In the 70s and 80s, one of the most talked-about, iconic freeze-frame moments was the death of JFK. “People always remember where they were when Kennedy was shot,” was a common, and for the main part true, statement for decades after. It’s used less as a historical social marker today, not simply because younger generations weren’t alive to witness it, but also because there have been countless other events of great magnitude, filling our lives with tragic and momentous milestones that will be with us always.
The Zebrugge ferry disaster is one such beacon of the past. Images of the bright orange hull of the vessel remain as vivid to me today, exactly 20 years on, as they did when they were first beamed across my television screen. Even though I was only nine at the time, the day is clearer in my mind than many days last month. I recall sitting eating Shreddies in my living room, thinking the unfolding events must be serious because I was allowed to eat and watch TV at the same time. The ferry, turned on its side as if it were a toy in a pond, immediately changed from being a symbol of excitement and summer holidays to one of tragedy, loss and fallibility. When you’re a child you tend to deem everything as safe until experience tells you otherwise. And although I did go on a ferry again, it was with a changed perspective – no longer the wide-eyed childish wonder of old, instead a pragmatic approach of functionality. Even the place itself – Zebrugge – became synonymous with the disaster and all the fears and emotions that were evoked by it.
The “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” conversation-starter was some form of cultural reference point for the 60s generation, and the memories and events surrounding it became a zeitgeist for the western world. But for society now, in Britain at least, there have been so many reference points during the two decades since Zebrugge that our memories can be stirred by myriad variations of the “where were you when…?” question. In the past 20 years, our lives have been punctuated with events, which, if grouped together in some form of mental film archive, would provide a poignant snapshot of the last days of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.
Which events hold significance in your consciousness? Which would be included in your personal archive? I don’t believe these are solely tragic, although by their very nature many of them are. One symbolic occasion of my youth was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I recall clearly my German teacher’s delight at telling us of the “vereinigung” and seeing the subsequent TV pictures of elated crowds hacking the concrete curtain to pieces. The tiny, graffitied chunk of rock my brother had brought me back from an earlier visit to Berlin was all of a sudden an even more symbolic piece of history – and I had a part of it in my bedroom.
I’ve already collected several significant mental bookmarks in my 29 years, attached to each are the lucid flashbacks of specific days: the glorious sunshine of Liverpool, my university town, on the day after the Labour landslide in 1997(the mood of my street so jubilant a stranger hugged me at the bus stop); coming back from a night out four months later and making endless rounds of toast as we stayed awake to watch the blanket coverage of the tragic death of Diana; being told about the first plane crashing into the twin towers by a man on the street in central London on 9/11 and my own disbelief as I watched the full scale of the horror unfold; and, most recently, the eeriness of the dumbstruck, crowded London streets while walking to and from work on that hot July day after the terror attacks on the Tube and bus.
Over the course of our lives we will accumulate different memories and individual reference points to events of such magnitude. And, although a great many of us are fortunately far removed from the immediate and most acutely-felt effects, their potency will remain with us throughout the passage of time. Often it’s the insignificant things – the blistered feet from walking home in heels on 7/7, the misspelled “Diana, she will always be rembered” sign in the local shop, and dropping Shreddies on the carpet the morning after the Zebrugge disaster – that remind us of the emotions and gravity of a particular occasion. It is important that this should always be so, for no matter how minor our involvement was in such happenings, these recollections echo more significant parts of our history, and we will always have a role in it, no matter how trivial our observations seem to us.
Which events of the past 20 years hold significance for you? Do you remember where you were and how you felt? Let us know your thoughts.