Something to take your mind off the IRA

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A COUPLE of minutes after I began to wake up, seven Saturday mornings ago, in north London, I thought I heard something; I was sure I heard something. It had a particular sound that, it seemed at the time, couldn't have been anything else. Unmistakable, if I wasn't imagining it. It was the sound of a political statement, of one side of a complex political argument. It made me sit up in bed.

What do you mean, you don't know what that sounds like? Believe me, you would if you'd heard it. It had an exact tone, a certain ring to it - not like a car backfiring, or a low- flying jet, or a thunderclap. This was a far deeper, much more percussive sound, a celebrity in the drab crowd of squawks and thuds and wails, of everyday noise-pollutants. It came from two miles away. It imprinted

itself on my distant ears, carrying with it

innuendoes about our history, our foreign policy, our culture.

Boof] That's what it sounded like. Of course, one italicised word can't do it justice - this noise had amazing qualities. It was, actually, the sound of thousands of skyscraper windows being broken simultaneously in the City of London, of a church being dematerialised, of a crater being forced 15 feet into the earth. I got out of bed, and thought: right now, at this moment, people will be caught in the teeth of it, this noise, this message - they'll be bracing themselves against it, against the bricks, the glass, the paving stones, the office equipment, the stationery, the bits of cars flying through the air. I went downstairs, switched on the radio.

Mad with excitement, the commentators talked it up - they told me about the bomb, the damage, the casualties; as the day went on, and they grew calmer, they sharpened up on their figures, spoke fewer words per minute. They talked about the bomb, carefully avoiding the most important subject - the significance of the bomb. It was as if they had received a letter and were telling us about the design of the envelope, the watermark on the writing paper, the colour of the ink the letter was written in. And then, a few days later, the story just stopped, and passed into the category of things that have happened, and are no longer happening - the bomb was upstaged by the shuffling of politicians, the Danish referendum, Clinton's haircut; it was over.

Now, you go there and think: What? It's far more smashed up than you would imagine, much more deeply scarred - this place is right on the edge of losing its identity. You look at the pavements, covered in an unfamiliar silt, a post-terrorist topsoil: little lumps of glass, concrete, plaster, chips of wood; cigarette-butts and Styrofoam cups. When the wind gets up, you see little eddies of yellow- and-black polythene tape, tape used to stretch across the entrances to forbidden zones. Litter here is printed not with advertising logos, but with warnings - flyers which say 'No hard-hat, no entry'; plastic stickers telling you to keep away, to bugger off. And yet, it's a while before you think of anything other than this surface detail, anything like: what will happen to our relationship with Northern Ireland if the IRA does this again? And: how are they going to stop the bombers doing it again?

I don't know. I don't even have the beginnings of the information I would need to speculate. I keep finding my mind's eye being drawn back towards the thinkable, the prosaic details of the damage.

The area, about the size of the centre of a market town, looks, at best, like a ghetto, and, like a ghetto, it's picking up bad habits - when the walkways of a place are blocked with piles of stuff, people don't respect them; stacked planks provide a refuge for less legitimate trash. Blind shop-fronts, boarded up with corrugated iron and plywood, attract the eye upwards, to the dull, grotty-looking upper halves of the buildings.

The trauma of the explosion did plenty of mechanical damage, but it also attacked the City's modesty: this blast was prying, it was prurient. Stacked on the pavement, you can see the cheap, bulk-bought office furniture of the financial community; the plastic-covered chairs, the low, stained sofas - all the prosaic truth behind the reflecting glass.

Glass. At first, walking around, you wonder what the constant scraping noise is, then

lots of sharp little sounds in a rush, like

gravel being poured into bags. It's men with dustpans and brushes, working on every floor of every building in a place the size of a

small town, sweeping bits of broken glass

off the floor. They look terrible now, these

buildings, now their bluff has been called,

now they don't reflect. They look like poor people's buildings.

'Nobody knows what they're doing,' a man tells me. He is young, wearing a hard-hat and goggles. He is a member of a gang clearing 'confidential material' from the damaged buildings. His face is covered with a fine layer of plaster-dust. 'Up there,' he says, pointing to one of the larger financial buildings, 'it's bloody awful. Nobody's had any experience of this. Can you imagine being in that place, 20 storeys up, with no windows, when the wind gets up? The floor is just covered with plaster and little bits of glass.'

Yes, it takes you quite a while before you wonder how far this political debate could be stretched. You find, don't you, that you'd rather think about something else. Like the sale they had at a shoe shop after hundreds of pairs of shoes were hurled out into the street and scuffed. Like the traffic lights that still blink in the blocked, useless streets.

Boof] What was that? Well, it was lots of things. It was a huge bomb in the City; it was a billion pounds-worth of damage; it was placed in a truck, by two men, who were caught by security cameras, stalking away at around 8.30 that morning, their faces deep in the hoods of their tracksuits. It killed one man, who had just said: 'If I hear a loud bang, I'll count to 10 and walk towards it.' That's what it was - a loud bang. Not a political debate. I'm sorry; I must have misheard it.-