My novel Wish You Were Here borrows its title from an 80s holiday programme. This featured middle-class presenters who travelled to exotic destinations and reported back to the cold, wet UK. For most people I knew, this was aspirational telly, none of us having anywhere near the money to travel to these places. This didn’t stop us from watching and fantasising. Wishing we were there. They travelled to Praia de la Luz or, as the presenter called it ‘Luge’. I remember the strangeness of the town’s name on her tongue and her incredible tan and how hot and ridiculously foreign the beach looked. It looked like paradise.
The next time I saw the resort, though, it was not paradise but the scene of a worst nightmare; the disappearance of a young child. The resort felt vaguely familiar as I watched but I didn’t make the connection right away. That came, years later, when I watched a documentary about Madeleine McCann as part of the research for my novel about a missing girl and it included a clip. My memories of watching it at the time came flooding back and from that moment onwards, I knew the title of my book. There’s an 80’s TV connection in the storyline, too, so it made perfect sense.
The longer I lived with the title, the more it meant. My fictional child was a working-class girl from a single parent family and disappears from the English seaside, a deliberate contrast. So, my title references those English seaside postcards, too. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about a missing child from this kind of background. As a writer, you’re encouraged to show rather than tell and I wanted people to feel this experience, to feel the injustice that I felt about the way society, the media and, these days, people on social media treat and judge people differently based on a number of prejudices. I’d read Chavs by Owen Jones years before and was struck by the stark contrast he highlights between the way Madeleine’s disappearance was covered compared to that of Shannon Matthews. He even puts a number on the concern shown for the two girls, pointing out that the rewards offered for information leading to their return valued Madeleine’s life fifty times higher than Shannon’s.
Madeleine had been missing nine months when Shannon disappeared and yet still dominated the front pages, with Shannon featured in minor columns of the same newspapers. The shameless and not entirely unconscious class bias of opinion columns at the time is chilling to read back on. The general take on Madeleine’s case appeared to be ‘this shouldn’t happen to families like us’ and there was even a revealing comment about the resort itself not being a place you would expect to meet ‘the kind of people who wallop their weeping kids in Sainsbury’s’. Apparently, not. Just the kind of people who leave their kids home alone while they go out drinking with their mates, then.
Inequalities in our society play out in a heartbreaking way via the efforts we make to find our missing children. This was shown starkly in one of the documentaries I watched, a stream of photos of local children who’d gone missing in Portugal around the same time as Madeleine, whose names and photos I had never seen before. Recent research found that missing persons cases in the UK where the victim was Black or Asian were significantly less likely to be solved, the victims less likely to be flagged as at risk or vulnerable even when they clearly were. Such things fall sadly for me under the heading ‘shocking but not surprising’. Systemic racism has been an issue in the UK police force for years, and it’s something I explore in my books via Sian’s partner Kris, a serving Black police officer.
Of course, what happened next in the Shannon Matthews case neatly fitted the media’s narrative of a ‘shameless’ underclass. But that doesn’t change the stark contrast in the way the girl’s disappearance was covered by the media before any of this was known. An even starker contrast is seen when you look at the lack of column inches given to the disappearance of five-year-old Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, who disappeared the year before the two white girls. I’m sure we care about all the missing children but it’s also a fact that we continue to demonstrate that we care about some of them more.
Nicola Monaghan is the author of Wish You Were Here published by VERVE Books
DNA doesn't lie. But what if the truth is dangerous?DNA expert Dr Sian Love has settled into running her own investigative agency and living with her partner, Kris. She's also started seeing a therapist to work through her traumatic history - a big step for Sian. Then a teenage girl brings chaos to Sian's office door. She claims to be Courtney Johnson - a child who went missing from a Brighton beach over fifteen years ago - but refuses to let Sian test her DNA. Wary but intrigued, Sian reluctantly revives the undercover skills she learned during her police force days and begins investigating. But revisiting the past has consequences...