On the morning of the horrific London bombings which we soon came 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, 10 years ago today, feels like quite 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 from Camden Town to Central London for a day's work at the Heat magazine office. I remember looking down to see Euston Square station closed off - an ambulance or two outside, lots of people milling. About 20 minutes beforehand, three bombs had detonated in the Underground, eventually prompting a Code Amber evacuation of the whole network. 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. Remote controls soon raised the volume, 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 hadn't been caused by a power surge.
Worryingly, the mobile phone network soon became unusable, clogged up with desperate speed-diallers. My mum phoned Heat to make sure I was okay. I called through to Boots on Oxford Street, where my then-girlfriend Sarah worked, to make sure she was okay. For the rest of the morning, the country would be just one big jittery chain of people checking on others in a pre-Twitter age.
Everyone left the Heat office early. Walking through the streets seemed dangerous now, since we had no idea if there'd be a second wave of bombs. Sarah and I walked up to Camden Town where we visited a series of pubs to get drunk. We ended up in the Liberties bar, as it was then known, watching news updates on TV. The number of dead was rising. It would ultimately reach a total of 52, with over 700 injured.
For a while after that day, a queasiness clung to my stomach. If I, or people close to me, been in a different tin-can zooming through London, at a different time, we would have either died or been transformed in some terrible way. The ice-cold randomness of that began to eat 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 no man's land of fiction writing.
I didn't use the Tube for some time, either. This may well have been irrational and contrary to the bulldog-beef national spirit. The way I saw it, though: if you could improve the odds for yourself and the people that matter, then why not? "Stay calm and carry on" seemed an easy mantra for politicians who didn't have to travel in sardine tins, hundreds of feet below ground level. But 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, not least because 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, to which we're mostly oblivious. 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 forever tumble, how best to live our lives? Should we live as if every day is our last? Or as if we'll live forever?
The problem with that first approach is that it would turn you into a mad parody of a Bucket Lister. 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 full of champagne and cocaine, or swam frenziedly alongside whales. 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. Only yesterday, I looked up an old Camden Town friend on Facebook, only to be chilled by the sight of the word 'Remembering' on their page, above their name.
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 all that pro-active 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 enjoy some ludicrous Saturday night TV: a procession of 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 modern life's sound and fury and incessant interconnectivity. 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 (which I blogged about here) and you want to leave the strongest possible legacy.
Did you see ITV's recent documentary, 7/7 Bombing: Survivors' Stories? The latest of the docs, it gathers the testimony of people affected by 7/7. Human faces fill the screen, telling their stories direct to camera, to the viewer. The camera tends to stay tight on them, 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. My opinion of humanity seems to sink each year, but I do still believe most people will help others when faced with that kind of horror. Most people are essentially good.
You can watch the documentary on ITV Player here for the next few weeks.
Today, I'll be thinking about those who died or were injured in London on the seventh of July 2005. I'll also launch a renewed campaign to view life through a high-definition lens.
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