In An Italian Education, Tim Parks describes the wonderfully languorous routine of an Italian summer: the shutting down of all but essential services in hot, humid cities leaving them to tourists, the departure for the coast, the gathering of the extended family, the early mornings to enjoy an espresso outside when the day is cool, the encampment at the same spot on the beach amongst the ombrelloni, neatly and beautifully laid out, la bella figura being quite as important when little is worn as at every other time, lunch followed by siesta, the late afternoon passeggiata before evening entertainment. Day in, day out, the rythym is much the same, punctuated by religious festivals: Sant’ Andrea in Amalfi in late June, for instance, or Ferragosto everywhere. Then the gentle return home in September, with weekend visits to the coast for those lucky enough to live nearby. It is a time to breathe, relax, close off the pressing problems of life, which can – for now – wait.
Yet summer has often been when horrible crises and unexpected events have impolitely intruded into this idyll. Consider:-
- 1980: Solidarity’s emergency in Poland – at the end of August following weeks of unrest at the Gdansk shipyard and the Pope’s undermining of the regime’s credibility with his “Do not be afraid” message during his visit the previous year. It was also possibly one of the first times when right-wingers in the West, normally allergic to collective action and solidarity when practised by workers in their countries, unreservedly welcomed the creation of a trade union not enamoured of socialism, communism or the Soviet Union. For precisely the opposite reasons, some on the Left in the West were wary of these particular workers. The butterfly wings flapped in Gdansk that summer led – eventually – to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Few in the West (beyond obscure bearded backbenchers and over-privileged Guardian columnists) mourned its loss But it took another summer event finally to set the wheels in motion.
- 1989: East German holiday makers in Hungary – over that summer East Germans holidaying there, noticing that the border fence with its Western neighbours had been removed, refused to go home. They sprinted past border guards, slipped across the border in woods, slowly at first in small numbers and then more boldly, more and more of them until camps had to be created to house them and the West German Embassy in Budapest found itself the holiday home of choice of hundreds of East Germans desperate to escape. Eventually, the pressure became too much. They were allowed to leave, the delighted refugees contemptuously throwing their East German papers out of the windows of the trains as they fled. It was only a matter of time before the chants in Dresden of protesters: “Wir sind das Volk.” (a reminder to their masters of who the People really were) became a cry of: “Wir sind ein Volk”. The reunification of Germany, the release of Eastern Europe from its grim oppression, Europe becoming whole again was an event of geopolitical importance, yes, but above all an expression of hope and freedom and longing for a better world, of people taking back control of their lives in the most meaningful way possible. An Ode to Joy to celebrate.
- 1990: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August – possibly the last time when – in relation to the Middle East anyway – the world agreed who the aggressor was, who the victim, what had to be done and then did it. The expulsion of Iraq from its ill-gotten gains was executed with masterly precision. Its aftermath (Saddam staying in power, his crushing of the revolt against him, the horrors inflicted on the Marsh Arabs) led, in part, to another less well-executed, less justified invasion 13 years later, whose consequences reverberate today and likely for decades more.
- 1991: The failed coup against Gorbachev – the trembling heads of the plotters as they announced their coup that August betrayed their nerves. Yeltsin seized the moment, stood on tanks outside the Russian Parliament and dared them to do their worst. The Soviet Union crumbled, bringing down with it Gorbachev who had, whether intending to or not, done so much to show up its failing and rotten core. It was a moment when the world held its breath and a US President, not known for his linguistic fluency, musing about whether the coup would succeed, gave encouragement to those resisting it.
- 1997: the Asian financial crisis – starting in July with capital flight as the Thai currency was floated, spreading to other Asian countries and Japan and resulting in IMF support to the troubled region. A portent of trouble ahead.
- 1998: a Russian financial crisis – in August when Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its debt. One of the high-profile victims was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund set up by ex-Salomon Brothers traders and boasting two Economics Nobel Prize winners on its Board. Their claim to fame was having devised a brilliant new way of valuing derivatives. Despite such brainpower, LCTM managed to lose $4.6 billion in less than 4 months that summer, was bailed out by the Federal Reserve and closed 18 months later. Alas, the two obvious lessons to be learnt: (1) when clever people talk about “a new paradigm” in finance, it is time to put your money under the mattress; (2) there is a sort of stupidity that only clever people are capable of – was not learnt by anyone important at the time. Hence …..
- 2007: The financial crisis – starting with a French bank, in August, blocking withdrawals from two of its funds because it no longer knew what they were worth (a sign they were probably worthless) and leading, via increasing worries amongst policymakers, central banks, regulators about the state of the financial system, to the UK’s first bank run as Northern Rock depositors decided the mattress was indeed safer. The signs had been there for some time but had been ignored. In July, Citigroup’s CEO, a lawyer-turned-banker, gave his own inimitable account of the Greater Fool theory – not realising the fool was him – when he said: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” Whoever thought that putting lawyers in charge of a bank would be a good idea? They turned out to be every bit as bad as bankers at running them. The crisis went on and on and on. We are now in the pause between that one and the next.
- 2008: Civil unrest in South Ossetia, Georgia – the Georgian President’s decision to send in troops into the rebellious province that August gave Putin the excuse he needed to send in his troops. The West huffed and puffed but did nothing. What could it do? Those hopeful days of 1991 had given way to a defensively proud and aggressive Russia, one easily recognisable to 19th century leaders. Was the Soviet Union’s fall an opportunity missed? Dutch holidaymakers in flight MH17 shot down in July 2014, Ukrainians and Crimeans would like to know.
- June – August 2016: Greece and the Euro – A charismatic politician comes to power vowing to renegotiate terms with the EU, to end his country’s humiliation and even gets his electorate to support his showdown. It is all of no avail. He is forced to back down. His party is split. Terms are agreed – or rather – dictated by the powerful neighbour. There is no more talk of boldness. The politician hangs onto power being finally ejected three years later by someone promising boring economic competence. Perhaps Greece, having provided a template for democracy, is providing another one.
- Summer 2019: Britain – our PM tells the EU, which has said for months that negotiations are at an end, that he will not negotiate with them unless they give him what he asks for first. The EU is now trying to understand what sort of a threat it is to say that you will not do something which the other party has also said they are not doing.
Perhaps it will take until October for all this to come to a crisis. Perhaps. But MPs heading off for their holidays might just pack an emergency bag for returning at short notice. Just in case. You never know what summer might bring.