Today’s front page story in our local newspaper provides disturbing reading: “Albert 68, ‘was hounded to his death’. Neighbours say man who died in flat fire was bullied by youths and beaten up by masked burglars.” Some of the details regarding the fire and exact cause of death have still to be determined. But the Echo in the report that followed painted a graphic picture of a lonely old man, without family, who lived by himself, who enjoyed a few simple pleasures in life. Some, like his bike, were taken from him in the end. He was of a simple nature and was illiterate. His disheveled appearance and obvious vulnerability made him an easy target. His last days were not altogether happy ones and his death was a tragedy.
I am not normally over enthusiastic regarding newspaper editorials but this time the Echo got it right. It starts: “Bullying is well recognized as a scourge that affects wide areas of society. Schools, workplaces and social media are all hunting grounds for bullies, and there have been many programmes to counteract the suffering they inflict”. It then goes on to the type of victim Albert was and discusses some of the disturbing circumstances of his case and the insidiousness of the bullying he received. The editorial ends: “There are many more Alberts in our midst, and maybe they should figure more highly on our concern agenda”. While bullying is just one of the factors in what happened, it is the one I want to consider here.
A dictionary definition of a bully is: “a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker”. I reckon I have seen many instances of bullying in my lifetime, in all sorts of ways sometimes quite subtle. I know all too well the distress this causes, partly because in my younger years especially I was on the receiving end. The fact the incident happened on my doorstep (less than 10 minutes walk from my home) makes it even more poignant.
Regarding incidents of bullying, one type I have seen so often in my work among rough sleepers is how they become easy targets for those with malevolent intent. As I write this I learn of some local rough sleeper friends sleeping in tents having their tents slashed with their ability to protect and respond being nigh non existent. And often bullying can be a lot more subtle than this, making it that more insidious. As a regular Facebook user I have seen recent attempts at character assassination, itself another form of bullying.
But there was another factor and is why I mention this story – I knew Albert, and as soon as I recognised his newspaper photo, underneath the front page headline, my heart dropped, for I knew it was he. I didn’t know him well to be sure and when I first came across him I opted for the quiet life, not wanting to get involved, and tried to avoid him. Every so often I visit a nearby café and often Albert was there, no doubt it being one outlet where he felt welcomed and accepted. But when he did engage with me, we ended up having a pleasant chat. I found what a nice, humble, courteous person Albert was. Feeling slightly chided by my earlier inclination not to engage with Albert and folk like him, I realise that a simple greeting as a minimum is the right thing to do and do it we must.
According to the Echo report, some of Albert’s neighbours did look out for him and show neighbourly concern. Various services were involved and quite likely more could have been done, but then that is something that might apply to us all. As the Echo commented, there are many like Albert who are vulnerable and they need to be looked out for and taken care of. Under no circumstances should we allow bullying to continue. And that is our challenge! RIP Albert!