How London Got That Stiff Upper Lip


LONDON– When I first moved from New York to London in September 2002, there were two questions that inevitably popped up in any conversation: “How did George W. Bush get elected?” or some variation thereof, and “What was it like to be in New York on September 11?” I could make even the most indulgent listener’s eyes glaze over with tortuous disquisitions on the electoral college and the concept of the swing state, but at least my helpless mumblings about 9-11 often led to an interesting discussion of London’s long acquaintance with organized terror—from the Luftwaffe to the Irish Republican Army—and the remarkable equanimity with which the public has traditionally faced this menace. Indeed, sangfroid was the meme-word that kept recurring last Thursday, when a series of rush-hour bombs on three London Underground trains and a bus left at least 52 dead and some 700 wounded in the worst ever terrorist attack on the city.

“Just the same feeling in the stomach as four years ago,” a friend in Manhattan e-mailed, summing up the dreadful familiarity of London’s ordeal. Obviously, it would be specious to draw too many direct comparisons between the World Trade Center calamity and this raw tragedy—because of the difference in sheer magnitude of casualties and destruction, of course, but also because, while 9-11 was “unthinkable,” the London attacks were, as one official put it, “a shock but not a surprise,” a grim inevitability following the killings in the U.S., Madrid, Casablanca, Riyadh, and elsewhere, and especially in light of Britain’s supporting role in the occupation of Iraq. As one London friend said the morning after, “I think we’ve been expecting this for so long, it’s like it already happened.”

Nor were these strikes, to put it bluntly, anything new. To place London’s most recent nightmare in context, consider that the IRA and its dissidents detonated one or more bombs here in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, and 2001; all the while, countless bomb scares—either false alarms or thwarted operations—stopped areas of the city in its tracks over and over again. London also endured three nail-bomb explosions in 1999, planted by the white supremacist David Copeland. A friend who’s a longtime Londoner characterizes the ’90s as an era not of fear but of irritation; for the vast lucky majority, the IRA was simply one more commuters’ hurdle between home and work.

Add to these outrages the still-living memory of 30,000 civilian dead in the Blitz, and one realizes that forging ahead stoically in the midst of indiscriminate horror is a key item in a Londoner’s job description. Unsurprisingly, a native composure and reticence also characterized the local television response to the attacks. I was raised on a greasy diet of American TV, but after a day of calm and straightforward BBC reports, a brief, jarring glimpse of the CNN coverage—rapid-fire montages of panic and pain scored to faux-Wagnerian strings and pulsing with garish graphics—was wholly repulsive, as if mass murder were something to be advertised or aestheticized.

The British stiff upper lip—with lower lip balancing a glass of lager—is a well-worn and, as it turns out, wholly accurate cliché. It was in clear evidence on the evening of the 7th, when we stopped in at a few pubs near King’s Cross, site of one of the tube bombings. The patrons looked like your average Thursday-night crowd, their ranks perhaps a bit thinner and more muted than usual, but they laughed and chatted easily. (I can remember laughing out loud about something in the hushed, funereal Voice offices on the afternoon of September 12, 2001, and feeling instantly ashamed.) No one was flying the Union Jack or singing “God Save the Queen,” and conversation wasn’t exclusively or even predominantly about the day’s terrible events (nor was it in my Central London workplace the next day). In one pub just blocks from Tavistock Place, where a bomb ripped the roof off a double-decker, the TV was tuned not to the news but to a gardening program.

“This is pretty much a normal night now, but this afternoon we were completely packed,” said bartender John, who was working on his day off. “All the offices closed and people were stranded with no way to get home, so they didn’t come in for a drink—they came in to get pissed. Guys would have six pints apiece without thinking about it.” He paused for a moment, and added matter-of-factly, “This is the craziest day I’ve ever seen.”

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