‘History is not a dull subject,’ warned Caryl Phillips, the novelist, at the end of his 9/11 Letter. ‘It’s a vital, contested narrative, peopled with witnesses to events which touch both head and heart. It’s the most important school subject because not remembering is the beginning of madness.’ Perhaps he should have said ‘not remembering correctly’ in this week of commemoration of the events of ten years ago.
Phillips’s letter was the most powerful of the five that were specially written for Radio 4’s Book of the Week (and produced by Julian May and Beaty Rubens). Most of them were fuelled by personal memories of being in the city on that day, but only Phillips gave us a witness account that was objective enough to carry a deeper meaning. He was in New York, teaching at Columbia University, a ‘resident alien’ with a British passport. He stepped out on to Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan on his way to class and noticed that people on the sidewalk were rooted to the spot and looking south. At what? The next moment he saw a huge explosion, and then a ball of flame erupted from the North Tower. ‘Nobody moved. There was total silence and then we strangers began to look at each other.’
What was surprising about his account was how, even after seeing that first explosion, he just carried on walking to the subway believing that the authorities would soon sort out the aftermath of the accident. It was only when he arrived at his office to find the computers down, the telephones dead and a colleague desperately anxious about her husband who was in the World Trade Center that the horror of what was happening began to sink in.