I was born in 1937 in a terraced house in Battersea, south London, that was razed by a German bomb three years later. That particular one was dropped in the middle of the night, but I have an abiding memory of a daytime raid. It was a hot Saturday in June, and my mother had taken me shopping with her. We passed an Anglican church, where a wedding had just ended. I learned a lovely new word that day: confetti.
It was then that the siren went, that blood-freezing wail that Londoners of my age and older still recall with horror. We were in Northcote Road, near the ground-floor flat where friends of my parents lived. They, like many others, had an Anderson shelter in their back garden. The couple took us in, and we sat in that concrete shelter, which had been made almost homely with ornaments and family photographs and a strip of carpet on the floor, until we heard that other familiar sound of wartime London, the all-clear. When we returned to the everyday world, we saw the church had been destroyed, and the confetti I had admired and wanted to pick up and play with was buried under broken stone and shattered glass, lost from sight.
The Jerries, as we in south London, called the Germans, were our enemies. They were led by a man who wanted to rule the world. We knew nothing of the concentration camps and Hitler's determination to extinguish the Jewish race. I was sent to the country for the duration of the war, to relatives in Hampshire and Sussex. It was in the latter, in Herstmonceux, where my uncle was head gardener at the castle, that I made friends with a German prisoner-of-war, a gently humorous man who spoke beautiful, accented English and who tried to teach me the rudiments of drawing. Here was an enemy, kind and considerate, treating a six-year-old as if he were an adult.
I mention Matthias to some purpose. I count three secular Muslims among my close friends, and I am happily acquainted with others. As the tabloids are frequently reminding us, Islam is the enemy now. Those who support Islamic fundamentalism are as anti-Semitic as the Nazis, but with a terrifying difference. They have Allah on their side. There are virgins on hold in Paradise to give male suicide-bombers the time of their afterlives. And I am not surprised they have turned their diabolic attention on London, a bastion of the materialism these spiritual fanatics wish to expunge from the earth.
I believe, along with millions of my countrymen, that the Bush-inspired war on terror is bound to inspire more terrorism. If you declare war, you get the same back in spades. We should never have invaded Iraq. I saw, through a child's eyes, the wonderful city of my birth reduced to rubble. I can remember the first death of my childhood. It was the same night my parents' house was bombed. In one of the neighbouring houses hit by the blast, a small boy died when the pillow on which his head was resting burst. He was suffocated by the feathers from it. I thought of him yesterday, an innocent among innocents, as other innocents were killed and injured. In that far-off Battersea, everybody was born and raised in Britain. Our landlord was Jewish, and tenants called him "Shylock", although they had neither read nor seen The Merchant of Venice. The first Jamaicans, known as "darkies", arrived in the 1950s, and the most brilliant teacher at my secondary school was of French extraction. This was a closed society, in which all foreigners - from near or far - were suspicious.
I moved to Shepherds Bush in 1972, and in the three decades since, the borough has welcomed Serbs, Croatians, Turks, Armenians and thousands of Muslims from the Arab states, Pakistan and Eastern Europe. They, and their friends and relatives, were among the victims two days ago. And those outraged people now defacing mosques and spitting at Muslims in the street and hurling abuse at them should remember terrorists are indiscriminate. "The more dead, the merrier" could be their appalling motto.
I thought, too, of the idealistic professor, in Joseph Conrad's great novel about a seedy kind of London life, The Secret Agent, whose "thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable, and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men". He was out there, with his accomplices, on 7 July 2005, almost a century after Conrad wrote those prophetic words.Reuse content