Wednesday, 6 July 2011

In memory of that day in July

Being over 60 may have saved my life; I got a pass that let me travel free on the underground after nine o’clock so I wasn’t on the tube at 8.50.
I used to collect a small coffee from the cafe Nero on Jamestown road, just a small one so I could drink it by the time I got to the bin outside the Electric Ballroom. A medium cup stays too hot too long. At the turnstile, with a bag in one hand and a coffee in the other you need a third hand to swipe the Oyster card and you don’t get an extra hand for being sixty.
I dropped the cup in the bin and found the gates of the station closed so I headed to the other entrance in Kentish Town road. I turned the corner and walked into chaos. All the way down Camden road in front of the bus stops, there were hundreds and hundreds of people, as though it was Saturday market but on Thursday and in the wrong road.
A man in a London transport hat said the station was closed.
‘There’s been a power surge, in fact there’s been two - they’ve had to close the whole tube.’
‘You mean there’s been a bomb’ I said.
‘No a power surge - two power surges.’ 
I remember thinking ‘Good luck guys, this is what we all practiced for.’ Exercise Winter Morning we called it, with the police and ambulance and all the hospitals, but this was summer and that was in Birmingham, where we’d had bombs before.
I walked, heading away from the crowds up the hill towards Regent’s Park. Just level with Arlington road a taxi stopped to let someone out and I dashed up and jumped in. As we drove down the park, serene and beautiful in the summer sunshine, I said to the driver.
‘Have there been bombs on the tube?’
‘Looks like it, five or six and a bus in Tavistock square.’ We listened to the radio and I told him to stop at our office, gave him £20 and said please wait.
Phoning was hopeless. I was supposed to be at the Elephant and Castle, the other side of the river. Should I go back to the flat or try to carry on. I’m supposed to be chairing an important meeting so it seemed to be important to carry on. I picked up the Taxi again and we set off. 
Once out of the park there were police sirens everywhere. The driver turned this way and that to try to beat the traffic. Almost right underneath us, people are dead in two wrecked circle line trains between Edgware road and Paddington. I’ve been there a hundred times.
As we tried to find a way to cross the river, I watched London begin to cope. You could feel the spirit. With no underground, hardly any buses and every taxi full, there was nothing to do but walk or help other people. I tried to phone home but the network was jammed.
It’s one of those days, I thought; one of those days when everyone knows where they were. When Buddy Holly died, I was at school. When John Kennedy was shot, I was hitch hiking home and there was nothing but sombre music on the radio.
When Elvis died, I was walking along Euston road. ‘The king is dead’ the news stands said, but we have a queen, I thought. We passed that spot twenty-five minutes ago. What will the news stands say today?
I remember when the real king died, I was at primary school and the gardener told us at break time. I went home to lunch and my mum couldn’t work out what had gone wrong with the radio, sombre music then too. I wonder what the music will be today.
Only three people made it to the meeting, we sat around for an hour and no more came. At least we tried. 
I walked from the Elephant to Whitehall detouring around police roadblocks. My feet were sore by Westminster Bridge. The river looks the same as always. It would take more than a few bombs to change that. Hitler couldn’t. 
I’m supposed to meet the minister for work and pensions, Margaret Hodge. There is a buffet set for twenty but just five of us have made it and the minister has her own salad. We’re all doctors so it won’t look good if we eat too much. We pick at the food while the minister diets. In the background, the TV stays on and we all glance at it now and then somehow expecting it to explode. We try to listen as we are told about the latest government initiative on invalidity benefit. Trying to make sense of what is planned for the future on a day while we all wonder if anything will ever be the same again.
This time yesterday we heard that London has the 2012 Olympics. This should have been a day of celebration and optimism; for a few hours we were the capital of the world - but what sort of world is it now?
I walk up Whitehall, past the huge TV screen in Trafalgar Square, set up to show the Olympic Vote. Up Charing Cross road and Tottenham Court road towards the office, and in an hour I’m back in Regent’s park. I send the staff home, those that have made it to work. I thank them all for coming, and tell them not to come tomorrow. It doesn’t feel defeatist, just practical. There’s nothing so urgent that it can’t wait until Monday. I finally get through to home and make sure that everyone knows I’m OK. It turns out that some of my text messages got through.
I set off to walk to Paddington, by now it’s almost evening and everywhere there are people walking. I hear snatches of words as I pass.
‘Silly buggers.’
‘Won’t get me down.’
‘Won’t get us down.’
‘Won’t stop us.’ 
There are days when the world changes, but it doesn’t change much. I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. I used to get up early in those days, before I had a bus pass. I turned on the news and there were people dancing on the wall. I slammed in videotape. I have a tape of the day Mandela was released as well. 
The world does change but it also goes on for those of us lucky enough to still be here.

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