Head up, eyes open

NS July 2nd, 2007

I’m getting pretty damn tired of people freaking out about the car bombs that were found in London over the weekend. Yes, there were bombs. Yes, it was lucky they didn’t kill or injure anyone. No, I am not going to move back to America now and run crying to my mommy. I am an adult. I realise that nowhere, NOWHERE, is ever 100% safe. My risk of dying in a terrorist attack might decrease if I were to move out of London but then my chance of dying in a car collision would multiply exponentially as I would have to drive everywhere. Risks are always a trade-off and they never go away. But for some reason, some people get it into their heads that terrorism is something they can avoid by moving to Iowa. I know it’s a bit callous and perhaps heartless of me to say, but I think these people are fucking weenies. Wimps of the highest order, and with their priorities completely screwed up. Head, meet sand. Now bury yourself 10 feet deep in that hole and don’t come up until the world is full of sunshine and puppies again. For fuck’s sake.
It makes me want to scream, it’s just so ridiculous. As if they world has ever been just or kind or perfect. When people say, like a broken record, over and over again: “The world is such a sad place these days” or “It’s all going down the tubes,” or one of the other 9,000 variations of this, it makes me want to pull my hair out. What the fuck world did they grow up in? Which history books were they reading? Because I never got the memo that the world used to be perfect and now, suddenly, has changed. It’s infuriating, and hopelessly self-centered of someone to think that the world they grew up in couldn’t possibly have been tainted and that the way the world has ‘turned out’ is completely out of their control. As if every vote they cast for corrupt politicians, every fuss they kicked up at having higher taxes that would’ve paid for social programs they now bemoan a lack of, every time they just stood around and said ‘it’s not my business’ is somehow forgiven and they are just innocent bystanders in a society that they play no part in. Give me a fucking break. They just want to stand around like sheep and be told what to do, but then bleat and cry about it and talk about how hopeless it all is and expect someone els else to solve their problems. It’s the TSA syndrome — the Thousands Standing Around (thanks, Gary, for that apt description).

It especially roasts my goat when people who don’t even live anywhere near London flip their lids and become blubbering messes. And then when you tell people to suck it up and get over it, no one was hurt and there’s no use getting upset at something that didn’t happen, you’re accused of being a big ol’ meanie. Well, guess what people? I guess I’m a big ol’ fucking grumpy-ass meanie because I think it’s absolutely ridiculous the amount of hysteria that these ‘incidents’ create. And if you don’t even live here and get to piss and moan from the safety of your semi-detached home in Sheffield or your suburban McMansion in Illinois, don’t tell ME that I must be afraid.

I was in central London the day the July 7 bombings happened. I pulled up to the train station and was told the Underground was shut. There were rumours of a fire. I called my boss to tell him I’d be late and asked him which bus would take me from Westminster Bridge to Oxford Street. I began walking to the bus stop when my phone rang and my boss was saying not to get a bus as there’d been reports of an explosion on one. He told me to stay away from tourist attractions and government buildings. He tells me this as I stood on Westminster Bridge. If I were one to freak out, I probably would’ve thrown myself from the bridge into the Thames right then and there. Amidst all the chaos and confusion, as I fought to stand still in a stream of people pushing forward, scurrying in all directions and at a loss as to what to do or where they should go, I made a decision. I would go on. So I began walking.

I walked through Westminster and up towards Trafalgar Square. Police sirens filled the air like wails at a young child’s wake. The roads were eerily empty as only emergency vehicles sped through. Stores were full of people crowded around tvs and radios. Tourists stood stricken on street corners, their maps fluttering in the warm breeze. And still, the suited masses walked on. Up past Trafalgar Square, down Haymarket. Through Piccadilly Circus. Cut over to Regent Street. Thousands of us, all walking the dutiful route. No signal on my phone, I was cut off from anyone I knew. These strangers, the ones I walked with, were my only lifeline, the only thing keeping me from feeling small and alone.

I’d chosen poorly in footwear that day, not realising that I would be walking miles to work. Blisters formed and I hobbled along, my pace slowing. I stopped for a coffee to refuel and try to hear the latest news. Standing in line at Cafe Nero, the woman behind me suddenly shrieked and then collapsed onto the floor, clutching her mobile to her chest. I immediately turned and crouched down beside her, thinking she had suffered a heart attack. I looked into her eyes and saw the kind of terror that is reserved for a loss of the highest magnitude. Real loss. Though I hadn’t seen it on anyone else, I knew that look. I’d made it before.

Sobs shook her body and she managed to choke out a strangled, fragmented sentence: “My husband. On the Tube. In hospital. Not good.” I touched her arm and looked into her eyes again, but she didn’t see me. I was a ghost to her, an apparition. Her heart was still beating but it had been blown apart, like London itself. I watched the manager flag down a policeman and the woman was bundled into a car. The fragments of her heart still lay around my feet. I wanted to scoop them up and make it whole again for her. But all I could do was keep walking. Stopping would mean being witness to more heartbreak, more carnage. I took my shoes off and stuffed them in my bag. Barefoot, I set off again, into the fray once more.

I made it up to Oxford Street and began walking down to Bond Street station, near where I worked. The streets were silent. Only a few dozen people wandered around. I saw faces pressed up against glass in high rise office buildings, like paper dolls in a house of cards. They looked so fragile and trapped. I was glad to be on the streets, amongst everything. I felt safer in the open, for some reason. The thought of being holed up in a building, not knowing what was happening to my city outside, wasn’t appealing. I came upon a fruit stand where a crowd of people were listening to the radio. Eyewitnesses to the Tavistock Square bus bombing talked of seeing limbs fly into the air and blood splatter bystanders. One woman said she saw a man with no arms wandering around in shock. Hands flew to mouths and brows were knitted. But when the crowd dispersed, we all kept walking. The only people contemplating ‘going home’ were American tourists. As if that were even an option.

I arrived at my office, feet filthy and bleeding, my face ashen. Two hours had passed since I arrived at Waterloo and began my walk. I collapsed into my chair, let my bag fall to my side, and then I cried. I cried for that woman in the coffee shop and wondered if her husband had made it through alive. I cried for the man with no arms. I cried for the people who were stuck underground and who had to walk along dark tunnels to freedom, wondering if they were next. And then I cried because I finally knew that I was a Londoner, that this was my city and that I belonged.

On the way home, on foot once again, I walked with a colleague back along the same route. In a new pair of shoes I’d hastily bought, we trod the same path and felt the same camaraderie as if we were marching to a bomb shelter in the East End together. The sheer mass of the crowds was amazing. Thousands upon thousands of people, mostly silent, walking en masse through Whitehall, and then over the Jubilee bridge. Everyone was desperate to get home, but at the same time, didn’t want to go home at all. When I arrived home, I spent ages making phone calls, assuring family and friends that I was okay. Physically I was, but inside I felt haunted. A strange mixture of pride, sadness, fear, tenacity and love boiled inside me, ready to spill over. I needed to talk to someone. I arranged to meet a few friends in the pub as none of us wanted to be alone. We needed to be together, to reassure one another that everything was okay, that life goes on, and that we were strong enough to withstand this. It’s the British way, and what has made them renowned around the world. Over pints of beer in neighbourhood pubs, with quiet words and silent hugs, we began healing. No drama, no wailing, no running home to mama, just the British way of dealing with tragedy. And I was finally one of them.

So to those who think I’m irresponsible, silly or foolhardy for believing in the ‘Spirit of the Blitz’, for believing in our ability to go on and to keep finding beauty in the world, I say this: keep your head in the sand all you want — I’m holding mine high. There’s not much love to witness or revelations to see if you keep your eyes closed.

7 Responses to “Head up, eyes open”

  1. Stacey says:

    >I think these people are fucking weenies.

    WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORD!

  2. Abigail says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Amity. You really have a gift with words.

  3. jen says:

    keep on keepin’ on sista…

  4. NS says:

    Stacey, I’m glad someone agrees with me about the weenies.

    Abigail, thank you.

    Jen, I’ll keep on keepin’ on if you will. ;)

  5. Babychaos says:

    Just wanted to comment. As I read the beginning of this, what I wanted to say was something along the lines of “I see you have become a Londoner, well done!” but that sounds condescending and not at all in the spirit in which I wanted to say it!

    I used to live in London and was there through the IRA bombing campaign in the early 90s. See? Nothing changes, politicians will always philander and there will always be some bunch of barking loonies somewhere ready to plant bombs and slaughter people – it’s just their reasons to kill which alter occasionally. Well, I suppose it’s nice to have some variety… but I digress.

    As a Brit – an ex-London dwelling Brit, to boot, I remember that attitude you so eloquently describe (you turn a mean phrase by the way). I remember feeling the way you did – going to work was the biggest neon coloured F-off V sign I could send to the bombers. And I remember doing exactly the same thing with the beer afterwards – a couple of my flatmates were there when a bomb went off so we kind of needed it.

    You have just summed up why I think the British fucking rock and I am kind of flattered, kind of touched and just wanted to thank you for what you said – on the back of that, no matter where you came from, I think you probably ARE one of us!

    Top stuff!

    Cheers

    BC

  6. NS says:

    Babychaos ~ thank you so much for your comments. I especially like your phrase ‘big neon coloured F-off V sign’. That’s exactly how I feel. Screw you bombers, I’m NOT going home! (Eric Cartman stylee)

    I find your attitude refreshing, not least of all because you agree with me. ;) I’ll remember your words when I am applying for British citizenship next year.

    Take care,
    NS

  7. [...] Before I’ve even thought about it, like a reflex, I wince as if I’ve been wounded. The memories are still fresh and the war is still raging. And all I want is for the bombs to stop and a calm to [...]