On the 2nd June 2010, Derrick Bird made my hometown of Whitehaven internationally famous by shooting dead 12 people and injuring 11 others in the worst mass shooting in Britain since Dunblaine in 1996.
My wife, children and I, being 5,000 miles away from our friends and family were in an awful state as we followed the news until confirmation of Bird’s death and then began the long checking to make sure all we knew we unharmed. Bird almost certainly drove past our house and definitely killed one man while he stood next to our friend and neighbour.
At the time, Whitehaven was considered a ‘sleepy town’ and it was us that were in a ‘dangerous’ land, so the fact that we were safe in Bangladesh while friends were locked into the local library to save them from a crazed gunman was not something we took lightly.
I was inspired to write this post as one of my very first blog publishings on another site and offer it again here, one year after re-starting my blog writing on wordpress, edited and updated to include my thoughts nearly two years on. The key focus of the post was not to dwell on the awful event but to give my impression the people of Whitehaven…
This post is dedicated to the memory of the victims of 2nd June 2010, their loved ones and to the good people of Whitehaven and area.
Isn’t it odd that inevitably, as we grow up, we dislike the place in which we live? I remember a student, when I lived in Cambridge, who had lived all her life there telling me it was a dreadful place because ‘there was nothing to do’. Cambridge! One of the most incredible places in the world!
Wherever I go I find much the same thing with children and young adults. The place of their birth is deadly dull in comparison to…well, anything really. But Whitehaven is considered so remote with so little going on there that when I was interviewed for a teaching post at the local school I was grilled by a committee of three about exactly how I would spend my free time. All three of them were ‘foreigners’ to the place (in that they didn’t come from Whitehaven and actually didn’t even live there! They just worked at the school).They were worried I would find the place a terrible bore and leave very quickly. The truth, as they say, could not have been further away.
I fell in love with Whitehaven not long after I fell in love with my wife.
We were studying in Cambridge at the time so I had no idea, other than her accent, that she came from the north. As it was, when I found out – like most of the population of England – I had only the vaguest idea where it was.
“Is that in Scotland?” I asked rather apologetically. Having lived there over 10 years now I secretly curse when someone asks me that these days, but back then I was young and foolish. I soon learned from my soon-to-be-wife that there was a huge difference between being in Scotland and almost being in Scotland.
And that, I guess, is one of the major reasons I love Whitehaven. Not so much the scenery, the harbour, the hills, the lakes – beautiful though they are – but the ‘in your face’ nature of the people there. Like my wife.
It is not so much that people in Whitehaven will call a ‘spade a spade’, as that they will call it a ‘bloody great shovel’ and I love that. It is one of the reasons I have taught children for 20 years. I still get as excited now being with a student as I did back then because I love the honesty. Children don’t know what they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ tell you. They just say it with brutal honesty. Cumbrians, like most northerners, are not known for being genteel and polite. But they are honest. Cumbrian children all the more so.
I know that it is difficult to generalise about people and you have your good and bad wherever you go. But in Whitehaven, perhaps more than anywhere else I have ever lived, the people tell you how it really is. If you look a total idiot they will tell you. If you paid too much for something they will tell you. If they disagree with you they will tell you.
That all sounds negative doesn’t it but no, believe me, it is refreshing.
Because Whitehaven people also know how to tell you when you are getting it right. And if you need someone on your side there is no one I would rather have than a Cumbrian who believed in me fighting my corner. They will sing your praises to the far corners if you warrant it and they are not backwards in coming forwards with telling you when you have got it right. I can’t think of a single time when someone from Whitehaven has paid me a compliment that didn’t sound like it was the God’s honest truth. There was no buttering up. Just the facts, as they saw it.
Is this some kind of nostalgic longing to be back there now I live in Bangladesh with a very different kind of society? No not all. For two reasons:
Firstly, I love being here too. The people are different but they are every bit as special. I’ve written of this many times now. I do get homesick for Whitehaven at times but usually I am content with my lot here. I write then, not with sorrow but a deep swelling of pride in Whitehaven, a place that I have come to appreciate all the more now that I am separated from it.
Secondly, because actually I have been saying all this ever since I first stepped foot in the town. I was attracted to the place because of the woman I knew best from there – my wife. So I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was me, not the Cumbrian in our marriage, who decided we should leave Cambridge and move back to her hometown.
Whilst Cumbrians will be critical of each other at times, they take great pride in their town as they work together to make festivals the envy of any place. What dogged persistence when the infamous Cumbrian weather ravages every rooftop. Far from being beneath those of us who are ‘foreigners’ (I come from the south after all) and have found shelter in this noble town, I think they have much to show us about what we have lost that was precious to England all but a few decades ago. Certainly in all the years I have been there, I have never failed to be amazed by the courage and love this town has given my family and I.
For a brief moment, Whitehaven got some bad press because of the actions of a man who had lost his sense of right and wrong. Unbelievably, the people were accused of being ‘uncaring’ and ‘cold’ and all they had been doing right was forgotten or ignored. Just recently, whilst in the UK last year, I watched a stand up comedian live and he used me in some banter for his act. When he found out I was from Whitehaven he fired out a string of jokes about serial killers. I don’t blame him, a comedian’s job is to pick holes for the amusement of others, and he was actually a very funny man. But at the same time I was saddened that long after that day of the shootings, this is still what people think of the town.
Despite this, when I returned to Whitehaven last year I found business as usual. The festivals took place, the partying in the street at Christmas, the locals putting on a pantomime – the celebration of life in fact. Nothing gets a Cumbrian down for long and nor should it. They have nothing to be ashamed of.