📺 Surviving 9/11

With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks fast approaching, the TV schedules are filled with lots of programmes related to the event. This week we watched Surviving 9/11, a moving documentary that gives an insight into some of the lives that were directly impacted by the horrors of that day. The range of people featured in the film, and the ways in which they have survived and coped — to varying degrees — with the aftermath of the trauma, were delicately and thoughtfully presented.

It’s a cliche to say that it seems like yesterday, but it’s true. On the day of the attack I was in London, sitting at my desk, filling out a form to try and make a case for getting myself transferred to work in New York on a company assignee scheme. The bank that I worked for had recently bought a large US-based brokerage firm and we were getting a programme off the ground to integrate our two HR systems. That August, I had been to New York on a business trip and had started to build relationships with our new colleagues. Much earlier, when I started at the company in 1999, I had met a bunch of New York-based fellow graduates and made some solid friendships. I was enthused to think about spending time with them all in a new and exciting place.

Early that afternoon, I read a glib message about the first plane crash on our internal chat system and we all turned our attention to the news websites. I don’t think much work got done after that. At some point I had to walk across the city to another of our buildings for a seminar about the company pension fund. I knew it was going to be about as interesting as it sounded, but I felt obliged to go. On my way I saw scores of people standing outside office lobbies, staring through the glass to watch the news on the TV screens. At some point, somebody came into the seminar and told us that everyone was being sent home. It was weird — New York was so far away, but we somehow all felt as though we were connected to it. Nobody was sure that there wouldn’t be a similar attack in London. I packed my bag, jumped on the tube and then stayed up watching the TV until the early hours, hitting refresh on the Metafilter thread to find out what was going on via my dial-up Internet connection at home.

An American friend of mine had just moved from London to New York, and years later he wrote up his experience of that day. Re-reading it now brings back more memories. I moved to Manhattan exactly two months later on 11 November 2001. It was a strange time; when I arrived there I felt a little as though I was an outsider intruding on a shocked and numb city. I lived on my own, and spent many evenings walking for miles just to be around people. The bus shelters were still filled with candles and photos of missing friends and relatives.

My new office was in Weehawken, New Jersey, a ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was open plan, with glass-walled single-person offices around the edges for the senior managers on each floor. One of those was kept locked — the occupant had been tragically killed by the first plane crash as he waited for a bus to work outside the World Trade Center. In the weeks to come, I overheard my new colleagues talking in hushed but animated tones about whether his office should be left alone out of respect or cleared out so that they could move on. I couldn’t share their pain as I had never met him.

In the year I spent in New York the demand for flights from London was understandably low and tickets were cheap; consequently I had many friends and family come to visit. I loved having a stream of guests to entertain and take on a tour of the city. Some of them wanted to go down to the World Trade Center. I didn’t want to go, but I did accompany them. It felt somehow macabre to go and look. It was already a tourist destination, despite the memorial being some years away.

The two decades have passed in a flash. Watching the documentary this week reminded me of how primitive things were back then and how long ago it was. Analogue video tape recordings from the events of that day. VoiceStream being the only phone network that provided a local GSM service, on handsets with tiny displays. No mobile web as we know it now, and no Facebook or Twitter to share status updates. I still had to email or call my friends and family if I wanted to catch up. In the past couple of years I have worked with a colleague who was born after 9/11, which was difficult to get my head around at first. I guess this is what getting old feels like.

My year in New York was a seminal time for me and I think about it often. The integration programme was a great success and I learned a lot from working with some wonderful colleagues, many of whom I still speak to. My girlfriend came to visit a number of times before eventually quitting her job and coming to live with me. We came back to London together and got married less than two years later.

Twenty years on, the mental and emotional impact of 9/11 is unsurprisingly still raw for those people directly impacted by the horrors of that day. Surviving 9/11 offered a moving and sensitive insight into this. I feel very privileged to have been able to have made my own memories of the city during those fragile months.

Die Da!?! Memories of MTV Europe

Satellite TV arrived in my life in 1988 when I was eleven years old, and it felt like I sudden leap into the future. My dad had seen a ‘you can’t afford not to’ offer in the newspaper that got us a dish and 16-channel decoder supplied and fitted for next to nothing. Turning it on for the first time was a big event — we were the first people I know to get a dish and I remember having lots of friends and neighbours over to see it. We were all falling over each other in the lounge as we looked with wonder at the new channels.

An Amstrad Fidelity decoder. Look at all the buttons! (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

An Amstrad Fidelity satellite TV decoder, circa 1988. Look at all the buttons! Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dishes all over Western Europe pointed skyward to the Astra satellite, and we all received the same programming. There were only 16 channels on the service, but this was a crazy amount compared to the four that we got through our terrestrial aerial. Only a few of the new channels were British — Sky One, followed eventually by Sky Movies and Sky News — with a significant number of others in German. The most fun were those that were aimed at everyone over Europe, typically in English, such as Eurosport and Screensport. The king of them all was MTV Europe, the channel that was probably the reason we got the dish in the first place. From that point on, when I wasn’t in front of my home computer you could usually find me in front of the TV.

Music was a big deal in our house when I was growing up. The radio, a tape or CD were playing all the time, whether we were at home or in the car. As it was for millions of others, for me Friday at school was spent talking about all of the bands that we’d seen on Top Of The Pops the night before. Having MTV Europe in the house meant that I no longer had to wait for Thursday. Back then, the ‘M’ in MTV meant something, and music was front and centre in the programming. When a specialist show such as 120 Minutes, Most Wanted or Yo! MTV Raps wasn’t showing, we would get a stream of videos from the MTV playlist one after the other. It was brilliant.

One of the big benefits of having a pan-European station was that the songs on heavy rotation often hadn’t gone far up the charts in the UK. They even had a specific chart programme, the MTV European Top 20 countdown, hosted by Pip Dann. Compared to our national chart, this one seemed to change at a glacial pace, and Dann must have been challenged to keep her commentary fresh every week.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are a whole bunch of songs that I remember from those days that my friends don’t seem to be aware of. With the help of a wonderfully old-school-looking website, I’ve scoured my memories to pick out the weird and wonderful songs that got tons of airplay on MTV Europe but are relatively unknown here in the UK.

Lambada — Kaoma (1989)

People seem to know this song but aren’t aware of the band that made it big. A video filled with Latin dancing, revealing clothes, Orangina, a silent angst between children who want to dance with each other, and an angry adult who slaps a young girl.

Got to Get — Rob ‘n’ Raz featuring Leila K (1990)

I could never make my mind up as to whether this was ‘so bad it’s good’ or actually good. One thing I do know is that it burrowed into my brain very, very deeply. I’ve never met anyone else who has heard of Leila K, “a Swedish Eurodance singer and rapper of Moroccan descent.”

Heading for a Fall — Vaya Con Dios (1992)

Not the sort of thing I would have gone out and bought, but it had something about that I enjoyed. Everything seemed vaguely ‘adult’ about the music. Listening again now, the vocals are superb. I have no idea what the video’s all about though.

Still Got The Blues — Gary Moore (1990)

Always had my dad playing air guitar within half a second of appearing on TV. People seem to have heard about Gary Moore, formerly of Thin Lizzy and Skid Row, but this song only made it to number 31 in the UK. The Belgians (#1), Dutch (#2), Norwegians (#3), Swedes (#4), and Finns and Poles (both #7) must have driven the amount of airplay that this got on MTV.

Die Da!?! — Die Fantastischen Vier (1992)

This could have so nearly been the first song to have an interrobang in it’s title. To this day I have no idea what they are singing about (“that one!?!”), but the fantastic four showed me that German rap is fun!

Tag am Meer — Die Fantastischen Vier (1994)

A totally different vibe with this one. Like the Beastie Boys moving on from their (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) phase, the band seem to have matured, got serious, and increased the video budget. Chilled out rapping in front of a video that reminds me of Neneh Cherry’s Manchild. Weird. Great.

Cose Della Vita — Eros Ramazzotti (1993)

Italian power pop, complete with a truck driver’s gear change. Apparently Ramazzotti is massive in Europe, and this song made it to #1 in Belgium, #3 in Spain and #4 in Italy. I bought a tape copy (quite literally) of the album on a family holiday in Bulgaria in 1994. This is the best song on there.

Bakerman — Laid Back (1989)

Fancy dress sky diving to Danish electro-pop with Prince-style backing vocals in a video directed by Lars von Trier. What could be better? Made it to #44 in the UK chart, but the Austrians took it all the way to #1.

Wind of Change — Scorpions (1991)

“I followed them on squark, down to gonky park.” Those immortal misheard opening lines from this German metal band were seemingly played every few minutes on MTV Europe in 1991. Despite the video being a montage of recent news footage, I had no idea at the time that this was such an important song with associations to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, with viewers of the German ZDF network in 1999 choosing this as ‘the song of the century’. 14 million copies sold. Made it to #2 in the UK, but you never hear of it here now.

(I Wanna Give You) Devotion — Nomad featuring MC Mikee Freedom (1991)

I love this song, a one-hit wonder from Nomad. The video is super low-budget but completely memorable. And I saw it a lot. Much, much better than other songs of the time that ‘featured’ a rapper. Take-it-a-down-now-Mikee!

Go For It — Joey B Ellis featuring Tynetta Hare (1990)

The first three CDs I ever bought were George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a Do The Bartman single and the Rocky V soundtrack. This was the lead song from the somewhat patchy soundtrack and for a short time I thought it was superb. These days Joey B Ellis is known as MC Breeze.

Crucified — Army Of Lovers (1991)

The only other person I know who has ever heard of Army of Lovers was a young Russian chap I worked with over a decade ago. They had a dark-haired male singer that looked like Paul King, and everyone seemed to flounce around in revealing underwear. Swedish euro pop was all a bit too much for me at 13 years old.

From looking at the charts, as the 1990s progressed it seems as though the number of big European Top 20 hits that were unknown in the UK seemed to diminish. We were all listening to the same songs. As the number of available satellite channels grew, MTV Europe was replaced with regional broadcasts, which further reduced exposure to massive hits from the continent. I drifted away from MTV as studying, exams and going out with friends replaced the time I had spent at home on the couch. But these tunes are still with me.

Young @ Heart

If you’re not doing anything right now I suggest tuning in to Channel 4 to watch ‘Young @ Heart’. It’s a lovely film about a group of singers in America who have an average age of 2-3 times my own but perform concerts of alternative music such as Sonic Youth and James Brown. We watched it a couple of weeks back on More4 and loved it. Heart-warming stuff!

Jez Hodge, superstar

Jez Hodge in Press GangAt dinner a few weeks back we were talking to my cousin’s boyfriend about his former career as an actor. He happened to mention that as well as being an extra on Eastenders many moons back he also played the character of Kevin in Press Gang. I’m not sure if it was way before my time or not but I didn’t remember the programme…so, after a quick search of the internet I grabbed myself a copy of series two.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here are a few shots of Jez in Press Gang:

If you want to meet Kevin…erm, I mean Jez…he’s the one who is organising the sponsored cycle ride for Cystic Fibrosis so he’ll be there for autographs. If you haven’t signed up already, what more of an incentive do you need to come along? :o)

Office Monkey

By chance I’ve just watched one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV – ITV2’s Office Monkey. Basically what happens is that two employees in an office are given a series of challenges to do, such as ‘model your friend’s fashion garment and try to sell it’ or ‘become a human stationery cupboard’ while their colleages have no idea that they are all being filmed. We saw one guy get demoted after using a one-man-band kit in the office and another told that he looked “like something out of Gay Pride” for modelling a unique vest-pants combo! At the end of the event, the managing directors of the firm walk in, tell everyone they’ve been featured on the show and award a holiday to one of the two Monkeys. So simple and yet so brilliant! But why on earth would you want your company to participate?

The Power of Nightmares

Towards the end of last year, the BBC screened a three-part documentary called The Power Of Nightmares which provided an excellent view of the background to our current political climate – how the rise of the neo-conservatives in the US and the radical Islamists influenced the creation of a world that neither intended. Basically, the programme went on to state that a highly-organised group such as Al-Qaeda does not exist, but has been pushed to us by western politicians to ensure that they still have a relevant role in society following the end of the Cold War. Powerful stuff.

The best news is that the series is being repeated on BBC Two this week; it’s on at 23:20 on Tuesday 18, Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 January 2005 and I urge you to watch it.

What’s on TV?

A friend of mine has developed a fantastic free application that shows you what’s on TV in the UK. It’s a good alternative to DigiGuide which I used to use until I had to pay for it. I especially like the links to Google when you click on episode titles and the automatic Internet Movie Database links when you click on films. Other people have built on top of it – there’s now a Windows version, a WAP version and a Flash interface as well. Great stuff.