Sunday, 22 August 2010

Blood on the Streets - Dianne Hofmeyr

This morning there was a body on the Fulham Road.

The first line of a thriller? Wish that it were. I can’t get the image from my head.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my yoga clothes, tucked my mat under my arm and set off. As I came around the corner red and white tape sent signals. Before I had a chance to alter my pace I saw the huge pool of fresh blood… more blood than I’ve ever seen in one place. Things were scattered across the pavement. A discarded rucksack. Bits of cloth. A pair of trainers completely soaked in blood.

The body had been placed in a blue body bag. It lay against the wall of a shop like a rough sleeper stretched out for the night… except there was blood escaping it. There was no one there except a single young police woman taking notes and another policeman fixing up the cordon.

It was the blood-soaked trainers that got to me.

I kept struggling to breathe. In the yoga class it was difficult to still my mind and fill my body with life-giving prana.

A skin too thin. A writer’s eye too developed. Visceral imaginings too developed. I was glad it was August and the usually busy Fulham Road was empty of fathers wheeling their bikes next to boys bound for school or mothers tugging and herding sleepy children.

I thought of Gillian’s post about the school visit and the story that began with a body. Three of my novels begin with a body. One is a drowning, one is not really a body but the bones of someone being returned to her ancestral homeland, and the third is a very brutal knifing that takes place in the Temple of Karnak in the first chapter of Eye of the Sun.

It’s to this knifing that my mind keeps returning. Would I have written this scene so easily, so cavalierly, had I seen a real knifing, real blood and real bloodied clothing lying strewn across a pavement before I wrote it?

At the time my 36 year old son said of this passage – ‘Too much information, mum.’

In the moonlight the dagger is sharp and hard and unforgiving. The blade finds the soft spot just below his ribs and angles upward, seeking his heart. Two quick thrusts. Hard and brutal. The blows make him gasp with their suddenness. No words are possible now. He feels the sharp burn of the blade as the dagger is swiftly withdrawn.

I left it. And so did the editors. Why? Was I trying for sensation - as
a tabloid might try to draw readership?

But a real life lost, very real blood spreading across the pavement and a pair of bloodied trainers has tripped me up this morning. If my first reaction was … thank goodness there are no children here to see it, why have I been so callous and cavalier in my writing for young adults?

We write of the real world, of knife crime and blood and what commercialism dictates and I don’t want to say I’ll never write of a murder again, but the body on Fulham Road this morning has pulled me up sharply. When I look at the shelves in a bookstore now I must ask, is the shocking reality of brutality too real to fictionalize again and again for the sake of commercialism in a young person’s novel? Are we encouraging readers to be inured? Are we inured?


Katherine Langrish said...

My god, Diane, how terrible -
reality can be terrible.
As writers we need to remember that. But I don't believe you have ever written a scene for a gratuitous effect. And we do know the difference, and there IS a difference, between reality and fiction. Otherwise no one would ever be able to watch a tragedy by Shakespeare.

"Human kind cnnot bear very much reality."

Stroppy Author said...

Oh Diane - what an awful experience. But no - writing about violence intelligently is not to minimise or sensationalise or trivialise it. Violence is, terribly, a part of life; it would be far worse to write books which do not reflect the reality today's teenagers have to face. Writing - reading - can be a model for thinking about and dealing with the awful events of life.

John Dougherty said...

Diane, you wrotethe scene you quote, and it didn't harden you to "the shocking reality of brutality". It's not going to harden the reader - quite possibly the reverse.

I'm sorry you had to witness such a horrible thing; and your reaction to it is very human (in the best sense of the word). Thank you for sharing it.

michelle lovric said...

Poor you, Diane. And poor man. A dreadful death.

But you must take it as a measure of your humanity that you took the experience to heart, and to mind like this. You responded as both a person and a writer. Yes, sometimes it is painful where the two of those things meet.

I read Linda Strachan's Spider last night - a novel in which there is violence against the bodies of young people. And yet she brilliantly manages to convey the humanity even of perpetrators. As well as the helplessness of people who try to help. Perhaps the writer's job is to comb out these knots of entangled right and wrong, and to make sense of them.

Even your blog is working like that.

But small comfort, I know, when you must be feeling so traumatized right now.

catdownunder said...

I just came to this Diane - what must his family be going through?
I feel for you too!

Anne Cassidy said...

I don't know how I missed this Diane, truly awful for you. I write about murders all the time but I know and you know that fiction is only an approximation of life.

Penny Dolan said...

Dianne, almost missed this post because of a too-busy week.

What a terrible shock, and what an image to have burned into your brain - so awful and at the same time so mundane a moment of reality.

As far as your own writing goes, I think John has said what I would have: it didn't harden you.

Almost ironic that if you'd written the scene as you describe it, people might think it unrealistic. I hope the picture in your head is quietening.

adele said...

This is the most awful thing Dianne. So sorry to have missed it the first time round. Don't know why I did...but you've written about it all so clearly and honestly. Thank you. And yes, you're quite right. Even the most trivial REAL violence comes as a tremendous shock, and this...well. Words fail me.