The terrorist's hoax that went down a bomb

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The Independent Culture
I'M RUNNING through Embankment station, in a pack of commuters, we're pushing and shouting, quite emotional. There's a bomb hoax, or that's what we assume; we just know that the mainline stations have been evacuated and roped off, and we're trying to reach the Charing Cross footbridge before the police close it, so we can get across the river, get to a station which hasn't been evacuated, before it's too late. If we don't cross the river, we might never get home; some of us will have to spend the night in a hotel, go to work tomorrow in the same clothes.

As we barge through, angry, exhilarated, I wonder how the process starts, in the middle of a weekday afternoon; the phone at Scotland Yard ringing, the man from the IRA giving the code, the policeman reaching for a pen, maybe scribbling a few concentric circles to get the ink running, the IRA man telling him the exact location of the bombs that haven't been planted, the non-bombs, telling him what time they won't be exploding. The IRA man turning and giving a thumbs-up to his tense colleagues; the man in Scotland Yard replacing the handset, executing the first brisk steps towards bringing central London, once again, to a standstill. This has been going on for a couple of years now, and nothing has changed. Will it change soon?

I can't quite see the bridge yet but I'm rammed up against a guy in a suit who grins at me, and I roll my eyes, and he laughs, a not unfriendly noise, and I know it's started. We've moved into a new zone, the hoax, a place with another set of rules, where people treat each other differently.

Yes, the footbridge is blocked; two cops are standing at the bottom, holding their arms across, trying not to be swamped by the executives, who are swearing, shoving. I think: if I could just push through, or slip through . . . I don't think: they're trying to keep me out of the evacuated area, trying to save my life. I want to get across, to get into the terrorist space; I don't quite believe in the existence of the bombs. In a bomb hoax, you don't visualise yourself, as you do on a plane, being at the heart of a great metal-rending catastrophe, getting ripped to shreds.

Two hours later, I've got across the river to Clapham Junction. The platforms are thick with stranded people, standing around, looking like refugees. We failed to catch the last pre-hoax trains going south, and now we'll have to wait for the first train after the all- clear, which will be jammed. It's best to just get on a train, any train, go as far as you can, and do the rest by taxi - a liberating experience, the kind of travel you do on holiday.

Most of us are playing unfamiliar roles: people are socialising, drinking, brawling untidily; it's a lurid Hogarthian scene. One drunk pushes another over and yells: 'I pushed him, I didn't hit him.' And people don't ignore it like they usually would; they point, look at each other, laugh. A man is telling filthy jokes in a loud voice; there's a small audience around him. He says the word 'penis' in that posh, slightly surprised tone employed by John Cleese; you can hear the hiccup of everybody's laughter 30 ft away.

These people are not the same drones who would have caught their 6pm trains from Victoria and London Bridge and hidden behind the shields of their evening papers; they are hoax-veterans, half-drunk, their irritation beginning to be diluted with something else, a kind of party spirit. The payphones have long grinning queues, people explaining their lateness, holding a tin of beer in a free hand. When the train comes, we throw ourselves at it; it's packed already, people standing in the aisles, between the seats. I'm squeezed into the luggage compartment with the joker and his crowd. He's an experienced bomb-hoax entertainer. 'Ooh,' he says, 'who is it? Who's farted? That's just not on, madam. We'll have to get to the bottom of this. Ooh]'

A woman says: 'This is just like the train to Auschwitz, and now . . . we're being gassed]' People prod her in mock-disgust. The joker says: 'I went to public school and I'm going to tell penis jokes. Anybody object? No. Good.'

How has this experience made us feel? Downhearted? Desperate? No, it's made us feel resourceful, heroic, happy. I wrote about these hoaxes 18 months ago, and I thought they might work, I thought they'd wear us down, make us hate the government for not sorting things out. On the contrary: they haven't made us feel that our society is failing, but the opposite; it's made us aware that we have a society. We're angry, of course, and not necessarily with the IRA, but the anger diminishes as the hoax wears on, as we shed our commuter-angst. Having your arrangements screwed up is only really bad for as long as it takes to dash your hopes; the end of hope comes as a kind of relief. That's when you start resigning yourself to having fun.

You're a commuter. You get the same train every evening, and sit down, and put your briefcase between your feet, and pretend to be self-absorbed; if you brush against someone, you snap out a brusque 'Sorry]' without even making eye contact. But every couple of weeks, something happens, something liberating: you get in the train, and there's a . . . cabaret, a party. And, finally, you get back home and eat your reheated food in front of a relieved audience. Just imagine - these guys have stayed out late, brawling and drinking and flirting and telling crude jokes, and they're going home to be greeted, not with anger, but with sympathy. What bliss]

At Haywards Heath, I meet a man in the taxi-queue; we get in, happy, and exchange business cards. Bomb hoaxes are good for networking, too. This is what the IRA do not see, what the man who calls Scotland Yard cannot imagine. But the hoaxes can't go on indefinitely: soon, we'll suffer the necessary corollary of the hoax, the non-hoax, the bomb itself. And that is something that we can't imagine. Walking across the station concourse, looking up at the clock, putting your hand in your pocket for change, and . . .