Books: Even As We Speak — The Year it Didn't Happen |
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The Year it Didn't Happen

It was the only year I ever thought of at the time as being a special year by itself, so it’s the only one I can look back on with any sure recollection as to its events. Other years interchange their events in memory. When I was writing the first draft of the television series Fame in the Twentieth Century, I worked from memory, and found out only while checking for the next draft that I had continually got things out of order. Memory rearranges even the biggest, world-scale happenings into a more manageable sequence. Memory edits. Memory would have edited 1982 if, before the year began, I hadn’t persuaded Karl Miller of the London Review of Books to serialize an ottava rima verse chronicle which would treat the year’s news as it came, with no benefit of hindsight. It was typically generous of Miller to be attracted by this prospect, because there was no guarantee that much of interest would actually happen.

And at first, indeed, everything seemed drearily normal. General Jaruzelski, ruling Poland, rounded up all the Solidarity activists and penned them in the open air while the snow fell. As things went in the East, nothing could be more humdrum than that. Roy Jenkins stood for the Glasgow seat of Hillhead with every chance of losing it for the SDP, whereat, it was predicted, the new party would disintegrate. Here again, the predictions couldn’t have been more predictable, especially from Tony Benn, who had branded the SDP a media party, with no policies. My own view was that for the SDP not to have the Labour Party’s policies was policy enough, but a win for Jenkins still looked like a lot to hope for. Mark Thatcher got lost in Africa, which had to happen. The railway union ASLEF went on strike, which also had to happen. Freddie Laker’s airline went broke, which seemed as if it had to happen too, since few people realized at the time that an independent entrepreneur who complained about being sabotaged by BA might just have a case. In Northern Ireland, John de Lorean’s factory for building gull-winged sports cars had proved to be the most efficient way of combusting the British tax payer’s money since the ground-nut scheme.

Mrs Thatcher gained fewer points for denying funds to these crashed buccaneers than she lost for having presided over the new spirit of free enterprise in which they had somehow contrived to fail. Her principles were working against her. Michael Foot hailed the Peace of Bishop’s Stortford, a new deal by which the Labour Party would somehow bind up the differences within itself, thus rendering the SDP superfluous. Abetting this process with unsurprisingly miraculous timing, a plot was uncovered: Labour’s Militant Tendency had not only been conspiring to remove all non-Marxist MPs after the next election victory, they had written their plan down. Happening to meet Neil Kinnock and his charming family taking a half-term tour of St Paul’s, I found him delighted by this development and was thus able to get some personal colour into my poem, but things were looking pretty staid. At just this point my chosen year started behaving as if the power had been switched on.

Jenkins won in Hillhead. Overnight, like Eurydice glanced at by Orpheus on their way out of Hades, the Labour Party went backwards into history. There would be a new party of opposition. Mrs Thatcher would be hard pressed to defeat it. She was the most unpopular Prime Minister since, since ... But just when we were absorbing the shock of these wonders, wonders were succeeded by epiphanies. Argentina occupied the Falklands. Lord Carrington — observing the quaint, not yet quite extinct custom by which Ministers who presided over catastrophes resigned in contrition — presented his embarrassed Prime Minister with his head, which for a while looked like the only thing she had to throw at General Galtieri. In the House of Commons nobody shouted louder for war than Michael Foot, but by left-wing intellectuals it was taken for granted that for Britain to fight would be a preposterous exercise in post-Imperial nostalgia, jingoism after the fact. One of my most brilliant friends published an article instructing the fleet to turn back.

The sinking of the Belgrano confirmed thinkers on the Labour Party’s left wing in all their suspicions about Mrs Thatcher. Actually, we can now see, those same thinkers were helping to sink the Labour Party, because nothing weakened the opposition to Mrs Thatcher like reluctance to admit that in the matter of the Falklands war she was a realist. The Belgrano had been a victim, not of her ruthlessness, but of the Royal Navy’s long memory for the day when they let the Bismarck out of their sight, thereby almost losing a whole convoy and World War II along with it. The Falklands war, small-scale in historic terms, was still a momentous event, and Mrs Thatcher managed it well. The best way to counter her afterwards would have been to say, truthfully, that while to show determination in war is admirable, it is not as taxing as to show creative imagination in peace, when there is no single object in view. But nobody — at least nobody in the House of Commons — said so, and she came out of the war doubled in stature, with the Labour Party nowhere in sight, although as yet it would have taken a clairvoyant to spot that no other party or group of parties would have a chance against her either. With a glittering future seemingly assured, the SDP’s choice of Dr Owen as its leader seemed merely stage-struck, not disastrous.

At Buckingham Palace, the Queen played host to an undistinguished visitor, one Fagan, who appeared beside her bed at dead of night to bum a cigarette. Suspicions that the Palace might not be quite so suavely in charge of its affairs as had been thought were soon quelled. The IRA bombed a military band in London: things were getting back to normal. In Cambridge an undergraduate poetess called Sue had a devastating effect on previously imperturbable dons, allegedly because of her fluent gift for the sonnet form, and not because of her beauty: things were very normal. History had left Britain and was happening out there in the world, as was only proper. Squeezed by Begin’s invading armies, Yasser Arafat and the PLO pulled out of Beirut, whose ruins filled the world’s television screens, except for the sad hiatus in which Princess Grace died — by accident, scarcely history at all, just terribly regrettable, a containable tragedy. Then it was the Lebanon again, where Begin and Sharon were responsible for an uncontainable tragedy — the massacre in the camps. All of us who believed in the state of Israel’s right to exist had suddenly to face the fact that it was run by men too stupid to appreciate why getting stuck with a label like massacre in the camps was contra-indicated, PR-wise.

At the time, that was my pick for the incident that would have the most fatal resonance in the future. As things turned out, it just blended into a dreadful, see-sawing sequence of atrocities which can probably never be ended; only, at best, brought to some kind of balance. A better choice for an event with a long shadow would have been the Royal decision to deny Koo Stark her manifest destiny as the bride of Prince Andrew. Discreet, strong-willed, keen for the job, as bright as any woman willing to share her life with the future Duke of York was ever going to be, Koo, though she had admittedly been photographed with her clothes off, at least looked good that way. Though we didn’t yet know it, to shut her out left the way open for Sarah Ferguson, whose impact on Buckingham Palace would be roughly the same as that of alcohol on the Eskimos.

But to spot that would have taken a crystal ball. There were bigger issues where all the trends were already running but you just couldn’t believe they would go on that way. My brilliant friend who had instructed the fleet to turn back gave up writing about British politics. Another brilliant friend still wrote about British politics but now did it from America. With Reagan and Thatcher triumphant, everything was blamed on their unscrupulous populism. No other reason than public gullibility could be adduced for their success. It had not yet become fully clear that the real reason for the success of the Right was the collapse of the Left. Throughout the West, the dream of the socialist state was already well embarked on its long day’s dying, but you had to be a cynic to believe it.

In the East you had to be a fanatic to believe anything else, and the really big news of the year was precisely that — they were running out of fanatics. The most tremendous event of the year was the one that didn’t happen. Lech Walesa was allowed to live. Jaruzelski locked him up but didn’t kill him. Brezhnev checked out, Andropov checked in, and still the Russians let the Poles get away with it. In December, Walesa walked free. The Soviet tanks didn’t come. The will to rule by terror was gone. With that gone, the whole thing was doomed. Looking back from now, it is easy to see how everything followed from that one non-event. Looking forward from then, we didn’t dare even guess. Full of happenings, it would have been a big year anyway. But what made it the biggest year of the late twentieth-century was something that didn’t happen at all.

(From Picador’s 21st Birthday Anthology, 1993)

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