Every once in a while, something happens to you that makes you realise that the human race is not quite as bad as it so often seems to be. In 1972, I was on the London Underground when a man failed to mind the gap. Not only did he put his foot between the train and the platform, but he did so as the train was starting; he was dragged a short distance before the train was halted, and his leg was pulled downwards. He was in agony, his leg was torn and he could not extricate it from the gap. Someone, a station guard or a commuter, took charge. 'Lean against the carriage and lift it!' he shouted. We did. 'One, two, three - heave.' We heaved and held. It is quite surprising how high you can lift an Underground carriage if the lot of you give it body and soul for a short time. The man was helped out, the emergency services arrived, and we all went our different ways.
This story is not peculiar to the calm, stoic, civil Londoners of Blitz legend. It could have taken place in Budapest, San Francisco or Kyoto. The important thing is that everyone involved knew exactly what had happened. A terrorist bomb in Selfridges would make most of us lose our cool, but we would also know roughly what to do. We might be in shock. We might not afterwards be proud of our behaviour - we thought we were more courageous than we are - but at least we would know what had happened.
LRB 19 October 2000 | PDF Download