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 This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so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.

 

Make America Hate Again

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It almost feels like shooting a racist in a barrel, taking aim at Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president 2016. He’s a boorish, entitled, non-thinking, vain, preening, loud-mouthed, bullying, hectoring, ill-informed, historically and politically illiterate, ungracious, repetitive, spiritually ugly, self-serving, self-centred, self-aggrandising, self-loving, self-mythologising, showboating, grandstanding, oafish, blinkered, simplistic, dishonest, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, disablist, xenophobic, misanthropic, reactionary, vicious, voluminous, hate-filled, hate-spewing, inciteful, insightless, uncaring, myopic, deluded, lowest-common-denominator, divisive, simplistic, dangerous, inflammatory, rude, galling, pumped-up, far-right, destructive, deluded, deluding, uncouth, untrustworthy, rogue bad-haired Onanist who used to be on TV, and is now never off the TV. He also used to be a joke. Not any more. He’s now a threat. To – potentially – all of us. He is, after all, a man whose foreign policy is to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, thinks that the violence he explicitly incites from his bully pulpit is “nothing to do with him” and who actually inferred he had a large penis in a televised debate. And he looks like Donald Trump.

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As you may know, I’m a keen follower of US politics, especially every four years, and if I had a vote, I’d lean to the Democrats. No surprise there. In my bones I know I’d be for Bernie Sanders, the Jeremy Corbyn of the American left. And yet, with Trump in the seemingly unstoppable ascendancy, I think that Hillary Clinton may be commonsense’s only hope. (Although one CNN poll found that Sanders would stand a better chance of beating Trump than Clinton.) It’s literally not up to me. I can only push my nose up against the glass and watch, helpless, as a polarised electorate, alienated from dynastic DC party politics at both ends, decide the fate of a divided nation after, let’s face it, eight pretty disappointing years of emollient talk and executive cool but too little great change from Obama, kneecapped as a Democrat President so often is by a Republican Congress. You win, you lose.

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Enter the reality TV star, so rich (“part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich”) he doesn’t need private donors, already a caricature of himself and thus beyond satire, and apparently on the side of the ordinary working- and middle-class voters who’ve lost their jobs due to the globalised free market waived in by libertarian, deregulating Republican administrations (and allowed to flourish by liberal, not-nearly-regulating-enough Democratic ones). He makes a powerful case to the disenfranchised of those United States: he’s going to stop corporations from upping sticks to China and Mexico if and when he’s President, before building a wall around the place, to stop Muslims coming in, and business going out. It’s a binary way of looking at the world, like Trump is a giant baby mesmerised by the pretty shapes a revolving nightlight projects on the nursery wall, and it’s more than gaining traction with the economically vulnerable. It’s also turning white America against the America of colour (as if the rednecks need any encouragement).

Divide and rule is nothing new. Donald Trump seems so ill-read and ill-versed in history and geopolitics, it’s a terrifying thought that he could ever hold any office outside of an office he already owns. (He’s the kind of American who believes that nothing can’t be bought, including democratic power.) It used to be tee-hee-hee amusing that daft old downhome George W Bush couldn’t name any other world leaders and basically wanted to play golf while he settled some Oedipal family score by being President, but Trump wouldn’t even feel the need to name any other world leaders and would surely wear his ignorance as a badge of honour (he’s “very rich”, you see, that’s the “beauty” of him, so he doesn’t need to memorise names of foreigners because he has no donors to dance for). It would earn him approval points among his desired, non-passport-holding demographic if he started a call-and-response that went: “Who’s stupid and PROUD of it?” “WE are!”

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I’ll say it again, I hardly feel as if I am going out on a limb expressing bemusement, bewilderment and fear at the thought of Trump wielding any kind of jurisdiction outside of a reality TV show, but it’s an unedifying sight either way watching his endless victory speeches and seeing the hatred and violence in the eyes of his supporters. (Some of them have violence in their fists and elbows, too; give these people enough rope and strange fruit will be swinging from a tree.) It seems quaint now that we worried about Nigel Farage in this country – who, on paper, rode the same bandwagon here, appealing to the more purple-faced on the right – as he now feels a bit like a single-issue figure of fun again. One hopes in one’s heart that Trump will fail in his bid to do something that he only really wants to do to see if he can do it. In any event, he would quickly tire of the minutiae of the job by about, ooh, half-ten the morning after he enters the White House. Bored now, what’s next?

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America can be a scary country, with its guns, and its flag, and its belief in God, but for every rally it holds in the name of reductive ethnic stereotyping and baseball-cap fascism, a bunch of protesters will challenge that poisonously antithetical orthodoxy, even risking a remorseless thump in the head for enacting their unalienable right to do so. I’ve just watched the third part of CNN’s fascinating newsreel-based documentary series The Seventies on Sky Arts, headed Peace With Honour, which covered the last, glory-free five years of the Vietnam war, and it made you proud to see so many ordinary Americans, from students to veterans, protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and other outrages, literally risking life and limb in the process. Let us think of the United States as a nation of questioning, constitutional dissent. What Trump is whipping up is not dissent, it is fear. The only questions he asks are ones to which he has a pre-prepared answer. “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”

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Simon Heffer has written a good piece from on the ground in the New Statesman about the Trump effect, and he rightly points the finger at Obama for the shortfall between his “elevated rhetoric” and the “lower reality”. He also noted that America is “an unhappy nation.” The cards are stacked in favour of a no-nonsense (or so the disillusioned think) demagogue who promises to fix the problem. He also reminds us that Trump “is not a politician … [he] has never served in the military or held political office.” He’s the sort of golf-club bore most of us would edge away from in a bar, but we’re not everybody in America. Desperate times – and for millions they are fucking desperate – require desperate candidates.

There at the New Yorker

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Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

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The king is dead

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Cecil was, we are told, “famous.” A protected resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the 13-year-old male lion wore a GPS tracking collar and was, we are told, an “attraction” for visitors to the game reserve, the largest in the country, identifiable by his black mane. That black mane now sits on a head that was severed from his dead body, presumably awaiting a taxidermist in Minnesota to stuff it and mount it for the wall of a dentist’s surgery. Around 40 hours before his head was removed, the still living Cecil was tempted outside the national park’s boundaries using bait and shot with a crossbow.

The dentist who shot him is Walter Palmer, the grinning fucking bastard in the shot that was shared all around the world, who now claims. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite … and part of a study until the end of the hunt.” So no remorse for shooting a lion with a crossbow and causing it untold pain for 40 hours before it was eventually put out of its misery with a bullet, but some remorse for doing so to a “local favourite.” He says he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” It’s legal to shoot lions, just not this one. It’s interesting that even when speaking in his own defence, Palmer uses the verb “took” when he admits to killing the lion (“I had no idea that the lion I took was …”). He can’t even say the word for what he did.

I don’t care whether Cecil was “famous” or not. I don’t care whether he was tagged or not. I don’t care whether he was or wasn’t within an arbitrary “protected” area or not. What are sentient human beings doing “legally” shooting lions in Zimbabwe, other than feeding the local economy and giving themselves a hard-on? That the possibly impotent Palmer is an American rather feeds into an existing archetype of trigger-happy Yanks whose rifles will have to be prised out of their cold dead hands before surrendering them. But I don’t care what nationality he was, or what job he does (or did, when he’s been run out of Minnesota by an angry mob – or would be, if that angry mob ever left their houses); I only care that he seemed to be pretty pleased with himself for mortally wounding a large wild animal.

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What century is this? In the ugly days of Empire, colonialists thought nothing of entering a foreign land and shooting anything unusual they found there, including the native humans. (And if that didn’t finish them off, they gave them diseases they’d brought overseas with them.) But we live in more enlightened times, now. We appreciate that the earth’s resources – animal, vegetable and mineral – are finite. The African lion is not an officially endangered species (the Asian lion is), but it is categorised as Vulnerable (“faces a high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And anyway, it’s being hunted in Zimbabwe and elsewhere for sport. A special sport whereby the opposing team have no equipment and you do. Palmer was not intending to eat Cecil for survival or wear his skin for warmth, as far as I know.

The only good to potentially come of Cecil’s brutal and sadistic death by a serial killer is that the image speaks louder than words, and who knows, maybe it will seriously raise international consciousness about conservation not just of wildlife, but of the wild they live their lives in. He was not called Cecil. Other lions did not know him as Cecil. Humans who at least wished only to study him and trace his movements and conserve him named him “Cecil” to make it easier to log him. They meant no harm.

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Lesson one: let us not tar all dentists as inhuman murderers. Lesson two: let us not use the death of #CecilTheLion to get all high and mighty about who cares the most about what and whom. I’ve seen a lot of largely American traffic on Twitter calling for people sharing the Cecil hashtag and their outrage to “REEVALUATE” (often typed in caps) and spare a thought for Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a Texas jail on July 13 after being arrested for a minor traffic violation. I have spared many thoughts for her since learning about her death and seeing the dashcam footage of state trooper Brian Encinia threatening her (“I will light you up”). It is possible to care about a lion and a woman. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I wish it wasn’t always men who wreak this violence.

Postscript: I trod on a snail on Monday, by accident, after the rain brought them out. I killed it. I am able to use the word for what I did. But I didn’t pay anybody for the pleasure, and in fact experienced only sorrow and regret. Nor did I get a selfie with its corpse.

 

2014: My Top 50 books

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I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

Double history

On Thursday 30 October, 2008, just five prehistoric days before America elected its first black president, BBC’s Question Time came live from Washington DC, something of a coup and a justifiable use of the licence fee. “Welcome to our normal viewers,” snuffled David Dimbleby from behind his standard-issue Corporation poppy. “But also to people around the world, who are going to be watching this on BBC World News – great to have you with us.”

A great advert for the Beeb. The panel was impressive: Elizabeth Edwards, Obama adviser and wife of Senator John Edwards; Christopher Nixon Cox, John McCain exec and grandson of Richard Nixon; Simon Schama, fidgety expat historian; Pulitzer-winning Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune for civil-rights ballast; and leopardskin-jacketed Republican strategist Cheri Jakobus (“it’s a lovely name,” cooed Dimbleby). A lively discourse ensued for the next hour. Unfortunately, on this particular night in history, Question Time was in the wrong place at the wrong time and heatedly debating the wrong two men.

The two men who made Question Time look woefully off the scent that Thursday night, four years ago, were not a great advert for the BBC. Dimbleby’s “normal viewers” were less interested in the US Presidential race on 30 October than they were in “Sachsgate”, a little local difficulty involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross that had reached the point of national seizure on that very day.

Four years on, and the BBC is going through another, worse crisis, also zealously fanned by a right-wing, axe-grinding press but one whose story extends well beyond the walls of Television Centre (or, in the case of Sachsgate, Broadcasting House). Meanwhile, America decides once again. In November 2008, the electorate made history when Barack Obama took battleground states Pennsylvania and Ohio, rewarding those of us who’d stayed up for the Portillo Moment; in that moment, the “retard cowboy fella”, as Sachsgate co-architect Brand had labelled George W. Bush in September as Hollywood-hungry host of the MTV Video Music Awards, was all but forgotten. Never mind that Bush would still be in office for 70 more days; his epoch was so over. Oliver Stone rush-released biopic W., in which Bush is seen in a dream sequence waiting to catch a ball in an empty stadium. Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Obama supporters filled Grant Park in Chicago to roar their approval.

Despite sweaty pre-election Democrat palms about the Bradley Effect (after the black candidate for California governor in 1982 who was ahead in the polls but denied in the booths), Americans who claimed they would vote for a black man did just that. A change came not just to America: Jesse Jackson, another previously unsuccessful black Democratic candidate, cried tears that were mopped all around the world.

This time round, with Obama fighting for his political life in the face of malleable private-equity action figure Mitt Romney – and the real face of post-Tea Party Republicanism Paul Ryan – the US Presidential race is said to be neck-and-neck, with the usual “swing states” holding all the cards – Ohio, again, Florida, again etc. In 2008, I stayed up for Ohio, as I was at the CNN Election Night Party in Central London, surrounded by other politicos, and one or two select celebrities. (You may read my account of that night here.) Weirdly, the party ended at 3am, before the election had been called, which I felt was a massive swiz. I watched them call it from a friend’s sofa, on my own. I shan’t be staying up into the early hours this time, as, uniquely, I am four years older, and I need my sleep. History, or not, will be made without me.

Being the first black American President to be re-elected for a second term does not have the same epic ring of history to it. But that’s surely what the sensible are hoping for? In four years, he’s managed to frighten those on the right with his universal healthcare plan and support for abortion rights and gay marriage, while disappointing those on the left with his failure to do much about anything else, including blowing up Guantanamo Bay. That this policy deadlock is largely down to the intransigence of a Republican House makes no difference to those who demand action. Obama killed bin Laden, personally, of course, a fact that counterintuitively endears him to the head-on-a-spike right, and confuses the left. (I witnessed a fairly heated debate between two comedians on Twitter the other day – Mitch Benn and Andrew O’Neill – about whether or not Obama was a “war criminal”, and whether or not voting for him at all was some kind of betrayal of left-wing values.)

But the real issue of this election, the most expensive and vicious ever, is surely Voter-ID. If you’re not abreast of this issue – and it’s been all over The Daily Show – it’s the way in which an apparently “non-partisan” group, True The Vote (“by citizens, for citizens”) has been pushing for legislature in various states to attach photo ID to one’s right to walk into a polling booth, which not only puts those without a driving licence at an immediate disadvantage (ie. the old, the poor, the unemployed – Democrat voters, maybe?), but also puts the disadvantaged at a further disadvantage, with households containing many occupants (the poor, again? students? immigrants?), targeted as potential voter-fraud cases. Read all about it in this superb, clear New Yorker article from a couple of weeks ago. For me, this is the 2012 Election in essence: dirty tricks by the Republicans.

Commentators – including, well, me, in Word magazine – said that the “real star” of the 2008 Election was David Axelrod. As Obama’s right-hand strategist, not only did he help create the “change” umbrella, he masterminded the first ever internet donor base, mostly under-30s, who contributed small amounts and formed a – gulp! – socialist utopia of engaged young Americans, each with a genuine stake in their chosen leader. Whether this truly recast the way US politics is done remains to be seen, but when, in 2008, Paxman was called upon to gauge the opinion of Dizzee Rascal (“I don’t think he could have done it without hip-hop”), Marshall McLuhan loomed large.

In a rare case of hype being matched by hope, Obama’s victory was regarded as a poultice for all global ills, from the economy to Iraq. He was even credited with boosting Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, which – hypothetically, as it transpired – earmarked Grant Park as a venue for the archery. (Chicago was knocked out in the first round.) The 2008 Beijing Olympics had provided welcome uplift that summer, with choreographed spectacle from the director of Chinese epics Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou, whose opening and closing ceremonies seemed designed to remind the world that America is not the only superpower – and that the Chinese Communist Party has a knack of inspiring mass synchronisation.

London’s very own Olympics did it their way this summer, and proved that ideas were as important as money and multitudes. Mitt Romney chose our capital for his first official stop-off in what the Huffington Post described as “a three-nation tour carefully crafted to highlight his diplomatic strengths and personal Olympic experience”. He delivered a world-class gaffe when he criticised his hosts for not being “ready.” (I might have said the same thing at the time, but I’m not a diplomat, and I live in London.) Had we got our first glimpse of the next President of the United States? I hope not.

In 2008, the year in which Professor Brian Cox became famous on television for his ability to explain the Large Hadron Collider to the dim, we found ourselves living on a planet where things could only get better, and many of us put our hope in a black man (or “a black”, as Tory Pauline Neville-Jones rather colonially called him on the post-election Question Time, back in Britain). Can we have him back, please?

For some reason, I’m not allowed to vote. In this, I am not alone, thanks to True The Vote, which may well have clinched it for Romney, a man whose Mormonism might ordinarily disqualify him from being a good ol’ Republican nominee, if not for the fact that his competition – Santorum, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Bachmann – were so lacking in Presidential authority. I sincerely hope that, as I sleep tonight, the swing states swing the right way. I Tweeted a handy link to the New Yorker voter-ID story earlier, and an American expat took umbrage with me for typing, “If the US Election goes the wrong way, at least you’ll be able to say you know why”; he/she responded, “Define ‘wrong way’. Surely whatever we voters choose is the correct way.” Idealism in action. Naturally, if you are a Republican, or more crucially the kind of prevaricating floating voter that actually decides Elections, Romney might be the “right way.” If so, I wish you good luck in that county if he wins. But I warn you not to be poor. I warn you not to be old. And I warn you not to be a multi-millionaire.