Letter to The Economist published on 25 January 2020
It’s encouraging that your newly crowned Charlemagne columnist has already stumbled on the European Union’s greatest achievement (‘Why stereotypes rule in Brussels’, January 10).
Not content to have kept the peace, built a single market, launched a new currency and quadrupled their membership in the space of a lifetime, the Union’s members have also allowed themselves to revel in their national cultures and, yes, indulge their well-worn prejudices. You can have your gateau and eat it, after all.
But this is more than a “coping mechanism for complexity”; it goes to the heart of the Union’s success. The member states never did try to “iron out” their distinctions, crass or otherwise, but instead wrote them into the Union’s DNA, from a legal commitment to “respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity” (article 3 of the Treaty on European Union) to a daily workload that is negotiated in 24 official languages.
A close family, respectful of its differences, is stronger than the sum of its parts. Britain’s liberal instincts will be sorely missed after January 31st, but perhaps not as much as its knack of settling disputes with a good cup of tea.
One tree stands alone in the corner of our garden, and this autumn we had it cut back. When I got home from work to see what the gardeners had done, I stumbled on a crime scene. Under a forensics lamp, a squad of professionals were packing away their cutters and pouring water over their hands, while the chief took photos of the amputated body. In the apartments over the wall, a woman stood on her balcony, arms folded, no hint of gratitude for her new corridor of sunlight. She finished her cigarette and turned away.
How much evidence can we resist before we finally accept that our liberal democracy, in its British and American forms, is now exhausted? If the misery caused to millions by the Great Recession and our failure to sanction its culprits were not enough, then what are we waiting for? However we may have voted, on either side of the Atlantic, we must surely recognise that our political institutions are overwhelmed by the roiling upheavals of our era, while our leaders across the public and private realms seem bereft of any social purpose or vision of the good life.
The man had not left the museum for some decades, yet no one could remember when or why he had entered. Staff had come and gone but no one knew his name or from where he had arrived; no photograph recorded his early years in the place or any previous life he may have led. The man was part of the museum, that much was sure, but no one would have called it his home.
It happened in the middle of a frozen night in February 1991 as I lay alone on a bed in Duisburg, deep beneath the glow of Germany’s steel mills and chemical plants and slipping further into a nocturnal region that I could name only years later. New colleagues had returned to their families at five, leaving me, the trainee, to another long evening that pulled itself over a drab suburb like a heavy grey sheet; some nights I’d venture behind the lace curtain of a local pub only to spend a soundless hour at the bar. This night I put my ear to a small black radio and edged the needle millimetre by millimetre down the line of European cities, hoping for life in Lille, Luxembourg, Malmö, Hamburg, Dresden, anywhere, finding nothing but news until, at once, a hero’s voice and tinny beat broke through the hiss above the North Sea and carried me back to a place I had lost, reminded me who I was, and as the song faded away again, I pushed back the covers, reached out from the bed, fumbled for my diary and scribbled one line in the dark: “It’s going to be alright.”
“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.
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.