Travelling through the Tube tunnels
In the last week of July, the 2012 Olympics begin in London. It was in that month seven years ago that four deadly bombs ripped through the heart of London’s transport system, an intensely utilised transport system which will be stretched to the max during the London Olympic fortnight.
Thirty years ago while living and working in London I remember the day I finally ran screaming, metaphorically, from the peak hour Underground parallel universe, straight to a motorbike retailer. I bought one and never looked back – or down, under the ground, for my commuting since.
So it was with a little trepidation that I decide to check out this inner city space again, in one of the largest and busiest cities in the world.
It is summer and I am heading to Norwich to visit a colleague at University of East Anglia. This entails travelling on the Tube to Liverpool Street train station for my connection. Staying in Highbury Fields whilst in London, my closest Tube stop is Islington and Highbury. Marching down through the foot tunnels to the platform with the not too many masses at this stage, I overhear a young English girl talking to her companion.
“We’re really unlucky sometimes you know, living in Highbury,” she whinges. Whines, really.
All I can think of are the gorgeous terrace houses and green spaces; Upper Street with its cafes and design shops and restaurants; and the proximity to the centre of London. Much of Highbury and Islington is affluent; some even salubrious.
I am intrigued by her notion of “unlucky” and keep eavesdropping.
“Yeah, sometimes I wish we lived at the end of the line – at least then we would get a seat on the Tube and not have to battle the eight million other people getting on here.”
Eight million other people? Surely, a little hyperbolic. But then we turn a corner onto the platform, and I get it. Seriously, it is humanity en masse.
Hundreds and hundreds of people – granted, not eight million, but I understand where she is coming from – all dressed for work, with papers and brief cases and books and coffees and earphones and umbrellas, waiting to board a Tube.
When it stops, a few get off, leaving scant room for any new travellers to embark. People persist and it takes off, packed like I can only imagine cattle carts are, on a long haul road transport in Australia. Actually, probably worse.
I am left standing on the platform, with hundreds of others who cannot get purchase.
The next train arrives, and filled with dread at missing my Norwich connection, I queue like the English, and finally squeeze into a carriage.
Seriously, this is people to people. Every seat is full, with not one skerrick of standing room left. There are men and women pushing from behind and from in front, and from either side. We are literally holding each other up. I joke to a friend that evening that if anyone had moved a little finger, it could have potentially constituted a sexual assault. This is truly up close and personal.
Thank goodness it is early morning, so we are all relatively fresh smelling. But eventually, even this plus develops an olfactory deficit – hundreds of differing scents and fragrances, deodorants, perfumes, oils, hair product – all mingling in a rapidly body-temperature-rising, humid interior –– jammed into a space made for half the capacity. I wonder if there are laws or rules about the numbers the Tube carriage is permitted to carry. Safety regulations? OHSS? Mental health ordinances?
Not pleasant, not civilised and no way for anyone to have to start their day.
And this is just one station amongst the hundreds of Underground stations across London, where I imagine the same thing happening, at the same time, for the same length of time.
With 11 different lines, the London Underground is the oldest underground train system in the world, first operating in 1863; and the second longest in the world, after Shanghai. It is more than 400 kilometres long and there are 270 stations.
That is, 270 places around the iconic London Underground map where the same numbers of people are trying to pile onto the system as at Highbury and Islington. My mind balks at the congestion and claustrophobia of it.
But I only have to travel one stop to my next connection at Kings Cross St Pancras, and am in a slight state of anxiety not to miss it. Usually a perennial people gazer when travelling – I love observing people and imagining their lives, as if mentored by Charles Baudelaire himself – all I can see are the facial pores of those pinned in and surrounding me. Too flâneur, perhaps, even for Baudelaire.
The next connection, from Kings Cross St Pancras is a little less packed possibly because it is heading east towards Liverpool Street station and beyond, away from the centre rather than into the centre of London, so I have time, or more like, personal space, to observe these people, travelling to work. And I see what looks like sadness in these Londoners’ eyes – or perhaps travel induced dullness. People are nodding off; some are glazed and staring into the too close distance, glumly. No one is chatting or laughing or enjoying the beginning of another day. The humdrum of life here is written all over Tube commuters’ faces – they look miserable. But something else was nagging at my memory on this tube, at this time of the morning and suddenly, I remember – the London Bombings, almost seven years ago to the day.
It was July 7 in 2005, and four suicide bombers detonated themselves on the public transport system throughout London – three packed, peak hour underground trains and one bus, on Tavistock Square. Fifty six people, including the four bombers, died in those attacks, with more than 700 maimed and injured.
I look at my watch. It is 8.45am.
The first three bombs exploded virtually simultaneously – one of them on the same train line I am travelling now, heading towards Liverpool Street Station, just before Aldgate – at 8.50am that morning. It is eerie, looking around the carriage, imagining that moment and the absolute trapped and innocent target those people presented, just by doing what they do every day – going to work, packed together in such close proximity. Little wonder people zone out on these things. I suddenly experience a slight tremor of fear in memory.
Optimum impact. Optimum destruction.
The day before the attack, the world had watched as Londoners celebrated winning the hotly contested international competition to host the 2012 Olympics. The city and country partied.
The next evening, the world watched the city on fire. I watched it unfold in horror throughout the night from my peaceful and calm home in Australia. Watched the stories as my second home, on the other side of the world, ripped apart. Rang friends and family, desperate to know they were far away at the point of impacts.
Thankfully, they were but clearly, the lives of other families and friends changed forever in four powerful and explosive moments across the city.
The bombers were aged 30, 24, 19 and 18, although I’m not quite sure why that is even important. It just seems important. With 6,000 hours of CCTV footage, police pieced together that the four bombers travelled together via Luton to Kings Cross Station in London, where they split up for their various transport targets. In a pre-filmed last will and testimony from one of the bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan explained that these acts were retribution for perceived injustices against Muslims by the West, around the world.
And martyrdom, as a sign of religious commitment.
Talking to a London friend the next day, I broach the subject with her, tentatively. She has two strapping, gorgeous 22 year old sons, on and off the public transport system every day. Does it dog her every waking moment, the risk? The potential for another perpetrated horror?
She is quiet for a minute, but her face reddens slightly – it is a hot, pink tinge, crawling up from her neck. I imagine it emanating from a momentary heart flutter of residual or chronic fear, stoked and stamped down deep within her. A possible universal response to such a question from any inner dwelling Londoner, who lived through that day and its aftermath.
“I don’t think about it. I refuse to think about it. This is our home. This is their home.
“You simply cannot think about it – what is the point?” she asks me.
I do not know. But I do know, at the moment I was on the Tube that morning, I also realised the futility of worrying about it – there is absolutely nowhere to go, if you are in one of these things, going about your daily business, and some dark force decides to make a human political point.
It took four days after the bombings for the London transport system to resume. Prime Minister Tony Blair commented at the time at the ‘steely determination’ of Londoners as they, once again boarded their trains and buses to move around their city.
My meeting at the University of East Anglia is a successful one and I travel back into the heart of London again. I reverse my trip back to Highbury Fields but this time, I watch these commuting Londoners in wonder, really
There is stoicism here. The zoning out on the train quite suddenly seems to me not a collective depression or sadness at having to go to and from work, packed together like cattle. It now seems almost a subliminal and secular religious force, woven into the fabric of their daily lives – perhaps a collective union of mental strength, warding evil off, daring it to encroach again. If they stubbornly and as one, keep claiming their space in their city, life will go on.
As my friend had said, this is their home. This is their city.Tagged in: bomb, July 7 2005, Liverpool Street, London 2012, olympics, suicide bombers, terrorism, Trains, tube, underground
Recent Posts on Notebook
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter