The journey had started so well. The train was warm, comfortable and on time. We were clicketty-clacking through south London when the message came through: “A person has been hit by a train at Streatham Common. We will be subject to severe delays.”
This came just two days after rent-a-ranter Jeremy Clarkson had expounded his views on train suicides on national television. Now he’s gone further, in a newspaper column setting out in gory and graphic detail just why he believes these people are selfish.
Slagging off the suicidal seems wrong on so many levels. Talk about kicking a person when they’re down.
I don’t know who was hit by the train – only that it was a man and police are not treating his death as suspicious. I assume he chose to die.
My life was briefly touched by his story. So were the lives of the thousands of other passengers caught up in the chaos. At East Croydon there was the predictable mayhem, as railway officials struggled to divert services, and travellers struggled to work out which train was going where. There were screaming children, confused tourists, people on crutches, mothers with pushchairs, and people late for work, for appointments, for connections.
But with the exception of one man cursing the railway officials, I heard nothing but respectful and sorrowful silence. That remained the case as we trundled at a stately pace on a diverted route via Crystal Palace. Many passengers were standing; the train got colder and colder. We got to Clapham Junction 45 minutes late.
I’ve experienced this in the past, too, after other train suicides. A generally thoughtful and resigned atmosphere descends and people quietly use their mobile phones to explain the delay. After all, we’d rather be in the chaos than under the train.
As it happens, on this latest journey, I was reading Anne Enright’s unbearably poignant novel The Gathering, which deals with suicide. I found myself almost in tears at it, and at the thought of the lost life. I found myself wondering if the person had heard Jeremy Clarkson’s comments. Had that influenced them? Or could they not face Christmas? Had they lost their job? Or their marriage and children?
It made me think again about Gary Speed and his sudden, shocking suicide. It made me think of a man known to my colleagues many years ago, one of the lads, happily married, no known problems, no history of depression, who ran at a train to die. No one knew why.
We make many assumptions about people who kill themselves. Jeremy Clarkson’s expanded view on the subject characterises them as people whose lives are “so mangled and messed up that they believe death’s icy embrace will be better”.
But people with depression often do not have mangled and messed up lives. They have an illness of the brain like other people might have an illness of the body. No one thinks cancer sufferers have mangled and messed up lives. Stan Collymore’s moving blog at http://www.twitlonger.com/show/ecoqm1 gives great insight into how it feels when the black wave hits, and how in that context suicide can feel like a practical solution.
People can genuinely believe that their families would be better off without them, that their lives are not worth living, or that there’s no way forward. It’s a lie, of course, but it can feel pretty compelling at the time.
The reasons for suicide are many and complex, but I don’t hold with the popular view that it’s essentially a selfish act. Of course some methods cause far more anguish to the other people involved: for train drivers the horror is unimaginable, at Beachy Head the task of retrieving bodies is gruesome. But I assume that by the time you’ve got to the point of suicide, normal sympathy and empathy functions are simply not working normally.
Suicide leaves a terrible impact on families and friends, and on those directly caught up in the events. The Samaritans at http://www.samaritans.org/ and other organisations do a great job in working with people in despair or with mental health issues. Many families work tirelessly to support members with depression, sometimes over decades.
Those of us not touched directly by depression or suicide should not lose our concern for those who are.
I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson will Keep On Ranting On. It’s his unique selling point. It’s what he does, to misquote the misquoted former Bishop of Southwark.
For the rest of us, “Keep on Keeping On” is a much better motto to live by.