Dispatch From London

In the wake of the terrorist attacks.

A couple of blocks from Tavistock Square, where the double-decker bus was bombed a couple of hours before, I came across a small crowd gathered around a white truck. From a distance, it looked like another catastrophe, but as I approached I realized the bystanders were listening to the radio through the truck’s open window. Tony Blair was speaking. I was too far away to hear it well, and I could only make out a few words. I heard “barbaric.” I also heard “civilization.”

London is never quiet, but the blocks around Tavistock Square were spookily silent, except for the ambulances, which wailed by every minute or so. The cops shooed everyone away from the bus itself—it’s out of sight, but TV images show it turned practically inside-out from the force of the explosion—so, knots of people gathered on the sidewalk, talking in low voices—the white-coated doctors from the nearby neurology institute, the Italian tourists.

I eavesdropped on some conversations—all variations of the same bits of half-knowledge and rumor:

“I heard there were six explosions.”

“There was one bus explosion, and six on the tube.”

“There were five bombs on the tube, and three on buses.”

“There were 10 bombs.”

There were two witnesses outside Dean’s Brasserie, and journalists mobbed them. One, a teenage girl, sobbed so hard that she couldn’t speak. The other, a young Italian scientist named Lorenzo Pia, described how he and his neighbors brought sheets out to the street to wrap the wounded from the bus. He said he saw lots of bodies.

I was arriving at a BBC radio studio at around 9:30 a.m. when the first news came in—a train derailment or an electrical problem. I was supposed to be a guest on a morning talk show, and the producer who greeted me asked me to wait a few minutes while they sorted out what was happening: It was probably a transformer problem, he said. A couple of minutes later, the newsroom erupted in a frenzy. Reports began flooding in—the entire London Underground was shut down. An explosion at Aldgate tube station. Another one at Paddington. Then the reports of the bus bombing. A few injuries. Thirty injuries. Two dead, then 20 dead.

This has been an extraordinary 24 hours for London. Yesterday afternoon, the International Olympic Committee awarded London the 2012 Summer Games. I was in Trafalgar Square when the announcement came, and the place went crazy. There was shouting and hugging and dancing. It seemed somehow bizarre. It seemed very … un-English.

But the reaction to today’s attacks feels incredibly English. When I left the quiet area right around the bus bombing and returned to the busy streets of Holborn and Soho, London appeared just as it always is.

The natural state of the English is a kind of gloomy diligence, which is why they do so well in hard times. In 1940, Londoners went dutifully on with their business while the Luftwaffe bombed the hell out of them. Today, most of them are doing the same. I was in Washington for 9/11, and the whole city went into a panic. Offices emptied, stores shut, downtown D.C. became a ghost town. But in London today, everyone still has a cell phone clutched to their ear. The delivery vans are still racing about, seeking shortcuts around all the street closures. The Starbucks is packed.

And when I walked by the Queen’s Larder Pub, not half a mile from the Tavistock Square wreckage, at 11 a.m., a half-dozen men were sitting together at a sidewalk table, hoisting their morning pints of ale. Civilization must go on, after all.