There at the New Yorker

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Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

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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.)

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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.

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On your bike

A kid, a woman, and an old man, on bikes. Two very different films at the Curzon, which I failed to get round to reviewing last weekend. (I seem to recall a time when I would review every film I saw within a day of seeing it. What happened to that halcyon age? All work and no play etc.) So, The Kid With A Bike is a lovely Belgian film from the Dardennes brothers, whose work is constantly carried aloft at shoulder height by Sight & Sound but with which I admit I am not familiar. They seem to be interested in small-scale human stories, of which this is one, and it comes in at a lean 87 minutes: a boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret) abandoned by his selfish father is fostered by a Samaritan-like hairdresser (Cécile De France) on a nondescript but not unpretty suburban estate (it was filmed in Liège). The story follows the difficult and painful adjustment from a utopian parental model to a trickier surrogate, and yet it avoids all the obvious narrative traps.

I’ll be honest, as a regular at the Curzon, I think I have seen the trailer for The Kid With A Bike more than any other in my life. (The chain has a reasonably limited, niche-aimed bill across a handful of cinemas, and understandably likes to trail early.) By the time I finally came to see it, last weekend, I could almost literally recite the trailer. As such, the basic set-up of the story was well known to me. But although Cyril gets into a few scrapes, and bad company, the film sidesteps complete predictability. As intuitively, almost miraculously played by first-timer Doret, Cyril is neither angel nor devil; he has an adult head on 12-year-old shoulders, but he’s not precocious. This is as much a tribute to the writing and directing as the acting. De France is naturalistically captivating, too, and the sparing use of music – just one cue from a Beethoven concerto – is startling. I need to get some more Dardennes into my life. Our education never ends.

To the second film with heart in this ad hoc double bill, then. The other kid with a bike is 83. Bill Cunningham New York is a genuinely life-affirming documentary that forms a piece with last year’s timely Page One: Inside The New York Times, featuring, as it does, the paper’s long-standing fashion photographer Cunningham, who has been cycling and walking around New York since the late 70s, snapping street style as modelled by ordinary citizens, and enjoying every single minute of it.

The seniors who have been delighted by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should seek this out, too. It is a celebration of age and experience. Cunningham, a camp, infectiously upbeat loner and workaholic (not that he sees what he does as work), lives in a tiny studio above Carnegie Hall – a bolt-hole rammed full of filing cabinets from which our man is cruelly evicted during the filming of the documentary – and seems entirely undimmed by old age. He welcomes director Richard Press into his life, and proves anything but a fossil from a previous age. He calls everyone “child” or “kid” and that includes people in their 60s and 70s, and spreads sunlight as readily and tirelessly as he spreads flashlight.

There is a sequence towards the end of the film – another short one, at 84 minutes – during which he opens up about his private life, or lack of one, and about God, and we see tears very briefly, but he hoovers these up and the smile is soon back upon his face. It’s the kind of film where you expect its subject’s dates to come up in a caption at the end, but Cunningham lives on. Surely he must be immortal. (He seems to have achieved this by not allowing others into his life, and yet he’s been a social butterfly all along. That’s his secret: be nice to everybody and retire to a fold-out bed, alone, each night. Oh, and take the filling out of sandwiches, apparently, and don’t accept a free drink.)

My guess is that Bill Cunningham New York will turn up on TV sometime soon. Keep an eye out for it.

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.