“They told us our gods would outlive us
They told us our dreams would outlive us
They told us our gods would outlive us
But they lied.”
Nick Cave, Distant Sky
Until now, I’d always believed that 1989 would remain the towering landmark of my lifetime – a year that saw an old world crumple to its knees while a new one, younger and better, sprang to its feet.
1989: a number whose gentle curves cannot contain the volumes of history that poured out of Europe in twelve months and a single night when, with a reverential sense of timing, brave Berliners brought down their Wall 200 years after their Parisian cousins had stormed the Bastille. We watched people refuse division, demand freedom and then seize it with their own bare hands. We watched them hugging and kissing and dancing, and we felt part of it. That was when I fell in love with Europe.
Liberty, however, requires certain things. Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions. It demands acceptance of multiple, perhaps incompatible truths.
London, 17 October 1973
Relaxed and elegantly coiffed in his warm television studio, Brian Clough shares his genius with the nation. On this gloomy London night, England must beat Poland to reach football’s World Cup finals. The opposition are certainly no pushovers, they offer a little more skill and flair than most teams from the Soviet bloc, but the brilliant mind of Brian has uncovered a weakness in the Polish side: “That clown at the other end of the pitch,” he says of the Polish goalkeeper, drawing uncomfortable frowns from the other pundits sat around the table.
Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us, and there is no way out of it. Those in this situation who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. The limits of that which cannot speak to us – the unfathomable – no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.
We are at war. But the enemy is not who we think it is.
Sooner or maybe much later we will defeat IS, but this is not what is truly at stake. When that particular gang of criminals is finally worn down, another will spring up to take its place. If we haven’t learnt this over the last two decades, we never will.
At these moments of shock and sorrow, we ritually appeal to our values. This is all very well but it’s starting to ring hollow or at least a little weary. This is because that very appeal captures neither the scale nor the urgency of the task we face.
So what is truly at stake? In one word and an entire universe that lies behind it: freedom. Not the freedom to do this or the freedom to do that. But freedom in all its unique simplicity.
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
Christmas arrives a week early this year. Disciples spanning three generations will converge on cinemas from Bombay to Boston to witness the seventh instalment of this planet’s favourite space saga. If a two-minute trailer can ignite the sort of fervour we saw this week – the faithful beheld mysterious images that foretold the Good News, and they were pleased – we can only wonder what forces Star Wars will awaken when the film reaches our screens.
In the world’s community of U2 fanatics I rank somewhere near the bottom of the pile. In my 45 years I’ve seen the band only ten times, none of their lyrics has been tattooed onto my skin, and I’ve only met the singer once if you call a handshake and brief exchange of words a meeting. The fact that I remember the exact place on my right arm where he placed his left hand is neither here nor there.
People who want the UK to stay in the EU usually belong to one of two camps. The pragmatists argue that, for most of the British public, Europe remains little more than a common market and a major source of trade and jobs. The believers, on the other hand, plead that much more is at stake: it’s about our identity and the sort of country we want to be. The former see the referendum as a war of facts and figures, the latter as a battle for hearts and minds. Both want to win but disagree on how to get there. Both might be wrong if the old adage holds true that referendums are never about the question on the ballot paper.