Next month, I'll have spent exactly half my life in Britain and half in America--my first 21 years in Britain and my past 21 Stateside. But last week, I felt strangely as if I have lived in the same country all my life. In peril, the bonds deepen. I haven't forgotten how much I wept when the Queen ordered her guards to play The Star-Spangled Banner after 9/11; and last week, in the wake of London's bombings, New Yorkers were Londoners again. Rudy Giuliani was even on the scene.
But there was a difference between London on 7/7 and New York City on 9/11. The first was sheer scale. Mercifully, the atrocities in London were a fraction of the human cost of 9/11. And the second was related to that but not entirely explained by it. Americans often react to crises with action and emotion. They see a problem and want to fix it. Brits' reflexive instinct at such times is often calm and steady endurance. In London last week, the immediate quiet was perhaps the most striking thing--followed by an insistence on normality. "Work's over, but there's little chance of getting home right now," one Brit e-mailed me. "Most of us are just going to go to the pub until the traffic has died down. It's not callousness or indifference to carry on as normal; it's quiet defiance."
Another e-mailer conveyed the atmosphere: "The pubs are all packed out, people sipping their pints happily. Nice one, al-Qaeda--you profess to be from a teetotal religion, and you've given the pub trade a massive midweek boost." My sister in the London suburbs looked after a boy whose mom was unable to get home from work. Her first instinct? She made him a cup of tea. My father, after I called to check up, wryly described the mass murder as "not nice." One Brit blogger cited another pub scene where in the middle of the day, two young men were sitting beneath a TV screen with images of carnage, quietly reading about the latest soccer scandal in one of the raunchier tabloids. The broadcast of England's cricket match against Australia was uninterrupted (except for a small crawl on the bottom of the TV screen letting people know that London transportation had been paralyzed). Oh, yes. England won the game. By nine wickets.
When Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy, his hobbits were much like English people, and the "Shire" a rough analogy to an England reluctantly roused to fight evil. After one harrowing adventure, two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, found themselves chitchatting as they went along: "They turned and walked side by side slowly along the line of the river. Behind them the light grew in the East. As they walked they compared notes, talking lightly in hobbit-fashion of the things that had happened since their capture. No listener would have guessed from their words that they had suffered cruelly, and been in dire peril ..."