“There are no constraints of the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress, save those we ourselves erect.”

Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, 06 February 1985

Having been conceived, I guess, around about VE Day, I was born into the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. No doubt many others born in the mid 1940s will remember, as I do, when the Berlin Wall went up. I was staying with a young friend with whom I had shared many long hot summer holidays idling our time around his orchard, clucking at his hens and riding our bikes between the geese, laughing as our bells and their honks shouldered out the insect-humming air.

I was a carefree youngster and understood nothing of the significance of the black-and-white images flashing across his father’s television. But I recall the deep sense of sadness that fell over the house that morning, as the partition of Europe took on a more sinister shade. 

As my generation grew up in selfish introspection, Bill Haley shocked and excited our parents, while we grew our hair to unheard-of lengths, flirted with LSD, and swung our way in, through and out of the Sixties. We had only seen peace, and our families had apparently never had it so good. There might have been occasional interruptions to our feel-good factor – the Cuba missile crisis, devaluation, a winter of discontent, the three-day week – but on the whole, we became accustomed to and rather liked the Gospel According to Mrs Thatcher, market forces, and the ability of the strongest to grab as much capital as possible, believing the wisdom that wealth would trickle down to those below us from our own profligacy.

While our American cousins appeared to be apprehensive of Russian hegemony, we were more curious than scared, and we rather liked the intrigue of the Third Man and then Smiley, as the dastardly secret services of the Communist bloc conspired to overthrow the Western imperialists.

Gradually, in the last quarter of the 20th century, we began to realise that we owed more to life and each other than simply dancing the night away on our little island. Television became an information tool as well as a source of entertainment. Michael Buerk took us to the Horn of Africa and appalled us with scenes of dying children. Bob Geldof channelled our dancing into giving. We learned the meaning of the Third World.

However, we still had no concept of how our neighbours in Europe were living. Millions of people behind the Iron Curtain looked westward, imagining wealth and security and, above all, freedom from totalitarian regimes which ruled them with an iron heel. We chose, however, not to look eastward too carefully, for there was no benefit in it. The Russians, the Warsaw Pact, the East Germans were all objects of at best, intrigue and at worst, fear. Anecdotal evidence persuaded us that protection was needed against our Eastern neighbours, and both television and cinema fiction revealed just how uncomfortable it was to live within those regimes.

When cracks appeared in the edifice, we joined in the general rejoicing – first Poland, and then East Germany, and, of all places, the mighty USSR, revealed an inability to control the groundswell of a popular determination to break out, westward, if not in body, certainly in mind. 

And then, a sea change. The closed, even sinister, world surrounding the line of Russian presidents whom I could remember either from recent history books or from my own lifetime, Lenin, Stalin, Bulganin, Khrushchev, suddenly lurched towards tolerance and reason. President Gorbachev, a man with whom Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed she could ‘do business’ took centre stage in Russia. Overnight, and with little apparent opposition from the Kremlin, outlying states of the Soviet Union sought to wriggle free from the Communist yoke. Suddenly, we could not simply look over the Berlin Wall, we could look through it, as students and young people swarmed over it, breaking it down.

The power of television not only recorded but appeared to provoke change throughout the continent. And inevitably, the dissatisfaction of the life endured for so long by the people of Romania welled up; mass meetings developed into revolution, and revolution into assassination. A particularly nasty brand of dictatorship was brought to an end. 

But what was left was a damaged country rife with corruption and with a stagnant economy. And there was more. There were tens of thousands of children, Ceauşescu’s children as they became known, who were living in utter squalor.


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