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Danger Ahead? Proceed at Your Own Risk

Simon Warner
St. Paul's Cathedral during the World War II blitz

Dark humour and troubling times cross paths as a harbinger of things to come.

When I was a child I spent hours poring over a paperback entitled The Penguin Charles Addams. To me, as a young reader, the cartoonist behind this collection seemed an impossibly intriguing figure: his shadowy, Gothic illustrations; his macabre sense of humour; even his biography left me fascinated. If memory serves me well, Addams had been married five times, and collected antique firearms and vintage Bugattis. He was a gifted and exotic soul who turned the twisted world of his familial namesakes into a cauldron of haunting mirth, while revelling in his own life of ultimate indulgence.

I must have been about nine when the book came into my possession and the Munsters had already made their transatlantic journey to tea-time television, while the Addams' Family had not yet turned up on British small-screens. Thus the book was my introduction to the man's deliciously strange and wonderfully spooky imagination. In fact, the illustrated collection of cartoons was soon passed to my two younger sisters and, four decades on, we only need to mention a caption to bring to mind a visual joke that still makes us smile.

Strangely, recent events in Britain brought Addams and his darkly comic visions to mind once again. I recall a particular drawing depicting a group of travellers, poised in their gondola, riding a fantastical rollercoaster. High above the fairground and the city, the revellers have reached the very apex of the ride, and then there's a twist quite typical of this artist — a sign nailed to the side of the track announcing "Danger ahead! Proceed at your own risk". The horror on the faces of those terrified passengers remains imprinted on my memory.

To be in the UK during the opening week of July was to experience an extraordinary range of emotions similar to those of the fictional fairground riders in Addams' classic drawing: the heady anticipation at the start of the journey, the nerve-tingling elation of the long ascending arc, the steady acceleration and inexorable climb to the awe-inspiring summit, followed by a terrible warning and the very real chance of disaster and the possibility of death.

The analogy is not so far-fetched. It all began as Live8 provided a wonderful curtain-raiser suggesting that a large-scale collective demonstration and a popular groundswell might just coax, or at least embarrass, those representatives of the G8 into united and affirmative action. The global community crossed its fingers that rock'n'roll might be capable of drawing the attention of the major industrial powers to bigger issues than home economies and internal tax regimes.

On that Saturday, in Tokyo and Philadelphia, in Rome and Paris, in Berlin and Johannesburg, tens of thousands of concert-goers were pledging their backing for fairer trade, demanding an end to the desperate plight of the developing nations and sending a call to the decision-makers to consider the fate of the environment before it was simply too late. Yet London was a particular focus, especially since the crucial political powwow was to be held on the British mainland. In Hyde Park, Paul McCartney joined U2 to commence the concert proceedings, blasting out a passable version of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", replete with brass players clad in the techni-colour baroque of the Beatles' album's famous sleeve, and reminding us that Live Aid had indeed, been a whole 20 years ago. A string of highlights followed, from Coldplay to the Killers, Dido to Madonna, a vibrant Who to a studied Pink Floyd.

The following day I was one of the TV pundits invited by Sky News to speculate on what I felt might happen next. I made the point that there remained a sizable gulf between such mega-concerts and the day-to-day realities of poverty at the African grass roots. Could rock music, an escapist fantasy, a dubious model of indulgence and excess, actually help to build bridges? Could bread and butter issues in the Sudan ever be solved by greying millionaires performing their interminable three chord tricks? Maybe I was little too hard-nosed, a little too pessimistic. Yet who truly knew what the coming days would bring?

By Wednesday, as the protestors — students and families, socialists and anarchists, greens and trade unionists, the peaceful and the menacing — milled around Gleneagles (the countryside estate near Edinburgh where Blair, Bush and the rest of the gang would convene) there were hints that this might be a headline-grabbing occasion for the wrong reasons. Sporadic clashes with the forces of law provided a somewhat predictable entrée to the main course as make-shift fencing proved less effective than riot police, ferried in by helicopter to restore the line.

Yet by then, the British media has almost completely shifted its target of concern. Around lunchtime that same day, the announcement that London would play host to the 2012 Olympics was sending crowds gathered in the capital, in Birmingham, in Manchester, and just about everywhere else, into fits of ecstasy. Paris, the hot favourite, had lost out at the final hurdle, and the victory for the UK was sweeter still as French premier Jacques Chirac had spent recent days dismissing Britain as a culinary black hole and suggesting that the only thing we'd ever contributed to European agriculture was mad cow disease. Touché, Jacques!

The exhilaration was intense, born of utter surprise rather than satisfaction or relief. London would not only be home to the Olympiad for the first time since the post-war days of 1948, but a needy section of the city's eastern quarter would benefit from a multi-billion pound regeneration project. Tony Blair and every Briton beamed widely with obvious enthusiasm and satisfaction. How could things get any better?

Thursday dawned with plans for welcoming parties to greet the successful sports campaigners returning from the Far East and Singapore. But it was not long before the morning took a terrible turn. Shortly after rush hour, the web wires transmitted their worrying rumours of bombs exploding on the Underground. By midday, images of wounded survivors being rushed to hospitals and the remnants of a double-decker bus, blasted into an unrecognisable tangle, had changed everything.

The PM left the G8 briefly to see the carnage firsthand. London attempted to cope with the panic and the mayhem, and rallied to the cause of the wounded, as hundreds were injured by the attacks while others were trapped in deep train tunnels. In the subterranean hell-hole, roof collapses were predicted, as temperatures soared and sewer rats joined in the grisly drama. By the time the cost of this appalling terror strike had been calculated, more than 50 were dead, numerous others missing, and the facts of the incident (already being dubbed '7/7' in some quarters) were sinking in with grim acknowledgement and confirmation.

Friday arrived and the G8 finally unveiled its communiqué to the waiting reporters; by then we'd almost lost the plot and virtually forgotten the reasons for the high-octane summit. After rock festivals and riots, Olympic triumph and terrorist carnage, the news that extra money would be made available to Africa, that some debts would be written off, that some holding measures would now tinker with the fragile and failing ecology, seemed a curious anti-climax, holding a bizarre irrelevance when compared to the pressing matters at hand.

In a sense, it was a glaring reminder that no matter how powerful we assume those prime ministers and presidents to be, no matter how many crumbs they throw at the table, no matter how compassionate they appear, there are still bigger — sometimes better, sometimes worse — forces at play on this Earth. It was a sobering, no, shattering thought, that as we briefly touched the heavens, musically and sportingly, nationally and internationally, the descent into the depths of a nightmare was just a sunrise or two away. Danger ahead? It seems so. But like Addams' hapless rollercoaster riders, to proceed at our own risk is our only choice.

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