Having spent the previous hour poking around Winston Churchill's underground wartime dorms (the way you do), walking back to my office across London today, my colleague and I were suddenly surrounded by a sea of River Island shop assistants. There were hundreds of them, all in their black logo-ed t-shirts, with their little name badges glinting in the sunshine. A team away day? An employee picnic in the park? Moving through towards Oxford Street we noticed more clusters, workers from offices nearby, The Photographers' Gallery, M&S, HMV. What on earth was going on we wondered? Surely not the world's largest inter-office sports day. Had all shop assistants in Britain suddenly gone on strike, demanding less jumper-folding and longer lunch breaks?
Besides the floods of extra people, who on vacating their work places seemed merely to be hanging around outside them, the streets rang with a discordant orchestra of fire alarms, joining in the Evacuation Overture. As any Londoner knows, Oxford Street is usually a constant seething maelstrom of tourists and shoppers, heavingly busy all week long. The long road is home to vast flagship clothing stores, the iconic Selfridges department store and small havens of tourist tat selling enormous Union Jack hats and t-shirts emblazoned with those oh-so-hilarious "My son/daughter/girlfriend/Auntie Jane/third cousin once removed went to London and all I got was this stupid t-shirt"-style slogans. Buses and taxis crawl along Oxford Street, on the alert for crazed shoppers who frequently plunge suicidally off pavements and under their wheels; "Must get to Topshop NOW! Abandon personal safety for the sake of gladiator sandals!".
By lunchtime today however, shops were shut-up, buses and other traffic diverted through Soho, and police incident tape cordoned off pavements. We were turned back from our usual route through the area by 4 firefighters and one slightly overexcited store security guard; usually occupied by tailing teenage shoplifters through the knitwear section, today's drama (whatever it was) was obviously what he dreamed of when he chose a career in security enforcement!
Finding an alternative route we managed to get up onto Oxford Street briefly, in order to cross it. Looking back down its length, this shopping mecca sat quietly in the sunshine. Twelve foot models frolicked on posters across shopfronts. The road and pavements, peaceful, grey and empty. Usual noises of high heels, people chattering, booming sound systems, the rustle of plastic carrier bags were blissfully absent; Oxford Street was silent and still, and surprisingly rather beautiful.
Rather ugly in comparison were the hoardes of irate shoppers and workers clustering on the other side of the police tape, annoyed at the disruption to their day. My colleague and I discussed what could have happened to bring Oxford Street to a standstill. Most likely, and what instantly sprung to mind, was a bomb threat. Why else had an entire street been evacuated and closed off, open only to various members of the emergency services? My colleague, who had narrowly missed taking the tube train on which one of the 7/7 bombs was detonated, was actually quite unsettled by the stillness, the police presence and the general confusion. Walking on back to the office we discussed the former terror attacks, and how, in moving to a large iconic city, you are put yourself in a new form of danger. Growing up in a small village in Staffordshire bombs and attacks on people as they walked down the street happened elsewhere, in war zones and other faraway countries, reported in newspapers but never experienced. In a big city such as London you can be part of that news, caught up in a single action which is part of a far larger campaign or issue.
Once back in the office we scanned the BBC website, SkyNews, The Times online, desperate to find out what was happening, feeling like we were part of it, whatever it might be. Nothing. No news reports of bomb scares, no alerts of Oxford Street being closed. Eventually we checked the Transport For London website. They reported in small standard lettering that Oxford Street services were on diversion due to a gas leak.
Strangely we felt disappointed. A gas leak. Nothing more to the closure of a section of the city than faulty engineering. If there had been a drama it would have been partly ours. As Londoners we could have laid claim to an attack on our city. A gas leak was a far more likely explanation for the disruption but our conditioned minds, driven by the media and our city's experiences, immediately leapt to a less likely and more dramatic assumption. Living here imbues a citizen with a heightened sense of threat; life is simply more risky in a city. We are warned that if you don't get hit by a bus your workplace may burn down or your house may be burgled. With the scare-mongering media it's a wonder we ever leave our homes!