The reviews of 2018 remember a year when Russian agents unleashed the novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, the nation watched the royal wedding and the World Cup, the Syrian civil war dragged on, and Brexit. As the year drew to a close there were riots on the streets of Paris sparked off by rises in fuel prices.
However, I remember best the commemorations of 2018. The centenary of the end of the first world war was on the whole handled with sensitivity, although there was a degree of jingoistic nonsense around talk of 'a just cause' and 'fighting for liberty.' In contrast, the presence of the German president at the Cenotaph and Danny Boyle's imaginative 'Pages of the Sea' commemoration were sensitive and poignant contributions. 2018 was also an opportunity to look back 50 years to the political unrest and demonstrations of 1968. 1968 was also a year of turmoil and rioting on the streets of Paris, but with an international, as well as local, focus – the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the tragic deposition of Czech leader Alexander Dubcek, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the protests against US involvement in Vietnam. In France, young people had had enough of a stultifying 'Gaullisme' – the general was finally to go in 1969.
It was serious stuff on the streets of Paris in May 1968 – inspirational slogans were daubed on the walls of the Sorbonne – 'La lute continue' (the struggle goes on); and 'L'imagination au pouvoir' (unleash the imagination). Many students there, and here in the UK, were simply jumping onto a bandwagon which had started rolling, railing against the system, but there was also a deeper lasting movement stirring across the continents. These struggles for personal liberties, social reform, civil rights, racial justice and gender equality had a powerful effect on subsequent generations.
It was a great time to be a student and I was one of them, studying politics at Edinburgh University. As my fellow students at the Sorbonne were on the streets tearing up paving stones, I was busy getting into the intricacies of the American presidential election process; the political system in West Germany; and the protracted Sino/Soviet conflict. Mind you, I was doing that in the context of daily disruption from sit-ins, boycotts and demonstrations.
The student body was outraged at the university's investments in Barclay's Bank and its links with apartheid South Africa and in companies associated with US weaponry for use in Vietnam. I remember a bitterly cold night spent on the pavement outside the chaplaincy centre as part of a 24-hour fast against the Vietnam War. President Johnson had brought his army chief of staff, General Westmoreland, back home to make the case for why the war could still be won. However, that changed dramatically after the Tet Offensive – a major co-ordinated fight back by the Viet Cong and their supporters in the south. It caught the US by surprise and, although they were eventually able to contain it, the psychological damage was done. It was a turning point in the war; America stopped talking of victory; president Johnson announced he wouldn't seek a second term, and it was left to his successor Richard Nixon to oversee US withdrawal.
Gilets Jaunes protests that gripped France as 2018 drew to a close stemmed from Macron's decisions to increase fuel taxes, especially on diesel. That may seem a long way from the idealism of the protests of 1968, but the current demonstrations are part of a movement whose core aim is much more than a fuel price protest – it is to highlight the economic frustration and political distrust of poorer working families. That is why we now see President Macron responding with promises to raise the minimum wage and scrap some planned tax rises.
John Le Carré is finishing a new novel called 'Agent Running in the Field,' due to be published later this year, which looks at London 2018 through the eyes of a 'solitary' man resisting the political turbulence around him. Perhaps it's time I looked out an old aerosal paint spray from the garage and found a nice stretch of wall to daub a slogan for the New Year of 2019 – 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.'