Rachel Stalker’s personal testimony of the Cumbrian shootings

It was a date that seemed so inconsequential in my diary.

At 6pm on June 2nd 2010 the Copeland CLP was due to hold their post-election debrief at the GMB offices on Scotch Street, Whitehaven. It was supposed to be a positive, upbeat and constructive meeting to build on a superb result for Jamie Reed MP who magnificently held onto his “key seat” with a majority of 3,833.

Due to events that were completely beyond our comprehension – and which had barely sunk in – the meeting was relocated to the constituency offices in Cleator Moor. We knew a gunman had been on the loose across West Cumbria and that at least 5 people had been killed. None of us knew that shots had been fired within yards of the GMB offices, which had been our General Election campaign HQ. Most of us were unaware of the extent to which the international media had descended en masse on our remote community.

As people arrived, news came through on mobiles and Blackberries that there had been 12 deaths plus the gunman and 25 injuries. Some names had been flying around through community gossip and they included several close friends of activists at the meeting – including Labour Party member and activist, Michael Pike.

Most of us had been locked in our houses or offices all day; local councillors had been locked in a council meeting in Whitehaven. During those hours, the hardest thing was having no idea what on earth was going on and fearing for the safety of loved ones elsewhere. We shared our stories and information about what we knew.

Those who had heard gunfire had innocently assumed that a car’s engine had mis-fired.

We talked about hearing our usually cheerful MP sound shell-shocked on the news. It had only been a week since he’d been flown by helicopter to the harrowing scene of the Keswick bus crash. As a local man, he was as likely as any of us to have friends and family amongst the casualties of both these tragedies. The burden of responsibility on this 36 year old father of 3 – nearly 4 – small children must be terrible.

After a minute’s silence, the meeting began, but there was no hiding the fraught atmosphere. Tragedy has unintended consequences. Our “thank you” advert in the Whitehaven News had been pulled because of the Keswick bus crash but it would now have to be pulled again because of the day’s events. We agreed to have a “thank you” stall at the Whitehaven Carnival, but would that still go ahead? Come to think of it, was it appropriate for us to do any political campaigning or membership recruitment for the foreseeable future?

The local Labour newspaper, the Egremont Today, was due to do a special presentation at a celebration of community event at the Tate Gallery in London the following day. How could this be handled now that the town would be associated with mass murder? How would the volunteer editors handle their next edition which would need to report on these events?

Indeed, the founder of the Egremont Today was already in London having travelled down that morning. He and his wife were to find out about events because they had bought a copy of the London Evening Standard. By far the most hard-working and indomitable Labour councillor and activist in Copeland, I was later to discover that he knew most of the victims. That is a measure – if ever there could be one – of his wholehearted dedication to his community.

As thoughts turned to youth recruitment, mention was made of a recently recruited 16 year old activist who had lost his best friend in the Keswick bus crash and who was also close friends with the gunman’s son. This intelligent and feisty young man had, at the tender age of 15, taken on Nick Griffin and his henchmen outside the Ali Taj restaurant in Whitehaven during the County Council and Euro Elections. He had already volunteered to have his own youth column in the Egremont Today and been headhunted by our MP for an internship. But recent events had taken their toll.

As we left the meeting, some of us decided to go to the pub to cheer ourselves up, but as we walked in, we could see that they had BBC News 24 on and were interviewing Jamie Reed. He talked tenderly about strong communities where everyone knows everyone else, where families go back not just generations but centuries – having lived together, worked together and died together. This was a place where – even today – you could leave your door unlocked.l

We were relieved to see him bearing up okay under the circumstances – indeed, in the days to come he would earn plaudits from across the House for the way he handled the crisis – and the media.

Then Labour Council Leader, Elaine Woodburn, was interviewed. She’d been heading away on holiday but had returned – and when she got home she saw a dead body lying 100 yards from her own front door. It was all far too close.

As the gunman’s journey began to unfold, it took the viewer on a guided tour of Copeland – through quaint Lakeland villages to hardy former mining communities. It could have been a TV advert promoting the area as a tourist destination were it not for the deadly circumstances.

The towns – and people – we knew and loved plastered across the international media; the hospital our MP had fought for so unrelentingly had become the epicentre of unremitting tragedy. Vicars, policemen, doctors, politicians: this was our community – our world.

I’ve lost count of the number of journalists who’ve described Copeland as a corner of “unbroken Britain” – a sentiment I would entirely agree with. It’s important to remember, though, that this isn’t a mythical 1950s suburban “Tory shires” kind of un-brokenness. This is Labour’s unbroken Britain. This is where “community activism” isn’t just rhetoric to rebuild a defeated party. It is a way of life.

It is an unbroken interdependency that was born in the Whitehaven coalfield – and was given backbone through the many countless fatal mining accidents that have ravaged West Cumbria over the centuries. We’re there for each other because we have to be – because our lives depend on it – and because no-one else will be.

As I stood in the driving rain on the beach at Seascale memorial service, I thought “only in West Cumbria would 500 people turn out in this weather for a church service: the on-looking media will think we’re mad!” Perhaps it was a measure of the community’s grief and shellshock that they were prepared to do so. Or perhaps it represented something deeper about the West Cumbrian spirit: a recognition that we are there for each other rain or shine; in tragedy as well as celebration; in defeat as well as victory.

The world has much to learn from West Cumbrians.

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3 Responses to “Rachel Stalker’s personal testimony of the Cumbrian shootings”

  1. Stuart Bruce says:

    Great article. I’ve still not been up to see my Dad and brother since the shootings, but I’m still finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that these are all places I know and even people I know. My Dad lives between Frizington and Cleator Moor, near to the scene of the first shooting. Growing up I knew Joe and Mary Bird well. Joe always had a cheery word for you and even after I’d grown up and left the village he still enquired after me. Despite being local and knowing many party members from standing in the selection with Jamie and Thomas Docherty I still find it hard to imagine what it must be like for you all.

  2. Rachel Stalker says:

    This is going to sound terribly cliched but everyone knows someone who has been more severely affected by these events. This helps us keep a sense of perspective. I really feel for the Bird family who are probably in a more difficult situation than anyone.

    Now that the media have (almost) gone, there’s an odd sense of normality about things for those of us who aren’t bereaved, injured, traumatised, members of the emergency services, clergy, local politicians. or taxi drivers.

    Except, that is, when driving past the Duke Street cab rank…

  3. Gillian Troughton says:

    A sunny day outside Union Hall still brings back memories. Great article Rachel. Still lots of “10-minutes earlier and it could’ve……” type thoughts. But we have learnt that we can rely on the community to hold us while we weep and support us when we wobble; and we can move onto the good times. To pause and reflect helps build our strength and is a positive sign for the future.

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