Where were you on 9/11?

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers, many people will be asking that question - where were you when the planes hit?

I'll tell you where I was. Just about to get into a taxi, heading for the airport. To get on a plane.

No, I wasn't in New York. I was in Edinburgh. At the time I was working on a project for RBS, designing and implementing a computer system to enable them to produce consolidated financial and regulatory reporting on something rather more robust and auditable than an Excel spreadsheet. I was dividing my time between London and Edinburgh, and on Tuesday September 11th 2001, I had been in Edinburgh for two days and was about to fly home. Just as I was leaving the office, someone said to me "have you heard the news?" I looked round, and on the computer screens were the images of the smoking twin towers.

I still got on that plane. It was the weirdest flight I have ever been on in my life. Everyone knew, of course - but no-one was saying anything. The only indication of anything being abnormal was cabin crew handing out double gin & tonics. That, and the atmosphere. You could cut it with a knife. I don't think I have ever been so scared, and I am certain I was not the only one who felt like that.

Our landing at Gatwick was uneventful, and there was no extra security as we went through to Arrivals. But in my taxi on the M25, we heard the news that Gatwick had been closed. Apparently mine was the last domestic flight to land before everything was grounded.

Why did I get on that plane? Well, I did toy with the idea of diverting to Waverley station and trying to get a train. But that would have caused a big problem. You see, I had to pick up the kids from the childminder at 6 pm.....

The events of 9/11 forced me to look hard at the life I was living. For the first time I realised how very tenuous my childcare arrangements were - that while my children were in school and nursery, I was four hundred miles away.  And that happened nearly every week. They couldn't be ill, or unhappy, or short of some essential, because Mummy couldn't drop everything and run to the school or nursery at a moment's notice. And on 9/11, Mummy nearly didn't get home at all.

I felt that my children deserved a mother who had time for them, who could be there for them. Yes, I earned a good income. But the hours I worked, the travel, and the mental aggravation of senior-level banking meant that I was either physically not present or personally unavailable. That wasn't the sort of mum I wanted to be.

So when I completed the RBS project I looked for work that was more compatible with family life and the needs of my children - and my own need to be a decent mum. I set up my own business as a freelance singer and teacher, funded it from savings, and was afloat within three years from scratch.  It is hardly the most lucrative profession in the world, and I am much poorer financially than I was before. But I have gained so much from having time with my children - and even more from discovering that I have a real talent for teaching and can help so many young and not-so-young people learn to enjoy singing, many for the first time.

I have no regrets at all that I left banking, and I do not plan to return. But that won't stop me talking about it, writing about it and trying to influence policy makers as they struggle to reform banking for the 21st Century.  I worked in banking for a long time and I know it well. I have much to say.


  1. Good story! I hate it when I'm scared on on a plane - I probably would have barfed from passive fear (after drinking the double gin and tonic). I do understand however, that thinking about your mortality helps get your priorities in order. I'm glad for your children too.

    Where was I? I was going to have the presentation of my career - to high government officials. That got canceled. I even wrote about it on my blog http://bit.ly/nUEoAN (in case you want to compare notes).

    You learned the importance of family, I learned the importance of not building your career on societies that have to worry about "blowback" - so I emigrated.

  2. I too was in Edinburgh that day. The whole office was shocked. I had to entertain a visiting project manager from London. Town was almost empty that night and the atmosphere so subdued and the conversation morbid.

  3. I was at home, when the phone rang. It was my 20-year-old daughter telling me to turn on the TV. We'd been in New York together four years previously and had been aghast at the scale of the Twin Towers. I saw them as edifices to Mammon and was pretty disgusted.

    September 11 2001 didn't alter my perception of the world, nor did my life change. That was to happen a few years later following a (for-me) traumatic personal event that made me acutely, sometimes painfully conscious of mortality which, as @Charles E comments, is generally a game-changer. My politics didn't alter but the realisation of the fleetingness of time passing (seemingly increasingly quickly) has never left me, and almost daily enters my consciousness.

    As 9/11 was for you, Frances, so for me the effect has been a family one - a radical improvement in my relationship with my daughter, always loved but inadequately nurtured during childhood. Today, the searingly painful realisation of my failure only now occasionally catches me short. We're well down the road of a close friendship. Forgiveness is the best healer!

  4. Frances,

    It was a life-changing moment in time. That must have been the strangest experience but I am glad you were able to make a positive decision from it.

    Lesley x

  5. Great post, love your story and am going through a very similar process, from a well paid job as Financial Controller in large corporations but a hideous one in having to deal with many horrible people (those who can't or won't do proper Finance), a horrible subject (double-entry) and working 16 hours a day often evenings and weekends plus company smartphone always vibrating with emails, to my life-long passion (trading), initially funded from savings, and so far making me financially poorer but much much happier: I do something I actually enjoy, I have more time for my family (girlfriend and child), I am healthier myself (no stress, no unhappiness, no back-ache - used to travel lots for work). People call it mid-life crisis, but I call it choosing to be happy.


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