London Can Take It!
“I can assure you, there is no panic, no fear, no despair in London town.”
London Can Take It!, 1940
“There are terrorists in London.”
Two Bengali Muslim girls in my class told me this. I laughed. No there weren’t. These girls were always making things up: that Lianna in 8C was pregnant, that our mild-mannered geography teacher had pinched a girl’s bum.
Even now, they were laughing with me. But something in their giggles was sour. Nervously, one of them pushed onto my desk an article from BBC News, still warm from the library printer.
Innit might be the most frequently spoken word in British slang. It can mean both “isn’t it?” and “it is,” depending on the tone, and therefore has a kind of limitless use. Unsurprisingly, it is young people who say it the most: we who want nothing more than to be approved of, to be in agreement. Innit? Innit.
I looked for signs that the article was a spoof, a prank. There was the BBC logo. The correct date and time. The pictures of ambulances, smoke, panic. The number 30 bus. The Circle line.
We tried to get our religious studies teacher to acknowledge what was going on. Her cheeks turned red. Yes, something had happened, but it was going to be all right and we were going to continue with the class. This was 2005, two years prior to the release of the first iPhone. We sat there lamely, taking turns to read that one BBC article over and over again. In the background, our teacher lectured on Sikhism.
“London looks upwards towards the dawn and faces the new day with calmness and confidence.”
The day after the bombs, all of London was back on the buses and tubes. That’s how the story went, anyway, the one that the politicians told the world—and it wasn’t exactly untrue. On the train I took every day, the 8:12 to Camden Road, I counted off the faces. The white businessman with his copy of the Financial Times: still there. The Serbian schoolgirls in their hideous plaid uniforms: I could hear them in the other carriage. The young professional-looking woman in a hijab with her eyes closed, always listening to her MP3 player: leaning against a window. The old black man in stained clothing who sang to us softly about Jesus: he was there, too. Everyone a different color, everyone’s gaze pointed in a different direction, back on the train that was ours.
“London manages to get to work on time, one way or another.”
A terrorist attack in a certain place turns all who use that space into potential targets. In hindsight, any of us might have been the intended victims, something we made sure not to forget.
“I got the Circle line last week at exactly ten minutes to nine.”
“My dad’s office is a five-minute walk from Tavistock Square.”
“The 30 goes right outside my house.”
Almost no member of British society is above riding public transportation. Even the Queen took a spin on the Jubilee line when it first opened. And I have never encountered another city as willing as London to symbolize itself as a subway map.
“London is fighting back.”
In 1940, in the fifth week of the Blitz, the British government produced a nine-minute propaganda movie entitled London Can Take It! that was distributed across the UK and US. It begins with scenes of Londoners commuting home from work during rush hour: boarding buses, descending into subway stations, crossing a bridge over the Thames on foot. The narrator describes them as “the greatest civilian army ever to have been assembled.” The film makes other similarly grandiose declarations about London and its citizens. According to the narrator, London is free of panic and despair: there is only “calmness and confidence.” At night, the people sleep fearlessly as the bombs bring their city to the ground.
Sixty-five years later, the UK government partnered with advertising firms, newspapers, and other private corporations to create an enormous post-7/7 media campaign that ended up costing over three million pounds, called “7 Million Londoners, 1 London.” The idea consisted of a single logo: the phrase “7 Million Londoners,” with the words “1 London” highlighted within it in a different color.
“London is an urban, multicultural community,” London’s then-mayor, Ken Livingstone, stated in his endorsement of the 7 Million campaign. Straying from the nationalist rhetoric of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, he noted that the campaign was important because it celebrated “the principle of difference rather than unity.”
And yet, there were those words—“One London”—etched in an uncompromising bright red. Later, the campaign added another phrase, sealing its promotion of cosmopolitan unity: “We Are Londoners, We Are One.” Any Londoner could order a poster, badge, or window sticker inscribed with either of these slogans for free. “7 Million” banners lined every major street; billboard-sized posters could be found on the side of most buses and on the walls of every tube station.
The campaign underlined a narrative that was already circulating in media and politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Londoners were being described as inherently tough and resilient. Our decision to ride public transportation the day after the attacks was “courageous.” Politicians worldwide praised the city for its “business as usual” approach to a post-7/7 world. Few failed to claim that London’s reaction to the attacks was demonstrative of an attitude of stoicism and defiance that we had all somehow collectively inherited from the Blitz.
“We survived the Blitz. We lived through 30 years of IRA outrages...” The British tabloid The Daily Mirror reminded its readers. “Once again the British people will triumph over evil.”
“Do you see any signs of fear on these faces?”
In the weeks following July 7th, the fact that all four of the suicide bombers were English, or had at least grown up in England, grew awkwardly prominent. Three out of four had been second-generation British citizens, born and raised in Leeds, in the north of the country. None of them were known to the authorities before the attacks. Three were of Pakistani descent; in many of London’s boroughs, the population is around 10% Pakistani. One was Jamaican, as are so many Londoners whose families have emigrated to the UK since the beginning of the Empire Windrush in 1948.
This wasn’t the Blitz, then; it wasn’t possible to speak of “the Germans” who wanted to kill us, nor to anthropomorphize every bomb that dropped as a manifestation of Hitler’s villainous wrath. These were men who worked in the primary schools that our children attended and prayed at the same mosques as we did and had sat next to us on tubes and buses many times before without ever having blown us up.
Was there any “One London” united by a desire to preserve our city and “triumph over evil”? London has 7 million inhabitants, which, in the months and years following 7/7, amounted to 7 million suspicious glances. 7 million reasons to get off and wait for the next train. 7 million sharp intakes of breath as someone who didn’t look quite right boarded the bus. The one out of 7 million chance that you, an unassuming 27-year-old Brazilian Catholic man, would be murdered by the police as you tried to get on the tube at Stockwell station.
A few weeks after the bombs went off, a Muslim Londoner was interviewed on the radio about his experience following 7/7.
“Well, I take a bottle of wine with me and hold it on my lap when I go on the tube. So people don’t think I’m a fundamentalist.”
“Do you drink alcohol?” the radio host asked.
“Of course not,” the man replied quickly. “I’m a Muslim.”
“Today the morale of the people is higher than ever before.”
In London, as in countless other cities around the world, we live with the reality that the next attack is coming. For all their praise of our resilience, no politician nor journalist nor news anchor can assure us that there won’t be more bombs, more chaos, more buses with roofs that are blown off through the air. More suspicion, more racism, more accidental deaths of the innocent in a panicked rush to defeat what we don’t fully understand.
There are terrorists in London.