It has become a cliché of the information age that we remember where we were when we learned of certain events, the death of JFK or John Lennon for example. On each occasion there was something so shocking in the news that it etched itself into our minds, leaving us with a sense of personal connection to the bigger event – almost as if we knew the figure in question and had some stake of our own in what had taken place.
Twenty years ago this week Sarah and I were on a short break in the Lake District. She was still running her textile design business, the children were aged five and seven, and we had the luxury of a nanny with whom we had left them at home. We were eating breakfast in our hotel room with the television on, when the programme was interrupted by a news flash. It stated simply that reports were coming in of a shooting at a primary school in Perthshire.
For a dreadful period – I no longer remember how long: it might have been a few minutes, it might have been much more – we sat there dumbly and waited for more information. At that moment, 200 miles away, our children were at a primary school in Perthshire. Our relief when we heard the fateful word ‘Dunblane’ was beyond description, though only momentary as more details of the story began to emerge, and continued to do so over the coming hours.
We went out and walked that day but we were struggling, as were people everywhere, to take in what had happened. At dinner that evening, or it might have been the following evening, quite suddenly, mid-sentence, I felt myself dropping into an abyss of anxiety and despair. It came on me so strongly and unexpectedly, and terrified me so much, that I could hardly speak.
As it turned out, it was the trigger for a prolonged feeling of disconnection and introspection that led me eventually into therapy and a meandering five-year journey through my own inner landscape, lifting up stones, peering round corners, scraping moss from signposts, seeking new vantage points from which to see how the light fell in different places, and all the while joining things up, reframing things, making links and connections.
One of the more persistent of these was the theme of abandonment, stemming from my own early experience of being sent to boarding school. In time I came to understand that it had burst to the surface that evening in the Lake District in response both to the fatal vulnerability of the Dunblane children, abandoned to the terrible madness of Thomas Hamilton, and also to our abandonment of our own children at that moment, having left them behind in Perthshire.
Following that weekend we never returned to the Lake District; not because of Dunblane, or at least not consciously so, but because the nanny left and long weekends away became impossible. But then, just a month ago, planning a weekend break, I found myself thinking it would be good to go back. It wasn’t until after I’d booked the B&B that I realised it would be the 20th anniversary of our previous visit, almost to the week.
I was a little nervous about how I might react, but we stayed in a different place and walked some different routes, the weather was kind to us, and the comforting beauty of the landscape around Grasmere worked its magic. It was a happy weekend and in some small way, it felt like a milestone passed.
A milestone, though, that is utterly trivial in comparison with those of the Dunblane relatives, survivors, siblings and others closely involved who this Sunday, 13 March 2016, will reflect on the dreadful events of 20 years ago; and who last night spoke on BBC1 with such dignity and composure and so little bitterness: the eloquent head teacher who still feels guilty that it could have happened in his school; the softly-spoken father who lost his only child three years after losing his wife to cancer; the beautiful young woman who never knew her elder sister.
I woke this morning with their voices still in my head. Standing in the shower, it came to me that there was something I had never done, so overpowered by my own feelings had I been at the time. I got in the car, bought some flowers and drove to Dunblane. It was a spellbinding drive with long views of big hills lifting their snowcaps into an azure sky.
Dunblane cemetery is not an easy place to find, tucked away at the back of one of those sprawling residential developments where one can easily become lost in a maze of seemingly identical streets. When I got there the place was deserted, the only sign of life three magpies hopping about in the sunshine among the gravestones. I made my way towards the memorial fountain and stopped in front of the two rows of graves that stand before it; the graves of 12 five-year-olds and one adult, Gwen Mayor, the 45-year-old teacher who died trying to protect her pupils.
I placed some of the flowers on the rim of the fountain, inscribed with the names of all 17 who died, and some by Gwen Mayor’s grave. Then I stood there and cried a little. I thought: there is nothing in human experience that can make sense of something like this. I was there for perhaps 15 minutes in all and saw no one. It felt lonely. I would have liked to be able to share my feelings with someone.
But perhaps I was not alone. Perhaps in that moment I was standing for all those people, wherever they are, who all those years ago had felt a personal connection with that terrible, inexplicable event; the connection we feel because, in the final analysis, cliché or no, we are all in this together and so long as we retain our humanity, we all have hearts.