War of the Worlds

All around us were other people, purposes thwarted but strangely calm, as if a mass of extras awaiting the call from the director. We began to learn that elsewhere, under the ground, there was smoke and soot and screams. Suddenly the station announcements switched to ones of vigilance. Before our eyes delayed notices spread like plague across the departure boards. Everything was unfolding in real-time but was also absurdly familiar. One thousand movies had prepared me for this scene and worse. If a giant metal claw had burst through the concourse I would have yelled and nodded: yes, of course.

    war of the worldsThe word reached me from my plumber, back in Brighton puzzling at our hot water system. Kevin’s squeaky voice carried the concern and excitement that would accent the entire day. His wife had called, I listened to what she had told him, hung up and told Julie that London was at a standstill, – a bomb had gone off at Liverpool Street. As I pronounced the plosive a shock wave travelled through our railway carriage. There were gasps of shock, of recognition, of resignation. People stood up, bent over my seat, sat down, stabbed at their phones questioning while they were calling. But as we passed over the river our jitters collected themselves and we quietened. We scanned the wide still horizon and entered the black mouth of Victoria.

    The next day became the day of the Missing. Relatives proffered photographs on the ground above the explosions. Had anyone seen this smiling girl, this beautiful Muslim, this lad? In this city, at that hour of the morning, the Missing were so young. I marvelled at the irrational motor that is hope, the energy of desperation, the urge to do something, to be present where a child was last seen, to beseech those passing by. I hoped I would be no less deceived.

    The doors slid open and our momentum linked hands with denial. We said to each other: let’s go to work. Julie and I split – for the underground, for the taxi queue – but met two minutes later, anxious in the throng. A soft-eyed Asian policeman explained there had been a power surge in Stratford and a cascade effect would likely mean all trains would now close. I wondered at the time if this was part of the training ( Rule 1: make no mention of a BOMB). Long lines were waiting for buses, then the buses were suddenly empty and buses we knew did not run on electricity. All around us were other people, purposes thwarted but strangely calm, as if a mass of extras awaiting the call from the director. We began to learn that elsewhere, under the ground, there was smoke and soot and screams. Suddenly the station announcements switched to ones of vigilance. Before our eyes delayed notices spread like plague across the departure boards. Everything was unfolding in real-time but was also absurdly familiar. One thousand movies had prepared me for this scene and worse. If a giant metal claw had burst through the concourse I would have yelled and nodded: yes, of course.

    The last train out was not for Brighton but for Chichester. There were three long worried minutes (would we leave before the hideous beast gallomphed toward our platform) and the questions that would determine the rest of the day, the well being of others, became more insistent. The mobile networks had clotted and slowed. A whisper of betrayal spoke of my sons and their mother in W12. I countered my and Julie’s fears with the mathematics of probability but spun out myself when Lucy told me her mobile was out of power but she would drive to Gatwick to collect us in her old banger. What if she breaks down and a bad man pulls up alongside her? Julie reminded me that my daughter had returned four days earlier from solo travels in India. It takes two to wrestle fear to the ground.

    We were all shaky. Nadia opened the door and we hugged hard. At school Betty was in tears. Lucy’s beautiful face was serious and silent: her French boyfriend lives in NW3. Through my daughter I experienced the added bewilderment of those for whom Aldgate and Edgware were simply strange names. Now there were strange and very scary. But the bad men had chosen with care because their apparent epicentre, the station of Kings Cross, is known to the entire world. On this summer morning something-as-yet-unnamed, dark and unseen, had swept down the line and crossed over at platform 9 and 3/4.

    The boys were less worried. Sam and Harry were safely caught up with the end of their school term in Hammersmith. Sam, male mind engaged, wanted to know the metrics: how many bombs, how many dead? Michael returning late thought that a couple of people had died in a train crash. (His head is that deep in pro evolution soccer 4). I curbed my exasperation: I was like that for too many years.

    Through the day we gawped at the plasma, at the news splayed across its screen from the 24/7 channels who, of all the emergency services, were primed and ready to serve. The affair held the promise of pornography. The images provoked an intense rush of feelings, followed by that special exhaustion and a taunting, partial sating before the hunger – now sharpened – returned us, glum and guilty, to the same material. We devoured it again, and again, with only slight variation (and the same outcomes). Just one more news… Phones were to the fore empowering passengers as photographers and directors. Pundits were pushed harder to preserve their positions. There was Technology, once again (look at its pile of chips !), raising the ante, provoking the patsy, in its poker game with the media.

    In this day, in this weary age, the broadcast words were heavy with familiarity. No adjective came without an adverb or sometimes two but there was no new coin. Serially linked phrases failed to do justice to the feelings of anyone involved. Along an axis from revulsion to resolve lay the scoured pages of the thesaurus. You had to attend to that which came before language, to tone, to the timbre, to the breaking of the voice. I thought the headlines did better as they searched for the one good word. Shattered seemed about right, but my favourite was Stricken. I had once looked this up: seriously affected by an unpleasant feeling. Maybe this explained the immobility of the G8 leaders, suited mannequins in their identical poses behind Tony Blair. I fixed on the little hands poking out of the dark sleeves, the digits proof of their primate kinship. We are just another ape but no other ape has gotten themselves into this mess.

    The day of the Missing I was at a garage and went for the air line. My Merc and I are growing old together, we are letting each other down. She is failing at the job but I won’t pay the garage bills and so a slow puncture has me cursing but not replacing the tyre. The ends of the air line had been cut – vandals, sighed the Arabic attendant. ”The cunts” I said. But that extreme word, coarse and crude, for a perpetrator sullen and stupid did not fit the bombers. ”The bastards” I said to myself,” the bastards”. B for Bomb, B for Bastard. I suppose they call us Infidels.

    There are two worlds and they are warring within us. One is born of our intuitions, that we are special, that we are the product and concern of a supervisory deity. In this realm access is privileged and the mysteries are defiant. The other is born of that most distinctive feature, our curiosity, our love of finding things out. The currency of this realm is doubt. Our extraordinary memory, its powers gigantically amplified by language, binds information to the species over time. But sometimes we get it wrong and an understanding has to be unpicked. It is so painful to be wrong, to be shown that the world is not how we cherish it, not how we feel it to be deep in our bones , and many turn away. Our successive civilisations have extended our senses and so when – really very recently – we looked closely at things that were very small, or were travelling very fast, or were very intricate (such as living things), or were very distant, or had simply been there a long, long time, we received this simply HUGE surprise. We realised how our day-to-day experience of nature is a special case, a narrow slice of natural phenomena, and our intuitions evolved to facilitate our suvival and reproduction in that space. The bigger picture shows unexpected things, stranger by far than any god of our devising, things for which we require all our imagination – not for things that are not there (and so far as we can tell this includes all deities) but to comprehend those things that really are there. It’s been said that both worlds have something essential for the health of this particular hominid: humility. The older world provides insights into the heart, it asks for humility of the spirit. The newer world seeks to save us from certainty, that we persist in not knowing , that we have humility of the intellect. One day perhaps the war will be over.

    As the train left Victoria Julie had something to tell me. She was dressed typically: strikingly, stepping out of an episode of Sex in the City. But her manner was collected, altogether business like, as she held my hand, and summoned what she had to say. She knew exactly its implication for others but she told me all the same. With a little guilt and a momentary hesitiation she told me how she felt. Nowadays I try not to disparage or denigrate the feelings of others. I try to let people have their feelings because I have learnt (the s-l-o-w way) it’s often important if there is to be any hope for our behaviour. Julie told me this was the way she wanted it, on the train together, that she did not want to live if I had died today. I shuddered, I resisted and then I allowed it to lift me. Fleeing in our almost empty carriage I felt subject to an immense force. I was lifted by love.

    It’s a personal choice but I prefer to draw my parables not from dusty Levantine texts but from the physical sciences. One amazing discovery of the last century was that¬†there are¬†only four forces, every one of which is mediated by an exchange of particles: the force is the exchange. And in that moment I knew what was required of me by the laws of this universe.

    I must give this woman a child.