For a fifty-year-old Alvis, Miranda is surprisingly good at fog. That’s because she’s had all her electrics revamped in order to be insurable as an everyday vehicle, rather than a classic for weekends only. You’d not notice from the exterior, but her lamps are state of the art, nothing vintage about them. So it was without trepidation that I set out to drive a friend, stranded by the vagaries of public transport, halfway across the country on a bitterly cold night through thick wraiths of winter mist. Fog lights, I soon discovered, are only there to help you see the fog better.
The journey was spent in a state of limbo, lost and alone, somewhere in the uncharted depths of the universe, in this case rural Flanders. Apart from the usual queasiness induced by zero visibility on a slippery surface, everything went fine. We were not crushed by that eighteen-wheeler, lit up like a football game, which suddenly surged out of the fog from an invisible hyper-bahn. The deviation panels pointing in two directions could not throw us entirely off the scent. The signposting of only local destinations failed to lose us more than we were lost already. Despite having no sat-nav, I delivered my friend safely into the arms of her family and drove back, exhausted and frequently on the edge of sleep, but unable to stop because I could not see even a metre off the edge of the road to find a place to park up and rest. I arrived home at two-thirty in the morning, after a four-and-a-half-hour drive that should have taken only three.
During most of that time I was alone: a tiny island of light in a sea of frozen grey. But sometimes, for a few seemingly endless kilometres, I found myself thankfully following someone’s taillights and hoping they knew where they were going. Yet when the driver in front seemed to be inching forward slower than even the worst situation could demand, I would grip Miranda by the throat and surge past impatiently, only to find that my predecessor had been right, the ideal speed was indeed 30 kmh. So whenever it was my turn to back down in defeat, and some broad-shouldered Volvo heaved by me, I would chuckle to myself: “Let’s see how you get on, wise-guy!” There is a political lesson to be drawn here for all those whose patience is tried when their current leadership seems incapable of taking a tough decision or mounting a valid programme of reform. Think you can do better? Try overtaking and then see how you manage in the impenetrable fog of modern policy-making as it slows you down to a crawl.
Even standing on the shoulders of giants like Nelson Mandela will not help you much when visibility is down to the tips of your fingers. It’s true that in the fog I may pass by my enemy unscathed. This is one of the mantras of diplomacy. It’s the reason we keep trivial topics on the table and byzantine cul-de-sacs open. They allow room for large and well-armed nations to manoeuvre about the virtual negotiating space without anyone getting hurt. But after a while, the advantage of leaving things unclear is lost when the resultant complexity begins to tax the concentration and befuddle the mind of even the most seasoned diplomat. It’s no wonder the Germans love clarity. Yes, eggs get broken, tempers frayed, feathers are ruffled, maybe someone’s nose looks different in the morning. But there is a difference between leaving yourself some wiggle room and filling the whole space up with mountains of smog so dense that none of the parties concerned can even find a place to rest and take a nap without being crushed by the juggernauts of global business who come and go as they will, guided along wires strung by their lobbyists to emerge out of nowhere at the first sign of fear or blood.
It has not escaped my attention that Ted-Talks, the well-known site for all kinds of valuable and interesting soap-boxing, famous for giving us the skinny on economic realities, gender politics and hot scientific breakthroughs, has got itself some big new sponsors. Certain controversial views will thus no longer be aired. You will never again hear a Ted-talker extolling the virtues of alternative medicine or criticizing Big Pharmaceutical. You will never again hear a whiff of criticism or even discussion on the subject of genetically manipulated seeds or plants or anything else that puts Big Agriculture in the dock. These subjects are strictly off limits now. As European nations seriously debate the merits of privatizing water, health-care, the criminal justice system, internet regulation and higher education, we should be asking ourselves just how much our visibility will be reduced, which avenues of research will be cut off, which questions will no longer be considered polite, which opinions will cease to be broadcast and who is going to profit the most from crushing our puny opposition under their wheels.
I may succeed in evading my enemy in the fog, but if I’m driving a gentleman’s grand tourer from 1963 and he has the law on his side, four xenon beams, satellite navigation, infra-red vision assistance and weighs nearly 60 tons, the final outcome is clear as day. I’ll see him coming, but I won’t see him go.
© Edwin Drood
, December 2013