THE BLITZ, By Allan Massie
Sometimes, you think, we are becoming soft, far more ready to give way to sloppy self-indulgent emotionalism than our parents and grandparents were; that the upper lip is more often wobbly than stiff. And then you get something like this.
I was in my study, looking out over the green tranquil country of the Scottish Borders, sheep grazing in the field below the woods, when my daughter telephoned to tell me bombs were going off all over London. I turned on the television, and one of the first things I saw was a man with the left side of his face all cut and bloody being interviewed.
I can't remember just what he said, but his tone was familiar, immediately recognisable. He was, I suppose, in his forties, may be a little younger, certainly of a comfortably post-war generation. He was calm, relaxed, self-deprecating; it might have been John Mills or Jack Warner telling Hitler: "London can take it, Britain can take it." It was moving, comforting and, yes, inspiring.
You might advance high-faluting explanations of, for instance, race memory telling Londoners this is how you behave in an emergency. But I don't think it's necessary. It's enough to say this was an expression of something enduring in our character. London is a much more cosmopolitan city than it was in the time of the Blitz, but the spirit is the same. The city imposes its character on those who live there. It's a matter of London pride:
London Pride has been handed down to us.
London Pride is a flower that's free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us.
And our pride for ever will be.
Noel Coward would have recognised his London in yesterday's. And throughout the United Kingdom and across the world, we who weren't there felt ourselves to be Londoners too.
For years, ever since 11 September, we have been warned that a terrorist outrage here was not only likely but inevitable: "It's not whether but when." Now that "when" has happened, and the first shock and horror will already have been succeeded by the thought that it might have been even worse. And the next thought is that life goes on, people go about their business, more warily perhaps, but undeterred. I had another call later in the day, this time from a girl in my publisher's publicity department. She was ringing to ask if I could go to a book festival on a date in January. That, too, is an example of the spirit of the Blitz. It might, she admitted, be difficult for her to get home that evening; but work goes on.
London has been through it before. The Blitz destroyed great parts of the city. The East End was left in ruins, Docklands flattened, St Paul's Cathedral stood, as if by a miracle, alone in a wilderness of devastation. The Palace of Westminster was bombed and the House of Commons went up in flames. And even when victory was at last in sight, came the rockets - the V1 and the V2 - bringing death without warning. Londoners shrugged their shoulders and called them "doodlebugs". All that was years before most of today's Londoners were born. Many are too young to remember the bombsites where willowherb and other weeds flourished. But then, in the years of peace, came the IRA bombing campaign, and Londoners bore that too without flinching. Most remarkable, the terrorists then were regarded with contempt rather than hatred. I would guess it's the same today and will be the same tomorrow.
Orwell, in his 1940 diary, remarked: "The only change I have noticed since the air raids began is that people are much more ready to speak to strangers in the street."
He also recorded a conversation I have always liked, one that seems appropriate to what I take to be the mood of London today. "Yesterday, while having my hair cut in the City, I asked the barber if he carried on during raids. He said he did. And even if he was shaving someone? I said. Oh yes, he carried on just the same." Hitler and the Luftwaffe weren't going to order his life - my interpretation, not Orwell's. His was characteristically more sour: "And one day a bomb will drop near enough to make him jump, and he will slice half somebody's face off."
It seems somehow appropriate, however horrible also, that the London bombing should have come just as we have been commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Hitler war, a few days after the Prince of Wales opened a new museum devoted to life on the Home Front in those years.
Appropriate, for two reasons. First, because it serves as a reminder of the human capacity for mischief and destruction. And secondly, because London's response to yesterday's evil acts shows that any doubts or fears we may have had were groundless. We are the same people we were 60 years ago, capable of the same stoicism. London can take it, and it can do so because its stoicism is laced as it always has been with humour.
Orwell again: "A lot of bombs in Greenwich, one of them while I was talking to E over the phone. A sudden pause in the conversation and a tinkling sound:
I: 'What's that?'
E: 'Only the window falling in."'
Business as usual. London Pride.
THE IRA CAMPAIGN, By Michael McCarthy
We've been here before. Thirty years ago, London was the target of a sustained and vicious terror bombing campaign, the perpetrators at that time being the Provisional IRA. Beginning in 1973, it was a period of atrocities in which many Londoners died: killed by car bombs, bombs in stations, bombs in restaurants, bombs in litter bins, bombs with warnings and bombs without. Many other people were disfigured, maimed, disabled for life.
The targets ranged from Hyde Park (aimed at the Household Cavalry) to Harrods (aimed at Christmas shoppers) and the campaign culminated in the big Docklands bomb at South Quay, near Canary Wharf, in February 1996, whose alleged purpose was to shake up the faltering Irish peace process.
Anyone who lived through the IRA campaign in the capital at its height, in the mid-Seventies, will remember that it made people wary, jumpy and suspicious, often especially suspicious (let's be honest) of young men with Irish accents. But then, if you put your own bag down and forgot about it for a minute, you could start a full-scale panic.
Yet it did not shut London down, or prevent normal life from continuing, and that should be remembered too - even though the Provos were every bit as determined to wreak maximum chaos and fear as those who set off yesterday's explosions.
After four years of guerrilla warfare in Northern Ireland, Irish republican terrorism arrived in London on 8 March 1973 with four big car bombs planted across the capital. Two were defused, but the others - one in Great Scotland Yard, a street off Whitehall, and the other outside the Old Bailey - went off, killing one man and injuring nearly 200.
The bombing team that did it, including the Belfast sisters Dolores and Marion Price, were captured at Heathrow.
There was then a whole series of bombs, often targeting civilians indiscriminately, such as that at the Tower of London, packed at the time with tourists, in July 1974. The campaign reached its height in the winter of 1975-76 with the activities of four men who became known as the Balcombe Street gang - Harry Duggan, Martin O'Connell, Edward Butler and Hugh Doherty - who specialised in tossing bombs into crowded London restaurants. They killed several people before they were caught after a siege at a flat in Balcombe Street, Marylebone, where they had taken refuge.
The blast that probably did the most damage to the capital's physical structures was towards the end of the campaign when the Provos attacked Bishopsgate at the heart of the City of London with a one-ton fertiliser bomb in a tipper truck. The ultra-modern buildings of the financial district which took the brunt of the explosion were massively damaged, to the tune of more than £1bn, not least because they contained so much glass. The glass shrapnel killed a young photographer from the News of the World, Edward Henty, who was covering the scene for his newspaper. Only a year before, the IRA had attacked the nearby Baltic Exchange building with a similar-sized bomb.
The one London outrage the Provos did not manage to carry out was the one that gave yesterday's events their peculiarly grim horror - exploding a bomb on a London Underground train between stations. But it was not for want of trying.
On 15 March 1976, 36-year-old Vincent Kelly set out to do just that. Just before the afternoon rush hour he boarded a train on what was then the Metropolitan Line (now the Hammersmith and City Line) at Stepney Green in the East End, carrying a bomb in a duffel bag. He intended to detonate it at Liverpool Street or another of the busy stations in the city centre. But he got on the wrong train, boarding one that was heading out of town. He realised his mistake when the train came out above ground at Plaistow, where he got off and boarded an inbound train on the opposite platform. But by now the fuse on his bomb was running down and just as the train pulled out of West Ham station it went off, injuring but not incapacitating him. Kelly jumped off the train pursued by the driver and the guard: he shot them both, killing the former, Julius Stephen. When he was finally cornered by the police he turned the gun on himself.
Had Kelly succeeded, he might well have wreaked carnage similar to yesterday's devastation between Russell Square and King's Cross. But even then, the capital would have continued its life. Don't let's tempt fate now, but London is probably just too big, too multi-faceted and too resilient to bring to its knees with a terror bombing campaign. The Provos failed, although they tried hard enough.
Yesterday Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, said he had sent a message of sympathy and solidarity to Tony Blair and to London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone. "On behalf of Sinn Fein I offer my sincere condolences to the victims and the families of those killed and injured and to the people of London," he said.
No doubt some will think that time moves on, and peace has come, and such a message is entirely appropriate, although those who remember the deaths and awful injuries of 30 years ago may perhaps take a different view.Reuse content