J'accuse…

The basics of the Dreyfus affair are, I had thought, fairly well known.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army, was accused of treason in 1894 and convicted. He was stripped of his army uniform and badges in a ‘ceremony of degradation’, all the while declaring his loyalty to France and his innocence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and deported to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana.

As members of his family and some others argued tirelessly for his innocence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the newly appointed head of the Military Intelligence Service, discovered that the key piece of evidence against Dreyfus was in the handwriting of another officer, Esterhazy.

Despite this, and the lack of other evidence of Dreyfus’s guilt, Picquart and the other ‘Dreyfusards’ faced the implacable hostility of the establishment to any suggestion that the case should be reviewed. That they succeeded in the end is a tribute to their resilience in the face of threats to their careers and indeed to their lives. That it had to be such a hard fight reveals the extent and virulence of French anti-semitism at that era.

Dreyfus was framed. Because he was a Jew, people were ready to believe that he would not be loyal to France. And because he was a Jew, and the true culprit was not, it was unthinkable that he should be vindicated and a non-Jew convicted in his place, whatever the truth. Picquart realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.

Dreyfus was pardoned (not found innocent) in 1899. In 1906 he was reinstated in the army, but retired a year later, his health having suffered greatly from the privations of Devil’s Island. His most famous champion, Emile Zola, had died in 1902, in suspicious circumstances. Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied Zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz.

The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force. As Theodor Herzl said:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

The ‘affair’ divided France. One was either pro- or anti-Dreyfus. The anti-camp used every anti-semitic trope and image in the repertoire to vilify Dreyfus and his supporters. And this rhetoric never went away. The ground was well-prepared for the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers from 1940. (Charles Maurras of far-right anti-semitic movement Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.)

See any similarities with the case of Julian Assange? Me neither.

But John McDonnell would disagree.

 I think it is the Dreyfus case of our age, the way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons for simply exposing the truth of what went on in relation to recent wars.”

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/feb/20/julian-assange-case-is-the-dreyfus-of-our-age-says-john-mcdonnell

Where do we start with this nonsense? Dreyfus was not persecuted for political reasons. He was an army officer, just doing his job, notable only for being Jewish. He was framed because he was a Jew. He was persecuted solely because he was a Jew.

Even if one believes that the prosecution of Assange is unjust, he wasn’t picked out because of his race to be used as a scapegoat for someone else’s crime.

Even if Assange is a victim of a miscarriage of justice, and that is very much open to argument, one cannot (surely?) speak of the Dreyfus affair without speaking about anti-semitism.

Anti-semitism fitted him up. Anti-semitism condemned him to life imprisonment. Anti-semitism blocked any review of his case and threatened those who supported him. Anti-semitism vilified him and all Jews in the crudest of terms. Without anti-semitism, there is no Dreyfus affair.

McDonnell’s comparison drew swift condemnation, but his response suggests he doesn’t really get why it was so offensive:

Just like the Dreyfus case, the legal action against Julian Assange is a major political trial in which the establishment is out to victimise an innocent. On that basis, of course it’s right to assert that it’s a parallel.

https://politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/labour-party/john-mcdonnell/news/110034/john-mcdonnell-defends-comparison

Over the last few years, I have raged and despaired on so many occasions as Labour politicians, councillors and activists have demonstrated their inability to recognise and comprehend anti-semitism. This issue has divided and still divides the Party. Given how damaging this has been, how is it possible that McDonnell did not see what was wrong with his appropriation of this key moment in the twentieth-century’s shameful history of anti-semitism? As Ian Dunt puts it, ‘to say it is a misreading of history is to put it in its kindest possible light’.

It’s a form of erasure. And that’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous.

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Au revoir…

and also hasta luego, arrivederci, auf wiedersehen, på gensyn, do widzenia…

I thought, when this day came, it would feel worse than this. That’s not because I’m any more sanguine about the consequences – I’m deeply sad, and afraid. It’s because I’m facing personal grief and loss – my feelings about what’s happening to my family are currently overwhelming my feelings about what’s happening to my country. There’s also the numbing effect of having despaired, and then hoped (cautiously) and then despaired and hoped and so on, over 3.5 years.

Some day, we’ll realise our mistake. We’ll understand the value of the European project, of the merits of facing the huge challenges of the 21st century with our neighbours rather than alone.

Till then, till we find ourselves some leaders who have the honesty and the humility to acknowledge that we need to be part of Europe, what can we hope for?

I will not hope, as some on the Remain side appear to, that those who voted for Brexit suffer the most from its consequences.* One of the arguments against Brexit that most of us espoused was precisely that its consequences would be the most severe for the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable, those with the least resources. That some of those people voted for Brexit is deeply sad – but we cannot wish their situation to get worse than it is. Politics aside, that is simply morally wrong.

I hope that the vocal minority of thugs who have felt empowered since the referendum to terrorise and abuse those who are visibly and/or audibly Not British will be dealt with appropriately by the law, and that those of us who witness such things will stand with the targets of their abuse.

I hope that whatever solutions are found to the Irish border issue, that the peace that has – largely – prevailed there since the Good Friday Agreement holds, and strengthens.

I hope that the negotiations that must now take place will be conducted in good faith by our politicians, and that a No Deal exit will be avoided.

I hope that the promises made at the time of the referendum to EU citizens who have made their homes here, paid their taxes here, raised families here, contributed here in so many ways, will be kept.

I hope that, desirous of freedom and independence as we apparently are, we do not surrender our independence to the USA in return for dubious trade deals with an unstable and untrustworthy regime.

I hope that those of us who argued, voted, marched, campaigned to stay in Europe will use our energies now not just to promote the hope of our return, but to work against the worst consequences of our departure, whether or not they affect us directly.

Above all, I hope that one day, led by the young who have had the most stolen from them by Brexit, we will knock at Europe’s door and say, with all due respect and humility, ‘we made a hideous mistake. We’d like to come home now, please.’ And that our brothers and sisters in Europe will say, with generosity and forgiveness, ‘OK, let’s talk’.

*I reserve the right, however, to a degree of schadenfreude, should those who advocated Brexit, lied about Brexit, used Brexit as a means to promote toxic messages about ‘foreigners’ and ‘enemies of the people’, threatened said foreigners and enemies of the people, and so forth, see their careers in freefall and their names held up to ridicule. I’m not a bloody saint.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/31/remainers-britain-eu-brexit

https://mailchi.mp/politics/week-in-reviewthe-end-of-the-dream-the-start-of-the-resistance?e=a496c93003

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/andre-rieu-ode-to-joy-enters-itunes-chart-1-6484902

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Stand Together: Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

It’s 75 years since the Red Army entered the camp that has become a symbol of the Holocaust – Auschwitz. What they found there changed the way we see the world, and see our fellow human beings.

But the dwindling number of eye witnesses – a relatively small number who were deported to concentration camps as children (huge numbers of children were deported, but probably the majority were killed on arrival as they could not be put to work) – makes it ever more vital that we listen to what they say, that we read their accounts, that we study and remember what happened.

Because it could happen again – indeed, it has happened, again and again, to Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rohingya in Myanmar, to Igbos in Nigeria, to Muslims in Bosnia, to various ethnic and religious groups as well as to the supposed ‘elite’ in Cambodia. And, of course, in Nazi Germany it didn’t just happen to the Jews. We remember the people with disabilities killed in the ‘euthanasia’ programme, and the homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses who were targeted. And in particular, the Roma people who were rounded up and murdered – and who have had no respite in the intervening years from bigotry and hatred.

But we need to study not only what happened at Auschwitz and the other camps across Europe, but what happened before that. Because the Nazis did not begin with mass slaughter. They began by a process of othering.

Little by little, Jews were identified, by various means. Stamps in ID documents, allocation of generically Jewish names – Sarah and Israel – to all Jews, notices on Jewish owed businesses.

Little by little, they were isolated from former colleagues, neighbours, classmates. Jewish doctors could not treat Aryan patients, Jewish teachers could only teach Jewish children, and there were restrictions on Jews employing Aryans in their home. Both marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and Aryans were barred.

Little by little, the dissemination of anti-Jewish rhetoric filtered into all areas of society. If they were assimilated into German society, this was presented as a kind of dangerous infiltration. If they were not (like the Jews from Eastern Europe who had made their homes in Germany) they were caricatured and condemned as primitive.

Because what came after this was so horrific, we forget the years in which that process of identification and isolation was preparing the way for the horror.

As these ‘others’ became more and more isolated, it was easier for the rest not to notice when people disappeared, to look the other way when they were attacked in the streets. And it was easier, when they weren’t your neighbour, your doctor, your teacher, your colleague, to believe the propaganda. To start to believe that they were ‘A Problem’, that they were a threat. It was easier to choose not to know or to ask what was happening, where the people had gone who had been rounded up in your neighbourhood, or what might happen to them there.

But if we’re looking to draw comparisons and find lessons for our own times, we need to go back to before the Nazi government took power, and introduced the kind of anti-Semitic legislation referred to above. For all of that to be possible, they had to be able to tap into a rich seam of suspicion and prejudice.

In more recent years, when we think of racism, we think of the prejudice faced by the immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean and from South Asia, from Africa and East Asia. We think of people who are easily identified, no option of ‘passing’. We think of people who are often economically disadvantaged, only rarely in positions of significant influence and power.

We forget that in Europe before the war, the most significant targets for racism were the Jews. A whole pseudo-science of race purported to prove that they were not only inferior but dangerous. Forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to ‘expose’ their secret rituals. No matter how contradictory the claims were – they were both Bolsheviks and arch-capitalists, both primitive and highly sophisticated – they were so prevalent as to be accepted almost casually by many. Reading novels written between the wars one is often struck, jarringly, by the stereotypes of Jews (obsequious, money-grubbing) that would surely never make it to print for any reputable publisher today.

So much has changed. And yet today, one does not have to look far or dig very deeply to uncover language and ideas not very different from those so prevalent before the war. For those on the right, George Soros is the shadowy paymaster funding liberal and progressive initiatives, the puppet-master engineering opposition to Brexit and so on. For those on the left, it’s the Zionists who are the paymasters, via the Rothschild banking dynasty who are alleged to control global finances, and are often accused of controlling the ‘mainstream media’ as well. Whilst some of this rhetoric is claimed to be simply opposition to Zionism as a political movement, motivated by anger at the Israeli government, the mask very easily slips.

Both extremes may indulge in Holocaust denial – or at least minimisation. A whole new generation finds ‘revelations’ on the net such as the supposed Red Cross report giving a very low total of deaths and passes them on, saying ‘Hmmm, interesting!’. In fact, a minimal amount of research would have confirmed that there neither was nor could have been any Red Cross report estimating the total number of Holocaust deaths, or deaths in concentration camps. The figure cited so enthusiastically was for deaths in camps to which the Red Cross had access and for which death certificates were issued – excluding therefore the majority of camps, the deaths on arrival, the deaths by mass shootings etc, etc, etc. Aside from the spread of misinformation, what is most alarming is how eager some are to find reasons to believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated – because to believe that is to buy into a whole complex of Zionist conspiracies.

So whilst none of the other forms of racism have gone away (far from it – if anything they seem more prevalent, certainly more vocal), anti-semitism seems to have made something of a comeback.

None of which is to suggest that in the UK we are close to stripping Jews, or Muslims, or any other group of their citizenship. Except that we effectively allowed unknown numbers of people who came to the UK as children from the Caribbean and believed themselves to be British citizens to suddenly be expected to prove their right to be here, losing their livelihoods, their access to health care, their homes in the process. If we can do that, and that harm has not been undone (and given the shabby way in which EU citizens who have made their homes here, built families here, contributed to our society and our economy are being treated on the eve of Brexit) then we have no grounds for complacency.

The theme for this year’s HMD is ‘Stand Together’. We can read and be inspired by the stories of those who knowingly risked and often lost their own lives to support or protect those others targeted for genocide. But the time to stand together, really, is now. Before populist nationalism and xenophobia get too much of a hold. Before everyone gets too used to seeing people racially abused in the streets. Before the lies and slanders become so prevalent that we no longer trouble to challenge them.

There have been so many inspiring examples of standing together in the face of terrorism. Of people of all faiths and none rallying around when another group is under attack – offering everything from blood donations to security patrols, and demonstrating solidarity by being there, literally standing together.

We must all hope never to have to face the kind of challenges and choices that were and are faced by witnesses to genocides past and present. We must hope that if we stand with each other now, in the face of prejudice and bigotry, that ‘never again’ will be more than a pious catchphrase.

There are those reluctant to believe

Or believing from time to time.

There are those who look at these ruins today

As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.

Those who take hope again as the image fades

As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.

Those who pretend all this happened only once,

At a certain time and in a certain place.

Those who refuse to look around them,

Deaf to the endless cry.

Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (script for Alain Resnais’s 1955 film, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of the camps)

https://www.gregjenner.com/my-family-and-the-holocaust/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/26/i-see-it-as-a-chance-to-finally-say-goodbye-auschwitz-survivors-tell-their-stories

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Here's hoping… New Year 2019/2020

It’s just another New Year’s Eve. Nothing actually changes on New Year’s Day, we know that … but that never stops us hoping that some things will change, making plans and resolutions, wishing and wondering.

For many of us, looking back at the year just ending cannot be wholeheartedly celebratory. Of course, there have been good things – friends and family, love and laughter, things that brought us pleasure and achievements of which we are proud. We will recall those tonight, and be glad for every one of those moments and those memories. At the same time, if grief and loss has been part of our year we will acknowledge our sadness, and raise a glass to the people who we lost in 2019.

For many of us, looking forward to the year just about to begin cannot be simply hopeful, knowing that some of what we fear will happen. Some of us will be learning to live with loss, others will be anticipating loss. Many hearts will be heavy.

How do we face that countdown, knowing what we know? With tears, probably. With warmth and solidarity and love, wherever possible. With people to hold on to, literally or metaphorically, to accept our sadness and our fear, and to remind us of the good things that there were in 2019, and that will still be there in 2020.

When it comes to the state of the nation and of the world, it would be terribly easy to give up. I’ve noticed how often these days I choose not to watch the news or read the headlines which, for a politics junkie as I have been all my life, raised on family discussions around the tea table of the events of the day, is a big change. I can’t let that inertia continue.

I need to hang on to hope, and faith in humanity. There are reasons to be, if not cheerful, at least very cautiously hopeful, reasons to nurture those glimmers of hope. In the wake of attacks on mosques or synagogues, communities have come together to assert solidarity in the face of murderous bigotry. So many young people are fighting the good fight on the climate emergency.

Hope lies in recognising that the biggest problems we face are problems we can only deal with across borders and oceans, not by retreating behind our walls. Hope lies in people choosing to identify with and stand with people who aren’t like them, giving a damn whether or not it’s not their turn.

Meantime, in the face of lies we have to keep speaking and showing truth.  In the face of hate we have to keep speaking and showing love. In the face of the horrors that seem to happen daily, far away from us or close to home, we have to keep speaking and showing faith.

Keep on keeping on.

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

(Sheenagh Pugh – Sometimes)

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day

(E B White)

Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars

(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)

We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.

(Flobots – We are Winning)

The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.

(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.  … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

(Joss Whedon – Angel)

Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.

(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)

Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)

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Albums of the decade

Final list of the year/decade end. Honest.

Just ten albums, not ranked in order of importance or merit.

  1. Arctic Monkeys – AM
  2. Bjork – Utopia
  3. David Bowie – Black Star
  4. Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet – Inspiration
  5. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
  6. P J Harvey – Let England Shake
  7. Christian Scott – Ancestral Recall
  8. Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile
  9. Tinariwen – Emmaar
  10. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

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Five years

Way, way back, in 2015, I wrote a piece responding to the outcome of a general election, with the same title. Things seem to be immeasurably worse today than they were then. (If you’d told me then about Brexit, Trump and a Labour Party poisoned by anti-semitism I would simply not have believed you.) But somehow we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. We have to decide what’s important now.

We go into 2020 with a Prime Minister who is devoid of integrity and principle, an Opposition that is (perhaps irrevocably) divided and even weaker than its numbers would suggest, and the certainty that we will be leaving the EU, quite possibly without a deal. It’s hard to find hope in that.

I can hope (though my hopes have been not just dashed but stomped on and the crushed fragments stomped on some more and then set fire to so many times since 2016 that I hardly dare) for a Democrat victory in the US elections. I don’t even know what to hope for, for the UK.

One day, somehow, we may be back in Europe (but let’s not start thinking about that now). One day, somehow, we may have an Opposition that will be willing to sacrifice ideological purity in order to gain power, so that they can actually do something about the things they claim to care about, other than shouting (usually at the wrong people) from the sidelines. Perhaps.

If we’re concerned about the impact of a rampant Tory government and a potential hard Brexit, not necessarily on ourselves but on others, what are we going to do about that? If we now feel politically homeless, how are we going to engage with politics over the things that really matter? If we despair at the mendacity, the bigotry, the contempt shown by too many politicians for the electorate or sections of it, and the overt bigotry faced on our streets by those whose accent, skin colour, or dress proclaim them to be different, how do we stand up for each other? I can’t answer my own questions, not yet.

My friend Mike Press doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but he’s asking the same questions. He posted this on Facebook, but it deserves a wider readership. It gives me a little, just a little, glimmer of hope. With enough thoughtful people, with enough kind people, with enough people who give a damn whether or not it’s their turn, maybe we can do this.

In the twelve years that I lived in Stoke-on-Trent there was a recurrent joke that did the rounds at election time – there’s no point in voting in Stoke, so the joke ran, they may as well keep all the Labour votes in the cellar of the town hall and take them out to weigh them every few years, such was the certainty that being a Potteries Labour MP was a job for life.

Clay runs in the veins of all Stokies, so it was suggested, on account of their passion for their craft, industry and identification with it. If it did then that clay was the same deep crimson as their politics. Nowhere else in Britain had swept Labour to power so decisively and swiftly as Stoke in the elections of 1918 and 1922. In the 1997 election – my last while living there – Labour was returned with 66% of the vote. We believed we were about to build the New Jerusalem. Since early on Friday morning all of The Potteries’ constituencies have become safe Tory seats.

I have voted in twelve general elections and in none of them has the defeat been as disastrous as this one. We have to go back to 1935 – the age of mass unemployment and Nazi Germany – for an election as catastrophic for Labour as the one we’ve just experienced. Our reactions to this have been perhaps understandable. After venting our anger on Boris Johnson and the Tory Party, we turn our barrels on the electorate itself. I’ve read comments from people here on Facebook and on twitter that described the English as “swinging to the far right”, that people who vote Tory are “stomach churning” or “just plain thick”. I’ve read comments that wish increased child poverty on Tory supporters “because they’ve just voted for it”.

The people of Stoke (and Blyth, Darlington, Redcar, etc, etc) have not swung to the far right, they are far from thick and they – along with all other folk – should never have child poverty wished upon them. There is serious thinking to be done to understand why people voted (or did not vote) in the way they did, and what is needed to build a new politics of hope. Because as progressives, we never lose hope. Out of every disaster comes hope. After Labour’s calamity of 1935, the party needed to rebuild, so it elected a little known new leader – Clement Attlee.

But a politics of hope requires empathy and kindness – despite the shock, anger and grief many of us currently feel. It also requires that we look very carefully at the data.

The English have not swung to the far right. The increase in the Conservative vote in England was 1.2% – a small increase on their lacklustre 2017 election performance. While many former Labour voters did vote Tory, more of them simply stayed at home. The demographics of age and education (and identity) are clearly reshaping political allegiances and replacing the old certainties of class. An interesting (and hopeful) phenomenon is a significantly reduced tribalism in politics. According to the Ashcroft poll, around one third of voters for all parties are now ‘tribal’ – the rest make up their minds as the campaign develops.

People vote for a whole variety of reasons. Along with 25% of SNP and 43% of Lib Dem voters, I voted for a party that is not my first choice, but I did so for tactical reasons. People voted Tory for three main reasons (according to the data): Brexit, the economy and leadership. None of the Tories I know support the party because they wish child poverty on others. A vote for Brexit and Scottish independence? Well the data also shows that 53% of UK voters supported pro-remain parties, and 54% of Scottish voters backed unionist parties. Those figures in themselves don’t tell us very much, apart from the need for a root and branch overhaul of our parliamentary democracy.

But looking at the data remains challenging given the distortions of the stultifying and dangerous bubbles we have created for ourselves. Social media has served to provide us with instant validation for our biases, assumptions and prejudices. As a consequence we do not engage with views we don’t agree with. We do not debate, we do not argue, we assert and feel validated by the ‘likes’ our assertions attract. We don’t need to empathise because we keep within our bubble of largely like minded people.

A few weeks ago my friend Adam StJohn Lawrence sent me a video he filmed on the streets of Hong Kong minutes after a riot. He was there to run workshops with government workers and citizens – not on the conflict, but on other issues. He recalled one of the people he was working with who gave their explanation of the crisis. They’re stuck – he suggested – they’ve run out of vocabulary, and this is the consequence.

It’s the same here. We’re stuck. There are no words that can bring us together – we’ve run out of them. We are in a state of continual conflict. How the Scottish question will be resolved by two governments that cannot find common ground, is very uncertain. Unlike European models of modern democracy that require negotiation and compromise, the British system is built on conflict, on “opposition”.

Now, let’s suggest an alternative – based on empathy and kindness.

There are two reasons that this is possible. First, because since Friday the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are women, and that will necessarily bring in new values and behaviours both to those parties and to political discourse. Second, because Scotland has already placed kindness at the centre of its National Performance Framework. As Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, has said (not of this election, but in terms of public policy): “We need to recognise that the challenge ahead is not primarily a technical ask but a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture. And if we can succeed in making this shift to instil kindness within public policy, we will succeed in improving lives.”

Politics is not an indulgence to prove a point. It’s no gladiatorial combat to entertain TV viewers. It’s not a game: “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.” Politics is “a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture” and we either behave with kindness and respect, despite our differences, and at times actually relishing those differences, or we descend into a form of barbarism.

The UK and Scotland may well be on different paths to different futures. The task of all of us is to find a way into our respective futures based on empathy and kindness – understanding and respecting each other. With that foundation then we can empower citizens to make their own futures – to be active participants in democracy and in the public domain.

Despite all I’ve written about kindness, I still feel angry, still raw. I’m angry with Corbyn and the infantile disorder of the left who gave some folk no choice but to vote Tory. Above all, I’m angry with Johnson, Gove and the others for their lies, for their disrespect, for their self-serving and misplaced sense of entitlement.

But the folk of Stoke I feel no anger towards at all. They lost the steel works, then the mines, just before most of the potteries closed and as a consequence their sense of identity has been bulldozed. How do you think it feels to vote for one party for your whole life, and then switch to its arch political enemy? How do you think it feels to spend over a year on strike in a forlorn attempt to keep your mine open then decades later to use that stubby pencil to put a cross against Conservative in an election?

I don’t know either. All I know is that empathy and kindness might take us beyond this. And I know that getting angry with people just trying to get through life and make the best choices they can isn’t really on. We can and should be angry with those who lie and mislead. But for the rest, let’s just try to listen and understand.

Well, over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And, yeah, they might overstep the line
But you just cannot get angry in the same way
No, not in the same way
Said, not in the same way
Oh no, oh no no

Arctic Monkeys

‘I never thought I’d need / So many people’

David Bowie, ‘Five Years’

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2010-2019 – the best bits… and some of the other bits

I honestly hadn’t thought about it being the end of a decade until I saw the first few ‘best of’ lists appearing.

On a personal level, it’s been quite momentous. We both retired, midway through the decade, a decision which we haven’t regretted for a nano-second. I finished my (second) undergrad degree before I left work, and then went straight on to study for a PhD, which I hope to complete early in the next decade. Each of our children graduated twice (four different Universities, three different cities) and found permanent, rewarding employment.

I lost a good friend and colleague to cancer and helped to set up and then chair a charity as his legacy, raising around £30k since 2013 for cancer charities, through a fabulous fundraising event, the 24 Hour Inspire, and other ventures.

I started this blog in January 2012, and whilst I’ve had periods of writer’s block this year it’s given me a way of being creative, having spent most of my life denying that I am or could be. I was also offered the chance to go to the opera for free with a friend, and write reviews of the productions, which has been an absolute delight.

We put lots of things on hold for a while as my mother in law’s dementia worsened, and her care needs became urgent. She died last Christmas. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018 and the chemo he’s been on is no longer working. We go into the New Year with heavy hearts.  

Politically it’s been a nightmarish decade. The Tories back in power, first in coalition, then in their own right, albeit for a while as a minority government. The EU Referendum and the government’s complete inability to approach the negotiations in good faith and with understanding and intelligence. Obama replaced in the White House by someone so utterly unfit for any kind of high office that I still wonder whether we slipped into some parallel universe at about the halfway point of the decade, after which nothing made any kind of sense. 

Should have realised, when I woke one morning in early January 2016 to learn that Bowie had left us. Should have known it was a portent.

So since looking forward is a mug’s game at present, I’ll look back, to the books, films and TV programmes that have sustained me during the last ten years.

Books of the Decade

Some of these titles feature in my already published Books of the Year and Books of the Century lists, as one might expect. I’ll indicate those that do, or that are reviewed in my 60 Books challenge series, so as not to repeat myself too much (and have time to also do the full panoply of decade and year lists that I am somehow compelled to do).

Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho (Books of the Century)

Ferdinand Addis – Rome: The Eternal City was a birthday gift from the Roman branch of our family, following a recent visit to the city, which had made me realise just how fragmented and unreliable my sense of its history was. A hotch-potch of Shakespeare, the New Testament, Robert Graves and Robert Harris, I really needed to get a grip on it all. Addis’s tome is just the thing. It’s very entertainingly written, it takes key events and explains how they came to pass and what followed, and it takes us from Romulus & Remus to Federico Fellini.

Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah.  Her Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the top three books of the century (according to me). Adichie’s protagonist here goes off to University in the States, and we follow her struggles to acclimatise and to understand what race means in America, as well as her feelings for her lover back in Lagos. It’s often very funny, and always very sharp and perceptive. The Guardian said that ‘It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.’

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (Books of the Century)

Naomi Alderman – The Power (Books of the Century)

Lynne Alexander – The Sister illuminates a life lived in the shadows: Alice James was sister to the more famous Henry and William, prevented by ill health and the constraints of Victorian society from expressing her own creativity. Alexander doesn’t hammer this message home simplistically but brings Alice to sympathetic life. ‘A furious volcano of thoughts and desires trapped within a carapace of pain, Alice is a feminist cipher but, more movingly, a beautifully drawn and memorable individual, brave, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent.’ (The Guardian)

Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities is an exuberant and wildly eclectic tour of cities in Western civilisation drawing on books, films, architecture, myth, visual arts. Totally my cup of tea.  Described as ‘an exhaustive, engaging book’ which generates ‘sheer joy for the curious reader’. It certainly did for this curious reader.

Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a fascinating study of Poland, the GDR and Hungary after the end of the Second World War. The Telegraph said that she takes ‘a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable – and even occasionally witty. In that respect alone, it is a true masterpiece’. (Books of the Year)

Kate Atkinson – Life after Life (Books of the Century)

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It does take the action forward – we get to see some of what happened after that book’s final page, but perhaps more significantly, we see Gilead from perspectives other than that of June/Offred, and so we understand more about how Gilead works, and about, in particular the role of the Aunts.  It’s completely compelling, and very disturbing. (Books of the Year)

Julian Barnes – The Levels of Life (Books of the Century)

Linda Buckley-Archer – The Many Lives of John Stone. Buckley-Archer began her literary career with the YA Timequake trilogy. This is beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.

James Lee Burke – Robicheaux (Books of the Century)

Jane Casey – Cruel Acts (Books of the Year, and Century)

Jonathan Coe – Middle England. I picked The Rotter’s Club for my books of the century, and this is the third part of that trilogy. This made me laugh a lot. Made me weep a bit. Reminded me of music I love (Hatfield & the North, Vaughan Williams) and of lyrics that always move me: Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’. (Not mentioned in Coe’s book, but I kept on thinking of the line ‘Sweet moderation, heart of our nation’). It’s rueful and wistful and, I think, hopeful… (Books of the Year)

Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay is the final part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Another series aimed at a young adult readership, this one is pretty dark (not that YA reading should be sugar-coated or cosy, it should challenge and disrupt if it’s doing its job). Vivid and exciting, with a splendid hero in Katniss Everdene, and resists too neat an ending – after so much tragedy and trauma, that would have jarred horribly.

Stevie Davies – Awakening (Books of the Century)

Edmund de Waal – Hare with the Amber Eyes (Books of the Century)

Emma Donoghue – Room (Books of the Century)

Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk. Sadly the last novel from Dunmore, who died of cancer in 2018. I picked The Siege as one of my Books of the Century, and read The Betrayal as part of my 60 books challenge – her novels are very varied but always beautifully and powerfully written. The Guardian describes her writing as ‘hazardously human’. It’s particularly poignant to note that the fictional Julia Fawkes ‘lies buried with the inscription “Her words remain our inheritance.” Julia may have disappeared from the record, but Dunmore’s words remain.

Sue Eckstein – Interpreters (Books of the Century)

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race (Books of the Century)

Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (Books of the Century)

Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (60 Books)

Lara Feigel – The Bitter Taste of Victory (Books of the Century)

Will Ferguson – 419 (Books of the Century)

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Books of the Century)

Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is particularly difficult to write about without revealing a vital twist, so I will avoid any discussion of the plot. Read it anyway, just avoid the reviews (so no link to the Guardian, which called It an ‘achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker … a moral comedy to shout from the rooftops’.) (Books of the Year)

Tana French – Broken Harbour (Books of the Year and Century)

Esther Freud – Mr Mac and Me reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. A writer/artist (D H Lawrence for Dunmore, Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Freud) finds themselves in a rural community at the start of the First World War, and is regarded with suspicion by the locals due to their unconventional behaviour). Mackintosh is seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, intoxicated by the glimpses of a wider world, of art and beauty, that Mackintosh brings.

Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (60 Books)

Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Books of the Century)

Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition (Books of the Century)

Alan Garner – Boneland (Books of the Century)

Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (Books of the Century)

Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (Books of the Century)

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things.  I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, having a deep-rooted suspicion of the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. But I really did. Gilbert’s fictional protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is brilliant, lonely, not pretty. She’s a scientist, a naturalist, in the wrong era (she’s born in 1800) to have any chance of fulfilling her ambitions, or her desires. She’s remarkable, utterly believable, her openness and imagination endearing and fascinating.  It’s an ambitious novel, that fully succeeds in its ambitions.

Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Gildea brings out of the shadows the Resistance that was marginalised for decades – women, Communists, foreigners. It’s much more complicated than the myth that de Gaulle propagated at the Liberation, and more interesting.  

Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (Books of the Century)

David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon (Books of the Century)

Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (60 Books)

Elly Griffiths – The Stone Circle (Books of the Year and Century)

Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (Books of the Year and Century)

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (Books of the Year and Century)

Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Books of the Century)

John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness – the final part of the series of novels featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick

Noah Hawley – Before the Fall is an excellent thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality, from the writer of the TV version of Fargo

Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (Books of the Century)

Sarah Helm – If this is a Woman (Books of the Century)

Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken (Books of the Year and Century)

Susan Hill – The Comforts of Home is the most recent (that I’ve read) of the Simon Serrailler series. (Books of the Year. The Various Haunts of Men was one of my Books of the Century).

Christopher Hitchen – Mortality (Books of the Century)

Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (Books of the Century)

Jessica Frances Kane – The Report is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of the novel is a little known wartime tragedy, in which no bombs fell, but 173 civilians died. I had never heard about the Bethnal Green disaster when I came across this book, and it set off many trains of thought.

Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale.  Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther blend crime fiction with World War II European history. They span from the immediate pre-war period to the long aftermath of the war, and Bernie has been part of it all. He’s a survivor, who’s done bad things and seen worse ones, but somehow retained his humanity, a dry humour, and at least some of his integrity.

Stephen King – The Institute. King’s latest references a number of his previous novels (Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…) but does something a bit different with these themes. In a way, he’s setting two version of America against each other: the corporate world of the Institute, ‘the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil, run by ‘a bunch of middle-management automatons’, against small-town America (the good and the bad thereof). It’s proper cancel all other activities including meals and sleep till the last page King. (Books of the Year)

Otto Dov Kulka – Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Books of the Century)

John le Carre – Pigeon Tunnel (60 Books)

Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman (Books of the Century)

Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (Books of the Year and Century)

Kenan Malik – Quest for a Moral Compass (Books of the Century)

Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies. We’re still eagerly awaiting the third part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. (Wolf Hall was one of my Books of the Century).

Helen Mathers – Patron Saint of Prostitutes is a fascinating biography of Josephine Butler, the remarkable Victorian campaigner who challenged all of the conventions about how a pious and respectable woman should behave by working with prostitutes, and challenging publicly the way in which they were brutalised and abused in the name of public morals.

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13 (Books of the Century)

Dervla McTiernan – The Ruin (Books of the Century)

Livi Michael – Succession (Books of the Century)

Denise Mina – The Long Drop (Books of the Century)

Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know is an account by someone diagnosed with early onset dementia. She’s frank and fearless about explaining how the condition affects her as it progresses, but uses her energies to campaign for awareness and understanding, and for practical support. Her blog is funny, sad and enlightening, and it is so rare and refreshing to hear about dementia from someone who is actually experiencing it.

Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (Books of the Century)

Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (Books of the Year and Century)

Thomas Mullen – Darktown (Books of the Century)

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…

Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand that First Held Mine (Books of the Century)

Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Trees movingly explores the Biafran war, sexuality and love across the ethnic and religious divides, class and status in Nigerian society.

David Olusoga – Black and British (Books of the Century)

Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Book 1). I won’t say too much about this as I don’t want to risk giving any spoilers. But it is sheer delight to be back in this world and to re-experience the sheer power, the subtlety, the glorious imagination of Pullman’s writing.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies, the most recent Rebus. He’s retired now, and battling with COPD and the lifestyle changes that has forced on him. Does any of that stop him getting involved in the solving of a crime, and getting under the feet of the cops? Have you met Rebus? (Books of the Year)

Danny Rhodes – Fan is about football and football culture, about supporting Nottingham Forest, and, inexorably, about Hillsborough. It’s powerful and harrowing.

Sally Rooney – Normal People (Books of the Year and Century)

Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (Books of the Year and Century)

Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (Books of the Year and Century)

Philippe Sands – East-West Street (Books of the Century)

Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland (Books of the Century)

Phil Scraton – Hillsborough: The Truth. When Scraton published this 2016 edition of his authoritative, rigorous, and personal account of the disaster, he would not have imagined the news that broke in December 2019, that Duckenfield had been found not guilty. Again, the families who have endured so much – lies, betrayal, vilification, dismissal – for so long, are in pain, and again, it seems no one will be held accountable for 96 entirely avoidable deaths.

Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (Books of the Century)

Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go (Books of the Century)

Lynn Shepherd – Tom All-Alone’s (Books of the Century)

Anita Shreve – The Stars are Fire was Shreve’s last book. Her protagonist, Grace, has a life that is limited by societal convention and tight family budgets but she thinks it’s fine, mostly, until she loses almost everything, in the terrible fires that swept Maine in 1947. The disaster is described with visceral power and horror, but Shreve is just as interested in its aftermath, as Grace tries to find a way to start again.

Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Books of the Century)

Patti Smith – M Train.  I picked Just Kids for my Books of the Century, but could just as well have chosen this. With the humour, self-deprecation and warmth that characterised her earlier memoir, she talks about her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the series of terrible losses that she experienced, of her music. And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders.

Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Occupation of France, and I’m well versed in its horrors. I know better than to minimise the brutality – but the majority of the murders of French citizens and those who were in France during the Occupation took place not on French soil but in what Snyder calls the Bloodlands. ‘Both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter… The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. …  The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”

Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark (Books of the Century)

Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. I was torn when I did the list of books of the century, and chose The Silence between Breaths. So I’m making recompense now. What Staincliffe does so well is to focus not just on the crime (though there is a strong police procedural element to this one, unlike some of her stand-alone novels) but on the ripples created by the crime, on the families of victim and perpetrators, on the police officers themselves. This one will break your heart.

Susie Steiner – Missing, Presumed (Books of the Century)

Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now (Books of the Century)

Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (Books of the Century)

Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity is a brilliant and moving YA novel about young women undercover in Occupied France in WWII. It’s so very cleverly structured – things that don’t seem to quite make sense suddenly become clear in the second half, when the narrator changes. The plot is utterly gripping and the ending made me weep. A lot.

Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn. This is part 1 of the Plague Times trilogy, a dystopian future where plague wipes out large swathes of the population. We’ve been here, or hereabouts, before of course – Day of the Triffids, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Stand… Welsh makes it work though, she gives weight to the moral issues as well as giving us suspense, action, horror, and everything we’d expect from the post-apocalypse.

Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad (Books of the Century)

Jeanette Winterson – Why be Happy when you could be Normal? (Books of the Century)

Farewell to those writers listed above who we lost during the decade: Helen Dunmore, Sue Eckstein, Philip Kerr, Harper Lee and Anita Shreve. Thank you all.

Films of the Decade

I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite films in each of these categories. Many of them I’ve written about already elsewhere, so again I’m not attempting to review or even comment on each one.  

Scifi and Superheroes: A brilliant decade both for the superhero genre and – IMHO – Marvel specifically, and for other sci-fi franchises: Star Trek had Beyond, and Star Wars fielded The Last Jedi and Rogue One. My pick from the MCU: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Guardians of the Galaxy I, Thor: Ragnarok. And outside this particular arc, from the X Men, the elegiac Logan. And though I don’t generally do DC, I have to have Wonder Woman.

Best of the bunch: Not dissing Endgame, but Assemble is when I fell in love with Marvel (and with Captain America, TBH). And Black Panther had a significance beyond its place in the Avengers story, and was exhilarating not just for people of colour in the audience, but for anyone who cares about seeing the rich diversity of humanity on screen, as heroes and as villains.

We had Inception and Interstellar, Her and Ex Machina, Looper and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity, Monsters and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place and Source Code.

And the two best SF films of the decade: Annihilation, and Arrival. Visually stunning, intelligent sci-fi. Of the two, Arrival, with its emotionally devastating twist, and its fascinating exploration of language, edges it.

Thrills, Crimes & Heists: Baby Driver and Drive, Bad Times at the El Royale, Skyfall, Gone Girl and Widows. I’m torn on which to pick. With caveats, to do with the film’s failure to meet the low bar of the Bechdel test, I’d pick Baby Driver, which was beautifully described by Empire as: ‘not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.’ Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.

War: Anthropoid (the assassination of Heydrich), Childhood of a Leader (a more allegorical account of the birth of fascism), Lore (a German teenager in the aftermath of the war). And the best one: Dunkirk –  I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.

French films: Michael Haneke’s Amour,  Xavier Giannoli’s  Marguerite (a French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins story), Olivier Assayas’s Double Vies (Non-Fiction), Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. Varda by Agnes and Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. My favourites: Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (so much in this movie, but just watch that opening sequence, with the young women leaving hockey match and returning to their homes in the banlieues, and a gorgeous sequence as they dance in shoplifted dresses to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’) , Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (a stunning Malian film, beautiful and shattering, but with unexpected moments of humour too).

Horror: Cabin in the Woods, What we do in the Shadows. Get Out and Us. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl with all the Gifts. Under the Skin.

History/Biography: First Man and Hidden Figures, Lincoln, Selma and BlackKKlansman. Love and Mercy (biopic of Brian Wilson).

Comedy: Booksmart and Lady Bird. Death of Stalin and Four Lions. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You. World’s End and Submarine. The Muppets, and Paddington.

Animation: Inside Out, Tangled, Toy Story 3.

Adaptations: Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.

Documentaries: I Believe in Miracles (Johnny Owen’s account of the glory years at Nottingham Forest), Night will Fall and They Shall Not Grow Old, Nine Muses, They will have to Kill us First.

Drama: Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. Dallas Buyers Club and Pride. Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Beauty. The Farewell and Short-term 12. Twentieth-century Women and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Winter’s Bone and Room. We Need to Talk about Kevin and If Beale Street Could Talk. Life, above all and Cold War.

Music: La la Land

Farewell and thank you to Marvel man Stan Lee, to Emmanuelle Riva (star of Haneke’s Amour, and long before that, of Hiroshima mon amour), to Agnes Varda, and to Michael Bond, creator of Paddington.

TV of the Decade

Subtitled Crime/Thrillers: Dicte, Follow the Money, Greyzone, Rough Justice, Spiral, The Team, Trapped, Wallander, Witnesses, Beck, Before we Die, Blue Eyes, The Bridge, Deutschland 83/86. Plus the bilingual English/Welsh productions, Hidden and Hinterland. Best of the bunch – Spiral (a master-class in French profanity, and a compelling if infuriating bunch of characters, dealing with grim and gritty crime on the streets of Paris.

Brit Crime/Thrillers: Endeavour, The Fall, Foyle’s War, Happy Valley, , Informer, Killing Eve, Kiri, Lewis, Line of Duty, Little Drummer Girl, London Spy, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jenkins, Midsomer Murders, The Missing, No Offence, River, Scott and Bailey, Sherlock, Shetland, Southcliffe, Strike, Suspects, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Unforgotten, Vera, Wallander, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, DCI Banks, Black Earth Rising, Ashes to Ashes. Best of the bunch – Endeavour for beautiful, subtle writing for all the lead characters; Killing Eve for deranged, delicious wickedness, Line of Duty for twisty turny plotting, and stunning, forget-to-breathe set pieces in the interview room, Unforgotten for the warmth and humanity of the two leads, the clever subtlety of the writing, and the emotional complexity of cold case investigation.

Other Crime/Thrillers: Fargo, Homeland, Mystery Road, Southland, The Americans. Best of the bunch – Fargo. Bonkers, funny and very very dark.

Sci-fi/Fantasy: Agent Carter, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, The Fades, Utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, Humans, Misfits, Orphan Black, The Returned, Star Trek: Discovery, True Blood, Being Human. Best of the bunch – Agents of Shield for daring plotting and terrific writing. Doctor Who for bringing us not only Doctors 11, 12 and 13, but the War Doctor and the reappearance of the very first Doctor, River Song and a whole raft of new companions, new and old foes… And Who, as always, through this decade, has given us a hero who thinks, who cares, who values kindness above all things, who isn’t human but somehow reflects back to us the best of humanity. Orphan Black for Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as most of the key characters. The Returned for a spooky, troubling, atmospheric take on the notion of the revenant.

Comedy: Big Bang Theory, Community, Derry Girls, Doc Martin, Fleabag, The Good Place, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Raised by Wolves, The Thick of It, W1A, Young Sheldon. Best of the bunch – Derry Girls

History/Biography: A Very English Scandal, Brexit: An Uncivil War, Cilla, Gentleman Jack, Mo, Poldark, Resistance, To Walk Invisible, Wolf Hall, Summer of Rockets, World on Fire, War and Peace. A Very English Scandal was a startlingly funny and somehow touching take on a scandal that I recall from my early teenage years (the newspaper coverage at the time was highly educational!). I wrote about Gentleman Jack in my review of the year. And Resistance was a powerful – and historically sound, whilst using the device of a fictional central character who could link to all of the key resistance groups and events – account of Occupied Paris, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.

Drama: The Casual Vacancy, Desperate Housewives, Doctor Foster, Spin, This is England, Treme, Years and Years. This is England (the TV series) was so powerful that I haven’t rewatched it. It broke me – particularly TiE88. Treme was a joy – it drew its characters with so much love and understanding, that we ended up loving them too. The cast was brilliant, as was the music (it’s the only drama of the decade that has led us to seek out a whole raft of CDs). And Years and Years was timely, moving and let us hope not overly prescient…

Music

This was the decade that I really got into opera. Having the chance to see (and latterly to review) Opera North productions at Leeds Grand Theatre and Town Hall has been not only a delight but an education. I’ve seen productions from across the centuries, and not only has the singing been glorious, but the stagings have been wonderfully inventive. You can find my reviews of the titles in bold elsewhere on this site.

  • Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate
  • Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
  • Poulenc’s La Voix humaine
  • Puccini’s La Boheme, Gianni Schicchi, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot
  • Britten’s Death in Venice and Peter Grimes
  • Ravel’s L’Enfant et ses sortileges
  • Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in Maschero
  • Falla’s La Vida Breva
  • Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury
  • Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti
  • Giordano’s Andrea Chenier
  • Kevin Puts’s Silent Night
  • Handel’s Giulio Cesare
  • Martinu’s The Greek Passion
  • Strauss’s Salome
  • Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
  • Lehar’s The Merry Widow
  • Janacek’s Jenufa, Osud and Katya Kabanaova
  • Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppeia
  • Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute
  • Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden
  • Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
  • Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana

As always, we have listened to a LOT of music. And over the course of the decade, more and more of it has been jazz. That’s partly thanks to Radio 3, with Jazz Record Requests and J to Z bringing us artists we weren’t familiar with along with lots of stuff from long-term favourites (Monk, Miles, Mingus et al). We’ve seen some live jazz too, from the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation, Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes from the City, and the Stan Tracey Octet.

For several years of this decade, Tramlines was where we went, one weekend a year, for live music. Music in pubs and clubs, in parks, in the art gallery, the Cathedral… It’s changed now, and it’s more a conventional music festival, which doesn’t suit us as well (though it’s a great success and a huge achievement for the city) – what we loved was just wandering around the city centre, from one venue to another, catching bands we’d never heard of as well as a few big names. It was bloody brilliant. And it was where we first saw Songhoy Blues, one of my bands of the decade. These young Malian musicians made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.  

We’re privileged in Sheffield too to have Music in the Round – chamber music in the Crucible Studio from the house band, Ensemble 360, and a host of guest musicians. As the name suggests, the audience sits around the performers, so you’re guaranteed a good view, and it gives an intimate feel to the event. I could not begin to list the concerts we’ve attended there. Not just classical either – some of the jazz concerts referred to above were in the Crucible Studio, as was a wonderful gig from the Unthanks.

There have been other venues too – a remarkable performance of Terry Riley’s In C, in the Arts Tower paternoster lifts, and a programme of Reich, Adams, Zorn and others at the Leadmill, from the Ligeti Quartet.

So, another decade bites the dust. These have been some of the best bits. Love and thanks to all of the people who’ve shared these cultural delights with me, to all of the people who’ve created and performed these cultural delights for me, and to all of those who’ve passed on their own enthusiasms to me over the years.

Onwards. Whatever the next decade brings, let’s ensure it’s full of wonderful books, films, TV and music. Let’s hang on to the hope that things can and will get better…

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