Memory & 7/7 @ Tavistock Square

Last Wednesday I crossed London beneath rain clouds and under the weight of a backpack full of books and hiking equipment. Back in the UK for a handful of events, I had taken advantage of my free time to visit Dartmoor National Park and stock up on reading material without having to shell out for the excessive postage and packaging costs to northern Sweden. For a moment, as I exhaustedly dodged the puddles thrown up by passing vehicles I wished I’d packed a little lighter. But as I neared my destination – Birkbeck’s Keynes Library – I summoned up some reserves of energy to take a detour to the adjoining Tavistock Square. I’d returned to the congested capital from the expanses of the moors to chair a panel event about the continued memorialisation of the 2005 7th July London bombings at Tavistock Square and I was determined to visit the existing memorial plaque to the 13 people who lost their lives that day before the panel kicked off.

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When I got to the plaque I stood on the pavement in front of it for a while, with the weight of some of our collected academic knowledge about memorialisation literally on my shoulders, asking myself the simple question as to whether it is a sufficient local memorial to those day’s events and whether the city needs a further memorial to one of the worst instances of post-WWII civilian loss of life it has ever seen.When I had earlier thought about the prospect of a new memorial dedicated to an event as horrific as 7/7 in a space already crowded with mnemonic markers dedicated primarily to notions of peace I found the idea problematic. But as I stepped forward to get a better view of the names inscribed on the existing plaque I was instantly hit by the smell of London’s drains. At that moment and with that smell I became acutely aware of the potential functional failures of the existing plaques and realised that clearly my mind on the matter was not fully made up.

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Photo Source: Merrill, 2015

Thirty minutes later I was listening to the views on this same matter offered by: those leading the memorial campaign; members of the public and emergency services who were involved in the initial and longer term response to the bombings; and a number of London academics whose research deals with questions of memorialisation and memory. I had co-organised the panel discussion in my capacity as visiting fellow at University of London’s Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory and partly as a follow-up to a previous panel discussion organised by Gabriel Koureas at Birkbeck on the 10th anniversary of the bombings back in July 2015. The continuation of the conversation started at this first event was allowed by a cross over of personnel including myself and Gabriel but also Philip Nelson, chair of the 7/7 Tavistock Square Memorial Trust which he established in 2012 after spearheading the 2011 restoration of the square’s gardens. Philip and Gabriel provided short statements that book-ended those supplied by: Andrew Smith, Teaching Fellow at UCL History; Alex Marshall, a 7/7 eye witness; Vivek Shrotri the first uniformed officer on scene at Russell Square that day; Silke Arnold de Simine, Reader in Memory, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck; and David Videcette, former Scotland Yard 7/7 investigator turned crime novelist.

The main objective behind the panel was to facilitate a conversation guided by the following broad questions:

How does the planned memorial reflect the significance of Tavistock Square to those directly affected by the 7/7 bombings?

How might the new memorial relate to London’s other 7/7 memorials?

What possible consequences will the new memorial have for the square’s existing mnemonic assemblage?

Originally it had been hoped that the event would also function as a means to publically release the design of the memorial but sadly this was not the case and instead the panellists and audience had to suffice with suggestive details about its planned scale, location, style and fabric.

I hoped the panel discussion would resonate with my PhD research on the production of memory in the London Underground and Berlin U-Bahn (although in that work the 7/7 bombings intentionally only feature as a peripheral case study), elements of my postdoctoral research, which considers the hybrid off, & online commemoration of the event’s 10th anniversary, and my experience of using Tavistock Square as field site in which to train post-graduate students in certain memory methods. On a more conceptual level I hoped that the discussion would both demonstrate and problematize what Michael Rothberg has identified as a need within public debates of memory and memorialisation to overcome a competitive model remembrance (2009). He writes:

“Many people assume that the public sphere in which collective memories are articulated is a scarce resource and that the interaction of different collective memories within that sphere takes the form of a zero-sum struggle for pre-eminence”

As an alternative he argues that we should think of memory as multidirectional:

“as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing, as productive not privative.”

In all these hopes I was not disappointed and the evening itself proved to be a dense assemblage of viewpoints that unsettled academic privilege in ways truly indicative of Tavistock Square’s radial mnemonic associations. Short of attempting to recount the entire dialogue in detail in the rest of this post I will present a constellation of some of the discussion points that I found most insightful .

One recurring theme related to which communities represented “those directly affected by the 7/7 bombings” as referred to by one of the panel’s guiding questions. Philip partly emphasised this in his opening statement when he stressed the role the new memorial would play not only for the bombing’s victims, survivors, and their relatives but also for members of the emergency service and those that l work in the area like Vivek and Alex who dealt with the immediate aftermath alongside the local residents who later carried with them a new set of accumulated meanings surrounding the square that as ‘the darkest day in its history’ they wished to see properly memorialised. The extent to which any memorial might hope to inclusively cater to and serve such a diverse array of different communities was poignantly suggested when David later compared the need to publically remember and grieve for the bombing’s victims in London with the shadow processes experienced by the families of the suicide bombers in West Yorkshire – a reflective clarity, which as he later shared with me, took many years to arrive at following an initial anger at the attacks. David also mentioned the case of Jean Charles De Menezes a later victim that as I have discussed elsewhere is often eclipsed by a focus on the events that unfolded two weeks and a day before his death.

In this way David’s account stressed the extended temporalities of 7/7, an event that in his mind stretched out way before the actual day and for a long time afterwards. Alex, in recounting his experiences of giving first aid to people on the scene also expressed how the temporalities of the event where lost in its immediacy. Although not commented on in detail these references reminded me of William Sewell and others’ work and the extent to which the temporal definition of events can affect their meaning and interpretation. When, in other words, did 7/7 begin and end? Has it ended? And what does this mean for any memorial that hopes to remember it. Sewell’s work on eventmential temporality has clear consequences for those discussions within the field of memory studies that centre on the idea of narrative and Silke usefully reminded the audience of the benefit of abstract memorials – those commonly known as counter-memorials – given their ability to resist the singular narratives that are often embodied by figurative memorials and reflect a forced hegemonic consensus. Such a memorial already exists in Tavistock Square – The Stone to the Conscientious Objectors that was dedicated  on International Conscientious Objectors Day (15th May) in 1994. While all panellists applauded the need for an inclusive approach in this respect and Philip confirmed that the new memorial would likely be abstract in form, at various moments, many of them returned to and reinforced, as if unconsciously, what is perhaps the single most dominant framing narrative to surround the bombings – that which connects it, through the resilient, heroic and unified response of its targets – everyday Londoners – to the Blitz.

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Photo Source: Merrill 2015

Certainly 7/7 involved numerous acts of heroism like the ones described by Vivek when he and other police officers who had only been on the job for two weeks descended into the tunnels beneath London to recover injured people despite the risk of secondary devices. Still, framing the response to the 7/7 bombings solely as a variant of the Blitz spirit with new degrees of multiculturalist British unity is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly it ignores the constructed and mythical status of the original Blitz spirit’s and secondly the experiences and status of individuals like Jean Charles De Menezes that are less reconcilable certain notions of British unity. Andrew hinted at this problematic in his statement and yet it seems unlikely that the popular consideration of 7/7 in the future will shrug off the rhetoric of the Blitz and address what happened that day in new terms. Just as Rothberg reads the multidirectionality of Holocaust memories in the Algerian War of Independence, our discussions subtly indexed the multidirectional memories of the Blitz.

Of course the memorial itself will eventually stand in physical dialogue with the markers and traces of the Blitz. These include the changes in Tavistock Square’s surrounding building stock, which echo WWII bomb damage, the memorial plaque to two auxiliary fireman killed during the aerial bombardment of the area and even via the bust of Virginia Wolf whose suicide has occasionally been partly attributed to the destruction of her nearby home during one of the raids. In this respect, Andrew’s statement referenced directly, the poignancy of the square’s association to Virgina Wolf and rather than attempt to sum up his perceptive contribution I instead suggest you read his statement in full over on his blog. His conclusion is optimistic insofar as he highlights the potential for the new memorial to connect with the square’s pre-existing role as a peace garden in a productive manner that is both reflective and unsettling. The possibility of achieving such a result will, as Silke stressed depend on the exact scale, design and siting of the new memorial. While the suggestion that certain memorials already in the square might usefully be relocated will likely raise stiff opposition, at least from academic quarters, the Memorial Trust’s assurances that the new memorial will be sensitively sited and at a scale appropriate to the mnemonic assemblage in which it will come to rest will help allay other concerns.

Photos Source: Merrill 2015

Due to certain pragmatic and practical qualities Tavistock Square does represent an suitable place to memorialise the bus bombing that took place nearby and not only because of its site specific nature. Some of these qualities connect directly to my interest in the vertical and volumetric hierarchies of urban memorialisation and what I call buried memories. As Philip mentioned, the square’s gardens are, to an extent, sunken thus shielding them from the noise and footfall of their surrounding streets and allowing greater degrees of reflection. More evidently, and again as noted by Philip, as a memorial space the square benefits simply from being above ground – the corollary being that the victims of the fourth bomb which exploded on the bus are more easily memorialised as a subset of the 7/7 attack’s total victims because they did not die in the Underground network. Vivek suggested as much when relaying his experiences in tunnels between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations. He noted that for some members of the emergency services Tavistock Square would represent the closest approximation to a memorial with sufficient degrees of spatial authenticity given the everyday inaccessibility of the other bombsites and the unlikelihood that TfL would authorise any forms of memorial in their specific subterranean locations.

It remains to be seen just how well the designers of the new memorial respond to all these issues and whether its inauguration will trigger demands for additional 7/7 memorials close to the other locations where tragedy struck that day. Whatever the result I doubt this will be the last mnemonic reconfiguration that the Square undergoes. Future political, social, economic and cultural changes and events will all surely play a part in bringing about new memorial additions and, potentially, removals and see the the square reframed to reflect new values and current affairs. Gabriel poignantly conveyed the possible degrees of such reframing memorialisation processes  when, with his closing words, he reminded us that Ghandi – who through Fredda Brilliant’s 1968 sculpture currently sits as the centrepiece of Tavistock Square and who has also recently been commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square – was, at the height of the Indian independence struggle for which he is most famously celebrated, also classified by the British Government as a terrorist.

IMG_0322Photo Source: Merrill 2015

As soon as the designs are released I will post them here.

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