The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 7th, 2005

A shocking death on the No 43 bus

‘I have always depended,” said Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, in one of her most famous and most ironic lines, “on the kindness of strangers.” That can be a mistake, as she discovered, and as Richard Whelan may have realised nine days ago as he lay bleeding to death on a streetcar, or rather on a No 43 bus in north London, ignored and left to his fate by almost everyone around him. In all the horror of recent weeks in London, I think Whelan’s story is one of the saddest and perhaps one of the strangest.

We have heard a great deal about the compassion and heroism of bystanders after the bomb blasts of July 7 and of the spirit of the Blitz. Yet at almost the same time, in the centre of the same city, the response of bystanders to the violent attack on Whelan was shocking for its absence of compassion or heroism or even the faintest hint of common humanity. In its way it is much more troubling than the threat of more terrorist attacks.

As is the way with sudden and shocking events, some of the details remain unclear. However, it is a fact that Whelan and his girlfriend were sitting on the top deck of a No 43 bus at around 10pm on July 29 when a young black man started shouting and throwing chips at people. At this, most or perhaps all of the passengers apart from Whelan, his girlfriend and the troublemaker moved downstairs. The man then started abusing Whelan’s girlfriend, and when Whelan told him to stop, he responded by stabbing him several times with a knife.

The girlfriend began screaming for help, loudly enough for the passengers below to hear her, but nobody moved. The murderer went slowly downstairs and got off the bus. After him, the girlfriend came down, white faced, apparently deeply shocked and perhaps very confused. At any rate, for some reason she, too, got off the bus. Richard Whelan came down too, but he collapsed bleeding on the bottom deck of the bus.

What happened next is in a way even worse. Almost nobody was prepared to help this young man as he lay dying. Even though it was quite obvious that his attacker had fled and there was no longer any danger, almost nobody came forward to do anything, not even to comfort him. There were plenty of people around — the bus was about half full — but they turned their eyes away and very soon got off. Yet the victim was not bleeding very heavily; the squeamish or those afraid of Aids had little excuse to turn away. It’s not as though he looked weird; he seemed, as he was, a nice young man. Admittedly there is a terrible risk in giving evidence about a violent crime; in this country the defence — ludicrously and inexcusably — has the right to know a witness’s private address. But one can comfort a wounded man without agreeing to give evidence.

There was only one woman who was prepared to do something for Whelan. Admittedly we only have her account of what happened, and she has chosen to speak out anonymously, which seems odd. It’s also true that it is easy, in extremities, to get things wrong. All the same, this Good Samaritan is certain that she was at first quite alone. Nobody would help her, though she asked again and again.

She tried to get the poor man to lie down, she tried to cover his wounds with her jumper, she called 999, she held his hand and tried to keep him awake until the ambulance arrived. Meanwhile two people refused to give their clothes to cover him. By now Whelan was lying very awkwardly, shaking and sweating, perhaps going into shock, and drowsily slurring his words. After a while two young women did try to help as well; but by then the only people left on the bus were Whelan, these two girls, the bus driver and the teller of this story. Everyone else, she said, had just melted away.

One can only wonder why. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for a busload of Londoners to ignore such a terrible thing. Ever since I heard this account I have been wondering how long ago that was, and when and why things have changed. Admittedly one should be wary of waxing too romantic about Britain’s traditions of civic society and community spirit. There were centuries when the British were hardened to suffering and ignored it daily all around them. In the early 18th century abandoned babies could be seen dead and dying in London gutters and most people endured the sight fairly philosophically. In being distressed by it and setting up his famous Foundling hospital, Captain Thomas Coram was sensitive for his time.

But, equally, it was in the 17th century that John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself” — an idea so appealing as to have been turned into a cliché. For many generations this has been, until recently, a generous enough country for people to have at least some sense of fellow feeling, some sense of community.

Now, suddenly, it seems to be disappearing, in big cities at least. My belief is that this is one of the evil consequences of having a society (at least in cities) that is too diverse and — more importantly — that has become diverse much too quickly. Remember the heartless, hellish estate in south London where poor Damilola Taylor was stabbed to death in a kind of multicultural bedlam. You cannot impose massive social change without preparation, then leave wishful thinking to do the rest.

Some newspapers and columnists like me have been saying for some time that too much diversity risks stretching the bonds of community to breaking point. In order to feel responsible for others you need to identify with them in some way, and identity, by definition, means a notion of sameness — not ethnic sameness but some important sense of sameness that needs time to develop. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” Donne wrote in his Meditation “because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

That is true, but only if everyone is listening to and can hear the same bell. In a society that is too diverse there are too many different bells and they become jangled; the call to fellow feeling is lost in the cacophony. We become strangers, and the default mode for strangers, in a complex and changing society, is not kindness.