Monday, 4 June 2012


The Flowers of the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land, are cauld in the clay.

Jane (or Jean) Elliot. (1727-1805.)

(If you find it hard to make it through Jeannie’s ballad in print, you’ll find it almost impossible to handle when a piper plays the piece. The Flowers of the Forest is Scottish on the page, but universal when carried across the air. Let the music haunt you. The word lament seems almost to have been coined for it. Herts o’ stane cannae cope wi’ the tune ower-lang.)

In a disturbing echo of the day I published my third book, traffic featured heavily a fortnight later. I had automated a series of blog posts on the 19th of March 2012. My blog posts guided readers to an unbloggable thing. I blogged about that, in the end. My cold response to the destruction of the World Trade Centre.
   The day I published LYGHTNYNG STRYKES, I wandered the streets in something of a daze. I was struggling with reality. The third leg of my publishing plan went off with hitches. Writing stories was more interesting to me than pressing a button to launch those stories. I avoided being involved in a collision with a white van. Suddenly, I was no longer in a daze.
   A fortnight passed. I automated my blogs. Unless I kicked the door in later, and wiped the automatic process from Blogger, I would release my thoughts into the wild. Automating the process was a way of forcing myself to go ahead with that talk about the 11th of September 2001.
   Again, I wandered in a daze. Contemplating what I’d just set up. I could tear it down – but I didn’t want to. That would have betrayed a newfound sense of freedom related to the issue. Authors Kacey Vanderkarr and Missy Biozarre had helped me see that I could untie the string and let the problem float away into the sky. Or sink like a rock to the seabed. The act of untying was the important item. Not the event that followed. Up or down.
   I couldn’t turn my back on those authors, having admitted that they made me see merit in turning the unbloggable into the bloggable. To abandon discussion was to walk the easy path. And if there’s an easy path on the road to being an author, I’ve yet to find it marked on any map.
   Geography. Instead of going here, I went there. And, in going there, I passed through a building. On leaving the building, I followed the woman in the red coat. She was too far ahead of me to grab. All I could do was cry out. There was time for that. Maybe.
   Ahead, and down those steps, she marched into the road. To my right, zooming along, was the vehicle. Woman and vehicle refused to stop. I was caught in that slow-motion world of data-processing in a moment of crisis. Yes, I could still yell CAR!
   I remembered the white van from almost exactly a fortnight before – even down to the very minute. A spooky feeling. Same time of day. And similar weather. Within sight of the other spot, where the white van had materialised.
   This time, with someone else in the firing line. The woman in the red coat. She belatedly looked right and paused, as I had done a fortnight before. I was in a daze from setting up my important blog. Was I to witness an accident? See this woman crumple against the front of a car and shoot off to the left – or, worse, go under the wheels…
   The car braked, and the woman noticed. I took in the raw speed and almost let fly my warning. Instead, I could tell that the collision was undone. It was another close call. Four people, locked in time. Pedestrian. Observer. Driver. Passenger.
   What to do, if she’d been hit? Be the professional witness, of course. She stepped out without looking, and there was nothing the driver could do. His options were limited. I’m glad it didn’t go down that way.
   Would I have blogged about a story that went the other way? Pending the outcome of legal action, yes. My thoughts went from traffic back to skyscrapers. Watching the World Trade Centre collapse on television was a small experience. No matter the size of the screen. You couldn’t get the scale of it from the window-on-the-world that is TV.
   Blogging prompted a search through my photo archives of New York. I spoke to firefighters when I was flitting around the city. Two museums take in the people at the sharp end – one is dedicated to firefighters and the other is all about the cops. I visited both. You experience the World Trade Centre’s destruction from similar perspectives in each museum.
   There is only one perspective worth discussing. Going to a museum isn’t the same as climbing the steps at the Winter Gardens to view the main location. A snapshot of 2009-vintage World Trade Centre reconstruction.
   Staring across at the gap, where massive toy diggers moved around, I finally took in the scope of the calamity. You may have watched it happen on the television as I did. That does not prepare you for the shape and size of the chunk cut from New York’s beating heart. Negative space. Hemmed in by buildings that had to be cleaned and refitted. Or replaced.
   I see Manhattan from all sides. From the air. On the two rivers. In the depths of man-made canyons. At the tops of tall tall tall tall buildings. Needles, poking holes in the blue. The Twin Towers leave an after-image.
   In the museum, packed with firefighting paraphernalia, I take an atmospheric photo upstairs. For me, there’s no such thing as the perfect photo. Great pictures might be blurry. Filled with too much light. Doesn’t matter.
   Technical expertise is irrelevant. It’s the atmosphere of the image that counts. My shot of old-fashioned wagons is very red. Slightly blurry. So what? I like it. The redness goes with fighting fires. In tribute to the generations who tackled the job, only a red carpet will do.
   I didn’t plan my itinerary to account for the numbers tumbling out of my camera. Phoenix. This is a piano-style pumper. From 1840. Preserved, these museum-pieces only hint at the dangers faced in fighting one of our fiercest enemies. It’s not a party, or a dance. You don’t beat fire at a game of cards. It’s a fight. And you don’t take in more than a hint of the real deal, in a museum.
   That is just as true of statistics. You can read them, but they hardly seem real. I think of 778 firefighters who died in the line of duty, fighting fires in New York City. They died during a period which ran from the end of the Civil War in 1865 through to the year 2001. Timespan. A century, plus a third of a century. And a little more.
   To that total, history added another 343* firefighters on one day.
   My atmospheric photo in the museum is taken without concern for my itinerary. Things just pan out that way. The Phoenix. A creature born of fire, and ash. This primitive horse-drawn engine was there, standing, after every fire. My atmospheric photo of it carries the electronic serial number 100_9011.

How do I feel, now that I’ve talked about the World Trade Centre? I watched thousands of people die on television. My cold thought, mentioned in the blog post of the 23rd of April 2012, is still a cold thought. There’s no escaping that.
   I’m writing this before the word is out. Time travel, again. Weeks have elapsed since I set the words down. More weeks will pass before the story emerges. I felt burdened and unburdened in the same moment. My mind turned to events long after the day itself. Random things.
   It’s the 11th of September. The year is 2001. I’m watching it all happen on television. Time flies. I am at the Winter Gardens, staring out at the vast hole. No towers. Machines. Men working. Blazing day. Skip around Manhattan…
   I’m standing in the street. Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9. Ahead in time, right where I stand, lies a photo-opportunity for the President of the United States. My photo-shoot is somewhat less Presidential. There are plaques to fallen firefighters. The dates go back to 1870. There’s a mention for the cops, too.
   The firemen who died on that clear blue September day are photographed. I stare at fourteen faces in colour and a fifteenth in black and white. This place is on Eighth Avenue. I’m on the way to a bus tour company located in the 700s between 47th and 48th Street.
   Now I’m at St. Paul’s Chapel. The sign tells me that this is Manhattan’s oldest public building kept in continuous use. From 1766 until? That’s a blank your descendants will have to fill in on your behalf. I’m starved of time, and only manage to tour the outside of the building. There is scope for a return.
   I do return, on a rainy day. After chatting with a firefighter. Inside the building, I see faces on memorials. This reminds me of television shows about the Second World War. The scene repeats, across documentaries. A camera passes grave after grave, noting soldiers who died on the 6th of June. Eerie effect. We know the occasion, based on the date.
   What prompts my thought of D-Day? It’s the 5th of June when I’m inside the chapel. That’s all. Here, in the photos, the memorialising month is September. You can tell from the photos that these dead people illuminated the lives of the people around them. There’s a face from a documentary. Wayne A. Russo. A guy in a bow-tie. It’s the last picture I take in there.
   In the afternoon, I take photo 100_9011. Phoenix.
   Next day it is D-Day. From the side, I snap a picture of a sturdy F.D.N.Y. rig. It is an improvement on the Phoenix. This one is marked www.nyc.gov/fdny. One of the firefighters is involved in a dispute with a Native New Yorker. I snap the front of the rig, lining up on the rig’s Seagrave logo.
   So I don’t actually see the firefighter’s exasperation with the Native New Yorker until I look at the left of the photo later. The firefighter gestures at me with his hands palm-up. Whattayagonnado? The memorialised firefighters were just like this guy. They all had a sense of humour too.
   Looking closely at the photo of the rig, on the window I see the white silhouette of a firefighter wielding an axe. Through that icon, the firefighters who died are memorialised on the rig itself. There is no more fitting place for a tribute.
   It’s a long day. After many misadventures, I find myself in the air. Being piloted in a Liberty helicopter. The fatal smash involving the company happened not long after. I didn’t want to know who the pilot was, in case he was my pilot. Sometimes it’s best to let things go.
   Tramping the streets, taking the subway, hailing a yellow cab in the rain, flying over the island of Manhattan. In other circumstances, this activity would pass for research into my story about the man who wants to blow up skyscrapers. I see the scale. Get a sense of the difficulties involved.
   It’s a bloody long day. After the helicopter ride, I walk around Manhattan. Really walk. I tramp the streets, heading into the sunset. Scale. Could I have written the story about the man with the plan? Yes. Would anyone have found it believable? That’s not for me to say.

Coming up. I’ll blog about feedback next time. How the audience felt, on reading my unbloggable blog post about the destruction of the World Trade Centre.

* Of the 343, two, Robert Linnane and Ricardo Quinn, were Paramedics.

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