I remember a first date once, which – though an encouraging start – turned out to be merely the prologue to another example of why my being one half of ‘a lovely couple’ is the relationship equivalent of a coalition government, i.e. an exceedingly rare aberration destined to end in tears. But I was younger at the time, so can be excused. And, anyway, she was a fascinating woman who worked for a charity and was about to jet off on a related business trip to New York. A second date was definitely on the cards, but the Manhattan outing would put it back a week or two. I resolved to pick up some kind of quirky guide to the Big Apple for her and pass it on before she packed her suitcase.
One topic of conversation that came up during the evening was a shared recollection of early 80s nuclear paranoia. She and I recalled the collective fear of those years, when pre-apocalypse tension infected the culture and seemed doomed to become a self-fulfilling prophesy; it was the age of Greenham Common, ‘Threads’ and ‘Two Tribes’. My date and I agreed such a bleak atmosphere genuinely (and thankfully) appeared to be a thing of the past – at least where the west was concerned. And when, you may ask, did this rather pleasant exchange take place? Why, to be exact, September 10 2001.
I was in a second-hand bookshop the following day when, having located just the kind of offbeat volume I’d intended, I heard something strange was happening at the World Trade Centre; the shopkeeper shrewdly informed me a fire in one of the twin towers had sent it crashing to the ground only after I’d bought the bloody book. Of course, it was no use to its recipient, as the trip to New York was cancelled and the state of global emergency she and I had perhaps unwisely relegated to the past tense suddenly re-emerged uglier than ever in the here and now. And, although the panic 9/11 unleashed unsurprisingly lasted longer than my dalliance with this particular lady, the numerous offshoots of the September 11 attacks that are still with us have sadly become part of the cultural wallpaper.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that those of us who were transfixed by the grotesque sights on our TV screens 18 years ago have gradually become immune to the horrors embodied in the events of 9/11 since. But exposure to subsequent wars and terrorist atrocities with their roots in that day could possibly have engendered a subliminal immunity so that what initially provoked genuine fear of a potential WWIII scenario is now met with shoulder-shrugging weariness. During the recent blanket coverage of the first Moon Landing’s 50th anniversary, one overlooked fact left out of the celebrations was that the viewing public of the time became bored with the great adventure so quickly that the only other Apollo mission anyone ever recalls is 13 – and that crew never even made it to their destination. When an achievement as immense as men on the moon can induce a jaded response as one lunar landing rapidly follows another, perhaps the repeated detonation of bombs in a crowded environment fails to maintain the level of shock such an appalling act warrants simply because it’s just one more atrocity in a very long line of them.
The world is far more intricately connected today than it was in 2001 – a period when social media was in its infancy and traditional mediums still had a monopoly on the way we consumed news. Indeed, the only occasion in which I can ever remember the newspaper racks being emptied in my local supermarket was the day after 9/11; everybody had clearly purchased a paper as a souvenir, just as their fathers (or grandfathers) had when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. It’s hard to imagine that happening with an equivalent incident today. I suspect many a website or search engine would crash, but there’d still be plenty of Fleet Street’s finest waiting to find a home. Then again, how long would shock linger now? Long enough for that interminable 24 hours between a story breaking and it making the physical front page? Probably not. The nature of how news is transmitted to the masses has changed so much since 2001 that the manner of its digestion has changed too – as has its presentation, presumably in order to hold the diminishing attention span of the reader. Often it seems that stories which don’t really deserve the dramatic headline ape the major event so that each and every item battling for space has to be given the full (to use a quaint old phrase) ‘stop press’ treatment.
It could be a result of living through two traumatic post-9/11 decades or it could simply be my age, but I find I don’t lose sleep over any of the news stories designed to provoke panic nowadays. I feel almost ashamed to admit it, for I realise I’m supposed to be in a perpetual state of fear – fear of climate change or Brexit or knife-crime or the far-right or the far-left or Boris or Corbyn or Trump or Putin or China or North Korea or No Deal…and yet, I’m not. However, that’s not to say I don’t care; caring about an important issue and (on occasion) being passionate about a few is listed on my membership card of the human race – and I hope that’s been evident in some of the things I’ve written here. But I don’t worry about today’s shock-horror stories, certainly not the level of worry I’m constantly told I should feel. Then again, being told how I should feel is something that media in all its current incarnations has come to specialise in.
Media of the social variety is regularly – and often rightly – castigated for its ‘echo chamber’ tendencies, and (should I wish to do so) I can certainly think of an easy way in which I could severely deplete my friends list on Facebook overnight, simply by expressing an opinion I’m not supposed to possess, let alone express. But hasn’t the new media merely learnt the lessons of the old media? Yes, Facebook and Twitter reflect users’ already established opinions back at them, confirming biases and upholding prejudices whilst discouraging discovering different perspectives; but then again, so do the Daily Mail and the Guardian. This trend could also be responsible for the current vogue in looking at an unfavourable event from a favourable angle in order to make it more palatable to those it upsets.
The remarkable success of the Brexit Party in the recent European Elections was countered by its opponents combining the split Remain vote as spurious evidence that Nigel’s barmy army didn’t actually win after all. The same tactic was applied in the wake of the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election by the other side, showing how putting the Tory and Brexit Party votes together somehow proved the Lib Dems were actually the losers. The fact that none of these combinations actually appeared as such on the ballot paper is regarded as almost immaterial when it comes to a ‘moral victory’ – or it could just be that this curious development proves how the Remainer/Leaver divide now counts for more than traditional party allegiances.
I considered using Nick Ross’s sage advice as the title for this post, and then remembered I’d used it as the title of an obituary for ‘Crimewatch’ I penned on here whenever it was that the show ended its lengthy run. As a matter of fact, I do have nightmares – constantly; and they’re horrible, far worse than any I had as a kid. But they’re all of a domestic nature, nocturnal kitchen-sink dramas featuring those I have loved and those I have lost; they don’t contain any bogeymen that dominate national or international headlines at all. Perhaps it’s because I’m in a strange place that I don’t scare easily anymore – at least when I’m awake.
© The Editor