Looking back at the pessimistic post that I wrote at the end of 2017 (see: “So that was 2018 …”), I am struck by how little has changed in the course of a year. This time last year I was bemoaning the uncertainty around Brexit and the implications of this for the environment. A year on, there is no more clarity, with a “told-you-so” attitude amongst the remainers clashing with a head-in-the-sand response from the hard Brexiteers. The result is a political stalemate that seems impossible to resolve in the time remaining. The only certainty on the morning of March 30this that the country will be more divided than at any point during any point in most people’s lifetimes. That is a pathetic legacy for our present generation of political leaders, left or right.
I passed some personal milestones during the course of the year: my trip to Cyprus means that I have now visited all 28 Member States of the European Union. Alongside this, I have also managed to complete a literary journey around Europe, reading either a novel by a writer from each country or by someone writing about that country. With the exception of a couple of novels by George Simeon, all have been in English, but there is a host of good fiction available in translation. Indrek Hargla’s medieval crime novel Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church, for example, enlivened my visit to Tallinn in May. Crime fiction often has, I have learned, a strong sense of time and place that can help a visitor understand a city.
Another personal milestone was the end of an almost 10-year relationship with Newcastle University, as the course I taught there came to a natural end, and the start of a new relationship with the Geography Department at Nottingham University where I am an Honorary Professor for the next three years. I’ve also seen my 100thscientific paper appear.
I will finish with two pictures from September’s visit to Lisbon: the first shows the ornate carvings on the arches surrounding the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery at Belém, on the outskirts of Lisbon. Belém is the point from which the Portugese explorers set off on their voyages in the late medieval period, and Vasco de Gama is buried in the monastery church. A short distance away, overlooking the Tagus estuary, there is the Monument to the Discoveries, which celebrates the exploits of Portugese explorers, from Henry the Navigator onwards. Roger Crowley’s book Conquerors (Faber & Faber, 2015) describes the explorations of Vasco de Gama and his contemporaries in the late fifteenth century, and it is sobering to realise that, by the end of the medieval period, people knew more about life on the other side of the planet than they did about life in the ponds at the end of their gardens. How much has changed over the subsequent centuries? The microscopic world is still a closed book to many people, which is largely why I started to write this blog in the first place.
The motivations for the Portugese explorers were, however, very worldly. They wanted to bypass established trading routes, they made unrealistic assessments of the situation in order to persuade their king to support their hair-brained schemes and they had great disdain for the cultures they encountered on their way to the fabled lands. The Monument to the Discoveries encapsulates a sanitised version of a national ideal (it was built during the reign of the right-wing dictator Salazar) but it also speaks to our own time and place.
Belém, near Lisbon. Left: cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery; right: Monument to the Discoveries.