On Monday, PM Julia Gillard gave a short press conference to respond to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. ‘We will remember where we were when we heard this news,’ she said. It was an odd thing to say.
It’s true. There are some moments that seem so overwhelming at the time that they remain sharply in the memory. But the point about those moments is precisely that nobody needs to tell you to remember them – you just do.
I remember waking on the morning following Osama bin Laden’s greatest triumph, the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. They took place late at night, Brisbane time, and divided us into the owls, who saw the footage live, and larks like me who only saw the replays. I remember turning on the TV before breakfast to see the footage, and later the buzz in the tea room at work.
That afternoon, I was giving a guest lecture on Australian history to a group of visiting American marine biology students, and made a short, stilted speech expressing my sympathy. We all did, something to recall now when so much of that global sympathy towards America has been dissipated by later events.
But there are other moments that remain sharp long after the event – and I wonder why. In order, from my own lifetime:
The Suez Crisis, 1956. I remember sitting in my school uniform in front of the radiogram, waiting to listen to The Argonauts. And crying when I had to let my father listen to another station, ‘because there might be a war.’
President Kennedy’s assassination, 1963. We’d just finished the Junior exams, and my friend and I [hello, Adele!] went to the pictures to see that year’s teen flick, Bye, Bye, Birdie. As always then, there was a double bill, and the first feature was a travel documentary called Wonderful Dallas Texas. (This still strikes me as very odd – could they have found some cartoons or something to replace it?)
Neil Armstrong on the moon, 1969. My flat mate and I took the day off classes and offered open house to other students to come around to watch it all on TV. The footage was slow and boring, but we all had a feeling that the event was momentous – and this is often cited as the first really global TV event.
End of the Whitlam government, 1975. I was tutoring in Australian history, and spent that afternoon marking final essays in my office – with no phone, no mobile, no internet, and in an outlying building, I missed the drama completely. Several hours later, I stepped out into the corridor to hear radios on in most offices, and gatherings of people talking. (One of the essay topics dealt with the 1932 dismissal of Premier Jack Lang by the NSW Governor, which at least gave me a head start with constitutional arguments during the next few weeks.)
The Challenger disaster, 1986. My husband was working in Fontainebleau, south of Paris, and we were living in an old, faded, freezing mansion that had been broken up for student housing. There was a TV in the shared area, and we all – Chinese, Indians, Iranians and us – gathered to watch as the shuttle veered off course and spun out of control.
I’m wondering what, if anything, all these moments have in common. The term ‘historic’ is used far too loosely today, but I suppose all these were historically significant moments. None were mediated through the politicians (not even 1975). All had a searing immediacy that most events lack. All of them reached me through the mass media of the day – radio, cinema, TV. Usually I can remember the weather, or the season, but dates – 11 November, 9/11 – are only memorable when they have been repeated endlessly since.
By the standards of these events, which are all a part of our wider experience of the history of the 20th century, I don’t think Osama bin Laden’s death (as opposed to his life) really rates. But politicians have been trying to tell us what, when and how to remember for a very long time. This is Henry V, mediated by Shakespeare, saying something rather similar:
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
Okay – so when was St Crispin’s day?