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Home > Culture and Society

Fear and Loathing in... Everywhere

People think of asylum seekers and they are afraid; afraid that outsiders are coming to clean our office buildings in an exotic way or open shops that sell funny shaped vegetables and don’t run out of bread by noon

Jeremy Hardy

1 October 2003

There is clearly a deficit of real fear in our society. We all talk about what a frightening place the world has become and yet we still need to supplement our natural intake of terror with crime figures, documentaries, roller-coasters, scary movies and anecdotes about things that really happened, which might or might not be true.

There is an irony in the fact that some of the people keenest to take part in extreme sports would think me mad to live in South London. They moved down to Cornwall for a more secure life, and then took up surfing. People aren’t meant to surf, I tell them. We are not turtles. We are natural drowners. “Actually,” they say, “a man can drown in an inch of water.” But he doesn’t. He drowns in the sea.

Subconsciously, people fleeing the cities are seeking not peace and quiet, but the terror of the void. In rural England, there are fewer muggings, but more savage ritual murders. Fewer stabbings, more smotherings. Babies exposed at birth because they appear to be left-handed. The rattle of gunfire is even more common in the country. There are no tooting mini-cabs late at night, but there are cider-crazed teenagers driving clapped out Cortinas through the village at 80mph. There is the screech of US jets on training flights. There are no hideous fox mating-cries in the country, because all the foxes have moved to London to find rooms. But in your rural idyll, you can still hear the tortured cries of your daughter’s guinea pigs as they are torn apart by foxhounds.

And your daughter was probably safer in London. Her mobile was nicked a couple of times but she never had to walk two miles through unlit woodland, risking abduction.

The countryside is truly a scary place to be. One might imagine that newcomers would be welcome. An expanded gene pool is always helpful, and one is always safer when there are people milling about. And yet the rural British feel the need to panic at the thought of asylum seekers. The government clearly knew what the effect would be when it dispersed refugees around the country. Now it aims to corral them into camps, with varying degrees of freedom, but still located in areas where the post office has been closed, just as it was finally being accepted. And of course the villagers claim to be scared when young men ‘stand around in the village’ – in that scary standing-around way foreigners have.

To be fair, fear of refugees bedevils towns too. People think of asylum seekers and they are afraid; afraid that outsiders are coming to clean our office buildings in an exotic way or open shops that sell funny shaped vegetables and don’t run out of bread by noon. And refugees aren’t the only hate figures stalking the consciousness of the fearful. It might be gays, moving into the suburbs with their baking smells, and their subtle varieties of bedding plants.

Of course, anyone we don’t know is a potential criminal. And crime is the ultimate fear. We’re all enlisted to be in fear of illegality. We’re told, “Don’t have nightmares” and the subtext is, “But spend your every waking moment afraid that Yardies are taking over Thames Ditton.”

If we were really frightened to go outside, we wouldn’t need the telly. With the telly, we have a new scary thing every month. At the moment it’s ‘people-traffickers’, the scary part of the expression being not the word ‘traffickers’ but the word ‘people’. Some voters have chosen the BNP because of the fear of foreign anthrax, when six months ago they thought anthrax was posh toilet paper, only dangerous because it can strangle a puppy. As the government limbered up to attack Iraq, we heard about the dangers of ricin. True, ricin is poisonous. You would die if I injected it into your blood. You would die if I injected Sunny Delight into your blood. Ricin is an ink remover, used in the forging of travel documents, hence its presence in flats where the police arrest illegal immigrants. Then we are told that, at the flat, police found a map of the Underground, bundles of forged money and replica weapons, when the reality is they found Monopoly and Cluedo.

We stay in and are frightened to go out. If we turned the telly off and went out, we might be less scared. But instead we stay in and watch Big Brother…and that’s really frightening.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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