Note From the Underground
A fictional account of a terrorist attack becomes eerily prescient
I’ve been a little nervous about taking the London tube ever since I wrote these lines in my novel The Nose, published in 2001: “She was fast asleep when, somewhere near King’s Cross, in the narrow confines of the Piccadilly Line underground tunnel, the half-empty train was suddenly torn apart by a violent explosion. It hadn’t been an accident.” In my book, the terrorists were of the more traditional, neo-Nazi variety; I was writing about the ghosts of history living on in the present, not predicting the future. Accordingly, their targets were more specific (mostly Jews) and their methods did not include suicide. But efficient mass murder and a blind yet well-organized ideology based on hate were as much part of their repertoire as it is for today’s jihadis. And both had chosen the London Underground—the city’s symbolic and in many ways real heartbeat—as the most painful way of attacking its inhabitants.
In my novel, the London Underground represents an imaginary hidden world which we enter at our peril. Its disused stations, standing empty since World War II, provide a safe haven for terrorists who need to both live in darkness and invisibly mix with passengers while planning and later executing their deadly missions. Today’s real terrorists don’t need to hide that deep: they live among us as “sleepers” for years, getting to know us as intimately as a butcher knows the animals he chooses for slaughter.
So waking up to the news of London being attacked on Thursday morning did not really come as a surprise. It was more a sense of “so it’s finally here.” The concept of “here” is an interesting one: it means “here in my city,” of course, but in my case it actually meant “here on my television screen showing what is going on somewhere in London,” as we were all at home that day and by coincidence, no one had taken the tube into the center. But many friends had, and as I began contacting them and, surreally, also receiving sympathy phone calls from Israel and New York, “here” began to mean something else. While I walked my blissfully happy dog in my perfectly tranquil suburban streets, they no longer felt peaceful. The war against all this—the quiet, the ignorance, the happiness or unhappiness, the war against the right to live in freedom—was suddenly right here, and no television screen could make it look distant.
The day after the attacks, I hesitated, nervously, before traveling by tube to a big garden party in the center of London. I felt like mingling with some film producers, so I went (as did all the film producers—the party turned out to be full). The tube was running perfectly (if I avoided King’s Cross, where forensic and recovery work was still going on), but the trains and stations were eerily peaceful. The Londoners on them were, as usual, dozing over newspapers, reading about what happened the day before. Often, when they looked up and caught each other’s glances, they smiled. The heartbeat goes on.