I HAD already been to London a couple of times that week, which included a visit to the Portuguese Embassy for an interesting presentation on investing in property in Portugal, and I was due to go back to London for another round of meetings on Friday morning.
So on Thursday morning I called the first of the people I was due to meet. “Is everything OK for tomorrow?” I asked. There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then, “You haven’t heard about the bombs, have you?” No, I hadn’t heard about the bombs – but the TV was already on the case, trying to make sense of the reports that were coming in. Electrical surges or bombs? One bus or three?
On that fateful Thursday, I had to go to Egham, close to Heathrow airport, from my base near Gatwick airport – a journey that involved the M25. Every motorway sign showed the same message: “Avoid London. Area Closed. Turn on Radio”. As the reports made it clear that these had, indeed, been deliberate bombings rather than power surges, the messages over the M25 seemed to get more desperate. Turn on Radio, they urged, Avoid London. I have never seen messages like that, and it made me feel very strange. I received several calls and SMS messages – “R U OK?” asked one, simply.
I thought back to the times in the ’70s and ’80s when I worked in central London. At that time it was the IRA who took delight in planting bombs all over the capital. Although not nearly as bad as Ireland itself, everyone who lived and worked in London became used to looking out for shopping bags that had been left unattended, we understood why litter bins were sealed, and we did study fellow passengers on the underground. From my office close to Oxford Circus, there would often be controlled explosions or – sadly – bigger ones when the bombs were not found in time. Sirens would wail and traffic would be diverted – but life went on. And this is what I sensed this time round. It is a new generation having to get used to the idea of vulnerability, and yet that same spirit is very apparent.
I decided not to go to London on the Friday morning as planned, not out of fear but because the journey was not really essential and I would have been just one more person adding to the general chaos. One of the meetings was rescheduled away from London – life goes on – and the other was cancelled because the lady’s family was concerned about her going into the centre of town. Wherever I have been, close to London or in the relative calm of the Sussex countryside, there has been two minutes of “isn’t it awful?” and then – life has gone on. I have seen more hysteria and screaming on early-morning television programmes about relationships gone wrong than I have from people involved in the worst disaster to hit London in decades.
It is not unusual for me these days to emphasise the fact that I am only 50 per cent English – the other 50 per cent being Austrian. Why? because of the dreadful behaviour of the “Brits abroad”. Here on their home turf and under pressure, however, they have been showing the best of British. For once, I am proud to be half British, and to echo the sentiments that bombing a capital will not stop a way of life. People of all ages are displaying what the press is calling “the Blitz spirit” and getting on with their lives, like water flowing around a big rock rather than building up behind it.
The timing is ironic, isn’t it? One of the national papers showed photographs of Trafalgar Square, taken 24 hours apart. In one, on July 6, the square is full of people celebrating the fact that the Olympic Games have been awarded to London. In the other, on July 7, one solitary figure is seen walking across an otherwise empty space. The weekend after “That Thursday” was the culmination of events to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II: how bizarre that the celebration of the end of one bloody war should coincide with London being dragged into a long, bloody war of a very different kind.
As the weeks unfold, there will inevitably be a steady stream of human interest stories: those who escaped because the bus was full, or because they overslept that morning. Those who risked their own lives and saved others; the members of the emergency services who had to work in the most difficult of circumstances to rescue survivors and bodies from the wreckage, deep in the tunnels below the city.
At the end of my meeting in Egham on that Thursday, I wanted to telephone the friend I am staying with to confirm that all was going to schedule, and I was heading home. My mobile phone would not work, and I could not find a public phone. I stopped at a petrol station, and asked if they had a phone I could use. I explained my mobile would not work. The cashier dialled the number for me and handed me the phone. “No worries”, he said when I offered to pay for the call, “drive safe”.
We are capable of supporting each other, of putting aside the normal rules that seem to dictate the negatives we usually live by. If anything good can come out of this disaster, perhaps it could be that we all understand that, actually, being nice or helping someone you don’t know is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength and generosity and having an open heart. What a shame that it takes bombs and carnage to remind us of that.