Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11


Exactly ten years ago today I was standing at my desk in my office in Central London, talking to an ex-employee about future prospects. We'd been for a pint.
The phone rang. It was my PA and very good friend telling me to turn on the TV. Jokingly, I said I was busy and hung up. She rang back. "Turn on the FUCKING TELLY" she shouted and what seemed like seconds later was upstairs in the corner of my office turning on said telly so we could see the North Tower of the World Trade Centre burn.
We had no idea what we were watching. It looked like a movie.
My partner appeared from her office next door. Her brother, whom she was very close to, worked for a company called Marsh McLennan in New York. They occupied the top few floors of the North Tower.
We stared in disbelief.
As an independent media company in London who worked for several broadcasters, principally in the US, we had a TV that was almost permanently tuned to CNN.
The second plane hit as we were watching.
Our office, like everybody else's, ground to a halt quickly as all the staff came in to watch my TV. My partner began to cry. She began to sob, uncontrollably. Within a few minutes she was screaming. As the rest of us watched the buildings collapse we realised we were not watching a movie, but some kind of declaration of war on the western world. She thought she was watching her brother die.
The phones were going mad. My ex-wife called from Canary Wharf in London's Docklands to say they were being evacuated because they thought they were the next target. Understandably, she was terrified as she fled the building. But not as inconsolable as my partner. She was shaking and crying as the picture unfolded before us.

It's ten years ago now, and as a consequence of time, we are distanced from the hell of that day. Paul Greengrass's movie "United 93" perfectly captures the terror, and last week a documentary shown on ITV in the UK made by Brook Lapping "9/11: The Day That Changed The World" recorded the ticktock nature of how it all unfolded.

But on the day itself we were watching complete and utter confusion. We were also watching in excess of 3000 people being murdered, live on TV.

There was no communication with New York. My partner thought her brother was dead. We were due to fly to Japan at 5pm but everything was grounded. Our cameraman, based in New Zealand, was already in the air, heading towards Kansai, where he later landed and was forced to stay (in Kyoto) for two days - where incidentally everyone was utterly civil to him, constantly apologising for what had happened. In London, our staff were gathered on the floor of my office drinking and smoking, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. At some point in the middle of this madness my partner's brother managed to get a telephone connection to a Canadian friend, who communicated to his sister that he was not dead after all. He had been at a breakfast meeting in midtown that morning and was alive.

It was all his colleagues who were dead.

I used to live in New York, in Lower Manhattan, and decided we were going, that moment. We started, sometime in the late afternoon, and realised en route it was futile. Civilian Airspace over the USA, as we all now know, was closed, but a chartered 'media' flight from Stansted was on standby to go to Canada, so we headed there and met everyone we knew, waiting but grounded for what turned out to be two days or so. We stayed in the terminal building for most of the night then headed back to London.

I headed out on the first available flight from Heathrow a couple of days later with American Airlines, whom I'd always flown with and always will. I'd turned up - as advised - three hours before departure. Heathrow was a ghost town. I sailed through checkin and security. I sat and waited. And waited. On my own. The flight was called and I boarded and sat. The plane was virtually empty.

Fifteen minutes before takeoff, a late passenger came running on, sweating. This was unsettling in itself. He was a Middle Eastern gentleman, in full dishdash, pulling his luggage down the aisle.
In normal circumstances, this would have been perfectly acceptable.......

I arrived in New York having been told that I would get "nowhere near" Ground Zero because of security - everything was closed south of Canal Street. I walked all the way down through Lower Manhattan from SoHo, and walked straight in to Ground Zero. I wandered around. It was surreal. I'd never visited a demolition site before, let alone one on this scale, and ironically it had the air of a construction site, there was so much frenetic activity. A couple of days before I'd been watching the towers burn. Here I was wandering around the rubble.
I spoke to all kinds of people who were engaged in various activities. My camera crew refused to come anywhere near at first but I persuaded them. We walked freely around the area, interviewing the most astonishing people for a series of programes in the most astonishing circumstances.
Everything was covered in thick, thick dust.
I spoke with my old neighbours in Tribeca, including the owners of restaurants like Robert de Niro's Tribeca Grill . "I can't take my boots off" said Tracey, one of his partners, looking down at the dust, "That's not just dust. That's people we used to deliver food to"
I'd always bought my shoes from Craig's Shoes on Chambers Street and spoke with them too. They'd stood and looked up as the first plane hit. "Den I jus ran" said Pedro, " as fast as my liddle legs could go. All the way up to Canal" But that day and next they supplied boots to the rescue workers - 700 pairs.

It was a harrowing period, but at least I wasn't one of the thousands of bereaved who were posting notes on the fence down at Ground Zero. I was exploring displaced companies in buildings with no electricity, following Giuliani to funeral after funeral and suddenly running on to helicopters to try to go to more, talking to people who had absolutely no fucking idea why they had been attacked and witnessing deeply personal stories - hi Nan - which won't be revealed again here.

I shuttled back and forth to London and after the work was over I returned to spend New Year's Eve in Times Square, the "W" Hotel was opening early and having a party. The ball dropped on the stroke of midnight and there was an audible gasp - believe me, everyone feared another attack - but all was well.

It was only a little time later that I returned again with my small daughter, and we revisited our loft apartment in Reade Street, where the front window had perfectly framed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. She looked out through the glass and burst into tears.
"It's not there" she wailed.

No darling, it's not.


Monday, September 05, 2011

Hot Dog


Speaking as someone who has never knowingly bought a branded product as a result of advertising, and refuses to consider self delusion as a trait, it came as a shock to turn into Pavlov's Dog on reading, of all things, a restaurant review. I tend not to go to restaurants because of reviews, I have to go to too many as a matter of course, but Jay Rayner in the UK Observer wrote about a new Chinatown gaff, Manchurian Legends, which hit a deep, dark spot. So my journey is personal, not professional, and we are therefore blogging.

Of all the big dick-swinging critics who inhabit the UK media, Jay is up at the top of the heap, a talented writer with a neat line in self-deprecation who has happily turned his attention to restaurants after many years looking at slightly more dangerous areas of life. He is also adept at chairing the UK panel of the "World's Best 50 Restaurants" which manages to be no such thing, as it's almost entirely controlled by Brits, and being the author of a fine international book, The Man Who Ate The World, which if nothing else tells you some of the best places to go in Japan.

All the critics go to new London places, then they all scurry off and feel guilty about spending all their time in the Capital (except Giles Coren, another Japan expert) and visit Surrey. Or Yorkshire.

But Jay's unashamed metropolitan foray into Macclesfield Street in London's Chinatown had left me slavering with anticipation. I had to go.
The place itself is small and boring, ("we hope you enjoy our 1910's decor") but let me explain that I expect my favourite places in Chinatown to be small and boring. My comfort zone is the CCK (large and boring) and The New World (boring). In Lisle Street the smallest, most boring place is Hing Loon, but what these three and a few others have in common is wonderful, cheap food. I'm afraid as Chinatown has declined the new places with big glossy menus and big plastic ornamentation don't do it for me. I'm an old Loon Fung regular.

Let's just say from the getgo that Jay's enthusiasm is not misplaced. Manchurian Legends is excellent. It's got a menu unlike any of its Cantonese neighbours (the food, and the chef, come from North East China) and Jay's eulogising is firmly rooted in his adoration of hot, spicy food, faintly irregular piggy bits that come fired with chilli, or oozing with dense, savoury flavour. And that, in the form of grilled kebabs, is the main attraction here.

There's a lunchtime menu for under a tenner - don't bother with that - the kebabs are only £1.50 and they're big! Forget those little JapaneseYakitori sticks or Basque pinxto cocktail sticks, these are big and meathy. And they are laden with chilli. Imagine you'd just cooked a kebab, which had already been marinading in something hot and spicy, and after it came off the grill you decided to adorn it with rock salt and then a generous helping of dried chilli flakes and a few other dried spices that were to hand. You're getting the idea.

We couldn't even finish the fourth one, a pork belly kebab (£1.50!) because the previous lamb ones had been tender, full of flavour and hot.

Before that we'd followed Mr Rayner's advice and started with spinach and chilli - cold dressed fresh green leaves spiked with chilli and mixed with peanuts. Gorgeous. But I also headed for unknown territory, chilli pork jelly with garlic, having promised not to have jelly fish again. Not a popular choice when sharing. (in theory at least). The pork jelly was toothsome, meaning not too soft, but with a slight tendency towards meatiness. Yum.
After that there were dumplings, admirably home made and meaty (pork and pickle) with a fiery dipping sauce thick with solid matter - chilli flakes, spices, etc. What Mr Rayner failed to point out (as far as I remember) was the sheer size of the portions. We over-ordered, a bowl of rice lay virtually untouched.

There came a point, about halfway through the kebabs, when I felt as if I was on fire. Not an unpleasant experience, more a warmth from the chilli heat that took over. In fact, this being the end of the summer, it was pleasant indeed. It lasted until well after we left. We couldn't do mains, too much, but the menu reads well, if a little foreign - hot and spicy pig knuckle, leek fried pork jelly, stir-fried pig's offal (with chilli - you're getting the picture?) and steamed fish head with, er, chilli and pepper. Even with two glasses of wine, our bill was still under £20 a head, without mains but replete.

A place to go back to time and again. I have booked three big eaters for a day starting at the French, dining here, and then possibly repairing to the French again.

Why, I'm almost salivating at the thought.