Last Thursday one of the busiest stations in one of the busiest world capitals at one of the busiest times of day became the backdrop for a scene straight out of Lord of the Flies. By yesterday no fewer than 12 teenagers had been charged, with 12 more under arrest, in connection with the murder of another teenager.
Sofyen Belamouadden, it is reported, had been hunted down, then knifed to death – not in the crime-ridden slums of South-East Washington or any benighted banlieue of Paris – but in the ticket hall (District and Circle lines) of Victoria Underground station in central London.
Almost as shocking as what happened, though, is that anyone who passes regularly through this ticket hall, as I do, would not have been entirely surprised. This focal point of the capital's transport system may be overdue for a makeover, but it also seethes with barely suppressed lawlessness. Nor, in this, is it unique. If you have the time to notice, many other London stations, away from the glitzy shops and actual trains, have a similar, slightly menacing air.
In a way, this is all in the order of things. City stations attract all sorts: not just travellers, but people who prey on them. Indeed, stations offer a whole chain of predation. Regular passengers, though, know to keep their eyes and ears about them; they treat stations with the wariness they deserve.
What distinguishes Victoria and other London stations from many of their foreign counterparts, however, is the conspicuous absence of anyone visibly and routinely in authority. Yesterday, of course, a burly policeman in helmet and full uniform stood by the ticket barriers at Victoria Underground – evoking stable-doors and horses. A large printed notice appealed for witnesses to what happened on Thursday evening.
And maybe more witnesses will come forward; the British are still, despite everything, a civic-minded lot. But how many others, though present and dimly aware of "trouble", mentally wrote it off as more of the same? More of what they might once have reported, but now – frankly, why bother?
Large notices everywhere reprimand passengers in advance for "abusing" transport staff. A new advert appeals to us to "say something" to "a member of staff or a police officer" if we notice something amiss. Have they ever tried? Tracking down anyone foolish enough to take any responsibility for anything, not just at stations, is a day's project in itself.
You may be lucky and find a ticket-window manned, but law and order is not ticket-people's business. Outside you may find a few people chatting in a transparent box, ostensibly dealing with buses, but they generally don't even know what has happened to the absent 507s, let alone when the next one is due, and they resist venturing out to look. You may even chance upon a phone that is answered (just 9-5). And all the while the public address system reassures (or warns) you that the station is subject to "24-hour surveillance". The implied message is: We're watching; don't try anything on.
Well, they were watching through Thursday evening's rush-hour, too, and much good it did Sofyen Belamouadden. They were doubtless watching the previous evening, too, when – it is said – groups of youths gathered, only to flee when a police officer eventually turned up. And they were probably watching in previous weeks when traders say they repeatedly called the police – in vain – to disperse unruly teenagers.
Barely a mile away, dozens of police are permanently deployed outside Parliament and Downing Street. I see armed officers patrolling round and round MI5. A transport police car sits opposite the Treasury at most hours. Yet not a single officer seems to be routinely assigned to Victoria station. If CCTV alone is not good enough for those who govern, why is it thought adequate for the rest of us? Or is it that the police might actually see something untoward and, perish the thought, have to act in a law-and-order kind of way?
The policing of stations is complicated by the demarcation between the Met and British transport police – complicated, when it should be enhanced. But transport hubs, while all too evidently authority-free zones, are not alone. Abandoned police stations are to be found in high streets up and down the land. New numbers have been introduced for non-emergencies to deter you from dialling 999 – and save them from deciding what is urgent. Where are all the hundreds of police they produce for football matches hiding out the rest of the time?
The savage children in William Golding's novel are restrained with the reappearance of (a few) responsible adults. Where those responsible adults were as youths routinely ran amok in the weeks before the Victoria station murder is a question that needs to be asked just as urgently as who killed Sofyen Belamouadden – and the two are surely not unrelated.