Chess on 9/11

It was a grim day for first responders, but I didn't want a sad picture. So here are happy NYPD officers.

It’s that time of year when you talk about where you were when…

Which I haven’t done before because it seems a distasteful online version of shroud waving, unless you actually were there, like BBC journalist Stephen Evans who happened to be inside the World Trade Center when the planes struck, or you really helped, or – of course – it hit close to home – like with this young man who lost his Belfast-born father.

But somebody asked me to write something and perhaps once every ten years is acceptable. So…

There I was sitting in a radio studio in Bush House in London. I was editing a radio show called Newshour which goes out on the BBC World Service (reputed audience of 157 million people – not all of whom were in Nigeria). I’d been particularly interested in Afghan and Pakistani goings on and efforts to unseat the Taliban. Used to speak to them on the phone occasionally – which was odd. Or hear Cassandra-type warnings about American unpreparedness from Reuel Marc Gerecht. Or about the plotting of Abdul Haq to provoke a Pashtun uprising.

Fascinating times – wonderful to be working in a media organisation where the reality of the world beyond the national borders mattered. Good also to know that people there were listening. I remember once hearing I programme I edited coming out over a car radio in a French TV documentary about Afghanistan. Cool.

But back to September 11th 2001. What sticks in my mind from the day is… chess. For some reason I had decided we had to track down chess grandmaster Nigel Short to be interviewed on a development in international chess. Nobody else would do. To make it more awkward, we had to chase people down in Asia and Brazil to find him and the different time zones weren’t helping. Looming deadline, but it was satisfying to get him in time and it added something different to the usual geopolitical mix.

Then just coming up to the end of the hour – news of a plane hitting the World Trade Centre. Okay. What kind of a plane? An accident? A Cessna? Let’s find out before we get carried away. Definitely something to mention. Breaking news. But let’s get some facts before we throw the whole of the second hour up into the air.

To explain. There were two editions of Newshour – lunchtime and evening. Depending on the time of year, whether or not we in London were on GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), the lunchtime edition used to go out twice – in consecutive hours. Mostly a repeat. When I was in the chair it would be a mainly live first hour with some recorded packages or dispatches. I liked getting as up-to-date as possible and the flexibility of going live. That wasn’t so usual back then on the World Service (as I was regularly reminded), but I had come from a live radio background. And hey – it was supposed to be news. The second hour would tend to be a repeat of the first for those regions of the world that hadn’t broadcast it first time round – except that what had been live before was now repeated in recorded form. The two hours were not necessarily identical – some different features for different parts of the world, changing news, fresh material being available – but largely the same.

Not that day.

It soon became clear that something significant was happening. Thanks to the likes of the above-mentioned Steve Evans. Then we were able to see the second plane hit for ourselves. And so the second hour of repeats, became the second live hour in a thirteen hour programme.

Hindering our response was the understandable and natural reaction of most of the producers to stand gawping at the TVs as the attacks played out in New York – instead of hitting the phones before they went out of service from overuse, damage or official shutdown. I may have raised my voice. Not long after that the phone connections did stop working. But very much on the plus side was the presence of veteran presenter Alex Brodie behind the microphone, relaying the events as they happened to a listening world, keeping up without suspending his critical faculities. There were other good guys too, but he’s the one who sticks in my mind.

Alex Brodie runs a brewery now. Can you imagine? A journalist running a brewery. Like a vampire running a blood bank. Or a politician running a country. Oh. Right… (Anyway – his brewery is here.)

But back to the studio. After some hours I vacated the chair and a fresh team took over. I sat in the basement bar below Bush House to drink and watch the horror on TV. Sometimes it’s only when you stop that you can fully appreciate the awfulness being played out before you. Earlier, as I had led a new programme from scratch reacting to the attacks, a discreditable thought had crossed my mind. It was this: At least we got the Nigel Short interview out on air before the planes hit. God forgive me.

Sitting quietly with my pint, I could contemplate without distraction the enormous inhumanity and nihilism of the mass murder on screen. My excuse for earlier on? Well… I was a producer. I was a bit busy. Weak, huh?

So let’s move to a more uplifting note. Irish singer songwriter Paul Brady has a song from 1985 called The Island. At first I thought it was a terribly inappropriate reaction to the violence in Northern Ireland and Lebanon. Trivial. But later I realised that it was absolutely right. And a great song. And that’s quite enoughPooteresque reminicence from me. RIP 9/11.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Chess on 9/11

  1. Every few years, a where-were-you moment. Chamberlain announcing war (or maybe Pearl Harbor); JFK; Lennon; Diana; and this. We’re all Zapruders now.

  2. Great song.

    Your post is also a tribute to real radio production values. This is the other end of the radio values spectrum.
    http://photopol.blogspot.com/2010/02/automatic-radio.html

    A sorry state. The frustration is comparable to all that automated telephone stuff “your call is important to us”, “please count to a million before proceeding and then hang up”, etc.

    Please excuse if I’m repeating this one, but for me it is part of the human face of radio:
    http://photopol.com/bios/sound.html#germanradio

    Rath ar an obair.

  3. It must have been pretty mind-boggling being a journalist when the Twin Towers were hit. Firstly being totally stunned. Then wondering who the hell was responsible. Then trying to report what was happening in a coherent fashion while your mind and emotions were all over the place.

    • blackwatertown

      Maybe so for some people. I was of the school of thought that you just get on with the job – hopefully while retaining decency and humanity – and indulge in the being stunned, etc later, when it’s not so busy. Otherwise what’s the point of being in the job?

  4. Paul, till my brain mushes over I will remember more than I care to. The most joyous when my son was born; one of the most embarrassing nearly ten years later when, on my nephew’s birthday, and just minutes before I had to pick up my son from school I turned on the TV. Remarkably: I NEVER watch daytime TV. I didn’t even then. I sat down with some paperwork – on the sofa. Registering in the back of my mind something about a plane crashing into a NY tower. I am ashamed to say it, have never said it in public before: I barely looked up. So what? Another disaster. I don’t watch disaster movies and I take it for granted that accidents happen. Neither do I ever slow down when there is mayhem on the oncoming line on the motorway. Some people are voyeurs. I am not. Next time I looked up at the screen – they were already jumping. Still, school gates open and close; regardless. And whilst thousands jumped to their death somewwhere across the world – about 1500 hrs GMT – I got into the car to pick up the little boy waiting for me.

    There is a story and a morale somewhere in there.

    Alex Brody – oh yes. Remember him well. Have passed on to the Angel (now nearly twenty) Benjamin Franklin’s quote on beer. It won’t change his view on God, still it’s nice to have one’s tastes validated.

    Greetings from an investigate journalist’s daughter – oh the excitement of it.
    U

    • blackwatertown

      The world may be hurtling to destruction, but you don’t want to leave a little boy wondering if he has been abandoned.
      Interesting take on voyeurism too.

  5. I’m not one for formal remembrances of the type we’re seeing here in the states. And besides, the pain is still too fresh from 9/11. I had no personal connection, I didn’t know any of the victims, but my country had been attacked, and thousands were dead or suffering. I will remember the pain of that day; there is no need to remind me of it. What I need now is to hear how people got on with their lives, and tried to restore sanity to the world. Thank you for your contribution.

    • blackwatertown

      I think you have let me off lightly here.
      But I agree that remembrance shouldn’t preclude or overshadow efforts to rebuild or restore or create sanity in the first place.

  6. Like many others, I watched the whole thing play out on television, and there was a sense of disconnect at first, bourne of watching similar disasters in countless movies. Then came the moment the first tower collapsed, and the reality hit – I was watching real people die. Having just left my teens, I didn’t have the emotional capability to truly process that. Ten years on, I still don’t. The one impression that stands out for me from that time is, up until then, I had been underwhelmed with the new millenium, feeling that nothing had really changed. A few days after the attacks, when someone in my town decided it would be a good idea to test the air raid siren and I got a panicked call from my sister, who had just seen a plane go overhead, it became clear that everything had changed. A pretty pointless observation, but that’s the thing about 9/11 – it was entirely pointless.

    With that out of the way, I’d like to echo Van Sutherland’s remarks. I would much rather hear from those who have tried to rebuild their lives. This is what is needed, a reason to feel optimistic about the future.

    • blackwatertown

      WB Yeats springs to mind:
      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.

  7. Very interesting to read of this event from a journalistic point of view 🙂 Always good to see things from different angles and I think you got a good balance in the way you wrote this…but then I guess you would wouldn’t you?!! But…well…I think you know what I mean…maybe! lol 😉 Good post.

  8. 中和租屋

    Very genuine. Very good article.
    Your unusual point of view has got me thinking differently about the event.

  9. Alien

    Really impressed with your writing abilities.
    Keep it up.

  10. 29

    If I should need to give a reason why I follow your blog then this entry gives it to me. More generally it articulates the wide eclecticism that flows from your keyboard. Thank you.

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