Citizen muggins

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The Independent Culture
It's all very well the rent-a-mouths going on about a sense of community and how we should lend a helping hand, but it's not that simple, is it? The first time I tried to intercede in a fight, when I was 17, I got a black eye and the boys involved made it up 30 seconds later and bought each other a drink.

Human responses in moments of crisis can seem peculiar, but are actually quite predictable. The instinctive reaction when one reads about murders in crowded places in broad daylight is to wonder how people could stand by and let it happen. Everyone likes to think they would step forward, but chances are they wouldn't.

Human beings have a large amount of sheep in their DNA, you see. Your best chance of getting help in trouble is if there's only one other person about: batteries of psychological tests have proved it. Put a subject in a room, rig up a ghastly-sounding accident outside the door and the subjects who think they're the only ones around are roughly twice as likely to go and look. One study showed that, if you're in trouble and there's only one bystander, you have a 50 per cent chance of getting help within 45 seconds. With five bystanders, that likelihood drops to nought.

I've decided that one reason people do nothing is because they know, particularly if any form of bureaucracy is involved, that they will be in for donkeys' years of inconvenience and precious little thanks. This happened to me recently. Well, actually, "recently" is a misnomer: it happened 18 blessed months ago.

In the summer of last year, I witnessed what they call "an incident" on a bus. As incidents go, it was a pretty hole-in-a-corner one. A middle- aged man had a two-year-old's tantrum and clocked the conductress. This took place on a rush-hour bus - every seat was taken when it happened - but only one person was dumb enough to hand over their personal details: muggins.

I remember feeling a slight qualm as I scribbled my name on the back of a bus ticket. I also remember having one of those mutual rants with the driver of the cab I took home about the iniquity of my fellow passengers and how we didn't know what the world was coming to. Everyone else, when we were ushered off the bus, ducked their heads and melted away into the side streets before anyone could collar them. They obviously knew something I didn't.

So, everything went quiet for a bit. I consigned the whole thing to that dustbin in the brain marked London Life. And then, in November, a Man from London Transport rang. Would I give them a statement, he asked, and testify in court? OK, I said, and took the arvo off work to write down dreary details in block capitals. The police, by the way, had dropped charges, but LT were carrying on with a civil action, just like those ominous posters say they will.

The trial was set for December. I booked the day off. The day before the court date, the Man from LT rang to say that proceedings had been postponed: magistrates' Christmas shopping or something. He would write to me.

Now, a London Transport letter is one of those computer-generated things. It's always been a source of mystery to me why computer-generated letters are even less courteous than the old-fashioned typed sort. It's not as though anyone has to do any more work to include the words "please" and "thank you". LT's letter is a classic of spareness: a date, a time, a yours sincerely.

April was the next date, at Horseferry Road magistrates court. Horseferry Road is not exactly Disneyland. The waiting room consists of rows of fixed plastic chairs where everyone - accused, victims, witnesses, lawyers - mix in together. For a bit I sat next to the man I was testifying against, until I recognised him and moved off. No one would let me go to the loo or find a cup of coffee as they said I was next up.

At four o'clock, two hours after lunch, the magistrates downed wigs for the day. "They've already extended things to fit in the doctors," said the Man from LT. "Doctors are busy people." I didn't realise until then that I myself qualify as a lady who lunches. I went to the court to tell them what dates were inconvenient ("every day for the rest of my life"), and a man in a suit was saying, "I don't understand why I've been hearing all this evidence about bruising on the conductress. I mean, she's black, isn't she?" Oh, good old British justice.

In July, another Man from LT rang me. "You're late," he said, "You were due at 10 o'clock". "Late where?" "Horseferry Road. You're due in court right now." "Don't I get any notice?" "Oh, didn't anyone write to you?"

I'll say one thing for Horseferry Road: they can get their act together when someone looks like they're about to have an aneurysm. I was in and out within, oh, a couple of hours. The testimony bit wasn't too bad: a barrister tried to pick my grammar apart, a last-resort trick, and not the most brilliant tactic to try with a hack. The man who had done the thumping studied me as if he was trying to memorise my features. I've worn a hat and spectacles on that bus ever since.

And the punch line? Nothing, actually, niente, zilch, nada. It's a full four months since I heard a peep from London Transport. I don't even know the outcome of the case. One doesn't expect a case of champagne and a free travelcard, but maybe a "thanks" would, as John Travolta might have said, be nice. Or maybe I'm just getting a bit above myself. They've had their use out of me now. Good citizen, good schmitizen, darling

Offering to help a pensioner carry their shopping is as likely to get you accused of attempted mugging as to be accepted.

There is a point to these ramblings.

People also take their cue from other people: if other bystanders look unworried by a situation, you are seven times more likely to take action yourself.

of men who are losing arguments

The people who collect my ground rent send me an annual threat on due date saying they will have no recourse but to take action if I don't pay up immediately.