Sunday, 4 September 2011

The fallen

Falling Man by Richard Drew
As we approach a decade since the 9/11 attacks, there are the expected news stories, TV documentaries, magazine articles, etc. recalling the horrific events of that day and paying tribute to those who died. In the Sunday Times today was a very interesting feature questioning 'Why America won't talk about the scores who jumped from the Twin Towers'.
In the article, David James Smith investigates the response of, among others,  the media, officials, emergency services and, of course, the families of those who leapt to their deaths. Smith encounters resistance – some feel the term 'jump' or 'jumper' is inappropriate as they were 'forced or pushed out by the heat of the flames'. Smith writes, "To be a jumper, many people feel, implies the act of suicide, an act that some perceive as shameful".  Officially, all the deaths as a result of 9/11, with the exception of the hijackers were ruled to be homicides, not sucides.
Others, including firefighters, are so traumatised by witnessing the sight and sound of the falling bodies they can barely speak about it. The first firefighter to be killed on 9/11 – Danny Suhr – was, in fact, hit by a falling woman. Some families have taken comfort from the fact that their loved-ones decided to jump, as it meant they had taken some control in an out-of-control situation. One mother saying "They were falling into the arms of God".
Of all the photographs taken of those who fell to their deaths, is one known as 'The Falling Man' taken by photographer Richard Drew (see pic above). It is an incredible photograph, and one which has caused great debate over the identity of the individual and whether it was morally right to publish such a picture. Drew has said he "liked to think of the Falling Man as the photographic equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, representing all those who had died by jumping or falling".
This was a really interesting feature, on a subject which will always remain complex and highly-emotive. And among the thoughts and feelings provoked as I read about these men and women who fell to their deaths, is how must it feel to have to choose your death? Would I have stayed put to be consumed by fire, or let the building collapse on me? Or would I jump out of the window? Suicide is choosing to turn away from life. These people chose one form of death to escape from another. There is no word for that.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Making a connection

Last night I settled down to watch 'Who Do You Think You Are' on BBC One. I love this series – it's always an entertaining and informative mix of history lesson, practical advice on how to find ancestors, following the trail around the globe, and, of course, seeing 'celebrities' in a different light.
This week it was the actor Larry Lamb. And what a story! He came from a family of well-known showmen and wild beast menagerie owners. One great-great uncle, called James Day, was a lion tamer known as Jimmy Wildbeast (see pic), while his other, more famous great-great uncle was Thomas Day, alias Martini Bartlett – king of the lion tamers. Fantastic! But alongside the surprising characters, was the rather sad story of Larry's mum who had been adopted and always hoped to see her birth mother again. Unfortunately, she never did.
In every episode I've watched over the years, there is always a moment where even the seemingly 'hardened' celebrities start to get emotional. Jeremy Paxman being a case in point. Sometimes it's because they feel sorry for ancestors who have suffered or fallen on hard times. Or perhaps they have met up with relatives they never knew existed. But last night, Larry Lamb became very emotional as he realised he had more in common with his ancestors than just looks or characteristics. After explaining he had found strength from knowing who his grandparents were, he wanted to say something else, but had to take a moment to compose himself. When he did, he said "Because you're just a part of the journey yourself".
I thought his strong reaction to this notion was both interesting and very moving. Like many people, I've attempted to trace my family tree and, alongside the thrill of making a connection to certain people in a certain place during a certain point in history, is the realisation that, like them, we are born, live, love, laugh, cry... and die. Here one moment, gone the next. That is our connection. It's the same journey, just different outfits.