Making space for each other, and for society

By Pascale Palmer
March 18, 2011

On Wednesday 16 March I clambered onto a bus heading for Deptford Bridge in South London. It was an articulated, crocodile bus that can barely see what its back end is doing, and it was rammed. In fact, it was so rammed that I couldn’t get my Oyster payment card to the unmanned scanner halfway down the bus.

I thought about this for a while, firstly dealing with the inner voice of guilt (admittedly a rather quiet voice), then mild shame as I looked around me. But then I felt annoyed; annoyed that I was feeling bad about not paying for a 40-minute ride that had me squashed up against the chest of a stranger, with a pram handle in my back.

As Londoners, we’re used to ignoring the indignity of being packed so closely together on public transport that you can smell the coffee on the breath of other passengers, but that ride made me wonder what it does to us as human beings and as a society.

Last week newspapers published CCTV stills of teenagers attacking a mother with a pram on a bus. The attack was sudden and horrible. It made me think of how many times I have heard people tutting or making unpleasant remarks about prams taking up room at rush hour. If people are willing to vent their anger verbally, it’s surely not long before someone with fewer internal societal constraints is going to vent that anger physically.

I wouldn’t in a million years excuse the attack on the mother struggling on public transport with her baby and pram - the point I’m making is that squashing strangers in together like so many cattle brings out the worst in people.

What is even more depressing perhaps is that travelling on public transport is one of the few times in many people’s busy, daily lives that they are confronted by strangers in a communal situation. How we act here says a lot about the state of our society, our sense of community and desire to show kindness to others.

I would argue that the majority of people naturally want to do good. But if day-in-and-day-out that ability is taken away because the old man can’t even make his way to the seat you would like to give up to him, or you can’t see far enough to spot the pregnant woman, or the protection of intimate personal space has to be abandoned to the greater need of getting to work on time - the natural reaction is to hunker down, ignore the outside world and wait for the ignominy to be over at your stop.

David Cameron has received a lot of flack for his idea of the Big Society, and some of what he is asking people to do in the Government’s stead is pretty galling for a country that has been held up as a model of good public services. But he is right that there is a need in the UK for us to rebuild community - because it makes us richer personally, because it brings out the best in most of us, because it is part of human nature to want to help and muck in and support and watch out for others’ welfare.

Many have argued that society has the potential to be a great civiliser of humans: reinforcing rightheaded actions and reactions within the broader realm of positive law, but that hypothesis presupposes that society allows us to flex our goodness muscle - that the majority of societal interactions offers us best practice models and the opportunities to respond in kind. I would argue that a two-hour return commute on the Deptford bus at rush hour struggles to offer either.

If we are (literally) not given sufficient space to create community at the most basic level and be in right relationship with the people we have contact with from our own environs, how on earth can we be expected to find the compassion to feel community with those thousands of miles away who need our support?

Once upon a time aid agencies pushed hard the message that people suffering in poor countries were our ‘neighbours’, and at CAFOD, with a faith edge, we asked supporters to remember that they were our ‘brothers and sisters’.

It is ironic, in an age when humanity has invented ways to make the world a smaller place, that these concepts of collectivism seem somehow outdated here in the UK. But as our society morphs and resettles, we must not lose the ability to flex our goodness muscle - however difficult it can sometimes seem.

In making the extra effort to clear a space for the old man to get to your offered seat, in calling out thank you to the driver who battled his bus up the Old Kent Road, in making room for the mother and her pram, we walk a moment in their shoes and respect the difficulties they face.

From here it is no leap at all to walk in solidarity with those who have little food, or struggle to find the money to educate their children, or who run from brutal conflict, or who fight for freedom - or who see their worlds destroyed by natural disasters.

For Lent this year I am flexing my goodness muscle on public transport in London - despite the odds - and for the record, on Wednesday, two stops from home, I passed my Oyster card to another passenger who swiped it for me.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Media Relations Officer for CAFOD (

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