Invisible to society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 May, 2006, 12:00am

If it wasn't so tragic, it could almost be farcical. A woman dies alone in her north London flat and lies undiscovered for more than two years. Her body is so decomposed that police have to use dental records to identify her, and her time of death is estimated using the sell-by date of food left in the fridge.

'Best before November 2003,' it said on the labels. It was April 2006 when they found Joyce Vincent - her TV still on, and tuned to BBC1.

Apparently, she was wrapping Christmas presents and died where she sat, bolt upright on the sofa. It was strange that no neighbours had noticed the constant noise from the TV; that the postman hadn't been alerted by the piles of mail; that relatives hadn't tried to contact her (even if it was only to find out what had happened to their gifts); and that the caretaker in the apartment underneath hadn't noticed the smell. Well, why would you, asked other residents when 'the bins smell awful, and the stairwells reek of junkies'.

Such deaths happen all the time in cities, especially sprawling, impersonal metropolises such as London. Like most capitals, it is infamous elsewhere in the country for its lack of manners, dearth of community spirit and fleeting sense of neighbourliness. London, more than most world cities, is populated by a vast transient community; strangers of various backgrounds on a not-so-merry-go-round.

Sad stories of people dying alone in their flats are more usually reserved for older people. In Sydney last year, for instance, there was outrage after a spate of pensioners died alone.

Then there is the growing sense that people are losing their way in life: in Belgium last week, 90,000 people took to the streets to protest against a sense of dying community spirit, following the killing of a youth for his MP3 player.

That would probably never happen in London. Yet, even among hardened locals - used to muggings and murder on a daily basis - Joyce's death touched a raw nerve: she was no nefarious drug addict, bitter alcoholic or pensioner. She was just lonely - and only 40 years old.

In the end, she was only found because of mounting rent arrears. Her landlord might have found her sooner, had her rent not been partly paid by direct debit through the local council.

Her death prompted other columnists to air less sanguine thoughts: that in modern London we are watched daily on CCTV, and our movements are recorded through credit- and smart-card transactions. But it is only when our money runs out - when the funds to lubricate our direct debits for heating, power, rent and the TV licence finally run out - that anyone really takes notice of us. And only then to scoop us up and move us on, whether it be onto the street, into jail or a grave. Rest in peace, Joyce Vincent.