It comes down to Trafalgar Square

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It's just two weeks away from the first anniversary of the London bombings, and no one is taking any notice. I seem to be the only person gawping at scars on the walls of the Tube, and even I wouldn’t dream of asking whether the blackened sections of this old warhorse of an Underground are terrorist damage or simply the liver spots of old age.

The girl sitting opposite me on the Northern line wouldn’t hear my questions anyway: she’s wired up to a different reality. The ad on the East Finchley station wall is her endorsement: ‘Without product XYZ Sally would have to spend the whole of her 40-minute commute staring at the gob of bubblegum on the seat opposite. With XYZ she can be away in her own head.' 

Maybe she thinks I am a gob of bubblegum because we don’t make eye contact during our 20-minute commute. Humanity might break out if we went the extra 20, but I’ll never know. I get out at Kings Cross and resolutely don’t look at the walls. 


The sad fellow opposite us on Saturday afternoon’s crowded Piccadilly line is more social: he shares his choice of heavy metal with the whole carriage by turning up the volume on his mobile phone. No one reacts though because the poor chap is obviously far-gone in delirium or melancholy and his England World Cup jersey (£49 for the souvenir version) is seriously askew.

The red cross of St George is everywhere. Someone’s made a killing on the little white plastic widget that enables the patriot or the mere soccer fanatic to fly the England flag from their car window. Rolls Royces and bashed old Morrises are decked out alike in the democracy of team support. And England wins. In the late afternoon you wonder if any Londoner is at work because every pub has its gleeful gathering of fans, pints in hand and smiles creasing their faces.

In Trafalgar Square, Nelson is all shrouded over. I get a shock as I turn the corner from St Martin’s and see scaffolding and industrial gauze rearing into the sky instead of the old imperturbable figure of the nation’s Admiral. But it’s nothing sinister: just routine repair and part of the upgrading of this most famous of pedestrian precincts. The traffic is being permanently diverted away from the front of the National Gallery so that even more tourists from Russia, Japan, Australia, Slovenia, Zimbabwe, Sweden—the whole world—can loll in the sun (it’s 30 degrees and London’s hottest day this summer) or be videoed clambering over the lions.

 I remember a different Trafalgar Square. In 1990, after the poll tax riots that signalled the end of the Thatcher era, the buildings were still smoking and the air smelt of charcoal. It was Easter, and cold. Homeless men and women lined up at the St Martin’s soup kitchen. But within a day, London repaired itself.  By the time a visiting head of state rolled in procession up the Mall, the Square was cleaned up, pavements hosed, the burnt buildings clad in canvas and three-ply. It’s a cliché that this old city is famously resilient, but no less true for being so often said.  In The Guardian one columnist praises a new book written by a survivor of the 2005 bombings. It’s exemplary, he says, because the author refuses to have either hero or victim status imposed upon him. He simply won’t be fodder for the fear campaigns of the British tabloids and he won’t be spun into a symbol by politicians.   The column is impressive in its ability to deflate in advance any hysteria that might be whipped up in the days to come. The Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations add a phlegmatic coda: television shows a woman going about the routine business of state—routine even when the apparatus of state wears a busby. It’s Britain just getting on with job, inured to violence, looking always to the next step.  

And whatever may come in the next few weeks, the portents seem good: in Cumberland there are reported sighting of red hawk chicks, the first seen since in England since the reign of George the Third.



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What a erudite and mannered lady Morag is; I always read her articles in the Age as well as Eureka Street and am impressed by her ability to see past the surface of things to their core. I enjoyed her description of London as it is Thankyou. M.M. Kerby

Margot Kerby | 28 June 2006  

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