London memorials: A show for whose benefit?

At yesterday’s official vigil and two minutes’ silence, the crowd at times became a stage army.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

After the London bombs, makeshift shrines sprung up near King’s Cross and Aldgate Tube stations, including messages of defiance, appeals for the missing, and marks of respect. One Union Jack was crossed with the felt-tipped message ‘We are not afraid’; another note read ‘You will never defeat us, London lives on’. But these shrines were soon incorporated by officialdom. The King’s Cross memorial now has set opening hours, and St John Ambulance workers stand guard in each corner, bearing boxes of tissues.

A week ago, nobody told Londoners how to respond to the terrorist attacks – they did what was necessary, almost without thinking about it. Now, a stream of state-sponsored memorials risks undermining last week’s spontaneous solidarity.

The offerings at the shrines are becoming more formal. A bunch of flowers from the Syrian Embassy was addressed ‘to Ken Livingstone, Mayor’, and seemingly as an afterthought, ‘and the people of London’. Another extravagant bouquet, from the staff at the Savoy Hotel, is almost an advert – its label reads ‘Savoy flowers’, and is signed ‘The Savoy, A Fairmont Hotel’.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell and London Mayor Ken Livingstone opened a memorial garden in Victoria Embankment Gardens, and books of condolence were set out at various spots around the city. These memorials have the morbid, sanitised feel of a funeral parlour – the innocuous white flowers, rows of plants and cream carpets. In Trafalgar Square, the people queuing for the books of condolence could have been queuing for the bank; they wrote their comments at three separate tables, facing away from the square. This emphasises their separateness rather than their solidarity.

It also encourages introspection, with people asking ‘how were the bombs for me?’. Some left offerings outlining their personal experiences of the attacks, or their opinions about London. A note by former home secretary David Blunkett at King’s Cross read: ’In sorrow that I was not able to do more to save you.’ Although the two-minutes’ silence was a powerful and apt gesture, it also became an occasion for some introspection. One woman told me that she had thought about ‘the argument with my boyfriend’; another man thought about the fact that he had nearly been on one of the trains.

At times, we’re seeing a staged performance of emotions. A barrier in front of the King’s Cross shrine is often packed with spectators, watching and photographing those filing through the memorial as if it were a tourist sight. There is a grisly celebrity culture at work, with those struck by the attacks being treated, not just with a humane respect, but as celebrities. ‘We had some of the relatives down here today’, boasted the guard for the Victoria Embankment Gardens. The flowers and notes of those who knew the victims are kept in a separate area at the King’s Cross memorial.

A week ago Londoners looked each other in the eye, and much of that solidarity remains. But as they file through memorials, nobody talks or looks at one another; families huddle together, taking care not to bump into anybody. As we bow our heads in these orchestrated rituals, we’re less a crowd, than a lonely crowd.

At last night’s vigil in Trafalgar Square, organised by the Greater London Authority, there were moments of genuine elation, as people cheered statements of defiance and praise for London. Emergency workers were given extra-loud cheers, often ringing out before they had said a word. One paramedic who had tended the wounded celebrated the ‘ordinary people who just wanted to help and do what they could’. A bus driver told how the driver who drove the first Number 30 bus on 8 July, did so with the words, ‘terrorists, you will never win’. A fireman read a poem penned by his division: ‘a glove is just a glove, until it’s on a firefighter’s hand… into the fray they charge without fear.’

But overall, the vigil was more an elite display than a popular demonstration. The crowds who had been centre stage last week were sidelined to something of a stage army. One by one, political and media figures had their say. Livingstone kicked it off, pledging to ‘redouble our efforts to build a better city for our children and our grandchildren’. Tessa Jowell read a poem about a disaster in Peru; Conservative chairman Francis Maude read a poem written by a young Muslim woman after 9/11. Then came the news anchor Trevor MacDonald; and the daytime TV hosts Richard and Judy, who talked at length about their feelings for London. The compere was Rupert Giles, the librarian in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who also featured in an advert for Gold Blend coffee.

The celebrities were carefully corralled off, reminiscent of the much-criticised layout at the recent Live 8 concert. Speakers mingled and drank fruit juice behind barriers, overseen by private security guards. ‘Keep away from the gate’, a security guard warned those who strayed in front of it. ‘Ah, the VIPs’, one man remarked. The area around Nelson’s column was fenced off for lines of TV vans. At the end of the evening, Rupert Giles assured that ‘This was beamed across the world, so everyone has seen us’ – suggesting that the speeches might have been directed more towards the cameras on the opposite side of the square than the crowd in between.

Though the evening began in high spirits, two-and-a-half hours later the mood had dissipated somewhat. A sign of this degeneration came at the end, when people cloyed the allotted celebrities for autographs. ‘Rupert’, somebody called, ‘the coffee man, come here!’. This was apparently the only meaning that they could give to the event: an opportunity to get the signature of some C-list celeb.

Perhaps we need to pay our last respects, and move on. While the official Victoria Embankment memorial is sterile and clichéd, a more fitting memorial was to be found last night in another part of the same gardens. Lovers entwined on the grass, sharing a bottle of wine; students argued about a film; a boy played hide-and-seek with his mother. It was an ordinary summer’s evening, with Londoners enjoying life and enjoying each other. By living our lives to the full, we do the most justice to those so senselessly lost last Thursday.

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Topics Politics


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