Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Remembrance of bad things past

Blast by Pants

Five years ago today I was on my way to work at Wembley Town Hall in North London. I wasn't on my usual route, which might have started out on a No. 30 bus from Hackney Wick. The driver might have been George, a cheerful fellow who had a habit of welcoming passengers. A No. 30 bus was blown up that morning by a terrorist bomb. George was the driver. Happily he survived. Thirteen of the passengers he no doubt welcomed aboard did not.

I was not coming from Hackney Wick that morning. I had spent the night in Watford, where I had been at my cousin's birthday party. While we were making merry, the announcement came through that London's bid for the 2012 Olympics had been successful. I wasn't exactly jumping for joy as my home was right next to the site. My departure would be two-and-a-half years away but I already knew I was going to be selling up.

In the morning I was a bit the worse for whiskey which may explain why I got on the wrong train from Watford. It roared past Wembley Central in express mode to Kensington Olympia where I arrived at about 8.30am. I was annoyed with myself. Even though I was resigned to travelling all the way across London to get to work on a daily basis, I much preferred it before the middle of the rush hour. I would have been at work by now if I hadn't stupidly gotten on the wrong train. There I was, smack in the middle of the worst crowds at the worst time, with almost a whole journey ahead of me.

Even though no bombs had yet gone off on the London Underground, the first route I tried was suspended. I managed to squeeze onto a train to Edgware Road Station, probably about fifteen minutes before a bomb went off there. From Edgware Road I travelled around to Baker Street and then onto the Metropolitan Line for Wembley Park Station, the nearest to work.

The first of the three terrorist bombs was probably going off as my train was pulling away from Baker Street. I had no idea. I was just relieved to be back on a familiar path. I opened my book. I remember very clearly that it was Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. I never finished it. In fact I returned it to the library with only a dozen pages turned. I just didn't feel like it after what happened that day. Incredibly, I borrowed that very same book from our local library on Monday, before I knew I would write this post. I will read it this time.

I got to work just after 9am, my little overnight backpack still strapped on. My colleague Brian gave me that 'and what time do you call this?' look. We were the early birds. We both commuted from Hackney. I explained the Watford express fiasco. He laughed. We moaned about the Olympic win, to get it out of the way before everyone else got in.

We knew something serious had happened when the boss phoned in. I took the call. Owen's suburban train had come into King's Cross. The passengers had all been herded out of the station and onto buses and then off the buses soon after. He and was trying to get a cab and thought he might be a while. Then we got an internal email. Something very serious had happened. Brian and I went downstairs to the staff canteen where they had a big television. These days we would all immediately go online at our separate workstations but five years ago it was different. You wanted television. You wanted the BBC. You wanted company. You needed them.

My mother likes to watch television at night. I didn't want to risk the possibility that she might be confronted with a startling 'all hell breaks loose in London' banner. I went down to the newsagent and bought a phonecard. I dialled the council switchboard and explained that I wanted to call my mother in Australia because she would be worried and gave them my phonecard number. I called her, just like I had every other time there had been a bomb in London. Just like I had when the King's Cross Station fire had happened. Just like I had when we'd had the terrible storm in '87. Just like I did every time I returned from a holiday abroad.

The first hour or so after the bombs was a very controlled version of chaos. There were bombs on trains and buses, nobody knew how many. All public transport was suspended. The word 'suspended' has particular resonance for me because it perfectly describes how my mind responds to these events. I understand the draw of disaster tourism, although I certainly don't approve of it. Closely observed calamities or events in which you may only be peripherally involved pull you into them in a base human way. You're either inexplicably inert in someone else's reality or actively participating in your own dream. And you can't tell which is true. You know you can't immediately help, you don't want to risk being a hindrance and you keep looking at your hands to make sure you're still alive. Armageddon has to happen sometime, right?

I remember thinking as we watched lots of pictures of police vans whizzing about and strap headlines begin to appear below them announcing 'possible terrorist attack', just how very British it all was. We had yet to see the terrible sight of the No. 30 bus with its upper deck blown off. The bus, as we were later to learn, was a mistake. The bus bomber couldn't get onto his planned Underground train. If it weren't for his panicked improvisation, there would have hardly been a visual memory of this horror. Most of it happened deep beneath the city.

Four years previously, on the day that will be forever known as 9/11, I had been working in the bowels of Islington Town Hall in London when two planes struck the World Trade Centre. I had sequestered myself in a silent basement room to assemble a huge batch of consultation papers without fear of interruption. When I emerged mid-afternoon, a colleague said, 'hey, the Twin Towers are on fire. It's terrorists'. I thought he was joking.

I walked across the road and caught a No. 30 bus home. I remember looking out the window and thinking, 'Mark must have been kidding because look at everyone going about their business. Nothing's changed.' I guess I really thought something like that should resound around the world. When I got home, I turned on the TV. The resound was much, much slower then than it would be now, but everything had changed. I had been in New York City almost exactly a year earlier. As I watched into the night the endless replays of the Twin Towers collapsing, I remembered how beautiful New York City is in September.

As is London in July. By the time Owen arrived at work, at about 11.30am, we knew a little more. Everyone called everyone they knew who travelled on the tube. The council's HR team swung into gear. By lunchtime, they'd figured out that people would be stranded as all public transport had been suspended indefinitely. I hadn't thought of that. Brian and I went downstairs to the staff canteen again and met up with the liaison officer who'd been assigned to match people up with lifts.

Just after lunch my closest friend Geoff phoned me. He said, 'don't worry. He isn't hurt, but Tom was driving one of the trains.' I remember that very clearly because, although I had known Tom for around fifteen years, I didn't see him very often. He was Geoff's friend and I only saw him on Geoff-related occasions. It was and is so like Geoff to be thinking about how best to tell me something like that. Tom was driving the Piccadilly Line train. Twenty-six people were killed on his train. The bomb went off in the first carriage, the one directly behind his cabin.

Brian and I got an email at around 3pm to say that Alan from Finance would drive us in his car to Archway. It wouldn't have been the end of the world if no one had given us a lift. Nisha had already kindly offered accommodation at her house which was nearby. Fortunately, Brian had left his car in Islington that day and taken the overground into work. That was very lucky for us. It only took us about 45 minutes to walk from Archway to Canonbury Station, me wearing my overnight backpack. I didn't realise at that stage what an enormous role the backpack had played in the day's events.

I was lucky that day. I didn't lose my life. I didn't lose any friends. I didn't ever seriously run a 'sliding doors' scenario, although it did occur to me that I skidded a good deal closer than I might have if I'd had my act together and scrutinised the departure board at Watford Central more closely.

The next day, most of the public transport system resumed normal operations and I went to work. Fifty-two people had died. Many more had been physically injured or emotionally scared or both. Countless families and friends were still searching the hospitals or awaiting news of someone who hadn't been accounted for.

Two weeks later there was nearly a repeat of the nightmare. On July 21st, four backpack bombs failed to detonate successfully. Three were on the Underground. One was on a Hackney Wick bus, this time the No. 26. I was already at work when the news came through. Alan from Finance again gave us a lift to Archway. The buses were running again by the time we arrived. We got on a bus to Highbury and the driver greeted us with a cheery, 'don't let the bastards grind you down'.

I'm relieved to have avoided being directly involved in these awful events but I am also grateful for the experience of being quite close. People on the fringe of disaster become incredibly calm and throw themselves into admin mode. Things do not fall apart. Of course, London does have that blitz-coping heritage, but I think it must be true of people everywhere. We seem able to deal with whatever confronts us, when it's important.

Tonight I think of that day. I think of Tom. I think of all the other people who are living with the consequences of what happened in London on 7th July, 2005.