On Wednesday 6th July, London, seemingly against all the odds, was announced as the host of the 2012 Olympics. A day for celebration for Londoners of all age and colour. The following day, London experienced the worst series of terrorist attacks ever committed on British shores – more than 50 innocent people slaughtered with many more seriously injured in a series of acts of wanton terrorist devastation. Friday provided sufficient buttress between the terrible events of Thursday for certain sections of the British political class and media to dust the cobwebs of their copies of the selected speeches of Winston Churchill to invoke the spirit of ordinary Londoners during the Blitz.
Foremost among these voices was that of Tony Parsons, former enfant terrible of the British punk music press and now successful media commentator and bestselling novelist of Hornbyesque tales of male thirtysomething midlife crises. “We can take it” ran the headline to Parson’s regular the Mirror column the day after the outrage (no doubt taking his cue from a front page carrying the equally stoic “BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED” headline).
Beginning as he intended to continue, Parsons’ opening salvo managed to conflate Friday’s terrible events with the events of sixty years ago. “If these murderous bastards go on for a thousand years, the people of our islands will never be cowed. London can take it. That’s what they said – our parents and grandparents – when the murderous bullies of another age were attempting to bomb them into submission.” London can take it. London can take it, it seems, because London could take it before: whether it was Hitler’s attempts at bombarding the city into submission or the provisional IRA’s bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s.
Warming to his civic and patriotic theme, Parson continued:
“We will mourn our dead and we will grieve for the families and innocent lives that have been shattered for ever. But we will carry on. Business as usual. London can take it. The British can take it.”
Business as usual. London can take it. Brave or foolish words from a millionaire sitting safely behind a typewriter you might think. But business as usual indeed for all of those unfortunate enough to be familiar with Parsons’ peculiarly nostalgic oeuvre and delight in all things immediately post-war, white working class and London. Parsons’ yearnings for a bygone London of Chelsea pensioners, jellied eels and salt of the earth working class folk is well documented: an Essex born post-war child of “pebbledash suburbia”, Parsons is never slow to invoke the memory of a bolder, pluckier and more resolute generation of Britons and Londoners. This constant groping for the remnants of a tradition are a commonplace in Parsons’ writing. This, after all, is a man whose yearnings for the post-war London of the past suggest that he has long since worn out his collection of Vera Lynn records and Ealing comedy videos.
That other Tone and upstanding advocate of estuary English for the stage, Tony Blair, likewise moved quickly to pay tribute to the “stoicism, resilience and spirit” of Londoners, in what was a “wonderfully familiar” Blitz-like response to adversity. “Calm, resolute and statesmanlike” was how Tory leader Michael Howard described Blair’s performance after the attacks. This despite the fact that the attacks were the logical conclusion of Blair’s hitching of Britain to the US war wagon in Iraq. Blair, who arguably bears a lot of responsibility for the attacks as a result of his supine role in the ongoing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, preferred to take his cue from a quiescent press, choosing to divert Britain with a metaphorical singalong of “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” than admit that the attacks might possibly be a direct result of his continued commitment to a British military presence in Iraq.
Conceding that contemporary multicultural London could not be compared with the London of 1945, Blair employed a Churchillian flourish, noting that “there is something wonderfully familiar in the confident spirit which moves through the city, enabling it to take the blow but still not flinch from reasserting its will to triumph over adversity.” London can take it in so many words.
Yet the failure of Respect MP George Galloway whose east London constituency was directly affected by the bombings- to read from the script by claiming that Londoners were paying the terrible price of a “despicable act” for the government’s failure to take Britons out of harm’s way by bringing troops home from Iraq saw him accused by the Defence Secretary of “dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood.”
As Seamus Milne, writing in the Guardian (14/07/05) rightly notes, the seeming need to show respect for the victims precludes open discussion of the causes behind their deaths at the very time where honest debate is needed more than ever. Yet “we won’t be beaten” and “we won’t be scared” seems very much to be the mood of the political moment.
Is it not perhaps the case that this remarkable calmness displayed by those advocating stoicism in the face of terrible adversity is in fact terrible indifference? Indifference to a neighbour’s pain at losing a husband, wife, son or daughter? Writing in the Guardian’s letter page (13/07/05), Maria Sutherland, a support counsellor at London’s Royal Marsden hospital, rightly asks where the fear has gone.
“We are at risk of giving a message to those people who actually suffered injury, devastating trauma and the loss of a loved one that they must carry on as normal – be strong at all costs, or the terrorists will think they’ve won.”
As Sutherland rightly concludes, no amount of civic pride will help those most deeply affected sleep any easier. It is doubtful whether Blair’s tributes to the stoicism of Londoners or Parsons’ questionable London pride will bring much solace to the grieving family and friends of those who died in the attacks. London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, offered a more considered appraisal of events than those promoting a Blitz mentality, stating that this “was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old.”
A terrible irony then, that the perpetrators of Thursday’s horrific events were in fact young working class Muslims from another great English city Leeds. Yet, the West Yorkshire which was home to the four young suicide bombers is probably as far as you can get from the England inhabited by Tonies Blair and Parsons, and all of the other voices loudly declaiming “business as usual”.
How to explain the level of disillusionment which sees a bright young sports science graduate, who, according to his uncle, was “proud to be British”, embrace Islamist extremism? Or an otherwise unremarkable teenager from Leeds’ rundown Holbeck district, who failed to get a single GCSE, to contemplate martyrdom? Or a 30 year old father, whose working life was spent mentoring young, vulnerable children with learning disabilities, suspected of taking his own life and that of his fellow countrymen on a London Underground train? Yet these are the great imponderables that those urging “business as usual” cannot bring themselves to contemplate.
London can take it? Try telling that to the friends and family of the dead and the hundreds seriously injured in this horrific attack. London and Londoners have seen enough devastation down through the years and no amount of civic pride and empty Blitz rhetoric will convince them otherwise. Roll out the barrel? Scraping it more like.
WILLIAM MACDOUGALL can be reached at: email@example.com