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12 April 2007

Laughter to fear in a few paces

How everything can change in a matter of moments in a city where people get stabbed or shot every da

By Richard Herring

People! They can make you laugh one minute and then fill you with fear and hopelessness the next. I was walking back to the tube from the gym. A car was waiting at the traffic lights, with a half litre bottle of Volvic water on its roof.

It was a mildly surreal sight, but as the driver window was slightly open it was possible that the woman at the wheel had been drinking the water and had now temporarily placed it on the top of her vehicle – though this would be an odd thing to do. More likely she had placed it there when she had got in the car and forgotten about it and somehow it had managed to stay standing in place.

But is it a good idea to point out a stranger’s mistake in a London where shootings and stabbings are a daily occurrence. Other pedestrians had seen the bottle and were amused or perturbed, but it wasn’t until the car started moving again and it was clear that this was a mistake, rather than a new cool thing to do with your drink, that they started gesticulating and shouting at the car. One fella was particularly vociferous in his assistance, shouting and dancing around. Another car flashed its lights at the clueless, waterless occupants.

The driver or passenger must have noticed the commotion as they pulled over. A man got out of the passenger side with a concerned look on his face. He clearly thought that something was wrong with the vehicle and looked at the tyres and at the back of the car, before looking up on the roof, seeing the water and breaking out into a broad smile.

He was both relieved that he wasn’t about to breakdown and acknowledging the slight sillyness of what they had done. A bottle of water on top of a car indeed!

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He waved and shouted his thanks to the people who had pointed out the situation. Everyone laughed and smiled at each other. It was a beautiful human moment.

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Then I got on the tube. An Underground employee came and asked everyone to move up two carriages. I couldn’t understand why we were being moved or why the back couple of coaches had to be devoid of passengers. But I complied. The man had a uniform on and that is all it takes to make people obey. No-one complained.

The tube rattled away, but as we pulled over the bridge at Shepherd’s Bush I looked to my left and briefly saw that the Uxbridge Road had been entirely blocked off with police vans and was swarming with officers. “Oh Fuck,” I exclaimed to myself.

The tube pulled into the station and as I got off, a friendly but efficient police woman asked everyone to get out of our carriage as well and make our way up the platform away from the exit. I thought that whatever had happened down below might mean we weren’t being let out at this station and asked if we had to reboard. She told me no, but that we just had to wait as some very angry football fans were just leaving the Loftus Road ground and for our own safety we should keep away.

There was a tension and menace in the air and an incredible number of police officers and it wasn’t that pleasant to be bottled up on a platform, knowing that three carriages-worth of drunken men were about to come up the stairs towards us. The police seemed primed for trouble and even though there were a hell of a lot of them I began to feel cornered and vulnerable. I looked for an alternate route out, but could only think of climbing over the fences and jumping down into the gardens of the houses below. And the last bloke who did that (on 21/7) got into a bit of trouble.

The fans were from Luton apparently and furious because their team had been winning, but had ended up drawing, which doesn’t seem all that bad to me. After a few moments they started trundling up the steps, shouting and singing. It was an ominous presage of their actual appearance, but when they got to the top they were almost outnumbered by policemen and it was hard to see these fearsome, frightening men. They were expertly shepherded into the three empty carriages and many of the officers accompanied them.

On another day these men might have berated a cop saying “Why aren’t you out catching proper criminals?” and yet just because these people couldn’t be trusted to behave themselves when their football team hasn’t done as well as it possibly might have, hundreds of bobbies had to be there to escort them around town, when they might be out solcing crimes.

One man got pulled out of the carriage by two officers and taken away. I don’t know what he had done that was particularly wrong. All of the supporters seemed to be behaving badly enough.

But it was an amazing piece of work by the policemen and women and although my day got delayed by maybe fifteen minutes it was an awesome, unsettling and slightly frightening thing to witness.

It juxtaposed rather startlingly with the good humour of the water bottle on the car roof that I had just witnessed. I had gone from thinking “Aren’t people funny?” to “Aren’t people horrible?” within a few short minutes.

The train trundled away and then the huddled masses were allowed out of the station. I passed a police van where the ejected miscreant was being seated between four policemen. And the rest of the vans that had blocked the Uxbridge Road were being driven away and everything was returning to normality. As normal as Shepherd’s Bush ever gets.