Culture Street

Books

London burning

On August 22, 2012

By Sophia Whitfield

In a couple of weeks I will be interviewing British novelist Chris Cleave. I have read his latest book, Gold, but am now reading his first two books, Incendiary and The Other Hand.

Incendiary was released in a cloud of controversy. Cleave has described the euphoria of the launch party on the 6th July 2005 attended by many of his friends to celebrate the start of his career as an author. Then, the following day, as he walked his son to nursery he heard the sirens. The morning of the 7th July, the day Cleave’s book was scheduled for release, was the day of the London bombings.

Cleave’s book is a letter to Osama bin Laden from a grief stricken working class woman after the death of her husband and four year old son in a bomb explosion in London. The promotional posters for Cleave’s book featured the London skyline burning with the caption “What if?” above it. The posters were taken down and his books pulled from the shelves.  Not the best start to an author’s career.

Anyone who was in London at the time has a story to tell. My husband and I had travelled, with our five children, from Sydney to London to attend my sister’s wedding. Our extended family had moved from London on the 6th July to the Cotswolds where the wedding was being held. On the morning of the 7th July we woke up in our beautiful holiday rental, and watched as our six-year-old son unwrapped his birthday presents. Soon both my sister and her fiancé’s phones began beeping with incoming messages from concerned friends. They both worked in Tavistock Square, the site of the bus explosion.

My mother immediately turned on the TV to watch the updates. We tried to distract ourselves from the terrible events by finalising the wedding seating plan and putting the final touches on the wedding favours. As it turned out my sister ended up with more guests attending her wedding as London had shut down and spouses who had previously had work commitments in London were now not able to get to work, instead they headed for the Cotswolds.

My six year old thought every time he went around a corner in London a bomb would explode. Two days later we were heading for Heathrow airport as traffic slowed to a stop. A bomb scare had shut down all the roads into the airport, but planes were still taking off. When we dropped our hire car off we were informed that we would not be able to get a lift to the airport, instead they pointed us in the direction of the tube station across the road. My ten year old was terrified, she looked at me, shook her head and said no.

At the time I was struck by the difference between my children’s childhood and my own. My sister and I travelled from north London to south London every day by tube to attend school with the very real threat of the IRA. I still remember sitting in a chemistry lab when a bomb exploded in Hyde Park and our school building shook with the force of the explosion. We got on the tube that day with everyone else and made our way home.

In the days after the London bombings the British spirit was so evident as Londoners refused to give in to the terrorists and continued to make their way to work as they had always done on the tube. Cleave summed this spirit up brilliantly in his book, when describing Londoners.

"London is a city built on the wreckage of itself Osama. It's had more comebacks than the Evil Dead. It's been flattened by storms and flooded out and rotted with plague. Londoners just took a deep breath and put the kettle on. Then the whole thing burned down. Every last stick of it. I remember my mum took me to see the Monument to the Great Fire. London burned WITH INCREDIBLE NOISE AND FURY is what the Monument has written on it. People thought it was the end of the world. But the Londoners got up the next day and the world hadn't ended so they rebuilt the city stronger and taller."

I am glad I waited this long before reading Incendiary. Sometimes time needs to pass before sparking the memory of a terrible event.

Despite the controversy Incendiary went on to be a bestseller, published in 20 countries. It is an important book and marked Cleave as an author to watch.

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