Is it possible to divide time between then and now in the same way that countries can be divided and maps redrawn? And if that is possible, where do those historical lines lie?
Or perhaps, more poignantly, is there what can be described as a before period, when our memories, sealed and carefully ordered, can be isolated from the present, from the day to day and how we live today?
In 1990 the world, and particularly Europe, suddenly found itself in something of a lull, between the then of the Cold War; of certainty locked in fear, dominated by the threat of nuclear war, and the now of 9/11, ISIS and Trump.
The Cold War had been about boundaries, of lines drawn on maps and was defined by brick walls and barbed wire fences just as it was by ideologies and political methods. Its end, when it came, brought with it (especially in the first chaotic rush of Germans through open border gates) the promise of an exciting future for all.
Indeed, between the then and now there was, for a brief time, reflected almost in the fireworks exploding above the Brandenburg Gate, the promise of a peaceful and united future and of a Europe reborn.
Occasionally, moments are caught on television, more so than in the passing voices of radio, or as framed in the self-consciously impertinent front pages of newspapers and magazines, designed and occasionally destined for archives and scrapbooks. It is television that snapshots the transition of the past into the future and which captures it between the commercials and episodes of Coronation Street and the rolling news that comes and goes, and which provide the background to whatever it is we should be doing when not watching the news.
You can save television and relive it in a way that is impossible with any other medium; you can snatch it, bits of it, on YouTube and in cloud storage and review it at your leisure; those moments caught purely by chance, after the moments have gone, and in the process, you can revisit the past in the present, and remember.
On 5 May 1990 the thirty-fifth Eurovision Song Contest came, curiously, bizarrely and poignantly, from Zagreb, in Yugoslavia. Or to be more precise, it came from Croatia. The previous year the competition had been held in Lausanne, Switzerland because Celine Dion had won Eurovision the year before when had been staged in Dublin.
Ireland would come back to haunt Eurovision as a repeatedly winning nation throughout the 90s, freezing the contest in a string of victories that slowed down the television spectacle into a woozy, reassuring comfort blanket of familiarity that would not lift until the end of the decade and the approach of the millennium. Eurovision was in its old state then, in 1988; formal, slow and adrift from the demands and desires of its viewers, possibly because those viewers did not interact with the show in the way they do today.
There was no overt camp in Eurovision in 1988, no rainbow flag-waving, no disco-dancing, no smirking euphoria at the lunacy of an annual television show watched by hundreds of giggling, gaggling millions. The contest had no commercial breaks, no irony, and no tabloid glamour. What it did have in 1988 was Celine Dion, her tears smearing her make-up, as she won the competition with a single point in the final vote of the evening.
Think back and remember.
Dion brought the contest rather regally to Switzerland the following year, then disappeared for a bit, before becoming the global superstar pop balladeer that she is today. In her wake, the earth beneath Europe‘s feet began to slowly, tantalisingly shift during 1989, as sometime Yugoslavian pop group Riva took to the stage in Lausanne, to sing the last song of the competition and in the process changed everything.
Yugoslavia had never won Eurovision. In 1989, Yugoslavia was non-aligned, communist, had some tourist-friendly beaches and quaint old towns, much patronised by European holidaymakers, made some amusingly unreliable cars and was distinct from the other nations of the communist East by not being outside of the Warsaw Pact.
Under the post-war (post-World War II, as opposed to post-Cold War) leadership of General Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia adopted a quasi-independent, socialistic economic model that nearly worked (with the support of a certain amount of foreign aid) and which delivered a relatively modern state welcoming to the West and suspicious of the East. As part of Tito’s regime, any hint of ethnic tension within his federated Yugoslavia, made up as it was of different religions, peoples and with its diverse histories and regional affinities, was crushed by the oppressive force of disciplined and well-trained police and military, and by an economic model structured around regional cooperation and as epitomised in the city experiment of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo, now there’s a word you don’t hear much of today. You heard a lot about it between 1992 and 1995, when it was burning, bombed and terrorised night after night on the television news.