Sunday 15 September 2019

John Greene: When the world screamed

The gates of Disneyland stayed closed yesterday in silent tribute to those murdered in Paris, writes John Greene

Disneyland Paris
Disneyland Paris

John Greene

The phone buzzes a few times in my pocket on Friday night in the City of Light. I ignore it. My six-year-old daughter and I are watching young Jedi knights take on Darth Vader, and next on the agenda is a plan to help Buzz Lightyear fight the evil Emperor Zurg.

A Friday night in Disneyland Paris and there is wonder and joy - and even Christmas - in the air.

This is the place where anything is possible, where dreams come true. Innocence all around; parents and children brought together by the power of makebelieve. Iconic images which have stood the test of time still have the power to promote the magic of a simpler life. The magic where good always triumphs over evil. My girl Eleanor and her new pal, four-year-old Sam, delight in the thrill of battle with their laser guns.

The park has had a Christmas makeover and it's a spectacular sight to behold. This is a place where you are supposed to leave your worries behind, just like when you go to a football match of your national team or a rock concert.

The buzzing in my pocket becomes more persistent and, after a resounding victory over the evil emperor, I take it out to check the score from Zenica. The play-off match has just ended, I figured.

There are so many missed calls and text messages, and the first one I look at is from my sister: "Are you ok... with all the bombs?"

Then from a friend: "Hope all ok with yourself and Eleanor with all that's happening in Paris tonight?" I reply, that I have just heard about the attacks and don't know much yet. His next text gives me more details, and then, a few minutes later. "Stay indoors."

I show my phone to Sam's mother, Caoimhe Young, a colleague from the Sunday World. We have both been invited as part of a large group of journalists from across western Europe to experience Disneyland's Enchanted Christmas and now find ourselves just 40km from a horror show beyond our imagination.

Back in the hotel, word is filtering through. Everywhere, parents have their phones in hand, trying to find more information, and also trying to shield the horror from their children.

Eleanor goes to bed late, exhausted, and unaware of the abomination that has taken place. Of course, the scale of it is beyond her comprehension, but like any child, she is old enough to know fear.

It is only as she sleeps that I finally get to watch television. How do you process these images? What do you do now? A football match? A concert? Places where people are at their most vulnerable, away from the world for a brief interlude, lost in an occasion, and their own happiness.

Before I left on Friday I posted a picture of the two of us at Dublin Airport on Facebook with the message, Next stop: Paris. So a lot of people know we are in or near the city and messages are coming through. We are ok. But through a restless night, I am worried about what the morning might bring.

Yesterday morning, the gates of Disneyland stayed closed. The dreamland is now part of the nightmare. A statement says the park will remain closed for the day "in light of the recent tragic events in France and in support of our community and the victims of these horrendous attacks".

The lobby of our hotel is flooded with people and confusion in a scene you imagine is being replicated across the city and its outskirts. There is a surreal atmosphere. It's obvious many people have decided to leave for home, even if that means a day of uncertainty on trains, motorways or at the airport.

Eleanor now understands something bad has happened, "an accident", and the day will be very different from the one she had been looking forward to. Children have a sixth sense at times of adversity, they appear to have an understanding in these moments about how to behave and to cope that belies their age.

The images on TV and social media are distressing. As I write this on Saturday afternoon, I have just for the first time seen footage recorded in the alley behind the Bataclan concert venue which is truly shocking. But there is something powerful too, which goes to the spirit of the nation in the footage of French football fans filing out of the Stade de France after the bombs on Friday night singing La Marseillaise.

It's the worst atrocity in Europe since the Madrid bombing in 2004, says the news headline. We are offered an option to leave on the Eurostar to London, but somehow it feels staying might be better than joining a mass movement of people. There are no guarantees about the journey to London, and we still have to get back to Dublin. There are no guarantees about our planned return to Dublin today, either.

One of the greatest of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories, 'When The World Screamed', which does not feature Sherlock Holmes, describes an ambitious plan by Doyle's second great creation, Professor Challenger, to reveal the world's true nature.

The result sends shockwaves all over the world: "At the same time our ears were assailed by the most horrible yell that ever yet was heard. Who is there of all the hundreds who have attempted it who has ever yet described adequately that terrible cry? It was a howl in which pain, anger, menace, and the outraged majesty of Nature all blended into one hideous shriek. For a full minute it lasted, a thousand sirens in one, paralysing all the great multitude with its fierce insistence..."

Sirens could be heard in Disneyland yesterday. There were even a few soldiers with guns. Another bubble has burst.

Sunday Independent

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