Monday, April 25, 2011
U is for Underground
The morning of July 7, 2005 seemed like any other on the London Underground, the rickety subway system, that implausibly keeps the city going. There were delays but they didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary.
I was only 10 minutes late to my office at the Palace of Westminster. But my colleague David was considerably later than normal. By the time he arrived an hour late he was complaining about inexplicable delays from St. Albans.
Shortly afterwards an item appeared on the TVs that were permanently on a news channel about an explosion caused by a power surge in the underground.
I was immediately suspicious. Ever since September 11, 2001, death had taken place in the morning, normally on a clear blue day, whether bombs in Istanbul or the Madrid train bombings on the morning of March 11, 2004.
Implausibly we went to a Department of Health briefing on dentistry. But it was cut short half way through by the serious events elsewhere. By now we knew something was badly wrong. Talking teeth in the middle of a terror attack, seemed perverse.
By the time we returned to the House of Commons the usual entrance was blocked off and a special security entrance had been set up. The policeman on the entrance was talking freely about “bombs on the underground.”
It took us 30 minutes to get back to the office by now it had became clear that something terrible was going on. Three bombs had gone off on trains. Knowing the hot confinement of the morning commute underground it was impossible to comprehend the horror. Then TV started to beam pictures of a bus that had been blown apart at Tavistock Square. For one haunting day as the wounded emerged from the tunnels, London resembled Baghdad or Kabul, revealing how thin the veneer between war and peace can be.
Still we sat in the Commons through the emergency statements, although some of us walked or cycled up through the rain to Kings Cross where the walking wounded were still coming out of the tunnels.
Just like 9/11 we all remember what we were doing on 7/7, the day the Underground lost the innocence it had when I first boarded it as an excited child and picked up my first copy of the iconic Tube map, decades earlier.
The next day a mood of foreboding swept over me as I boarded a District line train and looked suspiciously at the passengers around me. And as I read about Britain’s home grown suicide bombers in the Times, an eerie feeling washed over me.
The face staring at me from the paper was that of Mohammad Sidique Khan, a classroom assistant from Leeds who was the leader of the suicide bombers. It freaked me out because it was so familiar. It freaked me out because it was from the interview I did with him as a freelancer on the Times Educational Supplement a year or so earlier.
I found myself wishing I had paid him more attention, even though he was only the secondary interviewee. I found myself wishing I hadn’t erased over the tape.