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Closer to New York than Newcastle?

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S tock

BROK E R /A lamy

©image conversations that I’d had along them, reviving them and the countless other voices that I hear suspended in the ether, above Piccadilly and Soho, on Chelsea Bridge and Highgate Hill, in a dozen languages and at a thousand points from Green Lanes to the Pimlico Tandoori.

After lunch I caught the number 9 bus to Kensington Gardens. On that sunny afternoon I circled the Round Pond and paused for breath under the sweet chestnuts on South Flower Walk. Around me idled Spanish students and Australian au pairs, Kuwaiti nondoms and tight-knit bands of Chinese tourists. Russians—so many Russians—pushed prams, walked dogs and looked over their shoulders before waiting Mercedes-Maybachs whisked them back to Harrods. Nearby, Southwark Park school kids ate packed sandwiches after their visit to the V&A. SOAS and Alliance Française language teachers sat together on the steps of the Albert Memorial. American expats played softball while a Polish mothers’ group practised t’ai chi. Their London—our London— felt closer to New York than Newcastle, more like Paris than Preston. For beneath the continent, tectonic plates had shifted, twisting both it and Europe away from England.

Thirty years ago Europe became whole again. I wrote then that the Wall, the late great division of the world, had passed away as an historical aberration. In Berlin, Prague and Moscow I’d danced with so many others on the grave of dictatorships, in an act of defiance, in a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. I convinced myself that our generation was an exception in history, that we’d learned to live by different rules, that we were bound together by freedom. I believed that the horrors of the 20th century—the traumas of which had driven me to become a writer—could never return.

Today, I try to understand how it went wrong. I’ve seen how Vladimir Putin capitalised on a series of terror attacks—real,

dubious or fake—to muscle himself into power, bringing to my mind the Nazis’ seizure of control in Germany. I’ve watched him grab parts of neighbouring countries with an audacity unseen in Europe since the days of Stalin and Hitler. I’ve understood why he ordered his Sukhoi Su-34 fighters to bomb Syria.

In Germany the flood of refugees—even though now much reduced—has roused extremists. Populists have taken Poland and Hungary by demonising illusory enemies.

Finally at home, I’ve witnessed another insular elite exploit public grievances, mutilate truth and try to hijack democracy.

Europe and Britain need a new story, a true story. Perhaps it’s here that it will begin, rather than end. I want to believe that Londoners won’t be told what to do or how to live, that they’ll never accept a stifled media or a single version of reality. Perhaps this open, patched-together capital can show us how to respect rather than scorn our neighbours, can help us to abandon divisive nativist notions, as well as grand fancies of empire or a harmonious super-state. Perhaps London, in its diversity and untidiness, in its dissonance, can illuminate for the whole continent (including this island on the edge) how to stop being slaves to illusions.

Where then is the real end of Europe? I once thought it to be a physical place, perhaps the line of the River Oder or the Urals. I realise now that it is not a freak of geography and is far more a question of culture and morality, a matter of principles. It’s the point where antique forms of identity clash with modernity, where tolerance, decency and a certain way of thinking end, where openness meets a wall. This is an edited extract from “Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe” by Rory MacLean, published November 1 by Bloomsbury at £20.00. Copyright © Rory MacLean 2019.

November 2019 40

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