No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

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La-la-la-la-la-la Land

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I have been around for over half a century. I have lived through politically uncertain times. I have lived through politically unstable regimes. I have always felt fortunate not to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, as my parents did as young newlyweds, but I have in childhood and adulthood lived through times of war, pestilence, civil unrest, nuclear brinkmanship, unfavourable election results, betrayal, disappointment, fear, anger, riots, rebellions and a deep, deep sense of the futility of resistance. I’ve voted. I’ve demonstrated. I’ve boycotted. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve marched. I’ve woken up to seismic events that have felt fundamentally outside of my control and experienced powerlessness on an existential scale. With the years, I’ve grown used to lies and scandal and incompetence and greed from the political class, and some days I feel as if the hope has been knocked out of me for good. But I’ve never felt as anxious and depressed about the state of geopolitics as I do today. To stick my fingers in my ears and go “la-la-la-la-la-la” is a constant craving. And that’s not like me at all.

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I wake up every morning with what feels like a rock in my stomach, fearful to log on or turn on the TV. As it happens, this morning, nothing especially bad had happened overnight. President Trump’s National Security Adviser General (retired) Michael T. Flynn, who was forced to retire again after 24 days in the post, is now the subject of a damage limitation exercise designed to blame the leak that exposed his misdemeanours on staff of the outgoing Obama administration. Trump himself has remained uncharacteristically quiet on the issue, perhaps because it reflects so poorly on his choices, or the choices made on his behalf; while counsellor Kellyanne Conway continues to age at a rate of a year a day due to the existential stress of having to constantly lie her way out of a lie.

It’s not just Trump who causes anxiety, with his baby-like disposition and fundamental failure to join the dots between one CAPS LOCK promise/threat and its direct consequences, preferring instead to make a thumbs-up gesture and yell “FAKE NEWS!” at anything that does not please him; it’s the white supremacists he surrounds himself with: predominantly clueless about what it means to take public office and speak oaths but determined to “destroy the state” (Steve Bannon’s words, not mine) from within. I never did understand the Republican desire to be in government and then shrink the government, but I assumed it was a plan based on shrinking its regulatory authority and public spending while keeping the same number of snouts in the trough, except with less of the boring stuff to actually do. It is this boring stuff, I hope, that will eventually bring Trump down – ironically, from within.

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The fact that Trump won the presidency but lost the popular vote, just like his nearest antecedent George W. Bush, clearly niggles at him like a tiny woodpecker permanently poised on his ear and tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tapping away at his planet-sized ego. We have never before witnessed a man so ill-suited to presidential office. Criticising anyone about their appearance, or their dress sense, or the state of their face, would be cruel and shallow ordinarily. But, as with Bannon, he wears his dark soul on the outside. (Spicer, Conway, DeVos, Priebus, these are straw people by comparison.) Mocking Trump’s elaborate racetrack of hair, or his incompetently and incompletely applied spray-tan (with those goggle marks making his eyes seem ever more like two squashed figs), is childish, and boring. But when the man beneath that haircut and behind those figs is such a negative, uncontrollable and dangerous force, knowing that he has one of the worst haircuts in the world offers a tiny glimmer of respite from all the damage he may wreak in his first 100 days. (This honeymoon period ends in April. I can’t even imagine that far into the future.)

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He won 304 electoral votes, to Hillary Clinton’s 227, and that is a victory. That he mobilised the country’s disaffected is surely without argument. That he did so by not being “a politician”, and by being perceived, thanks to television and banner headlines, as a “successful businessman” (which was “just what this country needed”, we were told time and again by the braying, baseball-capped faithful) is also an empirical fact. In many ways, mainstream politics lost the 2016 US Election. The Democrats certainly lost it as much as the Republicans won it – not least because Trump wasn’t even popular among his own party and Tweeted his way directly to the heart of certain sections of the electorate. Everything about him that I hated while he yelled his way into pole position as the Republican candidate – altogether now: his misogyny, his xenophobia, his vanity, his crudity, his creepiness, his Addams family, his hand gestures – I hate about him still. But an unpredictability  seems to have replaced a predictability, and that’s terrifying. There seems, at present, nothing he can do to put off those he affected to represent, but who, in real life, he’d run down rather than speak to.

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I was terrified of George W. Bush, too. I knew him to be a dimwit, and a puppet, and unstatesmanlike, and he didn’t know anything about the wider world, which he had rarely visited. (Trump had certainly travelled further before becoming president, but mainly to inspect real estate that would clearly look classier with his name on.) Bush was the pliant, lazy mouthpiece for committed Neocons with far more interest in ideological politics and the New American Century – he did their bidding and went to play golf – and in many ways that was paradise compared to what we’ve ended up with now. It does not bear imagining what Trump would have done if Saudi terrorists had flown two planes into two large towers in New York in 2001.

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Actually, I wake up every morning with two large rocks in my stomach. The other has been there longer, since the result of the Brexit referendum. I admit I thought Remain had that one in the bag, and went to bed on the night of June 23 quietly confident that common sense would prevail. I was wrong. I had underestimated people’s hatred of “politicians” and “immigrants”. It’s been a living nightmare ever since, not because of the divisions it has exposed in our society, which were clearly already there, or the fact that I can only see this country turning into an unregulated tax haven with no standing whatsoever in the world and everything bankrolled by China, which is a bit embarrassing for all of us, but because it should never have taken place in the way that it did. A referendum about something as important as the future of the country should never have been winnable by either side by a margin of 1,269,501 votes. Surely – surely! – it should have hinged on a majority of something like 60% at least?

Talking of democracy. The petition calling for Trump to be blocked from enjoying the ego-fluffing privilege of a State Visit, continues to spiral upwards – as I type, it’s at 1,857,318 – but the Government has now stated that it will grant the State Visit, even though it is duty-bound by its own rules to “debate” the petition next week. The words “foregone” and “conclusion” can be joined together in this case. But it has been a simple pleasure to watch the numbers rattle upwards before our very eyes. And a little bit of fun is not much to ask in this dark age.

I have written on my Telly Addict blog about the healing power of Pointless. It may seem trite to regard a daytime quiz show as an antidote to the apocalyptic uncertainty of modern times in the year 2017, but it’s the daily equivalent of a La La Land, and not just Hollywood escapism, but a way to celebrate geniality and general knowledge and fair play, and – hey why not? – the best of being British. Or the best of living in Britain, whatever your background.

I guess part of me must believe that we’ll get through this, whether it’s four years, eight years, or a number somewhere between one and eight, depending on how close to impeachment or a CIA black op Trump sails. Otherwise, I’d be under my duvet right now, rocking back and forth and singing the la-la-la-la song. I’m not. I’m up, and out, and thinking about work and domestic issues and family and films, and tonight’s Pointless. It’s hard to feel proud to be British in 2017, especially with our own conservatives wooing the babyman and doing things with their hands that they would never ordinarily do. Trump has turned our representatives (and sadly, to him, Farage is one) into glad-handing Richard Hammonds to his Jeremy Clarkson, desperate to gain his approval by laughing at his off-colour, racist jokes.

It’s nice to think that the actors and filmmakers who make speeches at awards ceremonies represent us, but they don’t. They represent what the disaffected have been advised to regard as “the metropolitan elite”, which I gather is anyone who lives in a town and reads past the headline in a newspaper. It’s not good enough to exist in a bubble, or an echo chamber – you have to keep an eye on these craven, self-serving, nuance-resistant, unconstitutional monsters; watch Fox News, read Trump’s childlike Tweets, investigate the backstories of his lieutenants; challenge, gainsay, make a withering placard and prove that satire is not dead: MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN; KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF OUR RIGHTS; WE SHALL OVERCOMB; MIKE PENCE LIKES NICKELBACK; GRAB ME BY MY PUSSY I DARE YOU!

They don’t wear white hoods, but they speak directly to those that do, or would do if it weren’t for “snowflake” political correctness. David Bowie got out before all this shit happened. In his name we must overcome. And that starts with getting out of bed in the morning.

 

My indecision is final

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In 2002, I interviewed Michael Moore, a strident, striding leftist, onstage at the National Film Theatre. He inspired me then, and he inspires me still, and you get the sense that he’s born to be in opposition, which suits him fine. His reputation solidified under George W Bush, and seems to be doing the same under Donald J Trump. One of the questions I put to him was about his apparent certainty. I asked him if he ever had any doubts that he was right. He said that if he discovered he was wrong, he’d change his opinion and he’d be right again. It was said lightheartedly but there is something profound about that willingness to be guided by events.

On January 6 last year, I wrote a blog entry on the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s “revenge reshuffle” (as the rightwing press gleefully dubbed it). He was not yet a year into the job of leading the Labour Party and I was very publicly right behind him. The media was not; it threw up its hands in horror when Corbyn courted what they called “the hard left,” and threatened to cause a “lurch” in that direction. (You always “lurch” to the left; you never skip, or saunter, or waltz.) Kim Howells, a former union man turned Blair loyalist who stood down at the 2010 general election, helpfully described Corbyn’s reshuffled team as “superannuated Trotskyite opportunists” and “lunatics.” But you didn’t have to read the Standard or the Mail to find anti-Corbyn propaganda. Even the Yvette Cooper-supporting Guardian seemed hell-bent on sending him back to the back benches where he belonged. (Like Michael Moore, he seemed perfectly suited to being in opposition – that was his blessing and his curse.) I wrote this:

This was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for British party politics. The idea of a “left-wing” Labour party seemed like an impossible dream before Corbyn’s democratic ascent. It’s still within Labour’s grasp, but they have to stop fighting each other, unite under their leader or fuck off to the back benches. I am a potential Labour voter. I haven’t been one of those since the Bernie Eccelstone/Formula One back-hander and Blair’s pack of lies in October 1997. I can’t be the only one.

I felt that after the embarrassing farrago of Ed Milliband, the second of two consecutive “unelectable” Labour leaders – a description that was technically true, as both he and Gordon Brown had lost general elections – Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate signified hope for the future of the party, and his new style of doing business felt refreshing and honest. New Labour had tried everything else; maybe this “socialism” thing had swung back into fashion and relevance as the Tories tore up the welfare state and prepared the NHS for sale. What better time to have an old-school lefty in a woolly tie with a Lenin hat in charge? I almost considered re-joining the party (I’d last been a member in 1992, and last voted for them in 1997), such was the passion Corbyn seemed to inspire, especially in younger voters, who are literally the future.

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I reacted violently against the press war on Corbyn, the cheap shots, the Blairite bias, the obsession with his clothes. The alternative to Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be Owen Smith. I clung with perhaps unrealistic optimism to Corbyn’s mandate among the rank and file, the support he had in the unions, and the calamitous failure of those MPs who refused to work with him to field a candidate anyone took seriously enough to vote for. I wanted the Bennite right to shut up and knuckle down to the job in hand. But it was not to be. I wrote this:

He’s too quiet, too reasonable, too low-key – all qualities that should be refreshing in the bellowing Bullingdon that is Parliament, but do him no favours with so many louder voices around him. But I also despair of the Labour party. All we hear about are internecine struggles and knives in backs, petty bickering, negative briefing, unnamed moderates firing shots across their leader’s bows. I’m not sure what the answer is. Take better media advice? You don’t have to join them, but you must occasionally beat them.

Despite a number of reasons to abandon ship, I stuck with him right the way through the leadership contest in September 2016, which he won with 313,209 votes, increasing his share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8% compared with the result of original 2015 leadership election. He received around 62,000 more votes than in 2015, in fact. What a loser! If Corbyn was “unelectable”, then Owen Smith and Angela Eagle weren’t even electable enough to find out if they were electable or not. Their combined failure to inspire repaired any doubts I had. It was clear that nobody within Labour was better qualified than Corbyn to lead. His enemies had had enough chances. But Brexit made failures of us all. And it finished Corbyn off, I think.

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Here is the news. I have changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn. I stuck with him for way longer than most in the approximate vicinity of the Left. I kept defending him in heated arguments when deep inside I knew he was doomed to fail. In the end, I weighed up the facts and the evidence and I did what I knew Michael Moore would have done. I altered my opinion, which had become wrong, and I became right again.

I aired this revelation on Twitter last night, frustrated with Labour’s failure to even lodge a unified protest against the Brexit bill. At the same time I expressed my fond admiration of the noble 47 (out of 167) Labour MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, defying Jeremy Corbyn’s hypocritical three-line whip. For the record, here are the 47 in full. (This list includes Owen Smith, so I have to adjust my opinion of him, too. Try it – it’s liberating.)

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At the same time reassuring any Labour MP who resigned over the issue (stand up, Tulip Siddiq, Jo Stevens) that they could just come back afterwards was a parody of Corbyn’s woolly-tie style. On the one hand, he’s so reasonable he strays into passive-aggression, and on the other, he’s a dictator who seems to be dictated to by his media handlers. Maybe the media made him this way. Maybe he, too, wishes he was back on the back benches. He’s never seemed comfortable walking out of his own front door and discovering that the media outside seems to be interested in him, and he will not trim that climbing plant that always whacks him in the face, but I think a piece of me died when his aides prevented an ITV reporter from asking him a simple, unthreatening question in November. It’s worth watching again.

I wonder if there is an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall more tragic or poignant than the sight of him hiding behind a glass door, claiming to have been “harassed.” I could no longer defend him after that. It was a dick move by him, and by his aggressive, high-minded minders. I had bigger political fish to fry with Brexit and Trump and a world in flames to worry about an old man’s feelings any more.

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I think it’s OK to change your mind. I didn’t like the first episode of period hospital drama The Knick when I saw it, but I returned to it and gave it another go, then changed my mind about it; and I now consider it to be one of the great TV dramas of all time. Someone Tweeted that it was “big of me” to admit I had changed my mind about Jeremy Corbyn, but it isn’t big, it’s just clever.

Oh, and please don’t ask me, “Who’s going to save us now?” If Labour continues to dig its heels in and refuses to form any kind of coalition with the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and rise from the ashes, it is doomed to fourth place, or worse. I look forward to having my mind changed on this.

A year in bullshit

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Another year of bad news, by which I mean news that was bad, and news that was conveyed badly, or with bad intentions, aimed at our lowest common denominators (fear, prejudice, envy). It’s sweet that the Daily Mail began the year calling the New Year’s Honours “TAINTED” because the Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox, Jacqueline Gold, was given a CBE, and ended it with a bannered opinion by attack-columnist Sarah Vine in which the Honours were once again “tainted” by a successful woman being given an OBE, this time Victoria Beckham. It’s good to know that some things never change.

I won’t annotate all of these covers – I prefer to present them as a kind of “mood board” of the year, as viewed through the rheumy eyes of hate and business interests. When the Mail calls Tony Blair, after his chilling Chilcott testimony, “A MONSTER OF DELUSION,” the paper’s views coincide with my own; but on points, I generally feel nothing but revulsion for what the CAPITAL LETTERS spell out in the right-wing national press. Warning: even scrolling down this blog entry at speed and only glancing at the words might make you feel a bit sick in your mouth.

I tend to “collect” my favourite covers during the year, and it seems apt to hang them out to dry, not necessarily in any chronological order, just as they fall. Refrains will emerge, especially at the Express and Mail, which, on paper (which newspapers still are, for now), had a good year, with their preferred result on the EU and a rightwing president elected in the US. But still they wring their hands and clutch their pearls, oh, and hate women (especially the women).

Let’s begin with my nomination for the worst front page of 2016. It has it all: ideological self-interest, overstatement, a slogan that’s also an egregious pun (“BeLEAVE in Britain”), and a built-in full-page advert for itself, as the film Independence Day: Resurgence was released that very day and happens to be a 20th Century Fox Film Corporation production (whose parent company is 21st Century Fox, founded by Rupert Murdoch, who is it Executive Co-Chairman, as well as Executive Chairman of News Corp, which publishes the Sun). Talk about taking back control.

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The rest is wallpaper. They used to call it chip paper, but I suspect health and safety have put paid to that tradition. Maybe when we actually leave the EU sometime this century, we can repeal it and take back control of whether or not we can eat our chips out of newsprint.

Let’s start with a few damning indictments of Blair, one subject that seems to unite our entire printed media, and see where the capital letters take us.

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To finish, two delectable examples of the Sun failing to grasp the gravity of death, knocking out a truly pathetic and insulting vandalism of his own verse to mark the sad passing of Muhammad Ali, and hoping its “ordinary” readers would despise the hereditarily blameless son of the Duke of Westminster enough to treat him as a source of class-war entertainment while at the same time advertising his eligibility (“Good news, girls, he’s single!”), at a time when he will have still been grieving the death of his father.

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And finally … a rare instance of a national newspaper adjusting its prejudices in the full glare of publicity: when the Times was “advised” before its second print run that to completely ignore the victory of the Hillsborough inquest on its cover in favour of the paper of record’s “ultimate guide” to “status handbags” might be misconstrued as forgetful at  best, and at worst, a subliminal editorial line on the verdict.

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I fancy some chips.

End of

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So, 2016 then. Everybody begins everything they say now with the prefix “So …”, as if perhaps what they’re about to say is a continuation of a previous statement, but actually isn’t. I can’t be the only person to have noticed this. You hear correspondents doing it when asked to comment on the news. You hear contestants doing it when they’re asked to describe the dish they’re about to prepare on Masterchef. Young people seem unable to start a sentence without it. It’s a tick; more like a punctuation mark than a word – a deep breath if you like. Like “like” it has crept into common verbal usage (you’ll note that nobody uses it in written text) and it means literally nothing, as with so much in contemporary dialogue.

So … it was way back in that prelapsarian age that was the second week in January when Squeeze, a band whose original members are around 60 years old, used a performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to protest against fellow guest, then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

They changed the lyrics of hit Cradle to the Grave to sing the line: “There are some here who are hell bent on the destruction of the welfare state,” with that preening waste of space Cameron watching. Glenn Tilbrook also slipped in the line: “I grew up in council houses, part of what made Britain great.”

It did not bring down the venal Tory government. In fact, the Tory government continued to destroy the welfare state, along with much else when it held a referendum without at any point thinking through what might happen if the British public voted “Non!” to staying in the European Union. Cameron did way more than kill the welfare state, he sleepwalked the electorate into an abyss, and then resigned five minutes after the votes had been counted so that he could spend more time with his money. The political picture has largely been dominated by quitting, and not quitting in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is Westminster’s mystery man. They seek him here, they seek him there. I stuck with him for way longer than he deserved, if only to disavow his fellow Labour MPs who sought only to stab him in the back while Rome burned all around them. It has been a shoddy display from them all.

You’ll note that 10 January, the day Squeeze made their valiant protest, is also the day David Bowie died, and with him, the universe. This year has been fucking awful. From Brexit to Trump, via Brietbart, post-truth, alt-right, fake news, black lives not mattering, saying that ice cream is gay, and acts of terror that almost became business as usual amid more unexpected deaths of the supremely talented than any other in living memory, the only response to the passing of 2016 is to say, “Fuck you!”

So, here are my books of the year.

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What was once a refrain has hardened into a truth. Most of my reading happens between the covers of the New Yorker magazine, which has the temerity to arrive on a weekly basis on my doormat (and which feels even more vital since Trump was voted in). However, a nice man at the Mail on Sunday called Neil took it upon himself to send me three books to review in 2016, all of which I enjoyed. They are almost half the books I read. Of the other four, two are by people I know, but both stimulating in their particular fields. And the sixth and seventh are by people who write for the New Yorker, with roots in work they did for the New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin and Clive James (one of the chapters in the delightful Play All is reprinted verbatim from the New Yorker).

I almost wrote a cover story for Radio Times, but – typically for 2016 – it was rightly superseded by a last-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who had died. Interestingly, they left Peaky Blinders on the cover in the Midlands, and here it is.

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Which takes us to the best telly. With Telly Addict cancelled by the Guardian in April, and revived by UKTV in June, I have spent a lot of the year watching television professionally. And these have been my personal TV shows of the year. Firstly, in pictures.

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And here they are, in pointless list form.

1. The Crown, Netflix
2. Fleabag, BBC3/BBC Two
3. Versailles, BBC Two
4. Westworld, Sky Atlantic/HBO
5. The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic/HBO
6. Masterchef: The Professionals/Celebrity Masterchef, BBC Two
7. Line of Duty, BBC Two
8. Dickensian, BBC One (cancelled by idiots)
9. Happy Valley, BBC Two
10. The Missing, BBC Two

11. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX/Fox
12. Peaky Blinders, BBC Two
13. Trapped, BBC Four
14. The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
15. Gogglebox/Gogglesprogs, Channel 4
16. The Code, BBC Four/ABC
17. National Treasure, Channel 4
18. First Dates, Channel 4
19. Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
20. The Night Of, Sky Atlantic/HBO

Oh, come on. It’s self-evident from here that these brilliant shows could be in any order:

Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Thirteen, BBC3/BBC Two
The A Word, BBC Two
The Knick, Sky Atlantic/Cinemax (season two aired at the end of 2015, but early 2016 here)
Deutschland 83, Channel 4
Mr Robot, Universal/Amazon Prime
Planet Earth II, BBC One
Taskmaster, Dave
Grayson Perry: All Man, Channel 4
Billions, Showtime, Sky Atlantic
Ballers, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hypernormalisation, BBC iPlayer
The Durrells, ITV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hillsborough: The Truth, BBC Two (updated after the inquest verdicts)
Brief Encounters, ITV (cancelled by idiots)
Rillington Place, BBC One
Parks & Recreation, Dave (ended in 2015 in the States, but this year, here)
Victoria, ITV
NW, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon Prime/BBC Two

And a special nod to Escape to The Country (BBC One/BBC Two), the show whose 15 series exist forever on a loop, providing harmless dreams to people in towns and cities. Also, Top of the Pops (BBC Four), whose interrupted loop continues apace, racing through 1981 and 1982 this year, and giving constant pleasure to the musically disillusioned.

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So … from music on TV to the best LPs. Like books, a finite field.

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It’s been a slow year for albums. Once again I’ve relied on 6 Music and Later for information and inspiration, with the added input this year of subscriptions to both Mojo and Uncut, whose compilations have been a source of joy, and helped create this Top 12 in no order. No single album put all the others in the shade, but without C Duncan’s A Midnight Sun (and his previous album Architect, which we only cottoned on to this year; likewise Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness), Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Black Star by David Bowie, a few car journeys would have been less enjoyable. Nick Cave’s beautiful, personal, dissonant dirge Skeleton Tree was hard to listen to, and hard to stop listening to. The Kills did it again. And Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos has proven impossible to listen to on headphones while simultaneously reading, as it demands your full attention. I like that about it. Dickensian was my favourite TV score LP of the year (the show sadly cancelled), and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … comeback the only hip-hop record I’ve listened to from one end to the other.

For self-evident reasons, I spent much of my waking life listening to film scores, old and new, and doing so has brought peace to my soul. If you’re interested in my Top 10 Film Soundtracks of 2016, and my Top 10 Videogame Soundtracks of 2016, click on these Classic FM links.

Now, my other day job: films.

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I’m always torn as to whether or not to put my favourite films in a numbered list. It always seems so arbitrary. My ongoing system is this: I put an asterisk next to every film I see that’s in some way exceptional, and of the 223 films I’ve seen for the first time in 2016 (not all of them films released in 2016), around 80 are starred, although my Top 10 was easy enough to cordon off. The bulk of the films I see as a rule are in English, but the ones that often stand out and stay with me are not. Six out of the Top 10 are English-language (one of them, The Witch, in 17th century English); the others are not. It’s good to see so many unfamiliar names of directors so high up; I don’t believe I had ever typed Grímur Hákonarson, László Nemes or Robert Eggers in previous years, and they made my Top 3 films – and two of those are debuts! Pete Middleton and James Spinney, who co-directed the unique Notes on Blindness, a stunning film, don’t have Wikipedia entries, and neither does their film. I have to say, without Curzon cinemas and, more pertinently, Curzon Home Cinema, this list would be considerably less colourful and varied.

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1. Rams | Grímur Hákonarson (Iceland/Denmark)
2. Son of Saul | László Nemes (Hungary)
3. The Witch | Robert Eggers (US/Canada)
4. Spotlight | Tom McCarthy (US)
5. I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards (US)
7. Mustang | Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Turkey)
8. Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
9. The Clan | Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
10. Notes on Blindness | Pete Middleton, James Spinney (UK)

11. The Childhood of a Leader | Brady Corbet (UK/France)
12. Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
13. Life, Animated | Roger Ross Williams (US)
14. Hail Caesar! | Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (US)
15. The Survivalist | Stephen Fingleton (UK)
16. Victoria | Sebastian Schipper (Germany)
17. Arrival | Denis Villeneuve (US)
18. I Am Not a Serial Killer | Billy O’Brien (Ireland/UK)
19. Paterson | Jim Jarmusch (US)
20. Chi-Raq | Spike Lee (US)

21. The Revenant | Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (US)
22. The Hateful Eight | Quentin Tarantino (US)
23. I Am Belfast | Mark Cousins (UK)
24. Wiener-Dog | Todd Solondz (US)
25. Cemetery of Splendour | Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
26. Sully | Clint Eastwood (US)
27. Julieta | Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
28. Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier (US)
29. Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love (France/Germany)
30. Room | Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada)

Thanks to my continuing tenure at the helm of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM once again I was lucky enough to speak at length to these people about film music this year.

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It has been a terribly busy year, and I did not get out to art exhibitions. Which makes Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern a rare and thrilling treat. In the perfect pairing below, you can see O’Keeffe’s painting of the same Manhattan view captured in a photograph by her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the many illuminations in the way the exhibition was laid out.

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I went to the theatre twice and loved both productions I saw.

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Hangmen at the Wyndhams in London’s shittering West End by Martin McDonagh (whose film In Bruges I loved), a terrific black comedy about the last days of hanging, with David Morrissey as Britain’s last hangman, now running a boozer. The cast was further ennobled by Craig Parkinson, Andy Nyman, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers, and newcomers Bronwyn James and Josef Davies – not to mention the ingenious set. Because I know David and Craig, I met them for a drink afterwards in a theatre hangout and bathed in the cast’s glow. It must be tough doing the same thing at the same level of intensity every night. Mind you, they may not have any lines to learn, but we must give thanks to the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s company who threw themselves hither and thither in the name of bringing that beloved Powell and Pressburger film-about-a-ballet The Red Shoes to Sadlers Wells and turning it back into a ballet-about-a-ballet. This was our Christmas treat. It may not have been Christmassy – in fact, as you may know, it’s a tragedy – but it lit advent up all the same. I love watching dance. It’s not just the sight, it’s the sound of their physical exertion that makes it so special. Watching it on telly just doesn’t capture it. theredshoessadlers-com

In terms of live entertainment, I was privileged to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry premiere their Shine A Light album at St Pancras Church in London in August. It’s a fine item to own, but seeing and hearing it essayed up close and personal was a rare pleasure. I’ve hosted a number of panels and Q&As, which means I was lucky to meet a whole host of interesting people in the arts: James Buckley, Paul Kaye, Louise Emerick and Ken Collard from the Dave sitcom Zapped; Maxine Peake and the original stars of The Comic Strip Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer for their latest escapade Red Top, also featuring Stephen Mangan and Eleanor Matsura; plus, the entire cast and crew of Peaky Blinders on two occasions: at the press launch and at the BFI (greedy!), an association with an ongoing show that I’ve loved being an ephemeral part of.

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It was a hell of a year. Enough to turn your hair grey. George Michael, Liz Smith and Carrie Fisher finished off the year in the manner in which it began. I was glancing down the UK “trending” topics late on Christmas Day and felt warm inside when I double-checked that all ten were related to telly programmes, on the telly. No capital cities, no celebrity names, no hashtags that began with #PrayFor. I went to sleep before 11pm satisfied that we’d made it through one day at least without the death knell tolling. I woke up on Boxing Day to the news that George Michael had been found dead, alone, at his home, the previous afternoon.

Feast, if you can, on all the amazing art and culture that was produced by the still-alive in 2016. It has to give us hope that perhaps the human race en masse isn’t hellbent on self-destruction, just a toxic few.

I am slightly fearful of pressing the “PUBLISH” key with three days left to go. But nobody ever won Masterchef that way.

 

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Inevitable Postscript: Debbie Reynolds, died a day after her daughter, on December 28, aged 84.

Happy holidays

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Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

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I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

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Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

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I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

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Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

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Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

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’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

Would he lie to you?

Some late news just in. There was no cast iron reason for this country to defy the United Nations and invade Iraq on 20 March 2003, shoulder to shoulder ie. behind the United States, and alongside Australia and Poland. (In that initial phase, the USA sent 130,000 troops, the UK 28,000, Australia 2,000, and Poland 194.)  The Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, revealed to the world the following things that I and millions of others personally knew in our bones in May 2003, and which were basically confirmed by subsequent events: that Saddam Hussein did not pose an “urgent threat” to British interests, that flaky intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was presented with “too much certainty” while its legal justification was “far from satisfactory”, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been fully explored, and that in invading Iraq the UK and the USA had “undermined the authority” of the UN. In short, the whole shit-show ought not to have happened.

Have we who believed Hans Blix and doubted the earnest words of Tony Blair wasted the last 14 years of our lives waiting to find out what we suspected all along? If so, we should be grateful that we had lives to waste; not everybody sucked into the conflict was so lucky. The families of the victims at Hillsborough (many of whom will have also opposed the war) will know this feeling: a combination of relief and fury after so many years being officially dismissed and discounted. No matter what the Dorian Grey painting of Tony Blair says, during those 14 years the world has unarguably become ever more dangerous and less secure, and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost in the wars waged in the name of “stabilising” a region we – I hate to use that word, but it’s worth rubbing it in – we destabilised. The invasion may not have happened “in our name”, but I remain a citizen of the country that did it. An increasingly ashamed citizen. Many of today’s monsters were forged in the aftermath of the invasion, which, like a post-Brexit economy, nobody had properly planned for. So, rather than go over the coals one more time, or the Chilcot Report in mind-numbing detail, can we just consider the lies?

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Historians often cite Watergate as a watershed moment when the public “lost faith” in its elected politicians. Certainly, the grotesque televised image of Richard Nixon declaiming in 1973, “I am not a crook” provided a pivot for this apparent awakening (a moment echoed by Bill Clinton’s similarly perjurious public address in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But not only was Nixon not the first dishonest politician, he was not the first dishonest president. They’re all at it. Because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, to quote Everything But The Girl, little Hitlers grow up into big Hitlers. The business of running a country, whether it’s as small as Iceland, or as vast as Russia, involves compromise. I guess it has to, like any relationship. In government or junta, commercial and civic interests must be served at the same time. An electorate, or a non-electorate, must be kept onside, for fear of deselection, or coup.

Sometimes, decisions made in the secret corridors of power have life or death consequences. Most of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t handle that. Indeed, the old truism that the very worst kind of people to be politicians are the people who want to be politicians resounds still. Running a country is an insane fantasy that most of us rehearse over breakfast (“If I was in charge … I’d making voting compulsory/ban mobiles in schools/put registration plates on bicycles/remove charity status from public schools/give automatic custodial sentences to internet trolls etc.”). We are currently going through a leadership election that will put someone else in charge of our country, at least one of whom will have been tied to a Leave campaign based on lies or assertions with no basis in fact. Whether she – and it is likely to be a she – is up to the job is only something we can discover by letting her do it. We came dangerously close to having Boris Johnson imposed upon us as our leader, thanks to the boneless leadership of David Cameron. The former is a man priapic on adulation who thought leading a country was his birthright; the latter seemed to treat the job as a sort of wheeze and couldn’t wait to put it behind him. Both are dangerous. Both went to the same schools. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, someone who was in the Bullingdon Club always gets in, right?

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There is talk of a “disconnect” between people and politics. It’s why the inarticulate bully Donald Trump is presumptive Republican nominee when the commentariat dismissed him as a joke. It’s why the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn won a mandate from members of the Labour party in the vacuum after Ed Milliband and has since struggled to keep the Teflon-hearted Blarites within the PLP onside. And it’s why the Leave campaign’s parish magazines the Express and Mail were so effective in the peddling of myths. The balance of power now rests in the limbo between what politicians think they know about what ordinary voters know, and what ordinary voters know they know. It’s why we are one piece of paperwork away from leaving the EU after 43 years of growth and that racism has reared its ugly head again in a way not seen since the 70s – a decade which, by the way, wasn’t as good as the music, films or sitcoms made in it. Whether people are racists or simply voters struggling to replace the old certainties like jobs, security and community that have been taken away by successive administrations in hock to the free market and the City, they clearly don’t feel represented. Nor, by the way, do I. (My politics pretty much align with Corbyn’s, a man seemingly too Labour to be allowed to lead the Labour party.)

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“Protest vote” is a catch-all phrase, simultaneously stirring and active, and negative and self-isolating. It can mean something passionate and personal: voting for an independent candidate, let’s say, in a local election, or voting Green, as I have done, even though there appears statistically to be no way the candidate can get in. But voting Leave in a zero-sum referendum to show the politicians that you no longer have faith in them is a protest only in theory; in actual fact, it is a vote for uncertainty. A malignant symptom of the current democratic malaise, it led the 51.9%  to opt to leave the EU because they had genuine, concrete reasons for wanting to “take back control” from Europe, the promise they were made by politicians who could barely agree between themselves whether they were pro-Europe or not. I feel sad that many people, with good reason, believed that to “take back control” meant some kind of meaningful independence. The crushing irony is that in “taking back control” from those fabled Brussels bureaucrats, Leave voters “gave control” to the right wing of the Tory party, a party that despises the jobless and the poor, and is dismantling the very state that might look after them.

We’re so jaded we expect lies to be told in election campaigns. And yet, we swallow the lies. That the Tories care about “hardworking families”? That £350m of “our cash” (Johnson, Gove and the rest were clever to make it sound like bureaucrats were picking our pockets) would be given to the NHS? By a party that seeks to privatise the NHS? More lies. That Saddam Hussein could get a chemical weapon to the UK in 45 minutes?

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Here’s the irony. Tony Blair, who was unfortunate to be given a surname that contains the letters L, I, A and R, seems to think he has been cleared by Chilcot of actually, literally telling a lie to us, while Alistair Campbell is smug about being cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier, but in buttering up the electorate, and Parliament, for war, they implicitly lied from the moment Blair told Bush he was “with him, whatever” in the 28 July, 2002 memo. Thereafter, war was not an option, it was a foregone conclusion, and any speech or comment that Blair made after that date which did not reveal the deal he’d made is in my eyes rendered a lie.

Here’s the killing joke: I think he’s telling the truth when he says that, given the choice, he would invade Iraq all over again.

Honestly.