New York — Incidents of terror that take place In London have always had a more intense impact on my psyche than the much greater, often apocalyptic horrors that occur in countries like Syria or Yemen each day. The reality is that I have lived in London for about four years cumulatively since I graduated college, and have been back almost every year since 1972. However, I have never visited Yemen or Syria, and my little knowledge solely derives from reading magazine and newspaper articles. Consequently, the slaughter in Syria and Yemen are abstract for me, arousing merely a generalized sense of compassion. But I can visualize very clearly what happened on Westminster Bridge, and the painful particularity of each death.
In addition, I have endlessly walked London’s streets, and I am relatively intimate with its neighborhoods, people, politics, films and literature. The people and neighborhoods have played a profound role in my dreams and memories, while the rest has been part of my teaching and writing life.
I am not quite at home in London as I am in New York, but I follow closely what happens there politically and culturally, and can talk easily about the nature of London neighborhoods like Hampstead and Hackney without sounding like a tourist. In short, it’s a city I identify with, and I conceive as my second home.
So when the recent terror attack on the Westminster Bridge occurred, it moved me to resurrect memories of my London years, especially of the two bridges that span the Thames that I crossed night and day innumerable times.
One bridge was Waterloo, a wide road and traffic span, lying between Blackfriars and Hungerford bridges. When I walked across it, I would enter from the Strand, past Somerset House (housing the Courtauld Art Institute) on the way to the South Bank where the Royal National Theater, the National Film Theater, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Hayward Gallery were located. The bridge, built at a strategic bend in the river, provided stunning views to the west of the South Bank, the London Eye (a giant Ferris wheel), the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To the east one could see St Paul’s, the City of London Financial District, with new distinctive building like the Gherkin, and the newer business district in Canary Wharf.
It’s a walk that has always exhilarated me, descending a set of outdoor refuse filled stairs and ending up at one of the theaters. But it also provided me with the opportunity to walk along the river past the second hand booksellers set up on tables under the Waterloo Bridge. Or to sit having a beer on benches in the back of the National Film Theater and look out across the Thames at the lights of Somerset House and other striking buildings while barges and tour boats passed by.
The other bridge was the Hungerford -– a railway bridge that included a narrow, dilapidated, and somewhat dangerous pedestrian walk, where young homeless people sat shivering in the dank weather begging. But, despite its bleakness, I crossed it looking out at the busy scene on the river and the South Bank gleaming and beckoning (though its concrete brutalist design is often reviled).
But one time, in the throes of a depression, I found myself thinking suicidal thoughts as I stared over the low rail at the dark, churning water below. For a time thinking about the Bridge caused me great unease, and I stopped using it. In 2002 two new footbridges on either side of the Hungerford were opened and named the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Bridges. The footbridges were much wider then the old constricted version, and turned the walk across into an anxiety-free and inviting one.
I never walked across the predominantly green Westminster Bridge, but in my mind’s eye, I can still see the barbaric and murderous assault with a car on a bridge whose current version opened in May 1862. Clearly, there are few major cities where an act of terror can’t suddenly explode. We live in difficult times where tranquility may be impossible to achieve.