360. Keeping still (VIII)
As regards 9/11, I left school early that day to have my hair cut. My camp Norwegian hairdresser once again regaled me with tales from his boyhood apprenticeship. He started work at twelve, if I remember correctly, sweeping up locks of hair from the salon floor. He was of the opinion, as with most old codgers, that all young people should be set to work at that age—down the mine or down to the salon floor. I left there cooler, the great thatch shaved away and the air closer to my skin. I left there and walked down to the Ashmolean Museum where my mother picked me up. As I got into the car, I remember she started to speak at once.
I forget exactly what she said, but it was something like: “They’ve bombed America. It’s huge.” And I said something like, “No, nobody bombs America.” I remember an initial confusion; I had been lost in some other adolescent thoughts, perhaps thoughts about politics—my usual preoccupation then. My mother gestured to the radio and I started to listen.
I remember very clearly—though it has been forgotten now—how utterly confused people were as to who had carried out the attack. I even recall, in those first minutes that I tuned into the broadcast, that the announcer speculated that it had been a Chinese missile. The logic behind this was, perhaps, that the Americans had bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia back in 1999—so possibly this was calculated oriental revenge. This was about two hours or three hours into the attack, and it demonstrates—I think—quite how confused people were as to what had happened. Despite the Chinese angle, it was al-Qaeda and bin Laden who were mainly in the frame in the discussions that followed. Conspiracy theories always make much of these stray facts, quickly forgotten, as regards “Chinese missiles”; in reality, it demonstrates that nobody knew what had happened—the confusion was profound.
We took the long way home, through rural roads, at my request—on the pretext that people panic and clog the roads during these events, even if far away. My teenage brain wanted to digest the information on the longer route. At a petrol station, I blinked a text to a friend to ask if he had seen what happened; and he replied that everyone was watching it in the common room—and had been watching for several hours.
At home, my grandmother ironed as she watched the BBC news and expressed the view that it was awful. I remember that as I walked into the living room and saw my grandmother ironing that when I saw the images for the first time I felt taken aback; although the radio had prepared me. So I sat for the rest of the evening and watched the same images and speculation over and over again, somehow I could never get tired with the images. Eager in that adolescent way to be with friends, I unrolled the telephone cable and logged on to MSN and Yahoo chat; where boys from several schools discussed and dissected. I suggested the Americans would nuke Afghanistan, typically melodramatic in my predictions even then; more sober boys averred.
The next day I went to Oxford and trailed straight to Borders bookstore to buy a newspaper, but every single copy—even the ultra-Communist tabloid that never usually sold—was gone. We will never again live through a time where the hunger for news was so demonstrable. Sometime later, Chelsea Clinton, then an Oxford student, would lead her fellow Americans in a protest outside Borders—an agitation for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As I watched green night vision footage from Afghanistan, my mother caught her toe on the VCR and broke brittle bone; and so my rolling news life was abbreviated by a trip to the hospital; the hospital where, two year before, as he died, my grandfather had said: “Watch out for the Taliban.”