Two obscured faces dominated the visual landscape of 2015: one of a killer in a desert and one of a victim on a beach. They defined a year in which the human race found itself at contrasting extremes of cruelty and pathos.
The first was the black-masked face of Mohammed Emwazi, known as the Isis cut-throat “Jihadi John”. With a brattish London accent and a knife, he appeared in videos preparing to decapitate hostages, shown kneeling before him. The other face was that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old son of a Kurdish migrant who, fleeing from Isis with his family, set out to Greece from Turkey in a small boat. Alan’s face was obscured because it was flat down in the Mediterranean Sea, where his brother and mother also drowned: he became an emblem of the migrant crisis that enveloped Europe.
Islamist carnage defined the year, which began and ended in hails of gunfire in Paris, first in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose staff were murdered in January; and later in the Bataclan rock theatre and other venues where, in November, suicide-vested Isis zealots murdered 130 revellers.
In between, the death cult displayed a medieval thirst for barbarity – beheadings, burnings alive, torture, defenestration – as their ragged but well-financed army secured territory in Syria, Libya and Iraq, while their deranged adherents brought mayhem to a tourist beach resort in Tunisia and a mosque in Kuwait, among other places.
Affiliated terrorist organisations, including Al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and the Nigerian Boko Haram, targeted towns and villages across the Middle East and north Africa. As Isis approached the Mediterranean coast, western governments finally woke to the threat and discussed retaliation. Former Defence Staff chief Lord Richards declared: “Tanks will have to roll, and there’s going to have to be boots on the ground.”
Meanwhile the fallout of war created a fresh crisis. News arrived in February that migrants leaving Libya in small boats were drowning in hundreds, while Italian coastguards were rescuing thousands. In April, 8,000 refugees from the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans were rescued in six days, as their overcrowded boats capsized, often with people locked below decks.
Others sought asylum by sea from Turkey via small Greek islands. New arrivals advanced across Europe, precipitating a logistical nightmare. Some countries refused to admit them, fearing they might include Isis followers. Multitudes headed for Germany after Angela Merkel vowed to accommodate everyone who applied for sanctuary – then changed her mind. The migration was Biblical: a million wandering refugees with hungry families, looking for the Promised Land. The ground seemed to shift beneath Europe’s feet.
It shifted under the old certainties of British politics too. After a lacklustre election campaign, in which Labour’s Ed Miliband stumbled from one PR disaster to the next, the Conservatives won with a small majority. Every political poll had predicted a hung parliament; the pollsters suddenly seemed redundant. The leaders of three opposition parties, Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, resigned within hours of the result.
An even more remarkable political upheaval followed with the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. Party stalwarts learnt that the wispy-bearded, grey-vested veteran Socialist and pacifist might be ushered to power by “registered supporters” paying just £3 to vote mischievously.
The result was both a landslide and a farce: Corbyn received “the largest mandate ever won by a party leader in the UK”, while having little support from his fellow Labour MPs. At the year’s crucial debate over bombing Isis targets in Syria, he declined to whip Labour MPs into supporting his anti-bombing view. Among those voting for action was his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, whose rousing speech was seen by many as an application for the top job. Over the debate hovered the memory of 2003, the bombing of Baghdad, and the destruction of Tony Blair’s reputation. Would history repeat itself?
Some lighter moments briefly gleamed amid the wretched news. Royalty had a good year. The Queen became the UK’s longest-reigning monarch, the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to Princess Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales reportedly began sporting a monocle in private.
In sport, England won the Ashes, skittling Australia’s batsmen for 60 on the first day of the deciding fourth Test; won the Davis Cup for the first time in 79 years; celebrated (with the rest of the UK) a controversial new world boxing champion in Tyson Fury; but blew the Rugby World Cup – the first time in the tournament’s history that the host nation failed to survive the knockout stages. Whiffs of corruption hung over both Fifa and the IAAF.
The new head of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, was pressured to resign after questions about her professional association with HSBC, a bank accused of helping people evade tax. Jeremy Clarkson was ejected from the driving seat of Top Gear after punching his producer for failing to find him a hot meal at a hotel. In December, the Corporation’s long-standing creative director Alan Yentob resigned, just before an inquiry into his activities as chairman of the discredited charity, Kids Company.
In matters of sex, gay politics predominated. Ireland, traditionally regarded as socially conservative, voted Yes to same-sex marriage; a Supreme Court ruling moved the US in the same direction. Caitlin Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner the Olympic decathlon champion, appeared in a frock on the cover of Vanity Fair to announce her “transgender” incarnation. A lively debate ensued about the concept of “gender-fluidity”. Fans of the printed female bosom suffered a double blow when The Sun ceased to display its Page Three Girl naked, and Playboy renounced nudity in its pages after 50 years, overtaken by the availability of Internet porn.
Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The literary world celebrated the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, a long-lost early draft of her million-selling To Kill a Mockingbird; it revealed that, in Lee’s original, the saintly Atticus Finch was a racist bigot.
The Booker Prize was won by a Jamaican novel, Marlon James’s multi-voiced, hyper-violent A Brief History of Seven Killings. Australia joined other not-very-European nations (Israel, Cyprus, Armenia, Morocco) in entering the Eurovision Song Contest – an enduring vision of global harmony that’s radically, laughably, touchingly at odds with the reality of Europe in 2015: chaotic, besieged, overwhelmed and apprehensive of the future.
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