Londoners, like most human beings, are attuned to the need to be emotionally available and vulnerable to people around them, because its only through being emotionally available and interactive, that people can work together to common ends, and create a life more enjoyable than what might be achieved if one went about life as a lone soldier. However, in a city there are severe limitations to the number of emotionally meaningful relationships that one can sustain. What Londoners have to do, like may city dwellers, and unlike those who live in small villages, is chose who to bond with emotionally, and who to ignore.
The consequence of this, in a city the size and scale of London, apathy and psychopathy are required in order to make the space and time to develop emotionally meaningful relationships, is that for the most part, most Londoners adopt an indifferent attitude towards the needs and distress of other Londoners. The stresses of work and commuting, the expectation and roles of family life, can lead one to conclude, quite sensibly that its hard enough looking after oneself, let alone strangers who seem to have come to rest in drains, ditches and the exits to underground stations.
So, a man walks along Orpington High Street and comes to rest by the side of the pavement, yards from the market stalls. He touches the ground, curls up, and at some point drifts off and away forever. Soon after, the market traders arrive. Some notice the man curled up in the corner as they set their stalls out, but think nothing of it and get on with selling their wares. People start to walk up and down the High Street, they too notice the man out of the corner of their eyes. Come six o’clock and commuters returning home via Orpington train station note the same man in the same position. Two years later, one winter’s evening in early 2009 the CCTV cameras on an N36 night bus were picking up images of Pawel Modzelewski, a Polishman of no fixed address. Pawel got on the bus, bound for Queens Park, went upstairs and found himself a seat. Pawel, who had consumed alcohol that night, got out a syringe and injected himself with heroin, laid back, and eased into what he most likely thought was going to be an ecstatic top deck experience. However within ten minutes he was reaching for the seat in front, most likely gripped by a severe agony caused by an overdose. Throughout these torturous minutes and long after, the N36 trundled onwards, to the end of its route, and then slowly into the bus garage. The engines stopped and Pawel, who lent motionless against the seat, was either stone dead, or as the bus driver who was inspecting the top deck thought, sleeping. The bus driver, with only the still of the night, the empty bus and what must have been a thousand and one things on his mind, went home ‘forgetting’ about the motionless Pawel. The next morning, the bus coughed up its guts in preparation for another day’s work, rolled out of the bus station and made its way back on to the roads. Pawel still seated was heading in the direction he had spent his final moments traveling from.
If you live in London for the most part you will find that both you and the people around you are mean spririted. Take a walk around the streets of London, take a ride on the tube or a bus, and sooner or later you are going to come across someone who is experiencing some kind of distress. Your usual response will be to ignore it, even though you can see it.
In some cases ignoring other peoples’ distress will lead you to feel a good degree of discomfort and guilt. In October 2014 I remember feeling quite uncomfortable at the sight of a young man who had got on a northern line train at Angel. My attention turned to him when I noticed that he was sobbing into his hands, with his bag on his lap. Lots more people got on the train, one of those, a woman made a special effort not to sit next to him. Once seated she glanced sideways to see if he was still crying. He was. No-one on the train, not those sat next to him nor those sat opposite him said a word. I was sitting opposite him on the other side of the carriage. I didn’t say anything to him either, I got off at Bank. I want to ask him if he was alright, I did want to console him, to talk to him, to make sure he wasn’t going to do anything rash or hasty, but I didn’t. During the time that I was aware of him and some time after I felt quite upset about the fact that I had done nothing. I started ruminating. I get the same feeling, from time to time, when I descend the stairs at Limehouse station, to see a young lady, dressed in trousers, fleece and a wooly hat with stringy bits, who looks the worse for wear from years of sitting passively, plaintively, looking up at commuters with puppy dog eyes, under the railway arches, sometimes in bonechilling cold, and the lifestyle associated with such a career. Her perseverance with this kind of job does fill me with a sense of wonder. However, I offer her nothing and have offered her nothing. And yet at the same time I reason if anything could be done to help her out, to get her back on her fet, and feel slightly disturbed at the fact that I haven’t even tried, that I’ve walked past her as if she doesn’t even exist.
In the same way that Londoners who avoid tending to other peoples’ stress, may feel a good deal of guilt as a result, some people feel horrified and chilled by stories of apathy for the distress of strangers. Londoners sometimes respond to the fear that such stories invoke, with anger for those who display apathetic attitudes. However arguably this anger is a delusion, the real emotion they are experiencing is horror, the horror of being reminded of the sizeable holes in the social net they might slip through, later on in life. Stories of people dying alone can scare the shit out of you. This fear resonates for a lot of Londoners, for a lot of Londoners have escaped abuse, bullying, torture, a feeling of not fitting in, to come to London. London provides them with space, sanctuary and anonymity but the other side of the coin is that they are treated with apathy, disinterest and emptiness, as if they are a tree or a bollard, ice cold still, watching other people go about their lives. One person commenting on the man who had died in Orpington High Street commented, “I worry about this kind of thing happening to me. I’ve never had a stable home, moved around a lot. Don’t speak to my brother, don’t have children, don’t have a stable job, don’t have any really close friends that live near me. I have mental health problems and I isolate myself a lot…I have a partner for now, but if we split up, I wonder who would notice that I was gone.” Maybe no-one.
Stories like the dying man in Orpington are reminders of the importance of staying connected.
Passive sadistic psychopathy: projecting the guilt
Sometimes handling the guilt and hopelessness that one feels when one ignores another person’s distress, can become too much, which results in a projection of all the badness in the situation on to the problem experiencing the distress. “It will just go on drugs or into the pocket of a pimp” I reason when I sometimes feel uncomfortable that I don’t do anything to help the woman sat at the bottom of Limehouse station. One Londoner justifies turning a blind eye to homeless people who he thinks may be possibly dead because they are dirty and if they are awake they’ll expect some money off you. Another refuses to help strangers out believing most people in London to be ‘bastards’. This is your typically sadistic psychopathic response, an attempt to generate a sufficiently strong feeling of hatred towards the object of sympathy, to drown out any possible feelings of guilt.
Not feeling guilt, not feeling anything
In other cases you feel nothing at all, you will block all feelings out. Sometimes when I walk past the lady sat at the bottom of the stairs at the Limehouse station, I refuse to allow myself to feel anything at all. Feeling guilty consumes too much energy. I turn my feelings off, become a psychopath, and deliberately avoid eye contact. Avoidant psychopathy seems to be a key psychological trick to help Londoner’s avoid distractions, which might detract from a focus on their lives.
In a village what seems like a five minute walk to the shops can sometimes take an hour, if you bump into several people you know. In a city, if you operated with the same level of openness you might never return home. Knowing that caring for people can take valuable emotional and personal resources in a city so full of need and desperation, Londoners develop the habit of switching off as soon as they leave the house. Walk down any street in London, and so long as you’re not a local and often even though you are a local, no-one will be interested in you. And there’s a good chance you wont much be interested in anyone else who walks past you. Not only that but if you were asked, five minutes later, to recall any of the people you walked past, or if any of the people who had walked past you were asked to recall you, you and they probably couldn’t.
An Agreement Not to Care
The result of so many people deciding not to invest emotional energy in responding to the need and distress of others, is that even Londoners who are predisposed to investing some emotional resource in a complete stranger, may think twice. This is becaue they understand that even those in distress may take unkindly to a stranger showing them concern. One of the reasons I didn’t attempt to comfort the man who was sobbing into his hands on the train, was that I thought that whatever I might do would cause everyone in the carriage to stare, which would put the man off opening up to me.