I was in London today for a meeting (about which more later).
I’d gone to London earlier in the week for the Proms, the first time since the bombs in 7 July. I was thinking today, as I was heading for the station, how my overwhelming feeling on that earlier journey was the degree of suspicion with which I found myself looking at anyone vaguely ‘muslim’. I was appalled at myself. If the intention of the bombers was to turn even the most (I would hope) tolerant, liberal and anti-imperialist westerners into paranoid xenophobes, they succeeded.
The meeting ended at around 1pm and I made my way from just opposite BBC Broadcasting House to Oxford Circus, about five minutes’ walk away. I got into the station, navigated round the groups of tourists asking for directions, and set off down the escalator for the Victoria line. Automated announcements were explaining the disruption to Circle Line services with the words ‘due to the incident on 7 July…’ Why the coyness, I wondered? ‘Incident’? As though saying ‘bombs’ or ‘explosions’ would puncture the odd self-imposed obliviousness I think most of us were enjoying.
At the bottom of the escalator, the tunnel splits into three, with the middle route being the one I wanted. Something looked a bit odd and I realised it was completely empty. In fact, there weren’t many people around at all. Then I saw a woman in London Underground uniform standing in front of a barrier, waving us away saying the line was closed and we had to use the Central line instead. A new announcement was saying ‘due to a passenger incident’ which is a euphamism either for someone throwing themselves in front of a train.
So back and down the right hand tunnel to get to the next station with a Victoria Line connection.
I’d just stepped on the down escalator (Oxford Circus is a long way underground) when the alams started ringing and yet another automated announcement came on asking us to evacuate the station immediately. The response? None – most people appeared to ignore it, partly because once you’re on the escalator there’s nothing much you can do. I suppose we could have stopped it and walked up, but either it didn’t occur to anyone or we decided it would cause more problems than it was worth.
The journey from the escalator to the platform is remarkably long at that point, and rather winding. The announcement mentioned finding the nearest exit and I was scanning the walls for clues. But there were no exits before we hit the platform and there my suspicions about Londoners were confirmed. Some of us spotted the exit signs and walked calmly towards them, alarms ringing in our ears. But others just stood on the edge of the platform and waited for the next train. It wasn’t that they were foreign and couldn’t understand the announcement; these people were British and simply didn’t want to give up a rare good spot on the platform.
Amusingly (well, to me at least) I found myself going into ‘tutor mode’ – my usual response to a fire alarm is to ensure I’m the last person to leave the room and be the one that closes the door behind everyone. I actually had to resist the urge to do the same here, shepherding the lingerers towards the exit. My better judgement got me and rather than risk a withering look or even a ‘fuck off’ I abandoned them to their fate and walked right round again and joined the growing crowd heading for above ground.
It was all very, very calm. There’s no terror to this terrorism, Londoners don’t respond to explosions, rumours of explosions or even people jumping in front of trains by collapsing in fear and fits of trembling. They wander over to a map of the underground and try to figure out an alternative route.
One moment of surrealism came when we passed a member of the underground staff who was blocking off one of the tunnels and telling us to ‘catch a bus’. This, of course, was what a lot of people did at King’s Cross two weeks ago, ending up on the number 30 with one of the bombers.
Reaching Oxford Street I was hit by the sounds of sirens, with ambulances, police cars and the like zooming in all directions. I rang my friend who’s staying with me at the moment and asked if she knew what was going on. Apparently it had just come on TV that there’d been reports of small explosions and smoke at Oval station.
I suddenly realised that I didn’t know how to get to Victoria without using the tube. I could have caught a bus but I wasn’t on the right route and, anyway, it seemed everyone else was having the same idea. So I wandered down Regent Street until I could find a bus stop with the magic word ‘Victoria’. Using my Palm Treo I connected to the web and found the Guardian’s news blog which was posting unfiltered reports from journalists as information was coming in. Meantime, overheard snippets of conversation from people ranged from hoaxes to chemical attack (mental note: always wear clean underwear when visiting London).
Half the people were checking their phones, the other half was either oblivious to what was going on or just didn’t care and carried on shopping and site seeing. I eventually got a number 19 bus to Hyde Park Corner then walked through the park towards Buckingham Palace. Remarkably there was a garden party in progress and I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people in various types of posh dress, from sailors to ‘ordinary people’ who (excuse the snobbery) couldn’t hide their humble origins with the ‘mutton-as-lamb’ choices they’d made. Mind you, even the more obviously well-to-do types looked bizarre.
It took me about four hours to get home, compared with the usual 90 minutes. The heat was unbearable, and I was tired, thirsty and knackered. But safe.
Final analysis? Well, like I said, London’s an odd target. After the last bombs people harked back to the blitz and the IRA bombs in the 80s and early 90s. There’s none of the panic or stand-and-stare reaction we saw with 9/11 (mind you, what happened there was somewhat different), just a calm indignation and underplayed annoyance. We’re not terrorised, we’re annoyed. It’s like someone mildly unpleasant gatecrashing your party – you put up with it and simmer inwardly. We’re not emptionally repressed, as some people (the Spanish in particular) accused a couple of weeks ago. You only had to watch the Victory Cleebrations in the mall a couple of days after the first bombs to see that, or the remarkable two minutes silence a week later.
Something remarkable was the increased amount of eye contact between people. If you’ve never been on the tube you may not be aware that golden rule number one is don’t look at anyone. But today, while waiting at the bus stop (for a bus that never came) a lorry passed by and pulled up at traffic lights. Its brakes were obviously dodgy because there was an almighty BANG! and yoiu could see from the faces of everyone around that for a brief second we thought ‘this is it’. A full minute or so later I looked at the man next to me and raised an eyebrow. He visibly relaxed and smiled back at me – then the moment was over and I returned to my middle-distance stare. When I did get on the bus the driver was chatty, the other passengers polite… yes this is changing London but not for the worse. I’m still ashamed of myself for being suspicious, and viewing every large bag as something to put somebody between it and me. But apart from that, I’m not sure what the bombs are achieving except a backlash on peaceful people and a stengthening of support for the government.
Me, I’m just waiting for Bush to declare he’s going to invade Leeds.
I’ve got some video footage of the evacuation and a couple of stills of somepolice action that I may post tomorrow if I figure out how.