Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 17/07/2005.
The article about 7/7, the site's 7th birthday, and the death of my father at age 78. (Just like him to mess up the number sequence for a laugh.) Out of all the guff I've published on the web over the last ten years, this is the one thing that feels the most like a proper piece of writing. And it's the one that probably took the least amount of effort to write (which may have something to do with it).
In a couple of months time, I'll have lived in London for exactly as long as I'd previously lived in Manchester. And for a number of reasons, I feel the need to talk about it.
Manchester was my birthplace, and the location of my formative years. It's where I had my first crush, my first beer, and all of my education. For years after leaving the place, I'd find myself having dreams which were set there. When I was in London, and saw The Smiths and the Madchester bands - and even Oasis, back when they were any good - conquering the British music scene, I felt a certain pride. (Any conversation I had about the Stone Roses would inevitably include the phrase "I was in the same class as Mani at school, you know." And it's true, too.) I suffered all the insults from the people I worked with about how I wasn't allowed to support Manchester United because I, you know, came from Manchester, and it made it all the more sweet when I threw those insults back in their faces as we picked up the silverware. And I still felt a lot more comfortable about supporting United than I ever did about supporting England.
If you'd asked me what I was, the answer would have been simple: I'm a Manc. But as another birthday approaches, and I realise that I was exactly half that age when I left Manchester and moved to London, I'm starting to feel that the answer isn't so simple any more.
I'm writing this on July 14th, 2005, which is the seventh birthday of this very website (note the counter on the front page, which logs the number of hits since Bastille Day 1998). A couple of weeks ago, I had to make a visit to Manchester to bury my dad. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but these things happen. It wasn't an incredible shock, as he was in his late seventies and had been in declining health for a few years, but nobody can ever be prepared for that message when they get it.
It was a good Irish Catholic funeral, splendidly organised by my sister, who still lives in Manchester. Dad got the seeing off he deserved, and I'm pretty sure he would have enjoyed the Father Ted-style lunacy of the burial itself. The hearse and all the mourners left the church at the end of the service for the cemetery, where we all waited for half an hour before the message filtered through that the priest had headed off to an entirely different cemetery. You've got to laugh. What's the alternative? A substitute priest was found in a church just down the road - splendidly, he'd only been ordained the Saturday before, and this was effectively his first public engagement - and the rest of the proceedings passed off without a hitch. (The perfect climax would have been the original priest running towards us in his robes as everything was being wrapped up, and the two of them getting into a fight, but perhaps it's just as well that didn't happen.)
Funerals always mark the end of something, but this was more than just an acknowledgement of my new status as an orphan at the age of 41. Over the years my attachment to Manchester had been getting weaker and weaker, and the loss of one of the main people I went there to visit could only make things worse. I've still got family up there, of course, but now that Dad's gone I'll probably see less of them than I would have in the past. But then again, these are the sorts of thoughts anyone would have at a time like this. There's nothing like a funeral to make you think about the places where you've lived.
Although watching one of those places being blown up is possibly a little bit like that.
I'm writing this on July 14th, 2005, one week after the 7/7 bombing of London. At noon today I temporarily left my moderately responsible job in the computer industry and stood outside the office with all my colleagues, for the two minute silence commemorating the bombing victims. These things are always awkward. My abiding memory of the silence that commemorated September 11th was that it was held in our office car park rather than the street, and that the silence was broken part way through by some people who'd taken the wrong turning to the fire exit who were banging on doors saying "can somebody let us out please?" You've got to laugh. What's the alternative?
And as I stood there, I found myself wondering if I should be saying something about all this on the internet. Because, let's face it, every other bugger is. The biggest internet news story of the past week has been the roaring success of We're Not Afraid. It's the brainchild of Alfie Dennen, the genius behind mobile blogging site moblog.co.uk (which makes him responsible for the existence of The Unpleasant Moblog Of Spank The Monkey, so blame him). All over the world, people have been taking photos of themselves and adding variations on the phrase 'we're not afraid' to show their sympathy for Londoners: to show that terrorism doesn't work: to show that they feel our pain. As much as I love Alfie for what he's done for the cause of moblogging, this is just a little too touchy-feely for my liking. Although to be fair, it's a commendably stiff-upper-lipped response in comparison to some others out there.
For example, a page was set up on LiveJournal called London Hurts, created by an American user to allow messages of support and sympathy to be posted up. Its title graphic was a picture of Big Ben with the date superimposed and the message: "today I'm a Londoner and today I hurt." And for the first day or so, the LJ was full of pictures of praying children and messages from crying people. And then the Londoners came in - you can actually watch it happening in this post. And gradually, things got sillier and more cynical. The banner was rewritten: "today I'm a Londoner and today I got a day off." The title of the LJ was questioned: "London doesn't hurt. Anal sex hurts when attempted without lubricant. See the difference?" And all those Americans who'd proclaimed themselves to be Londoners were told "If you're all Londoners today, that's eight quid each for the congestion charge. Come on, pony up." Eventually, a couple of twats who'd misjudged the tone posted up some wacky Photoshop pictures of planes crashing into Big Ben and ruined it, but for a few days it caught the mood of the city perfectly.
Because that's the thing people have been saying, isn't it? London hasn't collapsed into a quivering heap, it's picked itself up after a long weekend (oh, the warped psychology behind doing this on a Thursday) and moved on. And it's done it with self-deprecating humour and a certain amount of style, still getting across that message that We're Not Afraid but without the queasy sentimental edge. There are a number of reasons being suggested for this. Perhaps it's simply the British way to just move on after tragedy. Or we've got too recent a history of being bombed by terrorists to care much about this one. (A common conversational game over the last couple of days has been Actual London Bombs You've Heard Going Off, for which my hand is typically Canary Wharf and That Mortar Attack On 10 Downing Street.) Or we're battling our way into work despite everything because we're scared we'll lose our jobs if we don't. Or (as was suggested by one correspondent to The Guardian) it's simply a measure of that self-centredness that people outside of London always accuse its inhabitants of, and we're carrying on as normal because we don't feel personally affected.
I think that last one's crap, by the way. Sure, I've got as little idea of my neighbours' names as much as any other Londoner has, and I don't believe we've become a city of hugs overnight, no matter how many brackets bloggers put around us. But I've certainly found that over the last week or so, I've been paying more attention to the people I've been travelling on the tube with, and not just in a checking-for-suspicious-rucksacks way. You start to feel like this is - to quote Time Out's cover this week - Our City, and that we're all in it together. Of course, this could just be the latent memory of countless disaster movie scenarios kicking in, and I'm just subconsciously trying to guess who'll buy it first when it all kicks off, but I'd like to think that it's something deeper. And it's all this emotional confusion that's made me wonder whether I should join every other person who has internet access and write something about London post 7/7. Do I count as a Londoner? Do I have anything really to say? Given that a lot of people seem to be writing to make themselves feel better rather than sympathising with the actual victims, do I just end up being as bad as them? Is it possible to write anything at this point in time without it coming off as a total egowank?
And then Ken Livingstone made up my mind for me. It's been widely noted that Ken's passionate statement on the day of the bombing was a stunning piece of statesmanship, worthy of the Mayor of a city like this. Go back and take a look at that speech he gave from Singapore, just 24 hours after he'd been celebrating the success of the bid to host the 2012 Olympics at London. "This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty or the powerful, it is not aimed at presidents or prime ministers, it was aimed at ordinary working-class Londoners... Black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindus and Jews, young and old, [an] indiscriminate attempt to slaughter irrespective of any considerations for age, class, religion - whatever." He doesn't point accusing fingers, but he makes it clear that this is not a city to be trifled with. (And as The Belated Birthday Girl pointed out, his ordering of those pairs is a subtle message in its own right.)
The Singapore speech, purely because of its location, ended up being aimed at the entire world. In the latest issue of Time Out, Ken narrows his focus down to the inhabitants of his city, and specifically the readers of the magazine. "Time Out readers, who take the tube and bus to the latest new restaurant or the week's best films and plays, typify the London that works so well and means so much to all of us. I urge you to keep doing what makes London so brilliant - keep going to our parks, keep shopping in the West End, keep going to the great concentration of theatres and cinemas and galleries, keep eating in the best selection of restaurants anywhere in the world. Keep doing what it is that makes you buy Time Out because in doing so you make London what it is."
That gave me pause for thought, and I pulled out my diary and looked at the entries. The Hong Kong comedy Kung Fu Hustle, seen in a West End multiplex. Two older movies at the National Film Theatre - The Maltese Falcon and Happy Together. An open-air production of Cymbeline at Regent's Park, which admittedly wasn't that great, but that can't be helped given the quality of the script they were working with. A concert by Nouvelle Vague, the French easy-listening reworkers of British new wave pop. And another concert by Bristol toy electronics genius Kid Carpet.
I'm writing this on July 14th, 2005, which is the seventh birthday of this very website, and one week after the 7/7 bombing of London. And I've seen all the stuff listed in the previous paragraph in that week. Is that enough for you, Ken?
This is the point where I realise that I'm a Londoner. And, for better or worse, that The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey is a London website - frequently making side detours to all points of the compass, but always ending up back here. Would this site even exist if I hadn't made the move to London a couple of decades ago? Possibly not. I had an interest in the arts back in Manchester, but London has given me opportunities to experience things I simply wouldn't see anywhere else. For the last seven years, I've been using this site to encourage others to grab those opportunities too - or at least be aware of what they're missing. And I certainly intend to keep on doing that.
I've still got pride in Manchester, and will never lose that. But even though I had my first beer in Manchester, I've spent more time drunk in London. It's the city which contains the building I've lived in longer than any other building. It's where I got my first job. It's the home of the vast majority of my friends, and one utterly fabulous woman. Oh sure, if this site is still going in another seven years, I'll be here in July 2012 bitching about all these bastards swarming into my city for the Olympics: but deep down I'll know that there's something special about this place. All the melting pot cliches are true here - London takes in people from all over the world, and allows them to keep their own identity while calling them Londoners and adding their individual flavour to the biggest gumbo of a city on the planet. It's got something that mere bombs can't pull apart, because we'll just shrug it off and move on. You've got to laugh. What's the alternative?
I don't have as many dreams about Manchester as I used to. Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner. Being a monkey, and all.
The Guardian was my main source of news during July 7th 2005, mainly because of their recently opened Newsblog, which keeps a rolling update of events as they happen with space for reader comments. Their minute-by-minute coverage of that day has been archived and makes for extraordinary reading.
The Mayor Of London has his own website, and like most homepage owners he's cheated and put a twenty-year-old picture of himself on the front page. [Photo changed as of 2008, replaced by one of the Mayor looking like a drooling fucktard.] The website's coverage of the attacks includes an online book of condolence [dead link].
We're Not Afraid continues to gather global responses to the bombing. It should be noted that We're Cacking Ourselves isn't doing nearly as well. Meanwhile, London Hurts stands as a testament to the gulf between the American and British approaches to crisis management.
Transport For London has its own section on the London attacks [dead link] and their impact on the city. But us callous and self-centred Londoners will be more interested in using the site to find out when the tubes will be running properly again.