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Monday, 23 April 2012

THE 11TH OF SEPTEMBER, 2001.

America did not create a monopoly on emergency telephone numbers. Nor did America have a monopoly on the system of arranging dates. For the younger persons in the audience, a lesson or two from the time of the fossil.
   Telephones were once quite mechanical. They have altered somewhat since those early days. I imagine the Victorian-era mobile phone was the size of a street-urchin or very small pony. Mechanical telephones had no dial-pads or touch-screen dial-pad simulators.
   After much experimentation, there was, simply, the hole-punctuated disc. A dial. Through the holes, visible, fixed to the machine, sat printed numbers. The user placed a finger in the numbered hole and dialled. All the way around to the stop-bar. There, the user’s finger halted. Recording the number. Select number, dial, release. Repeat.
   Not immediately, eventually, the question was asked. We must have an emergency system; what is the emergency number to be? Something you can find easily in the dark, or a smoke-filled room. We’ll use the number 9. To make it difficult to dial for help by accident, we’ll use the number 9 three times over. Dial 999 in an emergency.
   In a fire, seconds count. If you aren’t out of a burning building inside one minute, tell yourself you are dead. The one-minute fire rule. Worth remembering before you are caught in a burning building. You have one minute in which to take action leading to the rest of your life.
   Act. Your possessions are unimportant. Let them burn. Use a small fire extinguisher to beat back flames on your way to the exit – that fire extinguisher you bought is not for fighting fires. Don’t stay there thinking you are in control. You lack the training, experience, and equipment that’s racing along roads to get to you. The small fire extinguisher buys time as you head out. Don’t use it to waste time by staying. And don’t stay to dial for help inside the building. Get out first, if you can.
   In America, the emergency number assigned was 911. Which brings me to the ordering of dates. Day, month, year. It is the year 2000. I am in the United States of America. Entering the country is a slow, empty, shambolic affair with bodies all over the airport.
   To add to the confusion, once I’m officially inside the land of the free, the official hands me my ticket. She says it’s my exit pass. I am to give my pass to no one, as it allows me to reach the street. As soon as the paper is handed to me it is seized by another female official, and I’m steered in the direction of daylight.
   That’s my first experience of America. Being mugged by a government official. This is a pastime enacted upon almost all American citizens with alarming frequency.
   My low-tech, no-tech, passport was stamped. That was pretty much it – I was in. I had a low-tech camera. Film. Old-core and hard-school, or words to that general effect. I’d looked into digital cameras. They didn’t quite cut it back in the day.
   On my travels, I stopped to buy even more film. As a precaution, I used traveller’s cheques. The woman inside the kiosk asked me to alter the date notation of the cheque I signed. (To her, it must have been a check I signed.) Would I place month before day? Certainly. This brought up an additional security feature I knew nothing of, as the woman’s colleague explained various methods of authenticating the cheque.
   The year 2000. Before the flood. After the flood, getting into America was much more time-consuming, though far less shambolic. Far more regimented. I would reach America with electronic safeguards hanging over me.
   My fingerprints would be digitally scanned and I’d be photographed. Before, I’d have queued with my luggage and stumbled into daylight. After, I was the star of my own high-tech show. Getting out of my own country was the hardest part, before.
   After, getting out of my own country was still the hardest part – just harder. Everything went in trays. I developed a deep awareness of all the metal objects on my person. Shoes went. Fluids were a problem. No one demanded a blood sample, fortunately.
   My own people were paranoid, in the old days. I had my passport removed from its handy pouch, on the off-chance that something was amiss. Certain things don’t change. They intensify. Before, everything seemed low-tech. Basic passport. Film camera. Traveller’s cheques. Paranoia.
   After, I had a high-and-mighty high-tech passport that was introduced to satisfy American requirements. Though it proved more high-tech than that of the American who drove me on a covert raid into Canada. We exchanged notes on our new passports, and laughed. Paranoia.
   Also, after the flood, my high-tech bank card was universally accepted in the Land of the Free. Farewell, cheques for the traveller. I took ten times the number of photos with my digital camera, in contrast to what I’d managed with film back in the day. Before the flood. After.
   Before, I was able to carry a miniature first aid kit in hand luggage. Scissors. A knife. After, I’m surprised I was allowed to have clothes. With enough patience and diligence, a zip-fastener can be improvised into a garrotte.
   The flood. A fine Tuesday in September, 2001. This is a date I would write as 11/09/01, and not 9/11. The 911 means nothing to me as an emergency number, as that is 999. That dial is long-gone. I am used to hearing Americans cry DIAL NINE ONE ONE! in movies and on television shows. But I would never call that number if I had an emergency, unless I had an emergency in America.
   To Americans the date is 9/11, and chimes with the emergency response number in the States. The flood. Washing the old world away. Removing the th in 11th. Americans speak of September 11. In the title of this piece, I’ve placed 11th before September. I am from outside the USA, and my perspective is not that of those within the USA.
   My perspective, on the day, was unusual. It related to my fiction, and resulted in this anecdote. Which I thought I wouldn’t write down. I watched the television news. A skyscraper collided with an aeroplane. Another skyscraper collided with another aeroplane.
   The world was an interconnected place. Not as interconnected as it is now. Going back into the depths of the past, long before 2001, news was news. Not even remotely immediate. Something would happen on the other side of the world. A map went on display. Not a computer graphic. Actual paper or card. No disaster footage. That would take time to reach the news studio. Next day, perhaps. A day beyond that. Genuine film reels, flown in on sub-sonic aircraft.
   Newsreaders read the news off pieces of paper. The autocue took time to spread. Nowadays if a newsreader reaches for paper to read from, that’s a ploy to show the newsreader is quoting directly from a source. Then it’s back to the autocue for the rest of the story.
   When the autocue fails, newsreaders flounder. It’s painful to watch.
   Well, this 2001 footage is part of the immediate world. Connected. It’s afternoon in Scotland. Morning in New York. Footage filters in. There are people, filming. Chatting away. Some social function. Unwittingly capturing events in the background.
   Do I pay attention to the visual? No. It’s the audio I’m listening to. People are saying things like HOLY SHIT and FUCK. Phrases of that nature. Later in the day, the footage is assembled into a more coherent story. If you can call it that.
   I notice one of the most stunning pieces of editorialism in the history of news reportage. There’s the familiar footage, for those who came in late. And here are the familiar voices. The swearing is left in place. That’s how big the story is. There’s no attempt to silence those upset voices. There are concerns greater than the danger of permitting unbleeped expletives to pollute the airwaves.
   Relaying that information to you is not the purpose of this anecdote. The World Trade Centre is hit by hijacked aeroplanes. Domestic flights. Not in the air long. Laden with fuel. (It was not my intention to make that last line a play on words.) Moving fast. Going in low. Missiles cloaked in the camouflage of pretend-hijackings.
   Other targets are under consideration. The Pentagon takes a strike. It is designed to survive unimaginable amounts of damage – the designers imagined it, and planned accordingly. Another vehicle comes down hard in a field. Countable lives are ended, and countless lives are altered.
   What’s my impression of all this? It can be summed up in the thought I kept to myself for over a decade, when I watched the first skyscraper crumble and fall. Contaminating lungs with an insane cocktail of substances.
   If you’ve read my short story collection, you’ll know that I abandoned several plotlines. For those who haven’t read my comments on abandoned stories, I’ll summarise. I decided to write a spoof about the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret plot to destabilise Fidel Castro’s beard.
   Turned out, there was such a plot. I abandoned the tale. You can’t make it up. Then there was the business of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s mortaring of Heathrow Airport. My idea. And there was the matter of writing a story about the actress Kim Basinger winning a certain gold-clad movie award.
   In Scotland it’s Tuesday afternoon on the 11th of September, 2001, and I watch aeroplanes hit the World Trade Centre towers. Over in America it’s Toosday morning, September 11, and airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers.
   I’d never considered the Twin Towers to be great pieces of architecture. The gaping hole in the sky left by all that destruction made me feel something was lacking – a something I hadn’t much liked. But that something was a huge part of the landscape. I regretted the loss of human life well ahead of the loss of the structures – but I did feel the loss of the unloved structures all the same.
   Down the first tower goes, and I have that thought. All across Manhattan, people must be thinking, and saying, and yelling SHIT and FUCK. That’s if the Manhattanites, and Brooklynites, and other borough (or boro) inhabitants can find the expletives to yell. Some of them can’t even reach for the swearword in a moment of crisis. All they have is numbing wordlessness. But I think this.
   Someone has solved the engineering problem.
   Many of you sitting reading that last line are probably having a WTF! moment right now. A degree of explanation is called for. I went to write about Fidel Castro, but Uncle Sam beat me to it. The idea of Kim Basinger’s winning that coveted trophy was mine alone, and I let it slide as perhaps a bit too fantastic. I was glad not to have tackled the P.I.R.A. story as some awkward questions would have been asked of me concerning Irish terrorist activity.
   There was one other story in my collection of ideas, that I filed away for later use once I developed superior research and planning skills. A crime-of-the-century thriller. Man with a grudge threatens a major American city with the destruction of a skyscraper. He wants money. If he doesn’t get money, a piece of architecture will be reduced to rubble. Five buildings are threatened.
   To make good on his threat, he blows a building. Mayhem ensues. The race is on to find him and stop him before he takes down another skyscraper. That’s pretty much it. With a few twists thrown in, and the weak spot of the story being how he gets the money out. If he’s even after the money at all, given that he holds a grudge.
   I think of possible targets. Chicago is the home of the skyscraper. However, the adopted home of that structure is New York City. Specifically, Manhattan’s iconic skyline. So I have the target city. And the building threatened? A fictional one, newly-constructed.
   Older skyscrapers were ludicrously over-designed for safety’s sake, and didn’t fit the bill. The Empire State Building survived an aeroplane strike in heavy fog. So my target had to be a young skyscraper.
   Seeing images of the Empire aeroplane strike coupled with watching a Robert Shaw movie, The Taking of Pelham 123, jolted my mosaic mind into action. It’s hard to take a building down with an aeroplane. Why would you want to? Madman. Money. Getting the money out is hard. Madman doesn’t care about that. Pelham is about New York, underground trains, hostages, and cash. My idea is about New York, skyscrapers, destruction, and cash as a lure. The grudge is the thing.
   In my head I think over the problems this story will cause me. I tend to keep stories in my head, and work on them over long periods. Who is the villain? Is he acting alone? How is he financed? What sort of time does he have on his hands? Where does he operate? What are his destructive materials like, in terms of cash-cost and portability?
   The plot is empty unless he can blow a building. So how hard is it to bring one down? Not how easy? How hard. It’s easy given the right materials. But hard to transport those materials to the site unseen. Where are the twists, that allow the story to seem plausible?
   How much mayhem is caused by the loss of one building – and does said mayhem affect the madman’s chances of bringing down a second building on the same day? (What is the timeframe? With the first explosion, time is against him. He may even be identified before the second blast is triggered.)
   Can he cover the distances required, if manually activating devices? That being the case, will Detonation One affect his chances of initiating Detonation Two when transport infrastructure takes a hit? Does he rely on remote detonations? Is he in the city or not? (A puzzle element the heroes mull over. To satisfy readers, he must be present.) At most, he has a day in which to strike. Will he threaten famous landmarks as well as the fictional one I’m planning to destroy?
   Coldly, how do I solve the engineering problem?
   I consider a building under construction, and the ability to plant explosives there during construction. This is pure fantasy on my part, and I believe it will be the hardest part of the story to pull off. (Let me come back to this one.) On top of that, I think about missiles.
   And I think about missiles aimed at the street-level of a building, taking in the crowds down there as well as attacking major supporting columns. You have to knock out a hell of a lot of supporting columns to be in with a chance.
   I think that the story needs a lot of engineering research to make it work. And I don’t have what it takes to construct such a tale. Not in 1989. So I file it away for future reference. The World Trade Centre is hit. It’s 1993. That business of blowing out supporting columns with a big bomb down in parking just isn’t cutting the mustard. I think things over.
   The story had been in my head for years. Did it need to stew a good while longer? (I kept slim*thriller in my head for a long time and hardly wrote any notes until I committed to the novel. LYGHTNYNG STRYKES was around for years before I dashed the text down in under three months of mad typing.)
   Those terrorists couldn’t solve the engineering problem, and left too much evidence into the bargain. Unfortunately, solving the engineering problem at parking-level leads to the propagation of more evidence – not less. You’d have to go in and individually target the columns, aiming for simultaneous strikes. And people would see you as you went about your business. See you. Disrupt you.
   So could the villain of the piece use workers unwittingly, to assemble packages that are in fact bombs? My ideas grow more and more far-fetched. I don’t mind, too much, as I plan to use deception to allow for plot-twists. If a building goes down flaming, how does it go down? The villain may pretend to use one method, delaying his identification and capture. In the immediate confusion, he gets away with that. But he’s fooling no one. Further investigation will uncover the truth. Again, it’s a matter of the timeframe. (Pre-planned explosives, with a missile follow-up. All in one day.)
   That story doesn’t look as though it’s ever going to be written. Not after the 1993 incident. I just can’t see a plausible way out of the engineering problems I’ve set before my villain. Abstract though they are. The more detail I add, the more my story will be steered into the realm of the plausible. Casting the fanciful aside.
   Up we go, to the year 1995. A villain with a grudge, painting himself as a hero, decides to blow up a symbol of Federal power in Oklahoma. Timothy McVeigh is not well-funded. It takes a few thousand dollars to assemble the fertiliser-based bomb that he places in his truck.
   McVeigh’s bomb does not completely demolish the building. I dismiss the use of a truck-based device from my story as one of the options. The office block isn’t a skyscraper, but I see all sorts of blast problems. It’ll have to be a missile, after all. I stubbornly stick with the notion of attacking the base of a structure. Always the base.
   Timothy McVeigh kills and injures a huge number of people. The building is finished as a workplace, and has to be demolished shortly after. Post-blast, McVeigh is arrested in the time it takes to watch a movie. Too much evidence is generated, and that later links to the arrested man.
   Initial news reports indicated a definite domestic vibe coming off the incident. There was a desire not to leap to the conclusion that America’s enemies were responsible. In the end, it was quite clear that McVeigh was America’s enemy.
   I think over the use of the truck-bomb. For New York, organisation is called for. I remember the Irish tactic of parking a car so that it occupies a space to be used for the bomb-carrying vehicle on the day. That way, you don’t screw up your own plans through lack of parking. Depending on CCTV coverage, the ploy may inadvertently generate more evidence.
   For New York, and my disgruntled villain, parking is a no-no. Fuggedaboutit. I may use an isolated vehicle bomb driven by an unwitting helper, but that’s not going to bring one of those mighty buildings down. It’s merely a distraction. I write other tales, and think I’ll never get back to the skyscraper story. Ah well. (I completed stories I thought I’d never get back to, so hope existed nonetheless.)
   There I am, on that Tuesday, watching America under attack.
   The first tower crumbles. Someone has solved the engineering problem. Of course. Don’t go for the supporting columns at the base of the tower. Use your missile to attack the upper reaches, and weaken the whole damn thing to the point of critical failure.
   With the first tower down and the second tower hit, it’s obviously only a matter of time. My idea of doing a skyscrapers-in-peril story crumbles with the collapsing buildings. I resolve not to write the thing. It joins my Fidel Castro tale, the Kim Basinger piece, and the Irish story – all on the scrapheap of my imagination.
   And there the matter rests. I can’t see that anything is gained from telling anyone this tale. So I decide not to. Later, the lunatic notions come out. Some top secret outfit went in, and planted explosives during the construction of one of the buildings that collapsed in the wake of the attack. Then covert demolition was triggered. Hey, that idea sounds familiar. It’s mine. One of the options I considered. Could it have happened?
   Bullshit. I was more than a decade ahead of that game and had a hard fucking time convincing myself it could be done in a realistic manner. The idea of pre-planning a building’s destruction during the construction phase, or fitting explosives inside the skyscraper during a post-construction maintenance phase, was all a bit much. Even by my outré standards. I couldn’t make it work – and that was BEFORE I considered any hard-nosed research on the idea.
   How do you plant the explosives in the building, and maintain them? You’ll need safeguards to prevent premature detonation – in whole or in part. And you must ensure that routine building maintenance does not uncover anything untoward. To say nothing of selection of an explosive that will not degrade appreciably over time. A zero-maintenance device. That pesky timeframe again.
   Did I invent the idea of a conspiracy to destroy a building based on explosives planted inside that building during its construction? I have no evidence to support this. If anyone can find a story or TV/radio documentary with this theme running prior to mid-1980-odd, then I am not the originator.
   I will reluctantly accept that I may be the originator of the idea – though you are all reading about it here for the first time. It is impossible for any conspiracy fans to have used my idea as a source for the mounds of speculation generated immediately following the destruction of the World Trade Centre. That speculation was not my doing. Perhaps there is a piece of source fiction that inspired me, also used by assorted conspiracy types. That seems likely.
   Every avenue I concocted, for my villain to exploit, was sheer fantasy. Missile aimed at the street-level. Okay, run with the idea. Where does he get the missile? He steals it. From? An army base. Not from an airport, which never occurred to me. The missile would be my axe, with which I felled the base of a tree. Always the base. Couldn’t get away from that notion.
   Daunted by the prospect of so much research, and wary of dropping a technical manual on readers, I decided I’d handle various story elements in an offbeat way. A missile would be stolen in-flight. During a test. The target information simply altered. (This was a massive cliché, doing the rounds in movies.)
   How hard is that? Hard. Constructing a story isn’t as hard. Cobble together various missiles from history into a super-missile designed to act as a greater threat than any threat faced, and test it. With an explosive warhead below nuclear level, for the test.
   The end of the Cold War didn’t end missile development. So, as the years dragged in, and I didn’t write my story, the missile idea remained. It could easily be a remnant of an earlier design-phase. Hell, we designed, tested, and built the damned thing. Might as well install it.
   I wanted to write a techno-thriller without the tech. Why? To get the ladies reading. Not just the gents. So the switch in target data of a live missile flight…would have relied on nothing more complex than a magic act. Fanning the deck, and forcing a particular card on the mark. Everything would have been written in those terms.
   Even so, I failed to answer a host of pesky questions. He gets people to collude in his plans unwittingly. How the hell does he manage that? It’s nonsense. How does he successfully take charge of the money? Well, that’s not his game. He has a grudge. The money is unimportant. It’s all about the destruction.
   Are you feeling the chill, applying those questions I asked of would-be fiction to what happened in the world of cold, hard, fact? How did they make money off the atrocity? On the markets, remotely. How do you get people to collude in your plans unwittingly? Pretend it’s just a hijacking. Really, it’s all about holding some grudge.
   I’ve written of my influences. One of those is Adam Hall’s character, Quiller. Hall concocted a 9/11-ish terror plot called Solitaire for Quiller to stumble through. Hall did that years before the actual event, and, perhaps fortunately, died before he could witness reality on television. I read that book years after the event, and it was another nail in the coffin of the idea that I could write about my cold statement.
   There’s no spark in me to switch locations and alter the story. London lacks the forest of skyscrapers required, though makes up for that in terms of symbolic landmarks. When the Irish bombed the City of London, a great deal of damage was caused. Nothing like the damage I would inflict, with my fictional madman running loose. I keep an eye on the news, but the story is gone.
   Writers, chroniclers of fanciful notions that we are, occasionally stumble upon reality. Life, imitating artifice. We dedicate ourselves to telling stories. Some strange people dedicate themselves to the construction of fertiliser-based explosive devices.
   To the extent that, in camouflaging the intent behind the purpose of purchasing fertiliser, the bomber sets up a farming business – as happened in Norway. There’s precious little defence against semi-organised lunatics of that stripe. I think over these things. Become a bomber myself in all but name, for the sake of fiction. I try not to hurt anyone.
   Why tell this anecdote now? More than a decade elapsed. The world’s most wanted man is dead. News reaches us in a way that is far more interconnected than was the case in 2001. (Or 1991, 1981, 1881…) I wondered if I’d ever see anything to equal or eclipse the footage I saw on that calm September day.
   And, in 2011, I viewed an event that put the collapsing towers in the shade. I watched, lost for words, as some poor Japanese bastard’s house floated by in a sea of slurry and debris. The house was on fire. That summed up the tragedy. As the footage came in, image after unbelievable image staggering my senses, the material revealed that we’d become far more connected in terms of putting a picture together. But we’re still just as fragile.
   It is only since I began blogging that I found myself talking extensively about the processes behind my writing. I thought of my 11/9 anecdote. No, I didn’t feel the need to tell that story. Perhaps writing about my writing would encourage others to take up writing. Or, at the very least, to take up reading widely.
   In the first half-year of my grand adventure in self-publishing, I contacted authors – published and unpublished. Some I asked for help. Others I assisted. In talking to two American writers who seemed joined at the digital hip – creators of The Stranger Diaries, Kacey Vanderkarr and Missy Biozarre – I gained more help than I gave.
   Through them, I decided that I had nothing to lose in recounting the tale of a lost tale. We don’t all react the same way in a moment of crisis. That’s what keeps our species going. I watched a skyscraper fall, and my ludicrous piece of fiction jumped from the back of my mind to the front of the queue.
   That cold empty statement about the engineering problem. Others would have watched 9/11 and started planning the clean-up in their minds. Running through a list of materials starting at Asbestos and ending with Zinc, or something more fanciful at the Z-end of things. Nothing cold about that.
   Later, naturally, I gradually absorbed the human cost. Standing in New York, looking at the gaping hole, the construction site, I knew that I’d never talk about my remote televisual World Trade Centre experience and the coldness of thought. I stood in the shadowless shadow of buildings no longer there. Of lives unlived, children unborn, potential unrealised, and dreams unfulfilled.
   Give my cold phrase up to the world? No. A covert raid in Pakistan does not change my mind. Ten years down the line, I don’t change my mind. Starting to write about my writing, I don’t change my mind. I confront fear in a young writer who follows me on Twitter. After helping her, I wonder if there’s anything in my own work that’s being held back. That’s pretty much where I came in.
   In years to come I might just be able to wrap my head around the thought of a giant wave smashing into Japan, causing all sorts of problems for nuclear reactors. Yes, I might be able to wrap my head around that. Though, seeing mourners in radiation suits one year on, somehow I doubt it.

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