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.
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.