“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.
The signs had been there for some time. We’d coyly flirted in primary school, where a young French teacher one day brought in brie and a bottle of wine, and opened a small window into another universe. Later, as French and German seduced me with their irregular verbs and subjunctive moods, I suddenly knew that I wanted those two languages in my life, all of my life. By university we were holding hands at the Bradford Film Theatre, learning the glory of unrequited love from Cyrano and floating on Bruno Ganz’s angel-wings into a magical nocturnal Berlin. And while my politics were half-formed and aimless, the European Community and its chief, Jacques Delors, quietly fascinated me: if he was causing our prime minister to froth at the mouth, he must be doing something right.
My grandad, a Polish refugee who met my nan in the Royal Air Force, was strangely absent from this part of my journey, despite the hours we spent watching football or driving round Nottingham in his Morris Minor. He didn’t like to talk about the war, the two years in a Soviet camp, and as long as his country lay confiscated and lost behind the Iron Curtain, it no longer truly existed for him, even as he sent food packages and clothes to the cousins still living there. From his newspapers to his favourite TV shows, Zbigniew Szott’s integration into British life was so complete that only his thick Slavic accent suggested anything more exotic. But as the 80s unfolded and Lech Walesa and Solidarity offered resistance and hope, I like to think that he was silently reclaiming his homeland.
And so, the stage was set.
1989, in an act of alchemy, fused all the disparate elements of my youth to produce the pure gold that any idealist craves: something to believe in. For me, that thing was ‘Europe’, a powerful blend of history, politics and culture that surged across a dense network of neon-lit cities; not an ideology but a new language and a new way of seeing the world. Before, I had passion. Now, I had meaning.
As the Wall fell away, it revealed a path that would lead me via classrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, offices, concert halls, cinemas and cities to the place where I’ve spent the last 21 years, Brussels, and a life that tried to serve the European cause. If one theme ran through it all, it was the noble wager that we could reconcile our freedom, our diversity and our need for each other, and I always believed that my country, in spite of its exceptionalism, could be part of this. Europe – land, people and idea – gave me the chance to live out everything I ever believed in, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Now we come to this year. Spring brought death to our city as one more gang of young men murdered our children. Spring took away our gentlest heroes, Bowie and Prince. Europe, head bowed, trudged through crisis. At the end of April, my friend suggested that 2016 couldn’t possibly get any worse, and we should rewind it back to the beginning and start again. Little did we know.
Four months after my country’s referendum and ten days after America’s election, one world is slipping away while another, dark and dangerous, takes its place. The breakdown of civil conversation has revealed that our closest neighbours are now living in different worlds, talking past each other, disconnected by social media. Our best commentators have written endless pages on this great unravelling, this era of fragmentation, and how it threatens our liberal democracy; it’s hard to say anything new.
It’s also hard not to take it personally when your own sense of identity and most of your lived existence is wrapped up in the institutions and ideas that are now under attack. It’s hard not to feel that you got something wrong; that you’re part of the problem. I’m willing to accept that I am.
But we need to do a lot more than listen to our rust belts; we need to dismantle decades of deep cultural conditioning that has outsourced our moral choices to the market. That such thinking is still intact even after our Great Recession only confirms how deeply we have been duped. And still America remains a mystery. Even if we allow that Mrs Clinton was the wrong candidate, how did so many middle-class women vote for Mr Trump? How did mothers and fathers vote for a man who publicly ridiculed disability? How did one party slide from the ever-popular Reagan – “Tear down this wall” – to a man whose big promise is “I will build a great wall”; from Moscow as the centre of an evil empire to Putin as our new best pal?
Whatever Mr Trump decides to do, and whichever way my country exits the European Union, the world of 1989 has come to an end, and so soon. If Europe was my city and its map, now I’m lost at sea with no shore in sight. And yet I see more clearly today how my grandad’s life shaped my own. The rest of my living days will be defined by how we respond to the destruction and the sadness of 2016.
I carry few certainties into this new world but I’m holding on to them. Our liberal democracy is on its bloody knees but it is not broken; tens of millions of Britons and Americans agree on this, even as they are separated by income and opportunity. In our model, the demagogue is free to speak his mind and seek election; he cannot say the same of his. And if ours is the democratic venture, which, in spite of its shortcomings, married prosperity and social justice, sewed a safety net for its weakest, provided healthcare and education to all, brought the rule of law to the workplace and the high street, and tempered free speech with dignity and respect, then ours is the one that, in these days of darkness, will find the answers.