An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Back in work after a long weekend away. Our first anniversary, we’d gone to Cheltenham, got in an argument with some pompous prick who was trying to let the whole restaurant know how important he was, spoiling the atmos, ruining the vibe, belittling waiter. I said something to him, can’t remember what, caused a scene, made his wife angry, got a free bottle of champagne from the waiter, felt kind of good.
Jo smiled, thought it was cool, a bit rock’n’roll from her boring husband of a year. We drank the free champagne, chased it with whiskey, went back to the room.
We went to Blenheim Palace, learned about Churchill, about old imperial glories, walked through the rose garden, held hands and thought of the future.
We drove home, the M4 to Cardiff. Jo felt ill, her stomach turned, really ill – we stopped twice. Got home, she went to bed, she felt worse. A doctor’s visit, an admission to hospital – a sudden, unexpected worry. Monday night they let her home, a few day’s rest she’d be fine.
An ordinary Tuesday, my mind elsewhere.
Jo at home I went to work, stayed local. A meeting in Newport, a coffee, a meeting with Initial, the women cleaning managers – a regular monthly meet. Talk of cleaning, of faulty floor polish, of dilution control. I wasn’t really there, my mind drifting to Jo, to Cheltenham, to familiar fantasies away from this life, this job. I smiled on the outside, ever the actor, promised to follow up on the action plans, couldn’t wait to leave.
I wanted a sandwich.
I sat in the car, ten to two – my mind elsewhere, not paying attention to Simon Mayo. Something about a plane crash, sounded serious, didn’t quite register. I pulled out onto Newport Road. He was talking about New York, my interest piqued. New York did that – a strange affinity with the place.
I contemplated McDonalds – maybe not.
Mayo continued talking – I liked Mayo, he kept me company on lonely afternoons in the car – book reviews, film reviews, interviews. I used to listen to him years before, on the way to school – he was at Radio 1 then, having fun with listeners confessions, bigging up John Kettley (he’s a weatherman). All pretty trite, pretty trivial, just a bit of fun. Now he was talking about a plane crash – cutting across Pauline McColl’s business news.
The World Trade Centre was on fire, he told me.
Like a scene from the Towering Inferno, he told me.
Sounded bad, I thought.
I had an affinity with New York. Most people who’ve spent some time there do.I’d been to New York more than once. Been to the World Trade Centre. I liked them, simple giant blocks, towering over all others, squared up against the pointy, art deco behemoths of Empire State and Chrysler.
Fire billowing out of floors near the top, he said.
That sounded bad. The top was a long way up.
I liked Simon Mayo – liked that he’d made the leap from trivial DJ; liked that tone, the one that said life throws up issues but really, is it all that serious at the end of the day. I drove along Newport Road, opted against McDonalds, a wise choice. My phone rang, my boss. I ignored it. How could a plane crash into there? What a tragic, silly accident.
A year ago today I’d been in Mauritius, on a honeymoon that kept me away from a fuel strike that brought Britain to a close. That was good; good to be away, oblivious. I drove down by Roath Park; two o’clock – time for the news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. Mayo cut in – reports now say that 2 planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre.
This was not an ordinary Tuesday, my mind tuned in.
I parked the car – listened to the reports. It was a warm but slightly overcast day in Cardiff. Roath Park was busy, dog walkers and pensioners, mums and toddlers. Two planes? What was that all about? Both towers were on fire, both hit by planes. How could that be, I thought, my mind already aware of the answer. I listened to the reports – vivid pictures in my head. I’d been there, often, back in the nineties. I knew that part of the world. It was familiar, iconic, romantic.
History unfolds unknowingly – it doesn’t realise it’s history.
I remained, seated in my car listening. Descriptions that tumbled from the speakers with dramatic impact, reports with hollers and sirens as its soundtrack, grave tomes from BBC stalwarts called up, dragged on air, nobody knowing the scale or scenario. I thought of New York, my times there. Thanksgiving ’94, a freezing sunny afternoon on the Empire State Building, looking south at the towers, a bitter wind stinging my face as I smiled into a camera lens. A bar on Bleaker Street, The Smiths playing as we sipped Budweisers and Guinness. The Staten Island Ferry, huddled on deck snapping the skyline and the statue of Liberty. Fire now billowing from windows, tiny shapes of panicked workers waving white flags, as stationary drifted on the warm air of a late summer morning – a terrible ticker tape parody.
Work didn’t matter – history unfolding.
I needed to be home. This was the day we’d talk about. The ‘where were you when day’ that every generation gets. Surreal doesn’t quite describe it. Arriving home, seeing the pictures across the news channels, making a cup of tea, surfing the Sky control for variations of coverage. Seeing the towers ablaze, towers I’d visited, a location I related to in some odd way. People, tiny black figures in tiny glinting windows, arms shaking as though waving hello to the world, in reality desperate pleas for an impossible escape. Sitting at home, morbid, compulsive spectator. I watched, listened – different theories, different culprits. Inaccurate data, chaotic reports.
The news that another plane hit the Pentagon – dramatic undertones.
Comparisons to Pearl Harbour. Other planes hijacked – fallen off the radar. Most reports false. Most, but not all. United 93 lost. Went down. Shot down? More tragedy.A rumble and a collapsing tower. No warning – no listing left or right. Just a sudden, rushing concertina. Floor upon floor collapsing on each other in a rushing, churning, rapid descent – lost in grey cloud that spewed up and then out, gathering and enveloping the city. The second tower followed later.
[row][column size=”1/3″]I watched all day and then all night – unable to tear myself from the television. This giant spectacle of terror, captured on a thousand cameras from a multitude of angles. The terrible repercussions this would surely bring. Seeing Bush, hearing rhetoric; frightening vows of blind vengeance. An event, known forevermore as a date of infamy.
I still listen to Simon Mayo – he’s returned to his DJ roots these days. Radio 2’s easy to listen to drivetime show and his Wittertainment film fun with Mark Kermode. It’s fun, trivial stuff that never fails to bring a smile. The decade that proceeded 11/09/01 was, in many ways shaped by the events of that day in New York, Washington and a non-descript field in Pennsylvania.
But then again, as I head home from work with a Mayo no-request Friday on the stereo, ignoring the economy, the riots, the uprisings and the Libyans, I think maybe, perhaps, nothing has changed at all.
There’s never been a better time for the BBC to bring Grandstand back to our television screens.
It was a fixture of our youth. Coming home on a wet, cold Saturday lunchtime, caked in mud from a Cardiff park’s football pitch – shivering, tired and grumpy from losing or buoyant from victory, desperate for a bath before sausage and chips and some seriously iconic theme music.
Grandstand. Starting out with Football Focus (although I must confess that I’d switch between this and Saint & Greavsie – the ITV equivalent) to get my football news fix before dishy Des Lynam would suavely suggest we take a look in on the Henley Regatta, the snooker from Sheffield, the racing from Ascot or a look back at last week’s 3m springboard diving gala. By mid-afternoon there’d be a rugby match on –Union or League – the left hand of the screen always worth keeping an eye of for the goal alerts from the football fixtures.
And then, at twenty to five it was back into the studio for the vide-printer and final score.
That was what Saturday afternoons were all about. All sports were covered across the weeks and months – there was always room to accommodate, to realise that there was life out there beyond the football stadiums.
Grandstand was axed in 2007, the powers that be declaring that the brand was out of date. The issue seemed to be that the BBC could no longer live and compete with the dedicated sports channels on Sky and ESPN. With the rise of the brilliant Sky Sports Saturday there was always the danger that the old show would falter and falter it did – but not because the show was out of date, but because they conceded defeat. They gave up offering an alternative and simply put in their own, inferior version of the Sky show, hidden behind the cloak of the digital Red Button.
Only Football Focus remained – a shadow of its former glory.
But with its demise came the end of a superb tradition of allowing air time to the sports that only rear their impressive heads around Olympic time. Names from sports were known even when there wasn’t an Olympic Games on the horizon. Neil Adams in Judo, Mike Hazell in Water-skiing, Desmond Douglas in table-tennis. And of course, you could be your own arbiter of what you wanted. Not fussed on volleyball, no matter – turn over to the John Wayne film on BBC2 for half an hour then back to 1 for the 50m Backstroke.
The London Olympics have brought into sharp focus how rich and varied sport and athletic pursuit can be and more to the point, how much people are prepared to buy into, appreciate and perhaps be inspired by these sports. I love football but am more than aware that its enormous and dominant presence on the airwaves, pages and websites all but sucks the air out of all other sports in this country giving an impression, for most of the four year cycle, that this is the be all and end all of sporting accomplishment when the reality, as we are currently seeing, is considerably different.
The nation has, by and large, embraced the Olympic Games with a rare and happy fervour. People are talking about the brilliance of the gymnastics, the blistering speed and success of Wiggo, Sir Chris, Pendleton et al. When Peter Wilson won his gold medal at shooting (yes, shooting) he did so in front of a packed to the rafters arena. We’ve shared in the tearful moments of astonishing rowers such as Katherine Grainger, finally winning gold after too many near misses. Every medal, every competitor with a story that compels for good or, in some cases, for not so good.
The country was collectively enraptured on Saturday night at the golden brilliance of Jessica Enis, Mo Farrah and Greg Rutherford. Last night more than 20 million people tuned in to watch Usain Bolt run 100 metres in 9.63 seconds. I can barely change channels on the remote in that amount of time. 20 million – that’s in the realm of Morcambe & Wise in their pomp.
But, what about next month?
The games will be over, already drifting into a pleasant memory and no more as the Premier League season, the national obsession that’s often as much soap opera as it is sport, kicks-off and reclaims every column inch and commentary. Our Olympic champions, medallists and heroes sliding back into the shadows, already spilling blood, sweat and tears of superhuman proportions for their assault on future world championships and the Rio Olympics in four years time. Away from the glare of the limelight (where, I suspect, most will be glad to be), their achievements collated into a nostalgic montage for the Sports Review of the Year show in December.
When the games were awarded to London the big selling point was at the time, as it is now – Legacy. An Olympics that would inspire the young to get on a bike or horse, into a boat, onto a running track, into a swimming pool. A future generation of ball sports beyond football and rugby – basketball, handball, volleyball. Archers, shooters, weightlifters and any of the other so called, minor sports that, once every four years, take their moment in the spot light.
Grandstand is a ready made, tried and tested platform for all these other sports to have some connection to the terrestrial masses. With the momentum these games have generated for such varied sports and the notion that sport in all its forms is an inclusive thing irrespective of age, culture or, in particular, gender then surely this is demonstration enough that there is nothing outdated about a feature length sports magazine show of which Grandstand was the daddy.
I hear the argument – the BBC can’t compete with the spending on live events – football, racing, golf, tennis, motor sport or whatever. But surely it doesn’t have to. These past few weeks demonstrate that there are plenty of sports out there with plenty of events happening throughout the calendar. Is there not scope for the BBC to scoop up some quality highlights packages and present them in a Saturday afternoon show that people can dip in and out of – the way we do with the brilliant Radio Five Live? A weekly round-up of all these sports occurring throughout the world whether it’s swimming galas, powerboats, downhill skiing, rowing, archery or basketball. Throw in the live events the Beeb do still have rights to – the SIx Nations, Grand National, Wimbledon or any number of smaller but no less enthralling events and you have yourself a blue ribbon sports show the envy of the world. Throw in the football updates (maybe tie in with Radio Five Live’s around the grounds coverage) and Bob Wilson’s Your Uncle.
So, come on Aunty B, your Olympic coverage has been brilliant – you’re good at this sort of stuff. Grandstand isn’t outdated – in fact, it’s never been more en vogue.