What is it like to live somewhere that becomes the centre of an international news story?
This time last week, Salisbury was just one of those places tourists visit. When people asked where you came from, you’d begin with “Salisbury” and end with “kind of near Stonehenge” since few people seem to know where Salisbury actually is. Actually, they don’t really know where the stones are either – but they do at least recognise the name.
On Monday morning, news emerged of two people being taken ill in the Maltings; they had been rushed to hospital, one by air ambulance. Then the local A&E department was closed for a while, and then the area around the bench was cordoned off.
I witnessed many people on Facebook complaining about pesky druggies and precious resources being spent on people’s drug habits. Rumour was that two people had taken heroin cut with fentanyl and that fentanyl can be lethal. Explaining why the bench and the local A&E had been closed, people surmised that the “druggies” must have been sick and that this meant the fentanyl had gotten into the air. I don’t know enough about drugs to know whether this is possible; it seemed unlikely, but since I wasn’t planning on heading towards the hospital or the Maltings that day, I was nonplussed.
Soon it emerged that the “druggies” were actually a Russian ex-spy named Sergei Skripal and an unknown woman who later turned out to be his daughter Yulia. The police cordon was widened; the local Zizzi restaurant was closed. Social media went mad with people exclaiming, “omg! I walk past that bench every day and sometimes I sit on it!” Someone spoke to the world’s press to proudly state that they had seen the two people dying on the bench, and had “left them to it.”
Not long after this, the world’s press descended upon Salisbury. Salisbury is a city – but a very small one. Everyone knows everyone else, and we all know each other’s business. When I mentioned this to someone on Twitter they challenged me with “oh, so you knew the Russian bloke then?” Well, no I didn’t. But he lived in the road where my sister works; the cordoned off Zizzi restaurant is around three blocks from my house, and I have friends working in the office building next door which was briefly cordoned off on Wednesday. Like most people, I have friends who work in the emergency services; friends who work for the MOD and even friends who work at Porton Down. Salisbury has always been a bit like playing that “6 Degrees of Separation” game whereby you can link anyone in the city to literally anyone else in the city in fewer than six moves.
Also, in the same vein as the “I walk past that bench sometimes” contingent, I did go into Zizzi once. Last June. I am no more a part of this media storm than someone living in Switzerland, but I am close to it and affected by it – not least because we live a stone’s throw from the local police station and even my five-year-old has noticed that the police car park we walk through on our way to the shops is somewhat empty these days.
And so the week has gone on, with more places being cordoned off, more police officers and more of the world’s media taking up residence in our city. On two days, a news helicopter appeared to be doing laps over our heads, and from what I’ve seen in the media the sum total of this expensive (and frankly irritating) effort was an aerial photograph of Sergei Skripal’s house – which they could have just got from Google Earth and saved themselves a lot of money (and the people of Salisbury a lot of irritation).
The press seem to have spent Tuesday wandering in and out of Tesco, asking the staff if they’d seen anything. As more details emerged, they broadened their horizons and did things like calling the care home around the corner from Skripal’s house, to see if they knew anything. Rumour has it they paid a shop owner £2500 for a 10-second CCTV clip of Skripal buying scratchcards. What began as a few people with long lens cameras became over the next few days three vans, a gazebo and Dermot Murnaghan with his personal lighting rig outside of the local library. Inconvenient if you were trying to get somewhere in a hurry; especially if you happened to turn your head and accidentally look at Murnaghan’s light. I speak from experience.
There has been no end of speculation. He was poisoned in the pub. No, it was the restaurant. Or was it his house? Or was he poisoned as he sat on the bench? This wasn’t the Russians; Salisbury is just 8 miles from Porton Down so it must have been an inside job. There are several people in a coma. There are hundreds of people critically ill. The army are coming to carry out covert operations. We’re all at risk from whatever is on that bench under the tent outside of Superdrug. The best one I saw was a disgruntled journalist Tweeting a photo of a Tesco delivery lorry outside Zizzi, blocking their view into the restaurant. How dare they use a Tesco truck to obscure the view of police doing their jobs… Except that Tesco is next to Zizzi, and I’m fairly sure their loading bay at the back of the building was inside of the police cordon – so the Tesco delivery truck was in fact delivering to Tesco. Hold the front page.
I do not, as a rule, follow the news. But Twitter and Facebook have been interesting over the last week – mainly because I recognise the background and faces in the images and footage, and am interested as to how long the police cordon will be in place (for the foreseeable, it seems).
My main concern over the last few days is really the mass hysteria that seems to have grown among some people, fuelled in no small part by a large media presence and endless speculation by armchair detectives who’ve seen four episodes of Spooks and think they know a thing or two. Why aren’t the police telling us the full story, they demand – as if doing so would not jeopardise an operation of which we the public have seen only the tiny part being played out in public.
I am not concerned about the possibility of somehow becoming the next victim of a nerve agent in Salisbury; the police have put up cordons and the country’s best experts are dealing with this. I am not concerned that the police cordons were put up too late, or weren’t big enough, or are unnecessary, or they’re not telling us enough. Whilst they don’t always get it right, the police are doing their job – and we really just have to trust them, or we’ll all go mad with conspiracy theory nightmares. I’m not even concerned at the prospect of the military being deployed. As one local so eloquently put it on the news the other day: the army are always driving through here any way. There are lots of MOD bases and barracks and training grounds near here. The sight of soldiers on our streets would be no great shock.
Yesterday the road near the ambulance station was closed so that the military could remove an ambulance. Save for a couple of people in hysterics about how they might have been at risk by walking past said ambulance station, the main problem was that at least one road was almost unpassable thanks to the media swarm.
People seem to be forgetting that we would all kick off if the authorities were lax in any way. A nerve agent was used on someone in the centre of Salisbury, and they’re being understandably cautious about anything and everything. Today people who had been in either the Mill or Zizzi after 13:30 last Sunday were advised to wash their possessions – most probably because it’s better to be safe than sorry, not because any of these people is likely to become the next victim of this attack.
The only thing I have really been worried about is explaining all of this to my inquisitive five-year-old. I spent the first half of the week thinking we would just avoid going into town, and the cordon would be gone by the weekend. Then I began thinking of clever ways to walk her to drama club on Saturday morning, because our usual route goes through the Maltings and is currently unavailable. When it became clear the cordon would be up for at least a few weeks, I realised there was no point in trying to keep it from her. We took a detour on the way to drama club, but on the way home we went into Sainsburys, whose entrance overlooks the Maltings. S saw the tent over the bench, and the police tape and officers. In the end I said that “something funny” had happened and the police were just making sure it was all ok. Later we walked past Zizzi and she was more interested in seeing how many police officers she could spot. She’s not scared because I’ve not told her anything to make her scared. In her head, the police exist only to “catch bad guys” so seeing more of them around can only mean they’re catching more bad guys.
So, what is it like to live in Salisbury these days? The same as on any other day, but with more police and more chance of accidentally finding yourself on the early evening news, carrying your shopping home from Tesco. The media has said we are living in fear, but from what I have seen we are not.
Disclaimer: I am but one Salisbury resident and this is only my experience. Others may well have been affected profoundly by this and some may indeed be “living in fear.”
EDIT: Since I published this post a couple of hours ago, a police cordon has been set up at the bottom of our road so that the army can remove police vehicles from the car park. So we are a little more affected than we were before, and I’ll need to figure out how to explain it to S in the morning. Still, the world has not ended and I am not yet panicking.
I wrote a follow-up post to this, about fake news in Salisbury. You may like to read it.