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Thursday 4 August 2005

London syndrome [Lurks]

9:30PM last Friday, I was sat down with a group of my mates at a pub in Islington. We would have been sat down there when the number 43 bus went past, having just picked up a lady which we'll call Tara McCartney although that is not her real name.
Around about 10PM a gentlemen by the name of Richard Whelan got onto that number 43 double-decker bus in London and sat down upstairs with his girlfriend. A man on the bus was behaving like a prick, throwing chips at passengers and so slowly everyone had moved downstairs in the usual manner of Londoner's avoiding a crazy on public transport. So far nothing unusual for a Friday night in London.
Eventially there was just Richard Whelan and his girlfriend. The man threw chips and abused Whelan's partner and obviously Whelan defended her. In return he was stabbed multiple times and a manhunt is still ongoing since Richard Whelan sadly died in hospital as a result of the stabbing.
This is a terrible set of events of course and I followed this originally, increasingly glad that we're making plans to leave the city. Then I found an account in the Guardian Unlimited from Tara McCartney about what happened on that bus that drove past an oblivious EED gathering.
A brief explanation is needed of something which people who don't live in London may not understand. Everyone on the streets or public transport in London is a stranger. They don't talk to eachother, they don't look at eachother and - should there be any form of confrontation - the best you can expect is that they'll move away. Even if this is a packed tube train with one man assaulting a woman, it's not unusual to find absolutely no response at all, just a sea of faces all looking the other way.
On this Friday night in question Richard Whelan staggered down the stairs after his assailant had maliciously and casually sauntered off the bus. Surely when faced with an injured man such as this and no ongoing threat to safety, even Londoners would step up and render what assistance they could? Apparently not, from Tara McCartney's acount:

But as soon as he sat down he started to go a bit floppy. I kept looking round expecting other people to engage with him as well, but no one did. I was trying to call 999 on my phone, and I think he sat on one of the fold-down seats in the centre of the bus. He started to breathe a bit heavily. I wanted him to lie down because obviously he was wounded. Things started to happen quickly. I was calling 999 and trying to get him lying down at the same time. He was quite a big guy, not huge but an adult man, much bigger than me, and at that point I couldn't physically do both things at once, so I called out, "Can someone help me? Can someone help me?" Nothing happened. No one made eye contact. I couldn't quite believe it.

I can believe it. I've seen it before. Not with a stabbing or a medical emergency like this but it does confirm my worst fears concerning the human nature when confronted by that big-city anonmity that I'm calling London Syndrome. Not had enough?

I took off my jumper and put it over where I thought the wound was, then tried to get him down on the floor. I kept saying, "Someone help me!" But no one did.

Emergency services finally suggested that Tara McCartney pass the phone to the bus driver. Presumably someone working in an official capacity might recognise the severity of the situation and step up to deal with the drama. Yet when the police showed up the engine was still running so they told the driver to turn it off, to which he replied "No, no, I've got to get back to the depot."
No story exposing such a deficit of basic standards in human nature would be complete without your obligatory rubbernecker too.

At one point this other guy came over. I'm not sure, but I think he got on the bus to have a look. He was leaning over, looking, and he was wearing a jacket, a proper jacket. So I said: "Can you give me your jacket so I can put it over him?" He just said "No". That was it.

To my mind this makes a mockery of the sentiment behind the seemingly spontaneous "Londoner's Are Not Afraid" movement. It's all very well to exclaim that you are not afraid from the comfort of the computer in your own home. Yet on the evidence of last Friday night and everything I have seen in this city prior to that, the victim of a terrorist bombing, lying bleeding in a gutter could expect little assistance from the citizens of this city.
We're all up for rendering aidwith no risk to ourselves or without engagement. Probably some of those uncaring scumbags on that bus even given to charity to help ease suffering elsewhere. Suffering elsewhere, at a distance. Where it wont get blood on my jacket.
Any pride I had in this city through the successful Olympic Games hosting bid has been well and truly blown to smithereens. Not by some terrorist bomb though, blown up by the realisation that London is nothing but a massive collection of self-serving cowardly human beings. A densly packed society where it has somehow become acceptable that personal inconvienience has overridden the basic human fucking RIGHT to expect assistance when it is most required.
I could have ended this blog by saying something recalcitrant like "Fuck you London, I'm out of here" but I think there is a bigger picture. There's something dark that lurks in human nature, the thing that lends us the description of 'scumbags' as I did earlier, burried within our genome that we would do well to expose. I don't think it's just London, although these events have earned London the dubious honor of having me name this syndrome after the example quoted here.
I think it's anonmity. Big cities have it by the bucketful, you're not going to see friendly familiar faces drifting by on the street. Just one after another random face. In such circumstances, most people (and I think surely there are endless exceptions but I'm sticking to my guns and calling it the majority) will invest none of their attention to the standard social cues which they would render to their friends and loved ones. Assistance when needed and basic good behavior.
I probably need to illustrate this idea with two further examples beyond the knife attack of last Friday so I'll take one from London and I'll take another from a source that ever reader of this web site and blog will be deeply familiar with.
In London, forget the notion of assistance in need, you will see the most horrenous personal behavior of people on the London Underground. Shoving in when people have yet to get off, refusing to yeild seats for the elderly or even the heavily and obviously pregant and countless other examples of bad behavior brought about by anonmity. Might sound minor until you see it. You see what look like perfectly normal human beings behaving like absolute cocks. Why?
The other example is online gaming. Why is it, do you suppose, that we prefer to play with our friends? Why is it that everyone on a public gaming server is an absolute arsehole. The reason is, of course, that every player is anonymous, hidden behind some nick name and generic rendering of computer graphics. This example not only proves that we'll behave like animals for the most minor benefit such as that mildly more comfortable seat or standing position on the London Underground, but that we'll actually behave like animals for no fucking reason at all. All providing for anonmity. It's the same reason why you can have amazing rows from nowhere via email. It seems our brains get confused by the lack of a real person and all the social queues and, at least, our behavioral mechanisms also seem to get screwed up when those queues exist but we've grown used to being surrounded by strangers.
I think our psyche is geared to dealing with the social challenges of living in a society no larger than a village. It might sound like I'm putting forth an agenda given that we're moving out of the big city but actually we decided to move for these sorts of reasons without really knowing what they were. It took last Friday to make me realise how imperetive it is. Not just for our own safety but for a better quality of life. I want to essentially excise the anonymous people from our lives so that there's a mutual investment, if not friends then at least people that will treat me as a human being.
Maybe what it's down to is that the only time in our evolutionary history that an individual would be surrounded by anonymous faces would be if they were migrating somewhere. Perhaps evolution rewards someone who moves swiftly on, gets through and beyond back to the safety of their friends and loved ones?
This analysis aside, which I admit is some desperate attempt to try make sense out of this human disaster on our doorsteps, we ought to remember that a man was murderedlast Friday.
Maybe there's a slight outside chance someone knows anything about the attacker:

Mr Whelan's attacker is described as black, in his 20s, just under 6ft tall with afro hair and wore a dark jacket and a hooded top with the hood up.

Number 43 bus from Islington running North around 10PM last Friday... if so, you'll be wanting to call the police.


  1. "Mr Whelan's attacker is described as black, in his 20s, just under 6ft tall with afro hair and wore a dark jacket and a hooded top with the hood up"
    oh that narrows it right down..

  2. Aint it mad they can catch terrorists who have ran to italy in a couple of days and they know that joey bartons brother who was in the group who killed that chap with the axe is in amsterdam..
    If the killer had a back pack and muslim or Sky news caught onto the story I betcha they would know who he is..

  3. There was an interesting experiment on the 'battle of the sexes' programme that's running at the moment. They put an eight year old in the street, alone, and filmed the publics reaction. Not a rough looking eight year old, a well dressed and clearly out of place child, sat on her own on a street corner, clearly lost. The experiment was intended to demonstrate the difference between men and women, and to some extent it did, no men stopped to ask if she needed help and some women did. But by far the majority of people clocked her, but carried on walking. When asked about it, every one of them had noticed the girl, thought it odd that she was there alone and clearly lost, but didn't want to get involved. Some of the men said they didn't want to get into trouble for talking to young girls, which I think's quite valid, but there's clearly more to it than that.
    I don't think it's fair to isolate the problems to city's though, I don't live in a city, and I see the same problems here, albeit on a differnent scale to a murder on a bus. People just don't want to get involved.
    That's true of all of us though isn't it? How many of us give our time to anyone else for free? I'll help my kids, friends and family when they ask, but that's about it. Do I do any charity work? No. Do I help the homeless with anything but cash? Na. Do I go to hospital to read sick kids stories? You joking, I've got an instance raid in warcraft to play this weekend, and besides, what will I get out of it?

  4. You're trivialising what I'm talking about. If someone staggered down the road stabbed on the Isle of Man - would people just look busy? I'm not talking about lending someone a bit of a hand or giving your live over to charity here. I'm talking about being a fucking human being. Huge difference between what you're talking about.
    Anyhow, I don't think anyone really got my point here so we'll let this blog wallow eh? :-)

  5. To decide on inaction when a significant abnormal event is happening around you is a terrible failure of education, upbringing and society. If you can't differentiate between a drunk on a bus and say a man and woman in need of urgent assistance then you've lost your situational awareness and your base ability to survive and react.
    From Lurker's account the other passengers didn't dash to get out of the bus (fear, maybe panic) and they didn't sit rigid and speechless (shock) and they didn't mutter or shout "Oi luv, stop larking about" (ignorance, maybe confusion). They apparently chose to do nothing.
    Slim makes a fair point that just no-one cares. Well that's down to what makes you tick and how you choose to live your life, but it's not the same as inaction when faced with danger to yourself or somebody or something else. If you can't display that characteristic of response then to society you're a zombie, a drone, a Darwinian reject.
    Pity them for their choice.


  7. Link with working technology TM.