One early summer evening, I pop up from the belly of Charing Cross Station, newborn from the Northern Line’s musty moquette. The image isn’t altogether inappropriate, since I was born in the Decimus Burton-designed building opposite the station, which was once Charing Cross Hospital and is now a cop shop.
There’s a common cockney saying that if you stand for long enough at Charing Cross, you’ll see the entire world go by. I like this folk wisdom, pulling us back to an era before the city and the world and the anonymity of the crowd all became synonymous. But I also wonder if the reality that the Eleanor cross near the station, rather than being a venerable medieval memorial, is instead a bit of Victorian fakery undercuts this attempt to put an individual face on the teeming human mill race.
It is a mill race I dive into and I head against the current, east towards Aldwych. And here they are, all the hurried, worried faces – blanched by their long day of strip-lit confinement, bug-eyed from staring at computer screens. The commuters hurry to the Underground, where they’ll be stuffed into long metal cylinders. They rush towards me, dodging, weaving, eating, smoking, talking on their phones and joking.
I’m a committed people-watcher – all writers are – and I like to take mental snapshots of them in motion just as much as I like to survey them statically for hours. The way the city seems to shuffle the pack of humanity makes face cards of us all.
And then, as I break step to cross Adam Street, I see a man moving towards me at speed who is not just an individual but a moral singularity. He’s in his early thirties and, judging from his skin tone and hair colour, of Middle Eastern heritage. He wears a green nylon zip-up sports top and tracksuit bottoms, and he’s moving at a steady lollop on one leg and one crutch – his other leg he holds slung in his left hand. Why? Because it has been recently amputated just below the knee.
How do I know that it has been recently amputated? Because as he draws level, I can’t help staring at it – and this livid stump, poking out from the rolled-up tracksuit leg, has scabs and clots of blood on its ragged edges. The next moment, he’s gone and it takes me several paces before I fully grasp what I’ve just witnessed – then, when I turn back, he has disappeared, his individual suffering instantly absorbed by the crowd.
I walk on, furiously ruminating. This stretch of the Strand is the centre of London for street sleepers: they revolve between the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Embankment; they sleep in cardboard bashes that they assemble in shop doorways, then lie there all day, smoking roll-ups scavenged from butts and reading paperback books. I’ve seen just about every religion and Christian denomination dispensing food along this boulevard lined with broken dreams.
A welcome new arrival is Swat, the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team, whose members, on this particular evening, have their van parked up by the Zimbabwean embassy and are doling out curry to a crowd of raggedy men and women.
I’ve lived in London all my life and seen many terrible things in its streets, yet something about the amputee shocks me to the core. As I walk on, I think to myself: surely the mark of a truly civilised city is that you don’t see a recent amputee hobbling through its after-work crowds? Furthermore, surely the mark of a truly civilised man is that he doesn’t look away, but does something?
I slow my pace. I can’t shake the image of that raggedly serrated and bloody stump from my mind. I feel nauseous, step aside from the pavement and lean my fervid forehead against a cooling piece of plate glass. I begin considering what would ensue were I to plunge after the amputee, lift him from the urban mill race – were I to try to save him.
I foresee the long hours in the A & E at St Thomas’s; I preview the interminable conversations, via interpreter, with medical staff, social workers and, no doubt, immigration officers. I anticipate the outcome, after several days of principled intervention: the amputee, having received basic triage, has the hook of concern gently removed from his nervy mouth, and is released once more into the river of life – where he might swim with his stump, but will more likely sink.
No, I wearily conclude, even two or three days of my time would be but a drop in the great ocean of need, for this man is just as worthy of my compassion – all my compassion – as any of the multitudinous needy; and if I were to take him home with me now, undress him, bathe his wounds, feed him and tuck him up in my own bed for the night, it would be no less than he deserves.
I open my eyes and see staring me in the face the severed leg of a pig, which has been fixed in a vice so slices of jamón serrano can be carved off it – for I’m standing outside a shop specialising in fine Spanish charcuterie and cheeses. Vomit rises up my gorge and into my mouth and I think: you are what you eat, people – you are what you eat.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind