There are all sorts of things I hope to be spared and being trampled to death in a crowd is one of them. I’ve been in big benign crowds but not often and my hackles go up like a threatened dog if the mood changes and I stop feeling safe. Yes, I am paranoid, I do know what it means. And I trust my animal instincts deeply. I am not claiming that I would know when I was going to be attacked. Nobody knows and in a world which is increasingly complicatedly clever, the most effective advantage is always the simplest: surprise.
But apparently in a crowd, people feel safe – reinforced by the many, the normalcy. Except it isn’t normal to me. I don’t see crowds, I see a lot of individuals – which I prefer. At some profound level crowds frighten me. I’ve never understood why you would want to celebrate a wedding with thousands of people. I can see the regulated attendance to a lying-in-state or a funeral but not the crowds. I am not saying that the flocking to disaster and laying of flowers and other tributes is insincere. On the contrary, it is probably very sincere but I don’t share the belief. Masses don’t make me feel secure. They can turn on you, they can – and do – lose sense , they can be manipulated into a big powerful thing with no head. Watching some of the thoughtful coverage of the anniversary of the partition between India and Pakistan – about which I know shamingly little, shamingly because if you want to do business with people and live peacefully alongside them, you must try to understand something of their history – I was appalled by the numbers displaced: millions of people walking away from everything they had known. Those laden trains, staggering carts, crowds and crowds of people.
Every year, people go to festivals – music festivals, literary festivals – and the press riffs on what they wear and who’ll be there. I went once for fun, once to work. You can keep it. Every year the hype around sports grows, making people more conscious of their physical fitness and making money. Not for me. Yet I love a market, I go to one every Saturday. There’s one I go to on Sundays too. And the markets in Rhodes and Crete, the old souk in Port Said remain on the back of my eyelids as places I was interested and safe and happy – what you might call a natural crowd, with a purpose (food shopping) and the crowd gathers, moves through the area and disperses again. Large number of bodies for the sake of it don’t make me feel safe.
As you get older your notions of permanence may change. The roof can blow off, the plane can fall from the sky. These things don’t happen very often but they can happen. Like somebody dying of an unsuspected complication. You see that, however many bodies there are in a crowd, they are breakable, fragile, and as my favourite fictional private eye says, nobody carries a gun to scare you. A gun is to kill you. Of course I have sat in the cinema and laughed or been thrilled as the car cuts a swathe through the crowd or leaps over the gap between two buildings. That’s fiction. Not any more. The line between fiction and fact is blurred. The latest weapon is not a sophisticated explosive device. It is a truck driven by a misguided operator. It kills a lot of people and it stampedes a lot more and this device will be used wherever there are big unsuspecting crowds.
There aren’t a lot of options. You either avoid crowded places or you get on and live your life and hope. I listened to people in Spain, nationals and visitors, saying they won’t give up and they won’t give in.
I have given in. Some of it is to do with age, some of it is to do with taste. The crowds that cover the pavements in the centre of my city do not inspire me. I’d rather go early, do what I have to do and leave, than linger. Safety in numbers is a myth.