keep me hanging on (memories of a september day)

We’d gone back to London, a year after leaving, to see old friends and do what you do with old friends: go protest at an arms fair. Of course.

At the station, the congregation had samba and costumes. But the police cordon was so tight we obviously we weren’t going to get anywhere near the fair, or its brazen attendees. So while the carnival continued in family-friendly fashion, those who could be more mobile ducked around the cordon and went our separate ways, scattering into nearby estates.

There we endured a frustrating few hours trying to find an unconventional route to the convention centre, in hope we’d be able to do something useful. The centre being designed to keep out riff-raff like us, and our little group being without an advance plan, we eventually lowered our sights from action to visuals. We had a banner, and here was a footbridge where we could hang it. Maybe some of the passing traffic would be sellers or buyers of torture batons. Maybe the banner would make them think twice. Or just the once would do.

Or maybe it was all a waste of time. But we’d done what we could with what we had, and despite our despondency we departed for the main gate, where the procession had arrived, still heavily cordoned. Cars periodically left the centre and whisked past the detractors, waved on protectively by charming police officers. Another spare banner appeared, so we shimmied up lampposts to hang it.

Though the days of 24-hour news had arrived, feeds and twitter had not; most of us did not have mobiles. But one friend had a radio in her pocket, and called up to the danglers.

“You’ll never guess what. A plane has gone and crashed into the Pentagon.”

“Ha! As if!” I called down. “It’s like rumours at Glastonbury. Every year it goes round that the Queen Mother’s died, and everyone gets excited. We’re on an arms fair protest and someone’s accidentally smashed into the Pentagon? Nah, you’re having us on.”

“I’m not! Honest! That’s what the BBC is saying.”

It’s a strange combination of stressful and dull, hanging off a lamppost, plus the banner kept runkling up and wouldn’t hang properly. You couldn’t see the words. I was distracted. Then radio friend said:

“Uh-oh. It sounds like it wasn’t an accident. There’s been other plane crashes too, across the States…”

* * * * *

We’d gone back to the station, found the nearest pub, to see old friends and do what you do with old friends: drink beer, talk politics, lick our thwarted protester wounds, and catch up on gossip and old times. Of course.

Except that the pub, which usually showed sport, now showed CNN. And instead of goal action replays and stilted interviews, there were plane crash action replays and stilted interviews. We still chatted, the beer still flowed, but it was as though we were in the middle of a… a pause.

Was there shock? In some ways yes, but not the naive shock that seemed to vomit out from everywhere over the coming weeks and months – as though nothing bad had ever happened before, as though this was the first killing anywhere, and everything had been fine and rosy Until This Happened. I mean, there was a reason why old friends had bothered to meet at an arms fair that day, instead of a park: there was shit happening, all over. Inside the fair, perpetrators were pretending it was normal, just business, to take a buck – who cares in what flesh the bullets end up? As though there aren’t consequences. As though you can only ever sell to good guys, and only ever blow up bad guys. The police hemmed in the samba kids instead of the dealers, and the blood kept flowing.

So things were bad already, and we knew it. But of course we still paused, as we sipped in front of the flickering images of smoke clouds and towers. We paused not just to take in the new horror – the new wave of murder, the new wave of grief for those whose loved ones had been burned alive in yet another act of war – but also to take in the likelihood of what might come next. The retaliations. The easy justifications. The religious right on a righteous rampage. More cordons, more arms, more armies.

On the screen, Bush Jnr’s face loomed on a loop. Nothing good would come of this. Pour another pint. While we still have time.

The banner we’d hung on the footbridge had asked “Who Are The Real Terrorists?”

If only there wasn’t such a goddam queue.

keep me hanging on | 2011 | words | Comments (0)

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