I was on my way towards the centre of Brixton when the bomb went off. At first I had no idea what it was. I have no recollection of hearing an explosion. What I remember is the helicopter that almost immediately appeared above the rooftops of Brixton Road. It was early evening and the sky was tinged with red; the helicopter whirred and hovered, watching, waiting. It looked apocalyptic. It looked like a scene from a war film, and therefore it was also weirdly familiar, like a déjà vu, and I carried on walking towards it.
When the bomb went off I was just approaching the junction with Coldharbour Lane. I was on my way to Brixton Rec for a swim; my route ran right through the blast, and if I’d been a few minutes earlier, I would almost certainly have crossed over and walked into it.
But by the time I approached the carnage there was already glass scattered all across the pavement. I think I remember a double-decker that had ground to a halt, its windows blown out. It’s always a busy thoroughfare, but the traffic had come to a standstill and many people on my side of the road were standing and looking around, dazed and uncertain.
I still didn’t understand what had happened. I thought perhaps a gas explosion? It didn’t occur to me that this might have been deliberate. This was before 9/11, before 7/7; more longstanding Londoners would have remembered IRA attacks, but I did not. This was 1999, and my experience of the city had been peaceful.
When I looked across to the opposite side of the road I was horrified to glimpse someone lying on the pavement, clearly seriously injured, being attended to by somebody else. A man sprinted past me, heading away from the destruction back towards Brixton Hill, where I had come from. He shouted out that it had been a bomb, that we were fools, that we should all get away. For a moment I thought this was farfetched. Then I realised it was not. It seemed to have taken a very long time (though it was probably mere minutes) but the emergency services began to cordon the area off. Somebody was in charge again.
I turned round and began to retrace my steps, heading back towards home. All the way along Brixton Hill people were coming out of shops and cafés, asking what had happened, telling what they knew. Numbers of the injured were mentioned. People were shocked, disbelieving, matter-of-fact. I have never in my life been in any other situation in which every single stranger around me was talking so intently and so urgently about the same thing.
Back home, I turned on the news. The terrible details of the suffering that had been inflicted became clearer, and I began to realise what I had escaped. Later I went out and got good and drunk at my friends’ house round the corner, and I think lots of others did the same; I heard that there was a mood of bravado in the clubs and pubs of Brixton that night.
Sometime in the next few days I saw an image from that evening that has stayed with me, as it must have done for many: the x-ray of the head of a 23-month-old baby injured in the blast. A nail from the bomb had penetrated the child’s skull, lodging in the brain.
I thought of the Brixton bomb when I read Kate Atkinson’s excellent novel Life After Life earlier this year. The heroine experiences her life over and over again, cut short by different combinations of incident and coincidence and reaction. It’s a salutary reminder of how close we often come to danger, and how much of the time we may not even be aware of what we have escaped.
Life After Life made me think of another experience too − not my own, one that was related to me by a friend. One night this friend was out driving with his girlfriend somewhere rural in the US; they came to a level crossing that had no barriers, and only just managed to stop before a train thundered past.
After the train had gone and everything was still and quiet again one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Did you feel that?’ – meaning, did you feel that near-miss, near-impact, that sudden, terrifying proximity to disaster? It was shared between them as intensely as a secret, almost impossible to convey to anyone who hadn’t been sitting in the car at that particular time and place.
This is what Life After Life does. It is a history-melding litany of deaths and rebirths. The heroine goes under time and time again, slipping into darkness, but she always comes back, and the next time it is a little different and there is another ending, and another beginning.
Peril is never far away, but then, that’s how it is for us, too. We are so often just a hair’s breadth from the end; sometimes, we can feel it.