Tom Rice swayed in the wind, his body hanging below a parachute. Between his feet was France. The first time he did this he was 22. The second time he was 97.
Rice jumped again in honour of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He was the exception in a year when men behaved appallingly. As a gender, these are not our glory years.
Kipling’s warning to treat triumph and disaster as equal impostors has no resonance in the first quarter of the 21st Century. In these days, the role models for men are, largely, repulsive egotists bent on success at any cost.
This is a great pity as men govern the planet, and earth is in desperate need of leadership which can see beyond its own groin and wallet. The urgency of the climate crisis finally registered in 2019 – thanks in part to a young girl, Greta Thunberg, but mainly due to the decades of hard work done by experts. PR people will tell you they can arrange for ideas to take hold, but in truth it’s often a mystery why something becomes popular.
Climate change made the headlines partly because chaotic weather became common, and partly because the deniers are now outnumbered by a generation who can see their future playing out like the Old Testament.
In Britain we must give thanks to Sir David Attenborough who chose this year to campaign for climate awareness – perhaps we needed an old prophet when the threats are famine, flood and fire. We must hope our sons and daughters look to Attenborough for inspiration, not the leaders of Australia who denied climate change as the inferno bore down on Sydney and the mercury topped record levels. Nor Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who clung to the old saw that climate change is an invention by anti-capitalist lefties who want to sabotage growth.
When John Boorman made his movie The Emerald Forest, about the destruction of the Amazon in 1985, it already seemed a familiar idea – 35 years later, we are still in the ashes, looking up at stars obscured by the smoke.
Which takes us to the third trend of the year for me, crazy capitalism. The other Amazon, and its tech giant pals, grew to be worth more than Scotland’s GNP – individually.
As a bloc, they are far richer than many nations.
The tech story of the year was WeWork, an office space supplier. Despite owning nothing but a filing cabinet of leases, WeWork was valued at billions before it floated, then a delay saw its value crash to pennies. Expectant multi-millionaires were broke before the money was ever real. It was both a wonderful example of capitalism (no state money was involved, no taxpayer penalised) and a ridiculous one.
It summed up a world where things with no intrinsic value were worth billions, while the essential value of the planet was worth nothing. Uniting these poles of idiocy were toxic men.
A US president given to childish rants, a UK PM expected to resign for lying to the Queen who doesn’t, a Russian president who runs an assassination bureau, a Turkish one who governs by thuggery.
The Canadian PM blacks up and claims nobody knew about racism in the 1990s, while colleagues of Angela Merkel are exposed for far-right links.
Amidst all this, along comes Prince Andrew, a figure so exaggerated in his awful entitlement you half wondered if he had been invented to make Boris look good.
Perhaps it is a generational thing as when John Humphrys finally left the BBC’s Today programme, he smirked through half an hour of prime time broadcasting as colleagues sprayed him with compliments, only to denounce the Beeb a day later, and for weeks to come. He had a book to sell – that the BBC had already made him a millionaire didn’t seem to matter.
Those that would tell us how to behave were revealed as creeps and conmen.
There is Tom Rice, swaying above a world that seems to have lost its bearings. Below his feet, no land that isn’t flooded or on fire, no leader that isn’t mendacious or threatening.
It’s not so much that Rice and a million others fought for a better world, as our ability to circle back into chaos, no matter the sacrifice of before. These are dark times.
We have picked a fresh conflict with Europe where none needed to exist, yet can’t see the scale of the real threat from climate change. We are led by would-be Churchills into a confected division.
This is not courage, but distraction. As the new year approaches, it can feel like we are all looking down on the earth, wondering what is to come.
What fresh enemy, what new danger? And it can feel like the mission is hopeless, that we have been sent into unnecessary danger.
Our hands grip the cords above, our eyes check for tears in the canopy.
I have no idea where we will land or what will happen. But we’d be better taking inspiration from Tom Rice than our leaders – if we look to those who govern, we might suspect there is no parachute at all.