Today I look back sadly at the events of 7/7. I wrote the piece below 15 years ago and yet the events of that day, and their impact upon my life, remain so powerful. I still struggle with feelings of anxiety (and some fraudulence about the role I played) and have generally avoided saying much around this sad anniversary. At the same time I wanted to thank this community; The Mind and Soul family, who have been my great supporters on 'the road less travelled'.
In an incredibly uncertain world, and with the trauma of Covid-19 affecting us all in different ways, I am reminded that you never really know what is around the corner. I am still learning how to live with that uncertainty, it's not easy! At the same time I have found great comfort in knowing that ultimately God has my future in his hands.
With thoughts and prayers for all whose lives were changes on 7/7,
Under the Cordon
Looking back it is difficult to gauge whether an event was the tipping point or the starting point, the beginning of something or the culmination of many things. I remember walking with my wife along the road towards Paddington station for her to get the train to Oxford. We passed a hastily erected police cordon, near the entrance of Edgware tube, but this could have been any other day and any other London cordon.
I kissed her good-bye and wandered off to my office positioned due south of the station entrance and opposite the cordon line. But as I began to delete my junk mail, with offers of Viagra and free university degrees a strange sense of urgency came over me. I strode out of the building to my flat nearby, donned my largely unworn dog collar and proceeded under the cordon, as if this outfit of black and white were some sort of super hero licence to action that would protect me from danger.
I saw one lone man running down the street towards me, face blackened with smoke, but otherwise uninjured. “Bodies” he strained, “Bodies”. With a step of trepidation, uncertain as to what was around the corner, I proceeded up towards the entrance of the tube. Sirens filled what was an otherwise alarming silence along this usually congested street. I still had no plan, largely because I had no idea what had happened, the only conviction I had was the need to be present.
Approaching a small group of police officers I offered my assistance with a confidence that belied my twelve months in ministry. For all my theological training, it was only the most basic of bodily functions that crossed my mind, and tea, hot tea. “Would your officers like to base themselves in our hall, use the loo and have some refreshments?” I offered.
Within twenty minutes some two hundred police, fire and ambulance personnel filled the small hall. Sommerfield supermarket deposited twenty roast chickens on the table, Starbucks provided a hundred lattes, and Marks and Spencer appeared with trolleys of supplies. I buzzed around the room like a mother hen, trying to look in control and full of compassion at the same time. Cordons now surrounded the area – this had become a small, isolated enclave of activity in an otherwise deserted square mile.
It was only after some thirty minutes that our worst fears were confirmed, this had not been a tragic accident but a deliberate, meticulously planned assault on innocent human life. What we did not know at that stage was that there were other incidents at other tubes. All mobile communication was down and there was only a confused stream of speculation filtering into our hall.
A burley and exasperated fireman asked me, “Will, have you got a TV we could use?” Finally I felt useful! As I ran along the street to my flat, I suddenly vomited on the pavement. Thinking nothing of it I continued on, returning with a small portable TV under my arm.
Moments later, with the tiny screen propped up on the altar, the hundred or so service personnel on their break rotation watched it in silent disbelief. We were suddenly connected to other teams on other sites, unified in horror at the scale of the attack. And then a bus blew up. It’s hard to express how the atmosphere changed at that point, from shock and stoic determination to a deep frustration and anger. Of course I saw nothing other than abject professionalism, compassion and organisation from the teams that were present with us over the next five days. But it was a reaction that violence provokes and something I had no reference for. I just kept on offering to talk, make tea and rustle bags of crisps on our overstocked food table.
There were moments of hope in an experience of hopelessness; opportunities to listen and comfort. I was glad of the presence of John and Barry, my bosses, who radiated the love of Jesus in a way I could only aspire to. As the week drew to a weary close I took my leave and the adrenalin began to subside.
I had little comprehension of how powerfully I would be affected by this encounter. In many ways I felt like a fraud, not least when I was awarded the AC Commendation by the Metropolitan Police. I had had very little front line contact with the scene itself, I had only viewed it through the eyes of the brave and worthy men and women that I had had the privilege to serve. Feeling angry or anxious, as I often did in the aftermath of the attack, seemed self-indulgent and I felt as if talking about what I had done was self-serving and ingratiating.
That summer was not a happy time. I felt disconnected from the people around me, but somehow inside I felt that these emotions weren’t justified – I hadn’t done enough to feel this bad. Returning to London after my holiday only intensified the feelings, as well as awakening the reality that this terror had inflicted upon our community. I could feel the panic rising like a highland mist on a November morning, barely visible but pervasively cold.
Looking back I’m not surprised by my panic attacks, although I was at the time. I was refusing to give credence to my feelings. They weren’t justifiable, or so I thought. Now my body was shaking and my mind was waving a red flag. The invincibility I had felt when I first crossed under the cordon had all but disappeared and I was very scared.
The privately educated me continued to be a bully. “What is all this fuss about, pull yourself together, things were worse in the war you know!” I wonder if I ever believed that my feelings were justified, long before 7/7. I stoically took a beating at school, believing that I was far better off than starving children in Africa and had nothing to complain about. This was the tipping point and the starting point. It was the point at which I began to accept that my feelings were important regardless of how “unjustified” I believed them to be. It was the starting point of a love story.
No not some Mills and Boon, a real love story. I knew how to love others, just not myself. I believed that I had to be strong, useful or purposeful in order to be loved and accepted. Now Jesus was showing me that he loved me in my weakness, and that if he could love me, I could also love me. The journey through this ‘dark night of the soul’ was one of incredible restoration and redemption.
I sometimes wonder if I would go under the cordon again. I can only give an emphatic “Yes”. Some things can only make sense retrospectively – this was one! At the time I would have given my right arm not to be in that place of pain, but now I see how God can use even the most traumatic experiences to make us more whole.