For David Gardner it sounded like a“big balloon popping”. Susanna Pell experienced a “gust of hot air and what felt like a plank of wood whacking me on the side of the head”, while Jackie Putnam thought it sounded like a “a firework”, and apparently had time to admire the beauty of the broken glass as it flew through the air. All of them were much closer than anybody would want to be to Mohammad Sidique Khan when he detonated his bomb on a Circle Line train just outside Edgware Road station, but that fact was going to bring them much closer to other strangers on that train than they could ever have predicted.
That was one themeof 7/7: theAngels of Edgware Road, that beneath the familiar alienation of a rush-hour Tube there lay a network of rich human contacts waiting to be activated.
The other theme was that until you encounter such a moment there’s absolutely no predicting what you will do or how the long-term consequences will pan out.
Tim Coulson was there that day,too, on the train that just happened to be passing as the bomb exploded.He initially thought the carriages had collided but, as the train filled with dust and smoke and other passengers filed away to safety, he punched out a window and followed the source of a cry for help. His first discovery was an appalling one, a man dangling through a hole blown in the floor.
Dropping beneath the carriage he discovered that the lower part of the man’s body had been severed completely. Nearby he discovered another woman, who’d been blown out of the bomb carriage and thrown against the tunnel wall. After administering very basic first aid,Coulson stayed with her until the rescuers eventually arrived nearly an hour later. Susanna Pell had moved against the grain of instinct as well, away from the light and into the mangled darkness. Or rather she’d followed the instinct to help aroused by a nearby cry. “It was just so compelling you had to respond,” she said, of the voice from the next carriage. She found a man with a badly injured leg and followed instinct again.
“I thought,‘Right, I’ll put a tourniquet on, that’s what they do in the movies’.” Also tending to one of the wounded was Jason Rennie, who’d discovered David Gardner slumped on the floor of the carriage with a leg so badly shattered that it would eventually have to be amputated. Rennie, ignoring his fear that there might be a secondary device in the wreckage, stayed to comfort him and keep him conscious. Their altruism at this moment was put into perspective by a passenger who had left, Jackie Putnam, brave now in talking openly about the nerve she’d lacked at the time, as panic and the thought of her children overrode her feelings that she should stop and help Channel Four’s film was at pains to contrast these two different reactions– of self-preservation and selflessness– and it’s no disrespect to those who distinguished themselves on that day to say that it did it in a distastefully mawkish way, using the tabloid clichés of “angels” and “heroes” without nearly enough thought about how unsatisfactory such labels are.
The explicit message of the film was that great tenderness and concern can be found all around you, when the need arises, but such descriptions suggest that kindness isn’t ordinary at all, but the stuff of miracles. Is Jackie Putnam (who now volunteers as a Red Cross instructor to assuage her sense of guilt at not having done more on the day) really less “angelic”, or did she just make a marginally different calculation about her ability to do something useful? Uncomfortably sustained shots of the “heroes” – their eyes looking directly at the camera– presented them to you as icons for reverent contemplation, rather than human beings who had behaved admirably under pressure. It was a story that deserved telling, but it deserved a much less sentimental telling than it got.
Last Choir Standing is about human concert too, in a rather more literal way, though so many of the choir members talk about the social nourishment their singing gives them that it chimed with Channel Four’s film more than once. The programme itself, unfortunately, is obedient to every cliché of the talent show genre, from the artificial pauses and feints as the judges give their verdicts, to the little vox pops in which contestants assure us how vastly this bit of Saturday-night entertainment looms in their lives.
What a relief it would be, just once, to hear someone say, “Well, we’re just having a laugh aren’t we? It would be nice to get through to the next round, but the sky isn’t going to fall if we don’t.” Fat chance. They’ll be “gutted”, “devastated”, “bitterly disappointed”. And then television will fade from their lives and they’ll remember that it’s singing in harmony that gives them pleasure, not getting the nod from a panel of judges.