Very few things bring London to a standstill. The death of a war leader in 1965. The death of a princess in 1997. And now, the silence following 7/7. At noon, the most relentless, noisy, hyperactive city on earth stopped. People gathered outside their offices, outside the Tube stations, in all our public spaces, and did something unheard of in London: they stood still.
At six - in the evening sunlight - thousands of Londoners gathered in Trafalgar Square for a vigil in memory of the dead. Skaterboys stood next to the Falun Gong, South African evangelicals lingered next to lesbians on bikes, city executives queued to sign condolence books along with firemen and Japanese tourists. Londoners are not self-conscious about their city like New Yorkers. We rarely talk about London, or express our love for it; we take it for granted that, as Henry James put it, "This place is a complete compendium of the world. The human race is better represented here than anywhere else in the world." So even now, waiting for speeches in honour of this place was a bit like building up to tell your sister you love her: it felt awkward, soppy, and ever-so-slightly wrong.
But then the African-Londoner poet Ben Okri took the steps at the far end of the square to read an elegiac poem about the city, and suddenly it seemed right. This is, he said, "One of the magic centres of the world/ One of the world's dreaming places. Here lives the great music of humanity/ the harmonisation of different histories, cultures, geniuses and dreams." And the first great theme of the vigil became clear.
Speaker after speaker explained to cheers that London's nationalism is to be beyond nations, to represent - as Ken Livingstone put it - "the whole world in one city". There were a few Union flags, one embroidered "We are not afraid", a few St George's crosses - and even more Australian, Turkish, Japanese and Welsh flags. Sir Trevor McDonald declared London to be "the great distant metropolis, a symbol of the universality of the modern world".
And then Mayor Livingstone outlined the other great theme of the vigil and of the week. "There are some people who want to talk about a 'clash of civilisations', but that is not London. This week in City Hall we hosted veterans of the Second World War.
"They told me how we had six years of bombs, and some nights hundreds died, some nights thousands did. But when they came back, they weren't bitter. They came back determined to build a better world, and they gave my generation all the things they never had. And we will be the same. This event has made us lift our hearts, not look around for people to hate."
And he was right: Sir Iqbal Sacranie, chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, was cheered when he rose to speak. London refuses to be splintered; it refuses to hate.
London grieves, but it never rests. Already, our gaze was stretching forward seven years. Livingstone explained, "We will never be able to think of these Olympics without thinking of the people who have not lived to see them. But when they come to London, I assure you - in the front row, there will be the people who were maimed but survived, and there will be the relatives of the victims."
The crowd roared, and the noise echoes across the world: London is not afraid.Reuse content