The Life of a Stranger

I was on a train the day before yesterday when we ran over a collection of brittle, loudly snapping sticks, causing the black rail stones to clatter and fly out from between the wheels as we ground to a halt.  An obstacle probably placed by kids looking for kicks on a dull gray afternoon.

I wasn’t prepared for the announcement which followed: we had run over a person.  If I wanted to throw up I can only imagine how the driver felt: I understand some drivers don’t work again after such an incident.  The emergency crew and police cleared what was now a crime scene after an hour and half – and whatever they get paid, it isn’t enough- during which time the train manager gave us carefully phrased updates every few minutes, but it seemed simply appalling to be sitting on top of the remains of a person who for all we knew could have been a friend or relative, while receiving apologies for any inconvenience caused to our journey.  The hell with our stupid journey.

This may have weighed heavily on many, but truth to tell, there wasn’t much sign of it.  Some cheerfully yakked into their mobiles about this, that and the other.  One no-nonsense business type maintained his scouser conversation at a hard-to-ignore volume throughout, breaking into laughter at intervals, while a donkey-voiced woman took the opportunity to impress us all by berating her office about the failure of a printing supplier. “That’s not my problem,” she whined, “that’s not my problem, that’s not my problem,” though clearly it was.  The elderly lady beside me stared out the window.  “You alright..?” I ventured. “Oh yes, thanks!” A broad grin.  I suppose we’re used to it.  And yet, how can we be?

11000 people

About 11,000 people.  More than this many killed themselves in the UK in 2013

I hadn’t realised how common this kind of suicide was until I mentioned it to three strangers yesterday.  A train staff member confided it “happened all the time”; he’d seen another only three weeks ago. A waitress saw one when returning from her parents’ home in Milan via a Gatwick- Victoria rail inbound at the end of July.  A taxi driver’s 23 year old son had phoned him last week, distraught, after witnessing one on the underground.

stlouiscrowd

100,000 people: more than this many killed themselves just in the ten most populous Western countries last year.

And this subject happened to come up in passing three times with three people – meaning that 100% of those I spoke to about it had experience of the same thing – out of easily twenty people I chatted to, as is my habit when travelling.  This tendency perplexes my kids.  “Where do you know her from?” after one enthusiastic exchange on the Picadilly Line with an Irish lady.  Holborn maybe, or was it Leicester Square..

Strangers are not the threats the media would have you believe them to be.  In fact they’re very easy to like.  There’s no expectations to live up to; people talk freely to someone they never have to worry about seeing on their doorstep yet again, interrupting dinner.  Sincerely admire their shirt, on the way out of a dank London parking lot and the wary expression of a stranger becomes one which wouldn’t look out of place in your family album of celebrations.  They’re as pleased to see you as they are to never have to see you again, making it a perfect relationship.  And better yet, who knows what despair might be dissolved by human contact?

Sanfransisco_dreamstime_1

Worldwide, the entire population of San Francisco – 850,000 people – were known to have taken their own life in 2014.  The true figure certainly exceeds this by a very long way

Regarding despair, what exactly is happening in the UK?  Well, after a general decline over decades, there’s been a sharp rise in suicides:

2013

Males in blue, females in orange

It’s known that these stats are under-reported, and by a long way.  The stigma attached means many families insist on a verdict of accidental death; some coroners independently decide not to record intent in the cases of children, out of deference to the family.  The cases charted are only those where the coroner can be absolutely certain the person died by their own hand, and where there was no objection.  Even so, the rates per age group show both males and females to be most vulnerable between 50 and 54.  Perhaps because mortality looms unexpectedly, perhaps because our self-image sinks along with our much-valued material output.

Suicides in prison went from 56 in 2012 to 80 only two years later, while suicides following police custody rose from 36 to 62 in the same period – the time spent in custody is considered to have contributed to the person’s despair.  It’s hardly quality time.  In the UK a youth can spend a year on remand once suspected of a crime: not convicted or even tried.  This is an eternity for a young person, who builds their life day by day, forced to watch helplessly as their friends, lovers and even family become strangers; prisons are not sited for convenience.  Most women in prison are there for trivial crimes – falling behind in payments, that sort of thing.  There are, also, many suicides in immigrant detention centres: families held in bleak, depressing high security conditions just for being in the wrong country.  There’s no time limit for them, and not much hope of anything but being escorted, eventually, back to the tender mercies of a violent government.  Why, just ask Jack Straw or Tony Blair.

Our society is largely based on money and like a game of musical chairs, the system is rigged so that some will always have less than enough.  Like it or not, money plays a big part in suicide.  From the activities of the odious Scrooge Iain Duncan Smith we know the government’s scrimping on benefits means those most vulnerable have been jettisoned, though why this should be so is a mystery since the sums involved pale into insignificance by the cost of our bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria or the VAT sums that the drug-addled George Osbourn has let Goldman Sachs get away without paying.

Those at the top have few such worries: David Cameron (now on a well deserved four week break) apparently has had to give up bread in an effort to lose weight – I suppose it was that or pinot noir – while the House of Lords recently voted against a change in caterers, fearing the quality of champagne would suffer.  This is absolutely true.  And until it was confirmed to him, the minister in charge of the swap also thought it some kind of joke.

Kings Cross

Paul Day did this series of bewitching bronze sculptures for London St Pancras’ Meeting Place around the dias on which a nine metre tall couple embrace.  Highly detailed and imaginative figures in trains and stations bring national and personal histories to life.  It’s worth a visit just to see this work

A friend committed suicide last year.  Diagnosed with cancer in 2012, he suffered monthly radiation “treatments” which destroyed his joy of living, though the cancer seemed to thrive on them.  They then tried out a noxious chemical which failed to make a dent, so then it became two chemos, and finally a constantly fluctuating mix of five chemos referred to only by acronym.

He could afford the best treatment on Earth, and travelling wasn’t a problem: his house was actually off Harley Street, if you can imagine that.  The garage door swung away to reveal his beloved Porsche and Harley, and behind them, a beautiful garden in which the noise of the street only meters away completely vanished.  His biggest worry selling up recently was how to explain the absence of any water or gas bills: when the area was subdivided, his feeds must have been attributed to another landowner; such is the scale of money changing hands each week that nobody had ever noticed.

Over a beautiful lunch at the Plum and Spilt Milk across from St Pancras one March he enjoyed a cigar and an ale against my protests.  “Iain,” he reassured me, “my conclusion is that these doctors have absolutely no clue what they are doing!  I might as well enjoy myself.”

To mitigate the effects of radiation and chemo he’d been given painkillers, and then steroids, but the resulting aggression and paranoia took a scalpel to his relationship, so a few more chemicals were thrown into the mix to calm him down.  As a result he couldn’t sleep, so some sleeping chemicals were called for.  Soon after, he became depressed so in came the anti-depressants.  Anti depressants are highly linked with suicide.  Even without pressures of money, he found himself in a world of mental pain all the time.  Later that year, he brought it all to an end.

Lest anyone think him of weak character, be assured he was a PR mastermind of unbelievable resourcefulness, undaunted by sudden reverses.  In fact if you have at any time travelled through London’s St Pancras or felt a surge of pride at London’s Olympics, you’ve benefited from his ingenuity and energy.

It helps to bear in mind that rich or poor, strong or weak, we all are vulnerable; you might find a stranger today and strike up a conversation they’ll hold dear for weeks to come.  We can’t claim there’s no opportunity, or that our budget doesn’t allow for it.  You might even be the one to benefit further on down the line: in Mankind’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl writes that a momentary act of kindness – a crust of bread quietly passed to him by an Auschwitz guard – nourished his spirit for three months.

We might well try to be like everyone else, to pass unnoticed and uncriticised in the crowd.  But the truth is that each and every one of us is completely and permanently irreplaceable; what joys and what wonders we’ve all been deprived of through a single person’s death, we will never know.

Spring-2012-019

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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