Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Am Officially a Hero

I've tried to tell people I'm not, but they just won't listen.

by George Monbiot.

Published on the Guardian's "Comment is Free blog" (March 15 2006)

This is the story of how I became a hero, by means which are not entirely clear to me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a friend's house late at night and making toast in the kitchen. From the street came a rather theatrical scream. It sounded like someone messing about, so I heroically kept buttering my toast while my friend and my heavily pregnant wife went out to investigate. Hearing a commotion I wandered out to join them, and was told that the woman they were talking to had been mugged.

"We saw him disappearing round the corner".

"What did he look like?"

"An old man with a limp, carrying her bag".

"You're having me on".

"No really. If you're quick you'll catch him."

I ran round the corner but there was no sign of him. I ran up and down the streets for a while and then, coming out of the back of a big commercial building, I saw an old man with a limp, carrying a bag.

"Excuse me please".


"May I see your bag?"

"Of course".

It was a paper takeaway bag.

"I'm sorry. It's just that someone's been mugged and the mugger came this way."

"No trouble".

He hobbled off, and I went back to the woman who had been mugged.

"I spoke to a man with a limp, but it wasn't him".

"How do you know?"

"He only had a paper bag".

"What did he look like?"

"Gaunt face, sunken eyes, shaven head, small grey beard".

"That's him!"


I ran back, and of course he had disappeared. Just inside the gates of the offices was the woman's bag, torn open, its contents scattered on the paving.

By the time the police arrived, they had caught him on the other side of the city.

"As soon as we get a report, we look out for the suspect on the TV screens. We saw him coming into town."

"But how did you know it was him?"

"The cameras are so good now they can read the numbers on the cash tills".

I was left with the victim in the foyer of the police station while they tried to find someone to take our statements. She was a curious character. She wore a schoolgirl hat, a scholar's gown and a kind of nightie she seemed to have made from a nylon bedsheet. She was not a great conversationalist.

"I saw you have a library card. Are you a student?"


"Which year are you in?"

"I'm doing an M Phil".

"Oh really? What are you studying?"

"The influence of the French symbolist poets on Rilke and George".

We spent the next two hours scratching and staring into space.

At last I was called in, and that exasperating business, familiar to almost everyone, of producing testimony, began.

"So I went up to him and said 'Excuse me please'. - "

"You said what?"

"'Excuse me please'."

"You said 'Excuse me please' to a mugger?"

"Well, I didn't know he was a mugger".

"Right. Then what happened?"

"I asked to see his bag and it wasn't the right one, so I said 'I'm sorry ...' - ".

"You said what?"

"'I'm sorry'."

"I've heard it all now".

"Well, I didn't know it was him".

"That's what comes of writing for a liberal newspaper. You give everyone the benefit of the doubt."

"You mean if I wrote for the Daily Mail he'd be hanging from a tree by now?"

"Well I'll be honest sir. I'll give you nine out of ten for going after him. But then ..."

He shook his head in pity and exasperation.

"What should I have done?"

"Grabbed hold of him and pinned him there until we came along".

"But I didn't know he was the right man".

"You would have been well within your rights".

When the interview finished, the policeman told me that I would almost certainly hear nothing more about it, as they appeared to have the suspect bang to rights (an expression without which no conversation with a policeman is complete). He was as kind about my bungling as he could bring himself to be, but I felt like a complete idiot.

The next morning I received a phone call.

"Mr Monbiot? I hope you don't mind me ringing you. I'm from the Thames Valley Police press office. I've had the Oxford Mail on the phone. They're saying you're a hero and they want to write a piece about it."

"But I didn't do anything. In fact I messed it up."

"Well that's what they're saying. I was wondering if you'd be prepared to talk to them."

"It sounds like I'd better".

They rang a few hours later.

"The police are saying that you're a Good Samaritan".

"No, no. I messed it up. It was a disaster. I caught the mugger and then I let him go again."

"That's not what they say. They say you're a hero and you were very brave last night."

"No, that's completely wrong. I'm certainly no hero and I wasn't at all brave. All I did was speak to him and take his word for it when he said he wasn't the mugger."

"Well it's already gone into the second edition. If you don't mind we'll write it up again for tomorrow."

"But there isn't really a story. I messed it up."

I haven't seen that second edition, but the next day I found the headline SCREAM SET MAN ON TRAIL OF BAG THIEF. "A Good Samaritan went in search of a robber who snatched a woman's bag ... " It contained one quote from me: "I'm certainly no hero and what I did wasn't brave". This, of course, succeeded only in giving the impression that I am also very modest.

Since then I have been plagued by it. Whenever I leave the house people come up and congratulate me.

"No, they got it all wrong. I really didn't do anything. I messed it up."

"That's what they all say".

"But it's true".

"Well I think you're very brave anyway".

So I'll just have to live with it. I am officially a hero and a Good Samaritan, rightly honoured for the courageous act of speaking to an old man with a limp.

Bill Totten


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