August 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Sarah has an interview

By Nicholas Shakespeare
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In early July my beautiful 17-year-old niece arrived from Winnipeg, Canada, on her first visit to London. I’d assured Sarah’s parents I would look after her in the city that Londoners fondly call “the big smoke”. In Winnipeg, as in the Kundera novel, life is elsewhere, and the purpose of adolescence is to extricate oneself from a place where the sole political assassination took place in 1868, when a demented Fenian gunned down former Irish radical Thomas D’Arcy McGee after he became a monarchist.

The week kicked off promisingly. Sarah, absurdly blonde and innocent, had in the space of four days savoured a terrific Wimbledon final (Williams v Davenport), a cracking finish to the one-day cricket series at Lord’s (a tie on the last ball), an unrepeatable Live8 concert in Hyde Park (from my window we could hear Pink Floyd, together again after 24 years), and the unexpected news that the city was to host the Olympic Games. If ever there was a time to visit London, I thought, this was it.

Then, at 8.30 a.m. on Thursday, Sarah left my flat off the Portobello Road to travel on the underground to Covent Garden where a modelling agency wished to interview her. I had already shown her the route. The evening before, I’d stood in Ladbroke Grove Station and pointed at the right-hand staircase. “Go via Edgware Road,” I remember saying, “and change at King’s Cross.”

The bad news, as so often, was flagged from abroad. Two hours after Sarah closed the door I received a cryptic email from a friend in Melbourne. “Hope you are staying away from the tube.” I had no idea what he meant until my sister telephoned with news that bombs had exploded at King’s Cross, Aldgate East and Edgware Road. Down the street I heard an ambulance braying. The braying grew louder.

It’s 1975. I’m 17, still at school, and on my way to Avenida Maipu. Two streets from our house in Buenos Aires I stop to watch a green Ford Falcon flash past, no number plates, siren blaring. I don’t know then that the men whose outlines I discern through the darkened glass are employed by the government of Juan Perón’s widow, Isabelita. I don’t know that the empty back seat has no cushion, and that a friend who days before has gone missing was thrust into its cavity in a position of excruciating agony and driven to an interrogation cell in Villa Devoto. I’m only aware that there are daily bombs and kidnappings, and in the fog of an undeclared civil war no one can say who is to blame.

Unlike Sarah, my family grew up in cities where anonymous bomb attacks were a regular event. After Buenos Aires we lived in Lima. Here bombs were living creatures: a donkey exploding in a market; a terrified duck with a spluttering fuse attached to its leg; a young boy holding a satchel who wandered into the lobby of Lima’s Crillon Hotel – and blew up.

What discomfited Peruvians was the fact that no one took responsibility for these actions. An utter secrecy pervaded the revolutionaries – for that is who they turned out to be. They gave no interviews, they issued no manifesto. But they answered to a tall, bearded extremist, not seen for several years, who styled himself “the Chairman of the World Revolution”. Familiar?

I tried Sarah’s mobile. I had travelled on the same tube the previous morning when a voice announced over the intercom that London was to be the 2012 Olympic city. Away from the televised public jubilation, the overwhelming response of those in the crowded carriage was silence. A man in a pin-stripe nodded to himself, and sitting next to him an Orthodox Jew smiled as if in answer to a riddle: “So that’s why everyone’s been tapping into their mobiles!” If this was Sydney we’d be hugging each other, and I felt a flash of annoyance towards my fellow Londoners for treating this dramatic news in such a predictably understated way.

No answer. I dialled again. After five more attempts I left my flat. The weather had turned cold. This time there was something oddly reassuring about the Christmas silence in the street. It was the opposite of the hysteria I’d witnessed in Australia in the aftermath of the Bali bombing, the pandemonium deepened, I suspect, because it had taken place abroad. In London the only trace of hysteria was exhibited by the media, dwelling on how resilient and stoical we were.

The Madrid bombers of last year had come from Tangiers, but Moroccans in the Portobello Road wore the same expressions of concern as their neighbours from Portugal and the Caribbean. There was no outward sign of panic, fear, anger. The most extreme statement was muttered by my butcher: “Cowardly, not to show your face.” But he was keeping his head. Like many Londoners, he had been here before. In the hours ahead the Queen would remember the Blitz and the unannounced doodle-bugs that destroyed Sloane Square Station, just as my generation would recall the Irish Republican Army’s indiscriminate bombing during the 1970s, of children, horses, shoppers.

Still, as I returned with two pork chops to my flat, I was worried. On the radio the talk was of the worst ever terrorist attack on Britain. And my niece had taken a train into the centre of it.

Just after noon a key turned in the lock. Sarah. Much to her bewilderment I greeted her with tears streaming down my face. She had no inkling of what had occurred. Her train had stopped at Gloucester Road – she’d assumed it was a typical breakdown – and she had waited three hours for a taxi.

“Why Gloucester Road? I told you to go to King’s Cross.”

A flush crept into her cheeks. “Sorry, I didn’t take your advice.”

I started to explain when the telephone rang. It was the Winnipeg Free Press. For Sarah. Wanting an interview. With one bound the innocent girl from Manitoba had joined the rest of us. As the mayor of Paris declared, speaking after his city suffered its own defeat in the Olympic bid, and yet speaking for a great many besides: “Right now, we are all Londoners.”

Nicholas Shakespeare
Nicholas Shakespeare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His books include In Tasmania, Inheritance and The Dancer Upstairs, which was made into a film by John Malkovich.

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