Monday, August 25, 2008

What were you doing when...?

I have been tagged to do a new meme by Iain Dale. The conceit is quite simple: every few years there is a momentous event and, much like the Kennedy assassination, you will always remember where you were and how you felt.

So, please forgive my somewhat rambling reminiscences and let's kick off with...
  • Princess Diana's death—31 August 1997

    I had just finished my first year of Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, and moved into a new flat in the Marchmont area of the city. The other flatmates were incumbents—people that I had met through the Bedlam Theatre—and, though Caro, David, Wystan, Claire and Steve were all a little older than I, we all got on very well. We were all vaguely thespian (apart from Steve) and I always describe that flat as being made up of "a clash of five massive egos—and Steve. I started writing a play based on the characters and incidents in this flat once, but I never finished: besides, it would probably have come out as a larger cast version of Withnail and I).

    Caro (one of the founders of Unlimited Media) had written a play called As Good As The Next Man, which, directed by myself and her brother, David, had originally been performed in February (with myself taking one of the roles) and we had just finished performing it again during the Fringe. The performance, and the typical Fringe lifestyle of a month of consistent drinking and late nights (we were all also (occasionally) working, and also reviewing for the Three Weeks festival newspaper) had taken their toll somewhat.

    Such was the background to the morning of the crash. Caro had a habit of sitting around in her pajamas and a massive woollen jumper and she was so attired that morning; sat cross-legged in one of the sofa chairs in the living-room cum kitchen, hunched over in a position that I called her "gargoyle pose".

    Somewhat bleary-eyed and dressed in a blue satin dressing-gown (that I still possess) and a pair of very old red moccasins (which I do not), I slouched into the kitchen, where Caro—in her gargoyle hunch—was looking even more exhausted than I.

    "Diana's dead," she intoned.

    "What? Princess Diana? How?"

    "Car crash." She pointed at the tiny TV, where the rolling news was reporting every single known fact about the crash—which, at that hour of the morning, was precious little. I watched for a few seconds.

    "Oh," I finally said. "Do you want a cup of tea?"


    So, I made the tea—mine, as was traditional, in the huge white mug that we called "The Donkey"; hers in the only slightly smaller, pale green one known as "Little Donkey"—and I joined her on the sofa, watching the drama unfold. It was essentially rather tedious: someone who I had considered a deeply selfish, boring, media-seeking tart was dead and, not entirely surprisingly, I couldn't give a shit. But, both Caro and I thought that we should probably remember where we were, just in case people asked: someone was bound to eventually.

    My most violent emotion was the disgust at those collecting in London to mourn this dreadful woman: the crocodile tears, the wallowing in this fake emotion, the "whole country united in grief" attitude was, to someone of my disposition, almost unbearably kitsch, maudlin, embarrassing. And over the ensuing days, it only got worse...

    It was in that flat, by the way, that I first heard of the concept of bathos.

  • Margaret Thatcher's resignation—22 November 1990

    I would have been thirteen at this time, and I don't remember the precise moment that I heard about it for I was boarding at Eton at this time. Each House was run like a small independent state, according to the whims of the housemaster, and ours (unlike some) did not allow boys to have televisions in their rooms (we weren't allowed a music system with separate speakers either, until you were in your A Level years). As such, we only had access to the big TV in the prefects' room ("Library" was the name given both to prefects and the room itself, though I do not recall books being particularly associated with either the place or the people).

    As such, I believe that I may have read it in my morning paper—everyone took a morning paper: I, following on from my father, took The Telegraph. This paper was often pinched by one of my sport obsessed compatriots who, though he preferred one of the tabloids (I forget which: The Mail, I think) maintained that The Telegraph the best for sports coverage.

    I was not particularly surprised: Thatcher's failure to win the first ballot outright had convinced me that she was likely to go—her unpopularity in the country (for even I perceived it) made her continuance impossible with such ambivalent support from her own party.

    I was neither thrilled nor disappointed; I tended to support the Tories, but even then I was deeply suspicious of politicians of all stripes. I disagreed violently with the pro-EU Tories (who seemed to me to now be in the ascendant) as I viewed the EU as the most crucial issue of the day (a view which has not entirely left me today) and the prospect of a Labour government was even worse.

    I munched on the huge plate of fishfingers which I had served myself, and wondered whether my Physics prep was adequate...

  • Attack on the twin towers—11 September 2001

    In 1998, I dropped out of university—convinced that Microbiology really wasn't for me, and that a stunning career in graphic design beckoned instead. After a year, the Marchmont flat had disintegrated—the power of the egos, like a collection of similarly charged magnets, breaking us apart and firing us in opposite directions (and we remained essentially out of communication for over a year—even Claire and David, then boyfriend and girlfriend, and now husband and wife, split up)—fuelled by rows over money and pride (and not helped by my very heavy drinking—which was, in fact, bordering on alcoholism. Again).

    I found myself living—through a series of coincidences and the help of a rather older girl who I'd been sleeping with, on and off—with a married couple only a few years older than myself. Although I was not drinking so much (mainly limited by a lack of funds), I was smoking gear quite regularly with the husband, in between looking for my dream job.

    As it happened, I settled for the first vaguely suitable job that I could get, working in a small printhouse in the south side of Edinburgh. That had actually been a good day: I had become friendly with one of the barmaids in the Greyfriars Bobby pub (another student drop-out who was hanging around the city waiting for her life to start), and I was going out for her birthday that night.

    So, when I went for the interview and they asked me "what time tomorrow can you start?", in the expectation of a big night's drinking, I harumphed and made an excuse about having a meeting closing off a freelance job that morning, and could I call them about 1pm? No problem.

    We had the birthday party, I got on very well with the girl in question, we kissed and so, by the end of that night, I had got both a new girlfriend and a new job. That was a good day.

    By September 2001, that girl had long-gone (another one who couldn't stand my drinking. She's married now, with a child and living in Brussels) and I was, I think, going out with someone else (who's drinking was worse, by far, than mine had been) and the job was beginning to lose its lustre somewhat.

    The workplace was split into two—both in terms of the building and the people. The printers, including the boss, were salt-of-the-earth Scots and boisterous. Myself (the designer and Mac operator) and the guy who dealt with the film and plates for the presses, Terry, were rather quieter. Having become bored by Radio One's tediously short playlist and Chris Moyles, we had switched to listening to Radio Scotland.

    This was mainly talk radio, and we particularly enjoyed an afternoon programme hosted by Leslie Riddoch; as an interviewer of politicos, Leslie was like Jeremy Paxman in a really bad mood and she was great: listening to her ripping Margot MacDonald to shreds over the MSPs' massive salary rise remains a beautiful moment.

    Anyway, it was her show that we were listening to when she suddenly broke off and said that they were getting reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Whether it was an accident or not was unknown, as was the extent of the damage... No! Wait! A second plane has hit the towers! This appears to be deliberate... Oh my god... Terry and I raced through to the print room, where the boys had the ancient telly on, and we started to see the footage, and hear about the other attacks...

    Well, it was a bit of excitement, but did it really affect us? Well, I was flying to London that Friday in order to see my brother's band play a gig—although they had been playing around London for about a year, I had never seen them. However, I had left quite a small window, and the banning of hand luggage meant that, after my somewhat epic journey, I arrived at the pub just as they had finished playing their set. It was thoroughly irritating.

    I have covered this issue before, in fact; I'm not one to feel lots of emotion for people I do not know and I did not find the whole things particularly upsetting or harrowing. It was simply another big event in the history of the world and what happened next was likely to be rather more important. The event was a catalyst, the first big blow in a war, the first skirmishes of which had been fought in fringe theatres for at least ten years previously.

  • England's World Cup Semi Final v Germany in—4 July 1990

    I'm not sure if I remember this one or not, to be honest. I remember some England vs. Germany game in which there was a penalty shoot-out. I was at some club in Tunbridge Wells, and I remember people crowding around a portable TV that someone had brought with them. But was it this one? I honestly can't remember—I can't even place it in the context of other events...

  • President Kennedy's Assassination—22 November 1963

    My parents were 13 and I was not even conceived of. So, unless someone wants to give me hypnotherapy and see if I was living another life then, I doubt that we shall ever know...

So, that's enough of my ramblings: I shall, in fact, nominate another five—of an assortment of ages—to pass this on to.
  1. John Redwood MP

  2. Mike Rouse

  3. Timmy

  4. The poor little Greek boy

  5. Freedom and Whiskey

Over to you, chaps...


Not a sheep said...

"the deeply selfish, boring, media-seeking tart was dead and, not entirely surprisingly, I couldn't give a shit." I remember describing Diana, Princess of Wales, in similar terms soon after hear death and was amazed at how angry people became. The period of compulsory emoting and mourning was one of the first indications that I received that the UK was changing and not for the better.

Anonymous said...

Diana - was woken up by my girlfriend to tell me the news like it was the end of the world "and you woke me up for THAT?" I thought, but was not stupid enough to say.

Twin Towers - had been working alone all day. Phoned my sister a little after eight in the evening for a chat. "What do you think about what's happened in America?" she asked. "Why, what's happened?" "Go switch your radio on". So I never even knew about it until the evening.

Couldn't care enough about the rest to have even noted it at the time, so don't remember.

Anonymous said...

I remember it [Diana] - it was a Sunday morning.
I was still in bed when the kids wandered into the boudoir after the children's TV programmes were interrupted by continuous news footage [on all terrestrial channels].
I am no sure if it was the main reason I decided to subscribe to SKY but it might have been a factor.

I was at work for 7/11 - one of the porters came into A&E saying he'd heard that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers.
It certainly gave us a heads up on major incident planning and probably made a difference to the way we dealt with casualties during 7/7.

TheFatBigot said...

I was having friends round for lunch and read about Diana in the paper. None of us had any time for her, my description of choice was (and still is) "manipulative publicity-seeking tart with shit for brains".

Anonymous said...

Winston Churchill dying 24th January, 1965.

My earliest memory of world events. I was 5 years old and my dad showed me the front page of the Daily Express covering Winston‘s funeral. Churchill dying was an important event for Dad. Dad sat up the arse end of a Lancaster for one and a half years till the end of World War 2 and was deeply unimpressed by the whole affair. A raid they went on once, only four aircraft returned including Dad’s. He has never flown again.

His old Dad’s ship got torpedoed in the North Sea during WW1 and he was forced to bob about a few miles off Harwich for 4 hours before rescue. He could see the lights going on and off in town but there was a U boat patrolling preventing his rescue..

My dear old mum’s Dad was at the retreat from Mons and still in the trenches for the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele. An impressive family record I think and the reason I record it is because of the juxtaposition with my memory of princess Diana’s death.

I was buying a flower pot… from a nursery… in Crews Hill, Enfield. The woman on the check out said “Lady Di has died“. I paid and made my way home. It is shite now but I think not quite as shite as it once was.

Anonymous said...

On the 9th of September 2001 I, along with about 7000 others, flew to Oman to take part in a military exercise, the largest deployment of UK troops to the middle east since the 1991 Gulf war. It was, on reflection, really just the dress rehearsal for the 2003 invasion of Iraq - a chance to test our equipment, Challenger II and SA80 in particular, in a desert environment.

We arrived at the main british transit camp(load of tents in the desert) on the 10th September. As ever with the Army, there were many briefings that newly arrived troops had to attend. Briefings on heat illness, hygiene in the desert (including how to make a desert rose; a makeshift desert unrinal designed to keep the flies away), and what dangerous snakes and spiders to look out for. The briefing that will always stick in my mind was the 'Threat Brief'. Although we were on exercise we were warned that we were in the Middle East and that a man called Osama Bin Laden who led a group called Al Qaeda, were not very friendly towards westeners, and western military in particular and we were to be on our guard (yeah right, I thought, nothing ever exciting happens when I am around). I had only heard of him briefly in the past, when Clinton launched Cruise missiles at Afghanistan in response to the bombing of a US embassy. Anyway, it was a little odd the following day to be informed that our most unlikely foe had been blamed for the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

As the exercise and the weeks progressed, as much time as we could spent listening to the world service on small transistor radios under camoflage nets, we became convinced that we would be re deployed to Afghanistan. Oddly, before I left for Oman, I joked with a colleague who was staying behind that knowing his luck something would kick off in Iraq and we would be sent into action without him. At the time it seemed so incredibly unlikely, we just laughed.

As it turned out we were not destined to be re - deployed, but our exercise enemy - the Royal Marines, were. But needless to say we did find ourselves in Iraq, on more than one occasion and my former colleagues now find themselves in Afghanistan.

So, although we did not encounter Osama Bin Laden in a Camper Van firing AKs at us in the Omani desert (as the Threat Brief had planted in my imagination) his actions and the events of that day were to catch up with us, and the rest of the army.

As for Princess Di's untimely death, I was in bed at my parents when it happend. Can't remember much about the day, although I do remember driving through Bristol shortly afterwards and saw some graffiti on a wall. It read 'People Di every day'. Sadly a voiced drowned out by the ridiculous outpouring of 'grief' at the time.

Boy on a bike said...

September 11 - fucked if I know where I was, but I do remember thinking that if things got very nasty, as an ex-Reservist, I would be one of the first to get my call-up papers.

I spent the day hoping things would not get that bad, but wishing that I was 21 again and fit enough to run around sticking bayonets into bearded twats wearing teatowels.

Anonymous said...

When I heard Diana had died I was in bed with about 40% of a hangover.
My wife woke me and said " Lady Di's been killed " - I replied " just another hour " or something like that and went back to sleep.
Later we drove into the countryside, to a second hand bookshop which was open on Sundays and as I looked at the beautiful flowers and bunny rabbits, tears coursed down....wait, no. I was moaning like fuck that all the radio stations were playing sombre music and going on and on and on about the useless cow, who I could not abide.

9\11 - I was working from home, in a little engineering shop I built on my back yard and disguised as a double garage to get around planning rules. I came in for some dinner and flicked the TV on just after the first plane had hit.
I watched for a couple of hours and didn't feel like doing any more work after that so I got a rifle out of the gun safe and went down to some fields we rented on the edge of the village to shoot some rabbits. I really had no idea of the wider significance of what I had just watched and couldn't really comprehend the scale of the destruction. The rabbits weren't playing so I spent a few hours in the sun banging rounds out at pebbles and tree stumps and then came back home.

David Farrer said...

Response from Freedom and Whisky is here.

Anonymous said...

Great reminiscences (and some other fine posts since this too), DK.

Princess Di: We had friends coming for lunch, and made a joke about cancelling it out of respect; our flippancy was not well received by my wife's teenage niece who happened to be staying. Hoped it might encourage people always to wear seat-belts, but the basic stupidity of not doing so when going to race the paparazzi seemed to get forgotten; still she died as she had lived.

Maggie's resignation: I heard either on a pocket radio on my way home (did I have one so early?), or once I got home. No great shock: it seemed important because she had been important and the world was moving on; but it was obvious that she was fit for nothing by then, a living proof of the need not to stay in power too long (his seeing this was about the only positive I ever found in Blair, though he would have tried to weasel out of it if his nice neighbour had let him).

11/9/2001: The day after my brother got his US citizenship. Prompted by a message from my wife I started listening to the radio at work, and heard the report as the second plane struck. Didn't do much more work; what I remember most vividly of that grim day is finding a wonderful message on some conspiracy-heavy newsgroup suggesting it might just have been a very bad day for American pilots: the genius of humanity to distance horror.

Gascoigne's tears: watched this at home, I think just with my wife, who hates football, though she'd got positive about this run, and didn't want them to lose to the Germans. Strangely enough, I also remember the 3rd-place game a few days later, as that evening was the last time I saw a good friend, hit and killed by a 'joyrider' a month or so later.

Kennedy: Though I can remember Churchill's funeral, this is just beyond my awareness.

Anonymous said...

Apollo 11 - I was four and a half years old. I was woken up by my parents in what seemed like the middle of the night ( what time was it in the UK ? ) to watch the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder.
Our black and white TV was of 50's vintage I'd guess - it was the size of a large sideboard but the screen was about 6 inches across and curved like a goldfish bowl. If you left it on too long it overheated and viewing had to be planned accordingly. The channels were tuned in using a dial, like a radio.
My grandad was in the same room, bedridden and slowly dying from pneumoconiosis. People died at home in those days.

Cue the fucking Hovis advert music...

Anyway that was my second earliest memory of any significance, the first being eating a wasp - and as long as the dear lord spares me I'll never eat another, I can tell you that...

Dr Evil said...

My one memory of Diana was being held on an aircraft because the dizzy bint was visiting the airport where I had just landed (a small regional one) and meeting a bunch of forelock tugging, brown nosing 'dignitaries' of various sorts. I had a rather important meeting to attend and my schedule was being completely bolloxed because of her and the attendant sycophancy and attitude of 'bugger everyone else'.

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