The Last of England

“The facts are simple enough. If we had left the olive groves and the cotton fields and the oil wells of this region alone, we might not have had to worry about this equilibrium – least not yet. But we have not left them alone. We have sent our ideas and our ideals, and our motion pictures and our radio programs, our engineers and our businessmen, and our pilots and our soldiers into the Middle East; and we cannot now escape the result.”
Wendell L. Willkie,
One World, 1943

The 52 bus trundles from northwest London south along the shady avenue that is Ladbroke Grove, crosses the Portobello Road’s street market, and heads on to Notting Hill Gate and the silent antiques shops of Kensington Church Street. Normally, the red double-deckers are full or nearly so – especially since the mayor’s campaign to reduce traffic lowered the fare. On the evening of Thursday, July 7, following the morning bombings of three underground trains and a Number 30 bus in Tavistock Square that left fifty-six people dead, there were no taxis on a strangely traffic-free Ladbroke Grove. The 52’s driver told me not to pay the £1.20 fare, because no underground trains were operating, and to hurry inside. The lower level was empty, and only two seats were occupied in the upper deck. An East European man grumbling into a mobile telephone sat in the first row, and a sallow boy in a baseball cap was in the third. To avoid them in the London manner of preserving distance from strangers, I went to the back and read a book.

Irritating, tinny music somehow emanated from a telephone on the seat beside the youth in row three. I got up and asked him to turn it down. He fiddled with the telephone, and I went back to my seat. The music droned on. I returned and asked him to switch it off, aware that I had become a boring old man stifling exuberant youth. In a demotic north London accent, he announced his intention to leave his music on. To my statement that he was not allowed to play a radio on the bus, his response was surprisingly original: “You ain’t allowed to roll spliffs on a bus neither.” Noticing his quaking hands twisting a cigarette paper around a wad of marijuana, I explained, politely, that spliffs did not bother me. It seemed there were reasons for the music and the spliff. He said he had a friend who “sometimes” rode the bus that blew up that morning. Maybe he was wounded. Maybe he was, like, dead. Maybe, I thought, you could use your telephone to ask your friend or his family where he was. Given that hundreds of Number 30 buses roamed Hackney each day, mourning his loss may have been premature. The youth looked up from his spliff. He said I was lucky: he was too depressed to kill me.

He was not the only person that day or month to use London’s bombs as a pretext to smoke dope, play bad music, rally the public behind the Iraq war, or enact legislation to enlarge the state’s role in our lives. The murders of July 7 justified anything that any pothead, politician, or policeman dreamed up. Not unlike September 11, 2001, in America. Or the Reichstag fire.

I left the 52 bus at Hyde Park Corner, looked in vain for a taxi, and walked to Curzon Street. The Spectator had canceled its annual summer party scheduled for that night, so I was going to Aspinall’s, a lavish casino in a Georgian town house, for dinner with a roguish Russian exile writer named Andrei Navrozov. In the dining room, the Queen’s photographer cousin, Patrick Litchfield, sat with twenty aged friends. Arabs of the sort who did not blow themselves up, but whose behavior motivated many of those who did, were also having dinner. After our steaks and claret, Andrei and I went out for a nightcap at Annabel’s basement nightclub around the corner in Berkeley Square. We passed Shepherd’s Market, a pedestrian thoroughfare whose pubs and restaurants were dark. Ladies of the night leaned against closed doors, smoking away their normally valuable hours with no clients in sight. Outside Annabel’s, the street-level iron gate was padlocked and the top-hatted doormen were absent. We ventured east from deserted Berkeley Square to abandoned Soho in search of a drink. Latenight haunts like Soho House and the Groucho Club were closed, as were the pubs. Our only option was to go back to Aspinall’s for last brandies and cigars. At 3:00 A.M., a West Indian taxi driver passing along empty streets toward Notting Hill complained that London had never been so dead. During the worst Irish Republican Army bombings of the 1970s and ’80s, he said, bars did not close. He shook his head to say London was not what it once was.

I was in Madrid on another terrible Thursday, March 11, 2004, when bombs on commuter trains killed 191 people near Atocha station. Sixteen hundred people were wounded. Madrilenos filled restaurants and bars that night, as they always had. The Plaza Mayor looked just as V. S. Pritchett described it in the early 1950s at “the time of the paseo, when the cafes are packed and the streets are crowded with people in the sacred evening promenade of Spanish life.” I ate dinner after midnight with a Spanish friend, Pilar Tena, in a restaurant where we were lucky to find a table. Pilar, an elegant woman who helped to run Madrid’s equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations, reminded me that Spain had survived similar outrages by the Basque separatists of ETA, doubted her government’s claim that ETA was responsible this time, and suspected that Sunday’s elections would throw out the rightist Popular Party of Jose María Aznar. Aznar had sent the Spanish troops to Iraq, and their deployment invited a violent response in Spain itself. Over the following days, 2 million people marched through Madrid to protest the bombings. Voters elected a new socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, who announced that he would keep his election promise to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 soldiers from Iraq. Only in the working-class suburbs, where the victims had begun the morning journey that took their lives, were there funerals, weeping, and outrage for lost fathers, daughters, and friends.

In Beirut, over fifteen years of civil war, nightclubs did not close. During the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, we spent most nights in a cellar bar called Boheme, where a piano and singer made more noise than the snipers. In Israel, I have been to discos that reopened as soon as the builders finished painting over suicide-bomb damage. Northern Ireland’s Troubles never closed the pubs, although more than a few were blown up. The people of Madrid went out on that night of March 11, 2004, and discussed over drinks and tapas the murderous assault on their city. But after dark on July 7, 2005, Londoners hid at home. Two Thursdays later, on July 21, when four more bombers made failed attempts to blow up the tube and a bus, London went quiet again. The Evening Standard had just published its “Bombing Victims Special Edition: London Stands United.” The front page of the normally sober Independent the next morning declared London: “City of Fear.”

Madrid’s normality reminded me of what I had been told London was like during the Blitz. In those long months of German bombardment in 1940 and 1941, Londoners worked by day and filled the clubs, bars, and theaters by night. What had happened to the British? Had the lions become mice? Was the bulldog tethered so tightly to the American leash that it no longer barked? If they did not fear nightly bombardment that destroyed thousands of houses, why were they so afraid now?

On Monday, July 11, four days after the London bombs, an unsolicited email circulated in London. It announced,

At 12 o’clock noon this Thursday there’s going to be a two minute silence to remember the victims of the bombs which exploded a week earlier, during rush hour last Thursday morning. Buses will stop, businesses will stop, everything still for two minutes. It’s a of compassion and sympathy and remembrance, but also maybe a of defiance – and so there’s a thought that wherever we are we should go out on to the streets, and observe the silence there, in public. The whole of Britain, standing on our streets, which we will always own and defend, in silence. Please pass this on to everyone you know. See you Thursday.

The annual British Remembrance Sunday silence for all the dead of both world wars lasts for two minutes as well, which would seem to suggest an equation between fifty-six terror victims and the millions who died without the benefit of Tony Blair’s public-relations team. That the email was signed “Matthew Freud, Chairman, Freud Communications” somehow fit. Freud is a New Labour public-relations executive whose wife, Elizabeth, is the daughter of Tony Blair’s primary media backer, Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps two minutes of shared silence – “buses will stop, businesses will stop” – was one way to divert attention from the fact that the invasion of Iraq, as well as a century of British and then American interference in Muslim lands, had come home. (Blair was almost daily assuring the public, to whom he had previously sworn that Saddam Hussein possessed unconventional weapons that threatened their lives, that the London bombs were unrelated to the war in Iraq. Methinks he, like the husband who constantly reminds his wife of his fidelity, doth protest too much.) The email’s recipients were what Private Eye magazine calls “luvvies,” including Princess Diana’s brother Charlie Spencer, Peter Gabriel, Tina Brown, BBC Chairman Michael Grade, Labour Party opinion-poll guru Philip Gould, the masters of media corporations, and the Israeli con man Uri Geller. Perhaps Geller, who used to bend spoons for a living, would be invited to make the bombs – or the Muslims – disappear.

Britain’s home secretary, Charles Clarke, said the bombings came “out of the blue,” consigning to collective amnesia the many warnings that Muslims outraged by British participation in the American invasion and occupation of Iraq would one day repatriate the war. He and the prime minister used the occasion to order Parliament to grant police “new powers” to control terrorism, ignoring the many powers that police already had but which had not prevented the bombings. Indeed, Clarke himself admitted that his unpopular proposal to force every British resident to acquire a national identity card would not have saved a single life on July 7. Identity cards would go ahead anyway. So would longer detentions without charge, summary extraditions, secret antiterrorism courts, and letting the police shoot suspects on sight. One dutiful pro-Labour commentator, in the antiwar Independent newspaper, concluded on July 8 that the bombings had rendered earlier debates on civil liberties in Parliament and the courts “outdated.” Thus does panic strike away centuries of hard-won civil rights. Almost thirty years ago, the press demanded immediate police action over IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham. The police, armed with “new powers,” obliged by framing ten innocent people, who spent their entire adult lives in prison before the courts let them go – with belated apologies fifteen years later. Tony Blair declared that the July bombers would not change the “British way of life.” They did not have to. Blair was doing that himself with his insistence that every man, woman, and child should be tagged and numbered with biometrically charged I.D. cards and his “shoot to kill” policy under which an innocent Brazilian would be shot dead on July 22. This prime minister had already elevated Saddam Hussein to the status of Hitler, claimed Iraq’s armed forces could deliver a death blow to Britain “within forty-five minutes,” and made suicide bombers more fearsome than the Luftwaffe. Here was a prime minister who knew how to raise the temperature. Here were a prime minister and home secretary prepared to support a police chief whose lies over the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes were allowed to stand in the public record for a month, until an investigation revealed that every aspect of the story – that he was wearing a jacket so thick it might have concealed a bomb, that police ordered him to stop and that he ran from them – was untrue. Still, Blair insists that these same police be awarded more powers to deal with terror. Who will give the citizen power to deal with the police? Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe bombarded London with thousands of tons of high explosives and incendiaries to prepare the ground for an invasion that never came. During that first month, almost 7,000 people died and another 10,000 were wounded. Blacked-out London, with its Anderson shelters and air-raid wardens, may have been horrifying. It was also romantic. The British politicians and newspapers who insisted the London of July 7, 2005, resembled London in late 1940 were wrong. London’s past – the bulldog spirit, the stiff upper lip, phlegm, and that greatest of lost British virtues, understatement – had become another country. Tony Blair’s London, the extension of Margaret Thatcher’s, is a fantasy city of hyperbole and, when confronting the slightest threat, hysteria.

On September 7, 1940, after the fall of France in June and an August of occasional German raids that killed a thousand people, the heavy, regular raids known as the Battle of Britain in the skies became London’s Blitz on the ground. Peter MacKenzie Young, a novice dental surgeon, wrote to his mother about that Saturday in London. When the Luftwaffe struck, he was watching a film at the Gaumont Cinema in Chelsea.

We left for tea just before the All Clear sounded and, other than a few people staring eastward from the Albert Bridge, nothing seemed to be amiss. I then left Oakley Street just as the siren was going at about 8.30 p.m., saying airily that I had someone to meet at Trafalgar Square at 9.15 and had, so I thought, plenty of time to walk along the Embankment. By that time the rumour had got round that the docks were on fire and when I saw the glare in the sky I knew that this raid was really one to be worried about.

The bombs did not deter MacKenzie Young. In Cheyne Walk, facing the River Thames, he heard a plane and dived for cover. Pausing in a public shelter, he grew bored with waiting and walked on to his rendezvous in Trafalgar Square. His letter home ended, “The amazing thing is that in spite of the terrific bombardment we are getting, there is still quite a lot of London left and the casualties are very small.” On that first day of the Blitz, 430 Londoners died. Intensive bombing continued for fifty-six straight nights, stretching on with varied force until May 1941. In January of 1941, George Orwell wrote to his American readers in Partisan Review that the bombing is less terrifying and more of a nuisance than you perhaps imagine” and that “the actual casualties are very few.” While MacKenzie Young called the first night’s death toll in 1940 “very small,” Britain’s press and politicians behaved on July 7 this year as if fifty-six dead meant Armageddon. Noel Coward called the Second World War merely “a horrible background to everything.” Olivia Cockett, a civil servant with London’s Metropolitan Police, wrote in her diary for February 20, 1942, “The war is just a nuisance, like cold weather or a toothache.” Anyone who compared the terrorist threat to London in 2005 to a toothache would probably be handed over to the Americans for interrogation at Bagram or Abu Ghraib. Yet Britons once treated horror with the disrespect it deserved. A few days into the Blitz, Virginia Woolf was already used to the bombs. Her diary notes drearily, “We count now on an air raid about 8.30. Anyhow, whether or not, we hear the sinister sawing noise about then, which loudens and fades; then a pause; then another comes. ‘They’re at it again,’ we say as we sit, I doing my work, L. making cigarettes. Now and then there’s a thud. The windows shake. So we know London is raided again.”

Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian exile and Sephardic Jewish author of Auto da Fe, wrote of life in north London’s Hampstead, “In those days of September 1940, you could watch the dog- fights between the British and the German planes from up on the Heath, where we were living at the time. In the middle of the day, you could look up at the sky, and watch the tracks of the planes, like watching some sporting event. It was so thrilling that you only had eyes for each particular duel as it was in progress.”

George Rodger, who after the war founded Magnum Photos with Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, covered the Blitz in London’s increasingly damaged streets. His black-and-white photographs depict a defiant and plucky population conducting mundane lives in extraordinary circumstances – unarmed bobbies directing traffic during raids, workmen sharing tea beside bomb-destroyed houses, families asleep in underground stations, crowds staring up at bombers, and news vendors who refused to take shelter. In a 1990 edition of the pictures, The Blitz: The Photography of George Rodger, a wonderful vignette of Soho nightlife unfolds at an underground club called the Hungaria. At night, its black-tied proprietor serves 1865 vintage cognac and cigars and in the morning after a raid wears a silk bathrobe as he pours tea for the pyjamaed guests who slept there on cots. Superintendent Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard’s Vice Squad estimated that there were 295 registered and about 15 unregistered clubs within a mile of Piccadilly Circus – an area police called “The Square Mile of Vice.” One of them, Kate Meyrick’s “43” Club on Soho’s Gerrard Street had a hidden passage into Newport Market for guests to escape police raids. Black marketeers supplied Londoners with the necessities wartime rationing denied them. George Rodger recalled, “There were theatres, concerts and cinemas, as long as they remained intact, though the curtains came down a little earlier. The Windmill Theatre [London’s first nude revue club] remained open throughout the war. Regardless of how close bombs might fall, the show went on. I don’t know if the girls in the chorus line were decorated for valour, but they should have been. It took guts to perform on stage night after night and then, when the non-stop revue was over, bed down in the Windmill underground dormitory or venture alone into the noisy darkness.” Rodger often ventured into the noisy darkness, and not always alone.

Then there was Ninette – petite, just five feet two inches of radiant happiness and as pretty as a picture. She was an air-raid warden. She was off duty that night. We danced in a Soho dungeon, and were lucky to find a taxi to take us home while the raid was still on. It was a particularly loud one and, around midnight, I phoned to make sure she was safe, as she lived alone. There was no reply. The line was dead. Anxiously I walked the mile to her house. It was no longer there. We had been dancing a few hours earlier. I could still smell the scent of her hair, and Ella Fitzgerald with the Ink Spots had sung, “Into each life some rain must fall.” It echoed still in my mind, and I went back to work.

In London on July 8, 2005, twenty-four hours after the terrorist assault by four young Muslim men, thousands of people did not go back to work. When I ventured out that evening, the streets were quiet. I still could not find a taxi on Ladbroke Grove, so took a 23 bus to Piccadilly Circus. An upstairs screen that usually transmitted intrusive commercials glowed black and white: “Crystal Eyes Ltd. and all companies associated with this screen service would like to extend their sincerest condolences to all the victims and their families who were caught up in yesterday’s attacks in London. Normal service will resume tomorrow.” The near-empty bus dropped me in the West End, where notices in windows apologized that restaurants were still closed. Employees, they said, could not get to work. George Rodger noted that in 1940 “it was a matter of pride that no shop ever remained closed unless it had been completely destroyed.” Two days before Christmas 1940, the Daily Telegraph’s Frederick Salfeld wrote, “Every morning, no matter how many bombs have been dropped in the night, London’s transport runs, letters are delivered, milk and bread come to one’s door, confectioners get their supplies, and the fruiterers’ windows are filled.” I found one open restaurant called Automat on Dover Street that was owned by an Argentinean and staffed by Poles. A month later, Transport for London announced that use of the tube was down 10 to 15 percent during the week and 30 percent on weekends.

The shuttered West End of 2005 might have shamed Noel Coward, who rushed back from America to Britain during the Blitz. Two of his more popular compositions, “London Pride” and “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans,” date from that era. His diary entry for April 19, 1941, described his typical Blitz night out: “Had a few drinks, then went to Savoy. Pretty bad blitz, but not so bad as Wednesday. A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door blew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians. On the whole, a strange and very amusing evening. People’s behavior absolutely magnificent. Much better than gallant. Wish the whole of America could really see and understand it. Thankful to God I came back. Would not have missed this experience for anything.”
Londoners laughed during and at the Blitz. A 1940 New Statesman poem asked,
Please, Mr. Nazi, bomb my next door neighbour,
But take great care, and don’t go bombing me.

The Blitz produced what is probably the finest opening sentence of any political essay ever written. In 1941, George Orwell began his “England Your England” thus: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” “Critic” wrote in The New Statesman on September 21, 1940, of the Nazi contribution to London”s skyline: “Looking out the other night on a fantastic scene of moonlight and searchlight, of white stars and of red fires in the East, I listened to the bombs and wondered how much, honestly, it mattered if most of London were burned down. . . . How much of London built since Wren is worth a tear?” “Critic” went on to consider a problem that has troubled London ever since: “Then comes the horrid question whether we have a Christopher Wren about and whether, if we have, we should treat him in rebuilding London even as well as our forefathers did, or whether all the ground landlords and financiers and business folk with their vested interests would be allowed once again to rebuild the Victorian gothic towers and the brick slums that Hitler has kindly demolished for us.” The October 16, 1940, edition of the humor magazine Punch summarized Winston Churchill’s comments on casualties during a parliamentary debate: “In one night, they certainly did drop 251 tons on London alone. This was only a few tons less than the whole lot dropped on Britain in the entire period of the last war. Whereas in the last war a ton of bombs killed ten people, now it killed only three-quarters of a person – a tribute to the effectiveness of our civil defense measures.”

The next issue of Punch, on October 23, published the poem “Last Words” by “A. P. H.”:
And anyhow, you must admit
The chance is small of being hit.
Why, London is the strangest place.
Nine-tenths of it is open space.
So, think, when you are in a room
It’s nine times safer than the tomb.

The Spectator’s “Janus” wondered on October 18, 1940, “Is London, I wonder, taking its air-raids too lightly?” No one need ask whether London is taking lightly the bombs that exploded on July 7 or the four that nearly exploded two Thursdays later. Humor was not the only aspect of the Blitz missing this July. While modern Londoners were called upon to show grief and fear that they may not have felt, their forebears did the opposite: they kept their emotions to themselves in order, as Churchill called it, to “keep on buggering on.” Olivia Cockett wrote in her diary of her reaction to the first bombs: “Catch myself saying ‘Oh God, Oh God’ over and over again, on the stairs and places. Terrible tummy shooting pains too. Am joking and witty to people still, on the surface. But horrible underneath.”

Toward the end of the Blitz, on May 10, 1941, Germany dropped more than 100,000 incendiary bombs on London. One battered the Parliament tower, but its famous clock told the right time and Big Ben still struck the hours. The House of Commons chamber was destroyed. The assault lasted all night as wave upon wave of Luftwaffe bombers devastated the city in reprisal for similar British raids on Berlin. “Cinders had wafted down like black snow – the air had been acrid until the early hours,” the Daily Telegraph wrote. “But London’s spirit was still sound.” By war’s end, more than 40,000 Londoners had been killed in German bombing raids. The rest “got on with it.” London 2005 confronts no enemy equal to the Wehrmacht. Disaffected young Muslim men from Beeston and north London do not pose a threat comparable with Europe’s strongest armed force determined on world dominion and genocide. Again, I ask myself what modern Londoners are afraid of. Noticing a pattern – that the first bombs went off on Thursday and the other bombs failed to detonate two Thursdays later – London mounted what was called the “biggest security deployment in London since World War II” two Thursdays after that**. Armed police were at every tube station and most central London streets. I was rather relieved to see them protecting the mosque on Golborne Road near my house, if only because their presence outside their stations and cars – something residents have demanded for years – meant muggers were more likely to stay home. The government meanwhile tells us its policies have reduced crime, another lie. Violent crime is at an all-time high, and government orthodoxy contends that putting police on the beat does nothing to deter muggers and rapists. They would have deterred the three men who beat me unconscious and robbed me as I was walking home one night a few years ago.

The government may insist that this enemy is worse than the Nazis, because it is an internal enemy. Ministers do not say that any Muslim could be a bomber, but they have accused the Muslims in Britain – I hesitate to call them the Muslim community, because the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Moroccans, Somalis, Palestinians, Turks, and the rest hardly constitute a cohesive populace – of succoring potential bombers and the mullahs who encourage them. But did Britain not have potential internal enemies in 1940, whom they did not stop and search at random? George Orwell wrote in January 1941, “Put all together, the various pro-Hitler organizations can hardly number 150,000 members, and they are not likely to achieve much by their own efforts, but they might play an important part at a time when a government of the Pétain type was contemplating surrender.” Did he write “hardly number 150,000”? If the police alleged there were 150,000 members of Muslim extremist organizations in Britain today, the Daily Mail would run a panic front page demanding the government put them away or deport them. And Blair would probably do it, with a heavy heart, of course.

The other contrast to London of 1940 concerns its imagined future. In 1940, Londoners believed they would forge a fairer and better world after the war. Today, no one believes the world will be better than before the war on terror began. When Osama bin Laden and a few hundred other fanatics are dead or locked away in the oubliette at Guantánamo Bay, Halliburton and its corporate peers will still be shaking down the American government for subsidies and control of Middle East oil. Richard Branson and Blair’s other favorites will enjoy governmentguaranteed monopolies and give-away contracts. The opposition will continue not to oppose wars on American demand. And the rulers will find or manufacture new enemies. As for a vision of the future in Iraq, where America and Britain have invested and taken so much blood, no one in Britain is stupid enough to believe it will be a peaceful outpost of democracy among the barbarians. Postoccupation Iraq is more likely to be in a civil war than a democratic paradise. That is the world London anticipates, so why sing about pride and hurling defiance at the foe? We are not, as in 1940, all in it together.

At the end of World War II, Britain established free universal medical care and, however reluctantly, began to dismember its empire. Who is writing, like George Orwell and many workingand middle-class diarists in 1940, about achieving a fairer world order, universal health care, protection of abused workers, regulation of conflicts under international law, and discussion of differences on the floor of the United Nations? Perhaps London realizes it is not at war this time. British aces are not shooting German bombers out of the sky, and no armies threaten the homeland. Rage has led some young men to break the law, and the police can handle them – as they did the IRA – until a political solution presents itself. And they can do it without identity cards, unaccountable shoot-to-kill operations, lengthy detentions that the courts are not told about, and other violations of what Englishmen used to regard as fundamental rights. What does Britain – or the United States, for that matter – promise for its people after Victory over Terror? When VT-Day comes, will we pop champagne and take back the streets?

* * It matters little that I compare two nights in 2005 with fifty-six straight nights during the Blitz. Does anyone imagine that life would go on as usual in Tony Blair’s London if terrorist bombs were going off every day?