I never cared about the nobodies until I became one

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The Independent Online
HOW OFTEN do we take notice of reports of the murders that occur with appalling regularity on the streets of Northern Ireland? How often do we cry out in protest at the burglaries, muggings, assaults and rapes that take place in our cities and villages? We have become complacent - and there is comfort in complacency.

I am part of the largest network of complacency dealers in the country. I deal it out as much as the next person, because today only major crime sells. Every week, as a reporter on a north London newspaper, I take a trip to the police station and, as the crimes are rattled off, I pay only cursory attention to the catalogue of burglaries, assaults, muggings and car thefts that are read out.

'Haven't you got something meaty?' I ask. By that I mean a serious stabbing, an armed robbery or the creme de la creme, a murder or shooting. Who cares about the 16-year-old robbed of his lunch money, or the pensioner whose garden shed is burnt down by yobs? Who cares about the son left with a bloody nose for carelessly spilling a pint? Not my readers - they want something shocking, and today that means something big.

But last week I had an attack of conscience. I became one of those nobodies, just another statistic on a crime sheet, another paragraph in the local rag. Last week I was attacked.

I was walking along a suburban street with two friends early at night when, without warning, we were set upon by thugs. As my friends reeled from punches to the head, my adrenalin started to flow, but to no avail. I had no answer to the punches that rained down on my face.

So this was what 'assault' really meant. Putting my hands up was no defence; blood poured from my face. As I was knocked to the ground and the size 10s started flying in from all directions, all I could do was curl up and pray for the attack to end. The agonising delay between kicks seemed to prolong what could only have been a matter of minutes into long hours. I shouted for help, but my voice seemed distant and muffled. Still, my cries were loud enough to bring people out of their houses.

I half-crawled into someone's front garden. I only wanted to rest, but there seemed to be no escape from my attacker, so I played dead. I'll never know if it was this or the sound of an opening door that scared the yob away.

The rest of the night was spent in a casualty unit; I had time to think over what had happened, and soon it seemed unbelievable and utterly pointless. I was a victim of the very crime I considered too trivial to warrant a column inch, but it was pretty important to me now.

I was sick with myself for not fighting back, sick with the idea I had handed control to some faceless thug without so much as a struggle. No words of consolation could change that.

The police were friendly enough but admitted they had little chance of catching those responsible. I had to take a week off work to come to terms with the experience. A whole week of putting my life on hold and thinking how utterly powerless I was. I had not only lost blood but also self-confidence. Now walking out at night was too frightening, and even during the day I felt nervous, constantly watching my back, suspecting everyone.

Self-confidence is as essential to a reporter as a notebook and pen, and I had been full of it, but now I was reduced to worrying about the bloke next to me at the bus stop. I was suffering from the very things I had so often merely noted when reporting on the victims of violent crime. I was suffering from shock and, perhaps worse, overpowering guilt.

It is weeks since the attack and I still feel wary. Now I know what those people must feel, those people whose names meant nothing to me, who were little more than excuses to fill the paper. I had interviewed victims countless times, entered their lives and asked those probing questions. But once I had put down the phone and the story had appeared in the newspaper, that was it. Who cared how these people coped in the weeks or months afterwards? I didn't. They were news, but only for one day.

Oh, I had shown compassion; my questions had been caring as well as probing; I had said I understood. But I hadn't.