Philip Hensher: An extraordinary legacy of goodness

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The Independent Online

Here are two people talking, in a public setting in London last year. "Do you recall where you sat?" "Yes," the second said. "I do. I was seated on my favourite seat. I had a favourite seat every morning, which was seat number 90, and I was pleased to be able to sit there. If I hadn't sat on that seat, my second favourite seat was 89." We smile. We all know that sort of person, with his little regularities and his whims.

Perhaps they are a peculiarly English sort of person – do other nationalities have favourite seats on trains? In any case, they are a sort of person that sophisticated people often don't hold in very high regard.

But then the conversation continued. "It may be that you were fortunate to have been in 90 rather than 89, as events will demonstrate," the questioner carried on. "I was indeed," the speaker said. "Because I was seated on seat 90, I was about three feet away from the bomber. If I'd sat on my second favourite seat, I would have been three centimetres from the bomber and I wouldn't be here today."

Professor Philip Patsalos was giving evidence to the coroner's inquest into the 7/7 bombings. He was a lucky survivor of the atrocities. Lady Justice Hallett yesterday gave her conclusions after considering a wide range of evidence. Her conclusions may prove controversial.

A series of official witnesses demonstrated, as my colleague Andreas Whittam Smith noted the other day, how risk-averse aspects of the emergency response have become. Nevertheless, Lady Justice Hallett did not find that a speedier response would have saved lives, nor that the security services could have prevented the atrocities by acting on the information they possessed.The inquest is not going to produce "results" in the bureaucratic sense. Probably some streamlining of procedures has now taken place. But, in fact, that seems hardly the point. The real legacy of this extraordinary inquest lies in its testimony.

The death of even one person is difficult to accept and absorb, even when they are known to us personally. The deaths of dozens of victims in these attacks was always in danger of becoming two pages of photographs, postage-stamp sized. This inquest has brought home to us the lives of individuals, their ordinariness and their astonishing resources.

No one will be able to read the harrowing transcripts of the inquest without feeling a jolt of human sympathy, and often surprise that people, even in these extreme circumstances, turn out to be modest, generous and thoughtful.

From the testimony of Dr Wynne-Evans: "Yes, as I went in to each new carriage, I said something along the lines of, 'I'm a doctor, does anyone require my help?' At which point, I was told more than once that my help was required in the train next to the train I was on, that there were people there that needed my help more."

Over and over again, reading the often reluctant and pragmatic commentary of the doctors and those who did what they could, you feel an embarrassed unwillingness to expand for the sake of it. Richard Desborough, a party organiser who said that he could not quite understand or explain even to himself why he turned back and went into a carriage to help the injured and dying: "But I think you told the police that you were able to reach in to a sufficient extent to be able to touch him, to stroke his back and to try to calm him?" "Yes, and try to comfort him." "Offer consolation to him?" "Yes."

In these acts of storytelling – of witness – a voice often leaps from the transcript in all its modesty, ordinariness and generosity. All the tricks of literature have no power against the power of a single, quiet voice telling its story in its own way.

Dr Gerardine Quaghebeur, one of the heroes of the day in her determination and devotion to the victims, had to be asked to speak up at the beginning of the session. But her words needed no amplification, open, unaffected and occasionally muddled as they were.

"There was rather a mess really, I suppose, in that carriage, and the lady who was sat in seat 22 sort of looked and said – I think she said something like, 'You can't be leaving us, you're not going to leave us?', and so I said 'No, no, I'll stay', and I asked – he said, 'Are you sure you want to stay?' or something like that and I said, 'Yes, can I have the torch?' So he left me the torch and he went away."

Everyone should read these extraordinary transcripts, harrowing though they are, as a duty. At some points you have to turn your face away, and it may be wet with tears. Whatever the inquest was intended to achieve, what it has become is a repository of memory, and of the individual stories of that terrible day.

The practice of storytelling is a communal rite, carried out as much for the sake of the listeners as for the tellers. Those who endure so terrible an experience as 7 July are not very likely to find "closure" through their telling, in the cant word; it is horrible to think that that day may always be the most important of their lives, more than their wedding days or the birth of their children.

But it was brave of them to tell their stories. Sometimes, after a great trauma, a silence falls on the teller – the unwillingness of soldiers to talk about their experience of battles is notorious. Here, they came to Lady Justice Hallett's court and told, sometimes haltingly, what they saw, and what they did. Out of a legal procedure a national ceremony arose.

What we found, as we listened, was something we hadn't expected: the testimony of goodness.