June 5, 2017

International politics

UK election diary: The London attacks

By Sam Dastyari
Labor senator Sam Dastyari, in London for the UK general election, was caught up in the attack on the Borough Market

It’s the day after the London attacks, and I am sitting in a dingy bar, too tired to be there, but too tired to move. It’s only busy this Sunday afternoon because it’s the bar that sits directly opposite the police perimeter fence holding back the media circus that has descended on the Borough Market. Less than a few hundred metres from where at least seven people were murdered the night before. I’m here with Richard, who isn’t tired at all, just defiant.

“Screw them if they think they are going to stop me drinking with my friends, flirting with handsome men and befriending powerful women,” he tells me as we order another round of drinks. “Screw them!” I’ve heard him use the same line several times, minus the obscenities, with differing media outlets.

“Yeah,” I say. “Screw them.” But mine sounds superficial given the energy in Richard’s voice. Neither of us has slept, though it is clear that Richard is handling the situation better than I am. “Screw them,” I say again, even less convincingly, deciding that what I actually need is more drinks. Which, if I’m to be honest, is the last thing I need.

Richard Angell is one of those gregarious people who always has energy and who always is remarkably well tanned for a man living in London. He is one of my closest friends. I’ve travelled from Sydney to spend a week with him and give him a hand on the Labour campaign trail. It is five days out from the British general election.

Richard swallows a mouthful of his drink and looks at me. “What do you think happened to the guy holding his throat?” he asks. What he is asking about is “that guy holding the blood coming out of his throat who ran past us last night”. (He was one of the seven already confirmed attack victims.)

I don’t like to think about these things, so I change the topic. “I hate the term ‘working-class pub’,” I tell Richard. It’s the best segue I have. “I mean, there is something so patronising about the term. It’s just a euphemism for ‘shit bar’, as if working-class people can’t enjoy nice things.” Richard can see what I’m doing, but doesn’t go with me. He just goes back to his drink. The conversation goes silent and he starts playing with his phone. Richard won’t fritter away his energy on topics other than those concerning his city being attacked again.

The night before, he had dragged me out of his spare bed at 8 pm to join him and another two friends, Andy Bagnall and Jo Milligan, for dinner. After all, it was a night in London where the weather was in the 20s, which (I’m reliably told) is about as good as it gets here. I didn’t need much convincing.  

The rest is written elsewhere. The restaurant we were at, Arabica, was adjacent to an establishment where three assailants had rushed in and started stabbing. Some reports say they were slitting the throats of anyone who crossed their paths.

In our venue, events became a blur but the images didn’t. I remember watching a woman running down the street covered in blood; panic as the screams engulfed the street; 37 patrons hiding in the small kitchen and upstairs of the restaurant while the London police swept the area; the sound of gunfire; the decision by Richard, Andy and Jo to not let the restaurant open the emergency fire escape. I reflected later that it was probably a move that helped save the lives of those we were holed up with. The exit would have led everyone directly to where the assailants were and where one was shot dead minutes after the attack started.

I want to go home. I’m exhausted and I want to go back to Sydney where my wife, Helen, and my two daughters are. I want to go back to parliament in Canberra where we can pretend that the big ugly world is a far distant place separated by a sea and a long plane ride. I want to go home and sleep in my own bed. I want to try to forget last night.

I’ve spent the day following Richard as he goes from one interview to the next, defiantly talking up London to the assembled media crowds, all desperate for a piece of the articulate London boy prepared to have a go. It’s a good distraction. Make sure his phone is charged. Make sure he has water. Monitor his statements on internet and watch them go viral. In the space of an hour he has done interviews ranging as wide as CNN and Iranian national TV, all of them with the same message: “They never win if we don’t let them.” Reminding the world that in times of adversity communities come together. That last night in London both the best and worst of people were on display. Violence broke the peace of a warm evening – but it didn’t break the spirit of the city or the courage of its people.

I’m tired but I know I’m not going to able to sleep anyway. I know that thoughts and images can’t be easily dismissed and ignored. Considering I’ve decided to stick it out with Richard, I have nowhere else I actually want to be. So I sit with Richard, and order another drink.

Sam Dastyari

Sam Dastyari is a former federal Labor senator.


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