A City of Prose

Andrew O’Hagan

It has become the odour of the age, flowers rotting in their cellophane wrappers. People began laying them on the steps of St Pancras Church the morning after the 7 July bombings, and within a day or two the steps had been transformed into a slope of glinting paper, the flowers strangely urban behind the police cordon. It was also a slope of words: handwritten messages, emails, shop-bought cards and pavement script. The church’s columns were chalked with words too, and the Word of God – a King James Bible, ‘User’s Guide on Back’ – appeared to float unabashed on a sea of London scrawls.

For a few days after the explosions, the atmosphere was bad on the buses. Passengers were looking into every face as they sat on a Number 30 from King’s Cross, and if the face happened to be brown, they looked to their bag or backpack. That is how fear and paranoia work: they create turbulence in your everyday passivity, and everyone was affected after the attempted bombings on 22 July in ways that won’t quickly go away. In the realm of paranoia, the second bombings were more powerful than the first, for they made it clear how very gettable we are, even in a culture of high alert. To anyone with imagination (or who knows anyone who’s ever had a second stroke) the most recent attack brings a dimension of constant threat. No one needed to die for this to take effect: 7 July showed us what death on the bus or the Tube looks like; the second attack showed that these images wouldn’t be allowed to remain just a bad memory. Sitting upstairs on the Number 30 a few days after 7 July, I found myself thinking: in this seat, would it be a leg I’d lose, or an arm? Would I die instantly? Or would I be one of those walking around afterwards in a daze? The London bombings are an ontological disaster for anyone who commutes in a big city: the blasts have taken the steadiness out of people’s expectations and replaced it with a more or less hysterical dependence on the size of their luck. That sort of thing is okay from a distance, but it can punish your spirit on the down escalator at nine o’clock in the morning.

When the Number 30 passed a statue of John F. Kennedy in Marylebone Road, a teenager looked up at his mother. ‘It all started with him,’ he said.

‘I know what you mean,’ his mother said. ‘He was the first to get this amount of coverage.’

In Regent’s Park rows of old ladies were sitting in the rose garden. In their white skirts and sandals, they had an air of seen-it-all about them, pointing to beds of flowers and thinking nothing of cellophane. And maybe they had seen it all: by the boating pond, fixed to the bandstand, was a plaque engraved with yet more London words. ‘To the memory of those bandsmen of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Green Jackets who died as a result of the terrorist attack here on 20 July 1982.’

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