Don’t look up

My most vivid memory of September 11, 2001, is of being in a BBC building when the first and second planes hit and suddenly feeling vulnerable. I was in a government building in the centre of a capital city. Two planes had been flown into a building in a major city on the other side of the Atlantic. Enemies of America are by definition of enemies of Britain. The thin veneer of normality had ruptured. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I thought, I’m going home.

I’d been inside a studio when the first plane hit, recording a pilot for the as-yet unnamed 6 Music (it was still called Network Y in those prototypical days). The show was My Life In CD. It was eventually presented by Tracey MacLeod when 6 Music went live in March 2003, by which time I had been trained to do the Teatime show. My Life In CD was simply a rock’n’roll Desert Island Discs, in which a famous person would look back over their life by way of ten chosen tracks. I’d already done a pilot with Glenn Tilbrook, and one with Courtney Pine. On September 11, it was the comedian Linda Smith. We’d had a lovely time chatting about her uprbringing and her love of Ian Dury, produced by Frank Wilson, who’d go on to produce Teatime. After the recording, we emerged into the corridor and were immediately dragged into a nearby office by whoever was working in that little corner of Western House to see what was unfolding on TV. The second plane had just hit, and what had seemed like a horrific accident had turned into a horrific attack.

By the time I got home, the towers had collapsed. Like everyone else, I spent the rest of the day watching the news, dazed. We had booked and cancelled a holiday to New York the previous year, and had planned to eat at the Windows On The World restaurant in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It’s not like we would’ve been in the building that day, but even having booked it for the year before felt surreal. I still had my ticket from going up to the top of the Towers in 1997. That seemed surreal too. What? Those buildings had gone?

By the end of that week, emerging from the daze and having been told again and again by the media that the world had changed, I resisted this truism with every bone of my body. Since George W Bush had stolen the election, I had felt the unsavoury change in mood coming from the White House, as we all had, and although Bush’s approval ratings were already through the floor, I sensed that he had seized this horrible moment and captured the zeitgeist with his monosyllabic, simple-minded patriotism. Hearing that we were “all New Yorkers now”, I felt the hype bearing down upon me and squeezing my head. As far as I was belligerently and stubbornly concerned, the world had not changed on September 11. I was prepared to accept that America had, but why should that drag in the rest of us?

Resisting what I saw as US imperialism, I ploughed a lonely furrow for a while. I felt less lonely when the marches against the war started. I marched on Sunday 18 November, 2001, against the invasion of Afghanistan, and had to pass on the opportunity to interview the directors of Monsters Inc for Radio 4, but I felt strongly about the situation and hoped that this frivolous decision would be respected as I marched past the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane where the interviews were taking place alongside a particularly loud knot of young Muslim men chanting pro-Taliban slogans and pointing up the mass of contradictions inherent in what was unfolding. (I marched again, of course, on February 15, 2003, against the invasion of Iraq, and felt a distinct lack of loneliness, although, of course, it was clear that the US and their nodding-dog allies were going to make pretty sure that the world changed at that point. It had long since stopped having anything to do with me.)

The irony of all this is that, as the years passed, and the two wars I’d marched against descended into bloody chaos, and George W Bush managed to get reelected, as did Tony Blair, I became mildly obsessed with September 11, 2001. It became the lightning rod for all of my existing interests in modern warfare, politics, foreign policy, America, empire and 20th Century history. I read voraciously. I stopped pedantically refusing to call it “9/11”. I read books which saw events from an essentially right-wing perspective and from a far-left perspective, as well as tomes such as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda, which took no side. I became hooked on conspiracy theories, too, I don’t mind admitting it, and even if you prefer the consensus on such things, 2004’s The New Pearl Harbour by David Ray Griffin is a fascinating read.

I am now convinced that September 11, 2001 did indeed change the world. It enabled neocon foreign policy, which, although a dismal and lethal failure, has reshaped the Middle East and beyond. Obama couldn’t have happened without Bush, who would never have been reelected without 9/11 and his fireman’s-helmet, mission-accomplished reaction to it. The war in Iraq ultimately did for Tony Blair, among other things, and ushered the Tories back in here. The monetary policy of both Bush and Blair/Brown enabled the crash and recession. You might argue that the Arab Spring wouldn’t have happened had the neocon Middle East campaign not failed so miserably. Certainly, all major geopolitical events of that past ten years have their roots in that explosive day in 2001, and the tightening of security, thumping of chests and incitement of extremism (of all stripes) that grew out of it.

Me? I haven’t stepped foot on American soil since the trip in 1997 when I went up the South Tower to the Observation Deck, there to observe what can now no longer be observed. The fact that you have to be fingerprinted for the FBI now puts me off, I’ll be honest. I got to interview one of the directors of Monsters Inc, Pete Docter, when he was promoting Up two years ago, so that worked out OK, even if the thing I was marching against in 2001 didn’t. I’ve watched all the films. I’ve seen all the documentaries. I’ve read all the books – God, even a handful of novels, which I don’t normally bother with. I retrospectively purchased the September 11, 2001 edition of the New Yorker on eBay. I am still obsessed with 9/11, as it continues to exert an eerie hold over us in the West, and, I should imagine, in parts of the East.

I would like to return to New York now. See how the old place is getting on. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world. When I first went there, wet behind the ears, in 1990, I was advised, “Don’t look up.” This was when tourists might get mugged, and the best way to advertise the fact that you were a tourist was to look up. I looked up anyway. I’d like to go back so I could look up again.

And we all miss Linda Smith.

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