Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dunblane: Our Story

I wasn't there. I have never been to Dunblane and my links to the town are tenuous - my husband has cousins who once lived there. And they didn't live there then. So really I have no right to write about Dunblane. But this documentary on BBC2 on Wednesday night was so restrained and calm and yet so unbearably moving that I instantly felt compelled to put pen to paper. The dignity of the survivors was overwhelming. There was no anger or bitterness, but there was a profound, never-ending sadness. There were lost dreams and shattered lives. Baby sisters grew up never knowing their older sibling. Widowed partners lost their only child. A daughter lost a mother; a mother who died trying to protect pupils in her care. A headmaster walked into a stinking, smoke-choked room of massacred children. The world was just too cruel that day.

But somehow the survivors did survive, a small triumph of love and hope over the evil that came to the town of Dunblane on March 13th 1996. We all know about the world-famous tennis player that had a miraculous near miss. These were some of the others, who had until now been silent. Some were lucky, some desperately unlucky, but all of them were changed forever. It's a credit to the school headmaster that he was able to carry on after what he had witnessed, and bring the school and the community together. He helped the townspeople fend off the fierce media spotlight by acting as their spokesman, so that normal life, somehow, could resume. The school was back open after nine days. The children needed somewhere to go, and something to focus on. It was the right decision.

But the school has a new gym now. There are some places you cannot return.

I wasn't there, but Dunblane is one of those events that you always remember where you were when you heard about it. I was in my second year at university, and came into our kitchen to find my housemate Mark in tears. He was watching the one o'clock news on our crappy black and white television, which perched on the microwave with a coathanger for an aerial and only intermittent signal. But the news itself was clear: we were bearing witness to the aftermath of one of the worst mass murders ever to happen on British soil. (What I didn't realise until I saw this documentary is that the world was told what had happened before some of the children's parents, who were kept waiting in a house next to the school.)

It was utterly unfathomable. 20 years on, it's still hard to take in. Now I have a five year old daughter, exactly the same age as the children who were killed that day. So it hits home even harder to contemplate what happened. That a man, a local oddball youth leader known to police, could drive into the grounds of my daughter's school unnoticed, enter the building carrying four handguns and 700 rounds of ammunition, find the school hall and fire 105 bullets into her PE lesson, killing her, her teacher and 15 of her classmates, doesn't bear thinking about. It's too shocking and terrifying for words. And yet that is what happened in Dunblane.

We may bemoan the extreme security measures schools have in place these days. The high-perimeter fences, electronic gates and buzzer systems, the grilling from the office staff as they hand over the signing in and out books, the CCTV, the obsession with safeguarding in Ofsted reports. But we should only be thankful, if it means that no Thomas Hamilton can ever be allowed to wander off the street into a school again.

No school could possibly have expected something quite so horrendous to happen, especially not in a small community like Dunblane, where everybody knew each other. But security had definitely taken a back seat until then. For example, kids broke into my primary school one night in 1984 and burned it down. The gate was easily vaulted over, and nobody saw them go in. But thankfully, no one was hurt, and all I lost was a geography project. Nothing, in the grand scheme of things. During the school day, the gates were open to all and sundry, and anyone could walk right up to the outside of our classrooms. But only parents came in, bringing in forgotten packed lunches or dinner money. We had no reason not to keep our innocence. But at least when that innocence was lost, something was done. Although too late for the town of Dunblane.

The private ownership of handguns, despite opposition from the gun lobby, was banned in the UK in 1998. There have of course been horrific classroom murders since, and these are just as significant and awful, but none have involved guns. Which is more than you can say for the United States, where it seems like there is a mass shooting in a high school every other day. And often it's children touting the guns. Obama says it must stop, but apparently too many Republican senators disagree, because nothing is ever done.

As for Dunblane, what we will never know is - why. Rest in peace, you brave, beautiful, innocent, wonderful children.

"Snowdrops were out in profusion..." 

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