Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

By Dr Liz Yardley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This Sunday sees the arrival of the BBC four-part crime drama, ‘What Remains’. The setting is a block of flats in South London. Melissa Young, the resident of the top floor flat has not been seen for two years. A body is discovered in the eaves of the loft – could it be Melissa? If so, how could no one have noticed that she had disappeared?

The series is set to continue the spirit of the highly successful Scandinavian series ‘The Killing’, as ITV’s Broadchurch did to critical acclaim earlier this year. These crime dramas don’t go for shock and gore, there isn’t a fresh (or indeed stale) corpse every episode. Rather they explore the complex web of individual relationships that surround murder, force us to think about pressing social issues and prompt us to reflect upon our own lives.  It may seem strange to say this as a criminologist but it’s not the murder aspect of What Remains that makes it so interesting for me.

Melissa Young brings to mind many other cases, not of murder, but of people found dead in their homes, having lain undiscovered for considerable periods of time. In October 2011, 63 year-old Dublin man Joseph Hussey was found in his flat having been dead for at least six months. In December 2011, police officers found 42 year-old Stuart Bolton approximately 7 months after he had died at home in Chorley.  In 2006, 38 year-old Joyce Vincent was discovered in her North London flat, having lain dead for 3 years with her television flickering and a pile of Christmas gifts lying at her side.

Why did it take so long for others to notice something was amiss?  Everyone has somebody looking out for them, don’t they? Some of the people discovered in such circumstances are described in media reports as reclusive, having little or no contact with family, distanced from society as a result of problems with drugs, alcohol or mental ill health.  But this does not apply in all cases – and we should not stigmatize these people as society’s “drop outs” in any event – to do so is to divert attention from what is REALLY going on here.

The concept that comes to mind when I think about these cases is ‘social capital’. Social capital goes by various definitions but essentially, it concerns the nature and extent of links between people and the impact that the presence or absence of these links has upon society. It is generally accepted that higher levels of social capital can only be a good thing, contributing towards improved health, better educational achievement and lower crime rates. However, many sociologists have suggested that social capital is being eroded, we are disconnecting from each other – in effect we are in the midst of a CRISIS in social capital as society becomes increasingly characterised by anonymity and individualism. By all accounts, we are becoming a rather lonely society.

I have a problem with this insofar as such conclusions rest on the assumption that there was, at some unspecified point in history, a ‘golden age’ in which we all engaged regularly and meaningfully with our neighbours, family and friends. I don’t think there has ever been a time when this was universally true; there have always been those who have ‘fallen off the radar’. However, I do think that there may be some individuals today who are more vulnerable to this than others.  But relatively young, switched-on people like the fictional Melissa Young? Surely they are the least likely to slip away unnoticed?

Perhaps not, particularly if we look at ‘neighbourliness’, which often crops up in discussions about social capital.  A recent YouGov poll found that the most important factor for how well Britons know their neighbours was age. Less than a quarter of younger people spoke regularly to at least three neighbours, compared to more than six in ten older people.  But even if you do speak to your neighbours regularly, what would happen if they weren’t there?  Would a friendly greeting over the fence or in the hallway translate into a genuine concern if we hadn’t seen someone for a while? And similarly, what if one of your Facebook ‘friends’ or those you follow on Twitter stopped posting? Would you even notice they had gone?  Would you actually do something about it?

We can reflect on these questions whilst we watch the fictional What Remains unfold. But I’d highly recommend another compelling piece, a film entitled ‘Dreams of a Life’, which sadly is all too real. This documentary tells the story of Joyce Vincent –who I mentioned earlier in this blog – just in case you had forgotten who she was already.

Dreams of a Life is available through the 4oD Channel on YouTube or via the film’s website.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.