“May you live in interesting times.”
–Apocryphal Chinese curse
Obviously I can’t answer the question of where I was when Kennedy died, because my own mother was six on that day in 1963, and I didn’t even exist in potentia. However, today is the 12th anniversary of “Nine-Eleven”, and I remember where I was and what I was doing that day, as with our own equivalent, “Seven-Seven”. It’s for these reasons that I referred to my own darkest day in 2011 as “Twelve-Twelve” (the number 12 seems to be unlucky for me… perhaps because I consider 13 to be my lucky number?) — though obviously my own problems don’t amount to a hill of beans by comparison…
2001 was already a bad year for me: my plans to go back to university as a postgrad were on hold due to my inability to get a decent job in Worthing (this would have been difficult even if I wasn’t planning to leave and thus couldn’t take a permanent job), and I was unemployed for long periods; I had my mother and grandmother to take care of me, but felt like I was getting in their way and just waiting for my life to begin again. I was attending the local astronomy society, and had a chance to visit my old roommate’s family in Michigan (pretty much the only two weeks of the year I actually enjoyed), but it was all going wrong for me… and then there’s Tony Blair being re-elected despite his party’s bungling of foot-and-mouth disease.
And so it was, on the afternoon (remember, we’re five hours ahead of eastern USA) of Tuesday the 11th of September, that I was filling out an application form for yet another job; I’d turned my TV off because Neighbours was coming on and I wanted to (ahem) save it for the 5:35pm repeat. Thus I missed the beginning of one of the biggest events of human history, and would have known nothing had I not gone to get the Yellow Pages from the phone table beside the lounge door (so I could look up a previous employer’s address), at which point my grandmother called me in to see what was happening on Sky News. She said a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers, and that as she’d been watching another plane had flown in and hit the other tower… at which point I knew it could only have been deliberate, though I wished fervently even then that it could turn out to have been a tragic accident.
There being nothing I could do to stop a terrorist attack half a world away, I continued as best I could with the task at hand (noting that a teacher had led a group of young school pupils to the war memorial in front of our flat, and wondering foolishly whether they were going to run the flag at half-mast, when they almost certainly wouldn’t have known about the incident), and, since I had a local temp job starting on Friday (or so I thought), went into Worthing town centre to visit the Job Centre and sign off the dole (i.e. stop getting unemployment benefit. I remember waiting there, listening to my little credit card-sized radio that my mother had bought me in Japan the year before, and wondering why no-one else in the room was on the verge of panic, just getting on with their insignificant little lives while buildings full of people were collapsing across the pond. The staff member I spoke to knew nothing of the events, and indeed the only people in Worthing who were clued in were those clustered around the TV sets in Dixons, muttering darkly that the Americans wouldn’t let this one go…
That evening my grandmother wasn’t in a cooking mood, for obvious reasons (and she lived through the Blitz), and my mother came home from work having heard all about it. I was relieved when my American roommate turned up on an Internet chatline, with just one word to say about it all: “madness”. He said that his family were all right (though his mother had been flying at the time of the hijacks, and was grounded a long way from home), and hoped that if we went after the terrorists, they’d be unable to launch any more attacks. We still weren’t sure if it was Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden who launched the attacks; the rolling news didn’t clarify issues, and I went to bed wondering where we’d go from there… and that night, I dreamed fitfully of Afghanistan and jets flying in the distance.
(Aside: an example of the stupidity of rolling news can be gleaned from this little vignette. At one point BBC News 24 said they had an unconfirmed report of “6 dead, 1,000 wounded” in the World Trade Center; these were the figures for the 1993 car bombing — also an attack by Osama’s cronies — so in all probability they just looked up “WTC terror attack” on the Internet and grabbed the first figures they could find, not realising they were looking at an historical report!)
A tragedy rather closer to home, literally, occurred the previous year when a little girl named Sarah Payne was kidnapped while visiting her grandparents in a town not all that far from where I was living with my folks. I saw a police helicopter in the distance that night, pointing its searchlight at the ground somewhere to the north-west, but thought nothing of it as I’d seen them around before (usually chasing boy racers), but found out the unfortunate truth the next day. When she was sadly found dead, it sparked off a massive (and, frankly, over-zealous) anti-paedophile campaign that ran the risk of ruining innocent people’s lives and driving real kiddy-fiddlers to ground, but fortunately that helicopter on the horizon was as close as I ever came to being involved.
Not so on 7th July 2005, unfortunately. As on 9/11 I was unemployed at the time, but I was now living in London with some of my coursemates from the postgrad course I finally did in 2003-4. It was a Thursday, and the previous day I’d joined a web forum that I’d been reading for ages (I’m still involved with some of the same people on another, private forum); we’d also been told we were hosting the 2012 Olympics, not that this mattered particularly to me. I had a job interview at my former (temp) employer, but I didn’t need to get up too early for it (good, because I’d had a near-sleepless night, having drunk a caffeinated drink while watching War of the Worlds at the cinema), and didn’t even have an alarm clock radio at the time, so once again I went in ignorance as Armageddon broke out — and this time, it was the city I’d lived in for over 18 months that had been targetted.
I began to suspect something as I walked from my home in the Wood Green area towards Hornsey, as a passer-by warned me that Turnpike Lane Tube station was closed, but it was only when I met my potential future employers that I found out there had been “power surges” on the Underground and “bombs on buses”, and during my interview I got a text message from my old university flatmate, who had contacted me all the way from Hong Kong to make sure I was all right!
(I didn’t get the job, but that’s probably fortunate, as it would have required convincing council house tenants that privatisation via an ALMO was the best course of action for them, something I didn’t believe myself…)
I was worried for the people I cared about, and all were affected by the incident. My folks, at least, I could reassure over the phone, but “female best friend”, who heard the bus explode at Tavistock Square, was almost inconsolable. “Good housemate” had been on the Piccadilly Line at the time — possibly in the train behind the one that exploded, which I think he barely missed — and the Irish guy with the same birthday as me (who moved in when “other female best friend” moved out) had to go down to south London to pick up his girlfriend, who was marooned down in Kent. “Other female best friend”, at this point living with her then-boyfriend in Nottingham, felt bad for us all and wished she could help; it also later turned out that a friend of her friend had been on the bus.
But despite the carnage, London continued; it survived the Blitz and (various flavours of) the IRA, so it could survive a group of cowardly cultists blowing themselves up. And so we got on with our lives; indeed, I went with “female best friend” to Walton, my old home town, that weekend (she was going to a wedding which turned out to be in a church opposite my old school!), and the only way 7/7 affected us was to make getting down to Waterloo more difficult. And, just like on 9/11, BBC1 broke the rolling news to put on EastEnders at the normal time! It occurred to me that this wasn’t necessarily a cynical ploy by the Beeb to make sure its flagship soap opera continued on schedule, but was in fact a way to help us all feel like life was carrying on. Even an asteroid impact couldn’t stop Dot Cotton…
Overall I think we weathered the disaster better than New York did 9/11, but (leaving aside the totally different scales) this is probably because we are culturally different from Americans, and aren’t interested in singing our national anthem in order to rouse our spirits — we just get on with things. Call it a stiff upper lip if you will, but I actually felt a little proud of my people for not descending into panic.
Which contrasts, sadly, with the second week of August 2011, when the London riots began in earnest. Up to that point it had been confined to Tottenham, not far from where we used to live, but I remember on the Monday (8th) my local supermarket on Caledonian Road brought its shutters down while people were still inside, apparently due to rioting over in Hackney (which is miles away), and thinking of that bit in Aliens… rioters mostly come at night, mostly. Nothing really happened overnight, although I had a bit of a temperature and wondered if my counterpart in another universe was burning to death (!).
However, on Tuesday my working day ended early as security urged us to leave the building because, they said, rioters were on their way over! I heard chavs outside that evening, but they were on their way somewhere else, and the closest the rioting came to me was, er, a broken police car windscreen up in Holloway. Croydon fared far worse, however, as a friend of “female best friend”, who was posting on Facebook, said he could hear the police cars, and was shocked to see that furniture shop go up in flames…
So there you have it: where I was and what I was doing on some tragic days in history. I didn’t lose anyone on 9/11 or 7/7, and felt lucky; I did, however, lose someone close to me in a terrible accident on a dark day in 1984, but that’s a story for another day (I’ll be “exploring” the emotion of bereavement in a future post).
I just hope that I’m never involved in anything historical to any greater degree than the above!