We do not know whether Norman Kember is alive or dead, and yet he is a ghost. His face haunts our TV screens. We go about our daily lives, with his image in the background, on TV sets in shops and on an inside page of the Metro newspaper. When we eventually hear something, we will look up for a moment, and think “oh, it’s happened, then” and then carry on with whatever it was we were doing. Whatever the news, we will barely be surprised. We do not an will never know him. He is just a symbol for something indeterminate, and icon that we look at for a while.
Norman’s image is the latest such symbol to hover on the edge of our consciousness. Ken Bigley took on the role before him, another old man. We hear stories of how they are decent normal people, just like us. Anything that does not fit with the stereotype is not mentioned, glossed over. It is Ken’s brothers and father who the media go to for quotes, not his Thai-bride, Sombat. Norman’s mission to Iraq seems eccentric – not the action of a typical, normal bloke – but it is mentioned with pride as if its the sort of thing any of us might have done after picking our kids up from football practice. We use their first names, not their surnames. They symbolise the ‘everyman’ for a little while, and then we switch the channel over.
That other, sadly familiar icon is that of stolen innocence. The narrative of the Soham murders fit neatly into a Brothers Grimm template. The girls become one character, Hollyandjessica. Dressed in their Manchester United replicas, they are modern Red Riding Hoods, skipping off to play, where a Big Bad Wolf eats them. Maxine Carr becomes the wicked witch, with The Sun bizarrely dropping her in the same circle of hell as Myra Hindley. (By the way, this is the same tabloid that also supplied us with images of slighlty more mature girls wearing Man U shirts on Page 3). So persistent is the story that the media seeks out new ways to reinforce it. The girls are always shown together. I’m pretty sure that one of the later images released is a computer composite (the one with Holly – or is it Jessica? – in a blue cap). The light looks wrong.
In other cases, the facts don’t fit with our preconceived narrative, and so we are presented with misleading symbols to crowbar it in. When Jodi Jones was killed near Dalkeith in 2003, it was not the shattering of innocence, but a tragic end to a life already peppered with low self-esteem and grief. And yet the picture of Jodi distributed by the news media had been taken several years earlier, giving the impression that the victim was a primary school petal, and not a pierced, fourteen year old goth. How would we have judged the case if a more recent picture had been released?
Perhaps none of this matters. It will not change the fate of Norman Kember, nor condone the murders of Ken Bigley, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman or Jodi Jones. But it is worth remembering that we do not know these people, and we do not understand their stories. Their images merely wallpaper our lives for a time, and we will forget them once more, learning nothing.