Yesterday, just after writing a rather whimsical blog about the smallest of the small things, I turned on the internet and saw that something was happening. I went at once to the BBC (in times of uncertainty, I go always to the BBC) and there, on the rolling news, a ghastly parade of shocking and confusing events was unfolding. There was a policeman down, a car rammed into railings, fallen humans scattered, grotesquely, over Westminster Bridge, parliament on lockdown, a bloody knife on the ground. There were police vans and ambulances everywhere. There was a lot of shouting.
Gradually, as the eyewitness reports started to come in, as hollow voices told their stories down fuzzy mobile telephone lines, the news people began to make sense of it, to impose some kind of coherent narrative. Terrorism had come to London.
Earlier in the week, I had been thinking of the IRA. I grew up in the seventies, and bombings and murders and atrocities haunted the nightly news. My father lived in Ireland when he was a boy and was steeped in the history of that island. I remember him turning away from the awful bulletins and swearing, in profound despair. Car bombs, nail bombs, viciously enormous bombs that could level a building, those were the stuff of my youth. I remember the dead horses in Hyde Park and dear old Sefton becoming a national hero. I remember a friend of the family losing his sister-in-law in the Harrods bomb. I remember the bandstand in Regent’s Park. I remember, when I was a teenager, my mother begging me not to go into the West End. I went anyway – ‘Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll be fine’ - because I thought that if I stayed away from the big shops which were being targeted at that time, then the bombers would have got their victory. (I was sixteen and convinced of my own immortality.)
Everyone said that Ireland would never heal. The British had left too many scars, over too many years, and the sectarian hatreds were too deep. I thought that the shooting and bombing and hating would go on forever. And then, amazingly, it stopped. The old haters got together and put their differences aside and signed a peace agreement and nails bombs in the centre of London now seem like ancient history.
The new terrorists have different hatreds and different reasons. They can seem a lot less determined than the IRA. After 2005, when they struck hard, at the heart of the nation – the buses, the underground, the ordinary transport that millions use every day – they did not press home their advantage. If I were a nihilist commander who hated the infidel West, I would have sent my troops in whilst London was reeling. But despite fairly constant reminders from the authorities that Britain was still on high alert, that the risk factors were flashing amber, the terrible infidels were left to go about their business, buying their fancy coffee and wearing their short skirts and indulging in their godless capitalism and drinking their unholy drink. It’s not like the old days, I was thinking this week, when terrorism really did seem like an almost daily fact of life.
So there were layers on layers of shock. Brussels and Paris and Nice should have been warning signs, but I was lulled into a false sense of complacency. Even when I once went to visit a friend in parliament and had to get my special pass and go through the airport-style security, I did not have any shiver of premonition or danger, but made happy jokes with the coppers and showed them my new boots, bought specially for the occasion. I’ve met a few close protection officers over the years, in various contexts, and they do have that steely look in their eyes, that thousand yard stare that convinces me they could kill an attacker using only their thumb, but they were all distinguished by their sharp humour and precise talent for irony. They carried no sense of being besieged by a power they could never defeat.
I felt a sense of unreality as I watched the news, the gaudy, gory pictures, the familiar made entirely unfamiliar. Even though this has happened in London, on and off, for my whole life, it felt entirely odd, not real at all. It was a tragedy and a horror and an affront.
I went onto Twitter to find out more; by this stage I had a curious desperation for information, as if facts could make sense of the nonsensical. There were the usual shockmongers, the stern judges leaping to conclusions, the ones who were taking advantage to push their own agenda. Donald Trump distinguished himself by saying vaguely there was some ‘big news’ coming out of London, while his son displayed a curious lack of humanity by attacking the mayor. And then I noticed something almost stranger than the strange events happening in Westminster. The people were dividing into two camps.
There were the negative people, who were posting hideous pictures and getting angry and shouting for vengeance, and there were the positive people, who were focusing entirely on the acts of bravery and heroism, on the humans who had run towards the danger instead of away from it, on the silver linings to this dark cloud.
Someone said that doctors and nurses had, en masse, poured out of St Thomas’s Hospital to tend to the wounded on Westminster Bridge, even though nobody knew yet whether the attacks were over. There were confused fears of a possible car bomb and information was sketchy. But those dauntless platoons of the NHS had no thought for their own safety and went to help.
The story of Tobias Ellwood went viral. Ellwood is an MP who had served in the army and, it turned out, knew the vicious face of terrorism very well indeed. His brother had been killed in the Bali bomb, and he had flown out to retrieve the body in the heartbreaking aftermath. Now, he was near the police officer who had been stabbed. As everyone was directed to take shelter inside, he ran in the opposite direction, towards the stricken man. He gave mouth to mouth and attempted to staunch the bleeding from too many wounds. He did not hesitate.
Back on the bridge, passers-by were comforting injured strangers, doing what they could. The emergency services arrived and, from all reports, did their job with an extraordinary efficiency and coolness. Nobody, at this stage, knew whether the area was safe, whether there was another blow about to fall. But the paramedics and the police and the doctors and nurses and the ambulance drivers all went into the breach.
I started retweeting only the messages and thoughts and reports from the positive people. Perhaps it was a faint denial of reality, but I wanted to focus not on the death and destruction but on the staunchness and courage. I have a dogged belief that the good always trumps the bad, in the end; that love always conquers hate. I’m not sure whether this is true, but it is my creed and I have to stick to it. There was one man who had wrought havoc, and broken hearts, and ended lives through some twisted belief system. There were hundreds of ordinary people who were doing extraordinary things for their fellow humans, not from any ideology or because of something they read in a book, but because of their plain, authentic humanity. That, I thought, is what counts. That is why, in the end, terrorists don’t win.
And this morning, as the news started to settle and the dust cleared and the facts became clear, the shock and horror and outrage turned into something quite else. The people of London went about their usual business as the people of London do. There was a proper moment of grief and remembrance for the dead, a minute’s silence for Keith Palmer, the policeman who had fallen in the line. A sombre crowd of police officers stood in tribute, and, in a packed House of Commons, all the MPs bowed their heads. The silence took place at 9.33am. I was not quite sure why this was. Then I heard that 933 was PC Palmer’s number.
There was a curious lack of bombast. I did not hear the usual swagger about how the devotees of terror would rue the day, or anything about retribution. Nobody was going to be bombed back into the stone age. The mood was much more concentrated on the bereaved families, the lost lives, the people who put aside any thought for themselves and went to help. There seemed to be a quiet pride that the Britons in the heart of the storm had conducted themselves with constancy and dignity and courage.
In tube stations all over London there are official white message boards. They generally carry mundane information, scrawled in felt tip, about broken escalators or delays on the line. This morning, they carried messages of hope. At Tower Hill, someone had written: ‘The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all.’ Underneath, in smaller letters, the unknown writer had added: #Londonisopen #Westminster #Wearenotafraid.
At Clapham North, someone had reproduced the lovely quote from Fred Rogers, which I first saw yesterday. ‘When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”’
Someone on social media had cleverly mocked up one of these underground service boards. It said: ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON. Whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.’
There was general indignation when it was discovered that some American pundits were saying that London in particular and Britons in general were cowed and beaten and in disarray. One MP tweeted that he was on a train to Westminster and that everybody was getting on with it, not a cowed or beaten Briton amongst them. Somebody else reported that on another train, packed with very young people, all the teenagers observed the minute’s silence at 9.33am. Katie Hopkins caused a storm by going on Fox News and, channelling her inner Lord Haw Haw, saying that the British were afraid and disunited. Easily the best response to this came on Twitter, where someone wrote: ‘Dear Fox News. No no no no no. We’re fine. Please ignore her.’
There was a sense that a correct balance was being sought for. There should be a proper acknowledgement of what had happened, a respect for the wounded and the dead, a compassion for the bereaved, an understanding for all those caught up in the maelstrom. Emotions should be expressed and felt. There should not be any denial. Security should be looked at and all procedures assessed. The security services always say they have to be lucky all the time, while the terrorists only have to get lucky once. One man did get through. That happened, and for a moment it felt like an attack on democracy itself.
But then, as many people started to write, there should be common sense, perspective, reason. I heard of a man who pointed out that twice as many children have probably died in Syria in the last ten minutes than were killed on that fatal bridge. He did not say this in any callous way, but with the desire to come back to the simple realities of the world. Shock insulates you from reality, and that is when the intemperate things are said and the sense of proportion is lost. When the Londoners went back to their usual routines this morning it was not because they were heartless and uncaring; they know, better than anyone, what had happened and what it meant. They went back to their business because they knew that was their only choice and maybe because they understood that living is the best way to honour the dead. If everything is not to fall apart, the centre must hold. Britons are creatures of the centre, in so many senses of the word. Their weapons are a certain pragmatism, an ability to laugh at themselves, a love of the ironic, and a profound respect for common sense. The British tend to be suspicious of extremes of any kind, averse to hysteria and hyperbole, most comfortable with understatement. Becoming unglued in the face of tragedy, as those American commentators suggested, would not be in the national spirit at all.
Love is love. Love for the departed, love for those who went beyond the call of duty, love for a grand old city which has taken so many blows over the years, love for those who rushed to help, love even, perhaps, for the institutions which many of us British like to mock but which mean something all the same – those loves are more powerful than any twisted theocratic absurdity, however reckless and murderous it might be.
Philip Larkin, that most British of poets, was right. ‘Rigidly, they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time...to prove our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’