I recently explained to a friend the intrinsic differences between first and third person voice in novels. Specifically the way P.G. Wodehouse uses this perspective to nuance and nudge along a plot. What happens when the insider looks out and the outsider looks in? That kind of thing. Outside of the cosy Wodehousian universe and back in the real world, what are the roles we are meant to play in given situations? What does our dress code say about us and just what do you wear to the Gothic Weekend in Whitby?
In journalist Catherine Smyth’s case the answer to the last one was “black dress, with pink polka dots and bright pink leggings”, which was her individual take on a respectful uniform by way of not being too conspicuous – relatively speaking. Sophie Lancaster, the tragic principal person in Smyth’s recently published book Weirdo. Mosher. Freak. dressed as a Goth, and projecting a line through a multitude of events, Smyth finds herself in Whitby over the Halloween weekend just past. A few years previously, on a shopping trip to Bacup in the borough of Rossendale, Lancashire, she was similarly struck by another arresting sight:
“I can recall seeing Sophie before this happened, on a Saturday, and I thought ‘wow!’ I remember thinking ‘Gosh! You look stunning’.”
Often with small, close-knit communities, conformity is the cement that both bonds and binds. It creates an identity and a mould. Smyth, when talking of the particular subset of Bacup’s youth from which Sophie’s murderers were drawn, informed me that “They have their own uniform that’s more your trackies… or whatever.”
Most of us will understand and don’t need a full pen portrait; there are similar groups all over the country, denizens of the retail park sportswear shop. You may well recall the night in question three years ago, when this particular group were described during the trial for the assault they carried out in Stubbylee Park, Bacup, as behaving “like a pack of wild animals.” That night they chose to attack Sophie Lancaster and boyfriend Rob Maltby, simply because they looked different to them. “Suddenly someone walks in on the scene who is more interesting than you are… and they flocked to them because they were different. I suspect there was a degree of jealousy.” Is how Smyth sees it.
Sophie was attacked as she attempted to comfort Rob after the group had kicked and stamped him unconscious; Sophie was to die in hospital from her injuries thirteen days later. Rob eventually came round from his coma with no real memory of the incident.
For Smyth, this was a story of a different order to the ones she had covered in her extensive experience as a local journalist. The combination of the outcome and the disturbing details of the attack itself led her conscience into conflict with her professional self. A very real first person, third person, struggle. By her own admission and despite warnings from her superiors at the time but without any regrets she admits – the pitch of her voice climbing as she tells me: “I got more involved than I would normally but I was outraged.”
As the police investigations advanced the hate crime element of the attack became ever more unconscionable to Smyth and many others closely connected with the case. Subsequent work by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation set up in Sophie’s memory by her mum Sylvia, has seen the foundation even working with holocaust groups and campaigning for amendments to existing hate crime legislation. The aim is to extend the existing criteria to cover such elements as attacks based on appearance or subcultural interests.
History has shown that bad things happen when good people stand by and for Smyth, the civic shame and the fact that this is also a locale in which she raises her own children, fuelled her determination to cover the case closely and maybe do something about it. As she put it, she cannot fathom that some “people are happy to sit on the sidelines.” Smyth has no regrets about stepping outside of a dispassionate journalist’s, third person mantle and in the same circumstances she would act the same way again.
Smyth’s publisher, Pomona, approached her to write her personal account of the story about a year after the attack but it was not until the newspaper which employed her relocated that Smyth choose to take redundancy and begin on the book. Rather modestly she describes her side of the publishing process as “just putting in the time and effort” after journalist friends had match-made for her and Pomona, landing the deal sans agent or usual accoutrements. To be courted by a publisher whose list includes real renegades and rebels such as CRⒶSS (one for the teenagers out there – THIS is how you don’t conform) and Ray Gosling, is a testament to the independent and thorough minded attitude Smyth has displayed in writing the book.
That time and effort involved starting to write the book after the kids were in bed and the house was quiet. Utilising the resources, skills and experience Smyth had available to her, and in spite of her impassioned response to this terrible crime, she was able to take an assiduous and methodical approach to the details of the incident and subsequent court cases. None more so than when it came to writing up the chapter of her book dealing with the response of the emergency services: “When I started that chapter I was pretty sure something had gone wrong.”
Smyth’s professional instinct led her to contest the relevant authorities’ version of events, as she was convinced a breakdown in communications had occurred between the emergency services on that night.
She is also a champion of other participants in this tragic story: the other collection of youths in the park that night. Those who did not participate in the attack but instead actively tried to help the victims and made the calls to the emergency services. Of course they should! You would rightly say but as Smyth told me, it’s not that linear:
“Bacup being a close-knit community…..you do not turn on your own. The ones who made those phone calls….if they hadn’t have done that, then there would be two people dead that night.”
The significance of their actions was recognised at the trial with the judge making special mention, as well as awarding them a monetary reward for their actions. Actions which extended to one of the girls donating her T-shirt to stem the bleeding, following first aid instructions over the ‘phone from the emergency call handler.
Whilst there cannot be a silver lining as such in so tragic circumstances, the fact that youths who were probably not exactly church choir material (it was 1 a.m.) showed the courage and decency to get involved despite very real physical danger, does give some hope.
Three years on and Sophie’s mum continues to campaign in her memory. Sylvia Lancaster was on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show only this week promoting educational initiatives being undertaken by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, in the furtherance of tolerance and understanding of difference and addressing hate crime. She also revealed that the Foundation have commissioned a new animation to accompany the Dark Angel animation that has been previously posted on Glasswerk. So the work goes on. As Smyth puts it with her journalist’s hat back on:
“This story will run and run.”
Weirdo. Mosher. Freak. (If Only They'd Stopped At Name Calling) The Murder Of Sophie Lancaster by Catherine Smyth is available to buy now from Pomona at link priced at £7.99.
Profits from the book are to be split three ways – Sophie Lancaster Foundation, Author and Publishers.