Getting to the vigil for the victims of the London Bridge terror attacks was harder than ususal. The normal route along the Thames – down the path running along the south side of the river – was populated by the standard mix of theatregoers, tourists and office workers. But as the path wound towards the old buildings of Borough Market, there was police tape blocking the path.
A group of pedestrians marched purposefully along a second alleyway, a new route which led past office buildings and through one of those quiet residential cul-de-sacs that still somehow exist in central London. Among the flowerpots and bins, though, was another line of police tape. Another detour, another line of police tape. Beyond the cordon, the streets lay deserted as if part of a film set.
A few streets south, there was a march of disorientated office workers. “This wasn’t cut off on my way in,” one said cheerily to another. The TV crews lined up at the side of the road only added to the idea that this was all part of some dramatic production. A temporary hush fell as the crowd crossed Borough High Street, the site of the attack, between another two lines of police tape. Flowers were heaped on a corner.
The vigil was held in Potters Fields Park, next to the Mayor’s office, on the banks of the grey Thames and under a steely sky. Crowds milled around from one set of placard-bearers proclaiming unity to another. If you didn’t know the context, you might have thought it was a particularly dreary festival.
Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community (a branch of Islam targeted by extremists), clad in matching blue t-shirts, were among the banner holders. Ahmed Islam told me: “We’re here to say Islam is a religion of peace, and our community believes in the true teachings of Islam, and the acts of terrorism are not reflective of Islam.”
Natalie, a yoga instructor who did not want to give her last name, was there with the Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team. She said she wanted to honour the memory of the victims and to pray “that this level of violence ends”.
She sounded weary: “They hurt us, we hurt them, they hurt us again. I want this to end.”
As she spoke, drops of rain began to fall. The trees twisted in the wind, and the Ahmadiyyas began to fold up their banners. On the edges of the vigil were two friends watching the crowds, Shilpa Belliappa and Ramana Ahmed. They worked nearby.
“We have been talking about this all day,” said Belliappa. They came “for a bit of catharsis”.
Ahmed added: “I’m a Muslim. My friends who were nearby [the attack] were also Muslims, who had just broken their fast.
“It’s important to say as Muslims this doesn’t represent us. It’s Ramadan. My friends were livid and angry about the attack. They were minutes away from it. It’s just so sad.”
The storm broke. The crowds eventually headed away, many towards London Bridge tube, which was running again despite the cordoned-off streets. Despite this city experiencing its second terror attack in three months, and at a time when its citizens were still reading about the Manchester attack, the atmosphere was calm. Through rain-streaked cafe windows, businessmen could be seen tapping on their laptops, and buying cakes for the commute home. Elsewhere in the city, candidates for the election would be knocking on doors, and talking about schools funding.
As I watched the bobbing umbrellas navigating a route through the terrorism investigation, it occurred to me that the politicians who repeat the phrase “business as usual” are right – it’s just that what is usual has changed.