LONDON — For a glorious hour or two, Londoners cheered and danced for joy in the city’s streets.
But their celebration of snagging the 2012 Olympics from the French was to be short-lived.
By next morning, the revelers were displaced on the capital’s sidewalks by the dead, the wounded, the distraught.
The so-called War on Terror had arrived on our own turf, right in our heartland, delivered in person to our door.
For the first time, in a city whose history is all too well-acquainted with bombs, we saw close-up the cruel and indiscriminate handiwork of a modern phenomenon: the suicide bomber.
It was, in its way, a smaller echo of the outrage known to the western world as 9/11. It sprang from the same angry and fanatical roots. And so it became known here, symbolically, as 7/7.
Joy of Olympic win short-lived
The day before, a crowd of thousands waited in Trafalgar Square for the news that London had won the battle against Paris to host the 2012 Olympic Games. They cheered so loud that Lord Nelson, high above them on his stone column, must have wished himself deaf rather than famously blind in one eye.
Better still, we had “stolen” the games from our arch-rivals the French. To the British, victory always tastes better for a hint of garlic.
It felt good to be one of us.
It was a feeling shared by the nation's prime minister. Up in Scotland at the crucial G8 summit, Tony Blair broke away for a moment from the life-and-death business of Africa’s debt crisis to await the Olympic decision.
Less than 24 hours later he broke away again — to return to the scene of devastation and carnage wrought on three tube trains and a Number 30 double-decker bus, by terrorists who called this country home.
For Londoners, there is something special about a red double-decker bus. They are part of the lifeblood that runs through the city’s arteries. As buses go, they have character, familiarity, a friendly demeanor setting them apart from the ordinary, metal-hearted monsters of the city’s congested roads.
They have long served England well. During the First World War they carried troops to — and from — the slaughter of the trenches.
When I was a kid in Sunday school, they were truly transports of delight — conveyances for our annual day trip to the seaside. My dad earned his living driving one, and I used to stand alongside him, watching him in childish awe.
So of all the shocking images of that day, there is none more poignant for me than the pictures of a devastated London bus, with its upper deck turned inside out, burst like a paper bag by a bomb.
Thirteen people — all but one just trying to get on with their everyday lives — died in the explosion on the bus. A total of 52 innocent people perished that day, or later as a result of their injuries.
The bombers died too, sacrificing their young lives in the mistaken belief that they might achieve something other than infamy.
They, for sure, did not believe it was good to be one of us.
What followed was, to an extent, the intended consequence of terrorism. No question how such actions get their name. The massive and unsettling manhunt for those involved, the fear that other bombers would strike again, the trepidation of just trying to get to work, affected millions of us. It still does.
What is equally true is that the city and its people carried on with their business.
Two weeks later, bombers tried to strike again in copycat attacks. This time the explosives failed to go off. They escaped.
By the afternoon, the subway trains and buses were crowded as usual.
The alleged perpetrators were captured within days, dramatically, and at gunpoint. I now know what 15 million people sighing with relief sounds like.
And so we wait, for the next time. We know, as sure as we can know anything, that terrorists will try to attack us again. Regrettably, it’s what some choose to do for their living — and their dying.
The gulf between what motivates them to want to hurt us — and our ability to persuade them not to — is for now as much a matter for the police as the politicians.
Be that as it may, for most of us, for now, life goes on. It has to.
Warming up the lame duck stew
The attacks came just two months after another celebration for Tony Blair. In May the British election came and went and the still-youthful prime minister once again found himself snuggling down with Cherie on Number 10’s well-padded sofas.
It was a historic victory — the first time a Labor government has had three straight wins —though this time it was a much closer finish, and a much-reduced parliamentary majority. Blair said he’d learned a lesson.
But he hardly had time to fluff up the cushions when there were unusual noises outside the window. These were not the cheers of a grateful public that he was used to hearing.
These were cries for him to go — sooner rather than later, and from people on his own side.
Blair should, perhaps, have seen it coming. His backing of the U.S. invasion of Iraq proved to be deeply unpopular, leading to taunts of his being "President Bush's poodle."
He could have decided to stay his ground — he still had much backing in his party (and in British politics there are no term limits and a prime minister can stay in office as long as the electorate and his party want him to).
However, he chose to declare his hand: he will stand down when this term is up. (Each term is variable — depending on political circumstances — up to five years.)
But in politics it is always a risky strategy to announce in advance the date of your own demise. Plenty of rivals have a liking for lame duck stew.
Over the years, Blair has been adept at keeping himself off the menu. The “Trust me, I’m Tony” image has served him well.
But after eight years in power the rust-spots are beginning to break through the glitter.
The job has taken its toll. His easy-going, confident smile looks increasingly careworn and forced. Suddenly, he’s 52 going on 62.
There will always be loyal followers who acknowledge Blair’s many achievements. But there appear to be a growing number among his own ranks who think he’s lost his touch, that he’s not the sure-fire vote-winner he was. Others simply think he’s wrong, that he’s made some serious mistakes. Not least Iraq.
Unlike the U.S.A., Britain has long been more outspoken in its questioning of the war — and more unforgiving. It has always been a harder sell for Blair than Bush.
Military intervention traditionally sits harder with Labor than with their right-wing opponents.
Many voters believe Blair’s support for the war — and for this Republican president in particular — was hasty and ill-judged. Some believe his government has played fast and loose with the reasons they gave for going into Iraq at all.
In Parliament, Blair is facing clear signs of disunity from his own MPs (members of parliament). The Conservative opposition — for the first time in a decade — may be about to get its act together under a new leader.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to Blair comes from much closer to home – his next door neighbor in Downing Street, his sometime friend, his oft-times rival: Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer.
History has it that back when Blair and Brown were young aspiring politicians they did a deal: Brown would reluctantly put his own ambitions to one side to give Blair first crack at the prime minister’s job.
It has been an uneasy truce and Brown — a brainy and dour Scot who lacks Blair’s charisma — has been waiting impatiently in line for years.
For all that, Blair clearly likes being prime minister and says he has no plans to quit before it suits him.
I suspect Brown’s New Years greetings card to his neighbor will likely read: “Don’t count on it, Tony.”
Perhaps a fairy tale ending
It was never going to be another fairy tale wedding.
The slightly potty prince and his rather matronly Queen of Hearts stumbled towards the altar in a series of public relations missteps.
But in April they emerged from Windsor Castle as man and wife.
If we subjects didn’t cheer too loud, we were certainly smiling — in part with relief.
At least Charles is with the woman he says he’s always loved — and it shows. Their trip to the U.S.A. in November was the crowning moment — so far — in the new life of the royal couple.
If Diana will always be the shadow that haunts them (and us), at least Charles and Camilla have each other for company. And the two princes, William and Harry, seem happy with that.
There’s still a way to go before the British public will feel comfortable bending the knee to a Queen Camilla.
But, for now, the hapless Prince seems happy. So thanks Camilla. Good job so far. Here’s to 2006.
Chris Hampson is NBC News' London bureau chief.