My new puppy hasn’t been very well. I’ve spent the day taking him to the vets and watching him sleep, where normally he is rolling around and shitting. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t shat anywhere all day. Thinking about it, neither have I. That’s unusual.
What else I’ve been doing with my day, aside from a meeting with a plumber (#rocknrolla) is reading an odd, haunting and deeply moving brand funkin’ new piece of contemporary life writing: You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson, an established British journalist working out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His book is the story of the last days of Raoul Moat, who in July 2010 shot his ex-girlfriend, killed her new boyfriend, blinded a police officer, declared war on the entire police, hid out in some woods and then, after a stand-off with the police*, shot himself in the head using a shotgun cartridge filled with a single large fishing weight. Moat’s week in the spotlight, occurring as it did in my final provincial Summer, surrounded for the last time by a circle of friends and preparing for the move to London that would ultimately lead me to the point where my life revolves around a barely read website filled with pictures of my arse-
Moat’s week in the sun was my 9/11.
Nothing shook my England more than this man who could evade the police and Ray Mears (no joke), who could hold a gun to his head in a field for hours and hours and hours, who was scared and alone and dangerous… Moat died, childhood ended, life was over. “You are Raoul Moat,” cries Hankinson, but I already knew that I was, that we all are, we who died one Summer six years ago.
You Could Do Something Amazing… is an interesting book from a literary perspective, not just from the perspective of someone long fascinated with Moat.** I’d have to say that it contains the most interesting use of the second person in contemporary literature since my unpublished novel, White Lines, Black Truffles, which in turn was the most interesting use of the second person since Bright Lights, Big City. Here, Hankinson addresses the reader, but the reader is addressed as Raoul Moat. It is YOU who is committing the crimes, it is YOU who is shooting those you love, it is YOU who is hating those who don’t know who you are, it is you, buying a gun, promising violence, it is you who is hiding in the wilderness, it is you in a prolonged suicidal stand off with a negotiator, it is you who talks about your children, it is you who feels oppressed and trapped and alone, it is you who’ve been failed by the state and it is the people you’ve killed who were let down by your inability to change yourself and those institutions which should’ve been able to help having not done their duty.
The writing is gently within dialect, but not in a heavy Geordie way, just in a Northern England, working class (not clarse) kinda way. The vocabulary is Moat’s own, and Hankinson has spent years engaging with Moat’s many writings and home cassette recordings in order to be able to replicate his tone.
Moat wrote multiple suicide notes during his life, and whilst on the run he recorded a personal statement about his life on tape and wrote down a similar, but different, one too. He made recordings of interactions he had with social workers and other people he believed were victimising him, and he kept CCTV cameras near-constantly recording his house. He was paranoid and vulnerable, he was violent and angry, he was sad and depressed and he was seriously psychologically damaged. He repeatedly warned people what he was about to do before he did it, but even at the last moment he was ignored. Hankinson describes in an afterword the laughably inefficient way in which an outright statement of intent Moat made was ignored by authorities. There would have been time to protect Sam and Chris, the people he shot (Chris fatally), if the words of Moat’s fellow prisoner had been heeded. In this context, they’re not just Moat’s words and it is not just Moat’s warning – but they both come from you, and YOU are responsible.
“Isn’t it freakshow-like entertainment?” my girlfriend asked as I read Hankinson’s book, “Aren’t you just gawping at a stranger’s tragedy?”
In some ways, maybe yes. But You Could Do Something Amazing… actually feels rather didactic, almost Dickensian in the obviousness of its political point. Hankinson humanises Moat. Yes, he (Moat, not Hankinson) is violent towards all manner of people. (The offence he was serving jail time for was assault (not sexual) on a child). Yes, he is delusional; yes, he is motivated by rumour and jealousy and video games; yes, he is an absent (then suicidal) father; yes, he drags his friends into his revenge and two of them are now serving jail terms for aiding him… But he’s also a deeply fraught figure.
Moat is scared. Moat is weak. Moat has made himself big and strong because he feels, always, vulnerable. He never feels secure and he tells this to people over and over again, both professionals and his friends and acquaintances. When he is lying in a field with a gun pressed against his head, he advises the police on where to find his second gun because he is worried about children hurting themselves. In one breath he is victim, in the next he is aggressor… but he is guilt-ridden, he is empty, he is alone.
He shoots his ex-girlfriend, but claims that the compensation she’ll get will provide for her and their children in the future. He laments the pain he has caused people and the violence he has committed, but then straight afterwards falls into his persecution mania. He cries about leaving his children alone, but believes he isn’t deserving of them, and they are not deserving of a father as dysfunctional as he is.
Moat wanted to hurt people, but Hankinson somehow convinces the reader that Moat wanted to hurt people because he thought that was what he was expected to do. In a society where psychological treatment and even acknowledgement of mental health issues is still seen as something to be ashamed of – I recently heard someone describe depression as something others should be “better than” – things like this will happen. When someone like Raoul Moat – who sought treatment, who was chased for treatment but everything fell through DUE TO HIS MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES – turns himself into a “monster” – David Cameron’s word in fucking parliament – then changes are needed to the system.
Medical investment in Moat would’ve saved the lives not just of the man he shot to death, but would’ve also saved the life of the police officer he blinded, who later hanged himself. Moat’s actions weighed on his conscience at his death: suicide is not the action of a man who is happy, who sees his rampage as successful vigilantism, suicide – particularly suicide after hours of quasi-counselling with a trained negotiator – is a sad outcome, is depressing. No one reading this book will be ignorant of the ending (Hankinson makes sure of that), but that doesn’t mean that there is no tension. The tension comes from watching someone disintegrate, from reading about the people and the institutions that had the chance to stop him or – better yet – help him but failed to do so.
You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] is a tragedy, but it isn’t only Moat’s and nor is it only Moat’s and the other people he killed. It is a national tragedy, a national disgrace, and one would love to be able to say that half a decade on things are better. But they’re not. Mental health services are being cut, budgets torn down and, with doctors falling for the Tory government’s barely concealed plans to get them to accelerate the deconstruction of the NHS, the ending of free healthcare at the point of service is doomed to end. And healthcare includes mental healthcare, and thus people like Raoul Moat will find it EVEN HARDER to get treatment, to get help, to not be a danger to themselves and others.
In a better world, Moat would’ve found treatment, he would’ve been reached out to and assisted and his urges to work hard, to look after his children and to spend time in the outdoors would’ve been encouraged to grow, whilst his tendencies towards violence and aggression and paranoia would’ve been diminished. In a better world, Moat would be a happy man, still alive. But we’re not in a better world, and we’re hurtling towards a world where free treatment for serious mental illness is non-existent: Moat was not the first man whose aggressive paranoia led to murder, and he will not be the last, and if counselling and therapy become – as they once were – seen only as an activity to be enjoyed by the moneyed for a self-indulgent thrill, then this will happen again and again and again.
Yeah, you’re fucking right. Working class men don’t get depression and anxiety, do they, they’re “better than that”? Sober working class men aren’t vulnerable to paranoia that envelops them, are they? Psychiatrists are for the leisure classes, aren’t they? Like yoga, cold press coffee and soy milk.
People need help when they need help. Moat, crying about his daughters as he shoots himself in the head, is a testament to the pisspoor state of mental health services in the UK, and the timeliness of Hankinson’s publication, in this year that will almost certainly end with cash changing hands for treatment in fucking hospitals like we’re in a third world war zone and everyone is an enemy of the state, echoes something nasty coming soon.
Expect a hundred more Raoul Moats in the years to come.
Oh, yeah, and the book’s good. Made me cry a lot, very empathetic, very moving.
Hankinson’s is good journalism, which is how he describes the text: he is discussing an issue, reporting it, in a unique and thought-provoking way. He gives me things to write about, which is absolutely what non-fiction is meant to do.
A knock out.
A fishing pellet to the head.
Highly, soberly (like Moat), recommended. And what a cover!
* During which Paul Gascoigne, the alcoholic former footballer known as “Gazza” turned up with a six pack and a rotisserie chicken, claiming he’d known Moat when he was a bouncer and Paul was Newcastle’s biggest sleb.
** There is – no lie – a quotation about Moat’s death on the “About Me” section on Facebook, something that’s been there for years and noticed by no one, I imagine. But it’s creepy that it’s there, right? It also goes some way towards back-dating my current web presence as a gently splintering man. Then again, scroll through to all the Northern African posts from three years ago (three years since I briefly felt free) and it becomes clear that it’s the kind of splintering that you get after someone throws a chair against a wall in anger, really smashes it against the wall over and over and over again until it’s in pieces, then they use the broken wood and snapped staves to put back together a chair that one is expected to sit on. Obviously it’s splintered, particularly when you put all your weight on it. And have a dog in your lap. And a massive pile of unread books and some massive fucking Air Max.