A very English mugging
Bettina von Hase wonders if our native reticence sometimes goes just a little too far
Last week, I exchanged contracts on a new flat. To prepare for this all-important purchase, I walked to my local branch of Barclays Bank in Notting Hill, west London, to arrange for an electronic money transfer, with one hour to make the same-day deadline.
The branch was teeming with customers. There was a queue for the tills which reached out into the street, and all seats were taken to wait for the two personal bankers on duty.
I felt a whiff of tension in the air, which I put down to pre-exchange nerves on my part. But then I noticed a policeman hovering by the door, and a blondish woman in her forties with a blotchy face, who was clearly in a state of acute distress, sitting behind one of the desks.
She got up, paced around the bank like a caged animal, and gesticulated wildly in the direction of the security cameras by the entrance.
"Everyone saw it. He was standing behind me in the queue, then grabbed my money. I struggled with him, but no one would help me," she said in a voice close to hysteria, to no one in particular. She was rubbing her right hand, which, I saw, had a red bite mark on it.
Not a single person in the whole bank looked in her direction. The mood was strictly business as usual.
After a few minutes, a personal banker sat her down, and assured her that two further policemen would arrive any minute.
"The lady stood in the queue counting her money on the table, and a young man behind her suddenly grabbed it and ran off," a customer waiting on my right told me.
"Didn't anyone help?" I asked.
"It all happened so fast," he commented rather lamely.
"What a way to cut the waiting time" - this uncharitable thought popped involuntarily into my head, no doubt propelled by my anxiety not to miss the transfer deadline of 2pm. But I was appalled by the English politesse and adherence to strict non-involvement. This familiar code of conduct undoubtedly has its benefits - it's sometimes a blessing to be left to sort out your own mess. But in this case, it seemed downright callous to pretend that the lady wasn't there.
The bank was filled with able-bodied men of all ages - indeed, it seemed a miracle that the perpetrator could have escaped, since there were so many human obstacles to obstruct his path to freedom. He clearly did not say "excuse me" as he left, so it seems that people parted like the Red Sea to make way for him. The entire panoply of British manhood was out in force, middle-aged men in suits, heavy-set builders wearing tool belts, one or two senior citizens.
The 18-25 age group was particularly well represented, chewing gum and nodding their heads to music emanating from their headphones.
The only women in the place were a couple of young wives, waiting with their husbands to apply for home loans, and the two personal bankers, who clearly were the only ones with an excuse.
I can't imagine the same lack of action in Continental Europe - dare I say it, even in Germany, some honest burgher would probably have jumped on the culprit. But here, nothing.
The mugging victim, meanwhile, began to shake rather alarmingly, so I went over to ask whether she wanted a glass of water. "They are getting me one," she replied.
I put my hand on her shoulder and she almost jumped at the physical touch.
"I ran after him and struggled with him at the entrance, but he was too strong for me," she said through tears. "He bit my hand, but I managed to pull his shirt and tie off. He's now running around the streets with a bare torso, and there can't be many of those," she added hopefully.
Two policemen now arrived on the scene, one of them carrying the culprit's pale blue shirt and his tie, which looked like a school tie, black with yellow stripes. They took the woman upstairs.
But that was not the end of the story. After a further 15-minute wait, it was my turn to interface with the personal banker. At 1.55pm, she transferred my money over to the vendor.
Suddenly, one of the policemen walked over to our desk. "Did you catch him?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact, a youth was apprehended near here," he replied.
"Did he have a bare torso?"
"Well, yes, he did, but that doesn't necessarily make him the offender," he said.
No, of course it doesn't. But the English summer played ball. It was dark, rainy and cold.
Even allowing for Notting Hill eccentricity, no one would have run around the streets with no shirt on that day.