In the early hours of the 17th July 2002 Rachel North was viciously raped and beaten on the floor of her own flat. Her attacker was a stranger - a 17 year old boy - who followed her home after a night with friends and then lured her into opening her door to him. (He posed as a neighbour pleading for help after an accident; she knew some first aid - can you imagine the dilemma of whether you should open up or not?) She was targeted at random and only survived her ordeal by 'playing dead' until he got fed up and wandered away, after which she slipped into unconsciousness. She woke later to find herself naked and bloody on her floor, with a wire noose around her neck and her arms bound behind her back. The experience must have been terrible - the pain, the humiliation, believing that you would die - but, reading her account of it in her moving book Out of the Tunnel, I get the feeling that what followed after was almost worse. The examination by the police, the swabs, being photographed, the stitches, the slow recovery of confidence and self-esteem and trust, the flashbacks and post-traumatic stress. I can't imagine. Later she discovered that the man who raped her had attacked other women and faced him across a courtroom while his defence lawyer did his best to suggest that she had 'propositioned the rapist in the road and invited him in for sex'. Eventually, after a gruelling two years, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.*
As if all this was not enough for one woman to suffer in her lifetime, Rachel then became one of the hundreds of victims of the July 7th bombers. She was travelling in the packed first car of the Picadilly line train when Germaine Lindsay detonated his backpack full of explosives and killed 26 people; Rachel was standing barely two metres behind him. She describes those first moments after the bomb went off with appalling clarity:
'Night diving, without a regulator. Breathing in liquid, drowning. The taste of blood. Sharp grit in my mouth. Choking, lung-filling dust. It was no longer air that I breathed but tiny shards of glass, and thick, heavy dust and smoke. Like changing a vacuum cleaner bag and pushing your face into the open dust and taking deep breaths. It made my tongue swell and crack and dry like leather. I never covered my mouth. I had nothing to cover it with and there didn't seem any point. There was a metallic wet taste in my mouth, like vaporising copper particles. It tasted like sucking a coin. That was the blood. It sprayed us, our clothes, our faces, our hair. My lips were wet with it. The walls dripped with it. It was black blood, viscous like oil, because it was mixed with the smoke.'
Her deft journalistic style captures the sheer horror of the moment: the confusion, the darkness, the panic, the unearthly screaming. It makes for devastating reading and, I'm sure, for devastating writing too.
I was not in London on 7th July and, at that point, had only travelled on the tube half a dozen times in my life. Nevertheless, I felt shocked, afraid and threatened by the events of that day. The Alexandrians had been due to travel down to the capital on the 8th - to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Tate Modern - and cancelled our trip. Like millions of people in the UK we sat at home and watched the news instead; at work I refreshed the BBC news website every five minutes. It was like we had all been cracked open to the possibility of our vulnerability; I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling small, delicate and not a little bit paranoid.
It was the second time in Rachel's life that she had been the victim of a young man's terrible rage; the second time that she had been knocked to the floor, bloody and terrified; the second time that she had nearly died. The difference was that, this second time, she was not alone - she describes how she put out her hand in the dark and held on to another woman for comfort. The rest of her book is about how sharing her fear and courage with the other passengers on the train changed her life. It records how she began to make contact with them in the aftermath, first through internet message boards and a diary she wrote for the BBC, then by starting her blog and helping to found the King's Cross United (KCU) support group for survivors. She does an incredible job of charting the six months that followed - the immediate euphoria of surviving, followed by the flashbacks and the ordeal of having to return to work; getting back on the tube during the rush hour, and then the longterm business of working through her emotions. The most moving aspect of her journey, perhaps, is how she comes to terms with her survivor-guilt, the feeling of inadequacy that comes from living when so many others have died.
Out of the Tunnel proves itself an important book, not only for Rachel who has found the strength to make something new and promising out of something nightmarish, but also for the history of 7/7. As Rachel reiterates again and again, the bombs proved to her that the political is absolutely personal and that the suffering of ordinary people is the real impact of national and international decision making. She chooses (rightly, I think) to focus on the human impact but with a constant recognition of cause and effect, of how the wars fought and the laws made effect individuals on the ground. Yet, at no point is the book a polemic - Rachel makes her liberal views known but doesn't force them on the reader - and at no point does it try to explain or even interrogate the psychology of suicide bombing; in fact, it hardly mentions the bombers at all. She considers them only in general terms.
Instead, she lays herself bare with honesty and clarity, giving a window onto what it is like to be in the same carriage as tragedy. Certainly it is not the most polished memoir I have read: Rachel has a tendency to repeat herself, both phrases and episodes, and sometimes her chronology is confusing and confused. Occasionally, she inserts information too swiftly or without enough context. But I don't think this detracts from what is an incredibly raw, moving and ultimately hopeful personal account of the aftermath of the bombs. At times she perfectly captures the essentials:
'The bomber had wanted to kill us all, as many of us as he could. He had not cared when he took that decision to detonate the bomb. And although I have tried and tried, I cannot understand, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to look into the faces of those you were about to kill, to step into the train and to stand right next to them, and to decide. Now. Now I choose death. I choose self-obliteration. I choose this death, in this tunnel, and I want to cast as many of you people into hell as I can... It was hard not to feel a shattering rage at the thought of all those lives taken, because of such hate, because of such lies, because of such violence from a stranger. And yet, where did it take you, allowing the rage to consume you and burn you up? Would I not then be the twin of the bomber, with his hate, and his projected fury... He was a stranger, but he was one of us.'
I whole-heartedly recommend it. I have travelled on the London Underground more times in the two years since 7/7 than I ever had in my life before, often around rush hour. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling anxious and suspicious every time I step into the crush but you have to just get on and do it. If Rachel can, then surely we all can.
*Rachel writes how 'lucky' this made her. The stats on rape convictions are appalling: fewer that 5% of rape cases make it to trial in Britain and conviction rates are disgustingly low. Women who have been raped are still subjected to villification, while doubt is cast on their testimony.