On a warmish early Spring day last week I killed some time before an appointment sitting on a bench in Cavendish Square. The Square is in central London behind John Lewis, one of the big department stores on Oxford Street, and at the bottom of Harley Street, home to all manner of medical practices.
It’s a good place to people watch. It’s green, sheltered by mature trees with a few benches scattered beside the pathways, and on any dry day there are people sitting eating sandwiches, talking on the telephone, or watching me back; more are simply taking a short cross across the grass.
I heard the sound of a helicopter overhead, which at first I ignored; it’s not common for there to be aircraft directly over the West End, but it’s not unprecedented. The noise persisted, however, and I looked up. It was the red Air Ambulance, familiar from one of those ambulance chasing ‘reality’ television shows I occasionally click across randomly. It disappeared from view so I returned my attention to my book.
A few minutes later it was there again, much lower, apparently circling. I watched it, thinking it might be looking for somewhere to land, and wondering where the nearest open space might be. Either Hyde Park or Regents Park, I thought, not sure which was the closer.
It was then I realised it was landing in the Square. It had found the only spot not obscured by trees or people.
Everyone in the Square paused to watch it. The air, agitated by the rotor blades, picked up dead leaves and bits of grit from the ground threw them at me. I took a (poor) photo because it seemed so extraordinary.
As soon as it landed, three people in orange jump suits jumped out and headed north out of the Square. One man in a high vis jacket remained to guard the helicopter. By the time the blades had stopped rotating, a crowd had formed; standing by, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Not much did happen.
After 20 minutes it was time for me to go to my appointment, and by the time I came out again the Square had returned to normal; no trace of the landing remaining.
Even blasé and jaded Londoners will stop for a while to watch a helicopter land on a piece of grass. We all like a bit of drama and something out of the ordinary.
But it is the same reflex that causes traffic jams when cars slow down to observe an accident on the opposite side of the road, what Americans gloriously call ‘rubber-necking’; the reason for the success of so-called ‘car crash television’ where something awful will attract large audiences wanting to cringe at the sheer awfulness of it.
Observing the speed with which a crowd formed made me wonder exactly what it is. There’s curiosity, the desire to twitch a front curtain, or to eavesdrop on a conversation; there’s also the thought that maybe it’ll be on the News, and I can say I was there.
No-one is actively doing anything to help, but by standing by they are passively a part of something.
Now, I acknowledge that I am not completely immune; I was sufficiently interested to take these images. But I spent the quarter of an hour or so between taking the first and the second wondering about the impetus to observe a drama (and, I’ll be honest, wondering if I could make a blog post of it, such is the necessity to meet the post a day challenge.)
We all love a good story, especially one where we are wondering what is going to happen next.
And there’s the chance of seeing something awful but not be hurt by it, a sort of schadenfreude, a guilty, unspoken, pleasure in the misfortune of others.
Maybe that same emotion is the explanation for the success of the joyless, soul-sapping experience that is the tawdry telethon like Red Nose Day, currently swamping Britain.