Ask The Dust
Walking the streets, watching the skies, along with others going home from work, we see a big jet circling low over Camden Town, waiting to land...it's only waiting to land...not about to hit the Telecom Tower, or Big Ben...no, no...I watch the people watching the aeroplane and I know what they're thinking because I'm thinking it too. We can't look at 'planes now without seeing them as potential missiles...
For a few days last week they turned off the soundtrack in the sky by re-routing flights away from central London. The silence above seemed to mirror the silence within everyone. That emptiness...some psychology space cleared of all other concerns, trivial or otherwise. But what to fill it with? Fear, doubt, grief, paranoia, confusion...
On the night of the 11th we went out anyway, even though having a good time might seem somehow disrespectful. We went to the Reggae Shack and found that most of the regulars had stayed in, perhaps to watch more of the coverage, rather than pay some kind of respect. The DJ played 'Blam Blam Fever' by The Valentines; it contains the line: 'Have you heard the news? I'm a bit confused'. The next morning, I can't shake the line from my head. I pass newspapers shouting 'APOCALYPSE', 'DOOMSDAY AMERICA', and 'WAR ON THE WORLD'. A bit confused?
The now clichéd comparison concerning the cinematic nature of what we saw still rings true when recalling what it was like to watch the drama on tv. The picture quality on the BBC struck me in it's crystal clear rendering of the catastrophe, as did the early editing by controllers keen to present as much of the reality as they could. So the first shot was of the plane swooping down behind the tower whilst the second cut to an angle which showed us the explosion. Like directors on a limited budget, it was as if they could not afford to actually fly a plane into a building, and so they created the illusion.
But there was no Bruce Willis-type action hero to save those inside, and there is no such thing as International Rescue. We knew it was real, but it wasn't until the amateur footage started to appear that we saw the impact shots which confirmed what only our imagination could previously supply. To add to the horror, reality proved stranger than what we may have presumed about the laws of physics. Like many, I suspect, when first hearing of the crashes I imagined a plane would crumple and explode against the side of such mighty symbols of architectural ingenuity. Yet the footage showed one plane appearing to slide right through the tiny squares of glass like a ghost passing through a wall. The building seemed to swallow the plane enthusiastically, rather than reject its advance.
Like a genre unto itself, the disaster soon created several versions of its own terrible theme. Camcorders, more closely associated with capturing people falling into water, having fun, bore witness to the greatest horror yet filmed. The now (in)famous recording, which moved from mundane street inspection to disaster in seconds, looked like an exercise in concise film-making. One piece of film was from a perspective which the greatest of directors could not have set up, or possibly imagined, being a close-up of a man from a severe angle, capturing the impact on the tower way above.
Each new piece of film fed our morbid curiosity, our deep rooted desire to see what actually happened. Yet every time we saw the impact, instead of enforcing the reality, it felt like another blow which only enhanced disbelief.
Walking into an office a few days later I heard a radio station's 'tribute' to the victims. It consisted of a track sprinkled with samples of Bush and others reacting to what happened. I can't remember the tune, but the effect, for as long as I could stand it, was to make me quite sick. It seemed like cheap sentimentality shackled to a popular medium. It reminded me of 'Sir' Elton's remoulding of his old song to suit that particular occasion. In this respect, I confess to having stood well outside of what was perceived to be a national act of grieving.
In case you think I'm totally heartless, on Saturday night we happened to tune in to the last night of The Proms, and by fortunate timing, heard the orchestra play Barber's 'Adagio For Strings'. OK, that may have become a pop classical cliché in itself, but it sounded like the perfect piece of music for the occasion, especially since it gives the listener room to feel something for themselves. In this sense, it's a democratic work of art, as opposed to dictatorial, drippy nonsense which 'speaks' for the recipient.
The current musical battle to capture the mood is probably being won by Bruce's 'Born In The U.S.A', against Lennon's 'Give Peace A Chance'. Edwin Starr's 'War' might be a better peace anthem (depending on taste), but his later disco hit, 'Hijack', is unlikely to receive much airplay. Can any tracks about air travel be listened to without thoughts of the disaster? Suddenly, Chris Farlowe's 'Air Travel' ('Air travel is the thing for me'), doesn't sound as much fun as it did before. Neither does Mel Torme's 'Jet Set'. Both capture the previously sexy idea of swinging around the world. For the foreseeable future, air travel looks like the least 'glamorous' way to spend a few hours.
Just seeing snippets of a night featuring American 'stars' doing their bit is horrifying. It shouldn't be, of course, but this is America, and the expression of sincere emotions from the mouths of Hollywood actors only rings true when they're acting. Mariah Cary singing causes my girlfriend and I to groan. So many mixed reactions to the disaster...having to feel sorry for the rich kid who lost something...money isn't their problem. So I try to push aside thoughts of all the other major disasters that have struck poor countries, from famine to floods and civil war - and we still have to feel sorry for America...
The twin towers of mighty capitalism have crumbled to so much dust and rubble, so where does the anti-globalisation protester stand? The USA is humbled in the most dramatic way possible, but we have to remind ourselves that, as British citizens, we're with them, 'shoulder-to-shoulder', therefore we might be targets too. Suddenly, even the least politically minded are forced to try and come to terms with The World and Politics. Can the search for an 'answer' really be reduced to gunslinging rhetoric referring to a Wild West poster?
We watch 'Arrest & Trial' on Channel 5 - wouldn't it be great if the guilty could all be caught, tried, and convicted like the rapists and murderers on the show? But they keep on breeding anyway, producing future terrorists...so what do you do?
In answer to so many questions, I come up with silence. That's all. There have been so many spells of silence in tribute to the dead. I want silence more than I want naff songs, hollow rhetoric, or racist ignorance. But then, I can afford the luxury of not having to find the answers. Action speaks louder than words, they say, so Special Forces will be taking action right now, as I sit here in the comfort of my flat. As I sit here writing, the whole world seems to be waiting for something to happen - praise the Lord and pass the ammunition - and the 'planes are back, and Chelsea are still unbeaten, and we try to live normal lives whilst knowing that 'normality' might be changed for all time after Sept 11th 2001.
© Robin Tomens 2001