Ten years ago today (I’m writing on Sept 13, 2011) the Queen broke with tradition and ordered the military band at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to play the Star Spangled Banner in honor of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Newspapers called it “unprecedented”. The Queen attended the ceremony with Prince Andrew, and stood with Kentuckian William Farish, then the American Ambassador.
The Changing of the Guard is a magnet for American tourists. I don’t know why people go; it’s just lines of soldiers in funny hats scrunching through gravel, with a musical interlude to cover the gap in the middle when there’s no significant scrunching. (Few people seem to know there’s a parallel ceremony at St James’s Palace, as well as a mounted Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards.) It was thoughtful planning on the part of the Queen: she picked a place and time at which her expression of sympathy would reach a lot of Americans. About 20 times as many people came compared to a normal day, many of them Americans stuck without a flight home.
I didn’t go, though I was here in England. I was supposed to be in Kentucky. On Sept 11 I’d boarded a flight from Heathrow to Boston, the first leg of my itinerary. At the halfway point, mid-Atlantic, we could feel the plane changing course (nothing worrying there, planes do that). Then the pilot announced that our destination was now Heathrow Airport(extremely puzzling) because American airspace was closed (what the—?). Someone was hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon had already been hit (disbelief, dismay, distress).
We’d boarded as normal, keeping a polite distance, but suddenly we were all talking to each other, when we weren’t trying to use the phones at our seats, which were still a novelty back then (I’d upgraded to business class with frequent flyer miles). I suggested that if anybody managed to get through, they should pass along phone numbers and messages from all of us. We dialed and dialed, but only one person could get a free line, and nobody answered the phone at the other end.
The cabin crew was as calm as if it were any ordinary day. One stewardess knelt in the aisle to talk to a sobbing, panicked woman in our cabin. The stewardess told her that So-and-So, husband of a princess, was flying with us—she indicated an empty seat—and he knew all about security. He was in the cockpit, she said, helping the pilots, so everything was going to be fine. (Whatever help he might be in the cockpit, he’d be doing it without his glasses; he’d left them in his seat on top of his briefcase.)
(Sorry I can’t remember the name. I think it must have been Tim Laurence, now Vice Admiral Laurence, husband of Princess Anne. He’s held several high positions in the Ministry of Defence. And apparently he takes commercial flights.)
Another flight attendant told me our pilot was the second one to request permission to land at Heathrow, so we got to go back when most other planes this far out were being diverted all over the place, from Canada to the Caribbean. Then she asked me if I’d like a fruit and cheese plate.
Three hours later we landed at Heathrow at exactly the time we should have been landing in Boston. Employees herded us into an unused departure lounge—plenty of planes not departing—to wait until there was enough space for us in the Immigration Hall. The woman sitting to my left had a son and a daughter in the US military; she had papers in her bag about taking care of their children if the parents were sent overseas, and she fretted that she hadn’t already submitted them, because surely this meant war. On my right, an American scientist returning from a research trip carried a little box about the size of a car battery, full of samples he’d taken from some lake bed in Eastern Europe. They used my cell phone to find places to stay inLondon; I called my husband, who hit the road to fetch me back from the airport where he’d dropped me that morning.
Heathrow was in uproar, packed with ordinary passengers plus thousands whose flights out were cancelled, and people like me coming back from boomerang flights. In Immigration, at the barest mention of having been on a plane that turned back officials waved away passports and pushed people on to keep the traffic moving through to the chaos of baggage claim. At least my suitcase was easy to spot; it was a hand-me-down from in-laws who’d bought it in Beijing because they needed the biggest suitcase they could find. Bright red cardboard, with a satiny pink synthetic lining, it was designed to bring a bride good luck on her honeymoon. It was the only case we had big enough to hold a framed item I was taking as a gift. The framer had made it a priority job so I’d have it for the flight, but there it was, back in London. I dragged the monstrous suitcase—no wheels—through the crush and outside where, in another example of the kind of luck my husband always seems to have, he was just driving up, and I could get right into the car. Airport traffic jams had turned his 45-minute trip into something over two hours.
I seem to have a knack for missing big experiences that most of the country shares. I was in Estonia for a choral competition in 1994 when some late arrivals showed up from the US with tales of OJ’s chase down the freeway. I couldn’t see what the big deal was. If you aren’t caught up in the drama with everybody else—everyone saying “Did you hear?” and “Yeah, I know!”—you feel an outsider. In the case of 9/11, I was spared having to see it on television, in terrified fascination, with everybody else. I had been sitting for hours without any information at all, in fact—a different kind of terror. While nobody would want to to watch it, of course, not having been been there as the horror hit, step by step, left me forever feeling outside of the herd.
But being here meant I could see how the British reacted. The British are remarkably charitable, and they opened their arms to Americans. There was no schadenfraude, despite many Britons’ feeling that in general America is too big for its britches. Nobody said right after 9/11 that America needed taking down a peg.
There was no obvious place for people to make their feelings known. The American Embassy is a forbidding building, brutalist architecture at its most brutal. Gold-colored projections jut out at an angle from the wall towards the sidewalk in places; it looks for all the world like the building is shaking a brass-knuckled fist at passers-by. It’s all behind a layer of security fencing now, which doesn’t help. It sits in Grosvenor Square, a part of town most people have little occasion to visit unless they have embassy business, on a plot of land belonging to the Duke of Westminster who, asked to sell the land to the US, said he would sell if the US would give back the lands his family owned in Virginia, which were confiscated by the revolutionary government a couple of hundred years ago.
Still, some people went there to sign a book of condolence and leave flowers. Walking in London that week I passed a bust of Kennedy, its base piled with flowers. On Euston Road, a fire station flew an American flag and collected donations to help the families of firefighters killed in NY.
For a while, Americans had the moral high ground and the full sympathy of the British. Unfortunately when American bombs started falling, that support began to fall away, and anti-American sentiment began to rise. I hope we’ll see the pendulum swing back without needing the horrific deaths of nearly 3000 people to make it happen.
Here at the Anglo-American Experience blog, I thought the time was wrong for the promised posts about battle re-enactments, with simulated battlefield deaths. We have the real fallen to remember, and we don’t need historical costumes and muskets to do that. (Nor a fruit and cheese plate.)
(Photos from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)