How suddenly things change. One minute we are all planning our holidays and counting the weeks and months before Tony Blair finally leaves Downing Street. The next, the war finally arrives on our doorstep, and we have more pressing matters to think about. Every hour, every news bulletin takes us a step further away from the old world.
Just a few minutes ago, my computer mailbox announced the arrival of one of those circulars, sent from an office, that usually contains a joke or a clip of some bizarre Hungarian car advertisement. This one, however, was different: Inside was a suggestion that, in order to help the emergency services, we should all tap an acronym into the directory of our mobile phones. “ICE” (short for In Case of Emergency) would give contact details for the owner’s next of kin in the event of a disaster. The anonymous author of the e-mail asks recipients to forward a copy to each person in their address book. As I write this, I’m still wondering whether it is a genuine message or some kind of Trojan horse. Yet the fact that so many people have already passed the message — the names scroll on and on — is a sign of our interesting times.
London was still in a mild state of shock when I walked around the West End last night, four days after the Tube and bus attacks. At one point, early in the evening, The Strand was abruptly shut down with no apparent explanation. As was the road near the high-security police station at Paddington Green, a temporary holding centre for many a terrorist over the past couple of decades. For those of us old enough to remember the IRA’s bombing campaigns, it was all depressingly familiar. Years ago, when I was still working at the BBC, I heard the Harrods bomb go off a mile or two away. Someone I knew, not very well, at university, was killed in that attack.
That same year — I think it was the same year, anyway (we became blase after a while) — I was walking near my apartment on Christmas Day, in a forlorn search for any bar that still was open for business, when a small bomb went off in a deserted street a few blocks away. I later discovered that it was the result of just a couple of pounds of explosive left in a litter bin. Nobody was hurt. All the same, the noise was deafening.
Small beer, of course, compared with the Blitz, the point of reference for an older generation of Britons. Not surprisingly, the British media has been full of World War II metaphors in the past week. Within hours of the bombs going off, the lyrics of Noel Coward’s song “London Pride” were spinning around the Internet. The Dunkirk spirit and stiff upper lips were all the rage again. When Princess Diana was killed, the anguished response of the British public led some commentators to suggest that the country was in the grip of a new, touchy-feely sentimentality. Last week the diagnosis was suddenly subjected to a rewrite.
Were the newspaper columnists right? It’s still too early to say, I think. One obvious point is that the number of casualties in London last week was barely even a fraction of the number lost to German bombers night after night. And anyone who has read Angus Calder’s magisterial account “The People’s War” will be aware that there were moments, at first at least, when the sense of communal unity came close to breaking point.
In the East End, residents complained that the powers-that-be, safe in their grand houses “up West”, on the other side of the city, were not doing enough to protect the poor. People living in provincial cities often resented the fact that their home towns, which received their share of visits from the Luftwaffe, attracted much less media attention than the capital. The middle classes in the relative safety of the countryside were appalled by the arrival of “uncouth” urban evacuees. Above all, as Mr. Calder explains, the unpredictable advent of death and disorder sapped the nerves of everyone:
“To judge from certain versions of the Blitz, it was a mean and pusillanimous Londoner indeed who did not emerge from the debris with a wisecrack on his lips. It was true that old women would be pulled out calling loudly for bottles of Guinness or asking after their canaries, and that most casualties were too stunned to make much noise. But it was something close to hysteria which produced many of the gay remarks, and those who made them might be found, a few hours later, sobbing uncontrollably in the rest centres.”
It goes without saying that one important difference between now and then is that the media was constrained by rigidly enforced censorship. Some particularly catastrophic incidents simply went unreported. A number of ministers, councillors and bureaucrats may well have been inept at running the equivalent of homeland security, but the details of their incompetence could remain unknown for years. Would modern day journalists be so willing to cooperate? And, given the flourishing of new media, from blogs to video phones, could any form of blackout ever stand a chance of surviving more than a few hours? I doubt it.
As for how the public will respond to Islamist terrorism close up and personal, the first opinion polls were encouraging. Support for increased surveillance and greater police powers has risen. All I can say is that I hope this is not just a short-lived burst of enthusiasm for the War on Terror. Ever since September 11, my own, entirely anecdotal sense of the public mood is that very few people understand what our long-term goals are and, thanks to a diet of misinformation, fewer still trust George W. Bush and Tony Blair to bring about victory. The BBC has been relentless in its pursuit of anti-American stories, and even a newspaper as traditionally symbolic of Middle England as The Mail on Sunday cannot be relied on to support the transatlantic alliance. The columnist Melanie Phillips struck a painfully realistic note on her web-site this week:
“It’s a hard thing to say, but the heroic Blitz spirit evoked by memories of World War Two and which was unquestionable came very late in the day, since the predominant mood in Britain during the 1930s and indeed even after war was declared was support for appeasement, a pervasive conservative isolationism that underestimated the threat posed by Hitler until it was almost too late. The similarities with today’s mood in Britain are very striking.”
As for 99 percent of the cultural community, well, we have always known where they stand. The lower down the social scale you go, the more affection for America you will find. That, I suspect, is where the real hope lies. Perhaps things were much the same during the Blitz. Perhaps the truth is that we are still living in the autumn of 1939. The best — as well as the worst — may still lie ahead.
Clive Davis writes for the London Times and keeps a weblog at clivedavis-online.com.