Our Love for the City

Alistair Appleton Blog Our Love of the City

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!

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3 Comments

  • Jane Davis says:

    Off the Cuff Memories of 9/11 from a New Yorker: The phone rang: My writer friend Evelina said, “Did you see what’s happening in Manhattan?” I turned on the TV. The 2nd plane hit the tower. The WTC had been in my life since it opened—1st I saw it every day from home and later saw it from the main office of the English Dept. where I had worked. Of course, the Twin Towers would ALWAYS exist…because…because I said so! I can’t even remember the book I read where the author said, “God breaks into your life.” And he meant REALLY BREAKS IN, throws a brick through your window and…then what? For some, it comes to mind what Bobby Kennedy said on the day of Martin Luther King’s death, not knowing, of course, that he himself would also die almost exactly 2 months later: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” (Mommy, why did you make me go to school those days? I told you I didn’t want to. But stop to grieve? Not back in the day!) “Awful grace”… I tried to call my friend Denny who worked in the WTC–she wrote to me once during the night shift, so of course, at least she was alive…or so I thought…Why? Because I said so! (Note the adolescent tone. I was living through Intro to Impermanence, the earn-while-you-learn, Existential life kind of ‘course’ we all inevitably get to take–it’s not an elective but a requirement…). News Porn: After returning home almost as soon as I got to work and saw the 2nd Tower fall, what did they show on TV? Someone jumping from the WTC. I can still recall his neat black suit and trim build. 200 people jumped, hit the ground and “squashed like eggs,” someone said…I told God and even Jesus (who I always liked since childhood because he was always with kids in drawings in the Catechism), get out, stand in the corner, leave me alone. I told my friend Denny—her answering machine, I should say—that if she didn’t return my call soon, I was going to come to her apartment and sit outside the door till she came home…Which turned out to be never. She died doing what she believed in: trying to save people, even after someone said, “You need to get out of here!” And she went back into the dark, wet staircase and, as my high school used to say, “entered eternal life.” I was zombie-ish for a while but my anger at God took me to a different place; the ‘dark night of the soul’ perhaps? My spiritual life jumped the tracks but then…expanded, took me places I had only thought of a bit—e.g., several silent retreats– as well as to mystical places (but that’s another story; let’s just say I never aspired to leave my body, but…). Without 9/11…frankly, I’ve never thought of ‘If only it never happened.” In fact, the other day, I tried to think, ‘What if…’ and got scared for some reason. It happened and will never unhappen. What’s the “medicine” my grief needs, I was asked during a meditation on Friday. My “medicine” was/is…Denny—Denny, dead physically but alive. I always see her—dead—smiling and light. Denny, who saved people she didn’t know. Denny, whose ‘ultra conservative’ brothers didn’t even show for her memorial service because she was gay. Denny, who in the 1990s was in a magazine for marrying her girlfriend when there was no such thing as marriage equality. That wouldn’t come until the very day of the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinkney, victim of a home-grown racist terrorist mass murderer. Timing—a funny thing. Too much to say so I’ll end on a happy note: Presidents Biden, Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Trump. 4 were at 9/11 memorial services. One was doing commentary that night at a pay-per-view boxing match. Who? 2 guesses and the 1st one doesn’t count. Much to be thankful for in the patchwork quilt of absurdity, grief, and…grace. (If this is too long, I don’t mind if you don’t print it.)

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thankyou Jane, for sharing your memories. I am struck, as I am often struck, by the magnetic intensity of Denny’s life and death. What an powerful woman. It’s no wonder that she still radiates such a strong field in your mind.

      I wonder too about people who I have known and loved who have died violently or senselessly. Do they still exist or is that a human hankering after permanence? Lately I have been with the dead for 48 days and then I have let them go into a new life. That feels like a good way of honouring both their post-mortem ‘existence’ and the freedom that re-entry might allow them. After all, why should they stay dead-as-they-were for our pleasure and nostalgia?

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