I have a confession.
When I was around 10 years old, I was in the Cubs (that’s not the confession, by the way). One dark, winter night after a meeting, I was in a group of friends who decided to have a game of “Chap Door Run Away” ( “Knocky-9-Doors” in NE England!) on the way home.
Most of the house front doors on our route were easy pickings, many opening straight onto the street or set back a little with just a tiny garden. But there was one that presented a tantalising challenge, with a longer garden, and set back even further beyond a small patch of communal green, all-in-all, about 30 yards from us. It would be impossible, we reckoned, to knock the door and escape undetected.
“What if we chucked a stone at it?” someone suggested. There was no strong, dissenting voice that I recall among our mischievous band; rather, we were all thrilled by the idea of taking our game to the next level. But there was a streak of cowardice among us too, and a shortage of volunteers to throw the missile. However, a climate of mischief was being stoked and, as if telepathically, the group nominated the biggest and strongest of us (let’s call him “Gary”) for the task, and the egging-on began.
“Go on, Gary! You could easily hit that door!”
“Aye; nae bother, Gary. On ye go!”
“Naebiddy else but you could dae it, Gary!”
“Ah’ll dae it!” declared Gary.
We ALL looked around to provide a projectile, and somehow, somewhere, by streetlamp, a stone was found.
“Go on, Gary!”
Gary took aim and let fly. But his aim was poor and his strength greater than he realised. He wildly overthrew his intended arc. Like a wayward Ronaldo free-kick, the stone refused to dip, and, to our horror, crashed through an upstairs bedroom window, narrowly missing (we learned later) a sleeping child. We all froze long enough to be still standing there when the front door flew open and the enraged man-of-the-house shot out after us, cursing us in a terrifying voice.
Our group exploded, shooting off in different directions, instinctively heading AWAY from home lest we were followed. All of us, that is, bar one, who ran straight home with the enraged householder in hot pursuit. So, long story short, the game was up. The group was exposed, and our parents informed.
I recall my reaction when my father interrogated me about the incident. I’d very much been part of the group that created the climate for the act, egging on Gary as strenuously as any of the others. I’d felt in my bones at the time that it was irresponsible, but went ahead anyway helping to build a sense of bravado, pushing Gary to the point of sheer stupidity. But did I admit that to my father?
“It wasn’t me, Dad. Gary threw the stone!”
This morning, after the shocking death of Jo Cox, I recollect this story because of the reaction from many on the right wing, politicians and journalists in particular, who are in denial about the climate their bigoted narrative has created in the UK over the past couple of years. There have been howls of protest from the right that Polly Toynbee has linked the actions of Tommy Mair to the bigoted, racist Leave campaign and the vitriol that spews from groups like Britain First. But I believe she makes a point in suggesting that the toxic environment created by the right foments violent reaction from those on the extreme margins. Right wing critics, in my view, are in denial of their own toxicity, much as I was when I refused to acknowledge my part in the stone throwing incident:
“It wasn’t me: I didn’t do it. It was some other nutter.”
I think the UK is in a more tawdry state than at any time in my years on Earth, and the right wing has gained far too much traction, spreading a poisonous, divisive message that is unravelling our society. We can’t let it be unopposed: we need strong, dissenting voices to help dissipate the noxious bigotry that presently engulfs these shores, and those voices need to be our own. We need to take on the responsibility of disrupting the mechanics of hatred that embolden the fringe lunacy.
I would hope that Jo Cox’s murder would offer a tragic turning point and help restore some much needed compassion to our collective national psyche, but I fear, from some of the head-in-sand, online reactions I’ve read, that no lessons have been learned and that there may be worse to come