On 10 September 2001 – the eve of 9/11, by horrid coincidence – my publisher and I were discussing turning points in history. She hoped to commission a series of short books on the subject. ‘Can I do 1979?’ I asked. This took her by surprise. What on earth happened in 1979?
Plenty, actually. In February the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, inspiring an Islamic revolution the echoes of which have reverberated ever since. Three months later Margaret Thatcher was installed in 10 Downing Street, presiding over another revolution which has also influenced much of the world. Theocracy and free-market capitalism: these were the two fundamentalist creeds that would dominate our lives for years to come, after several decades in which they had seemed so dormant as to be all but dead – ‘forces that we thought we had consigned to the dustbins of history’, to quote the secular Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya.
To be honest, I was making up this thesis on the hoof. But the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. It was also in 1979 that the new Polish pope returned to the land of his birth and led million-strong crowds to believe that Soviet domination