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London’s new superstition

The capital is carrying on - but commuters are inventing their own ways of trying to ward off the terrorists.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘If you don’t get the Tube before 9am, you’ll probably be okay.’ That is one theory, from a young Asian guy making his way into Farringdon station at teatime. Another woman demurs, pointing out that ‘they have attacked in the morning, then at lunchtime; next time it’s going to be in the evening’. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Paula from Portugal now avoids the top deck of the bus, while her brother, 29-year-old Fernando, argues that sitting on the back on the lower deck could be just as dangerous.

After the bombs on 7 July, the story was of Londoners getting on with life. After the second, failed attacks on 21 July, the press was full of stories of people being bloody petrified: abandoning the Tube in droves, taking cars, bikes, even walking to avoid the threat. It was now okay to be afraid. ‘I admit it, I’m scared’, was the strapline for a Guardian feature by Tim Dowling (1). The website Wearenotafraid.com is now countered with a rival, Iamfuckingterrified.com.

But London hasn’t stopped. According to Transport for London (TfL), there has been no mass abandonment of the Tube. A spokesperson told me that, given that 15 per cent of the network is suspended and it’s the school holidays, ‘there has been a commensurate reduction in passenger numbers’. But with the Metropolitan Line up again next Monday, and the Circle Line later next week, TfL is ‘expecting passengers to return to their usual routes’. On the roads, congestion charge takings rose by three per cent in the week after the 7 July attacks, but have since returned to normal levels.

There is certainly a new wave of cyclists. They are the ones with pristine helmets and reflective vests, fumbling for their pedals when the lights change. Evans Cycles says that sales have doubled in its nine central London stores. But talk of London running out of bikes is ridiculous – most shops have gone from selling five bikes a day to 10 bikes a day. And it’s questionable whether this will last. The newcomer cyclists were noticeably absent from the roads on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, when it rained. No doubt the tiny chance of being hit by terrorists on the Tube was outweighed by the sure chance of getting wet feet.

Nearly all the commuters I spoke to said they were ‘carrying on as normal’; they hadn’t changed their route or avoided travelling. London is nervous, but it shows its nerves in small ways. People change where they sit on the train, where they walk on the pavement, who they stand next to on the bus, the kind of bag they carry. We are seeing a new superstition, akin to avoiding a black cat crossing your path or not walking under a ladder. But unlike those old wives’ tales, each Londoner has his or her own private theory about how to ward off the terrorist evil.

Perhaps the one near-consensus is avoiding the back seats on the top deck of a bus, in the area where the two bus-bombs were placed. Rush-hour buses yesterday were rammed like sardines downstairs, but the back three rows of seats upstairs were almost completely empty. But even here, as Fernando points out, downstairs isn’t completely safe. There is also the chance that the next bombers will do something crazy, like sitting halfway down on the right. Some commuters are avoiding the first carriage of the Tube. But others tell me that ‘it doesn’t matter which carriage you are in’, and that the bombers could be just as likely to strike in the middle. Some say they are wary of walking near buses, and stick to the far side of the pavement. But that’s not right, one man says, ‘because you would be more likely to be hit by falling glass’.

Londoners are ogling each other for suspicious signs. One woman, a 28-year-old consultant, says that she now ‘gets off the carriage if it’s overly crowded and I can’t see everyone’. But here, too, there is disagreement about what constitutes ‘suspicious’. Andy Kay, 35, goes for the classic ‘young Asian guy, Islamic, carrying rucksacks’, though he apologises that this is just a ‘stereotype enforced by the media’. Young, casually dressed Asian guys are certainly getting a hard time of it. Dal, 30, who with his cap and sweatshirt bears an unfortunate resemblance to one of the suspects for last Thursday’s attempted bombings, said that even at rush hour the three seats around him remain empty.

Others cast their net of suspicion wider. Twenty-seven-year-old Liam Burman said that he looks for ‘tetchy behaviour – it could be anybody, you can’t just look at colour’. A young woman keeps an eye-out for ‘somebody madly clutching their bag, dressed in jeans’. Jean Irwin says that she would ‘watch out for where you put your bag’. Indeed, one somewhat timid-looking 17-year-old girl visiting the capital said that, when she was carrying a suitcase yesterday, ‘people looked at me warily, and there was a gap around me on the bus and Tube’. Meanwhile, another man says that he finds himself peering at discarded McDonald’s bags, wary of what they might contain.

Then there are all the strategies for warding off the suspicious glances of others. David Aaronovitch, a columnist with The Times (London), recently said that he now leaves his rucksack at home. (Indeed, those who continue to carry their rucksacks often face tut-tutting, as if they are doing something terribly irresponsible.) A young Asian girl told me that when she felt people looking at her, ‘I applied lipgloss and put my earrings on, as if I was going out on a date. I thought that if I did something girly it would ease their suspicion’. One person told me of a Muslim man who had taken to carrying around a bottle of wine, while a Greek-Cypriot man interviewed by BBC News said that he wore a Make Poverty History wristband and read a copy of The Economist (2).

None of this will make any difference, of course. Even the most considered strategy will do nothing to change your chances of coming a cropper. Like old-style superstition, this is about creating an illusion of control – thinking that if you only do this rather than that, you can protect myself from unknown malevolent forces.

The result is a poisonous atmosphere, where commuters are fretting about where to sit and glaring at each other. ‘We’ve lost our natural behaviour’, says 25-year-old Hassan. Andy Kay said that ‘it’s now about self-preservation. That’s a bad thing in a free society’. We may still be travelling around as normal, but we’re not enjoying being in London. Rather than getting a buzz out of being in a crowd, or thinking about what you’re doing that evening, people are watching their step. Karen, a 33-year-old primary school teacher who came into London for the day, tells me: ‘It doesn’t affect what I’ve done, but it affects how I feel. I keep thinking, “I don’t need to do that, am I putting myself at risk?” It takes the pleasure out of coming into London.’

So the terrorists haven’t shut down the capital, but they have dampened its spirit. However, some Londoners have protected themselves from this bad faith with a hardy brand of fatalism. Tony Anderson, a Scottish tax manager, says that his philosophy is that there is nothing you can do about it. ‘There’s a Scottish saying, “What’s for you won’t go by you”.’ Or as they used to say in the Blitz, ‘when your number’s up, it’s up’; ‘if the bomb has your name on it…’.

This is a kind of superstition, too – if you get caught by a bomb, it’s not predestination but just bloody bad luck. But such mottos make a sensible distinction between the things we can control and the things we can’t.

We can’t stop a bomber choosing our Tube carriage, but we could learn something by reading a new book on the way to work. We can’t stop a bus blowing up next to us, so we may as well enjoy walking in the city.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) Fear in the city, Guardian, 26 July 2005

(2) The discomfort of strangers, BBC News, 26 July 2005

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Topics Politics

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