In the midst of life

Saturday 17 December 1983. The Science Museum basement, London

Not many people – to my knowledge – had seen that basement. Apart from staff. But there wasn’t time for a good look around. There had been a bomb threat and we were being shepherded out at speed.

Little did we know but, not far away, a bomb had exploded outside Harrods killing five people. Ordinary people shopping, on a Saturday afternoon, at one of the world’s most famous department stores. Just a week before Christmas.

Here is how the New York Times reported it:

LONDON, Dec. 17— A car bomb exploded here today in a street crowded with Christmas shoppers outside Harrods, the department store, killing 5 people and wounding 91 others.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blast, but Scotland Yard officials said they were convinced it was the work of the Irish Republican Army.

The dead lay with the wounded on the rubble-strewn street as the remnants of the explosive-laden car and others caught in the explosion burned fiercely.

Wrapped Gifts Strewn About

Some of the wounded, covered with blood and stunned by the explosion, sat numbly, waiting for help. Distinctive olive-and-gold Harrods shopping bags lay in the gutters, spilling brightly wrapped gifts into the street.

Not far away, in the museum district, we wondered what to do. Some idiots pressed close to the security cordon blocking the street, not thinking what might happen if a bomb did go off.

We decided to head back home.

Home was a flat in southeast London. Not a swanky area. Just a place I could afford to buy, after years spent renting dismal bedrooms in other people’s houses.

But it was mine. And I loved it.

The flat, unusually for London, gave me access to a big back garden shared with the other flats in that converted, Victorian, terraced house.

A huge tree shaded the far end.

Beyond it were three garages. Beyond them a workshop.

In that workshop were many whole and partial washing machines. And Sammy.

Sammy was Irish. And I treated him with extreme politeness.

Just in case.

Just in case he was a terrorist. An active member of the IRA, or the Provisionals.

I hoped he wasn’t, he was a pleasant chap. But he had all the necessary ingredients.

Irish, male, not too old, not too young. Lots of spare mechanical parts – either camouflage or useful – and an out-of-the-way workshop accessible only through our flats or down a cobbled back alley, past a gate.

Also down that alley was a row of garages, one containing a horse. Now and then I’d bump into ‘Fingers’ – so called because of his lack of them on one hand. Fingers was a rag and bone man. The cart pulled by that horse was his working vehicle.

I often saw him, sitting on a straw bale, feeding the horse, talking to it. Or passing the time of day with Sammy.

But daily life in 1980s London – and before it the 1970s – could be tense.

Roads closed for bomb alerts.

Bullet-marked walls.

Political figures assassinated.

Hostages taken.

Attacks on ‘soft’ military targets, like musicians giving concerts in public parks.

Constant vigilance on the underground. Occasional evacuation when suspect packages were found.

Pub bombings.

It was the ordinariness of those last three targets that made wariness an essential way of life.

But in the early ’80s, there was a kind of ‘arrangement’ with the IRA. Code words would be given to confirm that telephoned threats were real, usually giving time – in theory – for police to evacuate areas of civilians.

On the day of this particular Harrods bombing (there have been others) a warning was phoned and received. Other warnings were given, too, for shops elsewhere in London. Stretching the security services and paralysing the city’s commerce.

Members of staff at Harrods were given a code word over the PA system, told to look for suspect parcels inside the store. But the bomb was outside. That’s where people died.

In the worst years of the ‘troubles,’ many innocent people met their ends at the hands of the IRA, but also at the hands of other terrorist groups. And, yes, at the British army’s hands. I’m not on anyone’s side in this except that of the injured and dead innocent.

And the terrorism wasn’t confined to London, of course.

In 1996 a massive bomb was exploded in Manchester city centre by the Provisional IRA.

A warning was received 90 minutes before the blast occurred. This footage, published in 2016 by the Manchester Evening News, shows how touch-and-go it was that day.

Money poured into Manchester for extensive rebuilding – which some say spurred that formerly-smoky industrial city’s recent cultural renaissance.

Then, yesterday, terrorism found Manchester, again.


What we had in Manchester yesterday was a different kind of terrorism. Terrorism twenty-first-century style.

Young girls were having the night of their young lives. The princess of their fairy-tale dreams was live on stage.

Concert over, they were shopping, perhaps, for merchandise, when the bomb went off.

No warning.

The IRA’s cause was ultimately political, not religious – though religion, to be sure, came into it. I’ll say no more about that, there’s too much on all sides that can offend, hurt, be regarded as sympathetic or offensive to the ‘wrong’ side. Whichever that is.

But this ruthless, callous, cold-hearted man was driven by – what?

A man who thought the lives of young girls – living their dream for one night – were worth nothing.

What religion could condone such a thing?

These are not religious zealots.

These are not human beings.

Terrorism leaves us no choice but to carry on. It’s not being brave, it’s essential.

And we may – we will – feel fear. But evil won’t overcome, unless we let it.

I wish the world was free from terrorism, war and poverty.

But it isn’t. So, let’s all keep on hoping, wishing, voting – and doing what we can.

Just keep on being human.


[The image is Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, now a hotel.]

This entry was posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to In the midst of life

  1. Wishing, hoping and voting, yes….and rethinking `community`politics which has done so much to segregate people, to ghettoise them and to repress women in order to gain votes in local elections.
    I too remember London in the IRA years….and I remember that their aims were political. They discovered that a bloody end for ordinary people did nothing to move governments – while an attack on the City moved mountains in moments.
    The people who do carry out these suicide bombings are human..human beings who seem to believe in an eye for an eye on one hand – revenge for the ruin of the middle east – while despising the society in which they live, regarding the lives of its citizens as worthless.
    We have to rethink policies which lead our governments to follow the U.S. into whatever murky adventure best serves its business interests and to rethink internal policies which have done so much to isolate groups in our society from our mainstream way of thought and of life.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Helen, much more thoughtful than me, thank you for this.
      I wanted – needed – to speak about it and this was a top of head post, the only one I felt I could do. I was in Manchester on Sunday and, unnervingly, sat thinking about terrorists while waiting for my husband at the airport.
      I suppose I used ‘human’ lazily. Someone with feelings for their fellow humans. Perhaps a frozen human is the real picture, emotions and love frozen out of their souls.
      Yes, like the IRA and all those bombs destroying property, ISIS also learned that destroying things is more effective at rousing wealthy westerners than destroying lives. Palmyra, a fine example. But what has it achieved? Even in their warped world?
      I don’t know how we restore fractured communities. And they are. I see anyone who makes any money retiring to suburbs and buying big fences and gates to keep others out. People who shouldn’t by rights be poor – people in work – resorting to food banks. So much to think about – where is the answer? How many answers are there? Sorry, random thoughts, will try to be more coherent next time. Thanks for reading and would be interested in your constructive thoughts.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Among the welter of unreasoning emotion it was a relief to read your post. One which did not give a knee jerk reaction of defiance and self reassurance that good will always triumph but one which realised and stated that we have to keep on not only wishing but doing.

        I wish I could just say 42 is the answer to everything….how simple that would be until some group decided that such a statement was prejudicial to other numbers…

        We have a global society now, mostly underpinned by obscenely big business and the financial institutions which support it: Such a society regards human beings as expendible, humanity something which – incapable of being costed – as worthless.

        This, to me, is what we have to fight and fight effectively, not roll on our backs, flippers in the air, bewailing business` inhumanity to man and waiting for better times. They may not come in our lifetime and, in the case of those poor devils caught up in the Manchester business, there may not be a lifetime in which they could come.

        We need to rebuild contact with our neighbours and make our neighbourhoods work.
        To elect people to local and national government who are not pawns of the main political parties – in which I include the Greens.
        We need to have that confidence in our capacity to do things for ourselves…take back the initatives society has removed from our orbit.
        The internet is a great tool for sidestepping established lines of communication and control, but we need to translate wishes into action.

        This is a society divided but those of the bottom of the heap need not to accept the status quo…they need to realise that they are not poor from their own incapacity to earn more but from their position in current society which artificially keeps them in poverty as a definite policy.

        I am a long way from reaching 42, but those are my starting points.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, 42. If only.
          I need time to ponder what you say – perhaps I will email you. Thank you for this. It made me wonder if I should have stood as an independent in the elections… but other than 42 my command of numbers is hopeless (not saying, by the way, that I command life the universe and everything!) and every time I consider slipping into politics (when urged by acquaintances and friends) I run away thinking of times I’ve said, ‘4,000 – no, 40,000 – or was it 4 million’. So, back to words and humanity. Thoughts of.


          • Do e mail me should you feel inclined.
            I have never thought that a command of numbers is an essential for a good candidate….Alec Douglas Home did a reasonable job even though admitting to using matchsticks to assist his calculations…


  2. Heide says:

    Your post is both harrowing in its description of the IRA years, and beautiful in its hopeful call to “just keep being human” and to carry on. Although the terrorist’s acts are beyond comprehension, today I am once again finding solace in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Liz ferguson says:

    Thank you .

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thel says:

    I looked up the word “human.” According to the Oxford dictionary, as an adjective…

    1.1 Of or characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses.

    Mary, thank you for sharing your insight.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Judy Barnes says:

    Thank you Mary for putting some shape to this. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Selfishly, yesterday when I heard the news and now as I read I look around and thank God I am here. The threat of terror was one many reasons I was happy to leave the city.
    But I don’t rest, nor take it for granted. I channel my energy into the Universe and living by my benign beliefs. Because I know people who carry out evil acts are both human and of spirit. And while there continues to be, and agonisingly always has been, wars of violence and bombs, there are many another wars unseen but not unfelt of darkness, light and energies. Never ever give up on hope, or love or light. Focus on what is good and bright. Because humans and spirit have both benign and evil manifestations in many guises. Evil, dark energy seeks out light in order to consume and obliterate it. It is best not to name, speak of or anyway feed the evil for that is what they seek. Sounds like a fantasy story. But true.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Is it selfish? You are tending the planet. I don’t think that is selfish.
      My denial of the terrorist’s human-ness has been a source of disagreement for more than one of you kind, thoughtful, humane souls who have read this. And I see why. I feel that once a person reaches the point that this man reached, there is not a ‘normal’ human in there, but yes, he is still a human if only in body. The IRA terrorists of the 70s and 80s were trying to achieve a goal – it seems to me this man was just destroying.
      All this is making me think seriously about humanity, humankind, human beings. Again. As each tragedy does. What it means to be human. Ironic since my husband’s new five year project that’s just starting is called ‘The Deep Roots of Human Behaviour’. Dinner table conversation looks like it’s going to be quite intense over the next few weeks before he heads south.
      And I wonder. What are we, after all?
      I read an article about trees moving west in the USA. Scientists haven’t explained why, yet. Have you seen that? Perhaps they will inherit the earth…


  7. Self-preservation at least.
    Ah, yes not a ‘normal’ human nor ‘normal’ spirit. But far too frequently occurring even if un-common or un-usual.
    Some days I feel like I’m bordering on doomsday prepper but in think in reaction to mainstream influence rather than possible futuristic apocalypse.
    We moved north… why not trees moving west. They are certainly sentient.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry Dale, only just saw this. The image of trees moving west is so Norse myth or Tolkien and I love it. I love trees. Thanks for taking the time to read this and think about it – when you have so much else on your plate!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. jilldennison says:

    A hauntingly beautiful post, my dear friend. Words fail me, my heart goes out to all in the UK, but especially those who were injured and the families of the victims. My hope, futile I imagine, is that this does not set off a new wave of Islamophobia in the West. Sending you many hugs, Mary. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  9. in567 says:

    a chord has been struck – write on!

    Liked by 1 person

Thanks for reading, please comment if it struck a chord

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