On the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, I was thinking about how we relate to those events – both at the time and after the event. We have our experience – traumatically close or vicariously distant – and then there is the “World’s experience” conjured up by a thousand newscasts, opinion pieces, conversations at the office or in our homes. There is the 9/11 we experience (thousands of miles away from Ground Zero, I was on a train coming back from Walthamstow when my friend Jacob called me to tell me what was happening) and there is the 9/11 that swells and grows and has taken on its own complex and often deadly life in the 2 decades since September 11 2001.
Pondering it in 2021, I could only float out and imagine the intensity of the first 24 hours for all New Yorkers and all Americans after 2,977 were murdered in the deadliest terror attack in history. But then I chanced across the following blog from 2005 which I wrote the day after the London bombings which killed 52 people. The galvanisation of something potent and strong in our capital was my in-the-moment experience of the aftermath of such an attack and it opened a door into the landscape of memory many Americans must be revisiting today.
The evening of July 7th, 2005. After the London bombings.
Unable to stay in, as instructed, watching increasingly pornographic news coverage of the bombings – “How many injured? What kind of injuries? How many dead?” – I ventured out on my bicycle. The numbing rain that had mirrored everyone’s mood was being replaced by kinder sunshine. Somehow I felt that I wanted to be out and about in London – not stuck in doors. I was fine, completely unaffected by the biggest attack on the city, but I felt I wanted be out IN the city, not hidden at home.
There was definitely a surge of “we survived it” gluing us all together.
The streets were quiet, but when I got to Kensington Gardens on my bike, there was vast crowds of people walking out of Central London. All the transport was down – no buses, obviously no Tubes, taxis all taken – so most people walked westward through the park. There was a steady stream of people in the sunshine. All heading one way, like in those disaster movies, but smiling mostly. Getting on with it. It made me happy to see Londoners just “getting on with it”. I suppose we’ve all been waiting for it so long, that when it came it was a horrid relief. There was definitely a surge of “we survived it” gluing us all together.
I continued into town. There were a few police cordons near the American Embassy, otherwise it was deserted. Like a quiet Sunday afternoon. No buses which left the streets feeling very spacious. Peaceful even.
I had too much energy to stop. So I headed to the gym. Although I wasn’t at all conscious of being in shock – infact, I felt rather detached from it all – I guess my body needed to reassert itself, relish the fact that it was still around. Not bashed or torn in a underground tunnel. So I did a workout. In an all-but-deserted gym.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with love for the city
The whole of Soho was 3/4 shut. Most bars, restaurants, shops closed. I met a few friends wandering round, bemused. I thought the streets might be full of people celebrating their continued existence. It was actually very quiet. Though as the evening came there was an amazing almost surreal light over the city. The sort of lurid sunshine you get directly before or after a storm.
Joshua cycled in and we went for a drink. Vaguely euphoric. We wandered down through Leicester Sq and down to Trafalgar Square. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with love for the city. Much more than winning the Olympic bid, the stoic beauty of London in the face of such hateful violence seemed wonderful to me. Big Ben was distant down Whitehall, the column with Nelson’s back to me, those comically mournful Lions, the words of Ken Livingstone, that London will always be a beacon for freedom and people will always come here to be free. How strange that London and Londoners can turn such carnage into something so strong. I felt honoured to live here.
A friend sent me a snap of this, written in pink lipstick on the pale yellow tiles of the Ladies loo at the Cross:
THEIR SORDID LOVE OF DEATH IS AS NOTHING NEXT TO OUR LOVE OF LONDON
I’d love to know your thoughts about this difficult subject. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!