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7-14 July 2005, London

Isobel Dixon

It was much like any morning, only I was later. My alarm clock failed to fully rouse me into instant action; I lingered in bed too long. The chance to catch the 7:45 train from Cambridge to London King's Cross, the train that gets me in to work early, passed. Faced my wardrobe … indecision reigned; a skirt had to be ironed, everything took longer than expected. I overran my usual regime of half an hour from out-of-bed to out-of-front-door - no chance of the 8:15 now, but a brisk walk would get me to the station for the 8:45.

But even then I was thwarted, to my rising frustration. The shortcut route across waste ground to the station was closed off: I wanted to shake the burly hard-hatted construction worker who waved me away, to take the long route round the block. I knew the extra five minutes' walk would make me late for my train, as it did: I trotted into the station just in time to see the rear of the last carriage heading south to London without me. The 9:15 would have to do. I was now officially going to be Very Late. One of Those Days.

But it was not just another of "those days". For as I was opening my paper, the front pages splashed with headlines about London's Olympic triumph and think pieces on the start of the G8, at 8:51, within seconds of one another three bombs exploded on the London Underground, on the clockwise and anti-clockwise Circle Lines, and on the southbound Piccadilly Line, all tube trains that go through the underground system of King's Cross. As I was turning away from the construction site and walking round the corner into Station Road, the bombers would have been heading towards their targets. Earlier, as I was flicking off my alarm clock, ironing my skirt, gathering my manuscripts, these people, intent on doing terrible harm to other people, were focused on their own dark timings.

What had they been thinking as they brushed their teeth, looked at their faces in the mirror? They too had woken - if they had slept at all - dressed, gathered what they needed for this day's work - some of it possibly much the same as the paraphernalia of every other London commuter: keys, money, ticket. Except that they also carried explosives - a quantity small enough to fit into a rucksack, but large enough to cause a great deal of destruction and suffering to the working people among whom, at least for a while, they would have stood.

But then I was oblivious of all the events that were now playing out on a repeating loop on the television screens and in my mind. As I was boarding my train to London the driver, too, knew nothing of the detail of what had happened, and our journey began as normal. A text message from the agency's contracts manager, Tom, pipped onto my phone: "Northern Line is still suspended so I'm going to be late to work!" Nothing unusual in Underground delays and temporary closures in the morning rush hour. After a while, our train slowed, then stopped. I called into the office: it seemed that other colleagues were struggling to get in; my assistant said that there was talk of "power surges" which had caused problems at some tube stations, but that was all the information he could give me. Seconds later my husband Jan called, concerned, saying he'd heard on the car radio that there had been explosions at Liverpool Street and King's Cross: was I safely at work yet? Passengers - unusually for English commuters - began to talk to one another as others on mobile phones heard snippets of news from offices. The whole Underground system had been closed down.

There was confusion about details - Liverpool Street had been hit, Aldgate East, Edgware Road, Russell Square, King's Cross - but was that the mainline station, the nearby Thameslink station or the Underground, all of which bear the King's Cross name? And how could a power surge happen on the Underground? Was it true that trains had crashed into one another? "Yes," a woman in a suit said to her neighbouring passenger after tapping off her phone, "people have been hurt." My phone pipped its SMS alert, a message from a South African friend living in Ireland: "Are you ok?" News travels fast in the media age, but I wondered exactly what it was that he was hearing on the radio or seeing on the television as I tapped back that I was fine, that I wasn't in London yet, thank God.

And I wasn't going to get there, not today. Our driver's voice came over the intercom: the train would be terminating at Potter's Bar. King's Cross station was closed due to an explosion, there were problems across the entire London transport network, this train would not be taking us to London. And then the mobile phones brought the next piece of news into our carriage - the one that changed the dubious "power surge" story into terrible fact: there had also been an explosion on a bus. Something no electrical fault could have caused.

A strange, calm moment of realisation: so now it's happened. Only the night before Jan and I had been talking about how difficult and expensive security for the 2012 London Olympics would be, what a prime target it would make the city. Though everyone knows that London has always been a prime target: after 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, every time a shoulder-to-shoulder Blair-Bush moment is flashed around the world, the likelihood that terrorists would strike here has been re-emphasised. I remembered the horror of the attack on Madrid - but also being surprised it had been Madrid that had been targeted, rather than this country with its much-vaunted "special relationship" with America.

I'm sure everyone on my train remembered the television images of the Atocha station bombings as we absorbed the news from London. The haunting idea of the carnage among commuters on a train like ours; the terrible simplicity of such attacks. And what a psychological moment: the first flush of London's Olympic victory just the day before, Tony Blair and the powerful men of the Western world meeting up north in Britain for the G8 summit. The headline from the Guardian, referring to the Olympic decision - ONE SWEET WORD: LONDON - gained a bitter poignancy.

Our train reached Potter's Bar - another site of rail tragedy after the derailment in 2002 of a commuter train - and passengers spilled out onto a cold, rainy platform. It was remarkably quiet - English pragmatism and reserve coming into play, despite the confusion, and our burning desire to know more. People were made more focused, perhaps, by that powerful tool and panacea, the mobile phone. Even as we crossed to the platform for a train back to Cambridge you could see most passengers talking to loved ones or friends, or texting briskly.

As was I. My first alarmed thought after hearing of the bus, the confirmation of terrorism, was of my sister, Lucy, who works not far from King's Cross as a publicist for John Murray publishers. From her South London flat she has several variations on routes to work by public transport - King's Cross Thameslink and a tube from there among them. What would she have done today, and when? My text to her went unanswered for some time and my heart pounded - but then, if she was in the tube system the signal wouldn't work anyway. When her response came: "Can't get through but I'm fine", I said a silent prayer of thanks.

Later I learned that she made the last leg of her journey by bus when the Tube was evacuated. The second bus she took, from King's Cross, was a Number 30 which runs along Euston Road to her offices. The bus had been diverted from its usual route, and winding through the streets of Bloomsbury had been snarled up in the traffic confusion. She'd got off and walked the last stretch to work. Shortly afterwards, another number 30 bus had made the same journey, only as far as the Upper Woburn Place side of Tavistock Square, where a bomb ripped its top off, killing several passengers. I was chilled yet calm when she told me this: the full force of the close skidding by of disaster hit me only when I watched brothers and girlfriends and fathers on Saturday's BBC news, all desperately searching for loved ones who had been missing since Thursday. By then the death toll was at least 49, with bodies still being retrieved from the atrociously difficult conditions of the deep Piccadilly Line blast, and hundreds injured, many of them critically. I wept for them, and for their loved ones, and with relief that I knew exactly where my sister was, safe. Thousands of London's must have had similar "almost" stories.

From Potter's Bar it was a long and indirect journey back to Cambridge, with several changes, the kind of hassle that every regular public transport user has confronted before: points failure, an "incident", a fatality on the line. This time we knew it was more specific than the "major incident" the electric signboards mentioned, warning passengers not to attempt to travel into London unless absolutely necessary. Soon the M25, the ring road, was closed, so people were advised not to drive into London either. There were rumours - unfounded - that there had been attacks in Brighton and Swindon too, which made Cambridge no longer seem like such a safe distance from the capital. As we piled onto crowded trains, back the way we'd come, there were more friends and family members, colleagues and authors texting, the pips from multiple phones syncopating briskly through the carriage. It was something to do, keeping your hands and mind busy as you wondered about the extent of the attacks.

It was a larger screen which drew me back at home, in the unusual quiet of the house, midday in workaday suburbia. Rolling news replaced the usual schedules: grainy photos from mobile phones - another way that technology has changed our reaction to major events - and confused reports about the location of the attacks. I had to force myself to leave the house to stop watching the same images again and again, obsessively - the bus in particular, "opened like a sardine can" as one observer said. All these well-known, well-loved places in this extraordinary city, the city in the world I know best now.

My own tube line to work, the Northern Line to Camden Town, goes through King's Cross too, and it is a short walk from the overland platform, down stairs and escalators to both the Piccadilly and Northern Lines. Unlike many Londoners I love the Tube, appreciating the liberating ease of a decent public transport system, the way my annual season ticket allows me to criss-cross the city at will. I also have a perverse fondness for the shabby precincts of King's Cross, where the overland and underground lines meet, and prostitutes and pickpockets and beggars and drug dealers converge with their more respectable besuited and uniformed fellows. One of my author clients has taken wonderful photos of the station as it has changed over the last few years, undergoing the early stages of extension and facelifting in preparation for the 2007 Channel Tunnel link to Paris. It was Simon who shared the extraordinary fact that Thomas Hardy, as a young trainee architect, had been involved in the resettlement of bodies in the Old St Pancras Churchyard when the Midland Railway's new line north cut through the burial ground. Such ghoulish thoughts, and the thought of another dark moment at this key terminus, the King's Cross's Underground Fire of 1987, followed me even as I left the television behind.

The weekend passed in domestic tasks and birthday parties, where the talk strayed back to the bombs again and again. Newspaper circulation soared. The images may have been carefully picked to avoid the ones of horror that were too human, too intrusive, but the shattered inanimate objects told their own stories. A photo of the bus showed the wall of the British Medical Association headquarters pockmarked from the flying shrapnel, as many London buildings are, from the Blitz. Next to the blue plaque commemorating Charles Dickens, who lived nearby in the 1850s, the façade's decorative rosette was all too clearly stained with blood. On the side of the bus a poster for the film The Depth was ripped in half, but still showed the words: "Outright terror ... Bold and brilliant ..."

The bold and brilliant acts of the day were those of the rescue services, who saw what we wish to be protected from. One of the rescue workers, Steve Betts, who laboured to retrieve survivors and bodies in soaring temperatures in the depths and darkness of the narrow Piccadilly Line tunnel, spoke a little of the horrors of the operation. He said it made him feel like the loneliest man alive when he returned to the surface.

There are thousands of accounts of acts of heroism, people doing whatever they could. Peter Zimonjic, a Sunday Telegraph reporter who was in train opposite when the Edgware Line bomb went off, and helped many others, writes of the injured South African Jason on the Edgware Line train who made a tourniquet out of a shirt for a fellow passenger. Construction workers on the site next to University College Hospital, where many patients were treated, came forward to donate blood. Celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2 were also about to take place in London when the bombs went off, and I smiled at the war veteran interviewed on the nightly news. He'd been on the way to a reunion and said, gamely, "We've been through this before, haven't we? Nil desperandum, we'll get there."

In the aftermath, even the shadowy mobile phone image of a tube worker saying calmly, "Will everyone keep moving down, please" could make me choke up. That polite "please". Mark Easton of the BBC reporting from King's Cross spoke of the professionalism of the emergency services whose "assured calm seemed to suck the terror out of terrorism". Margaret Gilmore, also on the BBC, remarked "how cool the emergency services were, how dignified the public were". But it was Andrew Marr, one of this country's great national treasures, whose phrasing has stayed with me most clearly. Echoing mayor Ken Livingstone's praise of multicultural London, he spoke of Britain as this "mixed, open and porous country". The different faces on the heartbreaking "Missing" posters that still lined the exit from King's Cross when I returned to London on Monday attest to this. As I write I hear that the city's annual anti-racism festival, Rise, strongly supported by Ken Livingstone, has been renamed London United.

And now, a week after the attacks, we know that, contrary to the early reports, the bombers were indeed suicide bombers, four young men from Leeds in Yorkshire who fanned out from King's Cross that morning carrying their identical rucksacks packed with explosives. It seems from the message from the group claiming responsibility - the Secret Organisation Group of al-Qaida of Jihad Organisation in Europe - that they planned to mark a North-South, East-West axis through the terminus: west and east on the Circle Line, south on the Piccadilly Line, and probably north on the Northern Line, my route, and that of several others in my office. Tom's early text to me was not because of the bomb, but because a defective train had shut the line down temporarily, which may have been the reason that one bomber ended up on a bus when the tube was evacuated.

Speculation abounds, and every moment as I write, more news flows in. The names and photos of the bombers are released. We follow closely, hoping for some clarity, some revelation in the ordinary detail. The family of one man reported him missing after the bombing, concerned for his safety. One was a teaching assistant, another played cricket. One of them has a South African mother-in-law.

Always, the sense of location haunts us all - almost everyone in London has used one or more of these tube stations. The evening before the bomb I had a drink with a publisher (who also commutes, into Thameslink, daily) at a pub a block from the bus bombing. My visiting in-laws are now staying in their usual hotel, minutes away. For two years I lived within walking distance of all the attacks, in the gloriously cosmopolitan student community of the Goodenough Trust on Mecklenburgh Square.

It's Tavistock Square I think of most, as I to get to work; with the tube lines from King's Cross not operational, I walk past the banks of flowers on the steps of St Pancras Church (where today they held their usual Thursday lunchtime recital in the most unusal circumstances). En route to our old offices in Gower Street I often walked through the Tavistock Square gardens, one of those tranquil patches of green space: a pause, a dash, punctuating London's Babel hubbub. And I have two treasured photographs with beloved friends - Canadian and Palestinian - in front of the statue of Gandhi, cross-legged in the middle of the square. One was taken in winter, the other in spring, but both times the shutter clicked, someone had placed flowers in his sculpted lap. "There are always flowers, all year round," I say to people who look at the happy photos on my kitchen wall, though I can't be absolutely sure that my words are true. It feels as though they should be.

There are less obvious memorials here, the ones people often miss: the commemorative stone for conscientious objectors, the cherry tree in memory of Hiroshima. The international conscientious objectors' credo that "war is a crime against humanity" and Gandhi's passive resistance are a quiet contrast to the carnage of the bombs in London, as bombs fall elsewhere around our unquiet globe.

I think of two authors who sent me emails from different parts of the world. Clea Koff, a forensic anthropologist who exhumed mass war crimes graves in Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia, has expert knowledge relevant to the multiple tragedies playing out here, as the coroner identifies the dead. Kimberly Johnson, a journalist now embedded with the US marines in Iraq, made me laugh wryly when she emailed to say she'd seen the news in the "chow hall" and was worried about me, when of course, she is in a much more dangerous place - for her, who has chosen this personal mission, and for the Iraqis who have no choice but to be there. Near Baghdad yesterday a suicide bomber blew up American soldiers and Iraqi children, killing 27 and wounding many others.

Now it is a week since the bombs here. We had our two minutes' silence today. The vigil in Trafalgar Square is starting as I write. As Simon Jenkins writes in the Evening Standard, "London can do ceremony" and it is a vital time for it. Faced with such acts of violence and sudden loss, we are outraged, we grieve, we observe rituals, mark our anniversaries. Still, so often it seems that we are only dimly aware of the tragedies of others. (I remember no vigil for Rwanda in our triumphant 1994 election year, as the genocide raged to the north.) It is now ten years since Srebenica, when 8 000 Muslims were slaughtered in full sight of the forces of the West. Thinking of that tree in Tavistock Square, it is also almost sixty years since the bright August day on which the first atomic bomb ever employed in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima: the accounts of the suffering of survivors and rescue workers I read there remain seared into my mind.

Here already there are reports of hate crimes against Muslims. The families of the now identified bombers are fearful. Where does one begin to break the cycles of violence, attack and counter-attack? The Guardian's 8 July leader article speaks of how, alongside increased security measures, we also need "a recognition of the need to drain what can be drained from the reservoir of grievances from which the terrorists draw strength". This is no easy task. It is a very deep reservoir: here be monsters indeed and I feel as powerless and as uncomprehending as any medieval mariner when trying to chart a course through my sense of the world's injustices and my own witting and unwitting part in them. But, as London returns to its new normalities, and we commuters shrug off our briefly-donned gentleness - becoming brisker, our usual hurried, harried selves again - I pray that the sense of common humanity emphasised in these few days will not fade. That in matters of national security, as in our care of the environment or those in need - the prominent themes of the G8, which need to be re-emphasised, daily, in spite of, because of recent events - we and those in power would follow strategies not of retreat or retaliation, but of empathy and engagement.

In EM Forster's Howard's End, Margaret Schlegel (another multicultural Londoner) "had strong feelings about the various railway termini" which chime with my own affections for these places of interchange and departure:

They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo. … To Margaret … the station of King's Cross had always suggested infinity.
But it is not the strange echoes of these words that draw me now, it is the thought of the novel's now-famous line, which always bears repeating: "Only connect."

London, 14 July 2005


LitNet: 19 July 2005

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