At 2.40 on Wednesday afternoon, an attacker rammed a car into crowds of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, then stabbed a police officer dead outside the Houses of Parliament.
By 9.30 yesterday morning, Parliament was back in session and MPs were grilling international trade secretary Liam Fox on how post-Brexit trade rules could impact Welsh sheep farmers.
Truly, London knows how to get its act together, take a deep breath, and carry on.
That is not to criticise other countries’ cities for the way they respond to atrocities. Terror attacks take different forms, and we are lucky in London that this week’s incident was contained to one area, with limited casualties – compared to, say, the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead, the Brussels bombings that killed 32, or the Berlin lorry that claimed 11 victims. Nonetheless, this week’s event was an assault on democracy, an attack on the heart of government, and it is truly remarkable that government was up and running again as usual just 19 hours after a murder on the parliamentary estate.
It takes a lot to thwart Parliament. Asbestos, rodent infestations and extensive plumbing problems are barely enough to shut it down, and neither is a terrorist attack. The Palace of Westminster has a long history of enduring. It was hit by bombs 14 times during the Blitz, yet stands today as it did in 1870. Big Ben was also bombed, but nonetheless continued to chime (on time) throughout the War.
And beyond Parliament itself, many of London’s greatest sights are testaments to triumph over adversity. Take St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren as part of his mass rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of London – a fire which destroyed 80 per cent of the city. The striking Cenotaph on Whitehall commemorates those who died in World War One, while Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and Wellington Arch by Hyde Park pay tribute to Britain’s military victories.
On a recent walking tour of London (which coincidentally was on the theme of disaster), we visited the unappreciated landmark of Postman’s Park that houses a memorial to “Heroic Self Sacrifice”. Ceramic tiles commemorate the everyday heroes who died trying to save others – including my personal favourite, John Cranmer Cambridge, who drowned trying to save the life of “a stranger and a foreigner”.
I was reminded of this public nod to the bravery of ordinary people when I heard about the assault on PC Keith Palmer, the police officer killed while on duty protecting Parliament on Wednesday, and the actions of Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood who ran towards the danger to administer CPR. Ellwood is, thankfully, very much alive, but his heroic disregard for his own safety has become one of the symbols of resistance after the attack.
Another has been the Tube sign propagated on social media. Though it turned out to have been generated online, rather than actually appearing at a station, the sentiment has chimed with thousands, including journalists and politicians. It read:
“All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”
For the British, and particularly for Londoners, drinking tea and recovering is in our blood. Maybe it’s the fact that we haven’t been invaded since 1066, or that we alone in Europe can reminisce about our role in the two World Wars with untempered pride. Or maybe it’s just that quintessentially British desire not to make a fuss. The “Keep Calm And Carry On” meme may have international appeal these days, but let’s not forget its origins in pre-WW2 Britain.
We are a city that resists and persists. London wears its defiance and resilience not only in its esteemed monuments and institutions, but also in the fact that every Tube line kept running after a terrorist incident. On Thursday morning, like clockwork, I received my weekly email from Transport For London informing me of the weekend travel information. The Westminster attack wasn’t mentioned – it didn’t need to be. There was total confidence that, by the weekend, any mild disruption caused by the incident would have been resolved.
And as if to acknowledge the fierceness with which Londoners regard their ability to keep transport, Parliament and good spirits going on as normal, Theresa May endorsed the fake Tube sign in the House of Commons yesterday, calling it “a wonderful tribute”.
Nothing could be more London than that.