Friday, July 08, 2005

In praise of the stiff upper lip.

A certain man has called us, "of all peoples the wisest in action," but he added, "the stupidest in speech." - Carlyle

So... we knew it was going to happen. It was no surprise.

I have an odd sort of affection for my fellow countrymen in situations like yesterday's bomb attacks. There's a charming national character trait that seems to turn us all into a mix of slightly panicy fishwives 'Oooh, I know, ooh, another one's just gone off... ooh, it'll be *hell* getting home, and what about that Mr Blair? ooh, no, I haven't heard from my friend, and they work right in it...' and the most wonderful, tremendously stoic Matter-of-Life-and-Death heroes.

The thing that I'm left thinking after yesterday, though, was actually, that the attacks were no big deal - a tiny blip on history. This is not to belittle the real suffering that those caught up in events are going through, and my best wishes go to them, and their loved ones.

But... we're used to bombs in this city. Not quite on the scale of Jerusalem, or Bagdhad, but nonetheless there has been a slow and deadly thudding heartbeat to London for as long as I can remember. The Soho Bomb, the Brixton Bomb, the Canary Wharf bomb, an IRA bomb at Victoria in a litterbin I missed by 10 minutes, a bomb in a baracks, police horses dismembered by a nailbomb... and the still-within-living-memory events of the Blitz and V2 bombardment - 168 killed by one bomb on New Cross Woolworths.

We're used to these extraordinary events. We have a shaky moment, check on our loved ones, shrug, and move on. If we're particularly shaken, we have a cuppa, or go for a pint.

If someone we know is directly affected, we rally round, offer more selfless and tender and non-intrusive support than you could imagine - simple kindnesses like tea, blankets, lifts. The 'English reserve' is dropped instantly, making those moments of kindness so much more significant. We try not to make the situation worse, we behave sensibly, and we let the professionals get on with their jobs, pitching in if extra pairs of hands are needed. This is a marvellous, marvellous way to deal with a crisis, however big or small.

I spent yesteday pretty much watching the news - there was no way I could get to work; I was on a bus to Vauxhall when they pulled all busses over and 'checked for suspect packages' - something that involved our driver listlessly walking round the outside of the bus, having a quick peer underneath, shrugging and driving on. I got to Vauxhall; no-one really knew what was going on, no transport was running, so I turned home. You see, that's a dull and unremarkable story; like the six or seven million other Londoners who were only aware of the problems through the media, whose days were just as dull and unremarkable as usual.

But, something about witnessing the events through those news reports is beginning to change the way we behave. It started with Diana's death - only the second time I have seen my father cry, incidentally. Then, having been glued to the 9/11 reports, we all know the media routine of people in deep, deep shock being interviewed by camera crews (for SHAME, camera crews. Can you not see that those people need care and help, not grilling?). We see the same snippets of video repeated again and again - the man being led from an ambulance at St Marys, the phonecam footage of the tunnel, the incident tent being erected at Aldgate, the bus, the bus, the bus, the bloodstained wall at tavistock square. And we absorb these images, and they send us further from our wonderful, calm, brickishness and into a fluttery hen-like panic. We wallow in it, indulging our emotions publicly. We reinforce the stress of events in a shared, bonding experience, because we're starting to enjoy the newly-sanctioned pleasures of public displays of sentimentality.

Once we've absorbed those images, we start to create ourselves as victims; as put upon innocents. We forget that we've been waiting for terrorist attacks forever - since we divided ireland, since we joined an illegal war, since we rolled over to a foreign power. Since we stopped questioning our government too closely, and became content with their construction of the world as a dangerous place, full of imaginary threats from 'others', from which they are protecting us. We fall into jingoism.

The biggest contrast was flicking from BBC reports to ITV reports. The reporting style was so different - the new BBC guidelines emphasise accuracy over speed, and it shows. The news was stately, calm, and focused. The ITV news was breathless, over excited, wildly speculative; sensationalist tabloid disaster porn, feeding the rubbernecking carcrash fetishist in all of us. Channel Four had a Richard and Judy Terrorism special, for christs sake.

Indeed, the stupidest in speech.

Anyway. A very long post on something I was meaning to ignore. And, just in case you were wondering why I feel this is an insignificant event, have a look at these other Deathtolls, and remember that sixty years ago the glorious RAF was responsible for a hundred thousand dead in 14 hours in Dresden.

Yesterday was not a big deal.

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