Novelist Ian McEwan: Attacks Resulted in Solidarity

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British novelist Ian McEwan discusses how Londoners are reacting to this week's terrorist attacks. He says people in the city remained remarkably calm in the face of the attacks, and that the bombings actually brought out a sense of solidarity among the city's diverse population.


In the opening scene of Ian McEwan's current best-selling novel "Saturday," his protagonist sees an explosion in the predawn sky. His first suspicion, not surprisingly in modern-day London, is that he's seen an act of terrorism in his city. We want to turn to Ian McEwan to talk to him this week about what it's like to be a Londoner. He joins us from his home.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. IAN McEWAN (Author): Hi.

SIMON: And help us understand what it's been like to be a Londoner this week, particularly that really just 12-hour period of celebration and then the acts of terrorism.

Mr. McEWAN: Yes. I mean, I cannot imagine that a city sort of swung from one mood to another in such a short time. I mean, it wasn't only that we were hugging ourselves over the victory in Singapore for the Olympic bid in 2012 but we just had a sort of fantastically successful concert in Hyde Park, a general kind of upsurge of good feeling towards helping solve problems in Africa. And Thursday morning really was a shock, even though we had been expecting it.

SIMON: I think some people were struck by the symbol of the Tube which 60 years ago had been a kind of symbol of the pluck of Londoners' resistance. And they would go down to the Tube and they would sing songs and...

Mr. McEWAN: Yes.

SIMON: ...of course, it was a bad place to be on the Piccadilly line.

Mr. McEWAN: Exactly. This is the very inversion of what the Tube offered in the Blitz. Then, it was a shelter 'cause--well, certain Tube stations, particularly deep ones, became almost a kind of home for many Londoners. Thursday morning, it was the least safe place to be. Many people have invoked the famous drawings of Henry Moore of people sleeping on the platform, and now instead, we had body bags on the platforms, but it was quite extraordinary the level of calm on the street, thousands of people standing around in very subdued mood. My wife, who works on the Guardian newspaper, set off on foot to make the one and a half miles to her office, and it took her two and a half hours 'cause she was constantly being directed further and further north. She's trying to walk east and found herself in the company of, you know, hundreds and hundreds of others. And the general mood was a sort of quiet, comradeship.

We have a long, deep folk memory not only of the Blitz which, of course, was the most colossal disaster in London--over 40,000 died in that--but also the provisional IRA bombing campaign in the '70s and into the '80s. And even though many of us never witnessed any of this firsthand, it sort of falls into the national consciousness as part of what we can do and what we can take in the city.

SIMON: We're struck by something Mayor Livingstone said at the press conference on Friday. Quoting another source, he said, "City air makes you free."

Mr. McEWAN: It's true. I mean, what we love about cities is that people can be who they want to be in them, and its hallmark is mutual tolerance. And I live in a square where lots of people in the summer come at lunchtime to eat their sandwiches, and you'll see 30 or 40, maybe 50 different nations represented. I mean, a fantastic diversity and all rubbing along together pretty well, and I hope we will preserve that. I mean, I shutter when I read that Muslim organizations already received 30,000 hate mail letters, and there's already been a petrol bomb attack or at least an attempt of an attack on a mosque. I hope we can hold this cohesion together because ordinary Muslims and Jews and Christians--you know, they're all mixed up together and we all took the hits together.

SIMON: We're obviously speaking within literally just a few hours after the attacks, but I wonder, Mr. McEwan, perhaps you'll run it through your mind--these events of this week, not just the attacks but the heroic rescue efforts, are these also going to become part of the character of what it is to be a Londoner?

Mr. McEWAN: Well, I think there is quite a--I mean, it comes out in times like this, and obviously we saw it in New York and again in Madrid. We characterize the modern cities sometimes as a place of alienation and anomie and the faceless lonely crowd and so on, but when an emergency like this happens and people are pushed against the extremes, you see extraordinary acts of solidarity and kindness between strangers. And I suppose in adversity we have to draw as much as a sort of milk of that positive human goodwill as we can and really count on that. You know, we don't want the terrorists to succeed in dividing us, in splitting us. In fact, I think it probably will drive us into greater cohesion and solidarity and pride and love for our city.

SMITH: Mr. McEwan, thanks very much.

Mr. McEWAN: My pleasure talking to you.

SMITH: Ian McEwan speaking with us from London.

We want to run this excerpt from remarks made on Friday by Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

Mayor KEN LIVINGSTONE (London): And I say to those who planned this dreadful attack whether they're still here in hiding or somewhere abroad, watch next week as we bury our dead and mourn them, but see also in those same days new people coming to this city to make it their home, to call themselves Londoners and doing it because of that freedom to be themselves.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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