June 8, 2017

UK election diary: A calm descends

By Sam Dastyari
In the frantic aftermath of the London terror attacks, a tired sense of calm sinks in

“Tonight feels very much like Casablanca,” Richard Angell tells me as we head to a vigil for those killed in the London terror attacks. I have been living with Richard for a week while working on the UK election, and things have already settled into a routine. Similar to that of a married couple. We know each other’s movements and finish each other’s sentences.

“Cass-a-whatta?” I ask, convinced that he couldn’t be referring to the classic 1942 film. Surely I just misheard his thick British accent. But he was. Confirming every stereotype I ever had for him.

“Who am I,” I ask, “Ingrid or Humphrey?” wondering what shoes I’ll need.

“You know that line, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…’ it feels a bit like that,” he says. I grunt in agreement. We were one venue away from a potentially deadly situation. I try not to think about it.

It’s less than a week since the terror incident, and all the bravado aside, I’m not coping that well. I don’t think any of us are.

It’s not a conclusion that I came to myself. Jo Milligan, who was with me on the night of the attack, pulled me aside after dinner. She pointed out the whole “happy warrior” routine of mine – it’s a façade and she can see right through it. She suspects I’m a mess. She is right. They are confirming Australians were among the dead. The whole attack suddenly becomes decidedly more personal. Patriotism is like that. It gives you a connection to people you have never met.

Dinner is with the same group that gathered on the night of the terror attacks: Richard Angell, Andy Bagnall and Jo Milligan. Our plan is to eat and head out to meet the staff of the restaurant we were in during the attacks. A plan that has been slowed down by Richard’s newfound celebrity. Richard is now more than just famous; he is “internet famous”, which is a bigger deal. His heartfelt comments to a television reporter around solidarity and Londoners sticking together made world headlines. US-based comedian John Oliver included it in his opening monologue. I’m living with the international face of London’s defiance.

Even with this celebrity, Richard has spent the night being Richard. A theatrical experience all of its own. There were frayed nerves and exhaustion after attending a vigil organised by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Our spirits are lifted by a young English guy called George, who is on his own, and who Richard invites to join us for dinner. George has his own story.

“It was my first date with this girl, yeah … so I asked her to go to a bar at the Borough Markets with me. The next thing is the attack, she says goodbye, and I end up in a bed with two other girls, and a photo the next morning in the papers.” George’s energy is palpable. My addled brain thinks I’ve missed something.

“I’m sorry,” I interject. “One doesn’t just start out on a date and end up in some kind of French entanglement with two strangers.” Well certainly not in any world I can relate too.

It turns out that when his bar was evacuated during the attack, George had left without his wallet and phone. After walking his date home for the night (such a gentleman), George returned only to find his own street had been cordoned off and he had no phone or money. A social media hashtag, a helpful passer-by, and next thing he is staying with two girls for the night. As is the way of his generation, there was a photo. An Instagram photo, a tweet, and he ends up in the paper.

It’s a great story, but I notice that I am not in the mood to make the jokes I normally would. I am too numb. I feel numb about everything. Ordinarily, I live for the days leading up to an election.

Back in Australia I’m being towelled up over an apparently “fresh” angle on stories relating to Chinese donors that I had already addressed a year ago. My opponents are on TV working themselves into a lather of self-indulgent outrage. I know the internet. I know it is all coming. But this time I don’t care like I normally would.

Of the 200 or so immigration cases I have assisted, one was identified as a donor to the party.

“Is that not allowed?” Richard asks.

“It is more than allowed. It’s actually my job. All I did was get a status update. It’s so routine that they have a whole ministerial unit of the department of immigration for that exact purpose,” I tell him. “I’m calm about it.”

Something isn’t right with me at the moment. I’m never calm about anything.

Is it the terror attacks in London? Is it my burning desire to be back home? Is it the black dog dancing in my mind? Or is it simpler than that? Perhaps spending time with Richard and seeing how genuinely passionate he is about his city in the face of adversity has helped put things into perspective. I don’t know. But there is a Zen that isn’t normally there in my usually frantic self.

“Are you OK?” Richard asks, realising I haven’t said anything in more than an hour.

“Oh, I’m just tired,” I tell him. And to break the silence, I order him another gin.

“You are definitely an Ingrid, by the way,” Richard tells me. Taking us back to Casablanca.

“Fine,” I answer calmly.

Sam Dastyari

Sam Dastyari is a former federal Labor senator.


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