London 7/7, ten years later

In Improbable Mutterings on July 7, 2015 at 10:02 am
The number 30 bus, bombed at Tavistock Square

The number 30 bus, bombed at Tavistock Square

Today is the tenth anniversary of the July 7 terrorist bombings that took place in London, UK. I was living in London that summer, and blind circumstance led me to within a hair’s breath of more than one explosion site, as well as preventing me from being amidst them.

I wrote about these events in an article for the Globe and Mail. I saw the aftermath of the Tavistock Square double-decker bus bombing shortly after it happened, and the sight of it has remained with me to this day. We were exceptionally close to the underground explosion at King’s Cross/Russell Square, and in fact we had disembarked at King’s Cross mere minutes before the bombings took place.

To date, outside my journals, this is the only piece I have put to paper on my experiences — which is unusual for me, given how often I think of them, and how much of a touchstone they are for my understanding of both London and of global (and domestic) terrorism. The area in and around Bloomsbury is an important one for me, as it is home to one of the greatest periods of my intellectual growth. But it is also the site of a harrowing brush with death, and with global forces that (now, as then) seem perniciously opposed to that same flowering of learning.

Articulating how my experience truly felt has been a humbling challenge. A lot of time in my working and creative lives is spent finding the right words. I’ve searched in vain for a metaphor for my experience, and most of what I come up with sounds ridiculous, or precious, or bathetic. (No, I didn’t feel like an extra on a movie set. No, I didn’t feel like I was in the middle of a defining historical moment. No, I didn’t feel like it was a dream.)

I also distrust my memory of the events. I’m wary of appropriating the tragedy of July 7 for my own perceived gains, and am cautious of the accuracy of my recollections.

When speaking with people who have not lived through circumstances of such gripping uncertainty, it can be difficult to avoid seeming affected, or effete, or grandiose. My usual recourse is to look at my feet, and mutter something vague about how horrible it all was. Most of my friends don’t think of me as a circumspect person, so brevity on a topic so weighty is something I am self-conscious about.

This is less a reluctance about speaking on the subject in general, and more about how to speak about it at all. I don’t know what the ground rules are, for sharing an experience of such terrible events. I recently asked a friend who spent time in the military, in dangerous theatres in Afghanistan and Sudan, about how he relates to other people some of the things he’s seen. “Speak in plain facts, and don’t embellish” was his sound advice. But what about the blood, the gore, the bodies? How do you explain that to people, I inquired. “Most people don’t want to know about that stuff. And don’t trust people who do ask about it. Their motives can be pornographic.”

I hadn’t thought about it that way, though I’m not sure, during these intervening years, that I have been safeguarding against titillation. I suppose members of the military have to develop mechanisms to process what they see, and then communicate with the outside world. Hopefully, in an age versed in the signs of PTSD, they have training and support to do this and sustain their emotional well-being. It had never occurred to me that I might need some kind of similar instruction.

Even the suggestion of such a need makes me flush with awkardness. Frankly, I was and am embarrassed to narratively put myself in the middle of such important events at all. Being a silent bystander does not come naturally to me. As I suggested in my Globe piece, action of any kind was a salve to my impulse to act, though it accomplished nothing at all. I don’t think I ever felt true fear for my own life during the bombings — though all evidence suggests I should have — but what I *did* feel was a sense that I had in some fashion cheated fate. The resulting sensation was as akin to shame as anything I have ever felt, at least for something I did not have a direct hand in doing (or not doing).

At several points in my life, through accidents and misadventure and the deaths of close friends and siblings, I have come to grips with my own mortality. I do not think the events in London left me with anything resembling a clinical trauma, but they did leave behind a kind of permanent imaginative impression on my mind’s retina, akin to an accidental glimpse at an eclipse. Painless at the time, its effects linger, ghosting at the edge of your vision, leaving you unaware of what damage might have been done.

* * *

During my first summer in London, in 2004, I lived in William Goodenough House, a postgraduate student residence of Goodenough College, University College London. I had gained access to Goodenough House through my mother, who was a former student of UCL and resident of the house. The rooms were tattered and smelled a bit of long-accepted mold (in that gentrified way that only old British homes can), and I never could get used to the communal arrangements of the W.C. But it was home, had a lovely courtyard with 20 hours of birdsong, and it was peaceful — the kind of place you could grow to love.

But I didn’t need to grow into my love for Bloomsbury in general. While the summer of 2004 was my second time in London, it was also my first true taste of its intellectual character. I was in awe of the historical and literary density of the experience: a quick step outside my doors had me walking past the former residences of W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, John Wyndham, Charles Darwin, and John Maynard Keynes. Quite literally next door to my rooms was the Foundling Museum, which featured original works by William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsbourgh, Joshua Reynolds, and Louis-Francois Roubillac. I was less than a 10 minute walk from the British Museum, holy of holies. I was another 10 minute walk from the British Library, where I had taken up a fellowship under the generosity of a professor and mentor.

The stately facade of the Goodenough Club, outside my (less stately) residence at the House, on Mecklenbugh Square.

The stately facade of the Goodenough Club, outside my (less stately) residence at the House, on Mecklenbugh Square.

For a child of books such as myself, I was more than in my element — I was almost overwhelmed, sometimes paralyzed, with sensory input.

I was also a five-minute walk from Russell Square station and Tavistock Square, and about the same distance from King’s Cross. I used both stations several times a week, and grew intimately familiar with the neighbourhoods surrounding them. These places were as close to “home” as I ever found in London, and I still think I could walk some of those side streets blindfolded.

In 2005, at the recommendation of a family friend, rather than stay again at Goodenough, I moved into a flat at Connaught Square, St. George’s Fields. Located at the northeastern tip of Hyde Park (across the street from the original Speaker’s Corner) and the southern end of Edgware Road, this place seemed a world apart from my previous residence — lots of wealthy Arab families being driven around in town cars, ambassador’s residences, and the London homes of UK-born Hollywood stars. Our accommodations were of infinitely higher quality than my humble student residence, but my heart was still 2.5 miles to the northeast, in Bloomsbury — the site of the two most devastating bombings of July 7.

* * *

The day after the bombing, on a break from work at the British Library, I walked west to Euston Station, where the Route 30 bus had left before exploding less than 10 minutes later at Tavistock. It was while lingering around the station that I occasioned to look at a huge mural with pictures of the dead or missing — so common a sight after tragedies of this kind. One face, her name scribbled down in my ever-present journals, stuck with me: that of Karolina Gluck, a 29-year-old Polish immigrant. She was young, had a cool-looking pixie haircut, and looked like someone I might be friends with.

Karolina Gluck

Karolina Gluck

Karolina was still missing as I looked at her photograph. Given the thorough response of the London police and emergency services, it seemed unlikely that anybody would remain missing for long. Indeed, several days later, her remains were identified and her death confirmed.

Looking at her photo, just over 24 hours after the bombings, I went into an imaginative tailspin, riveted to the spot. It took several more years to actually process why, and I could never have known until all the facts came to light. Something uncanny lingered with me, nagging my memory, unwilling to release me from its grip.

The Route 30 bus that left Euston ran a course from Marble Arch, which was the closest station to where I was living in St. George’s Fields. It passed through Bloomsbury, on its route to Hackney Wick. I did not regularly take the bus when traveling to work at the British Library, but if I did, this bus would be a candidate, as it passed through King’s Cross, adjacent to the Library. It also moved through the part of London I loved the most, and I almost certainly would have defaulted to this one had I chosen a more scenic route (as we sometimes did if we had the time).

Later I learned that Karolina did not die on the Route 30 bus, and so she was not among the carnage I witnessed at Upper Woburn Place. But she did die nearby, on the underground tracks at Russell Square — the bombing I was actually closest to, both time- and space-wise.

Karolina was also a receptionist at Goodenough College.

Had I seen her, walked past her in all the time I had spent in that area? Did we ever cross paths entering or leaving the tube at Russell Square or King’s Cross? Had we eaten lunch nearby each other at Brunswick Square Gardens, across from the Foundling Museum?

The enormity of the near misses was overwhelming, compounded by the atmosphere of grief. But in the days following, I somehow managed to push it down somewhere deep inside me, compact it all into a tiny ball, and tuck it away somewhere I could abstract it, and look at it clinically. All around me, people were doing the same. The vaunted stereotype of the British “stiff upper lip” is well-deserved: though I had few precedents for examples, Londoners were as stoic and resolved as any group of people under adversity as I had ever seen. I suppose I followed the example of our landlords, who stuffed me with pea soup and tea and small talk and talk about how “We’ve seen all this before, in The Troubles, and before that, with the Germans.” (They were not exaggerating about their proximity, either: in November 1975, Irish nationalists had exploded a car bomb at Connaught Square, just outside where my flat stood.)

I’m not sure I was ready to move so quickly to calm resolution. Don’t mistake me: histrionics would have been infinitely worse, as a course of behaviour. (As my earlier story suggests, I largely managed to avoid this reaction by running the distance between St. George’s Fields and the British Library three times. And to be fair, I’m not sure that Lindy, my girlfriend at the time, would have characterized my reaction to her absence as “calm resolution.”) But it was as if my ability to process the events had been outsourced, leaving me absolved of responsibility for the results. I don’t feel that I had much say in the matter, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really processed what happened to me — what happened around me — on that day. In that respect, my inability to describe how it “really felt” is unsurprising.
* * *

We don’t know ourselves in the instances of tragedy or triumph, though a part of ourselves is always revealed. Some of us act first and think (and feel) later; some of us give into feeling in the moment. But in the midst of the high emotions of epochal happenings, shadows and gaps form, preventing linear understanding. Later, we create a narrative of what happened, partly to make sense, and partly to console ourselves of our role within them. That consolation is an active process, and it reaches backwards and forwards in time. Memory is alive with contradictions and fraught with the peril of ego.

My memories of Bloomsbury and the tragedies that befell it ten years ago is something that I struggle to resolve, and to articulate easily. The eye-opening explorations of 2004 that gave way to the traumas of 2005 are inextricably fused. It will never, I think, be a tidy story.


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