Just the other week in Coleraine I saw a rather astonishing thing: a man reading a book, except it wasn’t a book. His head was buried in a ‘Kindle’, one of these new electronic gizmos which masquerades as a book. It should be hauled straight up to Bishop Street and prosecuted for personation. True, it’s the same shape as a book; and yes the reader holds it in the same way he or she would hold a book. But I can’t believe it actually feels like a book, and I’m certain it doesn’t smell like a book. I can’t imagine a ‘Kindle’ ever arousing the feelings a book does, when you take it in your hands: the smoothness of the dust jacket; the weight of the tome itself, heavy with possibility; the aroma which seduces you, as you first prise open the cover; and the warm, familiar, reassuring utterances you hear as you leaf through its pages.
Perhaps it’s to do with having passed my fiftieth birthday, but I now find myself hankering after the old days and some of the old ways. I have fond memories of helping my granny with the mangle in her backyard; of running up the street to the infinitely generous McGeadys’ home to speak to my aunt on the telephone from London; of being dunked in a tin bath in front of the coal fire in the living room, and then being fortified by a supper of plain old toast – made on a fork – on those same flames. There’s nothing to beat it.
I’ve even found myself reminiscing about the short journey to the draughty, outside toilet, where sheets of newspaper hung on a nail. It was there I first learned about recycling and, for many years, I had the ink-stained backside to prove it. How environmentally-friendly the old, broadsheet Derry Journal was - none of this namby-pamby, triple-ply, aloe vera nonsense. And isn’t it a curious feature of modernisation that the most basic, sanitary functions, which we used to perform outside – in the smallest ‘room’ in the house – have now been brought indoors? Progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It certainly isn’t. In the last number of days, guns have made an unwelcome reappearance onto our streets. Last week, four civilians – one of whose car had been stolen - were lucky to escape injury, or worse, when a gunman unleashed a hail of bullets at police officers investigating the theft. At the weekend, a teenage van-driver was punched in the face by a gun-wielding ‘hero’ during an armed robbery outside a Galliagh supermarket; later the same day, customers in a Bishop Street bookmaker’s were forced to lie on the floor as two more pistol-packers ‘made off with the day’s takings.
Condemning what she called the recent spate of such robberies – and, of course, the perpetrators - Sinn Fein councillor Elisha McLaughlin made one interesting comment: the police, she said, had to “step up to the mark”.
She’s right, of course, but so do we. In fact the time has long since passed for us to do so. We either want progress or we don’t. We either agree to live together or we don’t. We either agree on the sanctity of life or we don’t. We either work for a fairer, more peaceful, more tolerant, more law-abiding future or we don’t. And like it or not – like them or not – part of that ‘contract’ involves supporting the PSNI.
Admittedly we have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves a normal, civilized society. In such an environment, though, the police would be our first line of defence against the armed thieves who are holding up our businesses and stealing our cars, the burglars who are breaking into our houses, the thugs who are terrifying our older neighbours and assaulting our young, the men who abuse their partners and the miscreants who are preying upon local women.
Yes, of course, the PSNI have to step up to the mark. When they fail in their duty, we should hold them to account. If they fail to protect us, or defend us, or God forbid if they abuse us, we should hold them to account. If they prove ineffective in tackling the litany of crimes occurring day-and-daily in our midst, we should hold them to account. But, likewise, when police officers do respond promptly to a crime committed in our neighbourhoods – like a car theft, or a burglary, or a rape - and someone arrogates to himself the right to shoot them, we too have to step up to the mark. That would be a real hallmark of progress.
Not in our name.
Read more Paul McFadden in the Journal every Friday