1st January 2014
The end is the beginning. When we look back upon the events of a year slipping away, as most of the world’s media seem obsessed with doing, a great many events crop up that many of us had forgotten or even now wonder whether they were really so important after all. Was the birth of Prince George so important, or Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory, or the retirement of Alex Ferguson, or the myriad of scandals in British banks, police, politics or priesthoods? Are these the local musings of British villagers, or are these things vital to understand how people have understood the year and how contemporary and future narratives will regard the times we have just lived through?
Here and now, the most pertinent aspects of the end of 2013 appear to be a head cold acquired two days ago, a British transport ‘system’ that seems unable to cope with wind and rain, a darkness that seems to resist the charms of the sun, and memories of the first Christmas spent in the company of my immediate family in more than a decade. And naturally the months spent in Cambridge, and all of the academic and emotional events that have accompanied this time. This is merely an extreme example of how the key events can be skewed by proximity and intimacy.
The end of 2013 seems to be resembling the beginning. Chinese ships have been bobbing along near the Senkakus, and Japan has been annoyed. North Korea’s leadership decided to show how ruthless it is and make a very public example of the dear leader’s uncle by arresting, trying, and executing him within a couple of days. The Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is still unsafe, the attempts to clean up the mess, with only tentative incremental steps, have been faltering and faint hearted. The NSA of the US and GCHQ of the UK have been spying on everyone it seems, well, everyone except the financiers who brought the world to the brink of economic collapse, the terrorists who continue to kill, most recently in southern Russia close to the winter Olympics in space and time, and the people who stole my bicycle light. Afghanistan is still looking very bad, and the western leaders with troops there that are due to leave by the end of 2014 are sticking to the script followed by David Cameron in his recent visit that it is a case of ‘mission accomplished’, which is lovely when you consider that no-one actually knows what the mission is or was and that 447 British personnel alone have died there since 2001. Europe’s economies look stagnant, and Britain appears more concerned with a potential influx of foreign immigrants than a property market that has seen London house prices rise by more than 20% above the peak of 2007 while those of Hartlepool in north-east England have fallen by more than 40%, indicating that the capital and south is getting very rich while the north is becoming ever poorer.
Maybe all of these things are only to be expected. What was somewhat less expected was that Japanese PM Abe Shinzo would spend his Christmas holidays in religious observance. Sadly, Abe is not of the same denomination as his deputy, Aso Taro, who spent Christmas at Mass, being a practicing Catholic. Also sadly, Abe has some things in common with Aso: controversial ancestors, an amazing ability to see Japan’s history through a distorted lens, and a unique ability to make a bad situation worse. Abe chose not to visit the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine at the most controversial time, the August anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, but instead chose 26th December, Boxing Day in Britain, to make the visit. Ever the pugilist. Whether he was remembering and praying for his grandpa, the detained but not indicted almost-certainly-a-war-criminal Kishi, or one of the 14 Class A war criminals interred in Yasukuni from the 1970s, or the several million Japanese war dead isn’t clear. What is clear though is that he managed to turn sympathy for Japan after the 3.11 disasters, and for the Chinese bullying over the Senkakus and the associated air defence zone, and shared joy that Tokyo was granted the 2020 Olympic Games, into a suspicion that Japan simply cannot be trusted with its own past, present, or future. The US, the vital ally when considering China, is dismayed and expressed that dismay, expressing themselves “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” More unusually, Germany followed suit, with Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stating that all nations must face up to their role in the horrible events of the 20th century, and that an honest acknowledgement makes it possible to build a future with former foes. On which note, President Park of South Korea said that wounds of the past should not be dug up, in contrast to previous events and administrations which had provoked nationalist responses. A welcome change.
And what of 2014? What can we say? There will be a football world cup in Brazil, and that will undoubtedly be a super efficient event free of corruption and chaos. China will continue with its good neighbour policies (be good and do everything we tell you to). The US presidential election will begin to wind into gear for the post-Obama era. There will also be no equivalent of the Mandela funeral. Which world leader, or former leader’s death could produce such sorrow and celebration? Possibly only a well-respected royal, such as Queen Elizabeth, or former Queen Beatrix. The Dali Lama? What if a prominent member of the Japanese Imperial Family were to pass on, what would the reaction be outside of Japan? One hopes that there would be a great deal of sympathy, but not on the Mandela scale.
The truth is that we liked to like Mandela, we wanted to like him, and all that he stood for, as we did for JFK, or Churchill, or FDR, or Ghandi. They were great but flawed men, who managed, at some point in their lives, to unify and encapsulate something unassailable that has stood the test of time. The fine details of their lives sullen the images and imaginations, as would the fine details of any life, but the images and hopes endure. Here is hoping that the New Year is able to be better than the last, that more people will choose to be good and consider their fellow beings, and that people can live with more hope than fear. Let us hope that 2014 can begin as we hope it will end.