Britain's week of downs, ups

Thursday's bombings in Turkey were followed by Saturday's big rugby win.

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On the murky, hibernal streets of London they don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Two spectacular events, both a long way from home - one tragic, one triumphant - have transformed the way Britons feel about their place in the world. The first is inspiring apprehension, insecurity, alarm; the second, euphoria.

First, there was Istanbul, where British soft targets were attacked Thursday by suicide bombers. A consulate gutted, 10 staff members killed, a bank destroyed. The message was clear, even before the gloating Al Qaeda statement: Britain is fair game on the front line in the terror war.

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Then there was Sydney. On Saturday, a 37-year sporting drought, half a lifetime of near-misses and humiliation and exasperation, finally came to an end. England won the Rugby World Cup, and, deliciously, Australia was the opponent. It's all making for a distinctly odd mood.

One moment union flags are hanging sadly from government buildings in homage to the Istanbul victims. The next they are paraded through the streets in jubilation.

On Thursday, noisy public arguments were about the war on terror; on Saturday they were about whether Englishman Jonny Wilkinson is the best player ever to have handled the oval ball of rugby. On Thursday, a loud bang would make people jump. On Saturday, they knew it was just celebratory fireworks.

The bittersweet sensation is everywhere. One British official in Istanbul confided that for a brief moment on Saturday, the joy of victory overshadowed the sense of loss and vulnerability. British diplomats and police sent in to sort out the mess of the ill-fated consulate took time off to huddle around a small television set in a secure location, watching pictures from Sydney.

With all the government officials and British police, "It's fairly male- dominated, so you can imagine it was quite rowdy," said the British official. And the game went into overtime, adding to the excitement. "Those 20 minutes of extra time were among the most frantic I have had since I got here."

Security is concentrating minds, in Istanbul as in London. The Foreign Office is reviewing measures at all its embassies. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has warned that "everywhere is a target." Police chiefs say they have foiled attacks in Britain itself. A senior naval chief says it's only a matter of time before Al Qaeda conducts a spectacular attack here.

So on Saturday morning, you could have been forgiven for thinking the eerie desolation in central London was due to a terrorist warning or a security drill. The streets were empty because millions were indoors, glued to television sets at home or in cafes and social clubs. And the only homeland defense that mattered to them was that of men in white shirts keeping marauding Australian runners at bay.

"A hedgehog could have crossed some roads in central London this morning," says a spokeswoman for the RAC, an auto club, adding that traffic dropped by as much as 60 percent in some parts.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, grim faced and somber after Istanbul, was thrilled at the rugby win, saying "the whole country can be proud." Sunday's papers splashed victory and celebration on their front pages, leaving terror to the inside. For many, sport is simply far more important to national mood than political or security matters.

"You can't mix sport and terrorism," says Sam Mills, as he and friends celebrated England's first world cup win in any sport since 1966. "Sport is about countries coming together and terrorism is just the opposite. This is something to celebrate."

Adds fellow student Jay Bourley: "We've been on a downer because of George Bush being here and the events in Istanbul. Now this has made up for it all."

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