Thursday, July 07, 2005

 

London, 1987 (A Random Anecdote)

(From a travel journal--one of the very few journals I've ever managed to keep--of my time in London. I dug it out this morning while waiting for news of friends who still live there.)

20 November, 1987

It's been a bad month. First there was the hurricane--a hurricane!--and then the bookstore I liked to go to was bombed (no idea who did it, but everyone says it was the IRA. Don't they always?). Now the King's Cross tube station fire was two days ago and very fresh on my mind.

I was riding back to my flat. Depending on which line I'm on and which direction I'm coming from, I usually get off at one of three places: Queensway, Bayswater or Edgware Road. Tonight we were heading into Edgware, when everything just stopped: lights went out, the train jolted to a halt. And there we were, stuck underground.

I'm not claustrophobic, but this is not the best time to be stuck on a train. A lot of my fellow riders seem to agree. I can hear the distance noises of people freaking out to various degrees. I feel cold sweat trickle down the insides of my arms. What if there was a fire right now? Or a bomb in the Tube, like there was in that bookstore?

I start bouncing my legs like I do when I'm either bored (as when sitting in my class on the realistic novel. Ugh.) or excited. I'm definitely not bored.

Then I feel a hand on my bouncing knee and I REALLY jump. Is someone making a pass at me. What? WHAT?!?

"Don't fret, dearie," says a quavering voice. She actually called me "dearie." Most women here having been calling me "luv."

Immediately, I relax and remember the older woman who took a seat next to me with her shopping bags from the Nisa store.

"Sorry," I say, my voice sounding all jangly. "Was I jostling you?"

I can't see her, but I can feel her patting my leg comfortingly. "Oh no. Not a bother. Are you American then?"

"Yes."

"First time in England?"

"Yep. First time anywhere."

"And how are you liking London?"

"Well, aside from the hurricane and the bombings and the tube fires--"

She tutted. "Oh, that was terrible, the fire. Those poor people. But you musn't let it worry you. We'll be moving along shortly. You'll see."

"I hope so."

We were quiet for a time. Then she spoke again.

"Everyone makes such a fuss about the bombings and I'm afraid it's become more or less a feature of life. But it was much worse when I was a girl."

"It was?"

"Oh yes. I grew up in the Blitz, you see. Just like in that film they're showing, which was quite good, I thought. A bit quieter than the event, of course. When they actually hit, the bombs were so loud you couldn't hear properly."

"Were you--how old were you?"

"Oh, 10 I should think. At that age you don't understand what's happening and it's all very frightening, but very grand too. Children were sent to the country--the city wasn't safe--and I remember being very disappointed to leave Mummy. Had to, of course. Our house was gone."

"The Germans bombed your house?"

"They bombed everyone's house. We were out when it happened. We hid here in the Tube sometimes, but it wasn't always safe. My auntie was killed in Marble Arch when it got bombed. Only a few houses on our street were standing, and they were so badly damaged you couldn't live in them. But we did all right."

"I don't think I could live with that."

"You adjust, just as we adjust to the bombings now. You deplore the violence, but you musn't despair."

As we were talking, the power came back on and to my great relief we moved on to the Edgware stop. I got up and thanked her, a thin, wiry lady with a great poof of white hair and a pointy, regal chin.

"It was nice talking to you. It took my mind off things," I said.

"Cheers," she said, smiling brightly. "Enjoy your stay."

I have a college professor who says bombings and terrorism are only going to get worse. He also thinks that sooner or later America will have its share of bombings, a scary thought. I don't think I could ever get used to that, not the way this nice old lady did. A nice old lady whose name I don't even know. But I'm grateful to her. I wish her well.


Edgware Road is one of the stations where people died today. The lady I met would be in her 70s now. I can only hope she wasn't among them.

You deplore the violence, but you musn't despair.

I wish those words were as comforting to me now as they were 18 years ago.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
MM:

I was just in London less than a month ago. I told the story to my traveling group of the time I was in the city in 2000, riding the tube. We were on the platform, the train pulled in, then stayed put. Pretty soon the station announcer demanded (politely, as the English do that everyone board the train. There was an "unidentified package" on the platform and we were moving out. Everyone complied save for one woman who was fiddling with a candy dispenser on the plaform. People called out to her repeatedly and she shushed them away.
Unfortunately, my brain is hard-wired in a way that recognized the potential for calamity quickly and won't stand for it. I stepped over to her and, in as polite a tone of voice as possible said:

"Ma'am, if you don't turn around and get on the train RIGHT NOW I will physically carry you aboard. You may report me to the police later."

She muttered something about us rude Americans but we were on our way.

It is not fun looking at threats in a calculating manner and playing out a game of chess that pits move against countermove. That explains why one of my career options remained the road not taken.

However, your friend, may she be having a spot of tea in her flat in quiet reflection, safe and sound, is right.

We musn't despair.
 
Wow. Eerily prophetic.

As Iago said in The Return of Jafar: "You'd be amazed what you can live through".
 
Pretty amazing, the people whose words stick with you (and pretty amazing that you could find the travel journal!). Hope all of your friends & family are okay. Actually, hope everyone's friends & family are okay.
 
Many would say the world is coming to an end...all the signs pojnt to it, but its just more of man killing man and I'm sure it will go on and on. I'm not making light of this. I am sickened by all the violence and cruelty in the world. Go read my comment on Sharfa's blog. God what a sick twisted world we live in.
 
Great post. Just found out my sister was in London today. She's fine. Even though I found out that out ex post facto, I knew she'd be fine. There is no way she was getting up before 10 when she's vacationing (and the shit went down during rush hour). Unfortunately, several hundred poor souls were not so lucky.
 
I pray your friends are okay. I finally spoke with my friends mother and she wasn't supposed to be near London today, although noone has spoken to her yet. Until I hear from her for sure I will still have a niggle of fear for her. I cannot imagine how those who knew they had loved ones riding those trains or the bus today must feel. My prayers and thoughts are with them all tonight, as well as for the world as we collectively hold our breathe, waiting, hoping.... trying not to fear.
 
Have anyone wondered why there are bombings at all?

Why is it the only course of action that they can take to make a statement heard?

I hate violance.

But I hate the reason, which forced them to think that to be the only way to talk, more.
 
I second that, izchan...
 
I was a student at the LSE in '86-'87 - I lived at Tavistock Square, where the bus was blown up. I got used to the IRA bomb threats against the Telecom Tower and the recommendations to avoid the Tube on football match nights, but nothing ever materialized that year. (I left in July '87.)

Now that I'm older (and tend to get injured more easily), I think about all the threats that happened when I was there and the "what ifs"... I think when you're 21 and a student, you don't really think about the "what ifs". You are immortal and indestructible.

I wonder how many of the people on the bus that morning, on the Tube that morning, felt that they were young and indestructible, too...
 
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