Friday, 15 July 2005

London, 14th July 2005

My son lives and works in Central London. I had this from him this morning:

I thought some of you with connections here might be interested in what it was like today in London. I'm not a HUGE fan of group letters or necessarily of mass public outpourings of anything. However, my email won't send to more than 25 people at a time so at least you know you're in the top 25 of People I Know Who Might Be Interested.

Orchestrated public displays of grief can so easily be empty but I was affected by today's in a way I wasn't expecting and in fact wasn't connected with grief and that's what I wanted to write down before the feeling was forgotten. When I was growing up I remember having it explained that one of the great intractables about terrorism was that it could not be ignored but the greater the response, the greater the fuel for the perpetrator. It was with the second half of that in mind that I viewed today's occasion with ill-ease - what greater response could there be than one in which EVERYONE participated and so what further fuel would that mean? It was what actually happened that made me feel differently.

Picture the scene. A small street in Soho in central London. Restaurants, cafés, bars, hairdressers, a post office, a FEDEX office, a pub, small apartments and LOTS of offices all squeezed together on top of each other. A place which hums all day every day and where the working hours are late for everyone and a lunch break is still not very fashionable. Also a place where racial and religious harmony doesn't even need to be discussed because everyone is in the minority. You can walk twenty paces and hear as many languages. And all morning it was just like that. Life entirely as normal. Delivery drivers and traffic wardens yelling at each other, road works, a different mobile phone ring tone for every hour of the day. At 11.45 it seemed that everyone doing anything in the street started to move outside. Then at five to midday it was as though some sound operator in the sky began slowly fading the levels until just on midday the quiet arrived and we could hear (only just) two miles away the bells of Westminster ring. A van stopped. Another van came swinging round, the driver realising and coasting to a halt just before the bells chimed the hour. And looking around there were suddenly what must have been a thousand people in this small insignificant street just standing. Just being.

There may have been some tears but I didn't see or hear any. There may have been some anger, but I didn't sense any. For me what it made it so powerful and is why I am writing it down before I forget is the absence of emotion. In this I found an answer to the question of how to respond without responding. We did nothing. 1,000 blank faces saying "Whatever you do to us means nothing". Nothing whatsoever. I can imagine those who threaten us hearing the rhetoric of political leaders and being stoked in their feelings. But I cannot imagine anyone seeing such a mass outpouring of dispassionate unimpressedness feeling the same effect.

Perhaps you will have seen today's footage of the Queen - the gold standard in British blankness. On this one day it so happens I think her famously vacant visage really did both lead and reflect the nation's position.

Someone knew when the two minutes had passed and there was a small round of applause and then we melted slowly away. And the day continued exactly as usual. I cannot think of a better message. You may hit us as hard as your powers allow and still the "best" you will ever get will be limited to two minutes of utter nothingness.

This in no way of course negates the anguish of those more directly caught up. And I am not going trot out some rhetoric about a greater sense of community or how we are changed forever. Today I felt overwhelmingly that as a city we are not changed one little bit. When the media tell you that London is changed forever, question that. Because I think today was actually all they'll ever get from us. We're not blasé. We just won't play by their rules. We need only two minutes to make that perfectly clear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To continue to 'be' as you've always been ... to carry on your life in all its ordinary minutiae the greatest non-response and message you could send.

I thought of you that day. I'm glad you and your family are not amongst those caught up in personal anguish.

Great White North Boy