2018: Who Knows What It’s Got Up Its Sleeve?



Who Knows What It’s Got Up Its Sleeve?

Polish cavalry in the ruins of Sochaczew, September 1939*

It’s become somewhat of a tradition here at Gates of Vienna to feature Al Stewart’s song “Laughing into 1939” in a New Year’s Eve post. As far as I can determine, we’ve used it three times in the past — in 2008, 2010, and 2016.

And I’m including it here yet one more time on the departing tail of 2017. How could I resist? Especially now that it’s available on YouTube, so that everyone can hear the haunting melody while they read the bittersweet lyrics (which are reproduced at the bottom of this post):

Even though we’ve been laughing into 1939 for almost ten years, somehow that fateful year hasn’t quite arrived. Yet.

To ponder the bittersweet New Year’s Eve of 1938 is to view it in retrospect, with all the benefits granted by hindsight. Just as those long-dead partygoers did, we’re walking backwards towards whatever our own grim rendezvous with destiny may be. Fifty years from now our descendants will understand that moment and what it meant. But for the time being, we know nothing about it.

And it may not be a cataclysmic moment like those of August 1914 or September 1939. It may be a long, drawn-out cataclysm, moving imperceptibly down a seemingly endless slope, ledge by ledge, until we reach the bottom. Maybe something like the Thirty Years’ War.

Or perhaps we’re midway through our own version of 1789-1815, which began with the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and ended with the New World Order ushered in by the Congress of Vienna. How was Prince Metternich to know that the magnificent system he godfathered was to last barely a century? That his glittering Austrian Empire would be shattered into minute fragments by his successors?

Perhaps our cataclysm began in February 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since then we have seen sudden sharp drops as we descend from ledge to ledge — the Marine barracks in Lebanon, Gulf War I, Khobar Towers, the Cole, 9-11, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, “The Arab Spring”, on and on…

It’s not over yet, not by a long shot. The current war is sometimes called “The Long War”, and with good reason — it will most likely continue for another generation or two. We may laugh into our own 1939 for fifty or sixty years.

After ten years of this, I no longer make specific predictions. We’re laughing into whatever year it may be. Let’s see what 2018 has up its sleeve.

Laughing into 1939
by Al Stewart

Party hat and satin dress
Silver paper curled in her long black hair
Tapping one small elegant shoe in time
Oh, the way she plays with them
Smile at one, then dance with another
Pretty soon they’re forming up a line
And she’s laughing, laughing into 1939
Oh, laughing, laughing into 1939

Oh, the party draws them in
It breathes and moves
To a life its own
In its arms it’s gathering all time
From the dark he watches her
Moving in and out of the bobbing crowd
If she even notices, she gives no sign
And she’s laughing, laughing into 1939
Oh, laughing, laughing into 1939

For tonight is New Year’s Eve
Uncork your spirits and welcome it in
Who knows what it’s got up its sleeve
Can’t wait for it all to begin
Stand by the girl with the purple balloon
The look in her eyes just lights up the room
In the corner of her smile
She’ll be seeing you soon
Under a mistletoe moon

Out on to the balcony
Come the King and Queen
And the crowd go wild
He’s a little bit nervous
But that’s just fine
And they’re laughing, laughing into 1939
Oh, laughing, laughing into 1939

*   The photo at the top of this post shows the Polish cavalry in the ruins of the city of Sochaczew in central Poland, riding out to confront the approaching Wehrmacht in September of 1939. It was taken about September 8, and despite the courageous defense mounted by the Poles, the city was under the control of the Germans by September 15.I couldn’t find a useful account in English of what happened in Sochaczew, but here’s the Polish-language wiki, which machine-translates fairly well.


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