This article was originally published by The Guardian website on 5th December 2011.
Recent comments made by Jeremy Clarkson offended me on a number of fronts. By belittling the struggles of trade unionists in places such as Zimbabwe, Iran, Guatemala and Colombia, they offended me as a trade unionist. They also offended me as a human being who lives by his values.
His comments on railway suicides faired little better when pitted against my own bitter experience in this subject.
On October 13th 2002, I was driving a train. I had been qualified as a driver for just 7 months. Without warning, a figure appeared in my view, and stepped in front of my train as I hurtled along at 75mph. I barely had time to react before my train impacted with her, killing her instantaneously. In that moment, my family life, perceptions, and professional confidence were as shattered as her body was pulverised.
Train Drivers are professional, well trained people, and I was fortunate in that my training helped me effectively manage the incident. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the psychological aftermath. I was immediately placed on sick leave and was unable to face driving my car for a fortnight. I was prescribed medication so I could sleep, following insomnia that lasted 3 days. I suffered nightmares, mood swings and all manner of psychological incidents, and underwent intensive counselling. In total I was off work for 7 months.
In that time I had to attend the coroner’s inquest. I was questioned by the deceased’s relatives at length, and made to relive details of the fatality in graphic detail. I had to look the children of this poor lady in the eye as I told the story of how she died under the wheels of my train. The incident still lives with me to this day, and my family still suffer my mood changes as the anniversary approaches, even 9 years later.
Despite this, I’m not the biggest victim here. Children, grandchildren, and a husband were left behind, as were friends and colleagues. I take to a point, the view that her actions were selfish, but I also lament her reaching such depths of despair that our lives had to intersect in such a devastating way. She was obviously suffering from mental pain far beyond my comprehension. I can only look upon the loss felt by her family with profound sadness and compassion.
As a result, I cannot help but be shocked by even Clarkson at the spouting of such senseless and tasteless comments. Initially I was surprised at his empathy for Train Drivers. That positive surprise was soon exchanged for disbelief. His fixation on “disruption” caused by suicides, and his wish for bodies to be “left for scavenging animals” reflects the worst of the most unfeeling commuter’s sensibilities (trust me when I say from experience that such views are not marginal, despite being the minority) as well as the type of intolerance only seen in Daily Mail editorials.
People ending their lives this way are obviously desolate and hopeless. They are in the darkest of places. They cannot see a way out. Most disturbingly of all, they are normal people. They are people like you and I. They have families, jobs and friends. It’s undeniable that their actions inconvenience many people, commuters and Train Crews alike, but they are as much symptomatic of society’s failure to grasp the nettle of dealing with mental illness, as Clarkson’s comments are a slap in the face to everyone who has ever lost a relative, friend or colleague this way, and every Train Driver who has ever had to react to, and deal with the aftermath.
Clarkson is guilty of tastelessness and insensitivity. Perhaps we as a society share this guilt in that we are complicit in failing to properly accept that we all experience some mental distress at times. We all need to change our perceptions of mental illness, and people such as Clarkson, need to realise that their comments can either further that cause, or undermine it. His comments were deeply irresponsible, and not only speak to his own questionable perspectives on life, but also the gallery to which he was clearly performing.
When all is said and done, if you are seriously considering the option of standing in front of a speeding train, you are ill. I would hope that Clarkson can push his ego to one side and ponder this point for a while. If people of his ilk could only apply themselves to helping society understand, empathise and deal with mental illness instead of using it as a vehicle to sell DVDs and books, maybe more people would know where to look for the help that may keep them from jumping in front of my train. I may cross my fingers, but I certainly will not hold my breath.