The night they bombed Baghdad – the first time – I was out at the TV station where I was working. I saw it in hospitality, on the big screen. The room was full of people drinking; people from the show, and also, because they were bombing Baghdad, other people from around the building. They just drifted in. There were no rules to hospitality, but on a normal night these people would not have come in for a beer at the end of the day. People from other programmes, the crew, the guys on cameras, the vision mixer, the guys who did sound on the studio floor. So we were all together. And on the screen for the first time was that green colour which was the colour of the news when they bombed Baghdad.

I have been thinking about it because, this morning, I was woken by the sound of a pneumatic drill. When I looked out, there was a film crew on the street, two floors down. And when I switched on the radio they were bombing Yugoslavia, not Belgrade, but somewhere out of sight (though it is hard to tell from the radio).

They have built a line of market stalls along one kerb and are setting vegetables out on them, potatoes and carrots, cabbages, apples and leeks. One stall is hung with dead rabbits, another with dead birds. There is a table of little windmills, like the plastic propellers we used to blow as children, but made of wood.

This street was built in the 18th century, but I am guessing that the film is set later, because they have boarded up a doorway to make the place look slummish and rundown. Of course it need not be this street, or even this city. They have put a sign on the railings that says Windsor Terrace; and it looks like the kind of sign you see still in London. So it could be anywhere, anytime. It could be 1850 or 1930. I look down at the crew rubbing their hands in the cold, and I wonder when the past starts.

We stayed up all night, some of us. For those first minutes in hospitality we all looked at the screen, and the other people were just heads in the way. Perhaps the room was dark. I have a memory of the silhouette of a crowd fringing the bottom of the TV screen. It had been a busy day, and there were things I still had to say to people, not to mention all the things they wanted to say to me. But I had the feeling, as the war broke, that I was not separate any more – which is to say, I was no longer just someone who worked in TV.

The bulk of people did not stay too long. Taxis had been ordered for the guests, though it is possible that they made them wait, or that the taxi men came in for a few minutes because they had heard the news. Anyway, I do not remember how long this kind of shock lasts, this kind of pleasure. When you are in a crowd, it feels like a long time.

But one by one, people broke away and went home. I arrived at my flat and turned on the TV and watched the war until three in the morning. My flatmate went to bed, which I didn’t understand. What is that feeling, when you can’t drag your eyes away, and someone else gets up to leave? It is a feeling like betrayal, but more vicious and more slight. You are aware, suddenly, that your focus is a kind of calm violence. Maybe all interruptions are like this, they distract us from murder.

That flat was on the same street as the one on which I now live, except that it was in an original Georgian building and this is in a reproduction. Except that it was on the top floor, and draughty, whereas this is small and warm. Except it was rented and this, the fake one, is owned, and therefore feels more real to me.

They have hung washing from the balconies, in dusty shades of pink and lilac. The alarms have been covered with little wooden boxes that are painted red to match the brickwork. But there are rattan blinds on one window. I wonder what they will do with them. Even from here, I can see that the vegetables are too big and clean. As late as 1970, all vegetables in Ireland had dirt on them, even in the supermarkets.

They have set camera tracks along the line of stalls and the actors are arriving (I have come from the window to type this). As far as I can make out, the film is Victorian. There are a lot of stovepipe hats and large collars. The person getting his face patted with make-up has the largest collar of all, and looks eccentric. I am assuming that it’s a story by Dickens. There are two dwarves in position, on either side of a bottle stall. All along the street, people are at their windows, like the old tenement days.

The morning after they bombed Baghdad, everyone in the office was exhausted, but no one was late. We were on air again that night, live. Other programmes would have their angles and their guests, so by the time it came to us, the story would be old, but still vital. The audience would want more of it, but not more of the same.

We checked with each other what we had seen and how far into the night we had each stayed watching. Three o’clock, five o’clock. No one else saw the reporter in Saudi cut off suddenly, as though a bomb had landed just where he was standing. I had seen it, and thought for a moment that the world was going to end. The screen cut to snow and I looked out of the window checking for the sonic whine of missiles, incoming.

One of the guys in the office said he had not been to bed at all. Or perhaps he had managed an hour. I can’t remember now. One eye crossed a little when he was tired, and this morning it was very pronounced. He sat in the chair opposite mine, sideways to the desk, and said he had been up all night. He was wearing a blue shirt.

I said I had given up at three o’clock and gone to bed. He looked at me, helpless and accusing, as if to say: ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ As if nobody cared, and it was up to him to care for all the people who were being killed in Baghdad.

He was dying at the time, and he knew that he was dying. So perhaps that is why he felt so much for the people of Baghdad. I remember the way he sat. I remember his shirt, a fine weave of indigo and white, with a polo player embroidered on the pocket. I remember the fact that, because he was dying, he demanded that I love him, and so I did.

But I feel I should not write about him. I do not want to settle him with a sentence, or hedge him around in any way. All the things I could say about him are compromised by this, by the fact that he is dead. And my memories, too, are compromised. Perhaps he did not sit side on to the desk. Perhaps he was wearing a different shirt. Each image I catch frightens me, I might lose it by having it, I might even kill it by seeing it in my mind’s eye.

That day, or perhaps the next, they showed pictures taken by cameras that were in the noses of bombs. The pictures cut out on impact, so instead of an explosion we got snow. It was like watching a suicide, not a war, and this made it doubly exhilarating. We talked about this on air, and we made fun of the news coverage, because of all the live programmes, ours was the most ironic, the only one that was allowed to laugh.

Down at the shops, they tell me the film is David Copperfield, and the guy with the big collar is famous, he plays the lead in one of the big American sitcoms. They do not know the name of the character he plays, but this is fine, because I have not read the book either (though I might remember it from a previous film). The other names mean nothing to me, the name of the actor and the name of his sitcom character, because I don’t have a TV any more, have not had one for years.

They are still filming. The guy with the eccentric collar leads David Copperfield down the line of market stalls. A little boy follows with the trunk. They get to the dwarves’ stall and, further up the street, a group of extras starts shouting and gesturing at a second-floor window. The man with the big collar does a large double take and ducks up an alleyway, to hide. They do this many times. Once, in the strength of his reaction, he loses his hat. Cut. I look at the horses, wondering if they are in this shot. One of them takes a crap and men with puffa jackets and shovels come to clean it up.

The crowd of extras is very loud. They shout the same way every time. They have found a rhythm, a kind of ‘Huh huh, huh dee huh’. They shoot it several times, of course, from several different angles, and I wish they would stop. I turn on the radio and listen to the news.

This is a foolish day. There is no use wondering which bit of it is real. The bombing is real. My friend was real, before he died. His blue shirt is hanging up somewhere, if I wanted to check the colour, or the weave. The way he spoke and laughed is gone, the way he looked at me as he sat side on to the desk. This must have happened, did happen, but the most I can say is that it was real at the time. It was all real enough at the time.

Films are nothing new on this street. Last year a man came around and gave people 500 quid to let them paint their front doors black. I only live in an upstairs flat so I didn’t get any money, but I promised myself then that I would go down the next time. I would go up to one of the men in the puffa jackets and say: ‘Listen, I’m really trying to get a bit of work done, you know?’ I need quiet. I am writing about the exact blue of a shirt. Because the real is sacred, when it is gone.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences