The Magazine

Yes, London Can Take It

From the July 18, 2005 issue: Pluck vs. defeatism after the bombs.

Jul 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


IF ONE MUST HAVE cliché and stereotype (and evidently one must) then I would nominate the sturdy phlegmatic Londoner as the stock character who deserves to survive for at least another generation. Woken in the dark on the early morning of 7 July, and given the news that I and all British people had been expecting for some time, I made haste to turn on the television and was confronted at once by a man in his 30s with a shirt-front coated in blood. He was bleeding from his scalp, but was quite evenly telling his excited interviewer that "the gentleman next to me"--who was slightly off-screen--might be a superior witness since he had seen more of the actual flash and bang.

Further vox populi encounters disclosed an identical, almost camera-ready, ability to emulate the stoic forebears. I was cynically thinking, yes, that's all very well, but I can imagine panic and nightmare in the "tube" underneath King's Cross station, when I received an email from a teacher at King's College who had been caught up in the most hideous of the underground train bombs. He recounted the almost pedantic willingness of citizens to make way and say "after you" as the doors finally opened and as emergency staff made an appearance on the platforms. As anyone who regularly uses Edgware Road station, or anyone who goes to soccer matches, can attest, Londoners don't normally behave this politely, so again I assume that there is a subliminal script that so to speak "kicks in" when things get nasty.

Much of this elusive script is based on Noel Coward's sentimental ditty "London Pride," which was dusted off and given a fair old revival in the press on the following morning. Nobody who has read any serious account of life under the Nazi blitz can believe a word of it. Between 1940 and 1945, Londoners ran away, panicked, sent their children off to the country with labels around their necks, trampled each other in the rush to make tube stations into air-raid shelters (which the government at first refused to allow) and blamed Jews for jumping queues and hoarding goods. The rich moved complainingly into well-fortified hotels, and the police and firemen helped themselves to the contents of bombed or abandoned homes. Toward the end of the war, as guided missiles began to rain down from Germany, morale became very bad indeed. Read, if you like, Stephen Spender's account of being a fireman, or any selection of George Orwell's wartime "London Letters" to Partisan Review.

For all that, both men did develop an admiration for the essential toughness and humor of the Londoner. And at least it could be said that one note was almost never struck in those days. There were no serious demands for capitulation. But last Thursday the blood wasn't dry on the wall of the British Medical Association in Bloomsbury, with the lower stairway covered in body parts, before the call for surrender was being raised.

First out of the trap was George Galloway, the renegade Member of Parliament who has been Saddam Hussein's chief propagandist in Britain. Within hours of the atrocities, he had diagnosed their cause, or causes. These included the presence of British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the photographs from Abu Ghraib, and the state of affairs at Guantanamo. This can only mean that Galloway knows what was in the minds of the bombers, and knows that it was these subjects (and not, say, the Wahhabi hatred of unveiled women, or their fury at the liberation of East Timor) that had actually motivated the attacks. If he really knows that much about the killers, he should be asked to make a full disclosure of his sources to Scotland Yard. If he doesn't know, he should at least have waited until the blood was dry before opening his ugly mouth. Scant chance of the latter.