Monthly Archives: April 2011

9/11 – a personal perspective

On the 11th of September 2001, which is embedded in the consciousness of so many as 9/11, I was working for Swansea Community Farm in Fforestfach.  It was very early on in the development of the farm project, which explains why I was carrying out some photocopying and collating in the office of a local primary school, where the farm rented some office space also.

When I first heard of the disaster, I was wrestling with copious amounts of pastel paper, which constituted the reports for a forthcoming Exec meeting.  I did not realise the significance at that point, as I was simply picking up on snippets of a conversation between the two school staff who were also in the copy room at the time.  I caught something about a plane crashing into a building in America.  I assumed that they were talking about a light aeroplane with a maximum of four passengers, and had no idea of the size of the building in question, or even where in America it took place.  My concentration was mostly devoted to the intractable heaps of pastel pink, purple and yellow paper, so I asked no questions.  I did not know the people to speak to anyway.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully and I did not return to the subject until I was visiting my friend, B, later in the evening.  She had her television on, which was unusual in itself, and I found myself watching an image of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.  I assumed it was footage from some Hollywood blockbuster or other, a disaster movie of some kind.  It was only as I continued to watch that I realised that this was no movie, but it was most certainly a disaster.

The footage was being shown on a continuous news programme and I recall watching, transfixed, until the hour rolled around and the news began to repeat itself.  It appeared somehow disrespectful to turn my attention away at any time before this point.  I felt it to be the least I could do for the people who tragically lost their lives in that terrible event.  The least I could do.

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Approximately one year later, I found myself at the site of the Twin Towers with an American friend.  I was moved to tears by the tributes which were attached to the boards around the site, and was amazed at how untouched the surrounding buildings appeared to be.  I recalled the shaky amateur pictures which appeared on the news for days, even weeks, after 9/11.  Panicky people, greyed with dust, running frantically from the scene of destruction.  The first time I saw such pictures, I made another assumption which later proved to be wrong; I assumed they were taken in some war torn Middle Eastern country.  Only as I paid closer attention to the news story behind the pictures did I realise that they were showing an event occurring in a ‘civilised’ country.  I chastised myself then, for I had felt a form of detachment when I had assumed that the traumatised people were ‘not like me’, and yet had experienced more fellow feeling on discovering they were ‘like me’ after all.  One of the least comfortable places to discover indifference is where you hoped to find none, especially when that place is one’s own heart.

When I visited Ground Zero, there was no sign of any dust and wreckage on the outer side of the carefully boarded-off site.   I remember peering through a crack in these tribute-papered boards at one stage, to see a JCB moving earth with the implacable detachment only machinery can possess.  I drew my eye away swiftly, feeling a pang of guilt for daring to be so ghoulish, for ‘rubber-necking’ at the site of such pain and loss.

This feeling was not one shared by one particular gentleman at the site, sadly.  I hesitate to name him a gentle-man, for he possessed no such gentility as far as I could tell.  After all, what sort of person profits from selling souvenir t-shirts and the like at such a place?  I was appalled as such opportunism, as was my companion.  I have never been over-fond of the readiness of our American cousins to ‘say it as it is’, but I was very proud of Haydn that day.  She went toe-to-toe with this ungentlemanly man and told him what she thought of his behaviour.  Sometimes, a situation calls for more than British reserve and respect.  Sometimes, a more overt reaction is needed; something needs to be said or done.  Sometimes, the least a person can do is not enough.  It is simply not enough.

My Father’s True Colours

There is a photo on the wall of my parents’ house that features a young man with a broad grin and laughing eyes.  He has full head of thick, wavy hair and a beard that would do Brian Blessed proud. I am reliably informed that this man’s hair and beard are red, though the photo itself is black and white.  I can recognise man as being my Father, although the colourful nature of his character shines forth in a way that I only dimly recall.  He was evidently larger than life at the time the picture was taken.  The man I remember is mostly recalled in more muted hues.

What happened to the man of that photograph to leach him of the vibrant presence that he evidently once possessed?  I can only guess.

The Dad of my very youngest days was good humoured and fun.  Whilst I would not see much of him, due to his necessary shift work (2 til 10, 10 til 6, 6 til 2 – a strange mantra on our kitchen wall calendar), the memories I have of that time are largely positive.  Reading stories in a deep, fatherly voice, complete with intonation and emphasis, whilst recording them onto a tape.  Also, attaching a microphone to this same recorder and interviewing my sister and me, together with some of the other kids from the neighbourhood.  To this day, I remember Dad telling Neil-from-over-the-road that the tape ‘could not hear a nod.’  It made me giggle then, and still brings a smile to my face.  Even when he could not manage to spend time with us, his family were evidently still in his thoughts.  One morning I came down to the sight of a large collection of shiny brown conkers filling one of our bright orange picnic plates to the very edges.  I had been looking for conkers that autumn, but to no avail.  This bountiful supply was the result of my Dad harvesting the crop from a fallen tree encountered during his shift the previous night.  Good memories, sporadic, but in glorious technicolour.

He tells stories of when he left home to live in the YMCA (after falling out with his own mother, I believe) and working as an apprentice mechanic for a local garage.  He loved tinkering with cars then, and he still does.  I am sure we have had more cars over the years than most families have had hot dinners.  He would buy one, mess about with it for a bit, then sell it on. Hopefully at a profit, but not always.  His particular passion, however, has always been motorbikes.  I remember that he possessed a number during the earliest days of my childhood.  There are pictures somewhere of me or my elder sister, Denise, perched incongruously on the seat of some mighty machine or other. I would thrill at the chance to ride pillion, and still take any opportunity possible to ride a bike.  However, beyond a certain point, motorbikes disappear from my memory, only to reappear again much later.  Perhaps the responsibility of providing for a wife and family meant Dad had to forfeit this pleasure.  Did he begin to fade then?

My Dad himself is an only child.  However, he grew up surrounded by strong women; his mother, aunts and cousins.  They all shared a house in London, his father being away due to his work in the forces.  I do not know much about this time, but I am aware that Dad missed having his own father around, my Grandpa.  I cannot imagine how hard it must have been as one lone boy amongst a gaggle of fearsome females.  In later years, this trend continued when he had his own family; Dad used to lament that even the dog was a girl!

His colour may have been further lost when, against his better judgement, Dad joined the police.  I hear that he had refused his own father’s insistence that he join one of the forces, preferring initially to feed his passion for all things mechanical by continuing in the motor trade and then progressing to working on aeroplanes and even one of the very first ‘wardrobe sized’ computers.  He proudly told me of this fact only recently, declaring the name of this machine to be the Texas One.   Does in need freeing, I wonder.  Anyway,  I guess it must have been a sense of duty that, once again, forced Dad to make a difficult choice.  He is a principled man, my father, always intent on doing what he believes to be the right thing.  I think I have inherited this trait from him, so I see that it can be double edged.  In fact, being a person of morals and integrity in a disordered world is enough to rob anybody of their joie de vivre. Perhaps this is what happened to Dad.

My Father pretty much disappears from my thoughts as I become a little older.  I know that he became very ill when I was about ten, and I do have a very vivid memory of this.  He had to leave the police on ill health grounds, and I recall him spending much of his time lain down on our sofa.  The rest is simply a ghostly recollection of a shadowy man, drifting through my own life on a quest for – what?  Purpose, meaning, place?

I guess that my teenage self was unaware of the quest that my Dad was on at this time, myself being that self-obsessed adolescent creature that pays little attention to the lives and trials of others.  It is only in retrospect that I realise that my Father became, to all intents and purposes, a lost soul.  Looking back, I am amazed that he ever survived this period of personal near annihilation.  It is testimony to his strength of character that there was anything left for him to rebuild upon; but there was, and he did.

This strength comes to the fore a number of times in my memories of Dad.  He always appeared immovable in times of crisis.  Whether it was my sister being admitted to hospital, and later diagnosed with diabetes, or my own later struggles with ill health,  Dad could be relied upon to step up to the mark.

It is a strength that has stood him in good stead again recently.  My Mum suffered a major stroke a few years ago.  Unsurprisingly, the immediate effect of this upon Dad was utterly devastating, as it was upon all of us.  Subsequently, however, I have seen something of the old Dad return – or should that be younger Dad?  Whatever the case, the man who now supports my mother with great tenderness, steadfastness and great good humour is closer in character to the young man in the photo than I can ever fully recall.  Perhaps he has ended his quest for meaning by once again doing the right thing for another person.  I believe Dad finds his greatest joy and purpose in being there for those closest to him when they need him the most.  Maybe these are my Father’s true colours.