London attacks: Murderers came to my city tonight

Story highlights

  • Kate Maltby: Londoners flock to London Bridge area, a resilient neighborhood, on Saturday nights
  • Whatever unfolds in the coming few weeks, it will be an uncertain time for my city, Maltby says

Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom. She writes a weekly column on politics and culture for The Financial Times and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She was on the founding team behind the reform conservative think tank Bright Blue and is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

London (CNN)Murderers came to my city tonight. If they were looking to sap London's lifeblood, they couldn't have chosen a more effective point of entry.

London Bridge, as its name suggests, spans the river. Borough Market, with its bustling street food carts and crowded wine bars, runs right alongside it. There is no more perfect view over the river at night; nor locale that more neatly marries the capital's millennia of history and its sharp-edged modernity.
Kate Malby
The bridge itself, of course, is the star of a famous London ballad: at kids parties we sing "London Bridge is Falling Down," as if mocking the very possibility of such a seismic collapse. The bridge it refers to is an old Renaissance version -- quoted in post-Shakespearean theater. But the current bridge is concrete and steel rather than the "wood and clay" of the song, having opened to traffic in 1973. Elsewhere, structures of glistening glass have replaced ancient buildings. The Shard, Britain's tallest skyscraper, looks down from directly above London Bridge underground station.
    Londoners flock to this area on a Saturday night. I'm usually in and out of Shakespeare's Globe theater; my journalist colleagues hit the restaurants after their shifts at News UK or the Financial Times. When my best friend became engaged a few months ago, we met at a tapas bar as part of the celebrations. Tonight, that bar was surrounded by armed police. It could just as easily have been us there.
    Bar patrons scramble, take cover
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      Bar patrons scramble, take cover


    Bar patrons scramble, take cover 00:48
    We're still learning the full story of what happened in this vibrant part of town late Saturday evening. Police say a vehicle was used to charge at pedestrians on London Bridge -- a bitter echo of March's attack at Westminster. The vehicle drove on toward Borough Market, an extension of the London Bridge area, where three men stabbed people and were shot to death by police. Authorities said at least seven people, not including the assailants, were killed and more than 30 were taken to hospitals.
    It's no consolation, but this part of London has bled before, and risen stronger. Plague swept the area in the 16th century; its victims include Shakespeare's brother, Edmund, who is buried in Southwark Cathedral. (Tonight, police were seen sheltering under the same cathedral's buttresses). In 1768, a protest turned into a police massacre, when seven people were killed rallying in support of the radical MP John Wilkes, who had been jailed for insulting King George III. But, eventually, democracy triumphed. Wilkes was released and even became Lord Mayor of London.
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    The plague no longer stalks us; the mass graves of Southwark have been closed for good. All that is left of this area's bad early modern-period reputation -- when it lay just outside the city limits, just beyond the moral policing of puritan city fathers -- is the party spirit. London Bridge is still a place to have a good time.
    But whatever unfolds in the coming few weeks, it will be an uncertain time for my city. A general election is due to be held on Thursday. Much will be written in the next few days as to whether Britain's anxiety over terrorism benefits Prime Minister Theresa May or her hard-left opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, who has in the past blamed UK foreign policy for our vulnerability to terrorists.
    But right now, it will be time to mourn the victims. And we might also remember our city's past. Because if we do, then we will also be reminded that London doesn't succumb to plagues, tyrants or terrorists without a fight. London Bridge has not fallen yet.