Once there was a little girl who lived by the sea. So far, so fairytale. Fast forward a bit and she’s in a dark kitchen with a bad man who is quietly telling her he can make her disappear so efficiently that no-one will even remember she existed in the first place. He knows the police, he has “connections”. If he chooses, she will disappear. And no-one will ever know her unhappy ending. Or care.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an updated Grimm’s tale or intro to a thriller. My approach to researching and writing my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014) was affected by my experiences as a kid, but it is definitely a story of those involved directly with the tragedy, not the author writing it. It’s only when Paul asked me to write a guestpost on the theme of ‘Brit grit’ that I really considered writing about the grit in me, like this.
Two things prompted my choice of topic for this piece, one good, one not-so-good (actually, I’m not alone in finding it downright scary, but that’s not my focus here). An online friend, Allen Miles, has brought out a collection called “This Is How You Disappear” and a writer I hadn’t previously heard of detailed her now-infamous response to a Goodreads review in an essay for the Guardian. By now there’s hardly a writer online who hasn’t weighed in, on social media or elsewhere, regarding the actions she took with this reviewer and also with previous issues in her personal life. I’m not going to add to that in any significant way here, partly because I don’t want someone peering through my car’s windows as it sits in the drive and ultimately deciding they have to have the crayon stubs, snot-rags, and empty juice cartons that litter the backseat. My seven-year-old is very attached to them. You can find plenty in the comments section here if you’re curious http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic or by searching using #HaleNo on twitter.
What I am interested in here is the writer’s inclusion of Sarah Silverman’s anecdote about someone phoning in to a radio show for an argument and yelling “I exist!” as they were cut off. Birds may sing because they have a song, but humans generally howl to be heard. Sometimes this is for reasons of vanity, sometimes for something like longevity, a motivation akin to the desire in many to reproduce and have Something or Someone Left Behind. This, coupled with Al’s book title, stirred memories of childhood horrors on the Scottish coast.
I do not want to disappear. My corpse may rot and repurpose, turning into trees and compost and who knows what, probably fat brown maggots that smell of Nutella and tasted fudgey, but me? I want what happens to me to be known. I hate secrets, generally it’s just forgetfulness that enables me to keep them, and the idea of being so wrapped up in one – of ending up known for my absence not my presence, like Sandra Bullock’s character in the happy-ever-after remake of “The Vanishing” – sickens me. Not that I’d be around to know of any hullabaloo, but still. Yikes.
While many resent the CCTV cameras protruding from every corner of the high street and every shop within it, I find them reassuring. I dye my hair the brightest red I can find partly to make it easier to spot and follow in a fuzzy crowd shot. My husband describes my personal style as “mad parrot”, in that it’s usually a mixture of very bright colours – think children’s TV presenter but on acid. I’m shy and introverted and rarely interact with people for any length of time in person, so please don’t think this is for the attention. Because it is but, conversely, it is not. If I do disappear, I want someone somewhere to answer “Yes! I saw someone like that walk towards the sweetshop/Chinese takeaway/pizzeria that afternoon, though to be honest, officer, it’s hard to be sure as she was stuffing her face with an enormous bar of Galaxy Caramel that’s technically intended for sharing…” when the police come asking or someone cries and gives out a phone number while sitting next to a bunch of grim-faced detectives on TV.
I don’t want people to look at me, but then again I do. Just in case.
But I suspect I’m in the minority, at least with my reasoning. It’s far more attractive to people to daydream of disappearing, shucking off responsibilities and a history for a fresh start and new chance at whatever life they think they should be leading, than to plan for the nightmare of nothingness that I was assured could happen at any moment he chose when I was a kid.
To draw upon my love of ‘90s Sandra Bullock films once again, the idea behind “The Net” also stoked my fear of erasure (online, not the band, I’ve nowt against them). But by becoming a writer and embracing my introvert nature and the glorious faraway fun of social media, I’ve become more confident and secure in general.
So to people who’ve considered/worked out/read “This Is How You Disappear” but want to make sure it only happens on their terms, here are my top two tips on how NOT to vanish without a trace.
When you get in a lift or go through an enclosed space like a tunnel or corridor, and there’s a camera monitoring who’s picking their nose/scratching their crotch/pulling their kecks out of their arse-crack, raise your face. Give them a good clear shot. Stick out your tongue, cross your eyes, whatever feels right to you there and then.
Have a routine for when you’re on social media – if it’s daily and you know you’re going to be offline for a few days, say so. Let people know when to panic. FYI, you’ll know it’s genuinely me logged in if I’m posting rude, revolting, tasty, or strange things and taking the piss in general. If you see a sappy picture with a pastel background and a sentimental (and probably misspelled) inspirational quote, or something chain-letter-y declaring that “I know who’ll share this”, SEND HELP ASAP! Preferably Sergeant Havers from the Elizabeth George books or the Mountie guy from “Due South”, please.
This fear of erasure, of dying alone and anonymous and utterly unknown, a childish fear but a strong one, has its benefits, though. With hindsight I suspect it was the driving force – along with the typical writerly curiosity – behind the research and writing of my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur” which covers the ill-fated and tragically brief maiden voyage of a White Star Line emigrant ship 160 years ago, and the deaths of more than half of the approximately 700 travellers on board when the ship rammed an island cliff off the coast of Dublin.
One of the men on board, a publican’s son on his way to the Australian Gold Rush, threw a message in a bottle into the water in the half hour or so it took for the ship to sink, his own (successful) attempt to record his fate for his loved ones. The hastily pencilled note washed up on a Scottish island several weeks later and read: “On board the Tayleur, on striking Lambay Island. Many of the passengers and crew are now drowning before my eyes, and no assistance. My wife is also lost. William Clough, Manchester”. Perhaps it is more important to register that you have existed than that you do exist? Either way, here I am. I exist. And they did too.
Bio: Gill Hoffs lives in Warrington, England, with her husband, son, and Coraline Cat. Her work is widely available online and in print, including her books ‘Wild: a collection’ (Pure Slush, 2012) and ‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur’ (Pen & Sword, 2014). To find out more visit her site /, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on twitter (@GillHoffs). She’s always in need of filthy jokes and tasty chocolate.