In the Observer, over the weekend, I read about a mental experiment, where people were asked to give the four most vivid news items that had happened in their lifetimes. Without preparation, without thought. Obviously, I immediately tried to apply this to myself, though only two items came up without any further thought.
So I’ve basically failed the experiment anyway, but it doesn’t take much by way of thought to complete what I personally regard as the most striking news moments of my life.
Most people’s responses were of tragedies and disasters, though moments of great delight or relief found there way in there. My four are equally split: two tragedy, two triumph. In chronological order they are: the Moon Landing (1969), Hillsborough (1989), the Fall of the Berlin Wall (later in 1989) and 9/11 (2001).
I was thirteen when Apollo 9 landed on the Moon. Thirteen, a schoolboy, a fan of Dan Dare and spaceflight. I remember vividly that the Eagle (what more appropriate a name?) landed on a Sunday night, about 9.30 or so, our time. We sat in front of the television as the capsule descended towards the lunar surface. The channel we were watching used some simple animation for the final minutes, a drawing of the capsule descending through space, against the stars, unchanging, until in the last few seconds a depiction of the lunar surface appeared and the capsule stopped on it.
It was hardly dramatic, especially not for a 13 year old brought up on Dan Dare. In fact it was almost disappointing, because that was all there was. A craft made by man, occupied by two men, two human beings from the planet on which I currently sat, on the couch, watching a cold, unemotional depiction of a historic moment, was standing on the surface of the Moon. Not a comic, not an SF book, but for real.
We have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, reached out and touched the face of God. I was not to hear those lines until Ronald Reagan spoke them in the wake of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, but they have never been more true (references to God aside). The long aspiration had been completed. The future had arrived, and nothing would ever be the same again.
And, being a thirteen year old boy, on a Sunday night in term time, I went to bed at 10.00pm, school in the morning, and when I woke up, and had breakfast, men had walked upon the Moon, Neil Armstrong had taken that small step. I don’t know it there was coverage in Britain of that actual step. I only know that in that thirteen year old world of certainties and routines, I didn’t even think of asking to be woken, to be given this one exceptional moment, to be part of that world-wide audience watching perhaps the most incredible moment of our entire existence.
Now? I am in a decreasing minority. Nobody on this Earth who is under the age of 43 knows what it is to go about your life whilst a man walks on the surface of the Moon. We still look outward, we still seek knowledge. I also read this weekend about the ongoing wars amongst scientists over whether Pluto is a dwarf planet or whether it should be reinstated to its former role as the one of Nine.
But we don’t go outward. We send our artificial eyes and ears and nose and tongue but we don’t send ourselves, and we won’t again during my lifetime. We have drawn back from the future.
Hillsborough has been in our minds again this past week or so. I have already spoken of it, and of my distant involvement in the unfolding of events that day. All week, I have been reading accounts, horribly moving, thought-provoking accounts. There has been nothing but exceptional writing about Hillsborough this last week, and I have nothing to add to that beyond the things I’ve already said.
But 1989 was an exceptional, unbelievable year. We called it the year of Tiananmen to Timisoara. In the early spring, the students’ occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing, protesting against the Chinese Government until the tanks came in and they were cleared and destroyed: the commanding image still that of the man carrying the shopping bags, one in each hand, alone in the path of a line of tanks. Rarely does real life produce the kind of symbols that art creates, but this was the prime example for me.
The year began, not literally, with Tiananmen, with the dictators obliterating those who sought freedom. It ended, almost literally, in the Romanian town of Timisoara, when the Dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, was filmed facing rebels from a balcony: one man, shouting above multitudes.
Caeusescu expected what had always been: subservience, acquiescence, silence. Instead, the crowd reacted violently, hurling mass abuse at his face. Before he turned indoors, the camera caught a glimpse of his face, the shock, the incredulity. The impossible had happened and a dictator was broken in a single instant. Three days later, he was dead, at the hands of the mob that had finally turned against him.
But what happened in Timisoara was the culmination of a wave of release and relief sweeping through Eastern Europe, country after country abandoning, overthrowing Communist dictatorship with the Western World looking on, gaping, wondering how long this would go on, where would it end? Would it end?
It began in Berlin. It began behind my back one Thursday evening. There was no internet then, to track news at almost the moment it occurred. I went to bed after all the news programmes had ended, unconcerned until tomorrow. I rose, breakfasted, shaved, showered, dressed, drove to Altrincham where I worked, cassette playing in the car. I parked the car behind the station, crossed the bridge into the centre of town, picked up a folded and unlooked-at copy of the _Guardian_ at my usual newsagent, let myself in through the back door and took off my jacket in my room. Only then did I look at the front page of the paper. The Berlin Wall had fallen.
You have to understand. I was born in late 1955. The wall was first erected in 1961, when I was only five. I had no interest in the news, no comprehension of it, then and for years later. So for me the Berlin Wall was a fact, a fact of life. This is how it is. There is an Iron Curtain across the centre of Europe, and there are two sides, us and them. It was how the world was and ever had been.
I grew up under the Cold War, which had been in existence before I was born. I grew up under the threat of nuclear destruction. There had been a night, in 1981, when just before I went to bed the news broke that Polish troops under General Jaruselski had moved in on the shipyards where the rebels under Lech Walesa were holding out, and I went to bed at midnight on a Sunday night, wondering whether there would be a world to wake up to on Monday morning, or if the bombs would fall in my sleep.
And the Berlin Wall was gone. There were photos of it, photos of Germans from each side, singing, shouting, dancing with each other. The central symbol of my existence, of all our existences, had gone. In a flash. Just like that.
Work was impossible that day. No-one could concentrate, unless it was absolutely essential. I was a conveyancing Solicitor, this was a Friday, there had to be completions to handle, unless maybe this was one of those rare, improbable days when nothing had panned out. If there was work of that nature to do, I did it because I had to, and I did it conscientiously. But I cannot pretend that there was anything else in my mind except this momentous news. This change.
The world had changed. For the better, or so we all thought then, though the long-term effects have yet to be determined. I still can’t see it as anything but good, however. The shadow that lay over all our lives was lifted, the threat of the bomb, that we regarded as the inevitability of the Bomb, receded, and I have never feared as much as I used to in the days before that singular Friday.
Nothing was the same. In a moment, we were living in a world in which the certainties had gone. There was nothing else we could think about or talk about. What could mean anything like as much?
It wasn’t until the evening that I was able to see for myself what had happened. The early evening news was over before I got home, and there was no internet, so I had to wait until the BBC Nine O’Clock News. And I sobbed with relief, with happiness, and joy, at the sight of those people flocking to cross the Wall, each way. I couldn’t begin to feel what they, the inhabitants of West and East Berlin, separated families, were feeling, but what I could feel was overwhelming.
Aside from any personal experiences I have had, that night was perhaps the most emotional feeling I ever had.
Triumph, Tragedy, Triumph. And back to Tragedy.
I was at work. It was a Tuesday afternoon, sunny. I was not long since back after lunch and had my head down on the case I was working when my wife phoned me. She wanted to alert me to a situation developing in America, in Manhattan, where it was being claimed that a plane had flown into a building. The city was covered in smoke and no-one was being allowed in or out.
Nothing was known, and anything could have happened or be going to happen. I passed this on to my immediate manager, who slipped out into the main street to check the television sets in the shop fronts. Gradually, we pieced things together, as much as was possible in the confusing height of things. No-one thought to go on-line, and I confess I wasn’t using the ‘Net for updated news in those days.
It was still indeterminate at 5.15pm, when I left work, walking down to the station. It was still the only thing on the televisions, who were repeating films over and over, like an oyster wraps nacre around a piece of grit, so that the hurt is contained and blunted. I knew nothing beyond what had been told me and like many who had seen this happen live, I watched in utter horror as one of the Towers – which one? Does it matter? – collapsed vertically, falling into itself as it disintegrated.
There was much more to see when I got home, footage that is no longer shown but which burned itself upon my eyeballs on first viewing. The most shocking of all was the close up shot of the plane smashing into the second Tower. I expected what I’d seen from films and TV but not the reality of the plane simply disappearing: it didn’t go straight through, it didn’t remain intact in any way, it just disappeared, as if it had gone into a space warp and its physical form had been transported elsewhere.
But it simply ceased to exist.
Given my history, I couldn’t help but think of the superheroes. The idea of what had happened was not real. Things like this did not happen in a real Universe. In the Marvel Universe, or the DC Universe, yes, weird things happened, and superheroes, Superman, Spider-Man, they turned up on the last second to save the day. We had no superheroes. But a part of my head, trying to get outside of the reality, couldn’t help but slide towards a Universe in which we had the fantastic to protect us from the fantastic.
They said that 9/11 was a dividing day, that the future was not the same as the past, that forever history would be divided into before and after, and nothing that happened in the future world could happen without being seen through the prism of that day. For some reason I could never quite see it that way. And even now, though in some respects the world has changed, and there is much we have to deal with now, and for a long time yet as a result of those attacks, not everything hinges upon 9/11. The ordinary, the everyday has survived.
I suppose it did after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But when I compare the impacts those days had on me, it was the eucatastrophe, not the catastrophe that moved me most.
These four items are, for me, the most significant items of news I have experienced in my lifetime. I wonder what the next person to me would say.