A Table Talk with Gill Hicks - 7/7 Survivor
Issue 70 July 2010
This table talk article was first published in issue 46 (July 2008) of the magazine
Gill Hicks is a 7/7 survivor who lost both her legs in the blast. But she is first and foremost a woman on a mission. A mission to build bridges and heal a wound deeper than her physical scars. Sarah Joseph meets an inspirational woman with a passion for life.
The first time I met Gill Hicks, I was drawn to her eyes. They are a deep, penetrating blue and you can lose yourself in them like in the ocean. My eyes then went to her shoes. Cool, silver trainers. Finally, I noticed her walking stick; it was funky and sophisticated all at once. We shared a lift together up to the second floor of 10 Downing Street as we were both attending an Eid party there. As we walked along the corridor she told me what she did: “I lost my legs in the 7th July bombings and now I work for M.A.D. for Peace,”standing for Make a Difference. At such events you expect to have lots of small-talk conversations. Gill doesn’t do small-talk, although she doesn’t do uncomfortable conversations either. Instead, she fits in a story about a request to her prosthetic leg designer to be two inches taller, into a sentence about her designer black clothes and love of shoes. As I stand there talking to her, I wonder – if Germaine Lindsay had looked into those eyes, would he have pressed the button that killed 26 people and injured so many others?
Walking to her North London home for an interview about her latest enterprise “Walk Talk”, I am filled with no small degree of wonder. We by-pass those moments of carnage in the tube carriage. Other interviews have gone there, but I don’t want to know the smell and sound of man’s inhumanity to man. As Gill says, “I’ve been the recipient of a great tragedy and a terrible act, however I have also been the recipient of acts of great humanity.” We begin there. “I think for me, what I found the most extraordinary was waking up in the hospital and looking at my arm bracelet. On it, very clearly it read: ‘One Unknown.’ And that said a lot to me. No one knew I was Gill. I think that the sense of being loved as a stranger by other strangers has protected me.”
Gill focuses on the “extraordinary people” who never gave up despite her clinically dying a number of times. “They put their own lives at risk to save one unknown by entering into a situation where they didn’t know if there was another device or if the tunnel would collapse. And none of this mattered because there were human lives that they wanted to save.” The contrast with the bombers is stark, and Gill has obviously had to think very hard about humanity – its power for bad, for great good, and the power for change.
“I’ve really thought about when people say ‘I want change’. I don’t know the young men who killed themselves on July 7th. I can’t ask them what they really wanted. I can only assume that they wanted change. But their method I obviously feel was wrong. I’m all for how people can create a positive change that’s mutually good for all people.” Gill ponders the man who tried to kill her, “For me, Germaine Lindsay and the other three who died that day, they’re not living to see the change that they hoped to bring about.”
There is a difference very close to Gill’s heart that is beyond her reach, “If you asked me would I change things and go back to how my life was on July 6th - absolutely, without a doubt I would prefer to be oblivious to everything I now know and have my life the way it was.” That is not going to be possible and Gill knows that. She describes her two lives as Life One and Life Two, and she expresses sorrow for the loss of Life One without sounding self-pitying or even angry. “The problems of the world laid themselves on my lap that morning. Before, I was a spectator. I was totally a person that cared, but I was busy in my own work, busy trying to pay my mortgage, and so other peoples’ plights were things I read about or watched on the nightly news. I was completely removed. Now I feel engaged.”
Gill hasn’t gone on a journey of asking “why” though, although she admits to being fascinated with the idea of why and of watching the suicide videos of her attackers. She is intrigued by the idea of being called the enemy, “I wish that somebody had met me the day before and very quickly they would have worked out that I was not their enemy. I didn’t know what their grief was. I had no idea about what would lead them to do what they did.”
Instead of the journey of why, Gill’s journey is to find a ‘solution’, although she herself won’t call it that. “I won’t even say the word solution. Rather, I am trying to form a crossing so there’s a safe passage for both sides, because what I understood loud and clear was that there was a definite ‘us’ and ‘them’. All I’m interested in is how to narrow that divide. I’ve had a great leveller, I was called ‘One Unknown’ that day and it absolutely didn’t matter. Most people’s clothes were blown off them, so there were no means of identifying them. That to me is an amazing lesson.We all have a responsibility to each other and that’s what it means to be human.”
Gill’s decision to bridge the gap has led her on a voyage of discovery that she could not have imagined on 6th July 2005. She has had conversations with ‘radicals’ sitting on her sofa, “I’ve been able to sit with someone in my home and have very big discussions and agree to disagree. That’s actually when I feel great progress has been made. Because I am real, I think it’s been a good moment to remind anyone that sympathises with this that there is an outcome – that there are people like me.”
Gill recognises the passion that many of her visitors bring, “They really believe that they are right. That there’s no wrong in the act of violence. It is trying to get to a place where there’s more than one version of right sitting around a table. This is where I’m starting to stretch myself, for I too have been brought up to believe in my way of life. Of course I’m right! I’m a white, middle-class Australian. The Christian God is on my side! Of course, my sense of right is right. However, I’m starting to feel that my counterpart may feel exactly the same way. So how do we discuss? Where is the point where we connect to say that there is enough respect to acknowledge that there may be a variety of right.” Such conversations with radicals cannot be easy, and if the goal is not to learn ‘why’, then what is? “For this to never happen again. Not just in western society but anywhere in the world. That is a huge goal. I had no idea of these things in Life One. I worked in architecture and design. The peace world and the world of Islam were incredibly foreign to me.”
She talks with such passion about Life Two that I wonder if it’s richer somehow than Life One, but I almost regretted asking it as she detailed her joys of Life One. “There was a richness to having all my limbs, and being complete. It was great to go through life without a burden. There is a richness and beauty to being carefree.”
And yet before I can impose guilt on myself, she carries us along, “I’m just thrilled that I have a life.” She talks of her motivation to do what she can for peace. “That’s absolutely what I wake up with in my heart now. That isn’t what I did then. I was wholly devoted to the wonder of design.”
But she is using that devotion to design in her new world. She began with M.A.D. for Peace, “to think about how peace is communicated. How to get an understanding of the message to the masses. To show ordinary people that their role is vital. To see peace as a verb.”
For Gill, peace begins with the personal, the home environment, the individual. Whilst she recognises that conflicts and arguments are part of who we are, she simply wants to keep “reminding people that living a life is a precious thing.”
For someone who came so very close to death – medically Gill should not be alive – Life Two is something that she recognises as the ultimate gift. “I’ve learned how precious and important life is. I never knew the depth of true gratefulness – right down to a drink of water. I remember very clearly when I was on a life support machine having just a cotton bud dripping water into the side of my mouth. When I finally had a glass of water, I absolutely cherished it. I’ve never stopped feeling like that.”
Listening to Gill’s appreciation of life makes one realise how much we take it for granted. Walking, having a glass of water, the smallest details of life... they are all gifts. However, the events of 7th July have given Gill more than just appreciation, they have forced her to think about what it is to be human. For her, humanity is also a choice.
“I didn’t have a choice when the bomb went off, but I’ve had choices ever since. Choice gives you back a sense of power. I can choose to look at life and be grateful for what I have rather than be bitter for what I've lost."
Gill’s attitude to the bombing takes us to the topic of forgiveness and she recognises that her lack of bitterness has been seen as absolutely forgiving, but she doesn’t think it’s that simple, “I can only talk about Germaine Lindsay because he was the person that killed himself on my train. He’s dead. If he was alive and walked into my home saying ‘please forgive me,’ then I’d have a choice about what to do. But he’s dead and I don’t know if he wants my forgiveness.” Gill says she doesn’t think about Lindsay much and if she does it’s “in very symbolic terms in what he represents. I guess this is how he would have thought of me.”
The positive difference Gill hopes to make this summer is ‘Walk Talk’ which will push Gill to her limit physically and emotionally too. The walk, over 200 miles from Leeds to London, is aimed at bringing together people who may otherwise never meet, talk and, almost certainly, never walk side-by-side. The event was thought up by Gill’s husband, Joe Kerr, when they were putting together ideas on how to engage communities. For obvious reasons Gill was hoping people might prefer some of the other ideas, but Walk Talk it is, and thus she is undergoing training in order to crack this particular challenge.
The walk itself will hopefully bring people together, but she is a realist and feels it is “equally important to have the hard conversations, to open up, to lay bare some of the feelings that still may be there, ‘why are we suspicious of each other? Why do we fear the other?’"
Leeds as a starting point is obviously highly significant and indeed emotional. Gill has travelled to the areas that spawned three of the bombers on numerous occasions. She admits that it’s a difficult situation, “Very divided and a great sense of breakdown within communities. I think the acts of July 7th created an even greater divide.” However, her natural optimism kicks in whilst she realises that “lots of communities did come and stand together.”
For Gill personally, Leeds has opened its arms and taken her in. She puts this down to her approach, “I haven’t gone there and asked ‘Why?’ Why is not the question I’m asking. I’m not even asking a question. I am simply saying, it’s time we stand together.”
Gill hopes for an outcome where “the line of ignorance is washed away on both sides and any gaps between the ‘us and them’ are narrowed on that route. But I don’t think the world just needs a big group hug – it’s not that easy.” The walk for Gill is a symbol of just how difficult the work is. “The most difficult thing that I can personally do is walk.” So whilst she talks in ideals, Gill works in practical reality.
It would be easy to attach labels to Gill: courageous, brave, humane, fearless. All spring easily to mind. She herself rejects labels, but I ask her about her fears. She describes her fear of death before the 7th
July. “I was not here for 25 minutes and that experience has been incredibly powerful for me. Being near death was so peaceful. A beautiful female voice urged me to go with it. It was absolutely divine so I no longer fear death. My fear now is not doing all I can while I’m alive. When I finally do go, I want to feel that my life has counted.”
I never had the privilege of meeting Gill during Life One, but Life Two is certainly lived as an example for us all. We are all guilty of complacency, of being consumed by our own life, of somehow seeing the world divided into a ‘them and us’. Gill stands as a testament to how those things can be conquered. She wants to be a crossing so that there can be safe passage for both sides. Are we prepared to build it with her? If we talk the talk, then there has to come a time when we have to walk the walk. In July, of course, there is the opportunity to Walk Talk.
To find out more abut Gill's current work visit www.madforpeace.org