Over the past two decades, 9/11 has taken on all kinds of different meanings for people, from the end of American dominance to the rise of a new kind of terrorism. But when I think of 9/11, the first thing I think of is Tracey Ullman.
I was born and raised in New York City, but I only happened to be there that day because it was New York fashion week, and the Guardian had sent me over from London to cover it for the first time. I was 23 years old. Look at me, Ma, a proper grownup now, getting sent overseas to write news stories! I was due to fly back the evening of 11 September 2001, and only had one show to cover that day, so I treated myself to room service (so grownup) while I watched one of those morning news shows that are really just celebrity interview shows, interspersed occasionally with the headlines. I was delighted when the guest that morning was Tracey Ullman, whom I’ve always liked. So there I was, eating my breakfast, listening to Ullman, feeling content with the world and totally in control of my life. Then the next interview started, with someone who had written a celebrity biography, and the presenter suddenly interrupted proceedings. A plane, he said, had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Huh, that’s weird, I thought, not especially concerned, because despite feeling like an adult, I was still really a child.
The presenters talked about the incident as if it were an accident, because what else could it possibly be? And then, as we all watched the live footage and I kept eating my room service, the presenters gasped. “We just saw another plane hit the other building!” one of them shouted as the south tower erupted into fire, and my spoon froze on the way to my open mouth and dropped back down to the bowl. Suddenly, military planes flew by my window.
In times of trauma, people often forget the big things but remember the banal details. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I’ll always remember watching Ullman that morning. I remember the cereal I was eating (mini Shredded Wheat), and I remember the fashion party I went to the night before (Marc Jacobs). I also remember the Guardian news desk trying to get me to help with their news coverage, and one day someone will write a bleakly comedic play about how one of the worst terrorist atrocities ever ended up being covered by the fashion press, just because we were all in New York when it happened. I also remember the subject line (“Attacks”) in the email I got the next day from my friend Lizzy to tell me that Cat MacRae, one of my oldest friends, was missing. Her office was in the north tower.
Like me, Cat was 23 then, so she has now been gone for almost as many years as she was alive. Almost as unnerving is the realisation that my children were born 14 and 17 years after 9/11. I was born just three years after the end of the Vietnam war, and that felt like another era to me, but 9/11 – I remember the cereal I was eating that day. How could it have been 20 years ago? “Time passes” is not a great revelation, but what’s so confusing about 9/11 is that, yes, time has passed, but also it hasn’t. Sometimes it feels like it’s not so much that everything changed on 9/11, but that we’ve never been able to move on from it. Most obviously right now, there’s Afghanistan. But there’s also US and UK politics, so much of which still feels like a reaction to 9/11, from the scaremongering about immigration (the Tories) to the self-loathing about the hawkish reactions at the time (Labour). Would Barack Obama have been elected in 2008 if George W Bush hadn’t insisted on that unwinnable war in Iraq, and if he hadn’t, would Donald Trump have even bothered to run for the presidency in 2016? Alternative history is a pointless self-indulgence, but it feels safe to say that if 9/11 hadn’t happened, our lives, over the past two decades, would have felt very different, for all of us.
Aside from the historical, there’s the personal. Many of us who were close to Cat, including me, ended up having three children, even though we all grew up with only one sibling, and some of us have quietly admitted to one another that it’s because we didn’t want any of our children ever to be left behind on their own, the way Cat’s beloved younger sister, Annie, was. We learned on 9/11 that there are no guarantees in life, even for the best-loved children, so we stocked up. When I interviewed Cat’s parents on the 10th anniversary of her death, her father, Cameron, said to me, “One part of you moves on, but another part will always be in 2001.” My life has moved forward, but a very large part of me will forever be sitting on that hotel bed, back when I, Cat, all of us, thought we were taking just another bite into our future, only for the spoon to freeze halfway, and all we could do was sit, empty-mouthed and open-mouthed, watching as the world and our lives changed for ever.