On the tenth anniversary of 7/7, I look back at the day jubilation turned to horror.
Ten years ago, life in London as I knew it changed and would never be the same again. On 7th July 2005, fifty-two innocent commuters were killed on their way to work, blown up by a series of bombs – three on the tube network, one on a London bus – that were detonated at the peak of rush hour.
The day began with drizzly rain and I remember pointing out the sky to my boyfriend, Nick, as we walked towards the overland station at Queenstown Road in Battersea. I had never seen a sky like it, there seemed to be no light poking through, no movement. I can’t describe it as dark because a dark sky has shades, a certain sheen or lustre to it, nor was it like the fluffy, pregnant skies that precede a thunderstorm. No, the sky that bore down on London that morning was a stagnant mass, how you imagine the earth would look after the death of the sun.
As we got off the train at Waterloo ten minutes later, everything seemed normal. Back then Waterloo was home to the Eurostar so the station was a strange mixture of flustered commuters and happy holiday-makers. It was eight-thirty when I kissed Nick goodbye and watched him walk towards the tube which would take him to his office in Piccadilly.
An hour later I was sitting at my desk watching the large television screen that filled the opposite wall of the sparse reception area. BBC News was reporting a power surge on the tube network that was causing massive delays. A large graphic of the tube map was spread across the screen with red and blue dots highlighting where these ‘power surges’ had taken place. I saw the blue Piccadilly line, the yellow Circle line but no brown Bakerloo – the one Nick would have taken to get to Piccadilly Circus. I picked up my mobile and dialled his number but it went straight to answerphone. He must still be on the tube, I thought, as I pressed ‘end call’ and looked up at the screen. But now there was no talk of power surges and delays just a stark red Breaking NEWS caption flashing on and off the screen and a sombre newsreader telling of, what appeared to be, a terrorist attack on the tube network.
Within minutes, the reception area was filled with people: the traders from the corporate bank, the journalists from the sports magazine who rented office space on the same floor, all standing looking at the screen in disbelief. I tried to see over their heads, turning the volume up high to hear any mention of the Bakerloo line. Then I heard someone say that with all the delays earlier in the morning commuters might have had to get on different trains and change.
I dialled Nick’s number over and over but still it went to answer phone. It felt like an eternity though it was not yet ten-fifteen. Then something shifted; the tone of the newsreader went from controlled to harried as she crossed to a grey-faced reporter in Tavistock Square. ‘Jesus Christ,’ exclaimed one of the traders and I stood up and looked at the picture on the screen. It showed a red London bus with its roof blown away. There were people standing in the shell of the bus, still holding bags and bottles of water, their faces dazed and grey with dust.
At that moment it felt as though London was under attack. Nobody knew what was going to happen next. We were on the sixth floor of a tall, prominent building, right next to Waterloo, one of London’s major stations and the gateway to Europe. The security guard for the building arrived minutes later and told us we were not allowed to leave, that Waterloo Station was going into lockdown as a security precaution. Still I kept dialling and dialling.
I sat with my phone in my hands as the news unfolded on the screen: three tube trains travelling from King’s Cross – two Circle Line trains and a Piccadilly Line train – and a Number 52 bus travelling through Tavistock Square had been blown up in what appeared to be a series of terrorist attacks. Eventually, at ten thirty the landline phone rang on my desk and I heard Nick’s voice. He had walked to work in the end, after seeing there were delays but his phone had gone down and he couldn’t get any reception. Like me, he was standing in his office watching the news reports coming in. There was a lot of speculation flying around – talk of army tanks in Leicester Square, of the SAS swooping in; of London being declared a no-go area and of us being held in our offices until further notice. None of us knew what to believe; all we could do was sit and watch and wait
The room was silent as the first images of survivors came through. There on the screen were bloodied faces, battered bodies stumbling out of Kings Cross Station where ambulances lined the street, out into the grey morning, into light, into fresh air and safety. Men and women who had set out that morning to work and now found themselves stumbling around in chaos, confusion, blood and terror. One by one they came, but where had they come from, what had they seen? Who had been left behind in those mangled carriages?
The day passed slowly. No work was done; the only phone calls coming through were from worried friends and relatives checking if their loved ones were safe. My dad rang me from the top of a moor in the depths of North Yorkshire. He was filming for his television programme, The Dales Diary, and had just heard the news. He had spent twenty years commuting to London from the North-East as a reporter for the BBC and had built a house in the northern countryside for his family of five children as a safe haven away from the city. Yet I had left that haven and headed for London as soon as I graduated from university, headed for the centre of the centre, to Soho, drawn to the neon lights like a moth, drawn to excitement and danger. ‘Thank God you’re safe,’ he repeated over and over, raising his voice to be heard above the wild winds that blew above his head on that desolate moor, a world away from the dirt and grime and terror of the underground where terrified commuters were emerging from tunnels like moles frantically searching for air and safety.
Sometime around four, we were told we could leave the office. I remember waiting for a couple of colleagues who, like me, lived in South London and we walked in a sombre procession along the river towards Vauxhall. There were no tubes, no buses, hardly any traffic, just a stream of pale-faced workers walking silently towards home. Time had stopped, London life was suspended and all we wanted to do was reach our loved ones and hold them close.
Eventually I got home and found Nick sitting silently in front of the TV. I joined him and we stayed there for the rest of the night, trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to find a reason. I remember the face of a woman whose fiancé was missing. She had that look of terror and pain in her eyes, the unknowing panic I had felt when I couldn’t get hold of Nick that morning. She stood holding a photograph of her fiancé up to the camera. He had stayed at a friend’s house the night before and I wished with all my heart that he had drunk too much, had stayed curled up on his friend’s sofa instead of going into work and had just woken up to hear the news. I wished he would ring that woman right now, tell her he was okay, take the fear and sorrow out of her eyes. But he didn’t. We found out later that he was among the eleven passengers killed on the Number 52 bus.
The next day I travelled into work on the overland train. A pensive silence hung heavily in the air. Nobody seemed to be reading newspapers or books that morning, we just sat rigid in our seats, looking around the carriage for suspicious packages, willing the train to get to Waterloo in one piece. The newspaper billboards screamed out the death toll, the air was filled with shock and paranoia. I monitored Nick like an over-protective mother, telling him he must walk to work, that he must not get on the tube, that he must ring me to let me know he had arrived at the office.
Something changed for me that day and was never restored – my freedom, my light-hearted attitude to the city I loved. Once, London was the only place I wanted to be, now it felt like my jailor, bearing down on me, filling me with fear and paranoia.
Exactly two weeks after 7/7, four more would-be suicide bombers attempted a similar series of attacks at Shepherd’s Bush, Warren Street and Oval underground and on a bus in Shoreditch, but their bombs failed to detonate. In the days and weeks following I carried an anxiety around with me that I had never felt before. The fact that the 21st July would-be bombers had escaped, possibly off to plot something even bigger, left me feeling vulnerable and afraid all the time. Every night the news warned of another threat; that the most likely target would be an overland train or a bus or a crowded shopping centre. I started to get panic attacks on the tube so I stopped using it; trips into Soho and the West-End, once a regular occurrence before 7/7, were curtailed. I avoided crowded areas, I stopped going to the theatre and the cinema. Life as I knew it ceased to be, it felt like London had stopped existing for me.
It was a dark, paranoid summer – Muslim men were routinely searched at train stations, there were fears of vigilante attacks, and on the 22nd July, the day after the failed attacks, police shot and killed an innocent man, Jean Charles De Menezes, believing him to be a suicide bomber. What had happened to the spirit of our city, to the great benevolent host who welcomed in people of every nationality, colour and creed? What I had loved most about the city was the fact that people of all backgrounds and walks of life could co-exist peacefully. Now difference got you stopped and searched, made people look at you with fear in their eyes as you stepped onto the tube. I saw it on the street, on the looks exchanged among shoppers as a Burkha-clad woman walked past or a Muslim man fumbled with his rucksack. An invisible divide was slowly forming; fear given space to multiply becomes paranoia and hatred and I could feel the rumbling of dissent, of some great backlash about to be unleashed. It felt uncomfortable. This was not the London I knew.
Even after the 21st July bombers were arrested I felt as though I had been disconnected from the city, I no longer felt at liberty to walk its length and breadth aimlessly as I did when I lived in Soho, or hop on a tube without thinking about it. When I first arrived in London the tube represented freedom. I didn’t need a car or lots of money, I just needed my Oyster card and a comfy pair of shoes. I got such a thrill from not having to consult the map, of knowing to change at A to get to C via B. That’s when I felt I had become a real Londoner. Walking fast and not standing on the left side of the escalator, being privy to the unwritten laws that dictate daily life in London. And now what was once freedom had become entrapment, the tube was no longer a symbol of London life, it was a weapon, an enemy that wished us harm.
Nick and I got married in December 2005 and in August the following year I found out I was pregnant. Three months before our son was born in 2007 we made the decision to move out of London; to find some open space where our little boy could grow up. But leaving was not easy for me, I sobbed and cried as I boarded the train at Clapham Junction bound for the South Coast and watched the city I loved disappear behind me, like a paper map being crumpled up by the curved expanse of the Downs. As the train trundled away, it all felt like a dream, the last six years of my life, as though I had made it up as I went along, like the magic land at the top of the Faraway Tree. But this is not it, I told myself, as I wiped my eyes and took out my notebook full of unfinished sentences and crossed out lines, this is not the end. One day I will return; one day I will find out how the story is meant is end.
Two years after leaving London I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA course at York St John University, in our newly adopted city of York, and I started to write Soho, 4am. I wanted to make sense of that fateful twenty-four hours when jubilation turned to horror; wanted to tell the story of four ordinary people whose life changing experiences would be overshadowed by the extraordinary twenty four hours in which they took place. I also wanted to tell the story of Soho, the sounds and smells, the incredible people I met and lived alongside. I don’t think I could have written Soho, 4am if I had still been living in London. I needed distance to see it clearly; like standing back to view a painting, I needed to gain perspective. If I had still been living there I would have been too absorbed in the sheer London-ness of it all to see it as it was; as it really was. In the end, I think Soho, 4am is my love letter to London, to the battered but strong city that took me under its wing all those years; that inspired and scared me in equal measure and continues to both haunt and inspire my work.