London Bawling

Robert Collins

Robert Collins shares his experiences living through today's terrorist attack in London and reflects on possible political and cultural repercussions for the British capital.

Yesterday the future seemed so bright. Winning the 2012 Olympics, and beating the French at that, made it a fabulous day to be a Londoner. People were dancing in the street, drinking in our wonderful city's greatest triumph. I was there, gleefully putting Jacques Chirac jokes on the PopMatters writers' message board, eagerly looking seven long years ahead for our moment in the global spotlight.

Today it all seems like ancient history.

The first I knew that something out of the ordinary was when I dropped my girlfriend at the tube station just before 9.30. She was heading in late today to attend Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson's memorial service. It turned out to be a blessing. If she had gone in at her usual time, things could have become deeply worrying.

Thirty seconds after I left her my phone rang.

"The entire underground is closed!" she exclaimed down the line. I turned the car around to pick her up again and flicked on the radio. Breakfast DJs, unaccustomed to somberness, mentioned words like 'power surge' and 'serious incident'. Once I picked her up I headed straight back home, insistent that my girlfriend wouldn't even be trying to head towards into the city center today.

Naturally, we immediately feared the worst. An accident would have been tragic, but the specter of a terrorist attack had loomed over London like an unspoken curse ever since 9/11. The DJs seemed reluctant to come out and say exactly what everyone was thinking.

"We don't want to speculate right now," they chanted like a mantra.

By the time we arrived home and turned on the cable news channels, it was clear that the alleged 'power surge' was nothing of the sort.

Once the gravity of the situation was apparent, the first job was contacting family and friends to check they were all ok. Writing this evening, it would appear that everyone is safe. Next came the arduous task of settling down in front of the news, searching for some sort of explanation for what happened and the slow, inexorable rise of the body count. Which, again as I write, is thankfully far lower than I expected when hearing the first reports.

After two hours of looking at a ripped apart bus and an unrelenting stream of politicians, police spokesmen, terrorism experts and the harrowing testimony of eyewitnesses I decided to walk the 10 minutes to my local hospital to give blood. Fittingly, it was raining hard, but I didn't feel it. When I arrived there I was filled with a sensation I rarely feel about my fellow Londoners -- pride. The tiny reception was fit to bursting with a heartwarming array of young and old, and white, black and Asian, all feeling exactly the same as I did. A pint of blood isn't much, but when you wake up to find your city under attack, every drop of effort a community can muster is an extra block of resistance.

The tiny blood bank, used to a trickle of donors, was totally unable to deal with the torrent of volunteers prepared to, quite literally, roll up their sleeves. The wait to donate stood at over an hour when I arrived, and the best a stressed yet grateful receptionist could manage was a suggestion that I dropped by again later that afternoon.

So what kind of historical, political or cultural context can we put today's atrocity into (this is PopMatters after all)? Naturally, you'd assume the UK will face a swing either to the left, or more likely, the right. With the Madrid terrorist attacks coming days before Spain's general election, the country swung massively towards the anti-war Socialist party. But despite London Mayor Ken Livingstone's courageous speech from Singapore -- talking about how our great town's freedom and tolerance attracted people from all over the world -- it's probable that intolerance, suspicion and hostility will all be on the increase. Before the online Al-Qaeda announcement claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Conservative shadow defense minister, willfully confusing protestors and terrorists, pointed the finger at the anti-globalization crowds gathered outside Gleneagles for the G8 summit.

Civil liberties are certain to be a casualty. It's hard to imagine which political figures will stand up against indefinite custody without trial, or the equally controversial mandatory photo ID card the government have just forced through parliament.

The more immediate worry is that racial tension, traditionally relegated beneath contempt in cosmopolitan London, will rear its hideous head. Although far from perfect, London's ethnic harmony is more often than not, worth celebrating. After 9/11, the widespread hostility aimed towards Arab-Americans was widely reported and universally criticized over here. Undoubtedly, Britain's small but despicable far right movement will use today's attack to launch the familiar scare tactics over immigrants, Muslims, and any groups they can aimlessly lob accusations at.

There's a good chance that London's famously stern personality could get a great deal sterner over the coming days and weeks too. Londoners don't speak to each other unless they can absolutely help it, and the added fear that the person sitting opposite you on the bus could be a suicide bomber could only worsen the situation. The capital's often-tangible tension -- instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever tried to walk down Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon -- is primed to be cranked up a notch or two. Music and cultural events across London have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. It's hard to say when people will even consider going out or enjoying themselves again.

But now, less than nine hours after this morning's horrific events, the numbness is clearing and the hope is beginning to shine through. The early indications are that London's emergency services, and their well-rehearsed disaster plan, performed superbly. And the general feeling dominating news broadcasts is one of resolve. After all, this is London. We're tough. We're not easily impressed. Our grandparents endured the Blitz and most of us have vivid memories of the IRA's terror campaigns of the '80s and '90s.

If anything good can come of today's tragedy, and it'll be a while before we'll be able to tell, it will be a revitalization of London's virtually non-existent community spirit. People on the tube could start talking to each other -- discussing their tales from today and their fears for the future. We could start helping each other instead of turning the other cheek at the first sign of trouble. We could puff out our chests and walk unafraid back into the most hectic and vibrant town in Europe.

We'd better, because although we'll never forget today, in seven years time there's an Olympic games that needs to be a fuck sight better than the one our Australian archrivals produced back in 2000. And getting on with that would be a body blow to the terrorists.

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