Wednesday, 22 July 2009

That Summer day

Somewhat inevitably, I was running very late on the morning of 7 July 2005. At the time I was working near Waterloo station, so my usual commute was the Piccadilly line from Bounds Green to Piccadilly Circus, then a change to the Bakerloo line to Lambeth North. I caught the BBC London travel bulletin around 08:55, which said that there were ongoing severe delays with the Northern, Piccadilly, and Bakerloo lines, and so decided to walk to Bounds Green to see what the situation was, and if it was a non-starter, I'd back-track to the nearby Bowes Park suburban rail station for my usual "Plan B" route via Moorgate.

Just after I left home around 09:10 - by which time I'd switched the TV off - I got a text from a friend in Manchester asking if I was already at work, which I thought was a bit odd. Around 09:25 I turned the final corner 50 metres from Bounds Green, but could see that the station gates were closed, so immediately turned round and headed back to Bowes Park. I didn't rush because I knew that while I'd just missed the 09:23 train, the next wasn't until 09:38, but reaching the top of the stairs leading down to the station, I could see that there was a train already standing on the platform. Having run down the steps and virtually dived through the open doors, however, I was informed by another passenger that the train hadn't moved "for ages."

I then texted a work colleague to say that I was going to be late, and she replied to the effect that she herself was stuck on a train at Clapham Junction, but otherwise didn't know what was going on, leaving me with a growing realisation that something must be very wrong. A couple of minutes later the driver of our stationary train came on the PA to inform us that while the entire London Underground had been shut down, our train would only be moving on to the next station - Alexandra Palace - where it would terminate. Faced with no reasonable way to get to work, I got off and headed home. As I walked back, I got a call from the friend in Manchester who'd texted earlier, asking if I was okay, what with all the bombs going off and stuff....

My arrival at home at about 09:45 woke my flatmate, Claire, who was having a lie-in as she'd already finished Uni for the summer. Blearily, she asked: "What's going on? Why are you back?" I said she'd better turn on the TV in the lounge, while I went to my bedroom to change out of my work clothes, switching on the set in there at the same time. I eventually joined her on the couch, and we ended up watching the live coverage of events in a state of numbed horror until well into the afternoon, our own bewildered speculation about what could have happened punctuated by texts and calls from worried friends and relatives in London checking in, and from those further afield making sure we were OK.

I was very philosophical about the possibility that I could have been on the Piccadilly line train that was bombed, especially when it became apparent that the explosion had occurred at the front of it. Because of the position of the passageways between the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines at Piccadilly Circus, I usually got on at the back of the train at Bounds Green, that part of the platform ironically being marked with a plaque commemorating the civilians killed there when the station was bombed on 14 October 1940. On the other hand, if I had just come down the escalators and there had been a train already waiting, I would have got on in the middle of it. The absolute worst case scenario as I saw it was that, yes, I could have been on the train that was bombed, but not in any of the cars directly affected. For Claire, though, this wasn't enough reassurance. We'd been sharing the flat strictly platonically for three years, but the events of that day were a significant part of the process of her realising how she really felt about me, not that she said anything at the time (to cut a long story short, we became a couple in early 2006, and married in September 2008!).

On the evening of 7 July, I recorded that night's Channel 4 News, more simply as an historical document as anything else. I'd long had an interest in the history of the London Underground, especially events relating to it during the Second World War, a side effect of that day's events being that my website on the subject received a sudden and massive spike in activity, the inevitable result of it containg the words "London," "Underground," "bomb," and many of the affected station names.

The next morning, while the bus network and much of the Underground was operating at least in some form, commuters were being strongly advised not to travel into central London unless absolutely necessary. Although working for the National Health Service, my job was hardly "frontline," and yet I didn't have much doubt about going in to work. Whether the bombers themselves were alive or dead, there were undoubtedly others - helpers, sponsors, or even just sympathisers - who would have wanted nothing more than seeing the capital crippled and cowed for yet another day. I wasn't going to be a part of that, even a tiny passive one.

The Piccadilly line was only operating at its extreme ends, the line blocked in the middle by the wreckage of the bombed train stalled between King's Cross-St Pancras and Russell Square. Replacement buses were operating from Bounds Green, taking passengers either west to the Northern line, or east to the Victoria. Many people could be understandably excused for wanting to avoid trains in general and the Underground in particular as much as possible that day, but I decided that I'd go straight to Bowes Park and get the train to Moorgate, reflecting on the fact that the tunnelled section between Drayton Park and Moorgate had - as the "Northern City Line" - been part of the Underground network until 1975.

Arriving at Bowes Park, I found the scene more akin to a Saturday afternoon than a weekday rush-hour, with barely a score of people waiting on the southbound platform. Hardly anyone was talking, but there seemed to be a tangible sense of defiance in how the few of us who were there held ourselves. As unobtrusively as I could, I used the film camera I always carried with me at the time to take a photograph of the scene for posterity. With a few minutes to spare, I walked idly to the northern end of the platform, and as I moved closer something caught my eye. At the bottom of the slope down to the track bed, amongst the broken and weedy earth, a clump of vivid red poppies had taken root, swaying gently in the breeze....

As the days went by, there was much speculation on the Internet about the bombings. Some people debated whether a single individual could have been responsible for all four explosions, others theorised on the type of explosions, how long it would be before the affected lines would be running again, and so on. On Usenet, exchanges on the transport-related groups were better informed, particularly those known to be frequented by London Underground staff, but some people were still convinced that it would be up to six months before the whole of the Piccadilly line in particular was running again, convinced that the explosion "must" have badly damaged the tunnel itself. I pointed out that this was highly unlikely, given that during the Second World War damage caused by bombs bigger than any that a person could carry had been repaired and services resumed in no more than two months. On that point I was proved right. Life moved on....

For most of 2006 and early 2007 I was working on a DVD release relating to another of my interests, which eventually paid off in good reviews from The Guardian and Channel 4. Even so, during the same time period I also started editing on Wikipedia, generally on the subjects that interested me directly. This included the 7 July page by virtue of my interest in the Underground as a whole, and originally it was only to amend some historical inaccuracies, but the page therefore ended up in my watchlist, which resulted in further minor contributions as and when prompted by the edits of others. One of the latter was the addition in April 2007 of the account of the bus bombing attributed to one Daniel Obachike. Never having heard of him before, I did a bit of checking, came to the conclusion that the information added to the Wikipedia page was misleading, and so dealt with it appropriately, before moving on to other more interesting (or more likely more distracting) things. Occasionally aspects of 7/7 - including Obachike - would crop up when talking to my younger brother, who is deeply into the whole conspiracy theory thing, and thus is quick to steer the conversation in that direction, but as he lives in Hull and I live in London, luckily that wasn't very often.

In late August 2007 my brother said he wanted to come down to London the following month for a 9/11 and 7/7 "Truth" meeting at the Indian YMCA, at which Obachike would be speaking, so I ended up there, half-dragged, but also half-curious as to how he would stand up in public. Prompted by the prospect of the meeting, I again took a cursory look at both Obachike's claims - particularly his rather incoherent blog - and what others seemed to think of them, and found them decidedly wanting.

According to Obachike, he was on the No. 30 bus that was blown up on 7/7, but he received only superficial injuries. He said that he initially ran away from the wreckage, but then returned to the scene almost immediately, and helped another survivor into a nearby office building where others were being given shelter. He then left, in the process meeting a woman in whose company he stayed for most of the rest of the day, and with whom he subsequently had a relationship.

It was his contention that the bus bombing was the work of MI5, and that it was inextricably connected to a large and complex "mock terror drill" that was being carried out for a private commercial client by a London-based crisis management training company, supposedly at the same time and in the same locations as the actual explosions on 7/7. He claimed that two mysterious cars had initially blocked the route of the bus for several minutes before it was diverted towards Tavistock Square, and that he had seen people in the Square who were part of this "drill," including a man with fake injuries in a position too far away to be attributable to the bus explosion. He emphatically denied seeing one prominent witness who got off the bus shortly before the explosion, suggesting that he too was part of the overall deception.

He further claimed that he witnessed various "agents" in the immediate vicinity of the bus bombing, apparently having already been there before the explosion occurred. He also said that subsequently he was constantly followed, spied upon, and harassed by government surveillance operatives. He currently maintains that this surveillance has continued up to the present day.

Although Obachike said that he had proof of his claims, it seemed to consist of nothing more than a picture of the lightly blood-spattered shirt he said he was wearing on the day, and a collection of Internet-gathered images of the "suspicious" people he had seen around the bomb site, as well as what he said was CCTV footage of himself returning to the bus just after the explosion. There were also images and video of those he said had subsequently spied on him, including a security guard/concierge in his own apartment building in Enfield.

My brother and I arrived at the meeting venue fairly early, so we went for a coffee at the café across the road, during which we witnessed a rather spectacular three-way public "domestic" that continually threaten to - but didn't actually - turn violent. I grinned at my brother. "I love this city!" As the time for the meeting approached, we ambled across the road and into the basement meeting hall. The atmosphere reminded me of that you used to get at the Doctor Who conventions I went to in the late-80s and early-90s, with the motley collection of borderline eccentric attendees exhibiting the same sense of exclusive nerdy camaraderie.

After a couple of other speakers, Obachike came to the front, the first thing he said being a decree that nobody but the organisers of the meeting were allowed to video or otherwise record what he had to say, or take pictures. If anyone else tried to do so, he said, they would be forcibly removed from the venue. Having already noted that nobody present seemed to be wearing an Security Industry Authority badge, I remarked to my brother than I like to see that sort of action stand up in court! Obachike then went on to say that after his presentation had finished, people would be able to ask questions, but before doing so they must identify themselves, "and who you represent." I resisted the urge to laugh at the thought that he seemed to be expecting some middle-aged lady to stand up and say: "My name's Eliza - I've just left my last job, so I don't represent anyone other than myself..."

After Obachike's talk - which seemed little more than a series of adding two and two together and getting various multiples of 42 - the questions began, but eventually there came the opportunity to raise a point that had bothered me in particular. He had presented a very poor quality copy of what he said was the CCTV footage of him "returning" to the bus shortly after the explosion. He claimed the camera "zoomed in" on him - a smudgy and pretty unrecognisable figure in a lilac or grey shirt seen behind the wreckage of the bus:

I pointed out that the recording did not seem to me to be of CCTV origin, the initial movements of the image looking more like the effect of someone setting up a regular video camera on a tripod. I asked if there actually was a CCTV camera in the position where the footage was shot from, it of course being a simple matter of reversing the angle based on the relative positions of the bus, street furniture (lamp-posts, etc.), and the buildings in the background. At first he didn't seem to know how to respond to this, as if it had never been asked of him before, or that the question had never occurred to him, either. I said that if it was a CCTV camera, it obviously wasn't a static one - i.e. one locked off to always point in the same direction - since the image moved, but he seemed to misinterpret this as a suggestion that it was temporary/mobile camera, and claimed it was a permanent one. "So there actually is a camera in a position to have shot it?" I asked, and he emphatically said there was. I became aware that some people in the audience were starting to look at me with a note of hostility.

After a few more questions, the discussion came round to Obachike's claim of the "mock terror drill" supposedly being carried out at the same time as the 7/7 explosions. The only "proof" of this was nothing more than the boss of the crisis management training company appearing on TV and radio on the day, remarking on a few similarities with an office-based walk-through for, "a company of a thousand people." This seemed to be reading a lot into an imprecise choice of words to me. For one thing, if the "exercise" had involved that many people actually on the ground, there would be far more evidence that it had really taken place. For another, I was aware that when the Underground, police, and other emergency services had carried out just such a large-scale exercise in 2003, it was done on a Sunday at a station that saw little weekend traffic, and which was specially closed for the event. The whole thing was not only flagged up by the media in advance, but also subsequently dissected afterwards. The idea that the same thing would be done during a Thursday rush-hour without any pre-publicity to inform the travelling public struck me as preposterous. I thought that the best way to challenge this particular nonsense was to point out that given the size of London and the number of companies and organisations based in it, there would be similar office-based exercises going on all the time. To illustrate this, I mentioned that I work for the National Health Service, each component organisation of which (there are more than 70 in London alone) carries out similar contingency planning. Add in the rest of the public and commercial sectors, and we'd be looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of such events. I said it would probably be more surprising to discover that nobody had been doing something of the sort on 7/7.

Finally, when someone may a glib comparison between the level of compensation paid to 9/11 victims/families compared to those on 7/7, I pointed out that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) is restricted by law as to how much it can pay out, and to do more would be illegal, so what it did pay had to be seen in that context. This didn't go down very well, either, even though I clearly stated that I thought CICA payments should be higher in general, i.e. that all victims of crime should get more. Of course, we could argue that the government could have bypassed CICA, but how would that have gone down with the victims of "conventional crimes"?

Eventually the meeting broke up, and my brother bought a copy of Obachike's self-published book on his experiences, before we made ourselves scare. I'd raised nothing other than the above three specific issues, but noted to myself the similarity to attitudes I'd encountered when involved with my local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the early-1980s, mainly the barely-veiled dogmatic hostility to anyone who apparently did not buy 100% into the assumed shared orthodoxy.

A few days later curiosity as to how other people saw the event led me to an Internet forum connected to the organisers, where I found the inevitable mix of people who were apparently trying to look at things objectively, but mostly others for whom standards of evidence, procedure, or even basic common sense seemed remarkably lacking. Having initially resolved not to get directly involved, I was eventually drawn in, unable to resist pointing out some of the more blatant inaccuracies or misconceptions some were labouring under. Rather amusingly, I was declared by one poster to be an "MI5 desk officer" within a couple of days!

Inevitably certain things on the forum caught my eye, either because I knew them to be false or misunderstood, or because the line of reasoning being pushed did not seem logical to me, so I inevitably sought to address those. It was especially curious the way some witnesses were so readily dismissed when they contradicted certain people's conspiracy theories, and yet many of the same people accepted Obachike's account implicitly, despite its many glaring anomalies. By that statge I had read the copy of his book bought by my brother - which he had left with me as he wasn't in a great rush to read it - and found it even less convincing than what I knew of him already.

Seeking to confirm or disprove one particular point, one Sunday afternoon I went to Tavistock Square and quickly worked out that - contrary to Obachike's emphatic claims - there was no CCTV camera that could have taken the above-mentioned footage he said was of that origin, but rather that it was probably shot from a first or second floor window of a residential building on the west side of Upper Woburn Place at least an hour after the explosion. Later, a higher resolution still of the "CCTV" came to light that casts further doubt on whether the figure Obachike claims is himself is even a bald/shave-headed Nigerian at all:

Eventually, one prominent contributor declared the time had come for a public debate, with him disputing "the official story" on the one hand, and me defending it. I declined, although said that it was flattering if I was seen as such a "challenge," since I'd gone from a standing start on the subject two months previously, compared to him two years or more for him and many of the other contributors to the forum.

On and off over the next sixteen months I drifted in and out of the same forum, before eventually being banned for having the temerity to ask one of the administrators to explain the crietria under which he would actually accept something as a "genuine" terrorist incident, after he claimed that the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland had, "all the hallmarks of a NATO intelligence/Gladio style Operation." So much for free speech!

Two Saturdays back, Claire and I went clubbing at Heaven in Charing Cross, finally leaving at six o'clock on the Sunday morning, but rather than going straight home, we detoured to Hyde Park to see the 7/7 memorial that had been unveiled the previous Tuesday. That might seem a strange time to visit, but neither of us had been drinking, and that early in the morning the Park would be a lot quieter. In the still morning air, walking between the mass of steel columns was a timely reminder of the enormity of how lives of so many ordinary people were ended so cruelly. Their memory deserves better than the fantasies of the conspiracists.

The conspiracist mindset is perpetually but undiscerningly expansive, ever on the look out for new "angles." Every disaster, every wayward event, is minutely dissected for "connections" to other conspiracies. Whenever an aircraft crashes, any manifest is invariably scrutinised for any individual who might be a target for assassination, who "they" would want rid of. Each new belief is then incorporated into the general conspiracist worldview, often on the strength only of repetition. It seems little wonder that some of the most ardent conspiracy theorists embrace the laughable fiction of homeopathy, if not the even more dangerous delusion that vaccination and modern pharmaceuticals are either tools for social control, or more damaging than the diseases they protect from and treat against, or both.

In almost every case, it seems that conspiracy theorists begin with a belief of what "must" have happened, rather than having reached that conclusion in light of all the available evidence. With a preconception that things happened in a certain way, it is hardly surprising that they will find the "evidence" to back it up, even if it relies on cherry-picking, misinterpretation, misrepresenation, or - in some cases - outright lies. If there are multiple sources that support one interpretation of a specific detail, the conspiracists will instead cling to an initial report that seems to suggest something else, even if it owes more to speculation than fact, as most first minutes/hours media coverage does.

That is not to say that there are no legitimate questions relating to the events of that day, but while it is one thing to seek clarification between the initial claim that the bombers were "clean skins" unknown to the security services, it is quite another to - as some conspiracists have - to use one photograph of the No. 30 bus with no-one on the shattered top deck to claim that no-one was on board at the time of the explosion. No, I'm not making this up, but clearly the conspiracists are.

I'd be inclined to let the whole issue rest, not least because I have plenty of other things I should be doing, and yet it is something that isn't going away. The recent BBC2 Conspiracy Files programme on the subject - and the reaction from many conspiracists to it - demonstrated yet again that such ideas are dangerous and divisive if left unchallenged.

This is the reason for this blog - my own personal line drawn in this bit of sand....