September, 2002

11 September – A Year On

A bit uncomfortable this, but like a previous piece I wrote about the recent Cambridgeshire child murders, I feel this needs something to be said.
Today is obviously a year on from some of the most terrible scenes that many people have ever witnessed. Thousands of people lost their life in the various attacks in North America last year. Nothing should trivialise their memories.
And yet…
We are faced with a deluge of programmes “remembering 9/11”. Am I being heartless in thinking somewhat cynically about this? I really don’t believe so.
In America’s history, probably since the end their Civil War, they have not had to face direct hostilities on their mainland. Certainly there was Pearl Harbor in the second world war, but they never had the occupation that most of Europe endured, the forcible eviction of their citizens from their homes into prison and concentration camps. They never had bombers pass over their heads in the night sky, knowing that at any minute their house could be next.
Most of the tragic events that the US has had to endure in the last century have been away from their homeland.
Undoubtedly, the destruction of pair of buildings as symbolic as the World Trade Centre has never happened before, but I really think it’s the sudden realisation of their insecurity that has taken ahold of the American public. It’s the tragic fact that America is now involved, like it or not.
Where am I going with this (and I will admit this is a train of thought argument rather than a carefully considered essay)? Well the US now holds a massive sway over not only the British people but the Western World. They are the only superpower. We just pay more attention to their way of thinking.
Instead of “September the 11th”, it’s “9/11” because that’s the (illogical) way that Americans write it. What the US president does in the next few months could determination relations in the Middle East for another fifty years.
Add the American dimension to the fact that the “drama” played itself out live on TV with thousands of hours of footage available, and the significance becomes even bigger.
Let me reiterate that I’m NOT downplaying the enormity of it all. Devastation has not happened on that scale due to “terrorist” acts in human history. There are, and have been similarly monstrous acts dictated by individuals however, and we don’t have to leave Europe to find them, even in very recent times.
Nonetheles, the scale and import of it all leaves me feeling frankly uncomfortable.
On the plus side, I believe that many Americans are beginning to realise that they’re not hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, by quirk of geography if not more. They’re asking the important questions such as why anyone would want to do this. The work of a singular madman is one thing, but a large group of individuals, who find support numbering in their tens of thousands (and maybe more) must be understood. But the cowboys and indians depiction of right and wrong still holds too much sway it seems. Bush says we must do it, so we must do it. It’s black and white. There are no degrees. Is Saddam Hussein the logical next step on, or are we really witnessing a general writing of percieved wrongs including the “unfinished business” of Desert Storm?
In the last week or so, Newsnight on BBC2 has had a couple of wonderful reports by Charles Wheeler looking at how the young are seeing events in the year since September 11th. Some of what he showed is promising, while others were worrying. I fail to understand why the US Presidency bestows some kind of Papal Infaliability upon the holder in the eyes of the public. I could understand it during wartime, but in peacetime?
In the end, yes I will be watching “9/11” on BBC1 tonight. The stories of heroes and heroic failure. The tragedies. Coping with life afterwards. For many thousands these are the personal horrors that they must go on living with.
But do we really understand the aftermath of the war between the Hutus and Tutsi which left 800,000 dead, or what is left after the horrors of warfare throughout the former Yugoslavia? And right now 13 million are facing starvation in the countries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. They won’t be live on TV, and there’ll be no footage to rival Independence Day coming out of there.

White Teeth

Well I’ve finished the first book on my list of yesterday. I did start it last week however – I wouldn’t have ordinarily been able to get through 440 pages within 24 hours without devoting a lot of time to it.
As it was, in typical fashion, I was left with ten pages to go when I got off the tube this morning. Being already a couple of minutes late for work, I couldn’t stroll along Carnaby Street (warning – crashed my browser) in a leisurely manner finishing it, so that pleasure had to wait until lunchtime.
White Teeth has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, since in many ways it seemed a daunting read. Sometimes you’re all set up to attack something that doesn’t feel to easy – Moby Dick, War & Peace, etc. But other times you just want something that’s around 250 pages long, is not too intellectual, and goes down nice and easily. I bought it on a whim in Tesco a year or so ago, mainly because it was priced at the unlikely �3.84 price point. I note that the “.84” pricing policy is still adhered to in Tesco. I have no idea why. Anyway, I finally pulled it off my shelf last week since the Channel 4 series starts on the 17th, and I hate to have seen a TV series but not read the book.
I must admit, slightly to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I say “surprise” because although it was roundly praised in reviews, and is no doubt multi-award winning, I hadn’t exactly had glowing reviews from people I know who’d read it. A couple of people told me the middle section was tricky going, one person admitted to fast forwarding towards the end of it, and another didn’t even finish it all, disenchanted by the “dialect” used. Can’t say that I found any of these problems, and the end came totally out of the blue for me.
Zadie Smith’s new book The Autograph Man has just been (or is just about to be) published in hard back. I have plenty of literature to keep me occupied at the moment, so the paperback next summer is more my thing.

Books Books Books

Autumn arrives, and a flurry of books to read. So here’s what are upcoming on my “to read” list.
1. White Teeth – making sure I read it before the Channel 4 series starts next week (it’s been on my bookshelf for about a year).
2. Dead Air – Always got to read the latest Iain Banks. This one is post September 11.
3. Churchill – Bit of a monster 1000 page tome this. Finally got around to watching my tape of The Gathering Storm at the weekend (told you I was lain up), and this got my interest up.
4. Give Me Ten Seconds – John Sergeant is very amusing, so I have high hopes for this political memoir.
5. Open Secret – Not staggeringly well reviewed, but you can’t beat some real life spying.
6. One Step Behind – The latest Henning Mankell Inspector Wallander book. Or more to the point, the latest translation. There’s another book coming out in hardbook in November – Firewall. A new publisher for this latter book – maybe something to do with the reorganisation of Harvill following its sale to Random House. I note the paperback of Dogs of Riga is coming out as a Vintage imprint.
That little list should keep me going a while. I have no doubt that other books will creep into the list in ahead of their place in this order.

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes

Finished reading this a couple of weeks ago and fascinating it was too. I’m a sucker for any stories about codes or ciphers so this is right up my street. I must admit that I know/knew absolutely nothing about the Napoleonic Wars either.
Since reading this I went out and bought a book on the Napoleonic Wars to remedy this shortcoming. I guess it’s all a question of what you cover at school for history. My O-Level was 20th century British history, from WWI to the beginning of WWII. Before then, lots of Roman and Viking stuff. That leaves 1500 years or so out. Worth catching up. Will have to read Simon Schama’s books some time.

The Godfather

Finally got around to watching the first of my Godfather DVDs. Got the trilogy a while back and hadn’t sat down and watched them. The combination of a twisted ankle and bad back afforded me the chance to watch the first film. It’ll be interesting to compare this masterpiece with the forthcoming Road to Perdition.

Homicide: Life on the Street

Yes! I can hardly wait. How sad is all this?
Tomorrow, Telewest Digital gets a new channel – the Hallmark Channel. And why am I so excited about this trivial development? Because they show Homicide on Hallmark weeknights at 10.00pm (and Hamish MacBeth).
Obviously they have junk like Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman filling up large chunks of their airtime, but any channel that shows Homicide deserves maximum respect.
I came to Homicide very late on Channel 4 – it was slowly being shunted later and later into the evening despite being easily the best contemporary crime series. Channel 4 were keener on NYPD Blue (which of course has also now fallen out of flavour, and despite still being in production is shown nowhere in the UK as far as I know).
We got a brief bit of Homicide a week ago when Channel 5 showed a double bill of Law & Order followed by the conclusion on Homicide. Sadly a one-off – but well done for showing it. Just whetted my appetite!