Twenty Years


For my parents’ generation, it was always said that nobody forgot where they were when they heard about President Kennedy’s assassination. Hell, even I remember that day, and I was only just turned eight.
Growing up, I thought that for me and my generation, the equivalent would be the falling of the Berlin Wall. What an immense day, what an unbelievable moment, what a shock. But a good one.
Well, we were destined for an embarrassment of riches. We were the generation that not only got the Berlin Wall and its attendant satellite moments, like the look on Nicolae Ceausescu’s face when the crowd booed him, we got 9/11 as well.
Twenty years ago today, it was a sunny afternoon. I was a year into my job as Principal Conveyancer at Bolton Council, nearly a year into my marriage. It was the early afternoon, maybe about 2.30pm, and I was getting into my post-lunch stride (because of my history of working in private practice, I instinctively took my lunch from 1.00 – 2.00pm whereas those who’d been in Local Government all their lives adhered to 12.00 – 1.00pm).
At the Council, we had individual telephone numbers so calls came through to me direct. The call came at about 2.30pm, and it was my wife. I was cheered to hear from her, until she told me why she was ringing. News had come through from America, nebulous, unconfirmed, full of rumour, that there had been an attack on New York, a plane had supposedly been flown into a building, the whole city was covered in a cloud of smoke and it had been closed off to the outside world, nobody in, nobody out.
We neither of us knew what this might entail, but it was worrying. Whatever it was was something major. She wanted me to know, and underneath there was the subconscious wish of both of us to be together, if something worse was coming.
She rang off. At that time, the Legal Department consisted of desks arranged in little carousels, creating little right angles in which we sat, four to a set. The one where I sat was at what I thought of as the top of the room, next to the door giving access from that side of the Town Hall, the side I came in. It was the only one with two people, the other being my immediate boss, the Chief Lawyer (Conveyancing). As soon as I was off the phone, I told him what I had learned.
He was as concerned as I, but also concerned not to start a panic. He asked me not to say anything to anyone about it whilst he slipped out to try to find any further information. The Internet might have existed but we had no access to it from Bolton Council, nothing but internal email.
There were a number of television shops not far from the Town Hall, with screens on all the shopping day, and he headed for these to see what he could pick up. It was still so early that it was all nebulous. Beyond the fact something had happened, and something pretty damned serious, he could throw no light on the situation. I agreed to keep my lip buttoned. It was weird being one of only a very few people aware that the shit had hit some sort of fan and the repercussions could be unimaginably widespread.
At 5.15pm, I left for the day. It was a ten-minute walk to the Station which got me onto the Station with a few minutes to spare for a Manchester-bound train that, if it arrived on time, left me just enough time to run from Platform 13 to Platform 1 for my connecting train home. If it were delayed, there was a twenty-five-minute wait for the next train. I was curious about what had been going on since my wife’s call. The first TV Shop I passed stopped me dead in my tracks.
They were showing the collapse of one of the Towers, from close range, coming down in that impossible way into itself that, until that moment I had never known was possible. I stood and stared at it, transfixed. Then I raced off, to catch the first train, catch the connection, get home, hug and kiss my wife and find out just what the fuck had happened.
We know what had happened. There were the clips of films they don’t show but they don’t need to because the images are branded on the brains of those of us who saw them. The planes flying into buildings. The Towers’ collapse. The Diving Man. Dubya’s face. Twenty years ago and as fixed and clear as if they were being seen for the first time today.
One thing that not everyone will have felt, but which I was conscious of, was a feeling of subliminal disappointment. That Superman didn’t intervene, that Spider-Man didn’t use his webbing. I suspect that most of us who were comics fans twenty years ago may have thought something similar, automatically. That indicated a certain stunned approach to the reality of what we’d seen, that it couldn’t really have happened, it wasn’t really possible outside of a superhero universe where the day could and would be saved at the last minute. It doesn’t happen here.
They told us the world would never be the same, that reality would change, irreversibly, in every respect. The world’s never the same every single day, but this was one of the mega-moments. But the never-the-same was inapplicable below a certain level. Things from before then are still the same now, or changed in ways that owe nothing to 9/11.
Then and now. There is still a direct thread between the two. We will never forget where we were, or who we were, when we found out.

5 thoughts on “Twenty Years

  1. If you’d been running this blog back then, you’d have so many ‘crap journalism’ entries you wouldn’t know where to start.

    1. In those days I still had faith in the Guardian. I don’t remember anything I found offensive or too hysterical, but we weren’t over there. The sense of shock is every bit as visceral now.

      1. I admit my reaction wasn’t entirely rational, but ‘m referring to the ‘we deserved it’ school of foreign policy which emerged shortly thereafter. While I mostly disagree and think that Noam Chomsky and the Guardian don’t really understand Al Qaeda, on a normal week I’d be willing to have a calm debate explaining my perspective.

        It was just the timing that angered me. And it angered me a lot.

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