Seven Years After 7/7

On the day of the horrific London bombings which we've come to know as '7/7', I was in the centre of town and fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me.  Nevertheless, the seventh of July 2005, seven years ago today, feels like a significant event on a personal level, because it changed the way I thought about life.  Negatively in the short-term, but positively overall.  Which is obviously odd.

That morning, at about 9.10am, I travelled through London's public transport system, on the top of a double-decker, heading to Heat magazine for a day's work.  I remember looking down to see Euston Square station closed off - maybe the odd ambulance outside, lots of people milling.  No doubt, the three bombs had already detonated in the Underground, eventually prompting a 'Code Amber' evacuation of the whole network - and half an hour later a Number 30 bus would explode in Tavistock Square.

It wasn't until about 10am when we Heat magazine staffers found our attention glued to the news on the office TV screens.  The volumes were raised by remote control, revealing newsreaders trying to make sense of what had happened, while trying not to cause undue panic on London's streets.  At one point, a "power surge" was apparently to blame in the Underground.  Eventually, we saw the bus.  Down in the Tube, all the unimaginable horror was hidden away, but you didn't have to be a scientist to know that the bus' horrendous state wasn't caused by a power surge.

Worryingly, the mobile phone network soon became unusable, clogged up with worried speed-diallers.  My mother came through via the Heat switchboard, to make sure I was okay.  And I called through to Boots on Oxford Street, where my then-girlfriend Sarah worked, to make sure she was okay.  For the next half hour, all of London was just one big paper chain of people making sure others were okay.

Everyone left the Heat office early.  I walked through the streets, which suddenly seemed more dangerous than before, since we had no idea if there'd be a second wave of bombs, to Bond Street.  Then Sarah and I walked our way up to Camden Town where we visited a chain of pubs with the express intention of getting drunk.  We ended up in the Liberties bar, as it was then known, watching news updates on TV.  The number of dead was rising - and would ultimately reach a total of 52, with over 700 injured.

For a while after that day, I had a sick feeling in my stomach.  Still do, to a lesser extent.  The uncomfortable knowledge that, if I'd been in a different tin-can zooming through London, at a different time, then I would have either died or been transformed in some terrible way.  The ice-cold randomness of that rather ate into me.  For weeks afterwards, I insisted that Sarah got taxis to and from our Camden home to Boots on Oxford Street.  (Amazingly, I could afford this back then, because I had yet to leap into the financial vacuum of scriptwriting.)

I didn't use the Tube for some time, either.  This may well have been irrational and against the national spirit.  The way I saw it, though: if you could improve the odds for yourself and the people that matter, then why not?  I felt that "Stay calm and carry on" was easy for people to say when they didn't have to travel in crowded cannisters, hundreds of feet below ground level.  Of course, after a while, given enough time to readjust, staying calm and carrying on is exactly what you do.  It's really the only way to do anything.  Besides, fear is the arch nemesis of fun.

It might seem crass to describe 7/7 as a near-death experience for all surviving Londoners and visitors, but in some way it felt like one.  As if we'd passed some deeply arbitrary, sickening test.  Survived a dice roll.  The thing is, we survive dice rolls every single day, most of which we're utterly oblivious to.  It was just that, on 7/7, four suicide bombers made that gamble visible and explicit.  They heartlessly skewed the odds for others while ensuring that their own fell to zero.

So, in a world where dice continually tumble, how best to live our lives?  Should we live as if every day is our last?  Should we live as if we'll live forever?

The problem with that first approach is that it would turn you into a mad person.  You'd spend every day bouncing around like a freak, kissing, hugging and shagging people, hurriedly ticking off stuff you never did before, eyes manic as you goggled down at Manhattan from a helicopter or frenziedly swam alongside a whale.  Chances are, you'd wake up the next morning and have to artificially generate brand new excitement about your New Last Day On Earth.  Exhausting.  Untenable.

There are two ways to act as if we'll live forever.  There's behaving as though you're physically immortal, which is easy in your teens and 20s, because your body's so resilient and armour-plated, only to start sending you warning signals which intensify with each new decade.  This kind of hedonism ultimately tends to reduce your lifespan, which can't be good.  The whole "Live fast, die young" ethos is great until it's time to do the dying.

Then there's behaving as if your time here is infinite.  It's the anti-Living As If Every Day Is Your Last.  You lounge around, turn down opportunities to socialise or achieve because there's plenty of time for that stuff and, anyway, there are good shows on TV tonight.

Whether we'd like to admit it or not, the majority of us reside within varying degrees of mindlessness.  We're not behaving like mortals or immortals: we're just not thinking about it.  This is our factory default setting and one which brings an undeniable comfort.  Wouldn't be healthy to spend all our days fretting about lifespans, death, fate and odds.  The mindlessness of staring at things, while barely seeing them at all, is actually an important shield.  Pretty sure that's why I love a crammed Saturday night TV schedule - a procession of ludicrous gameshows and talent shows which demand little of the brain.  It can be good to switch off for a while.

Yet none of these designs for life are the answer in themselves.  The answer may well lie in a varied rotation of them all, but all things considered, I've come to think of awareness and appreciation as key.  Walk beside the sea and taste the salty air, really suck it in.  Take time to fully appreciate loved ones.  Do what you enjoy most and do it with all the high-definition consciousness you can muster.  My favourite Fight Club quote is "This is your life and it's ending, one minute at a time".  Granted, I wouldn't want it tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, but sometimes we really need that reminder, that wake-up call, amid the sound and fury of modern life.  Don't let too many of these minutes flood between your fingers and toes.

As someone who works seven days a week by default, and is all too capable of walking through interesting surroundings while seeing none of it because there's a creative building site toiling away in my head, I'm well aware that I'm fundamentally writing for my own benefit here.  Still, the idea of maintaining a measured sense of urgency to your life applies to work too.  Write your next Creative Thing as if it's your last and you want to leave the strongest possible legacy.

Have you seen the BBC's One Day In London documentary?  It gathers the testimony of 50 people who were affected by 7/7.  I love the way it was shot.  Human faces fill the screen, telling their stories direct to camera, to the viewer.  The camera stays tight on their faces, so that we only learn if they have terrible injuries, missing limbs, etc, if they choose to tell us.  There are graphic accounts of events which can't help but haunt you, but also uplifting stories about people helping people.

You can watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer here, presumably for a limited time.

Today, I'll be thinking about those who died or were injured in London on the seventh of July 2005.  I'll also be launching a renewed campaign to view life through a high-definition lens.

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Glamrockgoth said...

When you have had a traumatic experience it really does change your outlook on life. A couple of years ago my partner comitted suicide and it really does make you realise how short life can be and how quickly and unexpectedly it can be taken away. Since then I've learnt to take nothing for granted, I worry about nothing, there is no point. What will be, will be. If I want to do something and I can, I will, as I may not be here tomorrow. Take every day as it comes, accept change and get on with things the best you can, there is always someone far worse off than yourself. :-)

Stephanie Butland said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. When I'm talking about cancer I make the point that anything brush with mortality changes the way you look at life. Once you get over the 'must-have-a-sparkly-life-because-it-could-be-over-ANY-SECOND' thing, most of us live a life more vivid, if only because we're more alive to it.