The footage of ‘supergran’ Ann Timson belting hell out of a bunch of would-be ‘smash ‘n’ grab’ scooter boys at a jewellers in Northampton the other week (7 February, to be precise) has had me musing ever since it was first broadcast. The fact it is has become a ‘viral phenomenon’, spreading right around the world, has only caused me to muse further.
By pure coincidence, a camera man was over the road filming for a documentary and he managed to capture the entire event on film. The footage was aired on ITN News that evening. Within hours, it was on YouTube and received nearly 6,000 views over the next 24 hours. Now there are multiple versions all over YouTube, Daily Motion, etc, using Superman logos and music like Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’, etc, etc, etc. Ann Timson’s onslaught has made news bulletins in the United States, Australia and many other countries.
The event itself raises important questions - as does the fact it has become such a ‘viral phenomenon’. Just in case you haven’t seen it or you need a reminder, here’s the original footage…
So what made a 71-year-old grandmother with arthritis in her legs all but sprint up the street and take on a gang of young male raiders in crash helmets? Some of them were revving up their scooters, ready for the getaway, while others were pounding the jewellers’ reinforced glass with sledgehammers and yet another was helping himself to the goods through the holes smashed in the glass.
The danger Ann put herself in was remarkable - as she herself described one part of the tussle: “I landed several blows against one lad on the back of a bike and brought him to the ground. He raised a hammer to me so I just kept hitting out….”
If it had been a young man full to the gills with testosterone and, therefore driven by the impulsiveness and compulsiveness of Psychoticism, the furious assault on the raiders would have been more understandable.
But, from several interviews with her in the days afterwards, it appears that, while her actions that Monday were rather on the extreme side, Ann Timson has taken on the ‘bad guys’ many times before.
Ray Nicholson of Ann’s Spring Boroughs Estate told the Daily Mail: “I’ve known Ann for 20 years and she has always stood up to criminals. Often she got herself into a lot of trouble because of it….‘When she moved in ten years ago it was a nightmare. The police were called every night because of the drugs and prostitution here….I’ve been threatened with a knife on many occasions and I know that Ann has. But she kept going. She kept challenging the criminals and she made life difficult for them.” (Rebecca Camber, 2011)
Another neighbour, Nicholas Welch, added more detail: “This place used to be a proper dive before she turned up. It was known as the jungle. People were having sex on the stairs and smoking crack in the corridors. But she has played a massive part in changing it. We now have security fences and intercoms that work. We feel safe.”
Such testimony indicates the importance to Ann’s values of defeating the petty crooks, the gangs and the drugs dealers - and, by so doing, make the local environment pleasanter and safer to live in. In terms of the Assimilation-Contrast Effect, Ann is what Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck would term a ‘Zealot’: driven by a harmonic of RED and BLUE vMEMES, she will seek to dominate a situation to make it the way she knows it should be.
Ann’s description of how she got involved that day is revealing: “I became aware of a loud revving noise at the top of the street. I looked over and saw a kid run up to the doorway of the jeweller. Three lads followed him and when I saw their arms going I thought the kid was being beaten up. My mother’s instinct kicked in and I ran across the road, shouting at the lads to stop it. Only then did I realise that they were smashing glass and that it was a raid. There was a scooter in my path revving up but by now I was in full flight and I started whacking the lads over the head with my shopping bag…angry that they felt they could get away with what they were doing in broad daylight.”
I would suggest that Ann’s reference to her ‘mother’s instinct’ kicking in is a folklore explanation she has given herself. There is little evidence that mothers have a ‘mothering instinct’ for the adult male offspring of other women. A cognitive explanation of her actions would be much more viable. She has deeply-ingrained schemas about morality and justice and responded initially to a perception of injustice - one man being hurt by 3 others – and these schemas of justice/injustice were then were activated even more strongly in her anger “that they felt they could get away with what they were doing in broad daylight”.
It looks to me as if Ann has a ’Crusader’ identity - she crusades against injustice and against those who would make our streets unsafe. What she did, she did from very deeply-held beliefs about what’s right and wrong.
That she could do what she did – the very real dangers present, the arthritic legs stretched to (and perhaps even beyond) their limit - is testament to the power of belief when those beliefs are inextricably linked to our deepest values.
It’s not altogether different to the powers of belief - again propelled by a RED/BLUE vMEME harmonic - that led unarmed young Egytian men (and not a few older men and not a few women) into Tahrir Square in the early days of the anti-Mubarak protests, in the face of police tear gas and rubber bullets, sniper fire and horse charges from pro-Mubarak thugs. They knew what they thought was right and they had the energy, determination and arrogance to fight - and, in some instances, die – for it.
As remarkable as Ann Timson’s intervention in the raid was, equally remarkable was the failure of the other observers to intervene. No one else in the immediate vicinity attempted to do anything about the attempted robbery until Ann had driven off the raiders, bringing one them down in the process. Then there was a rush to keep the downed raider down and to see Ann was okay. Before her intervention, plenty of bystanders stopped and gawped and drivers turning into the street steered around the scooters – but no one did anything. Even the jewellers’ staff - clearly terrified - did no more than try to get the shutters down.
Ann herself said she was ‘amazed’ that bystanders did not intervene at the start of the attack. She described herself as “shouting and shouting for others to help and bring them down…They all seemed mesmerised. A lot were standing there filming or taking photos….”
Psychologists, however, will not be surprised by the lack of intervention from others. The Bystander Effect is a recognised psychological phenomenon – that there is an inverse relationship between the number of people present at an emergency situation and the willingness of those people to offer help. This relationship was first proposed by John Darley & Bibb Latané from their investigations into the notorious murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovase in 1964 when something like 38 neighbours heard her screams and cries for help and/or actually saw part of the attack but did not call the police or otherwise intervene.
Explanations put forward for the Bystander Effect’ include evaluation apprehension and diffusion of responsibility. Evaluation apprehension is the anxiety produced by the fear that others will be judgemental about your competence in dealing with the situation. Diffusion of responsibility occurs when individuals feel less responsibility for taking action in a crisis when there are others about because responsibility is perceived as shared and, therefore, spread out. The more bystanders there are, the less likely any individual is to act. In effect, everyone puts the responsibility for doing something about the crisis onto others.
That the bystanders finally realised it was a little old woman screaming for help and that she had succeeded in driving off the raiders may have been the catalysts which finally spurred the onlookers into action in Northampton.
While there numerous documented examples of the Bystander Effect in history - arguably the greatest and most notorious example being the German people’s acquiescence to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, Slavs, etc, during World War II - there is an interesting question as to whether the Bystander Effect has become more common and possibly embedded into British culture since World War II.
Were people more willing to get involved in earlier decades? Did they see it as the kind of thing they should do?
My father has told me many tales of men, during his youth in the 1930s and 1940s, coming out of their houses to clear away troublesome groups of teenagers. He also told me of vigilante-type groups coming together from time to time to take on gangs that were coming into their neighbourhood.
How thinkable would it be for male householders in a street to do that kind of thing today? (Unfortunately when people do ‘have a go’ these days, all too often they end up doing it alone! Ann Timson, anyone?)
My father’s evidence is, of course, anecdotal and may be relevant only to the area of Liverpool in which he grew up. However, I have heard a number of similar anecdotes relating to different parts of the country.
Attitudes these days towards the idea of ‘having a go’ seem rather mixed. Newspapers like The Sun and the Daily Mail usually can’t find enough superlatives to praise ‘have a go heroes’. However, ‘official’ attitudes are all too often reflected in the words of Detective Inspector Ally White who said of the Ann Timpson incident: “We would like to thank all of the members of the public who assisted in the incident. However, we would always advise the public to call the police if they witness a crime, rather than risking their own safety by getting involved themselves.”
So the police don’t actually want us to have a go but to rely on them….? So the Bystander Effect is okay with them?!? Perhaps it is becoming embedded in our culture, encouraged by ‘officialdom’? Hmmm….well, the lone constable I stopped to support when he was investigating a late night break-in some years back actually seemed very appreciative of my company till back-up arrived.
The obvious problems with not having a go and relying on the police are:-
a) the time gap until they arrive
b) the fact there simply aren’t enough of them to cope with all the crime being conducted - and there will be even less of them and more people feeling they are driven to crime as a result of the Government’s cuts!
Intervening, of course, can carry serious risks; but, if we are to have a functioning society where people can go about their lawful business safely, can we afford for everyone to be that risk averse?
If David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea is to work - ie: local people band together to do ‘it’ for themselves, rather than rely on government - then can that ‘it’ include have a go’ law enforcement? If it can, then clearly Ally White really doesn’t understand that. But, if it is officially okay to intervene, how close can ‘have a go’ get to outright judge-jury-executioner vigilantism?
If the nodal BLUE law & order system can’t protect those who put their trust in it, then inevitably there will be a Spiral downshift to RED/BLUE when people will take the law into their own hands in the same way as Munir Hussain - see ‘Munir Hussain and the wrong messages of Judge John Reddihough’ - and Tony Martin have done in recent years, with severe consequences for the criminals they dealt with.
As the cuts cause the law & order system in this country to malfunction increasingly, perhaps a BEIGE/PURPLE vMEME harmonic will drive more people to have a go at defending themselves, their families and their property. Again Egypt helps illustrate this point - neighbours forming little groups armed with knives, baseball bats and the occasional firearm at the ends of their streets to repel the looters taking advantage of the civic disturbances and rioting.
The ‘Viral Phenomenon’
Why, oh, why has footage of a little old lady swinging her handbag at a - let’s face it! - decidedly amateurish (though undoubtedly thuggish) group of would-be robbers captured so much interest right around the world?
The answer will lie at least partly in the ongoing failure of BLUE to contain escalating crime - especially violent crime. From the daily routine of murders, rapes, muggings and robberies infesting Johannesburg to Somali pirates reviving the tradition of buccaneering in as bloodthirsty a manner as any of their forbears to the epidemic of drugs and sex trafficking right across Europe and many other examples, the globally-connected world seems to be awash with examples of criminals getting away with it - the message all too often being that crime actually does pay.
Thus, heroes who emerge unexpectedly from seemingly nowhere and suddenly decimate the criminals are the stuff of folklore. So often, for us as observers - bystanders- they embody our own desire to ‘do something’ and our frustrations at not being able to do so. They take the law into their own hands - as Ann Timson did - when the law is clearly not working. Of course, there may be all kinds of complications when the hero figure does this - there’s good reason why these kinds of heroes are sometimes termed ‘anti-heroes’.
For a fuller discussion of this point, see the Society feature: ‘When BLUE fails, call for Clint!’
The Ann Timson seen in the footage is a small-scale old lady version of the kind of hero figure so often played by the likes of Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger in their action hero heydays. Like we loved them sorting out the ruthless gangsters the law can’t, we love her for sorting out the scooter boys. The fact she isn’t a muscle-bound violent psychopath but a gran-like old lady also conveys the message: if she can do it, why can’t we all?
Clearly there is a memetic virus effect here. According to a YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times (13 February), 35% of respondents thought Ann was heroic to intervene. 13% thought she was foolish, and 46% said she was both heroic and foolish. Given a list of crimes, 54% said they would intervene if they saw someone burgling a house and 60% said they would step in if they saw an unarmed aggressor assaulting someone in the street. Some 40% of respondents said they would take action if they witnessed a gunman or someone armed with a club assaulting someone in the street, and 29% would intervene on witnessing an armed robbery.
All hot air and fantasy or real inspiration to action…? Of course, we’ll never know whether the YouGov respondents get involved in breaking up criminal activities. But, if we see more spontaneous group action against criminals and fewer Bystander Effects, then maybe some of that may just be attributable to the inspiration Ann Timson has provided.
But the very real and increasing need for what is not far off vigilantism says a lot about the effect crime is having on our society and the decreasing capacity of conventional law enforcement channels for dealing with it.