The Gulf: Britain’s Missing Persons Crisis

“The cause was known, the end was marked.” – Andrew O’Hagan”

There’s a maze-like structure to the Old Truman Brewery which means I quickly get lost within the many exhibitions on display. I walk past the one I’m trying to seek out the first time. I almost miss it. I circle back and feel shocked as to how. 18 portraits sit on the wall. Of the 18, five are in black and white, five are clearly hand drawn, and the remainder use a combination of medias. The identities of the missing sit on a side wall, alongside the photographs that served as inspiration.

‘Unmissable’ is a rather different kind of exhibition that I’d been waiting on with bated breath for months. If you’re familiar with Brick Lane, or more specifically, the Old Truman Brewery, then the decision to hold the exhibition here amidst a plethora of other art shows may trigger a bit of an eyeroll; but I assure you it wasn’t just another one of many showcases for art lovers. The exhibition will mark the 25th anniversary of the UK’s independent Missing People charity with portraits of missing persons profiled by the organisation, contributed to by 25 emerging and established artists. I’d started to see posters all over London, in tube stations, on buses, which in turn made every missing persons advertisement I saw from then on a little harder to look at, then look away from, like I’d done with most promotions of disappearances for years. The idea of exploring the lives behind the faces plastered over billboards interested me in a way I didn’t expect, but I wasn’t alone there.

I wasn’t too shocked by the grief that embodied every portrait, despite the poppy colours and patterns that characterised some. I’m drawn to an off grey block on the wall, with the faintest of faces lightly pencilled in to reveal a man with the faintest of smiles, barely there, but there. Carl Hodges has been missing for three years, he was 33 years old at the time of his disappearance. In his profile his father, Eddie Hodges points to Carl’s furrowed brow as a signifier of the amount of stress he was under, despite the seemingly joyful smirk type of smile worn in the photograph used.

Close enough to Carl was the portrait of Sybil Appelquist, who went missing in 2002 at the age of 40. The photograph used for her portrait had been taken around Christmas day, her favourite time of year, and she loved to help others, according to her brother Anthony Hornby. Her portrait was comprised of thick oil strokes. Her image just about appears from the arrangement of peachy nude oils, browns, blues and whites. The smile in her photograph has been left out of the portrait.

As I look on, I realise there’s only one portrait that depicts someone as who they might currently be. Tom Moore’s portrait uses an ‘E-fit’- a specialised electronic portrait created by the metropolitan police of how he may look now. Tom went missing 16 years ago. Tom is Ben Moore’s brother, the organiser of the exhibition. In his portrait his skin is entirely turquoise.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that these were in fact tributes for the fallen, for people that no longer were. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, many of us are ushered out of the centre by packages of film crews who had their cameras and mics stuck in the faces of a number of couples; the families who had come on the opening night to see how their loved ones had been represented. While the exhibitions that surrounded bubbled and hummed with excitable and pleased artsy types, this one was covered in an atmospheric dome of quiet desolation, and respect. The hope that the missing will return is surely still present, but not immediately felt. Some individuals had been missing for decades, and others for a year or so. I, like many others circled round for a good while. We all looked intently, at every detail there was to absorb. Some stood by the portrait area looking into every brush stroke and penned line, others stood by the identities, captivated by the ages, timings and personalities of the missing, as told by their loved ones.

Andrew Gosden’s portrait was another that leapt out from its space amongst the others. He went missing aged 14 in 2007. His depiction was like that of a grim last sighting of what Andrew might appear like in the dream of a loved one. Underneath his profile reads “We always loved being with you Andrew”- Kevin Gosden, Andrew’s father.

I found Jude here. She told me she’d been a caseworker for the charity. She looked to be about 60 and wore her hair in a pixie cut of greys and whites.

“You just think, god. I mean, I worked there for about eight years and of course, they’re still missing.”

We gazed up at the portraits, then the profiles, then back to the artworks to apply our knowledge of the individuals. “Would you say that, I mean in my opinion I think that going missing is perhaps worse than passing.” I state rather confidently.

“Because it’s not an ending.” She affirms the punchy remark.

“It says here on this one, the artist’s twin brother died, and he can’t imagine—I thought about the difference between someone close to you dying and someone close to you going missing. I’m assuming that time doesn’t heal in that instance.”

I asked her if there was anyone she recognised from the adorned walls. “I do know some of these names. Andrew Gosden I remember. It’s quite interesting, I mean this little boy was just 14, and his last sighting was at Kings Cross station.”

I say that the lack of comfort must ultimately lie in not knowing where the loved ones ended up, and she agrees.

“I left missing people about five or six years ago. It was something I felt was worthwhile.”

There was this automatic assumption I felt, that the portraits represented the feelings that stand in the place of the missing loved one that was once so readily accessible; the grief that ensues in their absence, and the feelings felt by the artists as they uncovered the identities of their muses. It was more an exhibition of emotions than activism, more so sentimental than solution-orientated. It represented the missing crisis as having few demands, one being our time, another being our undivided attention.

* * *

There are many explanations that may stand behind a person’s sudden disappearance. In Britain alone an estimated 252,000 individuals (UK Missing Persons Bureau, 2014: 16) are annually reported missing and are therefore currently occupying that inaccessible space at any given time; a gulf that doesn’t permit the entry of the loved ones left behind. Some willingly enter this void and others are forced- either taken against their will or pushed by the type of life they left behind. There is no one kind of person most expected to go missing, there is no one likely candidate; only categories that might differentiate the reasoning behind the disappearances, the kind of lifestyles lived by those now gone, the issues they may have combatted, the situations they may have come face to face with before they were lost.

People whose disappearances have a direct link with their mental health are a particular kind of missing individual. After the Geographies of Missing People conducted interviews with 45 returned missing people, 76% of the group stated their mental health problems before their disappearances, which rose to 85% when accounting for undiagnosed mental health issues (Stevenson et al, 2013: 34). Earlier research from a sample study found that approximately 80% of missing adults had some form of mental health problem, from mild depression to severe psychosis at the time they went missing. (Gibb and Woolnough, 2007). This type of missing person accounts for a sizeable range of circumstances; victims of abuse, severe anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia amongst other things can drive people to live in a state of anonymity, the disregard of their former identities almost serves as a coping mechanism. Poor mental health and trauma of all kinds can lead people to willingly let go of who they once were. Some do ‘drop off the face of the earth’ as it were, as a result of their mental state, or onto the streets. If not, they’re likely to wander somewhere, but often with little to no recollection of who they once had been.

Crime also covers an extensive portion of missing person cases in the UK. In a similar way to missing persons with mental health issues, individuals whose disappearances are in any way linked to crime can mean that they are vulnerable. Of the 252,000 that are estimated to go missing in the UK every year, 140,000 of those are expected to be under 18 (Home office, 2010); child sexual exploitation, human trafficking, abduction and kidnap are just a handful of the crimes that are said to link to the UK’s missing persons crisis. Foul play, suspicious circumstances and violence often find their place here. This is a kind of missing person whose absence is likely to be felt with an intensity, as these are the kind of individuals whose departures are largely the most unpredictable. There are of course people who may disappear as a result of their involvement in crime, perhaps on the run from something or other.

Then there are those whose circumstances are entirely unknown. Their disappearances are treated like the most unsolvable of mysteries, riddled in assumptions and desperation to assign some sort of fate to the vanished person. Others may be gone as a result of substance abuse, and in similar ways to those who struggle with severe mental health issues, may end up on the streets with little to no recollection of what it was they ran from, or rather, the version of themselves they felt it necessary to escape. A large enough group however, are those we’d title ‘the deliberate missing’- those who may not have necessarily struggled with mental health issues, addictions, abuse, or anything crime related; but have made the decision to move on from life as they know it to start a fresh. Debt, failing marriages, poor home lives, or enormous unliveable regrets can serve as triggers for those who may have considered running away even once. Hating who you are, and how your life has ended up can blindly drive some to forsake their loved ones and move on completely- starting again with a degree of normality and not a shred of vulnerability, only confidence and acceptance in who they now live on as.

The missing are all connected by the dismissal of the lives they’ve lived up until their sudden absence, and the documentation of said life- birth certificates, dental and medical files, NI numbers, contracts of employment, financial histories – things that cannot enter the gulf with the disappeared. Those things remain behind, useless and seemingly inapplicable to anything whatsoever. Perhaps the most tangible thing left behind is the emotional impact.

* * *

Andrew was a young man of few words, according to his father, mother and sister. “He was the sort of person who would listen a great deal but not say much. When he did say something, it was generally worth listening to.” Says his father. He was smart. He found school a breeze, his GCSE results were expected to be riddled with A’s, and he belonged to a gifted and talented programme for the top 5% of achievers at his Catholic secondary school in Doncaster where he and his family lived. But like most 14 year olds, Andrew saw his academic achievements as a means to an end. Andrew had friends but wasn’t social. He preferred to stay indoors on days that weren’t taken up by school, instead filling them with video games and building on his phase like interest in metal bands, much like the one he wore adorned on a t-shirt the day he went missing from Kings cross station. He and his older sister of two years formed a tight knit bond over their shared love of rock and heavy metal. Andrew wasn’t bullied. His family say he wasn’t depressed. He was known to enjoy his own company but not in a concerning way; he was just shy, pleasant, but quiet, on a higher plane to most 14-year-old boys if judged on his maturity alone. He had a double ridge on his right ear, he’d planned to dye his hair from brown to black around the time of his disappearance, like his sister Charlotte.

Andrew Gosden has been missing for 11 years, 8 months and 7 days. On the morning of his disappearance, Andrew waited in a local park after leaving for school. After the house emptied he returned, put his blazer on the back of a chair in his room, his uniform in the washing machine, and changed into black jeans and a black, turquoise and red graphic Slipknot tee. With him he took his wallet, keys and his PSP, which he chucked in a black canvas bag beautified with badges of his favourite bands. He withdrew £200 from an ATM nearby and brought a one-way ticket to Kings cross, which left the station at 9:35am. He left Kings Cross station at 11:25am on the 14th September and walked into the gulf.

Many a theory has circulated, surrounding where Andrew might be, what he had planned to do in London, why he had gone without telling anyone. But he remains gone. The impact he leaves behind weighs heavy enough to form an ever-present shadow of who he was to all that knew him. Like the loved ones of the hundreds of thousands of UK missing persons, Andrew’s parents, and his sister have never stopped looking for him.  

‘Ambiguous loss’ is the term given to a kind of loss that knows no closure or expected end. Instead it creates questions with no answers, and a confusion surrounding the length of the grieving process. The phrase was coined by Pauline Boss; regarding missing persons, she describes the ordeal as “a person being physically absent, but psychologically present”(Boss 1999). The ambiguity surrounding the fate of a missing loved one destroys any finality, and any opportunity to obtain peace. It’s a loss like no other.

The limbo many are left in forces the searches to continue for decades, for as long as there is no plausible explanation granted. A degree of acceptance may be reached, but healing is routinely denied. Andrew’s family, as loved ones of an individual whose disappearance has no valid reasoning, or explanation of any kind, are symbols of something large. The UK’s missing persons crisis is a broken heart that time cannot mend. Unlike other problems on the UK’s spectrum, it binds together a plethora of social issues to create something ugly, something that has no weak spot, no immediate solution. How can such a thing be managed?

* * *

Within the UK, London’s own level of missing person cases are some of the highest in the world for a city alone. While New York’s cases averaged at around 13,000 in 2013, London’s average currently stands at 55,000, with a 77% increase over the last nine years. London counts for almost a third of the UK’s missing. Though the current rate is ‘unsustainable’ according to a senior officer of the Met, some are predicting even more of a downfall. These rising numbers are linked to Britain’s current backdrop as a country that has been cutting funding to its social services in unprecedented ways since 2010. The number of beds for the mentally ill under the NHS has been cut by over 25%. Services for those struggling with addiction, unemployment and housing have all been squeezed within the last decade or so. Funding for the forces designed to protect the vulnerable are also suffering cuts. And with London quickly becoming one of the most expensive and laborious cities to live in, these are all things that have the capacity to ‘vanish’ someone. We would assume that somewhere within all the negligence, the UK’s missing crisis is likely to sit at the bottom of the list of national concerns; but it’s being managed, somewhat.

Organisations that have dedicated themselves solely to finding and supporting the missing have drummed up some government support for their individual campaigns, which has come in the form of legalisation that will work to cement the fruitful policies that sit at the heart of such groups. The ‘Presumption of Death act 2013’ is a piece of reformed legalisation and a direct result of the ‘missing rights campaign group’ under the missing people charity. Before the reform, it wasn’t at all a straight forward process for families of missing people presumed dead to resolve the financial and legal affairs left behind, with confusion surrounding what paperwork and permission was needed. Now, loved ones of those who have disappeared needn’t battle with the system, there is now capacity for everything to be sorted with one court visit.

There is already government policy that exists with the purpose of homing in on the UK’s missing crisis. A cross government strategy on missing children and adults was published in December 2011. It details government protocol on how they intend to provide effective support to the most vulnerable of the missing in England and Wales. The strategy employs three main objectives, prevention, protection and provision. The government intends to use early intervention work and education, which will work as prevention strategies in certain kinds of missing person cases. They’ve also promised to attempt to reduce any harm that may come to vulnerable missing people by working with agencies like the missing people charity to close cases as quickly as possible. Support and advice for those left behind through referral to aid specifically designed for them is a provision tactic that also slots in to this manifesto for the missing.

* * *

There is a stain that is left in someone’s sudden absence. The grief stains the lives of those left behind, it leaves a mark on everything they do, it follows them everywhere. It ruins, it destroys everything so suddenly, and for all effected, time becomes frozen within the instant. And the crisis has proven to be an inevitable part of our society- for as long as life is flawed, people will vanish, and those left behind will feel prolonged pain and dull hope for as long as they’re forced to wait. Where is the restoration? The solution? Perhaps the best we will ever get is finding some peace in the knowledge that for as long as people are missing, others will wait, with open arms, willing them back. Perhaps the comfort is in the hope that will always remain, from those still waiting for loved ones to return safely- a hope we should all hold onto, for their sakes.

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