The bleak midwinter was even more bleak this year by the loss of a dear friend’s husband. It was sudden. The circumstances were particularly upsetting. A terrible shock. The subsequent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, celebrities to whom we had such personal attachments, caught us all off guard and confirmed that things were definitely off-kilter. Death comes for us all, yet we are unprepared for it in people we know and love, still less for people we admire and respect from afar. We can be irrational in our mourning, not always able to understand the difference between genuine sorrow for someone gone and the fear of our own mortality. It stops us in our tracks. It makes us howl for our own days gone by. It makes us look at the world in a new, harsh, unforgiving light. It hurts. As well it should, because to be reminded that this is our one shot at life is a jolt. But for those of us on the edges of the grief, that jolt can be a chance to stop and think. So I took some time off. I retreated into my own kitchen and thought about friendship and heroes and family and how I spend my time, what I have done with my life. A pause after the shock to re-evaluate, reorganize, reflect, change, and then have another go. To restart. Like the crouch, bind, set formation of a scrum: Shock, Pause, Restart. Definitely restart, because, in the words of my beloved Frank Turner “we’re not dead yet.”
I had the privilege of screaming these lyrics along with Frank himself, and a few thousand others, back in November, a sad time for other reasons, at Alexandra Palace. Ally Pally, destroyed by fire only 16 days after it first opened in 1873, is certainly no stranger to destruction and restoration, a bricks and mortar form of shock, pause and restart. Fire raged through the Palace again in 1980, and, after extensive development and rebuilding, reopened 8 years later. Over the decades it has been a WWI internment camp, the place from which the BBC made its first public television transmission, the unfortunate recipient of a German doodlebug in 1944, which cost the Great Hall its rose window, and, of course, the final stop on the Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People 2015 tour.
It was a memorable occasion not just because listening to Turner live makes me giddy with devotion, but because this concert was held on American Thanksgiving, 13 days after the Paris attacks. A time to be thankful and alive. Turner is an artist for whom the act of doing is essential. “No one gets remembered for the things they didn’t do.” I only had to hear that once and I was a true believer. His lyrics are frequently a call to action. To travel, to change, to grow, to get out there and meet the storm, if that is what’s coming. To live. On the night, he paused often to remember those who died at the Bataclan, one of whom was his close friend, the victims at the cafes, the narrow escape of the football fans, all people out for an evening of companionship and pleasure. The venue is standing only, the hierarchy one of timing rather than price, enhancing the atmosphere of togetherness. Together in raucous, defiant joy, “because we’re not dead yet.” I do not in any way mean to trivialize the horror of the Paris attacks by suggesting that singing along at a concert a few days later will in any way deter terrorism or heal the grief of the aftermath. Rather, I use it only as an example of London’s famous defiance, an attitude that has become a hallmark of Londoners through the ages. After the Great Fire of London, 1666, they rebuilt their city, shunning ideas of razing the remains to create a more elegant landscape of broad boulevards, on the old footprint. By 1672, only 6 years on, life and trade were pretty much back to normal, impressive even by today’s standards. Their stalwartness in WWII, particularly during the Blitz, a German bombing campaign that lasted from the 7th of September 1940 until the 11th of May, 1941, including 56 nights of consecutive bombing, has become something of lore. The outpouring of kindness and strength in the days and months after July 7, 2005, when terrorist bombs ripped through tube trains and a bus, is still a vivid memory for many. This past July, I was lucky enough to be invited to the 10th Anniversary Memorial Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral; I even made the BBC news clip, looking appropriately solemn, if rather stern. All the moving speeches mentioned the unquestioning help of strangers. How Londoners’ reputed standoffishness melted away; how emergency personnel worked without concern for their own safety; how ordinary people were able to do the extraordinary, often in little but important ways.
Thankfully, most of us will never have to test ourselves like this. But we can all try to scrape the gloom of winter away and get out there. Yeah, the weather is shocking, mornings on the Northern Line are a special kind of hell, the laundry never does itself, IS continues to threaten and sometimes very bad things happen to very good people. All the more reason, after the shock and pause, to restart. Get out there, have another go. Because we aren’t dead yet. Ok, I certainly won’t save the world (not clever enough) nor will I invent something that profoundly improves the lives of millions (really, really not clever enough) but I can live with a spring in my step, a curiosity that doesn’t know when to stop, a passion for this city I will never cease exploring and a desire to do it all in beautiful shoes. “And on the day I die I’ll say at least I fucking tried..” That will do, yeah, that will do quite nicely.