Until July 7—true to British spirit—when a policeman in London told you to evacuate the train station you didn’t run in panic. No: you walked briskly, muttering about the inconvenience.
So, when hundreds of Londoners were ordered off the upper concourse of Liverpool Street station into the mild air of a midsummer morning on Thursday, it appeared we were amid the inconvenience of just another bomb scare in a city that has lived with terrorism for decades. Then five police cars and two ambulances screamed past and I overheard a man in a suit talking loudly into his mobile phone: “Somebody told me a power surge has caused an explosion at Liverpool Street.”
I tried to picture how a power surge might cause an explosion and, with sirens echoing across the streets, I carried onto my job as editor of a London-based gay magazine. One of the sales guys opened the door for me. He told me that a bus had blown up near Russell Square. Upstairs two of my colleagues were checking the BBC news online. No mention of the bus, but the lead piece was the closure of the tube network due to reports of explosions, attributed to a power surge. My father also works in the city and uses Liverpool Street station. Although I was sure he wouldn’t have been underground since he commutes from the suburbs I had to be certain. I tried to call his mobile, but the network was down, and I was, like so many thousands of people, stranded in the unknown.
Just as I was about to call directory inquiries to get his office number, my direct line rang. It was my boyfriend. He’d heard something about explosions, and hearing my voice was enough to stop the panic. Then came a call from my younger brother in Manchester, thoughtful as ever, just checking that I was OK and confirming that our dad was safe. As I put the phone down the radio confirmed the bus explosion and that the coordinated terrorist attack we’d been expecting for nearly four years had finally happened.
It hadn’t sunk in. And perhaps it still hasn’t.
“Strike where your opponent least expects it,” goes the military maxim. Well, the London Underground was exactly where we expected a terrorist strike but, despite the “inevitability” of an al-Qaeda attack, and despite it being the first day of the G8 summit in Scotland, we didn’t expect it on the seventh of July.
The night before, we had yet to come to terms with our city winning the Olympic Games of 2012. The sense of pride and optimism that had swelled since the Live8 concerts in Hyde Park and around the world, with their intention to free Africa of debt, had been amplified. In fact, there was so much promise, pride, and optimism kicking about that heads were spinning. I remember thinking on Tuesday, July 6, as I took one of my rare tube trips into town for a meeting, that perhaps we’d never get that terrorist hit after all.
I was looking forward to the weekend, when we could relax and make sense of this euphoric white noise.
“A sound so horrific I never want to hear it again,” said a man on the TV news. He’d been walking past the number 30 bus. By this time I’d heard of two people who had been nearly as close—a friend of a friend who had got off at the stop before the blast and someone who always takes the bus from Hackney to Marble Arch but had succumbed to a hangover that day instead. And then my friend Dieter called: “If I’d moved into Andrew’s apartment in Aldgate, I could have been on the train to Liverpool Street.”
A lot of could’ve beens, a lot of misinformation, a lot of people, perhaps instinctively, grabbing their part of the tragedy in order to make sense of what was happening around them. After all, the target seems so immense it’s hard to grasp. When religious fundamentalist terrorists attack the West, what exactly is the enemy?
For all our sins against the environment and free trade (and God knows how many others buried in the vaults of time), there is, especially in our cities, the constant evolution in support of diversity. An attack on the everyday lives of London seems so much like indiscriminate mass murder that it is hard to comprehend. Perhaps that’s why as I write this, 36 hours after the carnage, the street outside my office is packed with drinkers laughing, as if everything that happened yesterday was just another mugging outside a petrol station that went wrong.
On a summer night like this, six years ago, the aftershock was more defined. A gay pub in Old Compton Street, Soho, had been bombed. Again, the phone calls flew around. “Are you all right?” “We were about to go there.” “We haven’t heard from Michael.” But then everyone knew who the victim was. It was gay men and lesbians. We’d been singled out, persecuted.
In the strange, perverted way these things happen, the sympathy felt after that bombing surely helped the gay rights movement in the United Kingdom take another great leap toward the near-equality we now enjoy. Just as with that tragedy, the impact of the four bombings this week will for a long time mean nothing but anguish to those whose lives have been blown apart. For myself and the millions of Londoners who embarked, unscathed, on the long walk home alone on July 7, the impact may take longer to define.
As I tried to make sense of this, my silence was punctuated by a phone call from a gay Muslim friend. He fears reprisal from those seeking somewhere to place blame. Such attacks from those who are trapped in hate is most probably as inevitable as the bombs we had long been expecting. But just as most of London returned to work today, so most of us will be strengthened by a will to live and let live that goes way beyond notions of national pride. It’s something called human nature, and the 99.9% that isn’t extreme enough to plant a bomb is in the typical British pub opposite this office having a drink, forgetting, carrying on.