Jemima Lewis: Infatuated with the myth of stoicism

New Yorkers went through much worse than us, and got scant praise for their resilience

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For anyone of a remotely patriotic bent, the past few days have been full of guilty pleasures. Suddenly, the whole world appears united in admiration for the British. We are, they say, a uniquely tough and phlegmatic race - our sinews stiffened by long experience of IRA terrorism and the Blitz. Even the French, for once, seem prepared to indulge this national myth. The newspaper Liberation paid tribute to the "sang-froid observed in the streets of the British capital. No panic, and an impressive stiff upper lip; the measure of a people used, since 1940 at least, to a spirit of resistance."

Perhaps the most touching tributes to British pluck came from America, where Union Jacks were hoisted up suburban flagpoles in a gesture of solidarity. Internet chatrooms were flooded with well-wishers expressing their faith in the British people. "One thing I do know," declared a woman in an online quilting bee: "No matter how heartbreaking this and the days to follow will be, there is literally nothing that can permanently bow London or Londoners."

All of which is - literally - too kind. Appalling though the attacks were for anyone caught up in them, they tell us next to nothing about the bravery of the British people. Call it 7/7 if you will, but this was not our 9/11. For one thing, it was nothing like as fatal: 2,749 people died when the twin towers collapsed; the death toll in London is expected to reach the eighties.

Perhaps equally important, Londoners have not been visually traumatised by this atrocity. By attacking us underground, the terrorists hid the worst of their handiwork. Most of us, thankfully, saw nothing unusual on Thursday except pavements teeming with sombre-looking pedestrians. For most of the day, the television news could offer only grainy CCTV footage of ambulances racing along empty roads - a rather consoling sight, demonstrating how quickly our unruly capital can be brought under control in an emergency.

The attacks in New York, by contrast, were almost unbearably frightening to look at: the vast buildings burning and then crumbling; the doomed office workers leaping into nothingness, their ties streaming behind them; the apocalyptic clouds of dust chasing bystanders through the streets. The twin towers were so huge, and the impact was so dramatic, that practically everyone in Manhattan caught a glimpse of the carnage.

Yet sympathy for New Yorkers was, at least on this side of the pond, shamefully shortlived. "The trouble with Americans," a cabbie informed me, while the dead of 9/11 were still being picked out of the rubble, "is they've got no backbone. They didn't go through the Blitz, you see." Neither, of course, did a considerable majority of the current British population - and it shows. If we were really as phlegmatic as we like to believe, would we revel so conspicuously in our moment of tragedy? While the foreign press has been flattering to the British people, our own press has been positively hagiographic. We are all heroes now, just by virtue of commuting into work. Israelis and Palestinians do it all the time, in much more frightening circumstances. The day after 9/11, thousands of New Yorkers went back to work in their skyscrapers, because - like us - they had no choice. But we British are so infatuated with the national myth of stoicism that we only see and admire it in ourselves.

Such myths have their uses - not least because they set a standard for us to live up to. On Saturday night, when thousands of people were evacuated from central Birmingham because of a terrorist threat, the Blitz spirit was invoked once again. Brummies - determined not to be outdone in bravery by us soft southerners - described with evident pride how good-humoured the crowds were as they trudged out of the city. Some of their tales seemed quaintly old-fashioned, like a knees-up in a blackout.

"The mood remained very calm," recounted an actress who had been performing in 42nd Street when the alarm sounded. "A couple had just got married in Birmingham, and they had their first dance in the middle of Bristol Road, accompanied by the entire 42nd Street cast, in full costume, singing "Lullaby of Broadway".

The people of Birmingham weren't just being brave - they were enjoying themselves. And who can blame them? Everyone loves a drama, as long as they're not too close to the centre of it. For the generations of Britons who have grown up in peacetime, it is exciting to be a little afraid. Like Macbeth, we have almost forgotten the taste of fear. But we should not mistake the adrenalin in our veins, and the feeling of comradeship with our fellow city-dwellers, for something more profound.

Living with fear all the time is the hard part. We have not proved our bravery yet. On Thursday, my e-mail inbox tinkled with messages from America. "I wish I could be with you today," read one. "I remember how important the support of loved ones was to us all after 9/11." I was embarrassed, at first, by this torrent of unsolicited and quite unnecessary compassion - and then I was ashamed. New Yorkers went through much worse than us, and got scant praise for their stoicism. Their generosity in comparing London's loss to New York's is moving enough; their faith in our intrinsic heroism, as yet unearned, is downright humbling.

jemima_lewis@dennis.co.uk

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