Monday, 6 July 2015

Remembering 7/7: The city that will not die

Tomorrow's  anniversary of the 7/7 attacks is a reminder that terrorism is a continuous threat in our lives.

I was in east London, close to the Royal London hospital, on Thursday morning as news of the tube and train bombings broke. The roads were sealed immediately and police cars started screaming into the city from Essex, so I took to my bicycle and went around each of the bombed sites.

I wrote this essay for the Sunday Herald in a hurry on Friday night,  taking stock of the situation and not realising when I started that it would be a tribute to London.

Sunday Herald, Sunday 10 July 2005
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, terrorinspiring 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, a blaze of 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 oncein-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.

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