It is anniversary time -- nine years since the death of Diana and five since 9/11 -- and like most people I can remember where I was on both days. For the Princess I was at work and for 9/11 I was . . . on strike from work actually. But let’s not read too much into that coincidence.
And like most people I have an anecdote about each of these events.
For a long time at the Herald the editor tried to get me to serve some time in the news room to toughen me up, but I kept finding excuses to hide away in the features department writing rock’n’roll interviews, international politics, humour and travel things. Ambulance chasing never appealed to me.
Eventually he gave up on me -- he admitted it was always going to fruitless, I was far too slippery -- but one day they changed the rosters and feature writers had to take on a Sunday shift in case any big news broke. The feature writer -- sort of the flashy winger to the grunty forward pack in the news -- was there in case a backgrounder was needed for a breaking story.
Of course back in those days -- sort of pre-terrorism as it were -- bugger all ever happened and I was reliably informed that you just turned up around 10am, did whatever you were already working on, and by about 2pm you could probably go home. At least that is what had happened for everyone prior to me turning up with a story to polish off and a book to read.
And it was everyone said: dead silent in the features department (although I imagine the ambulance chasers in news were busy checking police and hospital for Saturday night mayhem).
But then around maybe 2pm when I was ready to pack up Jane the features editor came to me and asked what I knew about Lady Diana. I laughed and said pretty much nothing.
The beautiful Princess -- like Hollywood celebrity relationships, Madonna’s career, and John F Kennedy Jnr whose death I had to write about some years later -- had gone right by me. Except for one time.
I’d been in London a few years previous for the launch of the Beatles’ Anthology series and that duff single Free As A Bird. I’d spent the day at the Savoy watching Sir George Martin, Derek Taylor and other Beatle-associates being asked dumb questions by Japanese and German reporters.
Back at my hotel the primitive laptop wouldn’t connect and so I was forced to find their business centre, bang out a story and fax it through to the Herald for publication. By the time that stressful thing was over it was about 8pm and so my partner and I hit the streets looking for dinner, drinks and some action.
And the streets were empty. There were barely a dozen people in Oxford St, only a couple of cars on the move, and no cabs in sight.
We were baffled, it was as if a curfew had been announced -- or someone had forced everyone inside to huddle around the telly.
And indeed that is pretty much what had happened: it was the night Diana went on the telly and did her dew-eyed tell-all and became the Princess of Hearts, or whatever people liked to call her thereafter.
That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge about Diana (the papers the following day gave over dozens of pages to it and somewhat bumped off the new Beatles single). I’d never even paid attention to her wedding -- although I do have the vinyl album of the music in a gatefold sleeve. (I just knew the marriage of the redhead to the other Windsor wouldn’t last, they didn’t get the gatefold.)
So there I was on a lazy Sunday at the Herald being asked about Diana: turned out she had been injured in a traffic accident in Paris and somehow pursuing paparazzi were to blame. My job was to write a piece for the following day.
So I got the enormous Diana file from the library and did a skim read. But my eye alighted on that famous photograph of her sitting alone in front of the Taj Mahal -- a disingenuous pose designed to engender sympathy for her via a media only too willing to play along. The woman was certainly savvy.
And so that is what I wrote: how she had manipulated the media but, like so many before her, found that she could no longer control it. She had invited the media in for tea and sympathy and couldn’t believe it when they wouldn’t go home.
I wrote this -- and wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to her I have to say -- when Jane came back and asked how I was getting on. I said I was finished and she said, “Can you just change the tense then, she’s just died”.
So I did, put a suggested heading on the top (“Dead As A Dido”, sorry -- but it went unused) and went home. I didn‘t even think much about it -- until I saw the news that night. The woman was everywhere. I had no idea there would be such an outpouring of grief. More fool me.
Of course I gulped slightly at the thought of my slightly cynical but genuinely felt piece running the following day. But what the hell.
Surprisingly it was very well received -- largely because in the comparison to everything else it was notably free of gush and romanticising. Letters to the editor (unpublished) were passed to me, and for a while thereafter I became the guy who would knock off a clear-eyed obit (John Kennedy Jnr, we hardly knew ya!)
But I never worked a Sunday again.
On the morning of America’s 9/11 I woke very early and, as was my habit, banged on CNN. I was having a cup of tea as those horrific events unfolded. I’d been up the Twin Towers not long before and my immediate thoughts were about how those buildings had crashed down on the mall and subway station below. For some weird reason I thought about all those poor people trapped and killed down there, as if the people in the buildings might have survived the drop with maybe a bruise or two. Stupid, I know.
I was keen to apply my small local knowledge of New York to any story the Herald might want me to write, but I was staunchly in the union -- and we were on strike.
We had a meeting that morning and I remember thinking that all of us, being journalists who wanted to be part of a big story, would obviously vote to call off the strike and man the typewriters. But we didn’t, we stood strong (as we should have) and let management and a few contract workers try to get the paper out.
That’ll teach ‘em we thought.
Of course the paper didn’t need us at all: all the stories were all coming from New York and other international media. A couple of cub scouts could have put out the paper in the week that followed.
I recall now that when I wasn’t handing out flyers outside the Herald I was spending hours in front of the telly trying to get a handle on the enormity of 9/11 -- not a bad option for a journo come to think of it.
A year later I flew into New York from Chicago on 9/11. The concourse at O’Hare in Chicago that morning was as deserted as the streets of London on Di-night. There were four people on the flight and the guy opposite kept crossing himself. We flew over that hole in the ground and the pilot (it was a United flight) dipped his wings and the stewardesses were in tears.
On the ground in New York armed soldiers in camouflage clobber were everywhere in the airport --but they stood out somewhat, green and black gear tends to do that in a gleaming neon-lit concourse of pale colours -- and I made my way downtown.
There was a huge and nervous crowd at Ground Zero and people looked to the sky fearfully every time a small plane flew overhead. It was weird. I tried to explain to someone that terrorism, by its very mature, contains an element of surprise so it was highly unlikely that anything might happen when everyone was on high alert.
I couldn’t be bothered waiting for the president to arrive to went to a nearby Irish pub where some British bobbies flown over to pay their respects to fallen policemen had done their parade and were knocking back Guinness. That night I walked the streets, talked to people in bars and restaurants, and tried to get a feel for the mood of the city on the first anniversary of this unfathomable event.
The following morning I found an internet café above a Chinese grocer near Little Italy and wrote my 1800 word article for the Herald.
But that night I had dinner with some friends in their mid-town apartment. They had lived in New York for years and loved the place, had some crazy artist friends over who told very funny stories, and we had a blast. Then late in the evening after the wine had flowed our hostess -- who had lost friends in the Twin Towers -- said, “I’m getting sick of the whole 9/11 thing: we had the one month anniversary, we had the three month anniversary, we had the 100 day anniversary and the nine month anniversary . . . I hope after this we can just put it away and get back on with our lives”.
Of course 9/11 will never go away, not for anyone, least of all New Yorkers.
But I knew what she meant.
There is a culture of 9/11 (just Google “9/11 songs” and see what comes up) as there is with Diana. The latter is receding (no more stories to tell until the Big Anniversary next year perhaps?) but the other just keeps growing.
I’ve seen the shorts to the forthcoming Oliver Stone movie and I wouldn’t cross the street to see it: it looks mawkish and sentimental and raises only major question: just what was the last decent Nicholas Cage movie?
But the other night I did see Flight 93 which was utterly compelling. If you haven’t seen it I do recommend it. It isn’t a comfortable night out, but it takes you right there on that doomed flight.
I wonder if they have it on the plane when I fly to Vancouver in a couple of weeks?
Finally, and on a more cheerful note: Music From Elsewhere is going like a rocket. If you haven’t checked it out this week let me tell you there is some damn fine music there (and that’s not just my opinion). But there is also a very, very funny thing by Harry Shearer (bassist in Spinal Tap and numerous voices on the Simpsons).
I know hostage taking isn’t funny -- but comedy about hostage taking certainly is.
Have a look and listen: it’s all right here
If you like what you see/hear then maybe you’d like to subscribe: it’s free and you can’t say that about too much these days.
Anyway, have a good week, and prepare for 9/11 coverage. Suspend disbelief: I find that footage still chilling and unfathomable.