London’s ‘new determination’

The Journal’s Megan Grittani-Livingston spent the last ten days of summer in London, England. Instead of finding a city awash in fear after terrorist attacks, she found a city still standing strong.

A London police officer stands guard while hundreds of tourists line the streets of Buckingham Palace and watch the Changing of the Guard.
A London police officer stands guard while hundreds of tourists line the streets of Buckingham Palace and watch the Changing of the Guard.
An Imperial War Museum exhibit depicts a bomb planted by the IRA in the 1990s.
An Imperial War Museum exhibit depicts a bomb planted by the IRA in the 1990s.
Westminster Bridge and the Parliament Buildings, the heart of the London tourist district.
Westminster Bridge and the Parliament Buildings, the heart of the London tourist district.
Signs of protest confront visitors as they leave London’s Parliament Buildings.
Signs of protest confront visitors as they leave London’s Parliament Buildings.

London, England. A city with more than its fair share of history, beauty, and intrigue—and on July 7, the site of a tragic terrorist attack.

In May, my family and I planned an August visit to the capital of the once-mighty British empire. Friends of ours live there—two pairs of Dutch émigrés—and my well-travelled mother had never seen the city, weirdly enough, so it was the perfect choice.

After the devastating terrorist attacks of July 7, several friends and family members questioned our desire to keep our plans. I understood their apprehension, but I still wanted to go.

The citizens of London appeared to have calmly picked up right where they left off. If they weren’t afraid of their city, why should we be? I wanted to see their courage for myself.

And so we went, and we didn’t regret it for a moment.

Everywhere we went I thought I’d see evidence of the impact of the tragic attacks, but time and again the phlegmatic Londoners surprised me. This pattern began on our flight to England, which bore no signs of increased security or anxious passengers, and rarely deviated.

In Heathrow Airport, my only anxious moment came courtesy of the anonymous-looking black bag left unattended in the passport line-up. I stared at it for a while, wondering if I should turn it in, wondering if I was about to get blown up or wondering if I was being an idiot.

I looked around for an owner and stared some more. Is this what it’s like every day for London’s tube commuters?

I realized later I should’ve turned in the bag. There are signs everywhere on the tube instructing riders not to leave their bags unattended, to turn in any suspicious-looking parcels and to help officials keep the Underground safe. I did none of these things.

It’s amazing how such situations expose your stupidest prejudices. I saw a book sticking out of the bag’s side pocket, and thought vaguely, “Oh, it’s for real! A reader, a tourist, not a terrorist.” Like there’s some sort of profile for terrorists that includes illiteracy. Clearly, my subconscious is an idiot.

After an entertaining ride in one of London’s ubiquitous black cabs, we checked into the Dorcester, a majestic and beautiful old hotel overlooking Hyde Park whose polished lobby made me feel distinctly like an unwashed, miscreant Canuck.

The pretty and smiling concierge took us up to our rooms, and my dad—an aspiring journalist’s dream dude—started peppering her with questions, as he does with everyone.

“So, is the place booked in full?” he asked her as we packed into the elevator.

“No, just about 65 per cent,” she replied in a musical accent (I’m terrible at placing accents).

“Is that usual for August?” Dad continued.

“No, not at all.”

“Because of the bombings?” “Yes, yes, probably.”

“Did you have any cancellations after July?” I butted in, curious.

“We had two right after, but none since.”

In the 10 days that followed, my family and I walked all over the big, beautiful city, feeling it hum with life and noise. With only a few minor hiccups—such as my inability to get used to cars and buses roaring at me from the opposite direction, resulting in numerous hair-raising traffic experiences—we visited almost all of London’s most famous tourist sites, soaking up the atmosphere.

I don’t know what I expected from London’s pedestrian population, but no one seems afraid, or jittery, or anything other than purposeful in their strides. There are joggers galore, kids playing in the lush green parks and shoppers and working people everywhere.

We visited New York almost a year to the day after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the sense of sorrow and loss was still palpable, particularly—and understandably—around Ground Zero. London bears no similar scar.

Even the tourist population didn’t seem to be depleted, judging by the crowds swarming Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Monument in front, and by the huge line waiting to get into the palace the first time we walked past it. My dad is fatally allergic to lines, so we bought tickets for later in the week.

Passing by the Prime Minister’s place of business at 10 Downing Street proved a testament to London’s already-extensive history with similar terror attacks.

You can’t get anywhere near the building; a black ironwork fence shuts out the passers-by on adjacent Whitehall St. Armed guards patrol the barrier, but they don’t seem to mind having their pictures taken by curious tourists.

This isn’t a new anti-terror move; my dad told me the fence has been up for years. That was my first clue that sneak attacks on home territory aren’t so new to Londoners. They’ve handled terrible violence before—the perpetual bombing of the World War II Blitz, and the devastating IRA explosives, to name but two occasions—and have survived reasonably unscathed, with competent security protocols in place.

Visiting the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms—the actual rooms near Downing St. that were used frequently by Winston Churchill and his WWII cabinet for planning during the Blitz attacks and that are now open to the public—reinforced my sense of the weight of London’s experience.

The war rooms themselves have been lovingly restored, or in several cases simply preserved intact, to give a chilling picture of how London coped with the Blitz: underground, in the dark, emerging to carnage and rubble.

The Germans were so close and unrelenting, and the danger was so present and real, that it’s easy to see why the famed British constitution was so well prepared to shake off the mantle of the current terrorist threat. The vague, looming spectre of terrorism must be a removed fear compared to the daily bombings that caused thousands of needless deaths.

One of the museum’s audio accompaniments was a reading from the journal of Alan Brooke, commander of the British Home Forces, from September and October 1940, the time when a German invasion seemed inevitable. Though he was in command of the troops and had all available intelligence at his fingertips, he sounded as scared and uncertain as any average citizen.

“Perhaps they will come tomorrow,” reads one early September entry. His words don’t exactly inspire wild confidence. I wonder what the diaries of Tony Blair or George W. Bush will say. I wonder whether we’ll even think them worth preserving.

At the Thames-side apartment of our Dutch friends Nicolette and Joost, Nicolette and her brother Jaco gave us an insider’s perspective on the days following the attacks. Jaco uses the train and the Tube to commute to his job at Barclay’s Bank in downtown London from their home in Wimbledon, as does Nicolette on her way to her work downtown with ABN AMRO. Their consensus on the July bombings: Londoners aren’t too worried.

Jaco still takes the Tube every day—“I have no choice, really,” he said—and so do his coworkers. He pointed to the iron-clad constitution of London’s citizens as a major reason for the quick recovery.

“The English don’t express their emotions, so it’s the worst country in the world for terrorism,” he told me. “They don’t scream and cry like the Dutch or the Italians would. They just say, ‘oh, that’s a bother,’ and move on.” London was already used to sneak attacks thanks to the IRA bombings of the 1980s, he said, and so the security measures were already in place.

“Look around at intersections,” Nicolette said. “Those big black boxes are cameras.”

Jaco said all London has really lost since the July bombings are the understandably skittish American tourists and the day-trippers from elsewhere in England who can’t been bothered to come to London since, according to my family friends, it’s both so much more expensive and now possibly unsafe. His and Nicolette’s philosophy—like that of most of London, it seems—is, “It could happen to anyone, anywhere, so you just hope it’s not you,” as Nicolette put it.

Johanneke, Jaco’s pregnant wife, was only mildly less sanguine. She works just outside of London, so her daily commute goes in the opposite direction from the hordes. But she was anxious about her husband.

“At first I was afraid for Jaco, having to go into the city, but what can you do?” she said. “There’s nothing you can do. There are so many stations too, so who knows? ... But everything is back to normal, I think.”

Riding the Tube ourselves proved to be easier on the nerves than expected. Our first ride, south to the spectacular Kew Gardens, initially made my mom nervous, but she had no real objections until we got lost on our way back.

The map is a mass of squiggles that eventually became comprehensible to us, but when leaving Kew we got on a National Rail train instead of an Underground train, apparently. We ended up shivering outdoors at some random station in south London until we got ourselves sorted out.

“I knew we were on the wrong train!” Mom said.

That was about it for us for Tube anxiety.

Members of London’s police force seem to be everywhere, a constant and steady presence. The “bobbies” even managed to be friendly. They guided all the bewildered tourists right to where they want to go, which is usually, it seems, right in front of me to look at something pretty (my luck is terrible.) The fact that I found the police presence entirely benign may have something to do with my being a white female tourist-type.

Racial prejudices have simmered in the north of England, where the four bombers were born, and where 18-year-old black teenager Anthony Walker was murdered by a gang of white men in July “in what police say was a racially-motivated attack,” according to the BBC.

The network also reports that Muslim groups in the south of England and figures coming out of Wales have also reported a rise in racial incidents since July 7.

But to me, the two heavily armed officers pacing around St. Paul’s Cathedral were intimidating on first blush, but then they cheerfully paused their circuit to pose with tourists. It must be the hats.

Security at major sites like Buckingham Palace was surprisingly relaxed. We and our palace tour group of 50 or so had to put our bags and persons through X-ray scans and metal detectors before entering the Queen’s sacred realm, but the machines were run by attendants who looked younger than me. Not very intimidating.

A good-natured young guide named Elizabeth told me the palace sees about 5,000 tourists per day, but a guide further along the exit path gave me a much higher estimate of 7,000 to 10,000. When I asked the second guide if the numbers had dropped off since the July attacks, her answer was emphatic.

“No, not at all,” she said.

After leaving the palace, we tried to see the Changing of the Guard, but really we just watched about 2,000 people elbow each other. If there was any doubt in my mind that tourism in London is still thriving, that idea has been banished. We couldn’t get near the palace yard or the monument!

“So, now you can say you’ve seen the changing of the guard,” Dad told me when all the shoving and jostling was over.

“Well, actually, I can’t,” I admitted. “I saw them leave the palace. I think there were horses somewhere. That’s about it.”

It seems I’m a weak breed of tourist.

The Houses of Parliament boasted the tightest security procedures: a groping search as well as a bag X-ray. I managed not to laugh during the grope. I’m ticklish, but that’s never been funny to guards before. No idea why.

The buildings themselves are stunning, though the House of Lords is noticeably more gorgeous and ornate than the plain House of Commons.

Our guide Helena earnestly informed us the Lords are actually quite active and accomplish a great deal. I was surprised. The Canadian Senate should take note.

Officials were re-vamping the House of Commons security system while we were there, and I asked Helena if it was because of terrorist concerns.

“Well, actually, it’s because of a rather embarrassing incident where some pro-fox hunt activists stormed in from both ends of the House—they had some inside information, apparently—and the sergeant of the yard had to chase them around,” she said.

“It’s for the protection of the members, but also for the public. Everyone is saying it’s a different world now, and that there’s a need for more security.”

When you leave the Houses of Parliament, passing the heavily armed and stone-faced guards, the first thing you see is a street block’s worth of banners protesting Britain’s involvement in the war on Iraq. “Baby killers,” one proclaims, while another declares that “Love is the answer.” In the wake of the attacks, I’d expected anti-Americanism and anti-war sentiments to be louder and more obvious. Instead, they were quiet but pervasive.

On Sunday morning I visited Hyde Park’s famous Speaker’s Corner, where average Joes and Jills come to speak their minds on whatever topic moves them. There were lots of people bellowing about how “WE ARE ALL SINNERS,” and one very earnest socialist spent a great deal of time talking directly to me. I must have looked especially capitalist that day.

But the speaker who drew the biggest crowd was railing against the war on Iraq in general and Tony Blair and George Bush in particular.

“I am so sick of George Bush and his little lapdog Tony Blair,” he proclaimed to scattered applause from his intent audience. “We British were perfectly happy going on as we were, but then Tony Blair dragged us into a war no one wanted. And it gets us attacked!

“Bush is only interested in Iraq and Iran for the oil,” he declared, eliciting fervent applause from one woman and nods from many of the heads in the crowd.

On our last full day in London, I went to a bookstore on Piccadilly and picked up an intriguing little brown book entitled “Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942.” An English reprint of a document issued by the United States War Department, this entertaining pamphlet instructs Americans serving in Britain on the minutiae of British life.

Its many pearls of wisdom include some keen observations on the unflappable British character that seemed to apply in 1942 and in 2005.

“You will find that shortages, discomforts, blackouts, and bombings have not made the British depressed,” it reads. “They have a new cheerfulness and a new determination born out of hard times and tough luck.”

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