Tuesday, 27 December 2011
Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 6. Fish to Fry
It was a beautiful day, not a cloud. We sat outside La Chariot in Algajola and ordered pizza with anchovies, served with a piquant olive oil and vinegar combination that wasn’t for the meek. We had stopped for a quick lunch and then it was to be a beach day; we had books to finish. Protected from the sun by silver birches that sheltered the restaurant’s garden, we shared a carafe of rose and waited for the earth to turn. We loved the odd duality of this calm, bustling haven; the patron Patrick was the double of Di’s brother Steve so, for her, it also had an illogical fraternal pull. Upon finishing our demi we began to wonder where our food was. The service here was usually great but, there was no service; everyone was crammed into the tiny bar watching television. I tried to catch an eye, but to no avail. Maybe it was a racing day; I knew that the old boys inside loved their horses, hacking and slapping their thighs as they wagered and lost centime after centime. I stumbled into the smoky darkness and peered at the throbbing silver glow. No horses, but what seemed like an American blockbuster; all sirens, explosions and an overactive NYPD. The hushed reverence with which this action was viewed confused me. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I asked the barman. “This” he announced, “is World War Three.” I lent towards the screen at the very moment that the second tower was hit. There was a collective throaty gasp as the shadow of a plane buried itself deep and indelibly into the consciousness of all who witnessed that devastating moment. The coverage was CNN but with an excitable French commentary that I couldn’t decipher. “An accident?” I asked the room. “Terrorists! New York is burning” a strangled voice replied. I held on to the bar, light headed with the gravity of the moment and caught myself, a stranger, in the long mirror above the bar. I wasn’t acting, this was momentous, America under attack on its own soil; things could never be the same again. I looked out of the bar into the absurd sunshine and beckoned Di in. Ahead of her waded a willowy man dressed in the traditional bleu de Chien, a faded blue cotton fishing jacket, and bright red rubber boots, with a simple fishing rod over his shoulder and the handle of a green plastic bucket in his hand. What hair remained was oiled and middle parted. Atop a prominent elegant nose he wore round tortoise shell spectacles, beneath, his luxuriant moustache was the stuff of legend. Oblivious to the unfolding drama he made his way lugubriously to the bar and ordered a glass of Pastis, which he held for an age beneath that long nose before downing it in one. Wiping his moustache with the back of a hand, he took off his glasses and scanned the room, his bleary eyes eventually resting on mine. He nodded down at his bucket with a shrug. “Up since dawn, for one fish. Merde!” I looked into the slopping container. A lonely mullet was doing laps, fishing for company, or a way out. Ordering another drink the man’s squinting gaze followed mine to the TV screen. The twin towers smoked and blazed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he asked, indifferently, scratching his peeling pate. “This,” I replied “is World War Three. Terrorists!” He arched his eyebrows and scowled down at his catch. “Terrible, a disaster” I muttered. “Terrible yes, but not a disaster” he gently kicked his bucket, “for tonight there will be fish soup”.
Later, back in England I would see a TV documentary on 'The Falling Man', about the efforts to identify a poor soul captured on film that day, falling to his death from World Trade Centre. Since its publication the now iconic photograph, taken by Richard Drew, has been invested with many layers of meaning. Some thought that the image should be airbrushed from history, that to view it was voyeuristic. Others saw it as a symbol, a new flag for a now outward looking America. There seems to be a calm about the man's descent that defies the horrors surrounding him, he's caught in a brief moment of apparent grace. Of course, the images before and after that frame tell the true tale of this prelude to extinction; he hurtles at 130mph, limbs akimbo, towards certain death. I was struck by the idea of this being the man's last choice. He could accept the fate thrust upon him by the terrorists, or he could choose to control his own destiny, albeit a limited choice, but still an empowering moment; not suicide, but choosing his own time of departure. Is there not a dignity in that, and should we not recognise that dignity? To look away would seem to deny the fact that he made a choice, should we not honour him by bearing witness? I wrestled with the subject. There was something in the way that people reacted to the photo that intrigued me. Eventually it came to me; we all wanted to see his face, his expression, to know how he felt, to see ourselves in his place. There but for the grace of God indeed, he is ‘all of us’! I then heard an interview with a man who had spoken to his wife on a cell phone just before she jumped. He spoke calmly about her making the ultimate choice, and the comfort taken from knowing that she was thinking of him and their children as she leapt and, he was sure, that for her it was a kind of homecoming. She was able to breathe freely and for one last moment be under a beautiful blue sky. He said something like "to be out of the smoke and into fresh air, she must have felt like she was flying", an endorsement of the human spirit too profound to ignore. The idea that, as this horror unravelled, I was under the same blue sky, looking into a green bucket, sharing a Corsican fisherman’s disappointment, remains a constant reminder to me of the vagaries and vulnerabilities of any life, the transience and resilience of the human condition and the profundity of the mundane. As strangers bequeath their chosen Heaven or Hell upon us all, no man truly controls his own destiny. Whilst individually we all live where compromise leads us, collectively we must learn to control our politicians and to own our religions. We empower them to provide protection and comfort, not perpetuate the terrors that seem to feed them. At a distance the world might tear itself apart, but meanwhile on that peculiar island, there were other fish to fry.