There's a story in the papers today about a man called Kerrie Gray
, who was in the 1999 Paddington train disaster
. He was traumatised by the chaos and, in August 2001, he finally went mad and stabbed another man, Fred Boultwood
, to death. He was sentenced for manslaughter and will be detained under the Mental Health Act
until such time as the Home Secretary
deems him ready for release.
I remember the Paddington crash - it was shortly before I started commuting through Paddington myself, at the same time of day - but it did not cross my mind yesterday or the day before or all of last week or this year so far. Only this story brings it back, brings back the fact that many people do not have the luxury of being able to forget it. In films, people dust themselves down and carry on, but in real life this does not happen. Now the family of Mr Boultwood is traumatised too, and there are survivors and victims who haven't murdered people but who are suffering nonetheless.
News stories of sufficient magnitude have echoes, which decrease in size as time goes on; the initial reports of the disaster were front page news (with further coverage on pages 2-6 and 8-9, interrupted by the editorial page), whilst the disaster of Kerrie Gray and Fred Boultwood merited two hundred words on the inside of page 8. After the inquest and the government's attempts to smear the survivors who campaigned for another inquest, the affair still has legs.
Also this week is the anniversary of the Bethnal Green tube disaster, on March 3, 1943, in which 173 people - mostly women and children - were crushed to death whilst descending into the station in the mistaken belief that there was an air raid (rockets were being tested in a nearby park). It was the worst civilian disaster of the war. In order to maintain morale the disaster was attributed to German bombing until 1945, although I suspect the inevitable rumours would have disturbed more people than the truth. For fifty years the disaster remained obscure, and after this week it will recede once more, but the few survivors that are alive today are also scarred, and have been all along.
As a child it always puzzled me, reading about the World Wars, that the soldiers who had seen unbelievable horror could have returned to civilian life unscathed. And of course this assumption was based on a false premise; the soldiers who had seen such horror did not return to civilian life unscathed, it's just that the history books rarely record the people who ended up in asylums and sheltered accomodation, or on the street, or living their daily life under a cloud, or drinking heavily or shouting in their sleep. The history books will not record Mr Kerrie Gray, despite his crime; after today, he will be forgotten, except to his family and friends, and the people at the Home Office who deal with his file, and the family and friends of Mr Boultwood, and the peoople at Social Services who deal with their file. But files don't have memories, any more than the Vietnam memorial wall remembers the people whose names it bears; people have memories.
The other extreme would be numbness, to not feel anything. The only people who can't suffer are people who have nothing to lose; the brutalised, people who haven't known anything better, people who feel no pain or joy or sorrow. The majority of us lie between the two poles - those who either feel too much or too little, although it isn't really possible to feel too little. Lots of people would like to be emotionless and impervious and nobody wants to be a nervous wreck, and its easier to get ahead in society if you're entirely amoral than if you have scruples. This depresses me, but it's the way of the world.