It is one of the most agonising stories of what might have been: the case of the 22-year-old Nottingham law student who boarded the last bus home after a night out, found herself 20p short of the £5 fare, and spent eight minutes - documented on CCTV footage - pleading with the driver to let her on or wait while she went to a cash machine. He refused, and she had to disembark alone at 3am and telephone her mother to pick her up. In the intervening period she was abducted, raped and brutally beaten by a 19-year-old man, Joseph Moran.
I cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the bus driver, what misguided notion of fare-taking procedure outweighed his moral duty to a vulnerable young girl. But what disturbs me equally is the behaviour of the other passengers on the bus, not one of whom stepped up and offered to make up the pitiful shortfall in cash.
"Don't get involved" has become the mantra of our age, a phrase which manages to imply that inaction is, in all cases, the measured distillation of all wisdom. Of course, sometimes it is indeed sensible to keep quiet, if one is obviously risking more than can be gained by intervention.
From time to time one reads of particularly shocking cases in which someone has attempted to restrain the behaviour of the violently insane or psychopathically aggressive - categories which seem to be expanding their ranks in modern Britain - and has been brutally attacked or killed. Such events might be statistically rare, but they have a nasty way of worming into one's consciousness.
There is, however, a circular phenomenon, a price to be paid when law-abiding people decide not to "get involved". As such individuals gradually fall silent in shared spaces, the small minority who are prone to create a nuisance feel the palpable thrill of reigning loudly and unchallenged. There is another effect, too, as "don't get involved" becomes a mindset that extends even to situations which aren't threatening in the least. Many people, particularly on public transport, appear to have become wary of direct engagement per se. They avoid, not just encounters that will put them at clear physical risk, but even those that might involve some tiny measure of extra effort or potential embarrassment.
Why did no one give that student on the Nottingham bus 20 pence? Perhaps they were too drunk or sleepy to think at all, or they didn't wish to annoy the driver by intervening, or they even felt a small, mean-minded pleasure at watching a dispute unfold and a young girl duly "punished" for a very slight error in not having the correct change. Yet none of them was moved to help, as no doubt they would want someone to help their own daughter, sister or mother.
Last week, I was standing in a crowded Tube carriage, and seated next to me were three young boys of about 11, who were waving around a bit of newspaper with a topless Page 3 model on it. Their intention was to embarrass the adult occupants of the carriage, by thrusting the picture of bare breasts in their faces while asking a spurious question about a news story next to it. They were silly boys, but not frightening, and in the old days I suppose an authoritative older man would simply have snatched the paper off them and ticked them off. But instead the man opposite them remained frozen, staring straight ahead as they waggled the page in his face.
This went on for a while until the ringleader shoved it at me, and I said in as loud a voice as I could muster: "Nobody's embarrassed. You're just making a fool of yourself." Not an Algonquin-level put-down, I admit, but there was something about the rigid pretence in the carriage that nothing was happening, that was worse than the boys' nonsense itself.
In a new and insightful book, Being British: What's Wrong With It? the author Peter Whittle examines, among other things, the cultural malaise that now affects our behaviour in public spaces. As an experiment, he decided politely to challenge the perpetrators of minor offences such as loud swearing or putting feet up on train seats. He found that "a fundamental shift had occurred… It was I who was considered the troublemaker, the rude one."
It is strange that in an era of endless gabble and self-assertion on social media, British people are rendered so mute in public about the little things that add up to a society which retains standards of kindness and respect. And sometimes, as we saw from the terrible events in Nottingham, those little things can end up mattering more than anyone might have imagined.
Great talents that never grew up
A survey last week listed the 50 indicators that you have become a fully fledged adult, which include being able to bleed a radiator, washing up immediately after eating, and carrying spare shopping bags "just in case".
I've already failed on quite a few - such as owning "best towels" and "filing post" - but in any case I'd like to substitute a handful of my own: buying a slow cooker; enjoying lunch alone in a restaurant rather than fretting that people will think you're a "Billy-no-mates"; and, when you hear a much-loved song, briefly considering whether you might like it played at your funeral.
Still, achieving the 50 markers of adulthood is a bit like going to the gym: it feels great to hit your targets, but then the horrible truth dawns that you are now expected to keep this stuff up for the rest of your life.
It is interesting that the biggest stars, who retain the tightest grip on the public imagination, are those who - in many senses - never really grew up.
Elvis Presley, for example, remains such a draw that last week it was announced that he is to be "virtually resurrected" and taken on tour as a computerised hologram. Yet I can no more imagine Elvis keeping track of interest rates than Marilyn Monroe changing a car tyre.
Their talent exempted them from adulthood. Perhaps that's why we remain fascinated by them. Perhaps it's also why they never made it into old age.
Fowl would rather be good livers
The people of California have reportedly been indulging in a final frenzy of foie gras consumption, before the unctuous foodstuff is banned throughout the state on July 1.
In this country, it is still legal to import and eat foie gras, but controversy swirls around the practice of gavage, or force-feeding ducks or geese until their livers are vastly engorged with fat. Selfridges even imposed its own ban, but its butcher Jack O'Shea was sacked earlier this year in part because of revelations that he had been secretly flogging it under the code-name of "French fillet".
Some argue that, if done carefully by hand, gavage is not inherently cruel, while others regard it as a simple abomination. The way forward would appear to be the route taken by the Spanish farmer Eduardo Sousa, who has made an acclaimed foie gras simply by permitting his birds to gorge themselves richly in autumn, when they naturally fatten for winter, before killing them.
One must, I think, respect the way that animals - unlike us - do not eat to excess unless they have a strong biological reason. A quick glance around Britain today confirms the melancholy assumption that if they were to make foie gras out of hum
ans, no force-feeding would be necessary.