A shell of a memorial
The 7/7 remembrance service turned London's response to the bombs into a media cliché.
‘London remembers’, said the BBC presenter on the big TV screen pinned up in Trafalgar Square. The screen relayed coverage of the 7/7 memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed with images of people sitting silently on Trafalgar Square’s steps. This was a story of Londoners united in grief and remembrance.
In actual fact, the square was almost empty – there weren’t many more than three or four hundred. A woman from Australian TV said that she was ‘surprised nobody had come. We will have to do some close shots’. In its evening edition, the London Evening Standard reported that ‘more than a thousand…packed Trafalgar Square and wept’ – but on the ground a Standard photographer told me that the reporter was ‘having a hard time getting stories’. Photographers weaved in and out of the sparsely assembled watchers, trying to avoid getting caught in each other’s shots.
The memorial service seemed to be happening in a parallel universe, barely touching Londoners going about their business. Newspaper sellers near the square said that they didn’t know anything about the event. Nick Mahon, a 22 year-old banker, worked down the road and came to the square because he was passing by. ‘It seems like a happy image’, he said, watching the screens. ‘More like a massive PR exercise. I don’t know why this is happening now anyway.’
Few in the square had come intentionally for the memorial. An Indian couple told me that they were ‘just passing, we thought we would take a break’. A French man leaning up against the fountain asked: ‘What is this? Can you tell me what it is for?’. Those who had come for a reason stuck out like a sore thumb. A handful of people knew somebody who had been killed in the attacks; their private grief jarred with the breezy indifference around them. Kate Brockhurst, 26, who lost a friend in the bombs, said that ‘I think I’m one of the few people on these steps for a reason’. Then there was the town crier, complete with bell and red suit; and oddballs like a man with prayer beads, a woman in a Union Jack t-shirt carrying a statue of mother and child, and an Asian man calling for the canonisation of princess Di.
The memorial service was packed with earnest symbolism, but this was a hollow shell. It all had the whiff of New Labour committee meeting about it. There were five children from different religions lighting the wicks on a ‘candle of hope’, and representatives of the four bomb sites each carrying a candle to the altar. The service was held on All Saint’s Day and the eve of Diwali, Hindu festival of light (indeed, apparently ‘the theme of the service will be light and dark’). While invented symbols look phoney, the old ones now fall flat. Both the settings of St Paul’s and the attendant churchmen and politicians failed to create a sense of gravitas. A press note had to list the significance of all the flowers and foliage chosen (yarrow for healing, carnations for heartache, daisies for affection, ivy for friendship and freedom).
There are obvious problems with finding adequate symbols of national unity today. But the memorial organisers – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and St Paul’s Cathedral – didn’t help themselves by trying to orchestrate everything to a tee. People were discouraged from gathering outside St Paul’s (‘anybody gathering will be moved on’, a DCMS spokesperson told me), and sent instead to the safe distance of Trafalgar Square. Early plans to offer a few free tickets for the service to members of the public were soon forgotten, perhaps for fear that terrorists might get hold of one.
Outside St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday, those attending the service were channelled swiftly past scattered crowds. Some attendees were haughty, snapping if you spoke to them; others looked self-conscious and embarrassed. Victims’ families were pushed to the fore of the service, perhaps in an attempt to give it some meaning – they chatted to the Queen and Tony Blair, and were sought out for press interviews. The public was little more than a silent stage army, providing the few required shots of ‘London grieving’. ‘We’re not doing any interviews here’, said one Canadian TV woman in Trafalgar Square. ‘We’ve got all we want from our interviews with the families of victims.’
Relatives are pushed on to a pedestal and told to tell us ‘how they feel’. Small wonder that their grief sometimes becomes channelled into bitterness. Some relatives complained that not enough attention was being paid to them. ‘It is as if you are just a number; you do not count’, said Marie Fatayi-Williams, who lost her son in the bombings, in the Evening Standard. A few stayed away from the memorial service, complaining about the lack of financial compensation, or blaming the war in Iraq for the bombs.
People who on 7/7 just did the decent thing have transmuted into absurd media celebs. Paul Dadge, the man who was photographed helping a woman in a burns mask across a road, has been asked to relive his actions on that day again and again. Yesterday he was interviewed outside St Paul’s, pressed on the meaning of the memorial service. He bounced up and down nervously, saying something about being from Birmingham and the fact that this was about the ‘United Kingdom’. ‘I feel a bit guilty about being called a hero’, he said, quite understandably. A decent response has been picked over until it’s an empty cliché. No doubt some wish that the ‘saviour of the woman with the mask’ would just shut up about it.
Let’s call a halt to all these memorial services. They have diminishing returns, each becoming quieter and more cynical than the last. Victims’ families need space to mourn in peace, without microphones being shoved under their noses. We should stop asking Paul to relive his day or tell us what 7/7 really meant. In the meantime, we should get on with our lives, and concentrate on keeping London the dynamic, cosmopolitan place that it is.
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