In previous posts I have sometimes referred to iconic people or historical events or cultural things which have been especially important to me or which have loomed large in some way. An actor, a musician, a place, an object, a sportsman, a song or whatever. But there are several I’ve not yet mentioned, and recently I have found myself revisiting a few of them.
They are: Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, the sinking of the Titanic (and the discovery of the wreck) and Mallory and Hillary’s ascents of Mount Everest – and I will probably write about them all here in some way at some point.
There are many others, of course, and I did briefly consider posting a list with zero explanation (in part-tribute to the weird and wired 1990 single Imperfect List by Big Hard Excellent Fish). I suppose you could say something along the lines of “the signposts of my life”. I may yet do something like that. Any meaning, or various meanings, would become apparent from the accumulation. Or perhaps even no meaning at all.
There was also the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center (sic). This weekend – tomorrow, in fact – is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I have clear memories of that brutal day two decades ago. Or, more accurately, I have clear memories of the following morning.
On September 11th 2001, for some reason I’d been awake for over 24 hours. Perhaps there had been an intense burst of writing or songwriting and recording. Not uncommon for that era in my life, with no money and little else to sustain or interest me. Towards the end of those hours I had been at my ever-tolerant and sandwich-providing friend Sue’s house for a lunchtime snack, a cup of coffee and a chat.
I returned to my terrible flat. A home I shared only with a family of slugs and their extended family, and sometimes their friends and neighbours too. I didn’t live there for very long. It was a dismal place which was broken into twice in a few months during my occupancy. In a kinder and more sympathetic world the burglars would have taken the walls, the floors, the windows and the ceiling and left my modest possessions in a pile.
It was about 1.30 in the afternoon. No respecter of convention or the clock (Sue used to say that I was “bohemian” though I suspect she could just as easily have said “too lonely” or even “mentally ill”), I went straight to bed.
I woke early on September 12th. Around 3am. My phone was blinking to signal a short series of text messages from my Mum and others, sent approximately thirteen hours before. Nothing specific at all. Things like “Have you seen the news?” and “Oh my God!” – and it still amuses me to recall that my initial thought was the local football club must have sacked manager Brian Laws.
It’s a small town and any football news was never of interest nationally, or sometimes even locally, but my idea was to take a look at Ceefax. This was essentially a primitive text-based homepage which broadcast news headlines and a couple of short paragraphs of story through the night. The days before shopping channels and gambling got hold of that airtime. There might be a line somewhere on the service which confirmed the sacking.
I went downstairs, said good morning to the slugs camped out on the kitchen floor, made myself a drink and switched on the TV.
Immediately I saw re-run footage of the second plane hitting and my mind shifted from football to films. “Why are they showing this kind of thing in the middle of the fucking night?” I wondered.
For the second time in my life, a historic TV confusion hit. Four years earlier I had switched on the Sunday morning news on the day Diana died, with the volume of my TV turned right down due to my hangover. I’d presumed it was some kind of weird demonstration or exercise by the BBC: ‘How we’d go about broadcasting the news after an enormous event’ or something. So I’d actually burst out laughing, thinking “bloody hell, that’s a bit strong” before it dawned on me that what I was seeing was real.
“Why do they hate us?” someone in 2001 asked in total desperation, in an episode of the new Netflix documentary about 9/11 that my wife and I watched last night. “Wake the fuck up,” I found myself answering out loud in 2021 – though not without sympathy and some sadness.
During the same episode someone else in footage from 2001 said “They did this because they’re jealous of our freedom”. This line of thinking seems, to me, to be part of America’s problem. Self regard, lack of introspection, a belief that everyone would choose to be like you. But America is not the world, as Morrissey sang a few years after 9/11.
A former marine, broken by the things he witnessed and by what he came to realise was the futility of his posting in Afghanistan in the decade following the attacks, was interviewed much more recently for the final episode. He seemed to nail something about the superpower’s arrogant global bloat when he sorrowfully said “What is our freedom, really? It’s the freedom to pretend. America likes its fictions – and up to 9/11 we felt entitled to them”.
The truth is always so much more nuanced and convoluted than we or even scholars of things can ever fully know. It always stretches further back and deeper into history and forward into agenda than we can possibly imagine. Full of intricate components and moving parts and long sequences of global events. And, particularly, clashing ideologies. Money corrupts everything. Religion disrupts everything. And if politics – whether domestic or geopolitical – is like a series of incredibly complex and unpredictable tree roots, then the truth is forever twisting and turning and intertwining and strangling and splitting and shooting off, buried somewhere way beneath our line of sight.
For the purposes of processing and coping things get reduced to a basic ‘a did b because c’. I suspect we always end up doing this in some way. Things certainly get broken down and separated out in a simplistic and self-righteous manner to present to the masses. To whip up some potent base-level yee-ha to justify military vengeance.
The next move on the chess board.
Everything is connected.
To this day I still can’t turn away when I see footage of the planes smashing into the towers. For a moment, always, I struggle to digest the physics of it and I find myself briefly unable to understand what I’m seeing. Still not quite believing that it is real. Riveted and fascinated – and, of course, always shocked and appalled. Far more than when I see footage of the towers collapsing, to be honest. I suppose the buildings crashing down was a terrible consequence, but the impacts themselves were violence in the purest form I have ever seen.
Over time my memories have settled like dust drifting down to rest. One could never forget what happened on that grim day in 2001, but now if 9/11 crops up I can choose to push out the feeling of horror and the sense of defeat because of a triumphant derring-do by Philippe Petit on an August day twenty-seven years before.
Right on the periphery of my memory is a newspaper page, and I seem to think it had a line-drawing or diagram on it. But the extraordinary 2008 documentary film Man On Wire (which features interviews plus still images and actual footage) vividly records this charming guerilla acrobat’s incredible 1974 escapade.
Eight times he walked along a wire stretching between the roofs of the two WTC towers. 200 feet across, 1,360 feet high. A quarter of a mile up in the sky as jumbo jets occasionally roared past overhead. Dancing. Laying down. Kneeling. Playing. Waving to watchers from his position on this thin lifeline. Office workers, construction crews, policemen and the public below cheered Petit on (before he was finally, after three quarters of an hour, coaxed off and arrested).
Man On Wire was released just seven years after 9/11. It’s joyful and uplifting and exhilarating. It is earnest and imbued with wonder. Inspiring and optimistic. It seems to remind the viewer that almost anything is possible. And it somehow reclaims ownership of the spirit from those terrible events of twenty years ago.
I will be watching it again this weekend.