In a matter of hours, Brexit will take effect and the UK will be out of the EU. An eleven-month transition period begins, where everything carries on more or less as normal until the end of 2020. But after 11pm tonight, there is no going back to the European Union. Nothing has changed, and everything has changed.
Even as we leave, the rest of Europe tries its best to say a cheerful goodbye – singing Auld Lang Syne in the European Parliament and holding a farewell party in Brussels city centre. They can’t quite understand why we’re doing it, but Europeans have shown us immense respect and goodwill – far more than we deserve after the last three years.
I have no idea what happens next. Frankly, I am exhausted after three years following the twists and turns from 23rd June 2016 to today (long story short – we could easily have undone Brexit, but the Remain side simply wasn’t smart enough). Suffice to say, I don’t trust Boris Johnson, and his merry band of Brexiteer charlatans, one bit. We are heading for a future arrangement which will damage the economy and sell out the most vulnerable in society.
Scotland may become independent. Northern Ireland may end up joined to the Republic of Ireland. Can I blame them? Not really; I want to get away from England too.
How to sum up 2019? I did a fair bit of travelling, saw some new places and made some new friends (#TågFärjetur), and revisited some familiar haunts too (Hamburg, Berlin).
But if there’s one photo which sums up my 2019, it’s this one, taken at Liverpool Pride on 27th July.
It rained relentlessly for pretty much the whole day, only letting up briefly for about an hour late afternoon. It rained during the Pride march itself, it rained on all the marquees, it rained on everyone watching the acts on the main stage.
I didn’t care. I was wearing a rainbow poncho I’d bought from Clas Ohlson which kept me (mostly) dry, and I was with my friends. I had a great time.
Smiling, even though by rights I should have been totally miserable? That’s 2019 in a photo, there.
After seeing the Baumhaus, a quick glance at Google Maps revealed that I was quite close to the station at Ostbahnhof, so I walked there.
Ostbahnhof is a station which I have visited multiple times, although I have never hung around for long, preferring to head straight for a train. I had some time to spare (I thought) so mooched around for a bit, thinking I could maybe grab some lunch from one of the many food outlets. I didn’t get anything to eat, but on the concourse, I discovered yet another coin-operated model railway. Naturally I had to put in a couple of coins to watch a train go round in circles for a few minutes.
Mid-afternoon is probably the worst time for a flight. Too late in the day to head straight to the airport from the hotel, but early enough that you can’t do anything too ambitious because you constantly have one eye on the time. My Monday morning in Berlin was an example, with my flight due to leave at 15:45. I would have to watch the clock carefully, and ensure that I was at the airport by 2pm.
As it turned out, I actually didn’t keep an eye on the time when I should have, but more of that later…
I decided to stick with the Berlin Wall theme, and headed to Nordbahnhof. This station is on the Berlin S-Bahn’s North-South line, and between 1961 and 1989 was one of the many “ghost stations” on the city’s transport network. The line started in West Berlin, ran through East Berlin for a few miles, then crossed back into West Berlin. All the stations in the East Berlin section were closed, and the entrances sealed. Armed border guards patrolled the dimly-lit platforms – anyone using the train tunnels to escape ran the risk of being shot.
Glienicke Bridge is the terminus of Berlin bus route 316 and the starting point of Potsdam tram route 93, making for easy interchange between the two. I didn’t have to wait long before a tram rumbled into view, and I climbed aboard for the short journey into Potsdam city centre.
I had a few hours to kill, and not much of a plan in mind. I had read up on Sanssouci Park, the huge park surrounding the former royal residence of Frederick the Great, and had decided to visit there at some point. Otherwise, I would just see what delights Potsdam put in my path.
I was nervous. The polls had narrowed in the run-up to polling day, and there was chatter of another hung parliament. On Twitter it was suggested that big names like Dominic Raaaab and even Boris Johnson himself were in trouble, thanks to tactical voting in their constituencies. Even so, it was hard to ignore the opinion polls which still showed a big lead for the Tories.
I tried to distract myself by keeping busy. I answered some emails, wrote out my Christmas cards, scrolled through some photos from my sister’s wedding on Facebook. By 9.45 though, I was nervously pacing up and down, unable to concentrate on anything else. This election was a battle for the soul of our country, and would have effects far beyond this one Parliamentary term.
When the railways were privatised, we were told that they needed to be freed from state control and entrusted to the dynamic private sector.
Virgin Trains took over the InterCity West Coast franchise from British Rail on 9th March 1997. If you turned up at Liverpool Lime Street on that morning for a train to London, you wouldn’t have noticed much difference. Your ticket still had that familiar double arrow logo. The train would have been the same type that had been on that service the previous day. It probably still had “INTERCITY” painted on its side.
Gradually, things began to change. Cheap fares came in with heavy restrictions. The integrated network became fragmented — now there were tickets that restricted you to trains bearing a certain logo. Confused? Not sure which ticket to buy? Sorry, it’s more important that you have CHOICE.
Want to travel to London during the morning peak? The powers-that-be decided that those fares were to be unregulated, dictated only by what the market was prepared to pay. And the prices went up, and up, and up, and continue to rise. Train too busy? We will “yield manage” and price people off.
And if you need help at a station, just pray that there are staff wearing your company’s uniform. “That’s not one of our trains, it’s not our ticket, it’s not on our system. Can’t help, sorry.”
The story was repeated across the rail network. The railway stopped being a public service and became just another corporate entity. And it became less safe. There were accidents – serious, fatal accidents – which can be blamed squarely on corporate greed and penny-pinching.
I can envisage something similar happening with the NHS. It won’t be a sudden change. The first day of NHS plc will probably be no different to what has gone before. The changes will come in gradually – a charge introduced here, some healthy competition there. Pay a little extra for “NHS Plus” benefits. Certain procedures denied because it’s not commercially viable. Our health service will be taken from us piece by piece, and by the time we realise what has happened, it will be too late.
On Sunday morning I arrived at Zoologischer Garten station with a Berlin ABC day ticket in hand, ready to travel west to Wannsee. I could have boarded an S-Bahn train, but instead opted for the faster DB Regio service. This had the bonus of travelling on one of DB’s brill double-decker trains, always a novelty for an Englishman constrained by a restrictive loading gauge.
I had decided to continue with the Berlin Wall theme of my visit. Why did I get off at Wannsee? Because there was something nearby I wanna-see. Do you see?
Even teletext got in on the Berlin Wall celebrations. ARD Text broadcast a series of pages reporting the news from thirty years ago, emulating the look of their text service in 1989. Can it get any more 1980s than that?
The centerpiece of the Mauerfall 30 events was a huge free concert to be held at the Brandenburg Gate on the evening of Saturday 9th November. Since I was in Berlin for the 30th anniversary, it seemed logical to attend.
Security was extremely tight. I had been on the Unter den Linden boulevard earlier in the day, and the whole area of the concert was enclosed in a ring of steel. On the platforms of Brandenburger Tor S-Bahn station, DB security staff with loud hailers were directing passengers to a specific exit – all the others being locked. The Brandenburg Gate itself was behind a security cordon with stern Polizei blocking access. Necessary measures, no doubt, but slightly ironic, considering what the city was celebrating.