Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

According to the meteorologists, total calm may lie at the eye of the fiercest storm. In British life, terror and the "war" that partners it have grown into a top-grade hurricane that shows not the slightest sign of abatement. Where, amid all the sound and fury, might we hear the still voice of reason and insight? It's question that many will ask again as the anniversary of the Tube bombs looms. The answer comes, with an astonishing degree of scruple and sensitivity, from the media-studies professor sitting three feet away from Mohammad Sidique Khan on a train at Edgware Road on 7 July 2005, when at 8.56am "everything turned a horrible, urine-coloured yellow".

John Tulloch, a 1970s academic migrant to Australia but now attached to Brunel University, had in recent years published Risk and Everyday Life and Tabloid Tales. Within a few seconds, seriously injured but probably saved by a roller suitcase and a laptop, the "expert" had became a "victim" (both labels he disputes); and the agent a patient - in the medical and the philosophical sense. His book One Day in July: Experiencing 7/7 (Little, Brown, £12.99) would be impressive if its author had studied the acts and aftermaths from his family home half a world away. Yet Tulloch's ability to balance his own testament with close analysis and broad reflection lifts this work miles above the usual frothing punditry. This is an extraordinary document that needs to be read by everyone who yearns to find "a different way of being democratic to that increasingly being imposed on us, as well as on the people of Iraq".

We knew, of course, that Tulloch had rejected his (mis)use as "the publicly acceptable face of the carnage" when he took issue, last November, with The Sun's reprint of his bloodied, bandaged face beside the headline "Tell Tony He's Right". For this soberly eloquent critic not merely of the Iraq war but of the "culture of fear" that it helps to entrench, Tony and his allies have been very wrong indeed. Yet One Day in July grips and moves because of its form as much as its content.

Tulloch believes above all in democracy as a dialogue, and so his own book stages a sort of polyphonal debate between different ways of responding to the events of that day and their long, often distorted, echoes. We get the touching personal account of heroism (above all from RAF officer Craig Staniforth), of vital help by police, carers, family and friends, and of recovery aided by moments such as "a kind of epiphany" in the Rose Garden at Regent's Park. We also get, as you would expect, a minute dissection of many of the media's performances - including his own.

He finds that this paper did reasonably well at keeping the avenues of understanding open, as did some others - and not just the usual liberal suspects. Studying the Daily Mail, he notes how the Melanie Phillipses were balanced by the Max Hastingses and, after the de Menezes shooting that also haunts him, by scrutiny of the police. In many quarters, he finds light, shade and nuance - as well as flagrant cases of stitch-up and spin.

He returns to the theatre, which he loves, and looks at how fresh productions of Greek tragedy began to refract the traumas of the post-invasion era. He reads Ian McEwan's war-shadowed novel Saturday, and hails all those artists and writers who, like McEwan, submit "to the discipline of asking questions about Iraq and freedom". And he closes with a letter to his would-be murderer, refusing both his branding as "innocent victim" and his assailant's as "mindless psychopath".

We expect "victims" to give up their political and intellectual agency except as supplicants for aid. Tulloch refuses that. Rather, he affirms his full humanity, not as a frail body but as a fearless mind. In the age of terror, where does democracy really live? In books, and in people, such as this.

Comments