Sunday, 26 July 2009
I've lost my mobile phone, part of a pattern of forgetfulness that has established itself over the last few months. My mother, who thinks I've had the device grafted to my ear, will be thankful.
If you need to get a hold of me use the copper wire solution, e-mail or the Herald Westminster office number for the time being.
Friday, 24 July 2009
At 27 Ms Smith now becomes the youngest MP at Westminster (move over Jo Swinson) when parliament returns in September.
A lowish turnout, 45%, gave the Tories a stonking 13,591 votes and a majority of 7348. The 16.49% swing is almost as good as Crewe and Natwich, last year's by election where the Conservatives had a swing of over 17%. Stunning result which just adds to the humiliation of Gordon Brown's premiership.
Ms Smith had more than twice as many votes as the Labour candidate Chris Ostrowski, who retreated from the field a few days ago suffering with swine flu. He had 6,243 votes but no one can blame him.
The Lib Dems came third with 4,803, narrowly ahead of UKIP on 4,068 and the Greens were a low 3350 despite the hype that they would benefit from the local disgust with how former MP Ian Gibson was treated.
He resigned when the party's star chamber ruled that he could not stand again because he claimed expenses to pay for his London mortgage, as many MPs do, but then sold the flat at a reduced rate to his daughter (Was he meant to over-charge her?)
David Cameron will be up in Norwich for a victory lap this afternoon He'll know his way around by now - he's had to be there six times to secure this victory and he can't be in every one of the 120 seats the Tories have to win for an overall majority in Westminster. But this looks good for team Cameron.
For Labour it is bad, but not that that bad, on the gloom scale that the party finds itself in even though the Tories say it is the lowest share of the vote by any governing party in a by-election for 40 years.
Thursday, 23 July 2009
It looks like a for gone conclusion anyway but it might be worth keeping the television on for Question Time which comes from Norwich, as it happens, with George Galloway making an appearance.
Just bumped into Mr Galloway, en familie, in the Commons where he was collecting his thoughts for the evening bout. He promised not to be too hard on Shirley Williams this evening but would not spare Geoff Hoon. In the sharp sword skills department he has Clive James to contend with.
Galloway will stand down as the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow at the next election. He says its a rare example of a politician keeping a pre-election promise - he said he would stand only once in the seat - but the Respect alliance he forged there has fallen apart to a large degree.
He's going to try his luck next door in Poplar and Canning Town, held for Labour by fellow Scot Jim Fitzpatrick.
"It will be two Scots fighting for an East London seat, one standing in the tradition of Keir Hardie the other in the tradition of Ramsay MacDonald," declared Galloway. There, the sketch writers can have that one for free come election time.
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
It was Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond who had the "diary clash" today. Brown has moved his monthly pres conference to midday so Salmond, who was in town to meet with Paul Walsh, the chief executive of Diageo, considerately postponed his until after lunch.
Yesterday was the first face to face meeting Salmond and Walsh have had on the proposed closure of the Kilmarnock and Port Dundas plants, although obviously the two men know each other. They are both Keepers of the Quaich, the invitation only organisation for people associated with Scotch whisky.
Salmond emerged with an assurance that the alternative business case being worked up by Jack Perry at Scottish Enterprise will be given serious consideration by the company, but he again stopped short again of offering any financial or infrastructure measure that might be an incentive to Diageo to change their mind.
Here's what he told us: "I believe the business case will be properly considered. We are in an extraordinarily difficult position, and I'm not under-rating the commitment Diageo have to the business case they have formulated.
"But I'm more positive after the meeting because I accept the assurances that this is something that will be properly considered." "Also, I believe that it should be possible to get a better outcome, to reconcile the business bottom line with a Scottish bottom line."
The Scottish Enterprise business case should be ready next month and there is a rally in Kilmarnock this Sunday in support of keeping Johnny Walker in the town.
What every top politician wants from a spin doctor is someone who can quite cooly and calmly propagate their version of events with utter conviction. The body language and demeanour of the perfect spin doctor always conveys the truth, even if the listener has a nagging feeling they are not getting the entire story.
It’s a kind of genius that made Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s communications chief, a bulletproof witness in front of the Commons culture committee investigating allegations by the Guardian that "thousands" of public figures - including celebrities and a Royal aide - were targeted by phone hacking carried out on behalf of the News of the World.
Andy Coulson, who might go all the way to Downing Street, had been editor of the paper from 2003 to 2007, and yesterday’s hearing was the first time he was questioned about mobile phone voicemail being hacked into. He escaped with barely a scratch.
For three hours he and other News International executives blocked, prevaricated, filibustered and challenged the MPs’ questions, and when that didn’t work they simply forgot events.
They were audacious too. Twice the witnesses tried to get two MPs removed from the session. News International’s lawyer, Tom Crone, said the presence of former Cabinet Minister MP Tom Watson’s on the committee was "improper" as he is in a legal dispute with The Sun newspaper. Mr Watson was backed by the chairman and legal advice to stay where he was. "I happen to think this is News International trying to interfere with the work of this committee and I think it is improper," he said.
But it was Andy Coulson who was the star turn. In a steady, authoritative voice he told MPs he did not "condone or use" phone hacking when he was editor of the tabloid. He was, at other turns, contrite and regretted things going "badly wrong" when the paper’s Royal reporter was jailed for hacking on his watch. He took responsibility and quit the paper to be snapped up by David Cameron.
He was cornered once or twice by the underestimated Plaid MP Adam Price who asked him, incredulously, how was it possible he did not know royal reporter Clive Goodman’s stories had come from tapping the phones of members of the royal household?
Mr Coulson cited Tom Watson in his reply. "I think it is possible in all walks of life, perhaps Mr Watson will back me up on this, to work very close to someone who is doing something they shouldn’t be doing - perhaps sending emails or whatnot - and not have full knowledge of what it is they are up to," he said - a sly reference to Labour’s Damian McBride "smeargate" scandal.
He ended with a tabloid flourish, claiming he too was a victim of phone hacking. Police told him on the "Friday before last" of "strong evidence my phone was hacked"
He added: "There was more evidence that my phone was hacked than John Prescott’s phone was hacked". Everyone, the police, the PCC, even the Guardian newspaper, admitted there was no evidence linking him to phone hacking, he said. So, as any tabloid editor would ask - where’s the story?
Tuesday, 21 July 2009
The SNP ambushed the government on the last day of the parliamentary session, proposing that not to move the writ would leave the constituency without an MP until November 5th at the earliest, a full 136 days vacant.
Stewart Hosie said that the constituency deserved better and that Labour was putting party first and people second. Labour's Jim Sheridan scoffed at the SNP's "synthetic tears".
Where, he asked, is the representation for the people of Banff and Buchan, Alex Salmond's Westminster seat?
It made for a dramatic hour in the Commons, with MPs rushing in from their offices and from well beyond Westminster. David Cameron, George Osborne and Mohammed Sarwar went into the lobby without ties.
If the SNP had tipped off the Tories I think the opposition could have organised a feint and pretended to send MPs to Norwich and have them turn back to vote.
The SNP think the element of surprise would have been lost then."This was more than parliamentary fun, this was about the proper representation of a parliamentary constituency and Labour voting down the writ was shameful," said the SNP's Stewart Hosie.
Dundee East MP Stewart Hosie stood to move the writ but Nick Brown, Labour's chief whip, rose to object. Looks like Labour had a last minute tip-off, just as we did.
That means the writ goes to a debate and a vote at 3.30pm. The Labour whips are sure they can win the vote, even though lots of MPs, on both sides, are in Norwich North for the last two days of campaigning.
(Reports from there that the Labour candidate in Norwich North has come down with swine flu - for him the war is over.)
We'll have to rush downstairs again for this debate, just as the government is, I'm sure, scrambling as many MPs back into the chamber as it can.
We can expect the SNP to talk about the double standard of a by-election in Norwich while voters in Glasgow go unrepresented while jobs are lost at Diageo and a controversial schools closure plan goes through the local council.
The SNP might not win the vote but they claim the moral high ground and get the headlines tomorrow.
Bad luck for Kinlochshiel shinty squad who went down 5-1 to Strathglass in the Balliemore Cup final on Saturday.
When we arrived at the Plockton Inn the game was on television and the team were 3-1 down in the second half. It didn't look good.
It was a surprise to find Neil "Ach" MacRae, the veteran Kinlochshiel full centre, watching the game in the pub, rather than follow the team to Rothesay, where BBC Alba was broadcasting from.
"Oh, they offered me a place in the squad, but I couldn't turn down the chance to see them live on television," quipped Neil.
For the final score watch the match again on the BBC Alba i-player
Monday, 20 July 2009
As they say in all the good recipes. "First, catch your lobster". I sent a text to several friends asking for tips on what to do next if you had a lobster in the car boot. The responses were as varied as the fish in the sea and would make for a great food magazine feature.
"Boil alive and then remove meat and saute in a little butter. Use shell for stock" was the most pretentious - sent by someone who likes eating lobster but has never cooked one in his puff.
Roger, as usual, gave the best advice: "Boil is easiest and safest. For five mins. Then break em open". Which is precisely what we did. De-lish.
Thursday, 16 July 2009
With unerring timing I have a few days off so I leave all of Westminster in the capable and overworked hands of Michael Settle.
I've just stepped off the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness and into the BBC Radio nan Gaidheal newsroom, from where I file this. I'm heading to Skye for some R&R but here all the talk is of which reporters are heading to the Isle of Lewis to cover the first Sunday sailing from Stornoway.
I'm only slightly tempted but I reckon the media circus, combined with the Heb Fest hangover atmosphere will outweigh any sense of historic occasion. That's certainly how it was on the first Sunday sailing from the Hebrides, from Lochmaddy to Skye, in the early 1990s.
I recall the sun was cracking the stones as the media party arrived North Uist on Saturday. The man from the News of the World complained that the 'vicar' wasn't in and the entire Scottish press corp turned as one to tell him that that the minister was at the General Assembly.
There wasn't much else to do, except hire bicycles and tool around at the Sponish factory, which had closed in mysterious circumstances, and wait for the day to pass.
Sunday dawned with equally brilliant sunshine and the ferry sailed with, I think, 42 fare-paying passengers . That was two passengers for every one journalist, photographer or camera person. There were no protests. We did our interviews, organised a group shot of hacks on the upper deck for the Gazette (that's the UK Press Gazette not the Greysheet) and watched people disembark in Uig.
They were greeted by two early version white sterilisers waving a painted sheet in protest at their peace and quiet being disturbed. I reckon they would have complained had it been a Thursday morning too.
It was such a lovely day that a few of us, including the inestimable David Ross of the Herald, decided we really ought to take the return trip to North Uist, just in case there was some protest greeting the first ferry to the Hebrides and on the off-chance that there might be some lobster thermidore left at the Lochmaddy Hotel.
We were just getting ready to tuck in to our dinner when the real drama of the day happened. Tom Kidd, then a photographer now a helicopter pilot, turned up extremely late for the job in his flying boat which he succeeded in pranging on landing in the bay.
Tom lost a spontoon, a float at the end of the wing, off his small plane and blipped in to shore where he managed to recruit the local hairdresser to roll up his trousers and wade in to hold the aircraft up out of the water.
He came ashore dry, the hairdresser might have carried him, to phone for help (we had no mobiles then) only to be stopped by the underworked local policeman. The sight of the officer taking a statement from Tom while the bleached blond hairdresser held the aircraft wing stable was the image that made it to the Scotsman the next day.
All this action drew the attention of a local church elder who said he would help out with his boat, just as soon as he came back from the evening service. By then another flying boat had arrived and the more experienced pilot aboard planned to take off in Tom's plane by leaning out of the cockpit and using his bodyweight to hold the broken wingtip out of the water. Back on the mainland he could land on the wheeled undercarriage.
It was a risky plan but he was up for it and so was the churchman who had finished his psalms and whose task it now was to tow the plane out into the bay with his wee boat and face it into the wind for take off.
We watched them leave the safety of the pier with some trepidation. Somehow, between the drone of the inboard and the roar of the flying boat, they made it. The boat let the line slip, the pilot gunned the engine and he was off - on one wing and an elder's prayer.
The lobster was well cold by the time we got back to the hotel and - as I recall - it was the West Highland Free Press paid the bill. On second thoughts I might go to Ullapool this Sunday for dinner with Mr Ross when he comes off the Isle of Lewis. Do Herald expenses run to lobster these days?
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
It is now confirmed that the Sunday ferry service will be a permanent timetable alteration from this weekend.
This from earlier in the morning.
Cal Mac are expected go ahead with a "one off" Sunday sailing from Stornoway to Ullapool on Sunday to take festival goers at the Hebridean Music festival back to the mainland. A press statement to that effect is due around 1pm today after a series of meetings with the local council and the local branch of the Lord's Day Observance Society.
Using the Heb Fest event as cover strikes me as another lame excuse by Cal Mac, as poor as the "human rights" legislation charade that brought Sunday sailings back onto the agenda this year. The move shouldn't be allowed to rebound onto what is a very successful and important festival and a part of the cultural and economic summer of the island.
Cal Mac, if they want to introduce Sunday sailings, should find the courage to do so openly, not sneak them in. The real question for Cal Mac this Sunday is not will they take festival goers off the island but will they take traffic back to Stornoway from Ullapool?
I have to say that on Lewis last weekend it didn't feel like the last Sabbath to me, although it would have been a good time to start a Sunday sailing as it seemed that every Free Church Minister was on holiday off the island. Never mind, the lay preacher was just as good.
One older gentleman I spoke to, a church elder and a businessman, saw the Sunday sailings as an inevitability but not one he would endorse. Neither did people think there would be the kind of hysterical reaction from the majority of church members that some of the loudest voices of opposition have been predicting.
The ferry will sail on Sundays, almost everyone accepts that now, just as there are Sunday flights which make connections for exiles like me that bit easier. Most islanders will have mixed feelings, they know which part of their religious heritage they are losing and they also know that has to be weighed against what they will gain.
One islander summed it up for me a long time ago : "I'm dead against Sunday sailings, I'll be the first to use them."
Thursday, 9 July 2009
Kevin Pringle, the First Minister’s Senior Special Adviser, acknowledged as the most media savvy spindoctor in Scotland, was on a rare holiday this week, sans Blackberry we’re told. So there was no one on hand yesterday with the persuasive skill to keep the story, and the First Minister, straight when a "diary mix up" left Mr Salmond in a TV studio when he could have been meeting Paul Walsh, the boss of Diageo.
The story so far...Mr Salmond broke off his holiday to come to London on Tuesday evening to vote against the government’s Finance Bill. On Wednesday morning, still milling around Westminster, he discovered that Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy was having a meeting with the Diageo chief executive. The First Minister’s office called Diageo to arrange a meeting for him too (the two men weren’t due to meet until the end of the month).
The time line seems be that on the way to the Scotland Office meeting Mr Walsh received the request and cleared his diary for a meeting at 12.15pm, after his meeting with Mr Murphy. Just short of midday the First Minister’s office cancelled the meeting because Mr Salmond was not available. According to his officials he was in television studio about to go on air.
Short of fire-swallowing live on air there is little that would persuade most Scottish politicians their time was better spent in the company of Andrew Neil yesterday rather than Paul Walsh, the chief executive of Diageo.
Mr Salmond sent Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader who has been trying to get a meeting with Diageo on a constituency interest for several weeks, to the meeting instead. Mr Robertson is capable but he is no First Minister, or even a member of the Scottish government whose offices set up the meeting. Labour have tabled parliamentary questions on that conflation of party and ministerial roles.
In perspective the diary mix up, the kindest way of interpreting events, became a story because the First Minister had requested a meeting only to be left looking as if he had walked away from it towards the whirring sound of the nearest camera. Labour loved it because it plays to their image of the First Minister’s hubris, which has him down as a politician who would prefer basking in studio lights to rolling up his shirt sleeves to get on with a complicated economic problem.
But one thing that distinguishes Mr Salmond from other Scottish politicians is that he has the gumption (or the brass neck) to dig himself out of a hole when he is in one. A string of phonecalls to newspaper offices across the land yesterday afternoon attempted to talk the story down to an inter-party spat rather than an outright ministerial gaffe, but that only met with mixed success.
The other lesson, apart from "everyone needs a Kevin", is that Mr Salmond’s press team has done such a number on producing "good news" every single day they have been in government that when the machine stutters it is very noticable. When you walk that tall, for that long then the smallest of slips on the tightrope gets magnified out of proportion.
Today the media caravan moves on to the News of the World, phone taps and the Conservatives. Tommy Sheridan will be reading that one closely. Kevin Pringle, shorn of his Blackberry, presumably won't be.
Tha a h-uile coltas gum bi comataidh chumhachdach ann an Taigh nan Cumantan a' bruidhinn ris a' phàipear-naidheachd, News of the World, mu chasdaidean as ùr gu robh am pàipear ri farchluais air còmhradh fòn-làimhe nam mìltean dhaoine.
Tha Iain Prescott, a bha aig aon àm na Leas-phrìomhaire, ag ràdh gum bid esan a' gearan ris na poilis mu dhol a-mach an News of the World an dèidh dhan Ghuardain a ràdh gu robh fios aig na poilis air na mìltean chùisean den aon sheòrsa ach nach do rinn iad dad mu dheidhinn.
A-rèir a' Ghuardain chan e gu robh luchd-naidheachd an News of the World ag èisteachd a-steach ri còmhraidhean air fònaichean fhad 's a bha iad a' tachairt - 's ma dh' fhaoidte gu robh - ach gu robh iad ag èisteachd ri na teachdaireachdan a bhios air am fàgail air fònaichean-làimhe.
Chan e gu robh an luchd-naidheachd aca an sàs anns a' ghnothach fhèin, bha iad a' pàigheadh luchd-sgrùdaidh prìobhaideach airson an fhiosrachaidh, ach tha sin mì-laghail.
Agus chan eu gun do thachair seo dìreach an aon turas nuair a bha iad air an glacadh ag èisteachd ri luchd-obracn an teaghlaich Rìoghail ach gun do thachair e na mìltean thursan, agus gu robh na ceudan do luchd-obrach poileataigeach, luchd-spòrs agus daoine ainmeil air an sealg mar seo.
Tha an Guardian ag ràdh gu bheil dearbhadh ann gu robh seo a' tachairt. A-rèir a' phàipeir phàigh an News of the World airgead dioghlaidh ann an cùirtean lagha an àite leantainn le cùisean airson stad a chur air an fhiosrachadh seo thiginn a-mach gu poblach.
'S e sgainneal na meadhanan a th' ann a th' air a dhol na sgainneal poileataigeach o chionn 's gu robh Andy Coulson, dotair grèisidh Dàibhidh Chamshron, ceannard nan Tòraidhean, na fhear-deasachaidh aig an News of the World nuair a bha aon aon dhen luchd-naidheachd aca a chur dhan phrìosan airson an dol a-mach seo.
Ged a ghabh e an t-uallach, 's leig e dheth a dhreuchd, bha Mgr Coulson a' cumail a-mach nach robh fios aige gu robh an luchd-naidheachd, CliveGoodman, ris an obair mhì-laghail seo. Bha am pàipear-naidheachd a' cumail a-mach nach do thachair e ach aon turas, ach a-rèir a' Ghuardian thachair e na mìltean thursan agus - sgainneal eile - bha fios aig na poilis gu robh e a' tachair 's cha do rinn iad càil mu dheidhinn.
Tha ceistean a-nis aig Dàibhidh Camshron ri fhreagairt mun taghadh a rinn e. Cuideachd bidh rannsachadh poileataigeach ann le comataidh Cultair Thaigh nan Cumantan augs Coimisean Ghearannan nam Meadhanan, a bhios a' dèiligeadh ri gearanan mu obair luchd-naidheachd agus na meadhanan.
Tha Iain Prescott, aon den luchd-poileataigs a chaidh a ghlacadh san lìn a-rèir a' Ghuardian, a' togail ceist mu dè bha na poilis a' dèanamh leis an fhiosrachadh a bh' aca. Bha e na Leas-phrìomhaire aig an àm agus cha do dh' innse na poilis càil dha.
Taing do Eilidh Dhubh
Tuesday, 7 July 2009
Reporting on the day I took to my bicycle to get around all four bombsites within a few hours of the explosions. There was no other traffic moving at all. It was a strange, shattering, edgy couple of hours for London but what was striking was how quickly city life re-asserted itself in the face of fear and uncertainty.
I wrote an essay on that theme and on the atmosphere of the day for the Sunday Herald during what everyone felt certain was a lull before the next attack. It might be long for a blog but I think it stands the test of time.
You cannot kill London - Sunday Herald 10/07/05
THERE are few things as indestructible as the London Underground system, and few forces as unstoppable as a metropolis of seven million people.
The arteries of the Tube, lines and tracks as familiar and loved and hated as a lifelong partner, run far beneath the skin of the city. Its station names and line colours are coiled around the lives of Londoners, buried deep in memory, available for instant recall: Circle yellow, Bakerloo brown, Victoria sky blue.
You can suspend this life support system - bring its writhing, darting veins and trains to a temporary halt with three simultaneous, terror-inspiring explosions - but you cannot stop it.You cannot hope to stop it. It is a river, it is a Niagra, a torrent of three million people coursing beneath the pavements of the capital each and every day of every year.
From early morning these silver tubes set off from 267 stations, sweeping a rush hour average of 900 people per train below ground along 244 miles of steel, buzzing with 630 volts along every jolt of every tunnel.It has been this way since the first trains ran underground in 1863, and commuters came into being.
It will be this way until the red finally bleaches out of the Central Line on Harry Beck's schematic map of the network.It is the current and coughing lifeblood of London, it is the arrhythmic heart that never beats in time, and if it stops a city dies - so there is no stopping it.The terrorists, whoever they are, might as well have staked out the Thames and tried to stop the tide by lobbing a grenade over the balustrades of Waterloo Bridge. You cannot kill London.
That is why early on Friday morning at Liverpool Street station, the Essex ingredient of the commuter soup that sustains the city every day threw itself into the melting pot one more time.Passengers came off the feeder trains from the suburbs, drew their breath (perhaps a few said prayers) then ritually waved their season tickets across the alter of unblinking scanners.
They walked past the London Transport staff, with their orange safety vests and the demeanour of deacons at the gates of Hades, and went back down into the bowels of the earth just like they do every day.They behaved as they had 24 hours earlier until the first bloody survivors were spewed out from the dark tunnels at Liverpool Street and Aldgate to bear witness to the evil of men.
They didn't go back down, these Essex commuters, out of bravery or bravado nor some nebulous "blitz spirit" that commentators incant whenever a calamity strikes the capital. It was a simple, practical calculation. "We have to get to work and there's no other option, " said Bob Keene, a small, suited office worker who could have embodied the spirit of the London defiance had he not been so disarmingly frank.
Mr Keene, aren't you apprehensive about travelling underground again, this reporter asked, a dramatic tremolo somehow finding its way into the question. He didn't answer immediately, just threw open his arms to indicate the six police officers, one sniffer dog and its handler hovering around the underground entrance. "I can't see it happening two days in a row, " he said and turned to join the morning crowds. And, like a huge shoal of mid-ocean fish that congregate in thousands in the instinctive knowledge that a single predator can only claim a few at a time, they bunched together and went about their business.
On Friday evening, the Thames and the twilight raised a curtain on the grandeur of the city once more. Across the river, high up on St Paul's Cathedral, the steeplejacks could be seen unwinding the giant "Make Poverty History" banner from around the dome. Below, the panorama of the metropolis throbbed and pulsed as it always done, perhaps with its eyes a little more sharply focused.
A police launch could be seen patrolling the river; another faster, black security boat skulked up and down the far bank. There was a cluster of motorcycle police on the north shore and another two luminous jackets on the platform at Blackfriars station. Sentinels are everywhere now. But to Kensington in the west, the pubs were packed and in Soho the clubs prepared for another Friday night of disco. Beyond the now empty Lloyds tower and the Swiss Re "Gherkin" in the unshaken City the faithful had left the huge East End Mosque and Friday prayers. The terror had subsided and been packed back into its box.
For a few hours on Thursday, in the darkness after the midday news confirmed the scale, the audacity and the barbarism of the attacks, London did stand on the brink. People were uncertain, anxious-looking and reeling from a bodyblow that had slaughtered innocents to attack the psyche of a whole country and to wound a political system. The city stood still, the air sucked from its lungs.
Traffic had been cleared from the roads. The silence was pierced only by sirens, the soundtrack of our urban lives echoing across the rooftops as the injured and the dead were rushed to hospitals. All morning - from the moment death was unleashed deep in three underground carriages and atop of a number 30 bus - the city rocked on its heels and there was fear, real "what direction will it come from next?" fear, on the faces of people on the streets.
On the surface, most behaved calmly but it would be a foolish displacement to kid ourselves that there was no panic underground, no dread, no sweat-soaked, adrenaline-pumping pain and hell and agony in the hot, piercing darkness of twisted metal and shattered glass at Aldgate, Edgeware and Russell Square.After the flashing lights, the powerful rip of metal and the shuddering halt, the survivors said there was no way of telling what was up or down, whether the dampness on the scalp and face was a wound or water or someone else's blood. There were the screams of the wretched, the sobs of anguish and torture as limbs were severed, legs were crushed and life was painfully surrendered.
Hopefully death was instantaneous for those who lost their lives on the trains in the seconds between the first blast at Aldgate and the third at Russell Square. You hope nobody died alone, crying in the darkness.
Steven Densborough, a 28-year-old from Essex, exemplified the triumph of the human spirit over fear, staying behind in the wreckage of the Aldgate tube to cradle a young woman as she lay dying in his arms. He wants to find her family to tell them she did not die alone, but he does not even know her name.
For most people there was no time to consider the obviously dead or dying in a survival situation.Most of the hundreds evacuated walked out, sooty and shocked, choking but alive.By chance or design, or the limits of explosive supply, the slaughter by the terrorists was contained. It could be a calling card of precision for future attacks or the best throw of the dice, but they were able to kill at least 50 people.
But both sides had rehearsed for this macabre dance of death and, through preparation and practice for the day they knew would come, the emergency services saved dozens of lives.The police took complete and total command of the situation from the start. In every part of the city, at every hospital, train station and road junction, they were there, plenty of them and all calm, polite and ultra-reassuring. It was as if the Met rehearsed for this inevitable atrocity by sending all its officers to a charm school.
They were on horseback urging office workers up the street from evacuated buildings and on foot walking the lonely hundred yards back down these empty roads to peer into nooks and crannies for reported suspect devices.The front line at the carnage were the London Underground staff, the British Transport police and the fire brigades. They behaved heroically.Sergeant Steve Betts of the British Transport police was one of the first rescuers to reach the Piccadilly line train between King's Cross and Russell Square on Thursday. "I am not very good in enclosed spaces at the best of times, and we had to climb over bodies and body parts to try to help people and see who was still alive. I thought, 'This is the end of the world - right here in this carriage.' But you have to do your job.
Why, the Bangladeshi shop owner asked, is the BBC still saying this is a power surge?By 9.30am two lanes of the Mile End Road outside his shop had been completely cleared of traffic to create a runway corridor from Aldgate to the Royal London Hospital.In the opposite direction, past lines of tightly packed traffic, police cars were streaking in to the capital from the outskirts of London, in a blaze blue lights. Sirens were going off everywhere and Sky News and local radio stations were alive to the fact that this was the long-awaited terrorist attack on London. Yet to the Muslim shopkeepers on Mile End Road it seemed that the BBC were part of some cover-up of the obvious truth.
At Aldgate station, the first hit, police ushered people away from the entrance and set up concentric layers of plastic tape to hold the crowds back.Between 9am and 10am, the situation moved from panic to controlled chaos. The walking wounded were ferried to the Royal London Hospital in a fleet of double-decker buses. Dazed survivors who were able to walk away from the station shuffled into the back streets around the Petticoat Lane clothes market sandwiched between the City and east end. The horror of what was happening across the city dawned on people as they staggered past a loud radio on a market stall.
The same scene was being played out at four other stations as survivors were led out of the tunnels from the King's Cross and Edgware Road bombings.On a cycle journey between the mass crime scenes that had been stations an hour beforehand, other sporadic reports came in of bombs on buses and across town. At Cambridge Circus, in the heart of Theatreland, police officers and army personnel stood behind a thin plastic tape.Behind them, further up Charing Cross Road, a light blue double-decker bus was abandoned in the middle of the road, its hazard lights flashing."Suspect device, " said one of the policemen.
Down at Charing Cross station commuters milled around outside the closed gates. Trafalgar Square was hushed and Whitehall leading to Westminster looked looked like 28 Days Later.Soho was quietened and up on Euston Road, rows of ambulances awaited casualties that did not come while police hung endless strings of plastic tape across the thoroughfare.
Dark clouds gathered, the rain came stairrodding down and a chill spread across the capital while its bewildered inhabitants wondered whether to stay or go. No amount of rainfall could wash away the blood and guts splattered on to the walls of the British Medical Association at Tavistock Square or the indelible image of a trusted London bus, ripped apart like a paper cracker.
In the damp gloom, London went though its hour of desperate straits. But time passed as we sheltered under the glossy leaves of mature trees, and the sun came back.From a nearby radio, the first strains of The Archers theme music signalled a surreal return to what was meant to be normality.
Soon the pavements dried up and the city workers, released from the "stay where you are" mantra of the morning police announcements, began heading home across an cityscape unfamiliar to many of them. Dressed in their shirtsleeves in the afternoon heat they pounded across pavements in their thousands.Some stood on corners with A-Zs in their hands, pioneers on overland routes discovering the challenge of walking across London.On the north bank of the Thames, long snakes of people began forming for the ferries that ply east and west along the river. Two by two they went across the gangplanks to the waiting arks.
Boat and the bicycle were the only effective means of traversing the city. Buses were stopped and traffic heading into London was told that the area was closed. How to close a city down might be a good question, but somehow it was managed. Hotels filled up with refugee commuters and some reduced their room rates while others were accused of exploiting the situation by increasing prices.
By late Thursday afternoon, there was a rush back to human routine as office workers sought out each other's company. The pubs on the edge of the City and around Aldgate were packed to the gunnels and punters spilled out on to the pavements clutching pints and exchanging once in-a-lifetime experiences. But the laughter was a little too loud, a little too forced.
Nevertheless, nobody marched in the rain as they did in Madrid, there was no hysterical reaction and the citizens did not turn their fear on each other.In 24 hours, London had swung from the euphoria of winning the 2012 Olympic bid to dealing with the tragedy and grief of the return of terror bombing to its streets.
Cities live off their myths and two of London's enduring stories were rewritten and woven together over the past three days. The unifying spirit of the blitz that pulled Londoners through the war and the IRA onslaught and the multi-ethnic, worldwide appeal that won it the Olympian accolade came together in newspaper pictures that showed the diversity of races, creeds and ethnicities of Londoners that are still missing below ground.
Ken Livingstone had his Giuliani moment, and carried it off with great respect. "The city air makes you free to be yourselves, " he told citizens."Keep on breathing it." In the heat, dark and danger of the King's Cross tunnel they carried on digging out the dead so that the funerals could begin.
Some time late on Thursday night, somewhere in an anonymous operations office in Scotland Yard, where the people who are paid to out-think, out-manoeuvre and out-play terror sit, someone must have let the air exhale through their pursed lips and thought, is that the best they could do?There were no chemical or biological agents, acres of central London were not closed for years by a dirty radioactive bomb.
All of that might come to pass as the hourglass runs out on the next attack, but this time they can say - with some justification - "London can take it." It was knocked off its axis for a few hours but a pulsing, vibrant life still runs through this wonderful city.
Thursday, 2 July 2009
Broadford or Bust
A new sit-com written by Torcuil Crichton & Mairi Kidd
The standard script for Prime Minister’s Questions for the last three weeks is an argument over figures which Mr Cameron says are red and Mr Brown insists are black, so there.
It’s repetitive but Mr Brown enjoys reciting figures. He’s like one of these wartime Enigma code machines - one vast lot of numbers on government spending gets typed in then get deciphered by the Prime Minister as meaning something completely different.
He relies on his inbuilt combination of rotors, lamps, and circuitry to spell out "ten per cent Tory cuts" and hopes we will not break the code, using a device called a Comprehensive Spending Review, before a general election.The Tories have their best cryptologists on the case and in their frustration they’ve started calling the Prime Minister and his allies liars. They call this the search for truth. But yesterday Mr Brown yielded the code keys himself.
"Total spending will continue to rise," said Mr Brown, looking puffy and tired with Mr Cameron’s repeated questioning. "It will be a zero per cent rise in 2014."The human Enigma machine was showing the strain and the Tories hooted their derision. Ouch - that readout was meant to be 0.7% said his officials later but too late, it was a zero sum game for Mr Brown.
"The Prime Minister’s answer must be heard," said Speaker Bercow, with the authority of Harry Potter in front of a rowdy Hogwarts assembly. Please no, you could hear Labour benchers thinking. "As I explained last week..." said Mr Brown, the analogue Prime Minister, clattering back into life.
But this wasn’t a glitch in the machine, his heart wasn’t in it. When you phone someone recovering from an illness they say they feel fine but their voice quarrbles, betraying they are suffering the after effects of swine flu or some other lurge. That’s how Mr Brown has sounded of late.
"A Prime Minister in full retreat," is how he sounded to Mr Cameron. "He finally admits that he is going to cut capital spending."The Prime Minister’s turn again. He tried this new, nuanced line the cabinet worked out earlier in the week. It involves jabbing the dispatch box with your finger and roaring about Tory cuts - not that nuanced really.
When Mr Cameron said unemployment was "sadly going to go up" Mr Brown grasped for straws and said that must be official Tory policy. Labour would not tolerate rising unemployment. Try telling them that in Kilmarnock, where Johnny Walker went for a long walk with 700 jobs.
"This is one of the most feeble performances I have ever seen from this Prime Minister," said Mr Cameron. "There is only one person we want to add to the unemployment register, that is this Prime Minister." Officials ordered a train to be nationalised at it took Mr Brown away.