This morning, unannounced as usual, a plumber arrived to install a new wash basin in the bathroom. As it was the very same plumber who broke the old one, I greeted his arrival with an emotion that fell short of enthusiasm. After labouring away for some time he announced that the condition of the wall was too bad to allow him to affix the basin and that the wall would have to be plastered first. My reaction one was of resignation as I have got used to the idea that what was supposed to have been a renovation completed to a 5-week schedule is now going to turn into an indefinitely long process of patching, repairing and making good. Will it ever end?
Shortly after the plumber arrived, I had another visit, this one previously arranged. As council officers will need to access Silas’ flat many times in the months to come, I was asked if I would lend them a key to the front door so that they could have a copy made. I readily agreed and the visit was to pick up the key. When the officer returned the key, I asked her some questions about Silas and the conversation ran on to other matters so I invited her in and we spent an enjoyable half-hour chatting about many things until she was called away.
Unsurprisingly, I have thought a lot about Silas since the discovery of his death on Friday. The council officer was able to enlighten me on certain details but much remains unknown. For example, I was right to guess that the buckets of water found in his flat were there because he was attempting to manage leaks from pipes above his flat. He was so opposed to anyone entering his flat that he did not report the problem.
The last time third parties managed to gain access was when a gas safety check was arranged. This is a legal requirement and the council was thus entitled to enter upon the premises in order to carry it out. No actual check was performed as no gas appliances were in use. Nest boxes for pigeons were seen in the back room, which was probably why Silas tried to keep people out as he had already been warned about feeding pigeons in the property. However, there were no pigeons in the flat on Friday.
According to the officer, Silas may have died as a result of malnutrition because he was “stick thin” and “in a state”. She was trying to get something done about his condition at the time when nature took a hand and applied its own solution.
Such cases do present a dilemma. If a person who is compos mentis decides to neglect himself, do the authorities have any right to interfere? On the face of it, no, because that would run contrary to our well established right to freedom and autonomy. But what if the person is not compos mentis and the suspicion is that the neglect is a consequence of incompetence rather than an act of will? In what conditions and at what point do the authorities have a right, or even a duty, to intervene?
Silas caused no harm to others and I cannot say he caused us any distress despite living directly above us. The only person who came to any harm was Silas himself. The heart says that “we” (meaning the society to which we all belong) ought to do something. But what? The head says that interference in the lives of others is dangerous and places us on the slippery slope that leads to the sort of fascist state that controls every aspect of citizens’ lives and leaves them without any freedom. We do not have to look far for examples.
The council officer readily confessed her uncertainty and far from blaming her for this I felt that such confusion was both necessary and good. It means that we have to agonize over every case and try to tailor a solution that is the best available for the person concerned. If we see it merely as a question of applying fixed rules to fixed situations then we end up treating people as objects and denying them their humanity. Cynicism is the ever present danger.
What is so tragic is though this country apparently has sufficient wealth to host the Olympic Games and to engage in military adventures overseas, it starves local authorities of the money they need to look after citizens – the sick, the elderly, the abandoned – who need such help. Charity, so the saying runs, begins at home. I wish our successive governments would remember this more often.