Accounts of London’s Moment of Silence,
July 14, 2005

 

I was in London this summer during the bombing of the public transportation system on July 14, 2005.  The following are some accounts of listeners on the day of a national two-minute silence to honor the victims. 


I was at work, at Canary Wharf, which in case you don't know it is a 21st century version of Angkor Watt constructed of glass and steel and dedicated primarily to the gods of capitalism, banking and overpriced coffee. I thought I'd use the moment -- as I do whenever possible -- to escape my cubicle and get a breath of fresh air. But leaving the building I found myself diverted with a host of other Citigroup colleagues directly onto Canada Square, an adjacent patch of grass sometimes euphemistically referred to as a park -- at the centre of the Canary Wharf complex, which on that day had become transformed into a human quilt of Hermes ties and Pink-brand shirts. People loitered, attempting to act reverently but quickly getting bored and talking business with colleagues... until the word was given that the time for silence had begun.

Silence swept over the throng. Traffic and construction in the surrounding area came to a halt... and all of a sudden we found ourselves in total, unexpected silence. It was as if the noise had turned negative -- sounds that no one had even realized had been present were subtracted away.  That droning line of taxicabs around the corner. The buzzing crane above you. The chattering stockbrokers on their way to lunch. All gone.

And the quilt was transformed. 

What really struck me was not so much the silence as the stillness. Life in London generally, and especially in Canary Wharf, is one of unending, frenetic motion. Only in my appartment do I escape it. From the moment I venture out to the morning tube ride, the barrage of moving people, vehicles, escalators, elevators, newsfeed terminals, is endless.

Then, for 120 seconds last Thursday, nothing moved. Although the tribute we were participating in was specifically one of silence, motionlessness naturally became part of the mandate, and it was that which had the greater effect on me. Even the wind seemed to stop and it really seemed as if time had frozen, or at least slowed dramatically. I was reminded of the scene presented by a Bill Viola video montage: an image of a grieving man slowed down dramatically, so motion was only barely perceptible, by which the image was transformed by the jarring absence of life's natural movement into an unexpectedly sublime image. So it was then.

Two minutes later, it came to an end, and a few people around me had tears running down their eyes. It truly was -- if you'll forgive the contradictory word choice -- moving.


I went down to Brixton Town Hall.

As I approached at 11.58 I was surprised and a little disappointed to see it looked exactly as it always does.

Then just as I arrived the town hall spilled out its employees on to the scorching pavement, I leant against a lamp post which afforded me a little shade.

I was standing right by the busy junction in the middle of Brixton (a very cosmopolitan but poor area of south London)

As the bells of the town hall clock struck it seemed only about half the people around were observing the silence.

Busses stopped but some cars and vans continued on their way some even beeping their horns at others who had chosen to stop.

People walked through the crowd of us standing still.

I found it hard to reflect on those who had died or feel a real sense of solidarity with my fellow Londoners. It felt a bit as if the silence was mainly observed by those who had been instructed to do so.

But then maybe that’s what we do we survive we don’t dwell we just get on with life.


I knew I would be in the Paddington area at midday.  I wanted to observe the 2 minute silence in the station itself.  A week earlier I had been on a mainline train traveling towards Paddington when I heard about the bombings.  It felt appropriate to return to the station.

As I arrived at the station at 11.55, people were emerging from offices and shops, all of us together on the street and collecting in the main body of the station.  People were chatting, I could  hear a few discussions about where to stand, a woman called to her colleagues, “lets go into the station, let’s stand on the concourse’.  As I arrived on the concourse myself, I noticed the electronic information board amending a train departure time from 12 noon to 12.03.  Transport staff were quietly taking up places by the ticket barriers. They stood in a row, hands clasped in front of them.  I listened to the station.  I could hear the throb and rev of a train, the high-pitched bleep of one of those little vehicles they use to move luggage and passengers around the station and the hum and chatter of voices.  It all had a muffled, echoing quality as the sounds ricocheted around the huge arches and aisles of the station. As midday approached the train engines lowered their revs to a barely audible murmur.  People were dropping their voices.  Then there was an announcement over the public address system, a man’s voice saying that a two minute silence was going to be observed and inviting everyone present to join this.  Everyone stopped talking.  Everyone stood still.  I was aware of the muted train engine, I could hear the distant bleep of the little cart from the far end of the station and felt surprised that this hadn’t been switched off.  I noticed how all the little shops and food outlets ceased their activity and an extra layer of noises that I hadn’t even registered before dropped away too.  I was aware that the usual traffic noise from street outside th4e station was absent.  It felt very still.  I was aware of all the people around me, I became increasingly aware of being one of these people.  I felt a poignancy and terrible tenderness.

I was surprised to see two men in suits walk across the station through the stillness and silence.  I could hear their feet as they passed me and felt angry and bewildered by their behaviour.

The two minutes passed, the man’s voice said “thank you” over the PA.  I felt very moved, both by the complicated feelings evoked in reflecting on the events of Thursday, 7th July, and the sense of solidarity, of us all creating this moment of stillness and silence - all over London, and far, far beyond.

People began to move and I was acutely aware of the sound of feet, the sound of people moving, something that I have never consciously noticed under all the other sounds of the station before.  A train engine made a roaring sound and the hiss and clatter of the station resumed.


 

Wardour St, W1.

11.45 - I decide to go outside early, to see what is/isn't happening, so I leave my desk. As I do so an e-mail from our director arrives, informing anyone who didn't know already that Ken Livingstone has asked London to observe the 2 minutes silence outside, and that we are not only all allowed to leave the building, but are encouraged to do so.

11.50 - the usual high level of traffic, mainly vans and black cabs, but noticeably less people in the street, it's usually busy... I walk down thestreet and buy a sandwich, mainly an excuse to wander a bit. In the sandwich shop the song playing is ''Farewell Is A Lonely Sound When Told To Someone You Love" I think it's by The Temptations... Lyrics: 'you know you hurt inside, and you wonder why, you must leave the one that you love'... My mind

is already turning over, thinking of what is about to happen and why. I think, 'it's like the people who died speaking to their families and friends', then immediately admonish myself for such a melodramatic thought.

11.55 - people begin to emerge in numbers from the various offices and shops. Everyone looking quite stern, with a tinge of English embarrassment - showing emotion to work colleagues, in public, not being a typical experience for most of us...

11.57 - I join my work colleagues having walked up and down the street. A few silly semi-jokes about the heat, these soon fade and everyone is still and totally silent - a few minutes early. Everyone wants to be quiet...

11.59 - Traffic has dwindled. There are so many people in the street the pavements are jammed in places. Any cars/vans/cabs coming up the street now see us all, realize what is going on and most pull over and turn their engines off. I remember hearing a drill from a nearby building that is being remodeled, probably just before midday...

12.00 - Silence, aside from the muted hum of air con units and the like. Not a sound. Maybe a plane going overhead. I look around occasionally, at Londoners like myself, I feel a sense of community that I have never felt in this city, a shared loss, a shared fear, a shared solidarity. I can see several hundred yards down the street. Groups of people standing like ourselves outside offices, people stood up next to their tables outside the café. No one moving.

12.02 - Obviously someone has been paying attention to the time... I hadn't. A young man across the street, typical Soho-ite, trendy haircut and expensive clothes, says 'fantastic'. I know what he means, even though it seems totally the wrong word to use in the circumstances. He is of course referring to the impeccably observed silence, and the profoundly moving experience we have all just had. He starts to applaud, a few people half-heartedly join in, in a few seconds it's over. I overhear someone saying 'what a pillock'. London is still London...