, at about 8 o’clock, I happened to glance at the News and it was obvious something serious was happening and the police had almost certainly found their man. I sat glued to the TV screen as the press went into overdrive. The coverage varied from intrusive to comical to downright ghoulish as they made  a minimum of real news go a very long way diluted with speculation and innuendo. I had a look at Twitter too, but there the feeding frenzy was even worse and the pondlife that contributed to it even more loathsome. Things like this bring out the worst in some people, and the worst of the worst is often to be found on the internet.

I felt guilty watching the live TV coverage of the standoff, as I found much of it distasteful but, all the same, I couldn’t stop. Why? I don’t know. All I can say I was gripped in much the same way as I was on 9/11. I watched the footage of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing over and over again, mesmerised, appalled, unable to comprehend what was happening. But also, I have to admit, somehow excited by it. Does everyone have such a dark side to their fascinations?

I went to bed around 1am, with the standoff continuing but didn’t sleep very well because I was a bit rattled by the events of the evening and conflicting emotions about what I’d been watching. I had little doubt that it would end sometime during the night. Indeed, from the moment Raoul Moat started his trail of violence last week only one outcome seemed likely: that he would eventually take his own life. So it turned out. Of course I hoped that he might surrender himself – so, I’m sure, did the Police – but that always seemed very improbable. I don’t think he was capable of listening to reason. The only question was whether he would kill anyone else before turning his gun on himself.

 There won’t be much sympathy for Moat. I’ve already heard the opinion expressed that his suicide has saved the taxpayer from having to keep him in jail for the rest of his life.  The Police will be happy that Moat was stopped without committing further acts of violence. There will be questions asked, though,  about how he managed to live in such close proximity to so many police officers yet evade detection for such a long time, despite leaving numerous clues (such as his mobile phones and camping gear). It appears that Moat broke into at least one house in Rothbury while he was at large and may even have walked down the main street on Thursday night. Still, Moat had specifically threatened to kill police officers, so I can certainly understand the extreme caution with which they carried out their investigation. In the end, no members of the public or police officers were injured.

But it’s the townsfolk of Rothbury that I have the most sympathy for. It must have been terrible to have this Bogeyman lurking about the town, to see armed police invading the place, and to have the press poking their noses in during a time of obvious fear and distress. No doubt it won’t be long before a macabre tourist trade develops. I hope the town can return to peaceful normality soon, but I don’t think it will be that easy.

I mentioned before that I went to the pub yesterday evening. A Friday trip to The Poet’s Corner is a fairly regular fixture in my limited social calendar. The subject of Raoul Moat came up, jokily, during the conversation. We didn’t know at the time what was about to happen in Rothbury. An American visitor expressed astonishment that the press were making such a fuss about a lone gunman, who’d only committed one murder anyway, and incredulity when he was told that most British police don’t carry firearms. 

Those comments reveal a positive side of Raoul Moat story. The hysterical media reaction only occurred because such episodes are thankfully still very rare in Britain, due at least in part to severe legal restrictions on the availability of firearms. The very fact that people did get so gripped by this tragedy means that we’re not as desensitized to gun-related violence as many across the Pond.

As a postscript let me add this picture of a prominent yet macabre local landmark near Rothbury, Winter’s Gibbet, which serves as a reminder of a time when dubious executions were much more commonplace than they are now. To make it even more bizarre, we often had picnics underneath the Gibbet when I was a kid. Don’t ask me why.