Going into my local corner shop in Camden Town on Friday morning to buy a paper, the guy serving me looked at the front page photo displaying the terrible carnage which had just been wreaked upon our city, shook his head slowly and said with a mix of sadness and resolve, "Such a terrible thing. But us Londoners, we don't give in." I nodded agreement, gave him the money and then allowed myself the first smile to cross my face since the news emerged.
My corner shop specialises in Portuguese cakes and delicacies, and the dark-eyed man serving me still has an accent soaked in the waters of the Douro and a taste for salted cod. He hasn't been in Britain for more than a couple of years, yet he thinks of himself as a Londoner and rightful heir to the indomitable spirit of the Blitz. And what's more, he's right.
Quite how an incredibly diverse city of eight million or so souls, many of them pulled to this agitated, querulous megalopolis from far corners of the earth, can somehow have a coherent character is difficult to fathom. But the dreadful events of what some are now calling 7/7 proved to me that it does. Despite the most nightmarish scenario - simultaneous bombs in confined underground spaces, during rush hour, across an ark of the inner city and a double-decker bus, one of the emblems of old London, exploding with such force that blood splattered nearby walls - there was no panic, no hysteria. The emergency services and security forces went about their jobs with an admirable efficiency, and the populace, although shocked, displayed a calm which was almost otherworldly. A few streets away from the explosions it was business as usual. A few hours after the explosions, it was almost as if they hadn't happened.
Perhaps because we have grown so used to this, over years of IRA bombs, Angry Brigade bombs, David Copeland bombs and a constant threat from every lunatic with a grudge, we know that despite the magnitude of this attack, most of us will remain unscathed and life will go on. We've got a well-honed sense of proportion: we're used to big stuff. If our parents and grandparents could cope with bombs and much more every day for nine months of Blitzkrieg, then it's almost our duty not to flinch, a feeling that you absorb even if your forebears came from far away. Where New York was paralysed for months after the twin towers attack, we were all so much more prepared. This is a hard-nosed, battle-scarred city, so it's hard to scare. This is also a business city predicated on making money, so it's hard to shut down. Making a few bob is our one shared religion, and the faithful were back at the altar in no time.
Many of the traits which other people see as London's faults work for us in this sort of crisis. The supposed coldness of the capital translated into an icy resolve, free from overly emotional traumas or collective hysteria. Our individualism meant that despite numerous moving stories of Londoners helping others, the overriding response was simply to get out of harm's way and get home however we could with as little fuss as possible. On the long walk back from work people still didn't make unnecessary eye contact or talk to each other. And I suspect that these very London traits will carry on as the aftershocks reverberate.
Where the populace of Madrid responded to their unspeakable terrorist atrocity by demonstrating on the streets in their millions, we do not have such a collective identity. We won't be making placards, building shrines or singing "You'll never walk alone". There won't be an underground Ground Zero. Perhaps we find all that stuff a little too gauche, too small-town sentimental, but that doesn't mean we don't care or share values. In our own way each one of us will mark this awful assault upon our many ways of life. For that's what we have here in London, a series of disparate ways of living. We share a city, which lets us be whoever we want, which leaves us alone. And as long as we're left alone to do that, we're fine. When anybody attempts to stop us in that endeavour we will make sure they fail by defying them, by getting up and getting on with it. Whatever "it" means for each of us.
Ken Livingstone's defiant, quietly heartfelt speech on the way back from the capital's amazing Olympic success has struck a massive chord here. Being a Londoner is a choice. We pay through the nose and put up with all the crap, the traffic, the noise and the crime, because we like the diversity, the freedom, the tolerance. It's a choice made by people whose roots lie all over the world, but who have come together here in this unique place. Of course there will be a few idiots who seek scapegoats to blame, but I know this city will be largely free of recriminations and knee-jerk responses. We're too savvy and worldly-wise to look for easy answers, too aware that the people who were killed and maimed will include every creed and colour, as will the untold people who did so much to save and help others.
Within the space of a few, far too intense days, London has witnessed the unprecedented Live8 event in Hyde Park, the joyous Olympic decision in Trafalgar Square and Stratford, and now this. It's been an emotional white-knuckle ride, but out of the torrent of feelings which have tumbled one after the other, one has struck me as being most potently felt. "London Pride" may be a corny old song, but I for one am feeling immensely proud to be a Londoner right now.Reuse content