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Living with terror: As a Londoner of twenty years, I know terrorism well

A man looks at floral tributes to the victims of the Westminster terrorist attack, left on the railings outside the Palace of Westminster, London. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

After a series of close encounters with terrorist attacks, Londoners know the correct response to an atrocity

Sadiq Khan is right: ‘Terror attacks are part of living in a big city.’

And his cool refusal to engage with Trump Jnr’s retort – ‘are you kidding?’ – is double right. The London Mayor has ‘more important things to do’ than trade blows with an attention-seeker. The privileged son of the President wouldn’t know the score in the big, bad city if a pickpocket dipped his silky pocket – unlike our own streetwise city boss, the son of an Earlsfield bus driver.

Khan embodies the spirit of a Londoner. Our stoical calm, often misinterpreted as coldness, is in fact the opposite: the ability to switch off from hysterical blame-preaching and get on with it. This is one of reasons that this diverse community is the most successful megacity in the history of civilisation.

As a Londoner of twenty years, I know terrorism well. My experience began in the times before mobile phones, so I have no selfies as evidence. Some of it, of course, cannot be captured on a smart phone: that feeling, when you realise you are not in control. You’re falling off a cliff. Like when my son’s school called me on the day of Westminster attack to ask me if I had heard the news about the shooting. Heart stops, body jars.

He was at the House of Commons doing work experience – and had been at the exact spot where it happened. But by chance, he’d left ten minutes earlier. The next day, undeterred, he went back to Westminster. Unfazed, he seemed to know it was part of his life – like terror has been part and parcel of my experience for twenty years.

I came to London in my early twenties on the promise of a shift at the Sunday Mirror newspaper. On my first day, a Saturday, a nail bomb went off in Brixton. It was a similar story: a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist who was a neo-Nazi nut job instead of a fake Islamic one. David Copeland was a paranoid schizophrenic, with the full kaleidoscope of trigger points, from pink to brown, electing to target gay people and different races.

‘Oh!’ thought me, just landed from the wilderness, ‘this must be what London is like.’ London, where you walked into chaotic circumstances and told what you saw with a notebook and a pay phone in a hospital.

A couple of weeks after that I got offered another shift. Another bomb went off. This time in Soho inside the Admiral Duncan pub, on Old Compton Street. The crime of the same young, violent white supremacist. ‘Oh!’ This must be what London’s really like’ I thought, ‘a battleground.’

But I loved the place and wouldn’t have thought for a moment about leaving. A couple of years later, I was working as an editor for a pop magazine. I flew to New York to do a cover shoot. The morning after I arrived in Tribeca, I woke to the sound of an explosion, and shouting and hysteria in the streets.

The noise was the first plane going into the Twin Towers, a few blocks from my hotel. I watched the second plane go in from the window, where I could see the tower in full view, and simultaneously on the television in the corner of the room.

Outside the revolving doors in the reception, I stood transfixed as a cloud of dust engulfed the street and people fled the scene in business suits, turned grey, like their faces.

Our hotel became a makeshift hospital, until the taps ran dry. So we had to evacuate. Plodding through the streets in a long line of New Yorkers doing the same thing, there was a sense of quiet, solidarity. Daniel Day Lewis was out and about buying milk in his jogging bottoms, the way New Yorkers do.

We took the train into the suburbs and spent for the rest of the week holed-up in a motel with a boyband and girl group – the ones who had come over for the cover shoot. Romance blossomed between two of them whilst frolicking in the hotel swimming pool. The terrorism didn’t stop that.

And you can’t hide from it. You have to keep on walking in the same direction you were going. Like most people, who have been touched by a terrifying event, I was overwhelmed with a desperate need to be home with my loved ones. It wasn’t too long after I returned, I got pregnant and had a baby. He’s the one, now 14, who was on work experience at Westminster.

My son goes to secondary school in Woolwich, SE London. He was there on the day when soldier Lee Rigby was attacked in the street, just a few hundred yards from where he gets the train home. But the links didn’t end there.

It turned out that one of Fusilier Rigby’s murderers, Michael Adebowale, had been to his old primary school. And the other one, Michael Adebolajo, lived round the corner from our house.

Often, we used to see him irascibly bouncing down the road, talking to himself. Adebolajo and Adebowale were two angry young men who got caught up in Islamic extremism. A story not unlike like the Nazi nail-bomber, who was blinded by BNP indoctrination.

People who knew them from school said there were no outward signs of what they might be capable of. They are the ultimate sleepers, who can activate themselves at random, and strike at any time.

Like Sadiq Khan said: ‘It is a reality, I’m afraid, that London, New York, other major cities around the world have got to be prepared for these sorts of things.’

We can only guess what made Adrian Elms from Kent reinvent himself as a killer and resort to the sort of horrific violence we saw outside Parliament. Perhaps the scariest thing is that his motives might not be so different from the ones that sometimes rise to the surface in many of us: the need for attention and significance. That is why we should not waste our time misdirecting our gaze to the wrong motives. Or allowing others to hijack hysteria to sublimate prejudice. As Londoners, we know what to do… Keep on keeping on, getting things done, heads down, heads together. Just a day in the life of the big, bad, city.

Emma Jones was a tabloid reporter for, among others, The Sun and editor of Smash Hits magazine

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