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General Feature

Anne Enright, the McCanns and Me

On October 16th last, Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her fifth novel, The Gathering. In the October 4th issue of the London Review of Books, she had published an untitled Diary piece, subsequently shorthanded as ‘Disliking the McCanns’. Had she not subsequently won the prestigious literary award, it is unlikely her musings on the sad affair would have attracted much attention outside the literary pages, if even there. Or maybe it would have just taken a bit longer for people to take notice. For, in hindsight, it can certainly be admitted that she identified precisely, and articulated intelligently, something that was bothering a lot of people.

As it worked out, the sudden thrusting into the limelight of this hitherto ‘obscure’ writer meant news editors found themselves desperately searching for some angle on her success story, and her recently minted public domain views on Kate and Gerry McCann proved a Godsend. The fact that Enright elected against allowing any newspapers to reprint her essay may have inadvertently helped her migration from Arts Reviews to front pages, where, through selectively sensationalised quotation, it was reduced in précis to the eye-grabbing ‘Booker Winner Slams McCanns’ or, even better (worse), ‘Why I Hate the McCanns’.

 

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On balance, though, Enright was probably right to distance herself from the piece and not become further embroiled in controversy, since almost no matter what she said she would only have been further digging her own grave. She wisely confined her comments, in an interview with the New York Times, to saying that her article was “an emotional journey full of nuance and contradiction and self-appraisal” that had been misinterpreted. At any rate, innuendos to the effect that she was only courting publicity by publishing the McCanns piece seem particularly wrongheaded, since she can hardly be said to have been trying to curry favour, or promote herself and her chances, by saying exactly what she thought on the matter two weeks before Booker judgement day, regardless of the opprobrium it would inevitably invite if held up for mass consumption. In general, her win has been well received, one notable exception being the immensely irritating Eileen Battersby’s rather mean-spirited report in The Irish Times, a piece which employed what has been one of the chief tenets of her reviews for years now: that novels should ‘convince’, i.e. convince her, of what we’ve never been entirely sure, except maybe their own authenticity.

For writers, the lesson to be drawn from this saga is: ‘Don’t Write About The McCanns, Ever’. However, as I am not in imminent danger of winning the Booker, here goes with my tuppenceworth.

Any discussion of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and her parents’ predicament, especially if it contains negative criticism, is usually prefaced by a profuse extension of sympathy at their loss and suffering. But are they really so deserving of sympathy? Were they not as culpably negligent in their parenting as they have been in their frantically ham-fisted attempts to get their child back? I am not a parent myself, but any parents I have talked to about this case are adamant that you never leave your small child alone. As a couple, once you have a kid you hardly ever go out together anymore; and if you do want to go out for dinner with friends and get blotto, you damn well hire a babysitter and pay up and look happy about it. Amid all the cloak and dagger about DNA and hired cars, the fact remains that the complex in Playa del Luz offered a free ‘in-house babyminding service’. Why did the McCann parents not take advantage of it? Did they not trust the local help? While it has been part of the tabloid backlash against them, it is worth reiterating that if the McCanns were scangers, schemies or scobies (delete where applicable for your favoured term for ‘the lower orders’) and not doctors and therefore supposedly 'responsible' solid citizens, they'd be up before Social Services by now. As it is, they come across like those people you meet who couldn’t wait to reproduce, and then spend all their time moaning about the hardship and sacrifice involved. In this situation, it is the poor child rather than her progenitors who is most deserving of sympathy. With parents like that, who needs the bogeyman?

Similarly, the McCann parents were first portrayed as media-savvy, and are now being excused as media-naïve. Although their relentlessly orchestrated media campaign has ultimately backfired on them, one perhaps unintentional side-benefit of it is that Maddy (let’s dispense with the homely diminutive, and call the unfortunate girl what her parents called her: Madeleine) is unlikely to turn up in an x-rated or unrated DVD on a screen near you anytime soon. But maybe something worse has happened to her. All in all, the McCanns would have done better to heed the advice of the Portuguese police, to the effect that in creating this ‘monster of information’ they have put their daughter’s life in greater danger, since the more identifiable she becomes, the more likely it is that an abductor would kill her.

The question remains: why is the British press so hysterical about what amounts to a simple sad news item? The answer, as far as I can decipher, is that and her parents symbolise middle-class Anglo-Saxon ideals, the kind of people this kind of thing doesn’t happen to, and the Portuguese stand for untrustworthy, incompetent Latins, the kind of race that can be guaranteed to make a mess of things. It is worth speculating that the reason they were declared ‘suspects’ is that the local police were sick and tired of them hanging around, trying to ‘influence the investigation’, and just wanted rid of them. Maybe they were sick of hearing about how the British authorities would have handled it so much better. (In this regard, although it may appear frivolously tangential, it is worth remembering that Portugal is the English international soccer squad’s bogey team – even if this role is fast being eclipsed by Croatia.)

There is a broader issue at steak here. Here are some unpalatable facts. A hundred children go missing in Britain every year. Do we know even one of these kids’ names? An average of 14 girl children disappear every day in the former Soviet Republics. Do they stare doe-eyed out from the window of every newsagent you walk into? Professor Kevin Bales, a consultant to the United Nations programme on people trafficking, claimed in the recent documentary China’s Stolen Children that at least 70,000 young children a year are sold or stolen in China. Do we have an iconographicised image of any of them implanted indelibly on our minds?

Furthermore, what would have happened if the McCanns hadn’t been white and good-looking? (By-the-by, is Kate McCann really as attractive as everybody agrees?) In a strikingly similar case, except that it was in America, Jewel Mahavia Strong, aged four, went missing on a beach in Florida last May. Local police assumed that she had drowned, but now a new video obtained by Jewel’s frantic parents shows her alive and in the company of three women. You can read about her parents’ desperate search for their daughter on their MySpace page: myspace.com/jewelmahaviastrong. Because Jewell is black, the appeal for her safe return has somehow not managed to attract much interest beyond the black community in Britain and the US.

So, in the event of the non-return of their daughter, perhaps McCann mere et pere could try assuaging their considerable guilt by devoting some of their considerable time, energy and resources towards involvement in a general charity for rather less privileged missing or abducted children than their own hapless daughter.


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