For my parents, the original ‘Always remember where you were when you heard…’ moment was the Assassination of John Kennedy. Even I, though only just past my eighth birthday on that night, remember the occasion, though I certainly didn’t appreciate the significance.
In my life, there are only two instances that stand out as moments I will remember in such detail: the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and 9/11.
Fifteen years ago today, only fifteen years, yet so much more years seem to have gone by, in both private and public life. I’d only just been working at Bolton Council for about a year, been married exactly ten months. It was my wife who alerted me, ringing up a short time after I had returned to work, from lunch, to report the first reports of plane attacks on New York, the City being closed, being on fire.
This was astonishing, and frightening. As soon as we’d finished our conversation, I privately reported it to my team leader. The enormity of what had happened, even in such sketchy details, held the potential for world-wide ruin: once upon a time, in the Eighties, the news had broken just before midnight of the unleashing of troops against the Polish shipyards, and I went to bed wondering if I would actually wake up again, for there were many hours in which an exchange of nuclear missiles could be unleashed in my sleep.
Neil, my boss, slipped out of the Town Hall to try to find out more. He had already told me to keep this news to myself, to not create a panic without first trying to find out if there was something to panic about. I returned to my desk and tried to work, but my heart and mind were not in it. If there was reason to panic, there was only one place I wanted to be, and that was with my wife, but at the very best, and assuming no interruptions to the trains, it would take an hour to get home.
What Neil brought back, I can no longer remember. It was soon overtaken by the images that are frozen in my memory, in the memories of all of us who stared at our screens and tried to comprehend what we were seeing. But at the time, I stayed at work, clocked out at 5.15pm, set off for the station.
There were all sorts of shops on the street to the station. Those that sold televisions had groups in front of them. My first sight of what had happened was a building crumbling in on itself, folding and collapsing. Standing in the street, under a September sun in Bolton, watching a World Trade Tower collapse and vanish, into itself. Watching the rolling clouds of dust rushing in every direction, consuming everything in its path.
These weren’t special effects, weren’t disaster movies peddling entertainment that, in a split second, became cheap, because the disaster movie had moved to the wrong side of the screen.
I got home and hugged my wife. We watched the footage. It was gruesome and morbid even then, but it was impossible not to. It had to be seen, and over and again, like an oyster wraps a piece of grit in layers of nacre until it no longer irritates. That footage of the second plane, flying head-on into the second Tower and just vanishing: a plane that size, that weight, that bulk, disintegrating into nothing, not even the trace of a form left behind. The imagination couldn’t prepare your for that. Each viewing of that footage wrapped another fine layer of credulity over what your eyes were telling you.
After the first couple of days, that footage disappeared from the screens, never to be seen again, but by then it was embedded on the back of your eyeballs.
Because I read comics, because I still collected some superhero series’ at that time, I felt a curious emptiness, an absence, a dragging. It wasn’t too hard to identify. Superman hadn’t swooped out of nowhere and turned the plane aside. Spider-Man hadn’t swung around, getting people out. This was a comic book disaster, a world-shattering threat that got averted at the eleventh hour by one brightly-clad muscleman or other, only they hadn’t done it this time.
Because it had happened in that one world of DC’s Multiverse where the heroes couldn’t save the day, the real one. And yet a part of me couldn’t look at what happened, couldn’t comprehend it, without that nagging sense that someone in spandex should have kept it from being.
They said the world would never be the same again, that art and literature could never again deal with the pre-lapsarian world of September 10th, that everything would henceforth be observed through the same prism. Fifteen years on, it doesn’t feel like it. Mrs Brown’s Boys owns no bearing on 9/11. It plays no discernible part in many things.
Each year, the number of people who will never forget where they were when they heard that John Kennedy had been shot diminishes. It was fifty-three years ago. Every year, people die in their thousands. I work with only one other person who was alive that year, and he was only two then. My ex-wife was barely six months old.
The Berlin Wall fell the year I moved into my first house of my own. Twenty-seven years have gone by, but those who understood what it meant had to be adults that day in 1989.
It’s already fifteen years since 9/11, since the Twin Towers. I work with people who were teenagers, children even, when it occurred. Memories occlude, and begin to blur. We no longer think of it almost every day, we have come to accept the world in which we have lived since, more proximate matters dominate our attention. So far, no-one’s asked me what it was like that day. I do not expect to escape that question forever.