No one slept in 1990

Observations on Pavarotti

Remember 1990? The unravelling of the Soviet Union, apartheid disintegrating in South Africa, Thatcher ousted?

Nothing seemed impossible and the theme tune of that summer was an opera aria suddenly on everybody's lips: "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot.

It almost doesn't matter what else Luciano Pavarotti did in his 71 years because of that moment in July 1990, on the eve of the football World Cup final between Argentina and West Germany, when he stood next to Plácido Domingo and José Carreras at Rome's ancient Caracalla Baths and fired the popular imagination.

I was nearing the end of my first gap year, newly liberated from school and rules. That summer, my friend Andy and I travelled through France and Italy en route for Greece. Then through Yugoslavia and on to newly liberated eastern Europe, still celebrating the fall of the wall.

Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany - Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma" provided an odd soundtrack as we travelled around.

For a brief period during that trip I became captivated by football - I was "over the moon" when England, against all expectations, reached the semi-final, "gutted" by defeat to West Germany, and loud and loutish when Italy defeated England, placing them fourth.

For that match we were on a ferry. It might have been the one from Brindisi to Patras. Throughout the trip we were obnoxious enough to cause concern to our fellow passengers, shutting up only when the match was lost.

Then, as we gazed glumly into our beer, an Italian man, probably in his eighties, ignoring the whispered warnings of his fellow countrymen about British thugs, got up, came over and offered us in turn his hand.

He gave us a charming smile, said he was sorry we had lost and reminded us that it was only a game. Ashamed of ourselves, we got up and congratulated him on his country's victory. Everyone on the boat relaxed.

No matter where we went for the rest of that summer, "Nessun Dorma" - "Let no one sleep" - belted out of windows and cars. It wasn't so much a song as an instruction to two 19-year-olds travelling around Europe away from watchful eyes.

Looking back, I now see that a decade that began with so much possibility was always in danger of tripping itself up. The bloodbath in the Balkans, John Major, Take That - I blame them all for derailing the 1990s that could have been.

Nowadays, I have developed an old-gittish dislike of the "best of" approach to classical music - one aria plucked from an opera when, really, the rewards are so much greater when you hear it in the context of the whole work.

But when I think back 17 years, I still feel 1990 genuinely was a year full of hope. Hope that that song, and Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo, helped capture.

After all, how many decades begin with the release of Nelson Mandela and Puccini in the charts?

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq