Today the UK commemorates the one-year anniversary of the London bombings. For 52 families, it will be a time of devastating grief; for four more families, grief too, but partnered with guilt and shame, wondering how a suicide bomber could have grown up unnoticed in their midst.
But for most Londoners it will be just another day, albeit with a maudlin edge, marked officially by the city with a few quiet ceremonies; unofficially, by its citizens, with a million recounted tales about where they were on the day terror came to town (at the pub, probably).
People are often shocked when I tell them about my experience of the London bombings. I'm almost embarrassed to say it - but amid all the horror, London was actually a wonderful place to be.
Strangers smiled at you on the Tube and - rather than assuming they must be psychotic and quickly staring at your feet, as you normally would - you met their gaze and smiled back. An entire phonebook of long-lost contacts reached out and texted to see if you were safe. Seven and a half million people headed down to their local, where DJs played Marvin Gaye's What's Goin’ On, and men and women alike hugged and dabbed away a tear. Me, I stocked up on a few pints before walking across town to a 5-star hotel in Regent's Park where I had been enticed by a part-time flame with the promise of champagne and the romantic words, "Hell Jen, we could die tomorrow – might as well get a leg over." (Johnson always had an eye for the main chance.)
We Londoners were too dignified for histrionics. Even calling the date “7/7” was anathema. The legacy too was typically British – none of this hard right religious revolution for us, thank you very much.
Alas, in reality, we were more like the Yanks than we had imagined. For all the millions who went on anti-war marches in Hyde Park, there were millions more who sat at home, nurturing prejudices.
We claimed to loathe the American rednecks who wore their racist pride on their sleeves, but we Brits were just as bad. Those “Pakis” that ran the off-licence became instant targets for suspicion. Any man with a backpack or a beard was a potential target for police guns, even if you were an innocent Brazilian or Forest Hill Royal Mail driver. And in northern towns like Bradford, the bombings served to pour petrol on the sparks of racial hatred already dividing communities.
The British National Party ran an advertising campaign showing an image of the bombed No 30 bus with the slogan, “Maybe now it’s time to start listening to the BNP” – and a frighteningly high number of Londoners took this to heart. In some areas of the capital, one in five people said they would consider voting for the BNP in the 2006 elections, and the party doubled its seats on polling day.
But London is not a total lost cause. Ken Livingston’s annual anti-racism, anti-terrorism free festival, Rise: London United takes place again this Saturday in dirty old Finsbury Park, and never has its sentiment been more urgent. With artists like Common, Killa Kela and The Buzzcocks on the bill and communities from all corners of the globe joining together, it promises to be a knockout day.
I won’t be there - I'm writing this from my drafty Kingsland villa in Godzone. But I didn't come back to NZ because of any terror fears, I came back because I was offered a job too good to refuse - I love London and hope one day to return. It’s an ugly place displaying increasingly ugly sentiments – but it’s not doomed just yet. Hopefully as the capital pauses for the two-minute silence today it will remember its victims - but also look forward to a positive future.
London - don’t let the bastards grind you down.