Monday, 10 December 2007

The Darwin Awards: Can You Canoe?

I usually save my BritNews RoundUp for Fridays, but the case of John Darwin, the amnesiac canoeist/insurance fraudster, has taken too many twists and turns for me to wait. I love this story for what it says about human nature, the English psyche and the British press.

You'll recall that earlier this month Darwin walked into a police station and announced "I think I am a missing person." He had disappeared five years ago while paddling a boat in the North Sea. (A kayak, not a canoe, as the Guardian's Tim Dowling points out in a delightful story today.) His wife, Anne, and their two sons grieved for him, then she cashed in his life insurance. A month and a half ago she sold her property in the north of England and moved to Panama.

The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror have had the best--by which I mean the most obsessive-- coverage of the case, which appears to have been hatched by Darwin at a time when he was distraught about financial troubles. Both papers have been utilizing a reporter named David Leigh, who works in Miami for a news agency called Splash. The case turned when a curious "single mum" (as the tabs here called her) typed "John," "Anne" and "Panama" into Google and found a photo of the Darwins posing in Panama just last year. The police say they've been suspicious for a while.

John Darwin has been arrested and faces two charges, including giving false information for a passport. (He obtained one under the name of "John Jones." How's that for imagination?) And Anne Darwin was detained even before getting off the plane that took her from Atlanta to Manchester yesterday. Police boarded it and a flight attendant made an announcement requesting Darwin to please come forward.

The Mirror has a great video today of Anne Darwin's final flight. Here's Anne pacing at the airport. Here's Anne looking out the window of the plane. Here's Anne being led away by police. It's a combination of the banal (the flat announcement of the Delta pilot after landing in the U.K.) and the bizarre (the heavily-armed police escort).

The Mail has been especially proprietary about the story, headlining its article today: "It's All Over: The Moment the Mail Handed Mrs. Darwin Over to Armed Police." Thank you, Daily Mail, for keeping us safe from mousy, gray-haired, insurance-scamming former doctor's receptionists.

The Mail also ended its story with this tag: "Mrs Darwin did not seek, or receive, any payment for her interviews with the Daily Mail." The fact they printed that shows just how common the practice is in Britain. If the Darwins are smart, though (and, given the evidence, there's no reason to think they are), they'll figure out a way to parlay this into some money later on.

But what of the sons? Did they know? No, they said, in a statement that I love for its northern Englandness: "How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive?" ("Our mam"--it could only have been even better if they'd said "our da.")

Even though Darwin's story was pretty preposterous from the start, didn't you for an instant wonder about it? Didn't you put yourself in his position and contemplate what it would have been like if you'd been away for five years, vanished without a trace? I know I did. In fact, I often do. My dropping-out-of-society fantasy always involves being on a tropical island of the sort Steve McQueen washed up on in that weird interlude in "Papillon," where he lives with a hot topless chick who serves him fresh mango every morning.

John Darwin's sojourn wasn't quite so scenic. He supposedly was gone for a year (the last shred of mystery to be revealed?) then moved back into his house in Hartlepool, a seaside town most famous for being the site of a bizarre monkey-hanging incident during the Napoleonic wars. He lived with his wife, scurrying into a hidden room to avoid discovery, occasionally walking on the beach disguised by a woollen hat and a fake limp. Jason Bourne this guy ain't. He allegedly had a dalliance with an American woman he met on the Internet (another knife in Anne's heart, no doubt), but the woman was from... Kansas. I don't imagine there was much topless mango-serving involved there.

Well, it's all been fun while it lasted. Too often we're bombarded by stories that don't have closure: Where's Osama bin Laden? When will the troops pull out of Iraq? Why can't our children read/jobless work/planet cool down/celebrities detoxify? But in a little under two weeks Canoe Man, Canoe Wife, the Canoe Kids and all the other Canoe characters have unspooled their tales with perfect timing. Armchair detectives such as you and I have sifted the evidence and come to our own conclusions, feeling smug and satisfied when our darkest suspicions were confirmed.

I can't wait for the movie, though perhaps on opera would be even better.

One final observation: I can't look at photos of John Darwin without being reminded of Philip Roth.


suburbancorrespondent said...

John, I'm thinking you have a wee bit too much time on your hands.

mark from alexandria said...

Enquiring minds want to know...did it not occur to them that having their picture taken for the brochure for "Come Live a Life on the Lam in Panama" might not be a bad idea for a dead guy and his "fraudfrau"?

Anonymous said...

Hiya John
I heard that Mrs. Darwin was just heading back to England to catch the Led Zeppelin reunion show. Will the Mail combine the two stories?

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Google Search can apparently be something of a master-detective.
Disciples of the Master may be chagrined but you are not wrong in seeing a resemblance between Darwin and Philip Roth.

Sally said...

I do not know where suburbancorrespondent lives but I was in London this weekend and heard reference to Canoe Man four to five times. Canoe Man is THE topic of conversation in the UK. Had John written this column Friday I would have been able to participate in a higher level of conversation while in London!
John, keep up the wonderful stories. Upon returning to my home state of Virginia I may have to subscribe to the Washington Post in order to get my daily dose of John Kelly. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Canoe Man has been covered in the US, although not obsessively so.

I am wondering how the Michael Vick sentencing went over in dog-loving England?

John Kelly said...

There was only a tiny 4-paragraph story in the Guardian about the Vick sentence. There have been far more stories here about a resurgence in "hare coursing," which as far as I can tell involves letting your dog tear across field after a rabbit. It's apparently illegal.

Thank you Sally. Can you get The Post down in deepest Virginny?