I was in London yesterday when the attack occurred on Westminster Bridge. I was there to meet Bristol MP Thangam Debbonaire, and was waiting in the reception of no. 1, Parliament Street, next door to Westminster Tube and Portcullis House when it happened.
I didn’t hear the shots or even notice noise outside – only, suddenly, as I sat there next to the security section, realised that the external doors had shut and the security guys were saying very firmly to someone, ‘No, you can’t go out. Something’s happened.’
‘I’ve got to go and vote,’ said an MP. ‘Can I go the back way?’
‘No, Sir, there’s been an incident.’
People began to fill up the reception area. ‘There’s been a shooting,’ someone said. Everyone remained very calm.
Thangam’s constituency assistant, Jonathan Downing, there for his first day in Westminster, came to find me and took me up to Thangam’s office on the third floor.
We stayed there for the next four hours as the Westminster Estate went into lock-down. For half an hour or more we had no idea what had happened, though the words ‘terrorist attack’ were used and ‘shooting’. Some announcements were made over a tannoy system within the building, ‘Stay in your offices’.
Out of the window, which was sideways on to Parliament Green I could see a crashed car, police, people in white crime scene suits, and what I now realise were injured people or bodies on the pavement.
Jonathan brought me a glass of water.
Bev Archibald, Thangam’s office manager, made me some tea. We watched the news. Rang our relatives. Waited. The corridors of the building were silent and empty when an hour or so later I went to the loo.
Gradually because of the news on the office TV we began to understand what had happened. Thangam texted from where she was locked in the House of Commons Chamber. A party of Bristol schoolchildren were here today, could Jonathan find out if there were all right?
Hours later, there was an announcement that the catering staff had made food and everyone was invited to come downstairs to the cafeteria to eat. We walked past the nursery where children who had not been picked up were being settled to sleep by nursery staff. In the cafeteria it was oddly moving to see hundreds of fried eggs set out…It is a time of terror. We are all afraid. What can you do? You can fry eggs. You xan settle the babies to sleep. You can bring water. You can feed the hundreds of people in this building. You can remain calm and hospitable to me, an out of town visitor.
Thank you to the police, always polite, helpful, good- humoured whenever I have been to Westminster, yet living with the daily threat. Thanks to the security teams, the cooks and cafe workers, thank you, Jonathan and Bev, thank you, Thangham, thanks the man coming out of an office as I was heading to the loo who said ‘Are you ok?’ rather than ‘Where are you going?’
Two poems for today, but no time to read them.
First George Herbert, really here in celebration of those fried eggs, an act of care, civility, decency. Second, Wendell Berry, because of the scars.
The river takes the land, and leaves nothing.
Where the great slip gave way in the bank
and an acre disappeared, all human plans
dissolve. An awful clarification occurs
where a place was. Its memory breaks
from what is known now, begins to drift.
Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness
widens the air for birdflight, wind, and rain.
As before the beginning, nothing is there.
Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.
Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all–the clear eye
of Heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface,
stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.