That Day

(Content Warning: I have included a link to a picture of someone falling from the towers behind the words “one person plunge”)

Did you know, I’ve never written about September the 11th on here? Or nothing that’s stuck at any rate. Given the various server drops this blog’s anniversary turns out to be eighteen years ago today. Of course, the first year that was originally back on students unzipped, actually began October 2002, a year and a bit later than 9/11, the entries made over that summer have been lost as well. The first entry currently extant though, that was two years after the towers fell. I didn’t mention it at all, my grief two years later was entirely personal. My Grandma was buried on September 11th.

But to return from the personal to the global, in that back and forth that every moment of grief for the past one and a half years has danced, in 2001 I watched the towers fall from a small village in The Green County.

I was conscious that it was one of those moments, just as I had been an August morning four years prior, one of those moments that was Historical. It was global too, in a way that the other hadn’t been, happening across the other side of an ocean rather than the other side of a channel, but I felt an equivalence. It’s got nothing on the pandemic of course, but that’s hindsight, I didn’t have hindsight then. I had been working with kids in the local primary school that day, that summer I’d spent in Mexico with the Girl Guides and I’d come back for the Autumn before starting my second year at university. It was still in the plan to get my PGCE. I’d heard kids read in the morning, then after lunch I’d been working on an IT project with pairs of kids. I want to say that when it got to afternoon break I headed home because they had something on in the church opposite afterwards, I’m not certain.
I remember the little dark curly haired girl who was very clingy and the serious discussion referencing abuse she’d suffered with the teacher in the staff room. I remember the walk home, but I don’t know honestly for sure that it’s that day’s walk that I remember. I walked that way home too often to know. The walk that I remember though, the sun was high and the sky was blue with lit up fluffy clouds. The massive horse chestnut trees that line the lane were so green as to look almost neon in the sunlight against the sky. There was that sharpness on the edge of the breeze, that sense that it might look like summer still but autumn is almost here. I remember the sense of elation as I walked, I was vanished from the primary school, there was no one at home, no one knew exactly where I was and the high that that has always given me was especially potent when I was nineteen and happily treading my way down the lane that September afternoon.

I intended to watch something utterly mindless on Channel 4, either they were doing ER runs in the afternoon or I intended on Jerry Springer or Rikki Lake or something similar. The TV we had always turned on to BBC One. I turned it on, I saw a tower burning, I turned to Channel 4, same tower, same camera feed I think. It wasn’t completely out of the question for them to be showing the same movie I thought, some sort of head to head or accident of scheduling. I turned to Ceefax or maybe teletext if I was on ITV, but to my mind Ceefax had clearly not been updated, it wasn’t showing any movie scheduled. I turned to BBC 2, same feed. That was the point that I realised that there wasn’t a fault with Ceefax. I turned to BBC One and sat down heavily in the armchair, I didn’t swing my legs up over the arms the way that I did when I usually settled in to watch TV. I just sat and watched.

I’d have left school about twoish, so around nineish in New York about not sure what time I got home or what the delay on the news was. The first plane would have hit around the time I was encouraging two girls to be original on the computer in their primary school. When I started watching the second plane would likely have already hit but on the news I watched as they were reporting one plane and then the horror in the voice of the presenter as she said (what I remember as being); “Is that a second plane?”

I watched as the BBC suddenly changed which footage they used and I wondered if that was to do with the suicide that I thought I’d glimpsed. I had probably unknowingly watched far more than one person plunge out of the tower but I had a real interest in what the journalistic policies were around reporting suicide and I thought I knew why they’d changed the footage they were showing. I think I was right too.

I watched when they said that the Pentagon had been hit.

I watched when the towers went down.

I don’t remember whether Flight 93 was reported on the day, mostly I remember hearing about Flight 93 and the the phonecalls in the following weeks on Radio 4. The phonecalls from the people on the planes, from the people trapped at the tops of the towers made me shiver, they still do. I asked myself what I’d say, who I’d call, whether I’d jump, whether I’d dare to oppose the hijackers.

I was still watching TV when Dad got home, I heard his motorbike and I didn’t turn the TV off, no racing upstairs pretending I hadn’t been watching awful daytime tv. I half wondered if I was going to have to tell him as I had with Princess Diana’s death but he’d heard about it in the staffroom when his working day had ended. He came in, registered what I was watching and then went back to the kitchen and turned the radio on. He listened, I watched and the news came in and came in and came in from America.

Global to personal to global and back again. Alistair Cooke compared it to the Battle of Marne but not before referencing December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963 in much the same way I instinctively thought of the death of Princess Diana, reaching for historical moments that we had lived through, moments that would change and define the world afterwards, that we knew even as we watched. He wondered if the ability to watch would change the response, could Americans pack off their lads given that they had witnessed the death of 2,996 people on TV rather than read “Heavy casualties on both sides”, the standard phrase in the second world war newspapers that he had read at that time, newspapers that didn’t print the numbers of allied casulties and only suggested the numbers of axis dead. Cooke was absolutely clear that the attack was an act of war.

I marched against the wars. Marched with the Stop the War Coalition a lot. I remember a lot of a questioning myself , an awful lot, because back then it was by no means clear that the Weapons of Mass Destruction were a lie… I mean, for all their faults, they were a Labour government, the first of my life, they wouldn’t actually lie would they? But the people we marched with sometimes made me shiver. I heard some really ugly anti-semitism for the first time on one of those marches. I had to really ask myself what coalition meant, what being part of a large movement meant, what compromises I would and I wouldn’t make.
My Grandma was still alive then, the woman we buried eighteen years ago, and she, like Alistair Cooke, lived through the second world war albeit he was an adult and she was becoming an adult. Suffering her dreams of career progression dissolving around her with every move Hitler made. She was very clear; “War is Evil.”

My Great-Uncle was equally clear about his pacifism. So I marched and became clearer and clearer about my own.

And now? With Biden’s hasty evacuation from Afghanistan? This feeling of being right is making me even sicker to my stomache than being right about BREXIT. You don’t get regime change through war. You don’t get good trade deals by sinking the ship you’re in.

I was in America a year later, that summer I was supposed to be a camp counsellor, instead I ended up Art Director. There were a few of us Europeans, a few Brits and I remember talking about September 11th to one woman, all of us in our beds in a hut in the dark. She said she was too afraid to go to the City, that she just wanted the soldiers to win the war before she’d go back.
And then she had two girls who’d grown up in the eighties in Britain tell her that she had to be brave. Two girls who’d learned our entire lives that maybe we’d get unlucky one day and be blown up by a bomb if we went shopping in Manchester or London but that if we decided not to go then the terrorists would have won. You can be a pacifist, you can be pro-war but you can’t ever just leave it up to the soldiers, that’s what the older millenials and generation X have internalised, some day you might die and if it’s terrorists then you stand up to them by doing the same damned thing you would have done if they didn’t exist because you’re standing up for the way you live. You know, in a way that viruses take not one damned jot of notice about.

I went to New York, spent most of my weekends there, took a road trip up to Washington and looked forwards to starting this blog, beginning what would be the start of my camming, graduating. I spoke random French, less Spanish than I expected, thought I might get blown to pieces one day, wondered what I’d tell my loved ones in that last phone call and hoped that I’d be brave.

Now, I wonder what my last blog entry will be, I know I can be brave, I know I can step out thinking that I might die and do it anyway and I know that living your life with risk assessments in place hasn’t got a damned thing to do with fear. Fear is that cold shiver when you listen to those phone calls and wonder if you’d be able to let them know you loved them or if you’d be paralysed in a corner until the tower came down, nothing said and everything far too late.

It is always later than you think and life is far too short not to let people know what they mean to you. Always.

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