The first I heard of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo was a journalist phoning me for reaction—the worst way to hear bad news. For weeks I kept going out of sheer rage. At the start it seemed as though nobody else wanted to admit what this was: an attempt to impose Islamic blasphemy laws in Europe. People told me the killers were “trying to divide us”. Still others argued that we must “search for the root causes” (which translates as peddling your peculiar bugbear). Then came the moment—after an only vaguely decent silence—of people saying that the magazine and its slain staff were racist. This fuelled me for further weeks. The only thing worse than people being murdered for their beliefs must be people being murdered for their beliefs and then someone who had never heard of them till the day before yesterday spreading the lie that those beliefs were not what they were.
In the middle of it all I happened to interview Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founders of Hamas. Now living in exile, he has turned his back on the movement and his family. But he was also one of the only other people during that period to agree that the march of world leaders in Paris was bad. Never mind all the startling hypocrisy on display, the world’s leaders walking arm in arm does not impress these opponents. It looked desperate, and weak.
One of my best allies in all this was Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, who is also Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn. I have known Maajid since he came out of prison in Egypt nearly a decade ago and we’ve both travelled a long way since, sometimes together, sometimes on opposite sides. But it felt to me to be a sign of hope that on this issue at least there was not a crack between us. I have the terrible feeling that this global Islamist problem is only in its infancy. But if any of this is going to be sorted out it will only be by Muslims and non-Muslims putting our societies back on the right tracks. We have been reminded again of how very few are willing to do this. At any rate, Maajid is the only person in the world who could now persuade me—if I lived in his constituency—to vote Liberal Democrat in May.
Is there any hope of escaping the election? I suppose not, but oh how I wish there were. What is most impossible is the parties constantly shutting down discussion. Nigel Farage will say something which the Tories might have said but did not and they will lambaste him for it. The Labour party will accuse the Conservatives over something many Labour members could happily say, and so on. Meanwhile, we will have endless faked “nun-gates” and “pink-van-gates” where political opponents drag up everyone else’s most meaningless slips and then complain bitterly when the same trick is pulled on them. Worst of all is the sure and certain knowledge that at the end of this whole horrible process we are going to have to collapse into another coalition heap. Oh to be out of England until (and perhaps after) May is here.
In that unique and magical period between Christmas and New Year I managed to sit by a fire and make my way through a pile of books built up over the previous 12 months. They included Julie Burchill’s raucous book on the tragedy of not being born Jewish (a phrase which, when I used it in a synagogue recently, elicited a huge roar of dark laughter) and also one of the greatest books I had never previously read. I was reading Stefan Zweig throughout the year, but saved the memoir—The World of Yesterday—until the end.
Apart from the extraordinary descriptions of friends—Herzl, Rilke, Rodin, Strauss; there was no one Zweig did not know—the book is one of the most haunting I have read.
It brought to mind the only persuasive argument I ever heard for the tedious idea that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. The idea (which relies on the “bare ruined choirs” sonnet, among others) suggests that the landscape of desolated monasteries formed the young poet. Crucially, it was this that made Shakespeare aware from the outset of one of the world’s hardest truths—that even the things you love most can be trodden over and wrecked by people utterly unworthy of them. However he acquired it, that knowledge certainly informed Shakespeare’s genius. Zweig saw his world swept away not once but twice and part of the terror of the memoir is the awareness that this same realisation would soon sweep him away with it.