The world has changed. This month will always be remembered for the September 11 attack on America and thousands of innocents working there. We watched in horror and tears with the rest of the world and wondered what lay ahead for civilized society. The BBC and papers here did an awesome and monumental job of coverage. The Times front page for three days was a color photo unfolded across both pages for huge pictures of smoke, melted steel, debris and tiny grimy heroes attempting to help as if on a black mountain. The giant pages startled by immensity and intensity. The first day was the tower inferno, the last a patchwork of hundreds of color photos of the dead. The middle day was smoking skies and firemen. The jagged geometry of the leaning tower is as much an icon now as the burning towers; I hope it’s preserved. We stayed incredulous, glued to our small living room TV with our kleenex, and my own reaction was compulsively to play solitaire as I watched, game after game after game as the firemen, Mayor Rudy Guiliani, and special reports appeared, day after day, hour after hour. Again and again, last words of the dying and doomed to their dear ones were of love. In the end, isn’t that what life’s about?
Europe was fantastic about proclaiming solidarity immediately and vehemently: Tony Blair’s extemporaneous speech was eloquent, promising shoulder to shoulder support, and Le Monde’s editorial proclaimed that every citizen was an American. Germany promised unmitigated support. Everyone is horrified and incredulous. Our financial district here in London, The City, is in constant communication with its New York sister offices in insurance and banking; thousands of British citizens worked in the doomed buildings. Hundreds are dead, and their stories mingle with the American ones and those of the eighty nations represented in the slaughter.
Our pretty mews is near a very Muslim area, Edgware Road, filled with nearly as many black-draped women as Islamabad. I haven’t experienced any anti Americanism personally, but do hope that any Moslem fanatics don’t take Osama to heart and try to send me to Allah prematurely. Yesterday two young men rang the bell and asked if our flat was for rent. They looked like neatly dressed Arab students or young professionals. After I cheerfully explained they had the wrong address, I wondered if they might be adding me to some sort of fanatics’ hit list, and then felt ashamed for my fear. The London stock market took a big hit in 1992 when the IRA bombed one of The City’s major buildings. Trash bins and airport lockers were absent for years: they could hide a bomb. The ongoing Irish problem that we watch on TV, that won’t permit youngsters even to walk to school down neighborhood streets, is between whites, all Christians. Jerry Falwell claims feminists, gays, Lesbians, abortionists, and the ACLU helped bring on the bombing by secularizing America, which must prove God’s sense of irony: Afghans got the Taliban, and we got Jerry!
We are so grateful for all the emails and support from so many friends while we are so far away. Our son Mike and his wife Cara were visiting, with her parents babysitting their three little ones, and their last night in London was spent tearfully and bewilderingly watching TV with us; we cancelled dinner plans. Who could swallow with such lumps in our throats and swollen eyes? It’s 5 hours earlier here than NY, and our morning was bright and sunny, like New York’s. That afternoon, Mike and Cara rode The Eye and visited the Tower of London; I was at the Royal Academy to see French art.
None of us knew what had happened until we came home, although Mikey said one of the Beefeaters told him there was 'an explosion' in the US. Mikey, an ex Navy pilot, supposed it was a small bomb. I walked home, past stylish shops in New Bond Street and then past Marks and Spencer’s and Selfridges, stopping in an art gallery en route. I was tired when I arrived, but very puzzled because the door was unlocked -- and the TV was on! I knew I would never leave the house like that! Had we been burgled? It happened that Mike’s office had closed at 3, sending everyone home. He broke the news: I shivered in disbelief and stared at the small screen, uncomprehending. His building had always required passes for entry, as most military facilities, but now in the Navy building, after using a magnetic card to get in the rotating single person door, you’re greeted by a Marine in camouflage, helmet, boots, and machine gun. We go there for the US post office, little BX, and bank. Across the way, the American Embassy is now surrounded by police with machine guns, and large cement blocks are being placed on the pavement to block any possible car attacks.
On Wednesday, reluctantly and tearfully we sent Mike and Cara on to Paris, since timed Eurostar tickets can’t be changed, and their Delta return flight left from Paris, where Mike had hoped to show his wife where he once lived, learning French. Airports closed: we hoped when flights resumed they’d be on the first flights to the US. Mike walked to work as usual, where only “essential” personnel were required. (I recalled Charleston hurricane alerts, when our Navy men left us women home with babies, a bathtub full of water, and taped windows; they headed for their ships and planes.) I watched more television. One of Mike’s Annapolis classmates, Adm. Flagg, was lost in one of the planes with his wife, as was one of his former California co-workers.
Thursday morning was the first meeting of the new year of the Kensington Chelsea Women’s Club, but our speaker was cancelled and the large meeting was abbreviated in favor of fellowship and consolation. Several board members were trapped in other cities, unable to fly as airports filled with vacant planes. Most Americans working here are in finance and insurance and they absorbed many losses, business and personal, and shared stories of their own New York visits; many UK companies have NY offices. We women unanimously voted to assist the New York rescue workers financially. From there, I went on to Buckingham Palace.
There was a special changing of the guard, with overflowing crowds like a midsummer tourist scene, but subdued and downcast. People were packed several deep around high black metal palace fences, many with cameras, and people also covered the golden-topped Victoria monument across from the gate. Every flag waved at half-mast. The relief troops marched in, smartly playing, switched to quiet somber tunes, and soon there was dead silence for several minutes. We were silent and still. Then those red jackets and black bearskin hats burst into The Star-Spangled Banner, the first time ever, at the queen’s special request. It was chilling. Many Americans softly sang, if lumps in their throats permitted. Tears flowed. The band ended with God Save the Queen. The Queen’s mounted Life Guard trotted past, and the soldiers exited to When Johnny Came Marching Home, just as the raindrops began to fall. I found Mike and two office mates in the crowd, thanks to mobile phones, and we went off to lunch nearby in Belgravia. The pub’s TV showed continuous Sky News from New York of black smoke and twisted skeleto ruins from once proud twin towers.
The queen interrupted her Balmoral holiday for a special service at St. Paul’s with her ministers, to which the public was invited. Phillip read from St. Paul, the American ambassador read, and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached, ending his homily with a vision of the Statue of Liberty still a beacon in the sunshine as billowing clouds of smoke and dust blackened skies behind her. She offers promise to all. I think I will never forget that. We arrived about 45 minutes early for the noon service, hoping to get inside, but froom the tube stop were poured into the sunny streets with tens of thousands of others, tightly packed. The service was piped out on large curbside speakers, and the first hymn was The Star Spangled Banner. That anthem is always moving at home but abroad in those circumstances it jarred like being hit with a bolt! Ahead of us, someone gently waved a large American flag on a wooden pole as everyone sang heartily. The final hymn, before God Save the Queen, was The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Everyone sang, sharing paper programs passed out to us, the crowd. (Inside, the homily and readings were printed in much grander souvenir programs.) We craned to watch the Queen as she repeatedly stopped to chat with Americans on the church steps as she left, as did Phillip and Charles, a most unusual sight. (Americans are easy to spot: they don’t bow or curtsey to the royals. About a half million live in the UK.)
On Saturday we walked to the Embassy and met a long winding queue around the block of the park across the way from the modern building. Thousands waited quietly to pass through airport metal detectors. They eventually entered a very large white tent to write messages in leather loose-leaf books of condolences laid on long tables. We were greeted at the doors by volunteers and thanked as we left. There were Bobbies everywhere, and temporary wire fences and roadblocks, and I considered going home rather than wait. However, Mike had gotten in the line immediately as I looked around, and the line was moving fast. Soon we too were inside. Around the statue of Franklin Roosevelt were mounds of flower bouquets. The attached messages were touching, from every group—Kurds, Vietnamese, firefighters, children, every class and color. One child left his teddy bear. There were several fire engines, one made of flowers. Someone from Johns Hopkins class of 1984 left a basketball with two names written on it in marker pen. The messages, one after another, offering love and sympathy, are so touching that it’s impossible to read them and stay dry-eyed. Many mention the support by America during the war, and their fondness for certain American places or people. Some are volunteers from The Samaritans, a grief counselling service, as well as those greeting visitors or handing out kleenex. At home, our thoughtful Danish neighbor Inge brought us a huge pink azalea with a big pink ribbon as an offering of sympathy.
On Saturday evening, we had had tickets to the last night of the Proms, summer promenade concerts, usually known for informality and lightheartedness. You’ve probably heard radio renditions ending with “Rule Brittania, Britannia rule the waves” while fireworks soar above picnickers on blankets filling Hyde Park. There was a simultaneous concert inside Royal Albert Hall, conducted by American Leonard Slatkin, as had been arranged long ago. At some point, through the giant TV screens, there is a joint concert from both venues. Slatkin spoke eloquently and played “the American music of grief” of Samuel Barber, the Adagio for Strings. This year, the fireworks were cancelled, and instead, again for the first time, The Star Spangled Banner was sung after a minute of silence. The screens, broadcast all over Britain, showed the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack waving together over the crowds. It was moving as many of us wept throughout, still exhausted with grief. Other flags were there too, but The Sunday Times headline the next morning read ”Proms turns last night into American requiem.” The article said the program was picked up by NPR and played around the US, so perhaps you heard it across the sea. Everyone is completely emotionally drained.
Early the next morning, Mike and I walked past that part of Hyde Park that had been wall to wall blankets and picnics the night before. It was spotless, and trucks were still parked on the grass as workers dismantled the stage. We soon arrived at the American Embassy for our 7AM volunteer greeting shift and received a litany of condolences and flowers for our wounded country. Again and again, visitors shared their horror and promised support. I was kissed and hugged, and did some hugging myself. Fergie and Andrew brought their girls while I was there, and I saw the minister of labor, the Lord Mayor of London, and other dignitaries. The Queen, Prime Minister, and others have visited, and the flowers, which began with a few spontaneous bouquets, have grown into colorful mountains all around the fountains and around the monument near Roosevelt, as well as all along the pathways to his statue. There are also more candles, dolls, flags, cards, and mementoes, including New York subway tokens. People of every nation and age stop and write personal messages.
During the next few days, I worked three hour shifts, in all sorts of weather. It has gotten cold here, and jackets and scarves accompany our brollys, but I prefer being outside near the flowers at the exit, thanking people for their visit, since often they share their thoughts. Many have lived in or visited the US, which they relate, some recall our help in the war, and others decry the attack on civilization. The Texas Exes and Navy Officers’ wives had helped arrange volunteers. Instead of closing a week after the tragedy, the Embassy will continue to receive visitors for two more weeks, since people keep pouring in like a river.
I feel I should shout from the rooftops to let Americans know about the support here. British people love America and feel we have much in common. Tony and Cherie Blair visited mourning British families in New York, spoke at a memorial church service, visited firemen, and met with Bush before leaving the US on a rapid visit. I hope the British in America are treated as well as we are here. Except for the Guardian, most papers are overwhelmingly behind powerful response, but some Moslem clerics and followers warn they will fight for their religion should we attack Moslems.
Each time I arrive at the Embassy, there is something new. At first, flowers, then toys, hats, art, photos, more candles, and the flower arrangements are getting bigger and more elaborate. New areas open to gather flowers and gifts. There are red roses from American airlines people, one for each victim working on the planes. Britain’s Midland Airlines has a plaque for the United and American lost crews. The Afghan community of London gave a big arrangement, as did war veterans. A black preacher made a tall wooden cross.
There are now British and American flags hanging from FDR’s plinth, and more flags on the fence behind. There’s a big bulletin board. There’s a generator and big lights for evening visits, since new visitors arrive. The walkway to another monument across from FDR’s statue is also filled. It’s amazing. Students in blue uniform blazers came with a long painted banner showing a Lincoln quote written over a US flag, and signed by their school, with handprints. Plastic bags filled with little prayer cards, a plaque from the London Metropolitan Police, a single rose—they continue.
Someone relights candles extinguished by wind and rain. Over 25,000 people have called, with more daily, many taking photos. I’ve met an Irish Jesuit, an Indian soldier, a little Filipino lady denied-a-US-visa-three-times-but-she-still-loves-America, stranded travelers, and pierced teens. Several people told me how far they traveled to pay respects. Some sign condolence books with the bobbies at the gate after hours, since we are in the park and tent only from seven to seven. The ambassador has come several times. I’m told some hotels nearby offer loos and coffee to volunteers, but haven’t checked it out. We wear small crossed US and British flag lapel pins and try to keep our emotions in check. I feel honored to represent my country in this way.
These focused events have helped me cope with the tragedy. It’s impossible to dam the tears while reading the touching notes on the bouquets, and when I walk among the flowers massed for the dead, I feel like I am standing by their graves.
Our next scheduled guests couldn’t get here from Florida and cancelled. Mike’s meeting, on which he has worked so much, is now a videoconference. My tickets to Australia were partially returned, but the cost to us was £400 which we won’t get back, since they weren’t refundable. (Mike’s tickets always are changeable since his travel office only buys flexible tickets. Their itineraries change faster than street slang.) We both missed college reunions. Mail from the US is scarce, but will resume soon, we’re told. Mike’s brothers have cancelled their trip here in October, and a friend in November. I am instructed by the Navy to vary my routes and carry a phone, but I feel quite safe. The Officers Wives had a needlessly long briefing about how not to draw attention to oneself and how to check cars for bombs! The gate to the small Ruislip base west of London was filled with memorial mounds of flowers and candles, and I learned that every other US base has seen the same outpouring. The Red Cross rep told us that that day she had received a batch of drawings from UK Cub Scouts. Emotionally, I am drained so very weary of being so so sad.
I hope my sense of safety continues when we start bombing, though I feel that blasting illiterate Afghanis starving in bombed out huts, is not helpful. The British and the Russians couldn’t quell the Afghans on their watch. I hope our leaders mercilessly quash terrorism wherever it exists and trust they will use good judgment, especially when others with expertise in the middle east are so willing to work with us. Powell, in a long BBC interview, seems to have a good approach, and Bush hasn’t jumped off the handle, but acted diplomatically but with resolve. Ku Klux Klan, Basque Eta, IRA, Tamil, Hamas, Osama—no one has the right to murder innocent civilians and no one has the right to assist them. Here, as in the US, mosques are being attacked and Arabs insulted, ignoring the strength of democratic multiculturalism. We’ve lived with a culture of celebrity; I hope now that youngsters will also find passion in emulating firefighters, EMS workers, and the heroes who attacked hijackers on the fourth plane, and those who work daily risking lives for modest pay, rather than following fame of idols like Madonna or Michael Jordan. It also seems impossible that this month marks the fourth anniversary of the saddest time in my own life, when my sister Kathy died. I have since lost my father and my mother in law, but they led full lives for nearly 90 years. Kathy was 55 and left teenagers.
Tony Blair used Thorton Wilder’s 1928 story The Bridge of San Luis Rey in his American speech, and many years ago, Mike quoted me these same lines in letters from Annapolis. (He doesn’t remember!) Wilder was a Christian humanist who wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, the basis for Hello Dolly. His Bridge story involves an actual 1714 rope suspension bridge in the Andes, “the finest in Peru” and fictional stories of those who died as it snapped over a gorge. Why were some spared? The survivor reflects, “Soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Remember September 11 and share your love.
In the aftermath, US warns us of incidents to occur, and hope all stay safe in these most uncertain days. London debates over what to do with the thousand or so young Muslims who wish to fight with the Taliban. Since the nation is not formally at war, they can’t be charged with treason when they return, but other charges are being explored. One of the biggest rabble-rousers is an asylum-seeking cleric here, who’s been living on government benefits for years.: food, school, rent. Angry young men, even those British born and educated, vow to defend religion over country; some welcome martyrdom.
These are also bad times for actors. Several big cast shows are closing due to the drop in tourism, including Starlight Express, after 18 years. I never saw it.
The leaves change a bit each day in Hyde Park, turning yellow and brown and dropping, as about 5 minutes of light evaporates daily. We began daylight savings time. Mike’s two-week trip to the US ends soon. Virginia Creeper on the roof turned burgundy, burst into flame red, but now lies bare and spent after rains, leaving spidery tendrils on the wall.
My September ended with more visits to the Embassy Park. I joined volunteers on a Monday sorting mountains of dying flowers, separating cards (many waterlogged), ribbons, wrappers, and arranging banks of the freshest remaining flowers for the cameras due at a final ceremony. We discarded and dragged bales of spent flora. We worked all day in jeans, stooping and lifting, filling huge black garbage bags and bins, storing vases, candles, hats, toys and memorabilia, all of which will be catalogued by a college group and stored. I pushed a huge wooden broom so we’d stop sliding on plant slime.
Even as we removed, new flowers arrived from mourning visitors, although the park had closed. The site looked splendid when we finished, the podium surrounded by a sea of blooms, and we looked like we needed a bath! The steps in front of the podium became tiered red, white, and blue flower rows, and behind them, around FDR’s statue, plants and the newest bouquets were set, and on four pillars around the monument. Everything will be mulched afterwards. When the TV camera people complained to the city gardeners that their line of sight would be interrupted, out came a row of offending yews. We covered the mess with flowers. I wonder if they’ve been replaced?
The next day, the Royal Marine band played glittering instruments in sunshine. Their dark blue suits created a strong backdrop for sparkling white pith helmets. We gathered around the dais, with TV cameras rolling and sharpshooters on nearby roofs, as the Ambassador gave a short talk. Next was the British ex American ambassador, flanked by political and military figures. Religious representatives wore turbans, yarmulkes and went hatless. Several grieviing British families with lost relatives carried photos. A young British Army piper in kilts played Amazing Grace from the top step, and an American bugler played Taps. The crowd was not large, and I’m not sure how I knew about the ceremony at all, other than word of mouth, the same way I was asked to volunteer in the garden. Our hearts were still aching.
The police continue to cordon off the area and to fill London’s streets—ten thousand extras on duty—as tensions color the city and the world. Next year is the start of the proposed construction to replace the Docklands finance building where the IRA killed workers with a 1000 lb. bomb. London has dealt with terrorism for years, and has no need for added Muslim involvement in hatred when they have so many evil Christians available.
If you were one of 56 children, like Osama bin Laden, with educated friends from huge families with no real job possible, you might get into trouble too. Four wives and no birth control? Where’s the closest mid-east Planned Parenthood office? Saudi women can’t even drive, so who carpools all those kids? Does oil money pay for all the chauffeurs and plane tickets to escapist holidays? Many casinos nearby rely on Arabic visitors.
While I volunteered greeting mourners in the park, I met a garrulous old Irish Jesuit. Fr. Foley has led retreats in America, and whispered conspiratorially that he prays to Fulton Sheen, sure the TV bishop will be canonized. He invited me to his church nearby. On Sunday morning I realized it’s across from The Connaught Hotel, surrounded by other swanky 5 star hotels. After the Latin 11 o’clock high mass, I met my first baroness, since we all were lured into clean-up after coffee by Maxine, a sort of holy Mighty Mouse. They all come here, even Protestants, the baroness cheerily laughs! (Forget styrofoam; coffee was served in green cups and saucers, and there is no dishwasher but us!) The choir is professional, and the service pleasant, but quite pre-Vatican II. We next ran into the baroness and her sister in the Audley, a beautiful pub nearby serving Sunday roast. The embassy area is upscale, and we strolled in the pretty church park and nearby streets and shops before heading home in the rain. The weather this year is much better than last year’s record deluges, and it’s been an unusually warm autumn for London.
A year later: We didn’t attend the St. Paul’s memorial service because Mike had international visitors, but I worked at the Embassy for several hours in the afternoon, closing the garden and gathering messages from beautiful flowers left by visitors. They’ll be added to the vast amounts we gathered last year, and I’m told they’re being catalogued on a CD for a permanent memorial.
Robin and John, neighbors in Charleston years ago, arrived in time for a Sunday pub lunch at the Audley, near the Embassy. With English friends they attended our wine-and-cheese party with a group of international ONR visitors. I’m still teaching small painting classes at home and working on commissions. We saw My Fair Lady: how refreshing to attend the theater (theatre) again after a long hiatu! The cast and stage sets were spectacular, but yet I prefer dramas. As in New York, theater attendance is down, but no longer are the stages left dark.