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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK
Darn it, and face up to the global village
By Lisa Jardine

Truman Capote
Truman Capote, chronicler of a more innocent, but not a better age
Ever-more global communities are making increasingly strong claims on our lives over our immediate surroundings, Lisa Jardine writes.

My youngest son looked up from his book, to ask me a question. "What does 'darning a sock' mean?" Puzzled, I asked him to repeat the question. He responded by reading me a sentence from his book. It was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood:

"Later that same evening, another woman, in another kitchen, put aside a sock she was darning, [and] removed a pair of plastic-rimmed spectacles".

"What does 'darning a sock' mean?"

Vivid images flashed before my eyes. Myself in lovat-green uniform in the first year of secondary school, a wooden darning mushroom tucked inside an old school games sock, darning-needle poised. The terrifying Miss Kennard barking instructions at the class, as if we were taking part in a military campaign, telling us how to create the meticulous pattern of running-stitches and interwoven threads that would turn the hole in the heel into a gratifyingly neat lattice of wool. The genuine satisfaction of having been frugal - having made the sock "as good as new", for another season's wear.

When did I stop darning? It must have been in the early 1980s, probably when we gave up woollen socks in favour of something synthetic, or cotton mix. I don't believe I was darning any longer by the time my son was born in 1984, any more than I was mending three-cornered tears, or fixing the ladders in pairs of stockings.

"Do you really mean you don't know?" I asked, incredulously. He really didn't. Nor, when I explained, could he quite see the point. Perfectly adequate socks were on sale in packs of three or more pairs, in every supermarket. Why would you bother to mend a sock when you could simply buy a new pair?

The most shocking thing about the tale is the absolute senselessness of the atrocity
...on Capote's In Cold Blood

There is a touch of enchantment for me about the idea that an active verb could fall out of recognition, because the activity it describes seems no longer to serve a purpose. It says so much about the power of language to capture our lived experience. As long as a word can conjure up a vivid picture in our minds it maintains a fingertip-hold on the collective imagination. Once those pictures are irretrievably lost, so is the word's ability to convey meaning richly to us - significance derived from shared experience, beneath the surface of the words themselves.

But to get back to darning. The fact that my exchange with my son should have taken place over a book like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood set me thinking. An absolutely pioneering piece of writing, Capote called it the first "non-fiction novel". It is avowedly a work of literature, the fruit of Capote's exceptional insights and imagination, in which the facts have been so painstakingly and meticulously researched and assembled that it is almost impossible not to think of it as in the strictest sense, true.

In Cold Blood tells the story of the motiveless, senseless murder of the unbearably ordinary Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb in Kansas, in the early hours of 15 November 1959 (Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fifteen-year-old Kenyon). The most shocking thing about the tale is the absolute senselessness of the atrocity. The Clutters were prosperous but not rich; they were God-fearing members of the local community; they were well-liked, and had done nobody any harm that anyone could fathom. The murderers were two damaged and abused misfits, thrown together in prison, to which they had been committed for pathetically minor offences. The villains crossed paths with the victims through a mixture of bad luck and faulty information.

In Cold Blood
Capote, left, on the movie set of In Cold Blood
Capote's book was first published in 1965. So compelling is its documentary account of the way appalling acts of violence are the outcome of accidental concatenations of events, that I have always thought of it as a parable for all time. Capote's closely observed portrait of Perry Smith, the intelligent, narcissistic fantasist who allegedly carried out all four of the murders, continues to stand as an convincing portrait of a recurrent type of deluded killer incapable of remorse.

The more I reflected, the more "darning" seemed to represent a good many other things in the story of the everyday lives of the murderers and their victims, as told by Capote, which were sufficiently unlike our own times that it ought to give us pause for thought. The day-dream scenarios and fantasies of celebrity Perry Smith recorded in his notebooks were drawn from the newspapers, or sensationalist Hollywood movies. The carnage he and Dick Hickock caused was carried out with a knife and a shot-gun - neither man had access to the automatic and semi-automatic weapons readily available to today's pettiest criminals.

By sheer coincidence, my son and I were having our discussion of In Cold Blood just as news broke of the chillingly carefully pre-meditated murder, at Blacksburg, Virginia, of 32 randomly selected Virginia Tech University students and teachers by Korean fellow-student Seung-Hui Cho. Like the closely-knit community of residents of Holcomb, Kansas, we all - residents in the global village which is today's news information network - were stunned by the senselessness of the crime, and randomness of the slaughter.

Both had planned their outrage meticulously, buying specialist equipment for its successful completion for weeks before the event itself
Parallels between the Virginia Tech and Holcomb massacres
There were, chillingly, shared features in the delusional fantasies of the perpetrators of the two atrocities, in spite of the separation in time. Like Perry Smith in his notebooks, Seung-Hui Cho represented himself in his private, self-aggrandising rantings as a spurned outsider, whose talents had been cruelly trampled upon by those around him, and as a crucified Christ-figure, rejected and humiliated. Like Smith, the Virginia Tech assassin also dramatised himself as potentially a celebrity and super-hero - modeling himself on the gun-brandishing protagonists in violent movies and computer games. Both had planned their outrage meticulously, buying specialist equipment for its successful completion for weeks before the event itself.

Still there are obvious differences. The world Perry Smith inhabited was a world in which darning was a familiar part of the scenery. Darning crops up again in In Cold Blood, as one of the compassionate domestic services the undersheriff of Garden City, Kansas's wife, Mrs Meier, performs for the inmates in the jail: "she cooks and sews for the prisoners, darns, does their laundry".

Perry's cell was actually inside the living quarters of the undersheriff and his family (in order to keep him separate from his accomplice), and Capote has Mrs Meier preparing his favourite meal of Spanish rice for him - reaching out to him, even though her husband warns her that if she had been one of the first on the scene of the Clutter killings as he had, she would have been less forgiving.

Virginia Tech
"We were stunned by the senselessness of the crime" at Virginia Tech
Such traditional community ways of connecting were apparently not there at the beginning of the 21st Century for Seung-Hui Cho. Instead, like many modern loners, he found his communities online, in cyberspace. Rather than forging - however falteringly - the communal bonds that hold isolated individuals precariously within the network of shared human lives, Cho's virtual encounters exacerbated and amplified his paranoid behaviour.

What, however, struck me most, when - prompted by my son's question - I returned to In Cold Blood - was how starkly it showed that the close community and traditional values of Holcomb, Kansas were no protection whatsoever against a random act of extreme violence in their midst. They offered no defence against the chance encounter between the Clutters and two damaged petty drifters with nothing to lose.

There are those who look back to consolingly close, homogeneous communities like Holcomb, and call them better times. I don't share that view. But I do think we need to look long and hard at the nature of the ties that bind us one to the other today.

We have come a long way since the small-town prejudices and bigotries of the 50s and 60s. New, largely uncharted, ever-more global communities make increasingly strong claims on our lives over our immediate surroundings. We are obliged to look at our lived experience in less narrowly focused ways than before. And this increases the need for us actively to build the flexible communities in which we find ourselves, with infinite care. Because in our global village, chance encounters will happen increasingly frequently, and so too will the potential for disastrous misunderstanding and mindless violence. So we have a responsibility to make our new world more comfortable than the old.

We cannot afford to wait, nostalgically recalling a world in which we, the fortunate ones, the insiders, sat around the family hearth on our cosy world, compassionately darning socks for those we had failed to include.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Hear, hear! It perplexes me that people would look to the past with such misty-eyed nostalgia. Even with the problems of the modern age, give me the present over the past any day. Horrific as modern crime and war may be, it seldom rises to the level of atrocity of Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan. While we've not yet eliminated brutality from our psyche, we humans should take some pride that nearly every generation is less violent than the one which preceded it, and I find that to be the most meaningful form of progress.
Lathem Gibson, Grand Junction, Colorado

An enjoyable article, with one exception: "[Seung-Hui Cho]modeling himself on the gun-brandishing protagonists in violent movies and computer games." Sigh. After an extensive search of Cho's student residence, and a review of the videos and letters he left behind, there was nothing found to suggest that anything he did was motivated by playing video games, nor indeed any significant evidence that he played them much at all. Please check your facts. Video games have been demonised enough without casual stereotypes like this compounding the problem, and the uninformed perception of them in the public eye.
ChrisE, Luton

Ms Jardine's reflections on how violence can invade our world are thought-provoking but I am led to wonder why the conversation didn't turn to discussing why repairing and re-using something might be better than throwing it out and purchasing a replacement.
Jennifer MacKinnon, Ottawa, Canada

Brilliant read [and write]...as one who runs a high tech company, it reminds me of the parable like advert that Sun MicroSystems ran in the late 90s (and I paraphrase here): "Its not the computer. Its the network" One has to wonder, what is our communal network today and how does that effect from macro to micro?
Jim, savannah ga

I totally agree. However, living in Spain, I doubt very much whether the sort of measures needed to create such a flexible and open society will be taken. People here may be very friendly, but Spain remains, particularly at the institutional level, very closed to difference. There are all sorts of "innocent traditions" which exclude non-Spaniards. These traditions are a form of protectionism. Furthermore, "Spanishness" is defined in ethnic terms here, e.g. Spanish means having a Spanish name, unlike in other countries where people and institutions are more comfortable with and positive about diversity.
k cortez, Madrid

A very provocative and interesting broadcast - but there is one further crucial difference between the perpetrators of the Clutter murders and the psychopathic student who slaughtered 32 at Virginia Tech. The 'In Cold Blood' murderers hoped (and indeed made strenuous efforts) to cover their traces and get away with their crime, and Capote's book details the subsequent detective story of how they were tracked, found and convicted. In that respect, the book (ground-breaking though it was in 'novelising' real-life events) was nevertheless a compelling but essentially traditional narrative. They were caught, tried, convicted and punished, according to the social mores of the time, and it is unlikely that either of them felt proud of their crimes. Cho, however, contrived his atrocity so that he had 'the last word' - by filming his appalling, hateful rant and distributing it to the media before his own self-inflicted death, he ensured he would never have to face in person the avalanche of condemnation and opprobrium that such nihilistic acts engender. He exploited both the media and our own prurience for his self-aggrandisement, and it is probably only a matter of time before some other disaffected loner stages another 'spectacular' (to use Lionel Shriver's term) complete with a ready-made 'video package' in a calculated effort to be the lead item on the evening news.
Siān, London

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