Towering, infernal

WTC ticket

It is on this day in history that I tend to remember October 6, 1997, the day I went up to the 107th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. It was called the Top Of The World Observation Deck and it was indoors. Weird, still, that the first World Trade Center is in past tense, and indeed that there’s now a second one. You were able to stand with your toes touching the floor-to-ceiling glass and look down 1,310 feet to the street below. Not one for those with vertigo, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although at the time I didn’t know the full, finite enormity of that clichéd description.

I remember queuing up on the ground floor – what would become, four years later, Ground Zero, with people queuing to get the fuck out – and pass through the security checks which had been added after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The one that failed. Looking back, I don’t know if it was the time of year, or the wind speed outside (it was certainly a clear day), but we didn’t take the short escalator ride up to the outdoor viewing platform on the 110th floor. I’ve since read that it incorporated an “anti-suicide fence”, artfully installed so as not to obstruct the panoramic view of the United States of America. (I’d been outside at the Empire State Building on a previous trip to New York, possibly my first, in 1990, when I bought an Oakland A’s baseball cap because it had a white, Gothic “A” against Hunter green on the front.) This was $10.00 well spent.

Oddly, we had planned to return to the top of the World Trade Center, in fact the North Tower, on a subsequent trip to New York in 2000, but we cancelled the trip. We’d promised ourselves a meal at the Windows On The World restaurant. It never happened.

Needless to say, on September 11, 2001, at 08.46 New York time, I felt the time-delayed impact on the South Tower, which was the second impact and the decisive, marrow-chilling one that confirmed premeditated attack and ruled out pilot error, and switched the world’s focus from one disaster movie to another disaster movie. Since we memorialise the date every year – and how wrong I was at the time to resist handed-down orthodoxy that named it “the day everything changed” – I don’t feel it’s too mawkish, or hawkish, to remember where I was.

I was in a windowless BBC recording studio in Western House, where, in 2001, the digital radio station yet to be called 6 Music (and in fact referred to as “Network Y” as if we were working for the Secret Service) was being piloted. I’d been given a stab at the presenter’s job on a show called My Life In CD, a blatant rock’n’roll spin on Desert Island Discs, which eventually went to Tracey MacLeod. I was interviewing the late Linda Smith, Radio 4 humorist, humanist and panel-show guru, about the records that described her life, which included songs by Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Squeeze, I remember that much. Having put the show in the can, we emerged into the corridor and kerfuffle led us into an office opposite, where BBC employees were crowded round a small television turned to rolling news.

I think I’m right in saying that the second plane had hit, so when I watched United Airlines Flight 175 “shark” (to use Martin Amis’s vivid verb) into the same South Tower that I had scaled from within four years before, I must have been watching a replay. The first of probably hundreds of replays on that day in history. Hundreds of thousands now. Feeling exposed and frightened by the idea of being even a couple of floors up in a Government building in a major capital city in the West, I headed home. While I was on the London Underground, heading south, the Towers collapsed. Again, it was old news and replays by the time I got back in front of a telly. Hell of a day. (It’s sad that Linda’s gone.)


The world did change that day. Having this week watched Marcus Robinson’s moving C4 documentary Rebuilding The World Trade Center (which I recommend while it’s up on 4OD for the next 20 days), it’s easy to see the collective human spirit of endeavour that survived the rubble, especially in New York. I find myself something of a 9/11 addict, actually. This, I’m sure, goes back to my morbid boyhood fascination with disaster movies and catastrophe in general. I’m also deeply interested in American politics and foreign policy, and the way they feed into this one day in history is endlessly gripping to me. I’m one of those people who made The 9/11 Commission Report a bestseller in the summer of 2004 – I file it under “fiction”, ha ha. I could open a library of books about 9/11 and its military and political aftermath, including a number of “conspiracy theory” tomes that may infuriate some patriots and lovers of the status quo, but which I find just as relevant; you have to read around a subject, and I have. The world was interesting and scary before 9/11, but it was more interesting and more scary after. I thoroughly recommend Windows On The World, a semi-fictional, philosophical 2005 French novel by Frédéric Beigbeder, which was recommended to me by Brett Anderson, since you ask. I’m still reading the hardback of Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars. The wars go on, and so do I.

I’ll leave you with Art Spiegelman’s historic cover for the edition of the New Yorker that followed that horrible day. I didn’t start subscribing to what is now my all-time favourite magazine until March 2005, but I sought this one out on eBay. Lest we forget.



Now a spectacular new film

Since posting about Ernest Borgnine and The Poseidon Adventure, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the 1974 Pan paperback edition of the Paul Gallico source novel. I’m so pleased to have it in front of me. The cover has actually come free of its moorings, but it’s in working order otherwise, and transports me back to 1975, when it became talismanic to my 10-year-old self: my only way of finding out anything further about The Poseidon Adventure. On the front, you can see the pre-disaster still of Hackman, Stevens and Borgnine, from which I was able to etch vague likenesses with my pens and pencils. (Interesting that the image of the ship being upended by a tidal wave is not a still, but a professional likeness in pen and pencil.) And whose idea was it to put “Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure“? That’s not really book grammar is it?

Anyway, the back cover is where the real meat is.

Having been spooked by the blood, sweat and tears of the survivors’ hellish journey through the bowels of the stricken vessel, it was with mixed feelings that I pored over the large still from the boiler room climax on the back cover of my book. I could identify Nonnie, Mr Martin and Mr and Mrs Rogo, and those were definitely Susan Shelby’s glistening calves and red high-heels. As an aide memoire, this atmospheric pic was gold dust; it transported me back to the film. As mentioned, the full cast list was also vital in terms of working out who played whom. Hats off to my Dad buying me the book as a present. (He’d taken my brother Simon to Birmingham for some kind of investigation into his constant nosebleeds, and he got a present for being brave; Dad was an equal-opportunities present-buyer.)

It is hard to convey to younger people how much more valuable printed material was in the 1970s. If it wasn’t printed on paper, it didn’t really exist. This book was literally all of the Poseidon Adventure ephemera I could lay my hands on. These days, a Google or YouTube search yields pretty much everything.

Because the film had such an existential impact upon me at a formative age, it remains special, and a glimpse of footage or a still retains the power to upend the hairs on the back of my neck. Long may this continue. Anyway, thanks to the alchemy of the scanner and the internet, I can now share the papery artifact with you.

Oh, and here’s a silly photo of me posing with the hallowed book, taken during the History Of Collins & Herring In 100 Objects project on Saturday mornings on 6 Music in 2010. I was surprised, and not unpleasantly, to find that all of the objects still exist in a gallery, if you’re nostalgic like that.

Ernest Borgnine Latest: I am recording an obituary for Radio 4’s Last Word programme tomorrow, and all being well, it will air on Friday at 4pm. It will be an honour.


At last, it’s in the public domain: episode 8 of the ninth series of Celebrity Mastermind. It’s on the iPlayer here but if you want to avoid knowing the score, please look away now and read this another time. I’ll throw in the traditional screen grabs to give you the chance to bail out before we talk numbers.

Right, if you’re still reading, you obviously either saw it, or don’t care enough to see it, so I can compare scores with impunity. I’ll tell you this much, if being in the famous chair is nerve-wracking, it turns out not to be half as nerve-wracking as watching the programme go out, on the television, with a roomful of your relations! All I have been telling people since recording the show in mid-November is: I didn’t make a total tit of myself. Which is, I think, true. My final score of 23 is not exactly off the charts, and it must forever genuflect at Richard Herring’s mighty 35 (which should please him), but it’s respectable and I think I can hold my head up in public, despite saying Snowdon to a general knowledge question whose answer was obviously Everest. (In mitigation, as if mitigation is required when you’re on bloody Mastermind, the question was to do with the height of the mountain being recalculated, and the keyboard in my brain called up the Hugh Grant film, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, in which he was sent to measure a mountain in Wales, so the wrong synapse crackled as a split-second result. Carve it on my gravestone if you must.)

I was no match for DCI Barnaby off Midsomer Murders, who scored a copper-bottomed 29, having stoically stormed his specialist round on Philip Larkin, and kept the same cool head for general knowledge. The close camera angles were not kind to Barnaby’s method of calling up information which involved physically pressing buttons on the keyboard inside his brain using only parts of his face, but like many actors, I doubt he will be watching his performance back, so we may snigger all we like: he won by a mile.

I had hoped that Canadian comedian Stewart Francis, who’d been called up off the subs’ bench at midnight after David Gest sent a sick note, would be unprepared, but he did well with his specialist subject of the Toronto Blue Jays – he may have been cooler than the rest of us because he’d already done a comedians-only Children In Need special edition of Celebrity Mastermind in 2010, when his subject was the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Spotting a theme?)

I had also hoped that Sandie Shaw would be nuts, and to a charming degree, she was. The life and soul of the green room from the moment she stepped glamorous and surprisingly shod foot in it, she really made our edition of the programme fun. What you didn’t see on television was the moment when, on the walk back to her seat, the battery pack of her microphone slipped from its moorings somewhere up her minidress and it fell down between her knees, dangling in a most unbecoming way. She laughed it off, and I asked if it was her puppet on a string, a wisecrack that went pretty much unheard. That’s showbiz.

Here are the final scores anyway.

I must admit, I am kicking myself over the questions I got wrong in my specialist round. I thought I’d revised disaster movies thoroughly, but gave the name of the director of The Medusa Touch when the question required the name of the man who wrote the novel. (“Jack Gold!” “Peter Van Greenaway.”) This just shows you how easy it is to give the wrong answer when you know the right one – who else would know the name of the director of The Medusa Touch, never mind the novelist? Both are, by definition, useless bits of information. But in this artificial situation which you have volunteered to be in, they become vital bits of information. Actually, unlike Richard’s experience, mine is not one bedevilled by retroactive frustration. Even if I’d got the Medusa Touch question right, and the Everest one, and the one where the answer was my favourite film The Poseidon Adventure and I said The Towering Inferno, I still wouldn’t have caught up with Barnaby. So I am able to sleep easy in my bed.

Lots of nice, supportive comments on Twitter, which I really appreciated. My parents thought I did well, although my Dad admitted that he was shouting, “Everest!” at the screen in Northampton. Oddly enough, after the show had aired, I was demonstrating how Twitter works to a family member who didn’t understand its appeal or how it worked but was curious to see it in action. He started an account and I was steering him around the basics. I showed him how to search for an account and he put in my name. In doing so, as well as my Twitter account coming up, he also started reading the stream of Tweets mentioning me by name, but not referring to my Twittername. I never do this, and was of course dismayed to find some less complimentary comments, which, in fairness to those who wrote them, were never aimed at me. Best not to dwell on them, especially not the one from the person who said I looked old, but one basically accused me of choosing a “nostalgic” subject, as if perhaps I was only capable of thinking about the past. I’m afraid I politely replied to them and said that I had asked the producers if I could ask questions about the future, but they had turned down my request, so I had to do the past.

Another asked me why I didn’t shake Stewart Francis’s hand, or at least why I left him with his hand out for seconds without shaking it. Here’s why: it is, as far as I know, Mastermind etiquette to congratulate the winner at the end. We all shook DCI Barnaby’s hand. However, Stewart thought he should shake my hand as well, which is very nice, but having shaken Barnaby’s, I  was not looking to my right, but straight ahead. I shook it when I noticed it though.

Honestly, it’s a social minefield! When you are on Mastermind, remember my mistakes. Ultimately, I am proud to be listed on the Wikipedia entry for Celebrity Mastermind, even if I am not a winner. I am among friends there. And I am still not a celebrity, thank God.

Well sick

Caught Contagion yesterday, and what a cheery film it is for a Sunday afternoon. It’s effectively a disaster movie, which is why I felt intrinsically drawn to it, but instead of the usual CGI-dependent bombast and high-wire thrills, this was all very low key and matter-of-fact. Steven Soderbergh is a curious and vital director; he came from the indie sector and retains that spirit, but he works within the studio system and often with big bucks and big stars. Contagion falls more closely in line with Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovitch than Che or Scizopolis, in that it has an all-star cast and is identifiably aimed at a mass audience. In fact, it sort of only works if lots of people go to see it.

The plot is simple – as simple as that of a public information film, in fact: a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, and dies within days of a mystery illness. This is not a spoiler. It’s in the trailer. It’s the trigger for the whole film. It turns out she has a rare form of pig-bat flu that spreads like wildfire. That’s all you need to know. As he did with Traffic, Soderbergh then joins the globalised dots and moves with ease and clarity from one place to the next, plotting the virus’s path as it starts wiping us all out. If you’ve seen Outbreak, it’s nothing like Outbreak. Although, as with that film, the scientists are the heroes. There are lots of clever scientists here – Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottillard (see what I mean about all all-star cast?) – and for all its disaster movie tropes, it’s really a film about the emergency services. What would happen if a novel pathogen spread this fast, and this unstoppably? Well, in Contagion, we pretty much find out. It’s been praised for its accuracy and Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns worked closely with the Center for Disease Control and other experts to get it right.

In this respect, and with H1N1 still fresh in our over-active minds, it’s fucking terrifying. (Put that on the posters.) From the first cough – which occurs over a blank screen, the film hasn’t even started yet! – you’re gripping your armrest, and then feeling self-conscious about who might have gripped the armrest before you. Soderbergh shoots on high-def DV stock, and plays the whole thing muted, like Traffic, and that other global jigsaw Syriana, which he produced, allowing the enormity of the catastrophe to hit us in small jolts, not in huge set-pieces. At one point, Winslet visits the sports stadium that will be pressed into service as a hospital; the scale of the empty hall is as shocking as any frantic later shots of a busy hospital. This is clever, economical filmmaking. We see a couple of characters actually die, one of them shockingly, another of them the subject of a close-up autopsy, but the real shocks come when bodies are calmly zipped into bags. Or when they first cough. One doctor casually mentions to another that his mother died; there are no tears, we have not met his mother, but it’s shocking nonetheless. Shocking in its casual delivery.

I am not one to panic. I refused to join in the paranoia when H1N1 led to signs about handwashing being posted all over the BBC and the British Library in 2009. I wash my hands all the time anyway. (I am allergic to my own cat, so I’m forever at the sink after stroking her.) When Jude Law’s rogue blogosphere nutter – the character I most identified with, obviously, despite his terrible Australian accent (a nod to Assange?) – tries to break the media blackout on a potential herbal cure, Soderbergh and Burns are able to get a few digs in at the Government and the pharmaceutical industry. One top scientist is refused safe passage home from the frontline as the government plane is rerouted to transport a Congressman. But this is not a film about corporate dominance or even political corruption, it’s about science. It’s about viruses. It’s about human contact. It’s about air travel. It’s about globalisation and the ease with which the cells from a fluey piglet in Asia can travel to Minnesota overnight. It’s about globalisation, but it presents globalisation as a done deal. We can’t go back now. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen, and only men and ladies in white coats can save us. This is no doubt true. So we’re all going to die. Deal with it.

Contagion is a superbly effective film. Not a date movie. Not a film for the paranoid or worrisome. Just by focussing us on the way we touch everything – bars, cocktail glasses, napkins, folders, door handles, lift buttons, buses, aprons, each other – Soderbergh makes us look at the world differently. This is quite a feat. It’s done subtly, too: no dramatic close-ups of fingerprints. The writing, too, is without camp, but with deep impact. Here’s a classic line. One surgeon, doing an autopsy, finds something amiss. The other surgeon says, “Shall I call someone?” The first surgeon says, “Call everybody.”

If you can handle the truth, go and see it. It’s a classic cinematic ride. Actually, you’ve probably been to see it already after all that viral marketing.