In London Lite (the free companion paper to the Evening Standard), the front page headline was "Muggers throw man off a train" and the attached story referred to "the time of the mugging". On the other hand, thelondonpaper say that he was attacked because he'd brushed past the trio who attacked him, even though he'd apologised; that paper quotes the police as saying "This is not believed to be a robbery attempt." (The BBC have a more neutral version of the story, without any theories on the reason for the attack.)
I wasn't there, so I don't know what actually happened, but the "brushing past" version has the ring of truth about it. I've heard that the origin of the phrase "a chip on his shoulder" dates back to the Middle Ages: young men who were in a bad mood would balance a wood chip on their shoulder, then go swaggering around the village, and if anyone bumped into them (knocking the chip off) then this would be used as an excuse to start a fight. I've also witnessed this behaviour directly a few times.
When I studied Latin at school, there was one particular passage we translated that was a fable. The basic idea was that a fox and a rabbit were drinking from a stream, and the fox was trying to come up with justifications for eating the rabbit. For instance, he started by saying that the rabbit was drinking his water, but then the rabbit pointed out that he was downstream, i.e. that the water he got had already gone past the fox. It went on like this for a while; I don't remember the ending, but I'm guessing that the rabbit got away safely. Anyway, when we were translating this story in class, we were all asking "Why doesn't the fox just eat the rabbit? Why does he need to make up an excuse?" The teacher tried to explain to us that the fox wanted to feel justified in doing it, but I couldn't understand it at the time; I think it makes more sense to me now, certainly in terms of human behaviour.
More recently, I read an article that speculated about why dogs attack postmen. The basic theory was that the postman would approach the door each day (to deliver the post), then the dog would bark (trying to scare the intruder away), and the postman would leave (having delivered the post). From the dog's point of view, it had successfully protected its home; it wouldn't understand that the postman was going to leave anyway. Behaviour that is rewarded tends to be repeated, so this pattern would repeat every day, and the dog would gradually get bolder, thinking how fearsome it was, and how intruders were quailing in terror. Then one day, the dog would be out in the garden when the postman visited, and it would think "Right, now to teach this guy a lesson so that he'll never come back!" and it would attack. (Incidentally, I'm sure that the same logic would apply equally well to a woman delivering post, but I really can't be arsed to use clunky phrases like "postal delivery worker" every time.) I'm not an expert on canine psychology (I've always been more of a cat person), but this sounds plausible to me. More to the point, I also think that there are humans who behave the same way, i.e. they escalate their bad behaviour if people tolerate it.
Moving onto my own (adult) experiences, there are three particular incidents that have stuck in my mind.
The first incident happened in 1996, when I went off to the cinema (in Leicester Square) with a couple of friends. We were walking back to the tube station afterwards, and there were a few guys coming in the opposite direction. I made an effort to get out of their way, but the guy nearest me didn't reciprocate, so we bumped into each other; I said "Sorry" over my shoulder, more out of reflex than anything else, and thought no more of it. However, one of the other guys then called out after me, clearly spoiling for a fight. He complained that I'd bumped into them, so I said sorry. He said that his friend (the one I'd bumped into) was sick, and his friend gave a rather unconvincing cough, so I said sorry again. I didn't really feel that I'd done anything wrong, but if it had turned into a fight then I wasn't absolutely sure that I could protect my friends from harm, so I swallowed my pride. After a couple more iterations of this (and one of my friends backing me up by saying "Look, it was an accident!"), the other guys let the subject drop and we went our separate ways. Mind you, when I was talking to my friends about this afterwards, it turned out that they thought I'd backed down simply because I was afraid for myself; if they drew that conclusion, it seems likely that the other group did so too.
The second incident happened a year or so later (1997/1998). I was travelling on the Central line one day, and there were a couple of young guys standing near the door; they were being annoying by pressing the "Close" button each time it opened, making it harder for other people to get on and off. When we got to my stop (Bank), there was a guy in a suit who wanted to get off, so he leant past them to press the "Open" button. I'm not sure whether he brushed against them, or just invaded their personal space, but either way they viewed this as an excuse to attack him and shoved him away. This being London, everyone else moved back away from them, not wanting to get involved. By the time I'd squeezed through to the front, the suit guy was on the platform, standing doubled over from where the other two had apparently just kicked/punched him in the stomach. I went over to see if he was ok, and he wasn't seriously injured, but he said that he wanted them arrested - this sounded reasonable to me. The two guys then jumped back on the train, obviously intending to make their escape before any authorities arrived.
This is where things got a bit more tricky. There were no members of staff around, so I needed to trigger an emergency alarm. Unfortunately, I couldn't see any on the platform, and there also weren't any near the open door to the train; there was one on the opposite side, but I couldn't reach it through the crowd of passengers, and I didn't think I'd have time to get to it before the train departed. I did try a general plea for assistance ("Could someone press the emergency button please?"), but everyone ignored me. Given my limited options, I figured that the best approach was to hold the train doors open, thus stopping the train from leaving; while I was doing this, I'd continue trying to summon assistance. There was some general grumbling from other passengers about what I was doing, but nobody else was willing to press the button.
In the meantime, the two guys were standing next to the door, and they weren't particularly happy with me. They told me to step away from the doors, and explicitly threatened to kill me if I didn't. I don't really like it when people threaten me, and I'd normally take that as reasonable grounds to act in self-defence. However, the complication was that they were both black, while the suit guy and I were both white. In other words, if I made any hostile move against them, I'd be risking accusations of racism.
So, anyway, there I was: I didn't want to let the guys leave, but I also didn't want to fight them. If you imagine that you were standing on the platform looking at the train, they were on the left side of the doors while I was on the right side. I faced the door that I was holding open, i.e. I kept my back to the two guys while they were describing all the ways that they intended to hurt me, and did my best to ignore them. This is important: despite all their threats, they didn't actually touch me. I can only speculate about the reasons involved, but I think this comes back to the fox/rabbit story from earlier - the suit guy had given them a flimsy justification to act (by moving towards them), whereas I was standing with my back to them, and therefore I hadn't crossed that same arbitrary threshold.
Eventually the driver came down to see why the doors weren't closing (after various "Please stand clear of the doors" messages), and at that point the two guys ran off. The suit guy and I explained the situation to the driver, but he didn't seem particularly inclined to do anything about it (e.g. radio-ing in to control to get the two guys stopped elsewhere). A cynic might say that this was because the driver was black too; I personally think it was a combination of him being relatively old (40s/50s), i.e. he didn't want to go chasing them, and a general lack of intelligence/initative ("this wasn't covered in my training course"). The suit guy had got his wind back by this point, and he didn't want to call the police, so he thanked me for my assistance and we went our separate ways.
I don't know whether it's related to issues like this, but the logic of tube train doors has changed since then. A year or so later, LUL put up signs saying that doors would automatically open at each stop, due to the hot weather we were having that summer. This new approach seemed to stick, and so the open/close buttons are now normally non-functional, and some trains have removed them altogether.
The third incident happened in 2004, soon after I moved to Croydon. I was walking home one night, and saw various groups of rowdy/drunk people around. As I walked past a taxi hire place, a group of guys (all white) were there, and one of them called after me something like "Yeah, keep on walking, or I'll do you over". (The precise details are a bit hazy.) This made me think about the dog/postman scenario that I mentioned above. On the one hand, if they hadn't been there (or if they hadn't said anything) then I would have kept going, so I shouldn't behave differently just because they'd told me to do that. On the other hand, if they thought that I was doing it because I was afraid of them, that might make them bolder/more aggressive for the next person who comes along, due to (apparent) positive reinforcement.
So, I walked back, and asked whether I'd done something to offend him. I didn't think that I had, but I was deliberately trying to be polite, rather than escalating the situation. This was also something of a sociology experiment, testing the theory that they wouldn't actually hit me first. (I was also curious to see what he'd say.) He laughed, and told me to leave again; I stayed calm, but refused to leave, despite his threats. I was outnumbered (3-1 for most of the time), and they did push me back a step at one point. One of the guys also took a swing at me although he deliberately didn't connect, he just brought his fist within about an inch of my face, while I stood still and didn't flinch away.
They asked me a few times what I was going to do, i.e. whether I was planning to take on all of them, and I said explicitly (several times) that I was not threatening them in any way, and that I had no intention of attacking them. I did shift my posture slightly, by moving my left foot back and holding my arms loosely at my sides: the idea was that I'd be able to defend myself if they did attack me. I was hoping that this would be fairly subtle, but they picked up on it, and associated it with martial arts.
This is where things got interesting: they were asking me whether I was claiming to be some kind of karate expert, but I said no. I did some judo at school, but that was many years ago, and wouldn't be much help in a situation like this, so I didn't mention it. More specifically, whenever they brought up the subject, they'd say something like "You may know tai-quando, and be able to get a few jabs in, but then my friends will hit you", and I'd reply "I never said that I knew tai-quando". So, I neither confirmed nor denied my skill level, I just left it vague, and I think that this understated approach was quite effective. They're probably used to dealing with people who boast and exaggerate, so it worried them that I didn't fit into any of the normal categories. If I thought I could win a fight, why wasn't I threatening them? But if I was afraid of them, why wasn't I leaving? I like to think that I came across as confident but not aggressive, which is a good balance to achieve. (The management training I did recently said that this would count as being "assertive", although I'm not quite sure whether that word fits.)
One of the guys did ask me a few times whether I wanted to get beaten up, and I think that this was actually a genuine question rather than a threat, because he just couldn't understand my actions. I assured him that I didn't, to avoid any justifications there. More generally, I'd say that I don't have any kind of death wish (even though it may seem that way). However, there's a quote from the film "First Knight" that's stuck in my mind, where Lancelot gives advice on fighting technique: "You have to study your opponent, how he moves, so you know what he's going to do before he does it. You have to know that one moment in every fight when you win or lose, and you have to know how to wait for it. And you have to not care whether you live or die." I'm not afraid to die, because I truly believe in an afterlife (since my near death experience at school), and I think that it's important to live with honour. Having said that, my circumstances have changed in the last few years (personally and professionally), so I now have more to live for than I used to.
One of the other guys tried to embarrass me into changing position by saying "Look at him, he's standing like a pouff!" Presumably they would get quite upset at such a perceived threat to their masculinity, but I just ignored it.
They also made an odd comment at one point, saying to me "You don't have to talk like that, you're not in English Literature class now!" I honestly don't know what they meant by that. It's possible that they were referring to my (posh?) accent, but that only really drew attention when I was up north. I don't think I was using any words that were particularly long or unusual, so I shouldn't have been taxing their vocabulary. I'm guessing that they just meant that I wasn't swearing in every other word, unlike the rest of them.
One interesting point came when a police car drove past: they did back away from me slightly, and didn't say anything until it had gone. Presumably this means that for all of their swagger, and any future claims that I was "asking for it", they knew that their behaviour would get them into trouble (e.g. prison).
Anyway, on balance I suspect that hanging around probably wasn't the smartest thing for me to do. It's not so much the danger, but it breaks my general rule of being goal-oriented in a situation like this, since I didn't have a clear goal in mind. If they were trying to detain me (e.g. to rob me), and I said "I just want to leave", then that would be easier. Since we were outside the mini-cab office (they were waiting for a car to take them home), my initial plan was that I could just wait for them to leave, then I'd resume my journey home. However, they didn't want to leave first, because that would mean losing face, so we wound up in something of a deadlock. After their cab turned up, some of the guys got in, but not all. In the end, I said "If you answer one question, then I'll leave". They agreed, and I said "What have I done to offend you?" He said "Nothing", and I said "Ok", then walked away. I heard various insults, and they shouted more death threats at me a bit later as they drove past (hanging out of car windows), but I ignored them, and went home.
It was interesting from a psychological point of view, to understand how people like that think. It seems to bear out past experience, in that they won't attack without some provocation, however trivial. From their point of view, I think they had two goals in mind: either I'd respond to their threats by striking first, in which case they could beat me up, or I'd be scared and leave, in which case they'd feel tough. Given that I wound up leaving first, I am slightly concerned that I may have made things worse; if I'd ignored them, they might have understood that, whereas by talking to them and then walking away I showed that they had intimidated me.
After I got home, and the adrenaline wore off, I did feel a bit stressed, and I reflected some more on the situation. I was a bit worried that I might meet them again, but I figured that they probably wouldn't recognise me if they did, particularly since they were drunk the first time. Since they were hiring a mini-cab to go home, that probably means that they didn't live nearby, although it might also be part of their regular weekend routine to go clubbing in central Croydon. The worst case scenario would have been if they'd turned up at my flat to do building work: my original plasterer abandoned the job part-way through after he was arrested for GBH (biting off a nightclub bouncer's ear!), so it would have fit in with my general run of luck there. Still, it's now been almost three years, and I haven't seen them since, so I think I can now assume that we've gone our separate ways.
I phoned the local police station the following day (on their non-emergency number), to ask for their general advice in this type of situation. They said that I should call the police (local number, not 999) within two minutes, and then they'd send someone out to arrest the guys for being drunk and disorderly. Fair enough: that sounds like a good solution. So, if I see people acting like that, ignore them, and then call the police when I get round the corner, they face the consequences, and I don't have to do anything illegal (like hitting them).
All in all, I'm not sure what general conclusion to draw from this. In my experience, I've always been able to avoid getting into fights by ignoring provocation. On the other hand, it probably helps that I'm fairly big and relatively young; the 61 year old man mentioned in the news articles at the start of this post may have seemed like more of a soft target. Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to a question of priorities (like most things in life): you need to work out what's important to you, and then choose your actions accordingly.