I’m a crime writer – and you couldn’t make this up

Why did I choose a place to live just two minutes walk from a tube station, and across the street from a bus stop?

As any woman would tell you, safety has been inculcated into us since we were young. You never know when you might have to make a dash for the front door. Not for me, a long trek home at night in an ill-lit street. The last few days since the shocking death of Sarah Everard have seen an outpouring of stories from women who have been harmed in some way by men. Their stories range from rape and sexual harassment to tales of everyday street abuse as described by Marine Hyde in her column yesterday.

But what is particularly distressing about Sarah Everard’s case was not just that the 33 year old marketing executive was abducted while walking home by a complete stranger who then murdered her. The man accused of her kidnap and murder is a serving police officer – one of the very people who are supposed to keep us safe. I’m a crime writer, and you couldn’t make this up.

Women all over the land are incensed. We want to mark Sarah’s death and focus minds on the much bigger picture so that women can #Reclaimthestreets. If something like this doesn’t galvanise opinion, whatever will? Yet how did the Metropolitan police react after the High Court declined to rule on the holding of 6pm vigils today? By telling women to stay at home rather than attend. The reason evoked was that a vigil would breach the Covid lockdown rules. This is deeply wrong. The police should be making amends at this point, given that one of their own is the prime suspect in this murder. Why didn’t they facilitate Covid-compliant vigils? Aren’t we familiar with the necessary social distancing and mask wearing by now? And as plenty people have pointed out today, how come the police have tolerated crowds on recent sunny days on Clapham Common, near where Sarah Everard disappeared, yet threatened the organisers of the #Reclaimthestreets vigil with massive fines, forcing them to propose an online tribute instead.

So what could I do with my sadness and rage? I decided to go to Clapham Common just before the witching hour of 6pm. I found about a hundred people, and a mountain of flowers, at the bandstand which has become an informal shrine to Sarah’s memory. One placard in big orange letters said #I AM SARAH, another #RECLAIMTHESTREETS. There were people of all ages standing there, some in silence while others talked to their companions about what had happened. Hundreds of others, including lots of young women, continued to arrive with more flowers while I stood there in the bitter cold. There had been a steady stream of people to the bandstand today, including the Duchess of Cambridge. After 6, the police were booed by the crowd for trying to shut down the protest.

How could they have got public sentiment so wrong? Did nobody tell the head of the Metropolitan Police (a woman) that old joke: Q: What’s the worst thing that a woman can do to a man? A: Laugh at him.

Q; What’s the worst thing that a man can do to a woman? A: Kill her.

Nobody’s laughing now.

My week: Lockdown, CNN and Biden

Tuesday, Nov 3rd Day 1

Lockdown 2 is due to come into force on Thursday because of the pandemic. I drop in on friends in the afternoon as it will be my last chance to see them for weeks. Stephen asks his daughter, aged 3, “who’s going to win the American election?” “Joe Biden!” she says. We all agree that Biden is set for a landslide, based on the polls. I retire to bed at 11pm to watch CNN, my channel of choice for election coverage, and Twitter is on my phone. I discover that all the British journalists I follow on Twitter are also watching John King and his magic wall. But he and Wolf Blitzer are getting tetchy. What’s going on in Florida? It’s turned midnight and the eyes of the world are on Miami-Dade. John King explains that the Cuban Americans are likely to vote for Trump whose campaign has accused the Biden camp of being socialists. I switch off at 2 a.m. when the state stays red, but can’t get to sleep. How could the polls have got it so wrong?

Wednesday, Nov 4 Day 2

When I check in with CNN, John King is having a lie down and Chris Cuomo is hosting the election coverage. He’s out of his depth. But it’s already clear that Biden is creeping back with another pathway to the presidency without Florida. I’ve been invited to the seaside by two friends who’ve included me in a social “bubble” so that I won’t be lonely during Lockdown 2. It feels like normal life there. I arrive in time for dinner in a Brighton restaurant where every socially distanced table is taken. When we leave, the centre of Brighton is heaving with pre-lockdown revellers, and police are trying to control masses of people crowded into one street. When I go to bed, Michigan and Wisconsin have been projected for Biden. John King is explaining that despite the early vote count in Pennsylvania being for Trump, the mail-in ballots are expected to be overwhelmingly for Biden, particularly in the cities. Nevada, Arizona and Georgia are also in play, according to CNN Key Race Alerts. It’s another sleepless night.

Thursday, Nov 5, Day 3

Lockdown 2 has arrived. My Twitter feed is full of witticisms about John King. “It’s been 12 hours since we saw John King. Can we just take him a coffee and make some noise outside his door?” says one. I go for a long walk in my “bubble” along the South Downs way, in thick mist, and there’s only one conversation. I’ve made a bet with my hosts that Biden will flip Pennsylvania. The battleground states are “too early to call” according to CNN, but Biden is making steady progress in Pennsylvania although Trump still leads. That night we watch The Reluctant Fundamentalist on TV. I retire to bed to check the news headlines: Trump speaks just before midnight. I’m stunned by his petulant accusations about vote stealing. Jake Tapper, who looks exhausted, shakes his head and says, “so sad. Pathetic.” Anderson Cooper goes further, he says Trump is like “an obese turtle on its back, flailing in the hot sun, realising his time is over. But he just hasn’t accepted it, and he wants to take everybody down with him, including this country.”

Friday, Nov 6, Day 4

I return to London and enforced solitude. I’m 20,000 words into my latest novel but haven’t written a word all week. I’m in a small Silent Zoom daily writing group and one member checks in from Long Island. We discuss Trump’s outburst. I switch on CNN to discover that Georgia has ordered a recount. But it doesn’t matter. Biden can still get the 270 electoral college votes to win even without Pennsylvania if he can take Arizona (already called early for Biden by Fox News) and Nevada. But if Trump can’t hold Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, his presidency is doomed. “No need to rush the count, no need to deny the math,” says John King in the face of a barrage of tweets from Trump saying STOP THE COUNT. Tensions are boiling over in the streets with Count Every Vote protests facing off against Trump supporters.

Saturday, Nov 7, Day 5

Every official interviewed on CNN is being asked how long before we get a result? A Biden victory is now inevitable. It’s a sunny day and I go for a walk on Hampstead Heath with a friend, which is allowed under lockdown rules. She knows a “secret” lane to avoid the crowds. I realise that other friends live on this street. Shall we knock on the door? In London, social etiquette is to book an appointment sometimes months ahead because of people’s busy lives. We ring the doorbell, and of course they’re in. I want to give them a hug, but it’s not allowed, so I pat their dogs instead. My friend and I are walking back over the heath at dusk when my phone goes mad. She’s got alerts from the New York Times and Washington Post. Biden is president elect after winning Pennsylvania, and I’ve won my bet! I want to hug my friend but we remain socially distanced. There’s a whiff of marijuana as we walk past groups of people settling down to watch the sunset over London. My friend asks whether I’d like a celebratory glass of wine in her garden, even though we know we’re not supposed to in Lockdown 2. Throwing caution to the wind, we sit outside in the cold with some crisps and olives and, of course CNN on her laptop. It’s still only 6 p.m and my friend and I aren’t allowed to go inside together. I return home to watch the pictures of Americans spontaneously dancing in celebration, and feel very alone.

Scenes from the “land of the upright men”

A radiant young woman roars on her motorbike into a grimy courtyard under the reproachful eyes of a tethered ram. Another, studying for a French degree, stands for a photo with dignity outside the two-room hovel where she sleeps on the concrete floor with her mother. A life-size model of Santa Claus is playing the saxophone in the airport terminal, And the wigs, the wigs! Why spend hours getting your hair braided when you can put on a wig?

These are some of my indelible memories from my just-ended trip to Burkina Faso, my first to West Africa. I was there with Fred Eckhard, Kofi Annan’s former spokesman who founded the Burkina Women’s Education Fund which pays for its grantees’ university studies.

“Bonne arrivée”, the Burkinabè say when welcoming travellers. The people of Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, are cheerful and enterprising, as evidenced by the stalls that line the main roads out of the cities, crowded with motorbikes and cycles. The young women we met, all in their 20s, are inspiring in their determination to overcome the grinding poverty in which they’ve been raised. All of them have multiple siblings, many of whom live at home. Ursula is applying for a Fulbright scholarship with her degree in translation and interpretation. Clarissa, who is completing a nursing diploma, came to an open house event with us in Koudougou, the country’s third largest city, and brought along her excellent test results. Haoua, the girl on the motorbike, has a Master’s in Project Development but is working as an accountant while trying to get back into her specialist subject.

As you might expect, the sanitary conditions are dire. As soon as you leave a main road you are bumping up and down along dirt tracks of red earth, scattering chickens as you go. Yellow fever jabs are obligatory and anti-malaria pills recommended. I was also aware that Burkina Faso lies in the meningitis belt. While we were waiting for Haoua and her half-sister, another woman brought over a green plastic jug filled with water for us to drink. Foreigners are advised to only drink bottled water. I had a moment of panic – we’d already shaken hands with everyone and even kissed some of them, to cries of “bonne arrivée”. Now what would it be, bilharzia, meningitis or river blindness? Fred whispered to me that as guests we should take a sip. It’s meant to cleanse the palate of lies, apparently. I put my lips to the rim then handed it back. So far, so good.

Haoua’s father is a Muslim with four wives who was elected village chief a couple of years ago. She’s now a fervent Catholic, but when she converted to Christianity, nobody batted an eyelid. In Burkina Faso – which means land of the honest, or upright, men – about half the population are Muslim and the other half Catholic, and the two communities live in harmony. Indeed inter-faith couples can end up having four different marriage ceremonies – in church, at the mosque, at the town hall as well as a traditional wedding.

But the country’s religious tolerance has been tested by the growth of the jihadist threat. Terrorists have struck Ouagadougou three times in the past three years. The northern and eastern border areas are under curfew and 800 schools have closed. I heard that girls in the “red zone” are being forced to wear headscarves. Just before I arrived, a young Canadian travelling with an Italian went missing on the road from Bobo Dialassou, one of the country’s main tourist attractions, to Ouagadougou. A European aid worker told us over lunch that “tourism in Burkina is dead” as a result of the attacks. He and others pointed out that the jihadists are mainly coming from outside the country and the Burkinabè resilience may help overcome. But people are scared. Several of our charity’s grantees expressed concern for relatives living in the red zone which is now under a state of emergency.

Rita, the medical student, knows that she’ll be sent to a rural area to work after she qualifies. I asked her what she would do if she was sent to the red zone? “I won’t go,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”