To be away from your internet connection and your TV.
At 8.50am Thursday morning I was on a train somewhere in mid-Wales on my way to a conference in Oxford on… violence.
Getting into Birmingham just after 10.30, the only clue to what had happened, if I’d known how to interpret it, was that the next London Euston train had been cancelled (but this is not such a rare occurrence as to arouse extraordinary suspicions). But then came the announcement once I was on the Oxford train: We strongly advise you not to travel to London; because of the security situation, there is no public transport running in the city.
And only when I arrived in Oxford and started talking to others attending the conference did I really start to find out what had happened.
But we were there for business, and we got on with it. We stepped into the peculiar social bubble that is an academic conference and we talked about history and violence and politics, and the food and the weather, and academia and gossip and sex, and books and our research obsessions… and all the things academics talk about at conferences.
Occasionally we got reports and numbers from people who’d gone to the TV room to watch the news, and I made it to a computer for a while, but didn’t really try too hard to learn too much; what had happened a few miles away from us was a lurking presence, we were all aware of it, all too aware of it. I think I didn’t want to know more than was absolutely necessary. I certainly didn’t want to start in on the bloggers’ analysis. And most of all, I think I didn’t want to fill in details; I didn’t want to know names and faces, because if I started on that path, what would happen?
We carried on. We kept what was happening out there at a safe distance. And when I finally opened a paper on Saturday afternoon on the train home, I cried. For the deaths, and for the still alive, frantically scouring the city for missing loved ones.
But I was proud too.
Now, I’ve never exactly been in love with London in the way that many people are. And most of the time I consider myself far too cynical to be a patriot. (And, yes, let’s not get it too much out of proportion: this is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to London, where bombs and terror are not new; but it is the worst thing for a very long time.)
But yes, I am proud: of the responses of those who were there and caught up in this horror. Of their calmness and courage through terror and shock and pain. Their generosity and willingness to help each other. Their defiance. Proud of the emergency services and the hospitals and their staff. Proud of those who are even now deep underground facing a little hell on earth.
And proud of the message they’ve sent out by their deeds and words:
Fuck you, wherever you are, you cringing cowardly little pieces of scum: don’t you know that adversity draws us Brits together as nothing else can? We will argue for the next 7 years and beyond about the bloody Olympics. But on this we stand together. We will mourn and we will remember. When we get you, we will ensure that you have justice; we will give you a fair trial. We won’t even kill you. On both of which counts, we will prove that whatever our faults, we are better than you.