Thursday 7 July 2005: Woke at 7am in time to catch a train at 7:45ish on the Piccadilly line to the city. I say 7:45ish because trains on the Tube at that time of day arrive every couple of minutes. There are sometimes delays, and Londoners roll their eyes and sigh, but while living here for the last four months I’ve never waited longer than 10 minutes for a train. Even severe delays might mean only a five-minute pause between services. Yet Londoners hate the Tube -“ it’s hot in summer, rattles like a spanner in a clothes dryer and sometimes stops in the middle of tunnels for a few minutes for no good reason.
After a good 15 minutes of rattle-‘n’-roll the driver announces we will not be stopping at Caledonian Road station because of, well, an incident, but he stumbles over even this well-worn euphemism. Incident almost always means a suicide of course, and occasionally announcers here say just that: We’re delayed because someone jumped in front of a train. Perhaps it’s out of boredom, or lack of training or even spite, but it’s always either brutal honesty or a flippant incident. Yet this driver didn’t know what to say and, oddly, makes the announcement as we pull into the station, so there is no warning. Commuters grumble. We eventually pull in to Kings Cross St Pancras and I drag myself off to change trains.
It’s now about 8:20. Half an hour later, a train on the same tracks will pull out of Kings Cross St Pancras and explode. I’m in the shower at that point -“ I’ve left for work early because the bathroom is being renovated where I live and for three weeks I must bathe at the gym near my work.
Of course once at work there’s news of a power surge, with stations being evacuated and some possible injuries. Yet it doesn’t add up. The power company that runs the Tube says there’s no such surge, and there are rumours (later found to be false) that a suicide bomber was shot dead at Canary Wharf.
The rest of the day unfolds much like it probably did in Australia. We watched, we learned more, we talked about it.
At lunchtime I walked down Baker Street, morbid. Noted the closure for the day of KFC and Pizza Hut, but not McDonalds, which was packed. Bought a tuna roll from Pret A Manger (a less controversial chain) and watched emergency vehicles parade up and down, and hopelessly optimistic travellers perched at every bus stop.
Back at the office, the practicalities of the day’s events sank in. The entire underground network -“ all Tubes -“ were closed. There were no buses operating in Zone 1. I live in Zone 3 and the walk from London central to my front door has until now been entirely theoretical. How in Sam Hill am I going to get home?
My friend Mark McInnes is the first option, as he lives near Edgware Road, very inner-city. He thinks it’s a great idea for me to visit -“ except the police have cordoned off his entire block, so he can’t stay there either. The London Business School offers emergency accommodation, but we have to decide by 2:30pm.
I decide to chance it on public transport, and it pays off. By 5pm the buses are running again and everyone’s relieved. Relieved, despite the fact a double-decker had its upper deck blown off just nine hours earlier. Roads are gridlocked everywhere too, so there’s no guarantee a bus -“ whether it explodes or not -“ will get anyone home quicker than walking.
So I take my time walking to the bus stop at Trafalgar Square to catch the number 29. There are people everywhere, many on their mobile phones, texting like automatons. Police and emergency personnel seem to be on every corner and occasionally I pass streets that are blocked off and patrolled, with no discernible pattern.
Trafalgar Square is desperate, and an Italian driver of a 24 Routemaster (no-one calls them double-decker buses here, by-the-by), tells the mob if they want a 29 they should catch this one until Camden Town. This makes no sense at all, but I hop on anyway. The driver has erected his own sign and stuck it on the inside of his glass cage: We will not be afraid. We will not bow down. We will live like decent human beings.
An hour and a half later I’m home, and the day has been very curious. On the one hand, it’s almost like after September 11, we’re all extras on the set of a movie we’ve seen too many times. Yet I find myself feeling predictable things, with a tangible ache. How dare they? And how deluded are they anyway? As if the people on that bus or those trains represented everything they hated! As if this proves anything at all!
Oh, it’s all too pathetic.
PS. I vowed Thursday night to go out on Friday and have fun fun fun fun fun, which is precisely what I did. London may have danced with gritted teeth that night, but it still danced, and by then the much-maligned Tube was open for at least part of my journey home. I casually but methodically noted everyone on the platform, as everyone had just done with me. Then I hopped back on the train: for a hot, shaky, boring and thoroughly terrific ride.