7/7, In Memoriam

7 Jul

Today, in memory of the innocent victims who died in the London Bombings of 7th July 2005, I’m reproducing in full my own memory of that day, published previously in the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag.

More by Luck than Judgement, Here Am I

7th July 2005, “7/7”, Britain’s version of 9/11…

Already, on the 8th July, The Sun had begun using that phrase.  7/7, the day on which home-grown suicide bombers first struck Britain.  Four bombers, four devices – three detonated on the underground, one on a bus – killing fifty-five, maiming scores more.  Cell leader and teaching assistant, Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three accomplices, Hassib Hussain, Shehzad Tanweer and Muslim convert, Germaine Lindsay.  The CCTV footage of those four outwardly normal young men has become a commonplace, as they set off for their day out in the capital like a jolly band of hikers, carrying rucksacks on their backs and hatred in their souls.  Neither I nor anyone else knew anything of all this…

For two hours I found myself wandering on the edge of that extraordinary day, like a latter day Pepys observing the Great Fire.  I arrived above ground, twenty minutes after the carnage had begun below, wholly unaware of the strange world into which I had stumbled.  I was to have taken the Circle Line from Liverpool Street to High Street Kensington.  Needless to say, I never got there.  If the course that I was scheduled to attend had begun at nine thirty instead of ten o’clock, I would, in all probability, have been on board that mangled tube train amid the shattered glass and soot and severed body parts.  For hundreds of others, the mathematics worked out wrongly.

Just as anyone who was around at the time is supposed to recall where they were when they heard that John F Kennedy had been shot dead, so it is with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11th September 2001.  I was in a computer room with a group of students working on some mundane project or other.  It was the end of a long day, late in the academic year.  A lab technician came into the room and said that she’d just received a text message from a friend about an attack on New York.  There was a TV in the room and she wondered if we might put it on to find out what was going on.  We watched in disbelief as those scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie were played out for real.  I drove home in a daze.  Later, I wandered the streets of Lincoln (where I lived at that time), pondering the enormity of the day’s events.  The story unfolded slowly, just as the events of 7th July in London would – one ‘plane striking the Twin Towers and then another, the desperate leaps through the air into the street hundreds of feet below to avoid the approaching flames, the collapse of the first tower and then the second, the mobile phone messages to loved ones from those who knew that they were about to die, the ‘plane that crashed in the desert due to the heroic resistance of its passengers, the terrorists learning how to fly in order to turn passenger jets into missiles…  I remember where I was at the time of the bomb attacks on the London transport network on 7th July 2005.  I was there.

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I boarded the train at Ipswich station.  The journey into London Liverpool Street takes a little over an hour.  On that morning it was uneventful.  I switched between reading and gazing out of the window.  Five minutes from Liverpool Street the guard announced across the intercom that he’d received a message that no underground trains were running from the station and promised to keep us informed of further developments.  We drew into the station.  Everything seemed normal except that the shutters were down on the entrance to the underground and the transport police had cordoned off the area immediately in front of it.  I asked one of the policemen what had happened.  He told me that he thought that there’d been an accident of some kind in the tunnel.  I asked him how I might get to Kensington.  He suggested walking to Fenchurch Street station and picking up the underground from there.

When I emerged into Bishopsgate it became apparent that an event of some magnitude had occurred.  A police car came hurtling past with its sirens blaring and then another and yet another…  Now minibuses full of officers were arriving.  About twenty policemen in reflective jackets came running up the street between the traffic.  Quite some accident, then…  Everybody seemed to be going about their business as usual.

As I was walking, I remembered that there is no underground station at Fenchurch Street.  I decided to head toward it in any case and make my way to Tower Hill underground station from there.  I asked a city worker if he knew what had happened.  He’d heard that there’d been a ‘power surge’ on the underground, whatever that meant.  I turned left into Leadenhall Street, heading toward Aldgate, unaware of the grim events that were unfolding in the tunnels beneath that pavement.  I cut down a passage way and into Fenchurch Street.  The Whitechapel mosque was visible between the office buildings.  More passers-by than usual were talking on their mobile phones.  I carried on toward Tower Hill tube station, along Lloyd’s Avenue, under the viaduct, passing Crutched Friars and Pepys Street.  And when I arrived there, the grilles had been pulled across the station entrance, except for a narrow gap where a couple of London Transport officials were standing.

“No trains, then?” I asked the nearer of them.

“The whole underground system is down.”

“What’s happened?”

“There’s been a bang.”

The thought occurred to me for the first time.

“Terrorists?”

“It might be.”

I asked him how I might get to Kensington.  He said that the over-ground trains might still be running.  Or I could take the boat.  The boat?  I’d never heard of that.  He directed me to the waterfront and told me I’d need to make for Westminster pier.

“It’ll be an adventure for you…”

I walked down the hill in the direction of the river, passing the northern edge of the Tower, where bombers from an earlier century had screamed out their lives on the rack.  Odd that those methods should have regained currency, that politicians were once again discussing the etiquette of torture in the name of preventing terror…

And now the air was filled once more with the screams of the sirens of emergency vehicles.  I found myself down on the Thames Walk, heading westward along the north bank of the river.  Tower Bridge lay to the left of me, HMS Belfast on the bank opposite.  London Bridge loomed ahead.  How far did I need to go?  I asked a cool looking city worker wearing black shades and listening to his I-pod.  He seemed completely unfazed.  He thought that I might pick up a boat at Blackfriars.

“No need to hurry now,” he said.  “Today you can be as late for work as you like.”

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I walked beneath the Cannon Street rail crossing and Southwark Bridge.  A black motorised dinghy – from the Special Boat Service? – skimmed past on the surface of the brown water.  I typed out another text message to the mother of my child, providing her with a bulletin.  It failed to send.

I walked underneath the Millennium Footbridge (leading to the incongruous thatched dome of the Globe on the south bank), beneath another rail crossing and Blackfriars Bridge, and there below me I found Blackfriars Pier and next to it some kind of floating tube station.  And there I stood for a quarter of an hour or so with a small band of silent Londoners, waiting.  Two boats were moored there but they weren’t taking passengers.  Whatever force had brought the tube trains to a standstill appeared to have immobilised these boats as well.  I gave up and moved on.

Along the Victoria Embankment, on past the Temple where the iron lampposts are cast in the shape of fantastic fish and the bench-ends are adorned with pharaohs’ heads…  Those Masonic symbols cast their spell on the streets around them, pointing back to the Knights Templar and a centuries’ old clash between Islam and Christianity.   From the bank opposite rose the familiar shape of the Oxo Tower and to my right the grand façade of Somerset House.  I had no idea where I was heading now.  Was I trying to reach Kensington on foot?  Another black dinghy flashed past Bankside power station, keeping its nose high above the surface of the water.  A police patrol boat passed in the opposite direction.

I gazed up at Waterloo Bridge.  Familiar red shapes were shuttling back and forth from one bank to the other.  The buses, at least, were still running.  That was it, then – I’d take a bus.  I ascended the steps to street level and headed for the road that cut across the end of the bridge.  Ambulances rushed southward along the bridge.  I found myself in the Strand.  I chose to ignore its obvious imagery.  I was still making for Kensington, though I no longer knew why.  Where else did I have to go?

Around the corner I found a bus shelter.  A few disconsolate looking citizens were queuing there.  I consulted the timetable.  I needed a No.9 bus to take me to Kensington.  I gazed across the road at the handsome art-deco façade of the BBC’s Aldwych buildings.  Behind them stood a tall office building.  A helicopter was buzzing above it, jittering with nervous energy.  An unmarked police car roared up the street, its lights flashing.

No.11, No.26, another No.11… it seemed that my bus would never come.  Still no No.9…  No.9, No.11 – it was becoming easy to read portents into everything.  Another No.11 pulled up at the stop.  It was going to Fulham Broadway – that was out west, at least.  I decided I’d ask the driver if the No.9 was still in service.  I was last onto the bus behind five or six other people.  I stepped up to the driver’s screen.

“Is the No.9 still running?”

At that moment a message came through on his intercom.  He held up his hand to me and listened.

“All buses to return to the garage…”

He opened the door of his cab.

“Okay, everybody off, everybody off…”

I stood there uselessly at the bus stop, uncertain of my next move.  I wouldn’t be getting to Kensington.  That much was clear.  My pointless quest had come to an end.  Behind me stood a public building of some kind.  I walked through an archway and into a courtyard.  A white van pulled up with two men in the cab.  They were listening to the radio news.  I asked them if they’d heard what was happening.

“Seven blasts – three on the tube and four buses.  They’re telling everyone to get out of central London.”

“But how?  There are no buses or tube trains…”

The driver grinned and shrugged.  And nor were there any trains coming in or out of London, he added.

I walked around the courtyard.  A woman was sobbing into her mobile phone, talking to a husband or boyfriend.  She seemed on the verge of hysteria.  She was telling her loved one about the bombings and how there was no means of escape.

The whole of central London appeared to be closing down.  People had either left or were holed up in hotels or their offices.  Keep off the streets – that was the advice.  Bombs were seemingly going off all over the place.  The city was approaching paralysis.  And therein lay my dilemma.  I’d been told that I should get out of there but had no means of doing so.  The underground system had closed down, the buses had returned to their garages and there were no trains travelling in or out of the capital.

I wandered into the reception area of the building.  A couple of smart young women were seated behind a circular counter in the centre of the space.

“What is this place?” I asked.

The receptionists looked at me as though I’d temporarily misplaced my marbles.

“It’s the Strand campus of King’s College.”

I asked if there was a library in which I might pass some time.  They said that it was only open to staff but I was welcome to sit in reception if I liked.  Well, was there somewhere I could get a coffee, then?  If I walked around the corner into Surrey Street there was a refectory where I might get a drink and something to eat.

I walked around the block and into the college building.  I climbed the stairs to the second floor.  A couple of women were sitting at a table by the entrance.  Otherwise it was deserted.  I asked them where the toilets were.

On my way out of the toilets I met a man who had been doing some building work at the college.  We talked about events.  We discussed how I might get out of central London.  I said that perhaps I’d walk.

“You don’t want to wander south of the river…”

“Why not?”

“Do you know south London?”

I told him that I’d lived for a while in Tooting and then in Balham.

“Oh, well, you’ll know all about it, then.  How long ago was that?”

“About twenty years ago.”

“Well, now it’s twenty times worse.  There are guns and everything…”

I asked him about hotels.

“There are a couple near by.  It’ll be easier if I show you.”

I followed him through the building, back to ground level and out onto a paved area overlooking the river.  He pointed out the hotels.

He’d heard from his daughter who’d been in Covent Garden, near the scene of one of the blasts.  He told me that he’d have an eight mile walk through the city to return home.

We shook hands.

“Good luck,” he said.

“And you too.”

There remained another possibility – a black cab.  It would cost a small fortune, but I was running out of options.  I could take one as far as my hometown of Southend and make my way back to Ipswich from there.  Where was the nearest taxi rank?  Now that I thought about it, I remembered seeing an expensive looking hotel across the way when I’d been waiting for the bus.  Perhaps there’d be a rank outside it.  I walked back along Lancaster Place, attempting to hail a cab as I went.  They all sped past, seeming not to notice me.  The streets were beginning to empty of pedestrians now.  I turned left into the Strand and sure enough, there was a small taxi stand in front of the hotel.  Three burly doormen stood at the entrance to the Hotel.  I asked one of them about my chances of getting a cab driver to take me to Essex.

“You’ll be lucky.  We tried to get one for a guest and there were none available.”

“Perhaps I should put up in a hotel.”

“Well, here you are, sir,” he said gesturing through the door.

“Hmm,” I replied, “I think it might be a little bit out of my league.”

The occasional black cab still raced past.  Although each seemed to be carrying a single occupant none were for hire.  And then one pulled up at the front of the hotel.  Three passengers got out and mounted the hotel steps.  I approached the cabbie.

“This gentleman’s going on,” he said, nodding at the man still seated in the back.  “Sorry.”

Well, that seemed to be that.  I was stuck there, then.  And then another cab pulled up at the rank.  Its passenger paid the driver and hopped out.  The driver, an old bear of a man, was folded into his cab.

“Can you take me to Essex?”

“Yes, sir.”

I was aware of someone standing close behind me – a middle aged woman with claret-coloured hair, dressed in European beatnik clothes and carrying a large backpack.

“Can I share your taxi?  I have to get to Stansted airport.”

“I guess it’s in the same direction as Southend.”

I looked at the driver.

“If you don’t mind, sir.”

I’m told that even the taxis were taken off the street shortly afterwards.  I’d been fortunate to find one.  We got into the back and soon we were talking.  She told me that she was from Stockholm.  She had a husband and two kids back in Sweden.  She often went travelling on her own and had been in the air when both the September 11th and Bali nightclub attacks had taken place.

At first we seemed to be making little progress through those chaotic London streets.

“Are we out of central London yet?” she asked me after a while.

“I don’t think so.”

But soon we were running past grim housing estates in the East End.  We stopped talking from time to time to listen to the coverage on the radio.  Some sort of shape was being imposed on that mass of misinformation and speculation.

Peace, the Swedish beatnik thought, was our most important commodity.  If we are to believe Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man, all that the Swiss managed to do with five hundred years of peace was invent the cuckoo clock.  At least the Swedes had come up with the Volvo and Ikea in their two centuries of it.  And global travel was a force for good, she told me, increasing our understanding of each other, making war less likely.

“It doesn’t feel that way today.”

“No.”

At midday the Prime Minister broke off from the G8 summit at Gleneagles to express his horror at events and to assert that the British way of life could not be destroyed.  We joined the motorway and were immediately immersed in heavy traffic.  If it didn’t clear my fellow passenger would miss her ‘plane.  And so somehow I found that my taxi had been commandeered to go straight to Stansted instead.

At the airport I took out a wad of cash.  Apparently, the taxi’s credit card meter wouldn’t work outside London.  When I got back to the taxi the Swedish beatnik was gone.  She had wanted to pay the whole fare but the driver had kindly declined on my behalf.  And now there was somebody else wanting to share my cab, a young guy in casual sportswear with a public school accent.  He wanted to go back to South London.

“We’d better get some banter going as we’re going all the way to Putney.  I’m Rob.  What’s your name, mate?”

“Tony,” the bear replied.

And so we set off again.  Naturally enough, we found ourselves talking about the state of the world.  Apparently, the parents of a friend from his schooldays were good friends of the Bushes and sometimes had them over to stay.  This friend reckoned that George W Bush was a great guy.  Rob didn’t agree.

“I don’t know where you stand on the Bush issue,” he told me, “but I think he’s an arsehole.”

He told me that he’d had a computer security business.  He’d made ‘some money’ from its stock exchange flotation and then he and his stepfather in Paris had set up a corporate finance company.  Rob had a different angle.  Peace wasn’t the commodity of the future.  Nor would wars be fought over oil.  In the future, he proclaimed, water would be the major source of both conflict and profit.  His company had arranged for a guy to purchase some land in France on which there was a natural spring.  They’d financed the construction of a bottling plant on the site.   It’s a theory that’s been gaining credence.  Water replacing oil as the commodity that turns the world…  If so, oil will have brought about its own demise in an over-populated and environmentally degraded world.

You’re transported into an alternative universe when you travel long distance by black cab.  Suddenly, caring capitalists seem to be everywhere.  I asked Rob how he squared his leftist views with a career in corporate finance.  Well, he was on the board of a charity, and in any case, finance was just a sideline for him.  His escape plan was fully formed.  He was going to open a hotel complex with bars and a nightclub.  And he was going to buy an island to put it on.  You could see the attraction, of course.  He had to make his money first so that he and his future wife and kids could be comfortable.  That’s what it’s all about, really, he told me.  Then he could afford to be altruistic, to have his friends to stay and so on.

The driver missed the turning for Chelmsford, taking us an expensive distance out of our way.  In the county town, the taxi drew level with a heavily made up young woman in an MG sports car.  The driver asked her for directions to the station.

“Hello,” commented my fellow passenger, making a passing attempt at a lascivious Leslie Phillips.

“My girlfriend’s got the same car,” he said.  “She’s nicer though – she’s American.”

He drew out a photograph of a plain looking girl with dyed blonde hair.  We shook hands and said our goodbyes.  I handed over eighty pounds to the bear.

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I thank God that I saw none of the carnage first hand.  I got to read about it in the newspaper the next day.  Those are not images that I would want to carry around with me.  I passed only one injured person that day.  As the taxi pulled onto the motorway we encountered heavy traffic.  At first it seemed that the rush to leave the city had brought the road to a standstill.  We crawled forward and then the traffic began to clear.  A police car came past.  It was an accident, then, an everyday, humdrum tragedy.  A motorcyclist had been knocked from his bike.  I averted my eyes.

On 6th July, I had been listening to a CD while working on my laptop in the school staff room, the Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Colours Fly away from Me’.  ‘More by luck than judgement here am I,’ runs the first line.  We’ve all heard the tales about those people who were due to sail on the Titanic who for some reason never made that voyage.  Serendipity, synchronicity… I’m not sure that I believe in either of those things.  But why should I have been travelling into London on that particular day?  I only visit the capital on a few days in any one year.  I’m booked onto a course on the Wednesday, but it’s cancelled at the last moment.  The hand of fate intervenes.  I manage to find a replacement course for the following day.   I arrive twenty minutes after the event.  Somebody up there likes me…

All text and images © PSR 2014

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2 Responses to “7/7, In Memoriam”

  1. www.laurensapala.com July 17, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    This is one of my all-time favorites from Jamboree Bag. Thank you for sharing it here!

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