Tuesday, September 11, 2001

What Happened During My Summer Holiday



Arthur:  And what happened to the earth?
Ford:  It’s been disintegrated
Arthur:  Has it?
Ford:  Yes. It just boiled away into space.
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford:  Yes, I can understand.
So; Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness, and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book).  It surprises townies that the night sky has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the whiskey, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby monster.
Flash explained that in Scots, you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Lock Inn, ho-ho) downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing historical monument.  (An ancient well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan chief, apparently.)
The worst disaster occurred when we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?” said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in America.”

We only had a radio to communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn to  Radio 4 in a crisis in any case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word “stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved. It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much like that. 
But after a few hours, it very rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes. Would the girl who lost her fiancé be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an easily digestible narrative:  tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?

The most moving sound image which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that “the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs, culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.

The Vicar preached an entirely adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run, even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the Christian response to evil? Should we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil, and prepare for a Holy War?  Great Christians have  taken both positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people, why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.

Someone said that reacting to a terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house. There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Look at me I’m being oppressed!)  But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general – seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of our liberties being eroded along the way.

And so everything gets back to normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called “Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

You could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.

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