On Wednesday afternoon I was rehearsing a play in Kennington, an area of the London located about a mile or so from Westminster, when I first became aware of the distant thrum of a helicopter overhead. Such a sound rarely raises more than an eyebrow nowadays, for in recent years whirring rotor blades have become part of the urban soundscape, their presence in the skies above usually heralding the arrival of some visiting dignitary, a protest march through the capital’s streets, or an attempt to track down a stolen car.
But on Wednesday the sound signified something far worse; an air ambulance on its way to minister to stricken casualties mown down outside the Houses of Parliament; an occurrence for which London has been bracing itself ever since the atrocities in Paris, Nice and Berlin, but which, until yesterday, we had thankfully been spared.
A glance at the Twitter feed on my mobile phone at the tea break confirmed the worst: an incident on Westminster bridge – a vehicle ploughing through pedestrians at high speed. There were many injured and reports of a policemen being stabbed.
It’s funny the footling considerations that cross one’s mind at such moments. Will the city centre be closed? Will performances in London’s theatreland be affected? Will the London Underground system be suspended, and if so, how on earth do I get home? Such trivial matters may seem a mark of crass indifference, but often they’re the way the brain instinctively tries to process incomprehensible information, and by doing so, thus render it somehow more manageable.
Well, now we know some of what happened. A British-born criminal with peripheral links to Islamic extremism, 52-year-old Khalid Masood (formerly known as Adrian Elms), had hired a car with the express purpose of using it as a battering ram with which to murder innocent civilians in the very shadow of Big Ben, the symbol of British democracy. Having done its work, Masood abandoned the vehicle and ran into the ground of the Palace of Westminster, where he stabbed to death a policeman, before he was shot dead by armed officers.
In the hours and days since this dreadful event, Londoners have been coming to terms both with the act itself and with the ramifications for our city. Vigils have been held, tributes have been paid, while the newspapers and TV stations, as you’d expect, are awash with speculation as to whether the atrocity might have been forestalled, and how best to prevent any future attacks. But, of course, the truth is that such low-tech acts of violence by lone miscreants are almost possible to detect or deter. Three days on the overwhelming sense is of a city resolved to do what it does best, namely to keep calm and carry on.
The capital will recover from this, though it will take time. By chance I had spent the previous week in the French resort of Nice, a city that has endured far greater carnage in 2016 when a speeding lorry killed 86 innocent civilians on the famous Promenade des Anglais. Seven months on, I’d expected to find a city still deeply scarred by the event. But, on the surface at least, Nice has recovered much of its joie de vivre and equilibrium, just as London will surely do.
That’s not to say there won’t be consequences. Security will undoubtedly be strengthened around major tourist attractions, while Westminster bridge, which passes over the river Thames right next to the Houses of Parliament and is thus a major thoroughfare, will undoubtedly become less accessible to traffic than before.
Yet my feeling is that most Londoners consider the best way to respond to such savage acts of terrorism is to continue life much as before. By showing that we can’t be cowed, we can best demonstrate the futility of such atrocities. And it’s worth remembering just how safe a place London remains. That this is the first multiple–fatality attack in London in 12 years says much for the diligence of the police and intelligence services.
Londoners’ sense of stoicism was summed up in a photograph doing the rounds of social media of an Underground station whiteboard with the following words scrawled in felt pen: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on.”
Sadly, the image was a fake, but as a summation of all that is admirable in London just now, it could hardly be bettered.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins