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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Memories of September 11th

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I was at that time living in rural Shropshire, above the village shop that my dad runs. I was staring out of the window onto the street outside, marking the slow tempo of community life. Probably, I had just seen Mr Pollard hop on the 2.00 bus to the next village, having done his daily shop. Probably, silver-haired Mrs Morris and Mrs Jones had tottered past, clutching their afternoon shopping, humbugs no doubt secreted in the corner of their mouths as they chattered. Likely, towards the end of the university holidays, I was supposed to be working, but on this lazy day of late summer I had the radio on, tuned to Simon Mayo's programme on Five Live.

Probably it was only out of the corner of my ear, as my eye drifted over life wandering past outside, that I caught the breaking news that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre. In my ignorance, I did not realise then that the World Trade Centre was a skyscraper, though I did register that it was in central New York. I ran downstairs, to where my dad was working in the shop, and turned the radio on. "Listen to this," I said, as he was busy with a customer, "a plane has crashed in New York." The radio suddenly announced that a second plane had now hit the other tower. The delay between the two reports was so short, separated only by the time it had taken me to run down the stairs, that it seemed like the two events must have been causally linked. They must have occurred simultaneously, and the news had simply been slow to register. "A mid-air collision," was my initial thought. "Something has gone badly wrong in air traffic control." I visualised two planes, shortly after takeoff from JFK, somehow on the same trajectory, somehow just clipping wings and somehow, bizarrely, conspiring each to hit a different tower.

I called again to dad to listen to the radio, and then went to the next room to turn on the television. Because of the way in which a whole gallery of images has since become so familiar, I can't remember exactly what the first clip I saw was. I imagine by that stage it must have been of both towers on fire. Only later did the footage of the second plane hitting the tower, which had actually struck fifteen minutes after the first, come through. In my confusion, then, even when I saw those early images, I was still imagining this to be an accident. Then they flashed news of a third plane hitting the Pentagon.

Suddenly, the events seemed not to be a mere accident. The very word "Pentagon" brought to mind a hundred action films and conspiracy theories, and so my frame of reference for the events shifted into the surreal. Afterwards, people would agree that it was "like watching a movie." The moment the Pentagon was hit, I thought of the film Independence Day, and the way in which the alien invasion is relayed in a realistic fashion through news reports, as American institutions like the White House and the Pentagon explode. (Strangely, some years later, I would write an academic article on the way in which it was impossible to see Independence Day, with its narrative of the assault on American cities and democracy, in the same way after September 11th.) I watched, then, as if these real events had the pace and urgency of a cinematic thriller. Shamefully - but I suspect not uniquely - my interest was not at this stage in the human casualties. If this was a film, then they surely were mere extras, anonymous fodder for dramatic explosions and apocalypse. Rather, my attention was for what would happen next. What had the director - whoever he or she was in this revelatory masterpiece - planned to keep us on the edge of our seats? How would the web of explanation begin to untangle itself?

I cannot remember in what order events did subsequently unfold, but I know that each newsflash seemed to occur with the cliché of a Hollywood thriller. Another flight had crashed in a field. F16s were being scrambled. The President was in Air Force One. Canary Wharf in London had been evacuated. The Prime Minister was due to issue an emergency statement. At some point in all this, I sent texts to my friends: "Turn the television on. I think we may be witnessing World War Three." I did not then know, of course, that the subsequent years would indeed become defined, rightly or wrongly, as an epoch: the War on Terror, the twenty-first century equivalent of the First and Second World Wars. A friend texted back: "Stop pissing around." Then he texted again: "Holy shit."

It was only when pictures came in of small, black specks dropping down the side of the towers that the human aspect of things began to register again. With an empathy that cut through the epic vista of the events, I recognised that each of those dots plummeting was an individual person who had to confront a horrible choice. The last few hours had been executed at a dehumanising, global scale. But this was not, after all, an apocalyptic film. Each of those dots was not a pixel but a unique person, with frail flesh and a terrified mind. This would be painfully recollected in subsequent days, as radio and TV played the last voicemails left to relatives. As Ian McEwan put it in a remarkable essay shortly after the event, all of them said some version of "those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you." Such words uttered in a film or pop song are clichéd. In the context of actual life, they are an inarticulate but necessary truth. It was precisely because these words and actions seemed like movie clichés but were not that they testified eloquently to the individual lives within the scale of the spectacle.

Then, live on air, entirely unexpectedly, the first of the towers collapsed. A billowing dust cloud charged towards the camera. Firefighters and medics, civilians and reporters, turned and ran, hands clasped to their mouths. It was these images, the view of those on the ground rather than the thrilling but dehumanising vistas shot from the news helicopters, that would come to define the event most poignantly and powerfully.

The second tower fell shortly after. Their terminal collapse seemed to punctuate the end of the immediate events of September 11th, even though it ultimately began a new sentence of wars in foreign deserts. For now, the news began to repeat itself, and then to drift into dissatisfyingly speculative analysis. I headed out in the car, to do dad's paper round. Radio 1 was playing sombre music by Elbow and Norah Jones. Chris Moyles, usually edgy and energetic, was restrained. He spoke little, only to introduce each song.

I returned home. Dad had long since turned the radio off. He was still under the impression that it had been an accident. I told him to let me close up shop, whilst he went and watched the television. By now, the reports had been neatly packaged into segments which put the whole thing into some kind of narrative and geographical order. The reporters talked of how events had "unfolded." But that word did not seem to capture the anarchic nature of the last three hours; even though the events had been plotted in one sense, from some cave in the Tora Bora mountains, and even though they had seemed to unravel like a scripted movie, they had also been inexplicable, and without a neat conclusion.

Life in the village would go on much as before. Mr Pollard would continue to catch the bus, which would still arrive punctually at 2.00. Mrs Morris and Mrs Jones would still chew on their sweets. Although the gossip around the school gates would be different for a while, it would soon return to grumbles about the price of petrol. This corner of Shropshire would not really be touched by September 11th, except through the passing airwaves of TV and radio. Beyond, though, in mountainous regions of the Middle East, in prison camps erected to protect democracy, in Asian communities in Bradford and on buses and tube trains in London, things would continue to be as messy, anarchic and unpredictable as those three hours that interrupted a mundane summer day.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:35 pm


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