7/7: a media memorial
The commemoration of the first anniversary of the London bombings was a spectacle conducted for the cameras.
At 7am last Friday, on the first anniversary of the London bombings, Russell Square in central London was stirring to life as usual. There were sleepy office workers, tourists tucking into their full English breakfasts, joggers doing laps of the square, the gardener chatting to a friend on a bench.
By 9am the area had been transformed. Barriers blocked off the traffic down Woburn Place, the site of the 7/7 bus bomb. Russell Square and Tavistock Square filled with press and officials, bearing cameras, notepads, clipboards and badges. ‘There are memorials going on all day’, a policeman told me. ‘9.47am, 11, 12, 2, 3.’
The memorial to the 7/7 attacks was reported as a spontaneous and emotional affair. ‘London remembers’, said a Guardian headline, its reporter claiming that ‘they came by the score to stand on the pavements or lean out of office windows’. The London Evening Standard speculated on the ‘emotional highlight of a day steeped in the most profound emotions’.
On the ground, the gathering at Woburn Place felt staged and uncomfortable. By 9.30am there were a couple of hundred people, well over half of whom were press or Greater London Authority (GLA) officials. One man, who had been 10 yards away when the bus bomb exploded and had come to lay flowers, shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s for the press, not for people’, he said.
The public were cleared from the road on to pavements, so photographers would have a clean shot of London Mayor Ken Livingstone coming out of the entrance of the British Medical Association (BMA). ‘They have been told to expect a picture out of that door’, explained the coordinator who moved people on.
Relatives’ grief showed plainly on their faces. They were greeted, not with straightforward sympathy and respect, but with primetime voyeurism. A man stood holding a small vase with a single flower; one metre away, a cameraman trained the lens on his face. A line of photographers stood like a firing range in front of the square’s entrance, snapping those who filed through.
The square was closed to the public; some peered through the railings, as TV anchors on a raised stage took turns to read their scripts into the camera. The actual area of the bomb site on Woburn Place was closed off with black screens, with plants placed inside. Although closed off from the people, the relatives’ privacy was still broken by a camera angled down from one of the BMA balconies.
Press were on the lookout for 7/7 testimonies. A woman bearing flowers was pounced on by two reporters. Who had she lost? She was a workmate of one of the victims at Edgware Road. How did she feel? The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I have reached my limit of talking about it.’ The reporters persisted. How would she define her friend’s memory? The woman apologised and moved on. ‘It’s cleansing to talk. It’s part of the process’, one of the reporters justified to me after she had left.
One man, who was in the tube carriage where one of the bombs had gone off, took a call on his mobile from the BBC wanting an interview. He had done an interview just after the attacks, he said, and for weeks afterwards received a media call almost every day.
Eyewitnesses were asked to relive their memories of a year before. This brought out the exhibitionists in some. A couple waved their arms around, describing to a radio reporter about how the roof had blown off the bus. ‘It was like the spirits rising’, the man said, telling in great detail how the debris had sprayed and where it had fallen. They seemed to be enjoying their moment in the limelight. ‘We have ITV coming into our flat later, as there is a good vantage point from our balcony.’ As they walked off, the woman asked whether she had told the story okay. ‘You were fine’, he reassured her.
On 7/7, passersby struggled to help injured people off the bus, and doctors at the BMA rushed out with drips, turning their courtyard into an impromptu field hospital. In the ensuing months, though, our culture has twisted these good instincts into something much less attractive.
The prestige attached to experiences of suffering has encouraged an unseemly scrapping over the 7/7 legacy. This is now an established pattern after these kinds of attacks. One book about the Oklahoma Bomb described the establishing of a ‘hierarchy of grief’, with people who were in the bombed building arguing with people who were in the building across the road, as different groups fought to have their suffering recognised (1).
It seems that every institution wants its piece of 7/7. Ken Livingstone laid a wreath in Tavistock Square at 9.47, the time at which the bus bomb had gone off. ‘It’s Ken, showing that he cares’, nodded one woman. Transport for London bereavement counsellors stood to attention, looking like spooks in their dark glasses and dark suits. The King’s Cross memorial was packed out with chaplains, the Salvation Army and people with ‘7/7 assistance centre’ badges. The King’s Cross branch of WH Smith’s didn’t want to be left out, posting up signs reading ‘WH Smith’s remembers’.
Those who lack genuine 7/7 stories sometimes elaborate them. Far too many people have a 7/7 near-miss story. One woman at the Tavistock Square memorial confided that ‘It could have been me’. ‘I was planning to take an earlier train to King’s Cross that morning.’ Sometimes it seems as if half of London was planning to be on one of those ill-fated tubes, if only they had been a bit earlier or a bit later or hadn’t forgotten their keys….
By late afternoon, the press corps lifted from Tavistock Square and life returned to normal. Again there were taxi drivers arguing at traffic lights, tourists looking for the British Museum, students drinking cans of lager in the park. Perhaps now could be a time to put away all those 7/7 near-miss stories, call a halt to these increasingly empty memorials – and leave the relatives of those lost a year ago to grieve in peace.
spiked-issue: London bombings
(1) The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, Edward T Linenthal, OUP, 2003
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