The lower depths

The images from the London bombings awakened an elemental fear that we all do our best to keep buried.

Published July 12, 2005 10:14PM (EDT)

The horror began a long time ago, and it has its roots in more ancient or basic things than terrorism. Yet the terrorists understand, I think, and their subtlest reach is into that cavern in ourselves where dread has always lived, and waited. Anyway, I had to give up the Tube (no Londoner has any other word for it) in the late 1960s, at just the time when London was swinging -- and that swing was taken to be an altogether good thing. I had a commute to work that involved the Tube -- the Piccadilly line, as it happens -- and gradually over a few months when I was under mounting pressures in life I discovered, in the gap between South Kensington and Knightsbridge, that I had claustrophobia.

That stretch of line was winding and longer than usual, and sometimes in the rush hour my packed train came to an absolute halt. I felt panic inside me, no matter that I was in my 20s, strong, not inclined to the irrational and, as I thought, happy. I had to leave London, and one way or another I ended up in America.

What has that got to do with anything, let alone the terrorist attack on London? Just that the fear was always there in that the absolutely necessary and for a while amazingly efficient transportation system that was the Tube -- the system that has made London workable -- was always close to terrible fears. And for me, at least, the greatest record of what happened in London on 7/7 was the cellphone video of a lens held up high to record the tramping heads and figures of some passengers who had had to leave their train and walk forward to the nearest station and safety. It was the most amateur image and yet the most accurate and acute: You could say, I suppose, that it was the perfect marriage of new technology and old anxiety. And it certainly revived my nightmares and daymares of the late '60s, that fear that if the system -- the mass of tubes passaging the mass, the flow, the life of London, and its shit -- ever stopped then the shit would have to get out and walk in the tunnels possessed by dirt and dark and rats.

Talking of those tunnels, they seem to have been cleared, at last, five days after the incident. But think of what the clearing has meant. The tunnel between King's Cross and Russell Square (this is beneath the British Museum and Bloomsbury) is 70 feet deep and 12 feet in diameter. That's where one of the trains exploded, and it was the "trickiest" cleanup task -- that's the brave language of those who carried it out. It is July in London, and the temperature on the working Tube is 80 degrees as a rule, with the draft of trains bringing the only wind. After an hour, I daresay, any wind is a memory. The heat then will increase. The tunnel was at risk of further collapse. And ordinary people in heavy protective suits that only raised the temperature went down into those tunnels to find and recover the human softness that must have been turning to slime by the weekend. And, of course, with every modern diligence, it was their task to separate the slime from any hard things that might be clues to the nature or mind of the bomb. We name the dead in papers, and so we should, and I believe there may be a case for not naming the recovery agents -- for fear of targeting them another time -- but what else is courage and duty but what they did?

What I am trying to say, I think, is that everyone has claustrophobia. Everyone who rides on the Tube. I have two daughters now who live in London, and I know they try to organize their lives to avoid the Tube -- for all the obvious reasons, and for another, too, which you may not know, but which is a glum orthodoxy for most Londoners: that the Tube in London is too old, too short of investment, too close to breakdown and fire. It's an accident waiting to happen, one daughter said recently, fingers crossed when she had to go down, long before the terrorists put two and two together -- I mean human nature and the natural aging of a once splendid system in a country that cannot afford to look after its people in the ways that idealism still recommends.

During World War II, some Tube stations were used as air-raid shelters. The people tried to sleep on the platforms. And Henry Moore the sculptor did a series of drawings of those bodies, curled up -- in safety, yet so like death. I was reminded of those profound drawings when I saw the piercing amateur video of unknown figures marching toward some light or air or breeze, and the tomorrow when they would have to go back down into the Tube.

The media could not go there, but these silly little toys were drawing with light and telling us what we have always known: that to be buried is to be close to death.

By David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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