The fear factor: A journey through a city under siege

The way Londoners refused to let the first bombs beat them was compared to the spirit of the Blitz, but is the capital being worn down as the attacks go on? Cole Moreton travels from north to south, and from east to west, to find out
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The Independent Online

North to South

4.30pm Friday, Finsbury Park

"There is a lot of big talk about not being scared, but people are kidding themselves."

The Victoria line train sways and judders. People grip their bags and look around, checking each other out. There are no advertisements on this train, just bare spaces. A woman with dyed red hair stands up suddenly, muttering an expletive. She hurries down the half-empty carriage, past vacant seats, and tries the door. It won't open. She mutters again and rests her head against the glass, then glances back at the man who was beside her. Other passengers follow her gaze. His eyes are closed, the palms of his hands are resting on a black bag. Then he sighs, unzips the bag and produces a cricket magazine. "I'm bloody scared too," he tells me in an urgent whisper after the woman has got off at the next stop. His name is Gary. His mum and dad are from St Kitts but he was born in London, has lived here all his 30 years. "There's a lot of big talk but people are kidding themselves. Saying you're not scared is not the same as not being scared." He does not believe it is bravery that keeps Londoners going to work as normal. "We keep going because we don't know what else to do. What else can you do?"

5pm, King's Cross Station

"In the Blitz we never mourned like this, we kept it all under control. "

They're like statues, the people waiting for mainline trains to the North. There are fewer headphones buzzing than usual, fewer newspapers being browsed, fewer burgers being eaten from the bag. Nobody wants to be distracted. They stand still instead, straining to be aware of everything and everybody around them, eyes flickering from the electronic message board to their fellow passengers and back again. It's as though they're all waiting for something terrible to happen.

Stephanie Clemence is travelling from Bradford in Yorkshire, where she lives, to visit her sister in Sussex. She is with her daughter Chantelle, 17, and their blue-grey poodle Danny. Usually they take the tube to Victoriafor a connecting train south, but not today. "I don't want to go underground," says Stephanie. "I don't like it down there anyway ­ I don't like the enclosed spaces ­ but there's no way I would do that now." So the Clemences are going to walk, with their dog and luggage, across to the Thameslink station instead. "We come from the Leeds area, where they were making the bombs," Stephanie says suddenly. "I can't believe it. We heard about what was happening, obviously, and we felt for people down here, but it was not until we saw the flowers that it really hit uswhat had happened."

The flowers. They are piled high, in Cellophane and paper wrappers, in a small walled garden next to the station where their scent is stifled by the traffic fumes. Getting there means passing the photocopied images of men and women that are stuck on a board by the ticket office. Anthony, James, Miriam, Karolina all smile above pleas for information from the people who love them. They're all dead now, those four, and 23 others. We know that. But the posters still say they're missing.

"You know what gets me about all this?" says an elderly gentleman in a houndstooth jacket, collar and tie, by the flowers. "The flower sellers are making a mint." He does not approve. "This is over the top. This is not the true English spirit."

It is the new English spirit. The tributes say we have come from many places to live here and now we are all in this together. "Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, we are all Londoners," say the words written in shaky black felt tip on a Union flag which hangs in the garden alongside the flags of Turkey, Pakistan, the United States, Italy and other nations.

Messages purporting to be from "the Muslims of Britain" or " the Afghan community of the West Midlands" condemn the violence. Extracts from the Koran on green and white card make it clear that killing offends Allah. A red T-shirt is signed "With love" by the staff of the Duke of York pub inside the station. The shirt has a badge. It's a brand of beer: London Pride.

"When I was here in the Blitz," says the old man, "hundreds of people were dying every day. We never mourned like this, we kept it all under control." Someone was bound to mention the Blitz. The legend of Londoners pulling together under bombardment is true up to a point, but it was exaggerated by wartime spin. Churchill promoted the myth of the plucky Londoner so that he could say to bombarded cities such as Coventry, Bristol, Glasgow and Belfast, "If they can take it, you can take it too." But some bombed-out houses were looted before their occupants returned during the Blitz. Bodies were pickpocketed by the light of the flames. It feels heretical to say so, but the initial reaction ­ we'll get through, they mustn't stop us living our normal lives ­ is coming apart, unravelled by irritation, exhaustion and fear.

"Get out of the station," says a community support officer in a fluorescent jacket. "Get out now." She does not like the photographer's camera. We're just trying to show people what it's like, the photographer says. "Well," shouts the tense officer, bottom lip trembling, "if people had any sense, they wouldn't come down to London now, would they?"

5.30pm, Warren Street station

"It's not exactly crowded is it?"

"The doors will not open at this station." The train pauses, then picks up speed. "It's not exactly crowded is it?" says a man to his female companion. "It's rush hour but there's nobody about." There was a small explosion on a train here yesterday, and a suspect ran off, leaving his rucksack behind. We all look out the window at the empty platform as it passes, as if there would be anything to see.

6pm, Victoria

"If I see a dodgy-looking bastard on the train I'm going to stare him out ..."

Joyce Black has come from Durham to see the musical Billy Elliot. She has just met her daughter-in-law Nicola, who lives in Walthamstow, outside the Victoria Palace Theatre. "Every time something happens in London we're on the phone. But what can you do? The police can't have sniffer dogs at every station." London Underground can't afford ticket inspectors at every station. Bus conductors have gone. We used to assume the danger would come from the road or rail, but now it comes from us, the passengers. Nobody is watching us, except on CCTV and that's seen when it is too late. "I can't afford to think about all this," says Nicola, who must cross London for her job. "There is no other way to get to work."

Chris Reilly is downing a pint outside the Duke of York with his mates. They have just finished work as steel erectors on a building site and are hot, dirty and thirsty. They don't look the sort to be easily afraid. "That stiff-upper-lip shit is OK after one attack, maybe two, but if this is going to go on week after week, people won't stand it," says Chris, who came to England from Ireland 25 years ago, "when the police were hassling us all the time because of the IRA". What does he think Londoners will do if the attacks go on? "Take things into their own hands, like. There will be vigilantes on the streets." He is going home to Wembley on the Tube later. "If I see a dodgy-looking bastard on the train I'm gonna stare him out and if he makes a move I'm gonna lash him. I might get arrested, but I might save people's lives."

6.30pm, No 2 bus, Vauxhall Bridge

"They're saying the whole of south London is sealed off. I just want to get out of town."

"Stockwell Road and Lambeth Road have been closed," announces the driver as the bus comes to an unexpected halt. The traffic is stationary. He doesn't tell us, but police have just arrested a man in a flat near Stockwell Tube. Sirens blare, police outriders sweep past followed by four vans packed with officers in body armour. We have been hearing sirens all day. "Something's happening again," says a woman into her mobile. "They're saying the whole of south London is sealed off. Can I get into the house?" She listens to the reply, then says, "Can we go and stay with your mum? It's getting too much. I just want to get out of town."

6.45pm, No 88 bus, Stockwell Garage

"Tell you what, wish I had shares in this blue and white stuff."

We are ordered off a bus for the second time, and find ourselves just behind Stockwell Tube station. Passengers go quietly. In Clapham Road an Asian man is arguing with a police officer by the blue and white tape that has been used to cordon off the road. The man needs to get to his shop. The policeman, who is wearing body armour, keeps smiling and maintains eye contact as he pacifies the man. There are at least half a dozen police vans in the road behind. Tomorrow we will see photographs of plainclothes police carrying sub-machine guns here. This morning they pinned a suspect to the ground inside this station and fired five times into his head. Now the station is shrouded in white polythene. The street is quiet, but for half a mile in every direction south London is gridlocked. "Tell you what," a lad calls out as he passes with his mates, "wish I had shares in this blue and white stuff." The policeman's smile fades. All of a sudden he looks very tired. As the lads walk away he says quietly, almost to himself: "After the last two weeks, I think we're running out of it."

East to West

Saturday 11am, Whitechapel Road

The 205, when it comes, is busy downstairs, but there is not a soul on the upper deck.

London feels different today. It is quieter. Those who have a choice have left the city. The East London Mosque is deserted, between prayers. Two women pass within a couple of feet of each other in Ali Artab Park: one in a black burqa, carrying a shopping bag, the other in shorts and T-shirt, sitting in the dusty grass drinking cider from a can while she waits for a bus. The 205, when it comes, is busy downstairs, but there is not a soul on the upper deck. We pass Aldgate station, where bloody, blackened victims staggered out two weeks ago. They left eight dead behind. The iron gates are open just a little and in the gloom an Underground worker sits by a makeshift desk, waiting for stray passengers to ask for travel advice. That looks like a lonely job.

12.15pm, Liverpool Street

"I'm more scared of driving on a motorway than getting on a train."

Ed Powles is waiting for the Stansted Express with his friends Mindy Gill and Danielle Holland. The three, all in their mid-twenties, are flying off to a wedding. They have just heard the news that people are dead in Egypt, but it carries less shock than it might have done a month ago. "I thought, 'Not again,'" says Ed. "Stuff happens." He sounds weary. "I'm more scared of driving on a motorway than getting on to the train." They all avoid going underground whenever they can. A notice at the gate lists 16 stations that are closed.

1pm, Oxford Street

"It is bad. These people are mainly tourists now. Londoners are not here. If this goes on it will be very bad for all of us."

This place should be heaving: At the height of summer the shoppers should be shoulder to shoulder. They are not. "It is bad," says Erkan Erdem from behind the counter of his sweet stall on Oxford Street. "Business is down 30 per cent, maybe much more. These people are mainly tourists; they had already booked to come. Londoners are not here. If this goes on it will be very bad for all of us."

1.30pm, Shepherd's Bush station

"It happened here, it can happen anywhere."

They danced in the street here on Thursday night after it was cordoned off. Somebody set up a sound system to entertain stranded commuters and locals who couldn't get into their homes. Ali was there, but the euphoria has worn off. "It's getting me down," he says outside the station near where a police notice shows an image of the ordinary-looking man who left a bomb on the train here on Thursday. Another sign says more than 100 bags have been left unattended on the Underground in the past six days. The scares will keep coming. So might the bombs. "It happened here, it can happen anywhere, any time." He's also worried by the looks he gets just for being Asian. He won't give me the rest of his name. He hurries away, tossing over his shoulder a comment I have heard a dozen or more times on these journeys. It has become the London mantra: "You've got to keeping going, mate. What else can you do?"