Fear creeps in

After the July 7 bombings, much was made of London's defiance. But now, the capital's mood seems less sure. Can things ever return to normal if nail bombs are planted in the local park?

By Tim Dowling  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Fri, Jul 29, 2005 - Page 9

I can pretty well pinpoint the moment when my own spirit of defiance started to fade. It was last Saturday morning. I was with the dog in the park opposite our house, chatting to a woman with a boxer while watching two uniformed policeman comb the undergrowth. It's not unusual to see police in our area; the place has of late become something of a center of excellence for delinquents. It is unusual, however, to be ordered to leave the area by a plainclothes officer citing the presence of a suspicious device. It is strange to watch the whole park being festooned in police tape, to see cops with machine-guns and earpieces standing on the corner. A huge security cordon was thrown up, with our house inside it.

At this point I was still feeling rather reassured by what I assumed was a ridiculous, if understandable, overreaction on the part of the police. People set fire to stolen scooters in our park, but they do not plants bombs there. We stood out on the front step in order to see what was happening, only to be told by a policeman that we must remain indoors. He was clearly looking for a phrase to describe the seriousness of the situation without telling us any more than he needed to.

The words he chose were: "It's got nails in."

That was when my defiance evaporated.

The spirit of the Blitz was invoked shortly after the bombings of Thursday, July 7, and it seemed to resonate immediately. Those directly affected by the attacks -- the injured, the emergency services, the families of those killed or hurt -- did indeed behave with courageous stoicism, and Londoners took a little reflected pride in their dignity. Mayor Ken Livingstone, a divisive figure at the best of times, made an emotional statement which perfectly captured the mood of the capital, even though he was in Singapore.

"Londoners will not be divided by the cowardly attack," he said, his voice angry and raw. "They will stand together in solidarity ... and that is why I'm proud to be the mayor of that city."

The next day people made their way to work, an act that was to become imbued with meaning. In different circumstances a business-as-usual approach to such a tragedy might have seemed callous, but those deeply affected by the bombings and those who were merely inconvenienced -- I count myself firmly among the latter; I was in Paris -- were united behind the idea that getting on with life sent the terrorists the right message. The buses filled up again. The following Monday, Livingstone took the tube to work as normal, elevating the grind of the daily commute into a provocative political statement.

At the same time, the Web site www.werenotafraid.com became a clearinghouse for various expressions of defiance, an almost direct response to the terrorists' online claim of responsibility, which asserted that "Britain is now burning with fear." Some of the postings on werenotafraid.com were moving, some were mawkish, a few strayed into reckless bravado, but the overall tone was one of simple solidarity, amplified by the huge number of respondents.

And in London things certainly seemed to be getting back to normal. Tourist numbers began to recover. Some 20,000 people turned up to the National Gallery's Stubbs exhibition on July 20.

Despite stern warnings from the security services about the possibility of more attacks, it seemed like it would be a good long while before terrorists dared to test our vigilance again.

The second attack changed all that. While the display of defiance probably peaked at the impromptu street party in Shepherds Bush Green, west London, which was brought to a halt after a bomb failed to go off on a nearby tube train, in retrospect this seemed like a slightly giddy reaction to what turned out to be an extremely close call. The half-certainties we had let ourselves adopt were shattered.

We had hoped that Britain contained a fairly limited supply of home-grown suicide bombers; it was even possible that the first four had been tricked into sacrificing their lives. We can discount that idea now.

Since July 21, carrying on as normal has become rather more difficult. No one was injured in the attacks, but I know people in Shepherds Bush who weren't allowed to go home for two days.

In Kilburn, in Tulse Hill and Stockwell -- parts of London previously enveloped in the safety of shaggy anonymity -- residents found the anti-terrorist operation had arrived on their doorsteps. If most of us have thus far escaped tragedy, few Londoners remain untouched by fear. Last Friday, the police shot an innocent Brazilian man in Stockwell station, and the potential for disaster expanded.

It's not enough to spot terrorists on the tube; you must take active steps to avoid looking like one. Watching events unfold on television (interspersed with long, defiant stretches of cricket), I had the sense of things getting unpleasantly close to home, and that was before someone left a nail bomb in the park where my children play. I know this hardly compares to the Blitz, in which 43,000 Londoners perished, but I still find the idea of exhibiting pluck in the circumstances oddly draining. I feel lucky, but I don't feel plucky.

When Inter Milan soccer club tried to cancel its UK tour last week, Livingstone's outraged response rang curiously hollow.

"The terrorists, I am sure, will be celebrating their decision," he said.

"We cannot allow the terrorists to change the way we live or they will be very close to their aim," he said.

Who in London hasn't changed the way they live, or had it changed for them? I don't know about you, but the other day I had to go through a police checkpoint to buy milk.

People have stopped taking rucksacks out with them. They've stopped riding on the top deck of the bus. When it was first reported that bicycle sales had doubled in the capital, the statistic was interpreted as a plucky response to a badly damaged transport network -- people were getting to and from work any way they could -- but it may well turn out that a certain percentage of commuters have forsaken the tube permanently.

Last Sunday, we were woken by the muffled crump of a controlled explosion. Although the bomb has been taken away, as I write this the police are still here and the park is still closed. I don't know whether I want them to stay or not. For the moment I live in unprecedented safety -- a veritable gated community -- but I must admit I'm now afraid; afraid that another attack is imminent, afraid of the idea of 3,000 armed police on the streets, afraid that London will never quite be the same again, afraid that my children will find out how afraid I am.

Carrying on as normal seems less politically freighted than it did two weeks ago, not least because it's no longer really possible, but you can't say that the terrorists have won just because the cops won't let the postman deliver my Amazon order.