Hard times in the city
In my previous blog about the twin metropolitan giants, London and New York, I mentioned an essay by E.B. White called ‘Here is New York’. I imagine quite a few readers scratched their heads going E.B. who? Well, if you don’t recognise the name you may recognise the books. He wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and if you haven’t read the books, I’m guessing you know the films.
White’s essay, written in 1949, is a love letter to his beloved New York (albeit one that carries warnings), which is written in the elegant, effortless prose style, that writers from that era perfected in columns for the New Yorker and elsewhere.
The article surfaced again after 9/11 because of a resonant paragraph towards the end of the piece about how vulnerable New York is to destruction. He says: ‘A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers and cremate the millions.’
While White could never have imagined the damage wrought by passenger planes used as weapons of war, he knew then as we know now that London and New York have a certain terrorist priority. He writes: ‘In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm’.
On that terrible day I was at work in London, doing my job, which as improbable as it sounds, is to train people how to deal with crises. My wife, working on a national newspaper, texted me that a plane had flown into a building in New York. When I told the people in the room, they initially thought it was part of the training.
Thereafter, I remember walking home and watching television for hours trying to make sense of what was playing out live in front of our eyes. We saw the buildings come down and the crowds running from the swirling clouds of dust, ash and smoke; it was gripping and depressing in equal measure.
My birthday falls in September and that year (2001) my wife, had very kindly bought airline flights to New York as my present. Immediately after 9/11 all flights were cancelled, and passengers received a refund. Our tickets were dated about a week after the event and by then airlines, possibly feeling the pinch, said there were to be no more refunds. Do we go, or do we stay?
We discussed the pros and cons, and while, in the short term, the likelihood of another attack was vanishingly small, the thought of going on holiday to a place that had suffered so much death and destruction did seem a little odd. Frankly, I knew pretty quickly that we would go, but what I couldn’t have predicted was the reception we received.
After an uneventful flight (I like them that way) we checked into The W Hotel in Midtown. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by someone on reception when trying to check into a hotel. Although we hadn’t cancelled our booking there was a clear expectation that we would never show up. Locals seemed to think that tourists would never return, but there we were, being celebrated by New York’s hard bitten finest.
But of course, there were very few tourists, the city was eerily quiet. We paid a brief, respectful visit to the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers and walked for miles through deserted streets, occasionally coming upon small parks with pictures posted everywhere of the missing.
Two nights into our stay, Broadway opened its doors and of course we went to see a show. Later that evening we joined friends at a piano bar in Greenwich Village where we all belted out songs from Broadway shows. Drink was taken, the singing may have been terrible and some of the songs ridiculous, but it seemed like a small, splendid act of defiance.
The daughter of a family friend was studying in New York when the catastrophe happened, and her parents asked us to find her. We made contact and I remember seeing her sitting out front of her boarding house looking very small. She had been helping look after those who had been rescued and at 18 years old had found the experience overwhelming. We sought shelter in the best kind of New York sanctuary, a diner, where we ate eggs over easy with hash browns.
Then it was our turn. On the morning of 7th July 2005, exactly thirteen years ago today, terrorists struck London. Four suicide bombers with rucksacks packed with explosives travelled from Leeds to wreak havoc on the capital. Just before 9am three bombs exploded on the London Underground and a little later a fourth was detonated on a red London bus at Tavistock Square. Fifty-two people died, and more than 700 were injured.
Sitting at the desk I’m sitting at right now, I heard the news on the radio. My mobile and landline phone promptly stopped working but I managed to get an email through to my wife and received a reply to say she was OK. All emails then went down.
Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London at the time. To many he is now a somewhat discredited figure, but his rallying call to Londoners and his message to terrorists in the heat of the moment, was pitch perfect.
‘I know that you personally don’t fear giving your own life so you can take others, that’s why you are so dangerous. But I know what you do fear is that you will fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society.
‘And I can show you why you will fail in days that follow. You will see. Look at our airports look at our railway stations look at our seaports and even after your cowardly attack you will see people from Britain, people from around the world, will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.
‘They chose to come to London like so many have come before, because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. And nothing you do, no matter how many you kill will stop that flight, to our cities where freedom reigns.’
Perhaps you think that overly romantic, just political hyperbole, because I’m not blind to the fact that even on a good day London can seem brutal, daunting, even frightening. But Livingstone was right, people come here from all over the world to fulfil their dreams: the musician from a little village in Northampton, which he can’t stand a moment longer, the artist from Poland, who seeks a broader canvas and the builder from Romania desperate to send money home to his family.
In towns and villages all over Britain, all over the world, people right this instant are planning to come to London to make a go of their life, to accept the capital’s tough love. Now there’s something.
Want to be welcomed as a local in a Suffolk village? It might take two generations to find acceptance. Want to be a Londoner? Great, then be one, right now, immediately. Say it out loud: ‘I’m a Londoner’. And if that doesn’t give you a little chill, then perhaps this town isn’t for you.