Two Saturday afternoons ago I parked my bottom on the window sill of the Sir Joshua Reynolds pub opposite my shop basking in the hot sunshine of that early October afternoon (between customers, of course). It caused me to reflect on the vagaries of our famous – or should I say infamous – climate. During that week we had had some truly miserable weather, even the day before. It struck me as not surprising that weather is so often our opener in engaging with a friend or acquaintance whom we might bump into. All four seasons can be hand in a single day. I remember in August being astonished to see hailstones.
When I lived in South Africa during the early 70s, I used to make a point in the early days of walking the streets in the blazing sunshine, avoiding protective canopies that most shops offered. I was truly a Noel Coward’s ‘ go out in the midday sun’ wally. It didn’t last. In no time I found myself dodging from one bit of shade to the next. I remember clearly one day cursing the unremitting blaze and thinking how wonderful it would be to have leaden skies and even a gentle drizzle. The point about all this is that, as with almost everything, you can have too much of a good thing. It is not that we don’t enjoy our share of sunshine; it’s just that we don’t get as much as some. But the upside of this is that when sunshine days do arrive we fully appreciate them and know how to make the most of them.
Endlessly sunny days cause them eventually to pass unnoticed. There is little point in studying the weather since it is almost always the same. This was the case here in the UK during that freakish summer of 1976; there was no sense then even remarking on it to a friend as it would be tiresome. How many mornings can you say ‘lovely day, isn’t it?’ when perhaps you’ve had the better part of a hundred of them.
Ours is a gentle, no-extremes climate. Winters are mild and summers don’t cause you to drip sweat. How my own Lithuanian wife loves having turned her back on a climate where for months on end the stat. stays below zero, often many digits below. We may have had a pretty ropey summer, but hey, we had a sunshine Olympics, didn’t we? And who would exchange what we had for the blistering scorcher that laid waste two thirds of the United States, turning it into a dust bowl and utterly destroying their food crops? And who wants the bush fires currently raging in New South Wales on the other side of the world? We don’t have earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, whiteouts or indeed anything that smacks of disaster. Even our floods are small beer compared with what Australia (Queensland), Pakistan and Bangladesh had recently. Instead we have our gentle, reliable, temperate climate that allows us to grow just about anything.
Dreamers among the old folk, ready to retire, fantasise about the grass being greener in the other field and head for the ‘Club Med’ countries. But apart from economic mismanagement making them a disaster area, with their properties plummeting in value, the grass is most decidedly not greener, but parched for much of the year. Those glorious, verdant landscapes of the British Isles must seem like a distant memory, and that much thirsted after sun nothing but a boring, skin-destroying nuisance that won’t give you a break. And what a risk they take health wise. At the very time in life when good health cannot be taken for granted and maladies pile up, they put themselves beyond the protective reach of the NHS.
As for having a good old yap with the locals as you go about your business, forget it. That too is not so easy when they speak their language and not yours. And participating in their world by learning their lingo is also not so easy when you’ve got a tired old brain to do it with. For me, I’m happy to settle for this beautiful island which the whole world admired so much during this festive year. When those glorious sunshine days, like that one two Saturdays ago, come I grab them with both hands and look forward to the next. And if from time to time you feel cheated and feel that you haven’t had quite enough of them? Well, there’s always those package holidays that can whisk you away to sunnier climes for not a lot more than it would cost you to stay at home.
For the longer term, if global warming heats us by a degree or two extra I won’t be complaining. They say that olive trees and vineyards will prosper again as they did in Roman Britain. Whoopee! Pity though that I won’t be around to see it. But if future generations are constrained economically and have to live in a world of making do with less and can never again enjoy the boom times of yesteryear, then a hotter Britain – freak weather phenomena notwithstanding – may at least be some small compensation.
It used to be said that when America sneezed, Europe caught a cold. Now it’s the other way round, except that Europe has done a great deal more than sneezed; it’s almost taken to its bed. The reason for this is that Europe today is, despite appearances – the world’s economic powerhouse. It has on the way to twice America’s population and accounts for well over 40% of the world’s trade. But it has mismanaged its affairs to the point where the markets have had enough.
We must not blame the markets; they are only a reflection of how the guardians of our pension funds and insurance companies view future prospects. It is their job to identify risk and so protect people’s savings. They do not worry about the Scandinavians, Swiss, Dutch, Germans, or even us (now that we are in the process of balancing our budget and bringing our deficit under control). What they look for are not fine words and good intent – welcome as they are – but action.
They have seen it from us, but they have not been getting it in any meaningful way from Europe. From bestriding the world like a colossus in the lifetime of people still alive (not many, admittedly), Europe has seen its position twice destroyed by the two German wars.
The European Project was designed to ensure that this never happened again. For 50 years, Europe has painstakingly climbed back on its feet. Its people realised that old style nationalism was not the way forward, and today it is a beacon of cooperation and prosperity admired around the world. But all this is now threatened. Ruin, recrimination and bad – if not spilt – blood faces the continent unless it acts fast and decisively
It is to Europe’s great good fortune that it has one economy big enough and strong enough to silence the markets. But the leaders of that economy must step up to the plate. While we all understand why Germany is so paranoiac about printing money, no extra notes are actually printed – it’s just an electronic exercise in today’s world. And that is the point.
Today’s world is very different from the financial circumstances which brought Hitler to power. First, we now know that beggar thy neighbour, protectionist policies are counterproductive. Second, we are a much more joined up, globalised world, with powerful computers assisting our fragile brain capacities. Third, there are the great institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, G20, and many, many more which were not in place when Germany’s Weimar Republic wrestled with its horrendous problems. (Not the least of these were the foolish and ruinous Reparations imposed by the victorious Allies in the Versailles Treaty). So Germany can take a more relaxed view today.
While it is important to learn the lessons of history, it is equally important not to be spooked by them. Germany has an historic opportunity to save Europe which its previous militarism helped to destroy. Germany must realise that if its fears and parsimoniousness allow the Euro to collapse, it will be among the greatest losers; its export-dependent economy would reel under the weight of a super valued Deutschmark. Nobody would be able to afford its goods. And that’s another thing! Nobody has benefited more from the reasonably priced Euro than have the Germans.
Poor, benighted Greece, (along, I might add, with the rest of us) has indulged itself on German products and that’s part of the reason it owes so much. There’s an irony in there somewhere, surely. Another irony is that this crisis has ended a British foreign policy which has been central to it for 500 years – even propelling it into any number of pre-emptive wars – never to allow a continental power bloc to develop which would overshadow us.
When our Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer urge Germany forward into a fiscal union, of which we will not be part, they are doing just that: putting the final building blocks in place which will lead to a united Europe.
It is a measure of the extraordinary trust which has built up that they feel safe to do so. So Fritz now has his chance to be the hero of the hour. Let him look at the big picture and rise to the challenge. Europe will be forever in his debt (literally). The European Central Bank must be the vehicle of his largess. It must be beefed up to the point where it can act like the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England – the lender of last resort.
The consequence of Germany opening up the coffers on all its hard earned dosh will not be without benefit in other ways. Systems will be put in place to ensure that such a drama never happens again; the feckless will be compelled into good housekeeping; corruption will be rooted out; Spanish practices in the workplace will be curtailed and Europe will have the fiscal union which, but for the crisis, it would never have had.
South Europe, despite all these measures, will always need a little forbearance, much like the poorer regions of Britain. We northerners will have to accept that with all that heat you will never get the Club Med countries to beaver away quite like us. But if they are unable to implement the austerity requirements – and they should not be too draconian (remember Versailles) – then they should be let go.
One thing, though, is certain. Either we all do our best to all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.