Letters From London

London Underground

Terror strikes twice in as many weeks. A major city is disrupted, and discomfort is widespread. Our London correspondent sends us three days’ dispatches about life on the tube.

Monday, July 25, 2005


I’m on an early morning commuter train, rattling through a half-dozen stations on its way across South London to Victoria station. The sun is low and golden; last night’s heavy rainfall brings the smell of wet foliage through the open windows. There are fewer people on the train than usual, but school holidays and Monday morning ennui could easily account for that. No one seems especially alert: It’s business as usual.

It was while waiting for this train on the morning of July 7 that I heard an unfamiliar recorded announcement; “London Underground regret to announce that there are no services on the entire underground network.” I looked at the lady beside me on the platform. We both smiled, familiar with the incompetence that plagues the tube systems. Frankly, we didn’t believe a word of it.


The train is a bit fuller now but still nowhere near its standing-room-only normality. A few people read newspapers, catching up on other country’s bombs and the ongoing manhunt to catch the four would-be suicide bombers whose operations failed late the previous week, all at large and presumably angry and unfulfilled.

I look out the window. The scenery has become more urban—the Victorian railway builders had to fight their way through existing residential streets rather than forge new cuttings and embankments in fields and open countryside. The track is raised on brick arches that afford a panoramic view across South London, with the City to the east and the West End ahead.

A man reading the Daily Mirror (headline: “Is this how we now must live?”). Am I scared? Yes, I think I am. The man opposite me has placed his North Face rucksack down by his feet.As I arrived at Victoria on the morning of July 7, it became clear that something was wrong. Barriers were drawn across the tube entrances and large crowds were just building up. My appointment wasn’t far away, and the many buses that stop in front of the station concourse had long queues beside them. With plenty of time in hand, I resolved to walk. Turning left outside the station, I approached a uniformed transport policeman to ask for directions. There were several people in front of me, all with similar requests. I caught the tail end of his last response: “…a serious incident. Yes, there have been fatalities.”

This quickened the pulse. Walking along a pavement thick with waiting bus passengers, I headed in the direction of my meeting. Luckily I had remembered to bring my mp3 player, so I turned on the radio and flipped through the local news stations. A picture of the day’s chaos emerged, barely an hour old. Bombs on four tubes, possibly five. A bus had just exploded. Eyewitnesses were calling in, distressed and garbled. No one really knew what was going on. My mobile phone soon ceased to work. After 10 minutes I managed to find a telephone box and call home. There seemed to be no point in going to the meeting, and yet all forms of public transport were by that point out of the question. Home was an hour and a half away, so I started to walk.

Despite being in the center of town on July 7, I was, like millions of others, totally detached from the reality of the attacks. Except for the bus bomb, the devastation was deep underground; no iconic buildings tumbled, no pall of smoke, ash, and debris hung over the city for days. On the surface, things looked exactly the same once the next day arrived. My journey to work was unaffected.

At the last station before Victoria, the train comes to a stop and the automatic doors let the cold morning in. There is total silence on the train, just the soft rustling of newspapers and the ticking hiss of a couple of iPods. Everyone is concentrating their gaze on the middle distance, the commuter’s thousand-yard stare. The train begins to move again, but as we near Victoria it slows to a crawl. Out of the window, multiple tracks gather together into a thick wad of railway lines, set in a broad cutting overlooked by tatty terraces and the occasional tower block. Then it’s into the gloom of the station, aglow with hundreds of strip lights.


I have just stepped onto a tube train. As the doors start to close a young man runs on. “Is this going all the way to the end, to Walthamstow?” he asks breathlessly. He sways a bit—tired, drunk, drugged? He holds a blue folder, and there’s a black cylinder in his jacket pocket. Maybe it’s a can of anti-perspirant. He’s not smiling. In this light, it’s not easy to determine his ethnic origin with certainty. I’m perhaps three feet away when he drops his belongings roughly on the floor and pulls his jacket up and over his head. We flinch. He is hot and tired. He makes his way to an empty bench and sits down heavily.

The Victoria line is a relatively recent addition to the tube network. Completed in 1971, it starts at Brixton, running north through Stockwell, Vauxhall, and Pimlico before intersecting with the overground trains and Circle and District lines at Victoria. From here it passes through Green Park, Oxford Circus, Warren Street, Euston, and Kings Cross before heading off towards Walthamstow in the northeast. I have three stops to survive. Warren Street, today’s destination, was the scene of one of the abortive bomb attacks on July 21. The failed bomber, since identified by police as Yasin Hassan Omar, left the train, sprinted up the two sets of escalators and out onto Tottenham Court Road. From here, no one knows where he went next, although the city was briefly alive with rumors about a suicide bomber at loose in nearby University College Hospital.


We arrive at Warren Street. It’s a blessed relief to be off the train and up the same escalator that Omar ascended the previous week. Only when I get outside do I see my first policeman of the day, a rather lonely figure in a high-visibility jacket, guarding the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Warren Street, an impossible task.


I’m now getting ready to travel southbound on the Northern line from Warren Street. There are just three of us on this sooty-smelling platform, waiting along one of the deepest level tube lines in the whole city. The next station along, Goodge Street, has a deep-level air-raid shelter beneath it, a network of tunnels now used for document and archive storage. General Eisenhower frequented the shelter during the Second World War.

A train roars in. There are 13 people in this carriage; four women alone with their thoughts, two groups of friends nattering, a man reading the Daily Mirror (headline: “Is this how we now must live?”). Am I scared? Yes, I think I am. The man opposite me has placed his North Face rucksack down by his feet. My internal bias-o-meter discounts him; T-shirt too tight, beard too neatly trim, skin just too light. Prejudices blaze unchecked when you’re scrutinizing every tiny detail—far better to go back to steadfast ignorance of your fellow traveler, with all the passive tolerance that results. Past Goodge Street and Eisenhower’s ghost, announcing over a crackling wireless that a global war has just ended, to Tottenham Court Road. More people get off than get on.


Tight gray T-shirt gets off at Leicester Square, a tourist heartland. A Chinese man gets on, four carrier bags laden with leaves and packages from the supermarkets in Chinatown. We’ve all long since perfected our nonchalant stares. Yet more rucksacks get on at Charing Cross, the next stop. I am suddenly angry at these people and their selfishness. Why do you need such a big bag? Why not get a cab? Why not walk? I overlook a guitar case and a Vuitton bag, for no logical reason.


Embankment. Time to get off, finally.


Meeting over, I head to the station for the journey home. Only this time I do a cowardly thing. Rather than catch the District line one stop from Temple to Blackfriars, I elect walk the extra seven minutes along the Embankment. It’s unseasonably cold, but far from unpleasant, and I kid myself that this is a healthier option. If I’m being honest, I just don’t fancy descending down to platform level again, especially at the height of rush hour on a service that’s twice as full due to the ongoing suspension of the Circle line. The July 7 bomb at Aldgate, in which seven people were killed, is just seven stops away. Yet last Thursday I took the tube right here, as a small but pointed act of defiance against the four failed bomb attacks earlier that day. Now, just half a week later, taking the tube for just one stop to add spice to an online essay feels too much like tempting fate.

Once on the overland train from Blackfriars I relax. The station’s five platforms jut out above the Thames, with the Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern and beyond that Tower Bridge forming a classic London backdrop. This feels too exposed, too open to be attacked in the manner we’re all secretly expecting. Yet when one commuter train runs slowly alongside another as the two exit the station together, the daylight strobing on and off between the windows of the carriage beside me, I flinch inwardly, waiting for a shattering noise that never comes.

Tomorrow I won’t have to step on the tube at all, and it’s a relief. The train reaches my home station, barely 15 minutes outside of central London, and the paranoia reigns back another notch. It’s an eight-minute walk back to my wife and our nine-month-old baby. When we first moved here four years ago, arriving with the ever-darkening autumn evenings, I feared this walk through an unfamiliar neighborhood, down residential streets with little or no distractions. At the site of approaching figures, I’d clutch my bag tightly, or feel in my pocket for the smooth pebble form of my new mobile phone. Now my phone is too old and battered to be tempting to anyone, and not a single one of those approaching figures has ever threatened me outside of my own imagination.

The walk home has long ceased to be any cause for anxiety, especially when I find myself thinking about loud bangs and smoke, being deep underground, losing sight, limbs, and more. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m bubbling with anticipation of seeing my son’s smile and hearing about his latest achievements; every day a new habit or piece of learned behavior to delight us.

“My Friend the Suicide Bomber,” reads the front page of the Evening Standard, London’s principle newspaper. I’m tired. There’s no guard to drop, but drop my guard I do. It’s too much effort to spend every moment braced for oblivion.The walk takes me past a taped-off piece of pavement outside a local pub (not one I’ve ever frequented, admittedly). A spider’s web of “do not cross” tape weaves its way from lamppost to bollard, shielding off a wall usually hidden by outdoor tables. On the ground, propped up against the red brick, is a line of maybe 30 bouquets of flowers, all still in their plastic sleeves, some with cards, some small, others large and elaborate. Bizarrely, there are several empty miniature bottles of peach schnapps as well. As yet, there’s no sign of the dreaded witness appeal board, the temporary yellow signs the Metropolitan Police erect next to violent crime scenes with the intention of encouraging people to come forward with information. All they do is terrify people, encourage a morbid fascination with the forensic language of assault and murder, depress property prices, and scare visiting in-laws. It’s a depressing reminder of an everyday sort of violence, the kind that attracts no bold headlines and stern-faced politicians, international coverage and anxious phone calls from parents. It’s part of what defines living in this city.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


A different time, a different train. Again, it feels cowardly not to be locked into a routine like the average commuter, with a set of decisions pre-determined by habit and necessity. I board the overland train, this time heading for Blackfriars station, just south of London’s financial district. Today’s suspect count: One. Let’s run two simple mental tests. Surely if you were going to detonate a bag of high explosives in a suicide attack you’d want it on your back, by your head and not by your feet? That’s OK, then. And I expect you’d be nervous, visibly shaking. I scrutinize his hands. Rock solid. Partly satisfied, I relax. A bit.

I realize that thinking—and writing—about terrorism during my morning commute is making the journey drag on unbearably. I’m scaring myself while disrespecting others. “White British” make up just over half of the population of Inner London, so with around 50 percent of Londoners belonging to other ethnic groups, paranoia is invited to run rampant. I think of pathetic ruses, like pulling out my phone and making a call home, asking after our son with exaggerated paternal compassion and tenderness. Surely no one could kill a new father? I realize that I’m shaking, which rather stuffs one of the two simple tests for the man sitting opposite me.

We creak over Blackfriars Bridge into the station. My suspect pulls his bag closer to him and looks around. The train stops and he’s up and away, into the crowd. Just like everyone else.

I break my no-tube rule on the way into the office. It’s only one stop and saves me just a few minutes, but I want to make sure I get a desk in our crowded office. On another morning, this kind of trifling and petty decision could have been a matter of life and death.


Yet another walk to the station. “My Friend the Suicide Bomber,” reads the front page of the Evening Standard, London’s principle newspaper. I’m tired. There’s no guard to drop, but drop my guard I do. It’s too much effort to spend every moment braced for oblivion. As my cousin, who lives outside of London, had helpfully pointed out the night before, at least I have statistics on my side—my chances of dying at the hands of a terrorist are still minuscule.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Our train station is a node, with three lines snaking away into three of London’s mainline stations. Today I decide to exercise the final available option and take a fast train to London Bridge. It’s on time and far more crowded than I’ve become used to—I’m lucky to get a seat. The journey will involve getting the Jubilee line at London Bridge, then switching tubes at Green Park to the trusty, light-blue Victoria line. The Jubilee line is colored silver on the map, an appropriate hue for the network’s newest and most high-tech service. East of Waterloo, the Jubilee line extension has light, airy stops, with a robust steel and concrete construction that sets them apart from the cramped Victorian stations, some of which date back more than 140 years.

“Tube Strike Three” reads the headline on the Metro, the commuter’s free morning newspaper. Is this a warning or a prophecy? Have three people been arrested? Fresh information comes in thick and fast. Unlike the Standard, its sister paper, which is updated throughout the day (big, white-on-black headlines usually signal some kind of fast-moving, major story), the Metro only has one shot at setting the day’s agenda. By a quirk of journalistic timing and the arrival of the early morning news conference, it usually fails.


The rail journey is uneventful, peaceful, even, and on reaching the station I join the commuter mass that swarms up the station concourse and then descends down four escalators into the tube. On the way down I re-read that headline. “Tube Strike Threat.” Apparently tube drivers are threatening industrial action unless security improves. At least some things are returning to normal.

I reach the westbound Jubilee line platform just as a very crowded train whistles in. Pushing into a carriage full of people is even more unattractive than usual, but moving a few doors down alleviates the crush. The Jubilee line is quiet, smooth and crowded. The platform at the next stop, Southwark, is empty, and after that we reach Waterloo, one of the busiest main line stations, with intersections to two other tube lines and the Eurostar train to Paris. Passengers crowd on and claustrophobia returns.


Back on the Victoria line for just two stops. I have three more tube journeys to make today, if all goes according to plan, and I realize that sitting here writing down my thoughts is putting me on constant alert. So are we living under the shadow of terrorism or carrying on as normal? If I think too much, I feel defined by paranoia, so official exhortations to remain constantly vigilant yet also get back to work feel oddly contradictory. Discomfort on the underground is widespread.

Just two weeks before the July 7 attacks I’d seen a rucksack apparently abandoned on a seat in an otherwise crowded carriage. Was it just me or did no one else care? Should I say something and cause panic? Or would my inquiry be met with studied indifference? I said nothing, edging away, looking elsewhere. In the end, the woman on the next seat picked it up as she got up to leave. And my mind returned to pleasant blankness.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell