Yesterday I watched the film “London River”. It is a beautifully crafted little film, with some stunning performances from Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate, about how two strangers come to find their respective children in the aftermath of the 07/07 bombings. I cried the whole way through.
I remember that month very clearly. I’d come back from touring and was starting work as a receptionist in what was then a new media club in Covent Garden. The day before, I’d passed by Trafalgar Square and seen some of the celebrations as London was given the Olympic go-ahead. It seemed on the 6th, and indeed on the morning of the 7th July, that London, and Londoners were on top of the world.
The next morning, I went back into work for my third day on the job. The morning started uneventfully enough; I got some coffee and peanut butter toast from the cafe across the road, chatted with my work colleague, made some pleasantries to the few early bird clients. A little after 9am, a woman rushed in and asked could we put on the news on the screen in the foyer. Bemused, we did so. Another woman rushed in and asked could she make a phone call. More and more people started coming in off the street, some desperate to talk to loved ones, as the signal for mobile phones had gone down. But where it became very real was when one of our work colleagues, a girl called Lisa who seemed (in my then limited experience at the company) to be always happy-go-lucky and cheery, came rushing in, dishevelled and clearly traumatised, saying that she was in a bus behind the bus that blew up and had seen it happen. The morning was exceptionally busy, as we tried to help people by allowing them to use the phones, or helping them if they were too shell-shocked to help themselves.
We were advised not to go out at lunchtime. I felt immensely claustrophobic and just needed some space. I walked up to Covent Garden, around to Leicester Square. Apart from the police, the whole of Covent Garden was deserted and eerily quiet. At that time, there were bomb alerts out, and a rumour that a bomb might go off again. A friend of mine whose sister-in-law works in intelligence said that there were at least 16 other possible targets that day that the police were checking out.
At the end of the day, I decided to walk home. It seemed like the whole of London had made the same decision. I was living in Peckham at the time, so could have got a bus, but the thought of stepping on to public transport filled me with dread, and I needed the walk. Again, as hundreds of us Londoners walked over Waterloo Bridge, I was struck by the quietness, the quiet dignity of my fellow Londoners. Clearly people had been affected by the events of the day, but chose to remain calm and devoid of hysteria.
In the weeks that followed, and after some of the terrible incidences thereafter (like the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting) London slowly rebuilt itself. The tubes that had been silent in that first week that followed the bombings slowly but surely became more relaxed, and people started to ignore each other on public transport once again.
I remembered all of this watching “London River”, and it got me thinking. Has any other Olympic city had a similar story? A story that went from the jubilation of the Olympic win, to the devastation of the bombings and the aftermath, to the riots of last summer, and back to its position as arguably the greatest city in the world? Other cities may have great qualities: my native New York has energy and drive, Berlin eclecticism, Paris romance, Hong Kong brashness, Tokyo industriousness; but London is a unique blend of relatively harmonious race relations, an important centre historically, a world centre economically, energy and passivity in its outlook. It is a tough city, but not unkind. Every day of the almost 13 years I have lived here I have been surprised by something; and while I do not buy into Johnson’s assertion that if one is tired of London, one is tired of life (after all, Johnson did not have to contend with TfL), I do think that if one remains immune to how this city and its inhabitants can truly move or amuse you on a daily basis then it is probably time to leave. Again, it is a tough city, but not one devoid of humanity in my experience.
There are all sorts of arguments about the value of the Olympics; and I understand the argument on all sides. As an artist, the sidelining of funds towards sports at the expense of the arts is short-sighted in the extreme. However, not for one minute do I think that the Olympics should not be held here. We need this opportunity, in the wake of all that has happened, to show ourselves and the world how amazing our city can be: how vibrant, how tolerant, how friendly, how organised,or even how a bit of disorganisation is a good thing, a human quality. I don’t know what Danny Boyle & co have planned for the opening ceremony: but I do know this. It won’t be as precise or awe-inspiring perhaps as Bejing; but it will be beautiful and quietly moving, and none the less spectacular for being that. I suspect that the greatest legacy of the Olympics will be to remind us all of why we live here, how amazing we all are for living here, and what a long way we have come since July 6th 2005. To my mind, that is a legacy worth recalling.