2011 Personally Speaking: Emma Cowing

IT WAS 23 April, 2011. The day Strathclyde Police made arrests over the parcel bomb sent to Neil Lennon. That rebels in Libya claimed victory in Misrata.

And I saw my friend John for the last time. A group of us went for dinner. We drank too much, laughed a lot, argued about politics. At the end of the night there were hugs goodbye, promises to catch up soon, the usual. Five days later John died in his sleep. He was 36.

This year, 2011, has been one of shocking loss. In Japan, entire towns were washed away by the giant tsunami that engulfed the country. In Syria, over 5,000 people have now been killed by their own government, while in Norway, 77 people were murdered by a gunman who laughed as he shot them. In Afghanistan, in the tenth year of the conflict, 42 British servicemen and women have lost their lives. And in the heart of every single one of us who has lost someone, an irreplaceable gap has been created.

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Death, any death, is shocking. It crashes into life with no consideration for place or circumstance or people or love and in an instant, it changes everything.

In 2011, we have seen, too, its extraordinary ripple effects. In Tunisia, the self-immolation of fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi in a town marketplace led to the Arab Spring, and the uprising of millions of individuals across the Middle East. It led to the defeat of Ben Ali, and Mubarak, and Gaddafi, and to a brave new world where the young people of Arab countries will take to the streets of their cities to demand democracy from their rulers, even when they know that their own government will fire upon them. Bouazizi’s death has made young people brave.

In contrast, the death of Mark Duggan in August in Tottenham sparked the London riots, which brought chaos to city centres across England and revealed a deep and dark underbelly to British society. Duggan’s death, and the violent world it exposed, has made Britain question its own values.

Some ripples take longer. The horrific murder of Milly Dowler, back in 2002, and its subsequent role in the phone hacking scandal this year, ultimately closed the News of the World, brought the Murdoch corporation to its knees and irrevocably changed attitudes to the media.

And as with any death that becomes public property, a very human cost lies behind all of these losses. The victims of Utoya island, the rebels in Libya, the soldiers patrolling the streets of Nad e-Ali: all of them sat down for a last meal with friends, colleagues or family. Few of them knew that it would be the last argument, the last laugh, the last time. For those left behind, that can be unbearable.

What has the world lost this year? Has a little piece of its soul been chipped away by the relentless slog of unprecedented natural disasters, uprisings, wars, and financial meltdown? Is there still room for hope?

Magical things happened this year, too. That Royal wedding, for all its pomp and circumstance, reminded us of the sort of old-fashioned romance that might actually make you believe true love still exists. In Occupy camps across the world, people called their governments and financial systems to account. In my own life, two friends who were at that final dinner welcomed their first child. One of his middle names is John.

Hope is still here. It’s just that in 2011, we have had to look so much harder to find it.

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What awaits us in 2012? On Hogmanay this year will you raise a glass to old friends, sing the song, hold hands? Perhaps, as I will, you will think of an old friend you will not see again. You will remember the last time you saw them, and their smile, and their voice, and the way their eyes crinkled when they laughed. And as the calendar flips forward to 2012, turning 2011 into history, you will wish that you could see them again, just one more time.