Living With Ghosts

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by Stephen Phelan

You don't have to die to become a ghost. Missing persons haunt everyone who ever loved them. Without giving any signs of life or death, they leave behind what Nicky Wire has called "an absent presence". It is 10 years since Wire's close friend and bandmate Richey James Edwards - then guitarist, lyricist and propagandist for their furious intellectual rock group the Manic Street Preachers - walked out of London's Embassy Hotel, drove home to Wales, parked his car near the Severn Bridge and dropped off the edge of the world. Since February 1, 1995, no body has been found and no sighting confirmed. In 2002, when he had been missing for seven years, his family were legally entitled to have Edwards declared dead. They chose not to because, they said, "nothing has changed". So today the case remains open, but "inactive".

"I think he's alive," Nicky Wire has said, "although I've no physical evidence or reason to believe that. How can you accept that he's dead when there's no body? It's irrational."

"When someone disappears," says Don Macleod, an experienced post-trauma and bereavement counsellor with the British Psychological Association, "particularly when there is no clear causal event to explain it, there is usually a sense among the loved ones that any acceptance of death would mean a breaking of trust with that person. So their space in the world remains stubbornly empty, and the soul-searching can go on forever - 'Why did this happen?' 'What did we do wrong?' 'Why did they leave?'"

The Richey Edwards case stands out only because so many people loved the man and his songs that his vanishing has taken on an aesthetic, almost mythic aspect. Fans understood his lyrics as attempts to find beauty in boredom and self-disgust. With 4st 7lb, a particularly acute track on The Holy Bible album (his last recorded work with the Manic Street Preachers, now considered among the most harrowing albums ever made and recently re-issued in a 10th anniversary edition), Edwards poeticised anorexia as an expression of the urge to disappear.

"I want to be so skinny that I rot from view," he wrote. "I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint." In an earlier song, Roses In The Hospital, he wrote more plainly that "nothing really makes me happy".

If his whereabouts remains a mystery, his reasons were always relatively easy to guess at. Edwards had himself been anorexic, alcoholic and seriously depressed: sad, complex but common indications of the negative momentum that might drive a person to suicide, or to walk out of their life and never come back.

"Perhaps," speculates Janet Newman, co-founder and director of the National Missing Persons Helpline (NMPH), "he wasn't getting enough from his music to make it all feel worthwhile. Why shouldn't he have gone missing like so many other people?"

Newman set up the charity with her sister Mary Asprey in the early 1990s, responding to the dire lack of any nationwide index for missing persons' cases, or any other support agency for concerned friends and distraught relatives. They operated, at first, out of Newman's bedroom. Now, the helpline employs 50 staff and 100 trained volunteers, who log the details of the 210,000 people who go missing in the UK every year, and resolve more than 70% of their cases.

"The conclusion isn't always happy," says Newman, "but it is far preferable to no conclusion at all. The awful thing about the ongoing cases is that people are left in limbo. I think it is the worst thing you could go through in life. If you have the loved one's body, you can at least start to grieve. If you don't, particularly if you're a parent, you will never give up, and you will always hope."

For the past month, the NMPH has supported the Foreign Office in its efforts to recover and identify every British victim of the recent Indian Ocean tsunami. Given the likelihood that some bodies will never resurface, Newman knows that "the shock will stay with us for years".

"Without physical proof that a person died, the thought will always remain that they were the ones who got away somehow."

Don Macleod calls such thinking a "return fantasy": an instinctive psychological response to such agonising, unverified loss. "Especially after an event like this," he says, "people have all sorts of return fantasies - that the victim in question is in hospital somewhere, that they've lost their memory. It can be a very long struggle to accept that they're not coming back, and some people may never get over it, but stay frozen in that emotional trap, vacillating between hope and despair."

Statistically-speaking - and the NMPH has only recently begun to compile data on missing persons - natural disasters are an extremely rare cause of disappearance. Abduction, the most feared and publicised kind of missing persons case, is also among the least frequent. An NMPH factfile lists a series of much more common and mundane reasons: depression, debt, mental illness, familial tension, relationship problems. Men in their late 20s are the most likely to go missing (Richey Edwards was 26).

And while some people actively plan to vanish, and organise new lives for themselves - there are a range of half-serious manuals available on the subject, including Doug Richmond's seminal How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found - Janet Newman suggests that these Lord Lucan-style phantoms usually turn out to be just as lost as the teenage runaways.

"Very few people," she says, "really want to go missing. When we find them - and even though we offer them complete confidentiality - they are often amazed to hear that their families still care about them after everything they've done. The longer they've been away, the harder it is for them to understand that a family's love is never-ending. They usually burst into tears."

Given the inherent human drama of missing persons cases, it was inevitable that some kind of reality TV show would be constructed around them. Missing, which begins tomorrow on BBC1, follows the work of the Lambeth Missing Persons Unit, who handle 2500 cases per year in London's most densely populated borough. The idea, says series editor Miles Jarvis, is to "show the natural tension involved in each story, and to empower the viewer in the sense of making them aware of these cases".

Given the legal issues involved, the question of editorial policy, and the "vital factor of sensitivity", it was a difficult programme to put together. "And the thing that really struck us," says Jarvis, "was the sheer variety of people who go missing."

The show's slogan, repeated constantly by presenter Sally Magnusson, is that it can happen to "any one of us, at any time, for any reason", and each episode attests to that diversity of cause and effect. In the first, we watch detectives search for a successful city broker (who turns up dead in the Thames, having apparently committed suicide); a little boy missing from home (who finds his own way back safely); and Surrey teenager Kevin Hicks, who disappeared on the way to buy eggs in March 1986 and has not been seen since.

It is those blank and inactive cases that "break your heart", says Janet Newman. She has had regular contact with the Hicks family since Kevin's disappearance, but both his parents have recently died without ever really having a clue what happened to him. In the absence of reasons or evidence, relatives in similar situations can only hypothesise. Fiona Duncan and her family have been searching for her mother Patricia since she disappeared from her home in Buckie, Grampian, in November 2002. Fiona speaks highly of the NMPH, though not so well of the police. The Duncans have developed different ideas of what might have happened to Patricia.

"My family think she had a breakdown, or amnesia or something," says Fiona. "But since she's been missing I've taken over all the housework, looking after the grand parents and so on. And I can see that it might have got too much for her, and she might have walked away from it all."

Derek Burns of West Calder, Lothian agrees that "you've got to build a scenario in your head, otherwise it's like grabbing at cotton wool". Burns's son - also called Derek - has been missing since a spur-of-the-moment trip to visit his girlfriend in London in 1989. In the years since, his father has become a spokesman and campaigner for the National Missing Persons Helpline, organising annual walks to raise funds and awareness.

"I'm a positive person," says Burns. "If there's a bit of blue in a grey sky, I'll call it a blue sky." He thinks his son may have been down-and-out for a while in the beginning, before turning things around and creating "a new lifestyle for himself".

"I think as time has gone on it's been harder and harder for him to make contact, because he's in his own world now. I would rather think that than the opposite. I hope it's going well for him, but I do wish he would get in touch."

Burns describes the not knowing as a kind of "emotional toothache" which "floats there all the time".

Nicky Wire has called it "the dangling man" syndrome. "There's no body, there's no grave," he explains, "but there's hope. And to get closure, you would have to kill hope."

Wire has recently written a song about "the ghost of Richey Edwards", titled Cardiff Afterlife. But Edwards himself once described his own future with a phrase that remains the lasting slogan of the Manic Street Preachers. "Forever delayed," he wrote. "Forever, and ever."

Missing, BBC1, Monday to Friday, 9.15am

The National Missing Persons Helpline is confidential and free and can be contacted on 0500 700 700.

Derek Burns's next Missing Miles walk for NMPH starts from The Mound, Edinburgh on May 15 - Missing Persons Awareness Day.

The Holy Bible (10th Anniversary Edition) is on sale now

[Originally published: Sunday Herald, 30 January 2005]

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