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.

The Odin catalogue

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The Guardian seems a bit stingy about Telly Addict at the moment, rarely leaving the traditional plug for it up on the homepage for longer than a day, which, it seems, reduces traffic to a trickle, thus sealing my longterm fate by their own hand. Boo! I can’t really do much more than provide an alert on Twitter and on this blog. So …

This week, we have two historical dramas, the Game Of Thrones-influenced Vikings on History and Penny Dreadful from Showtime on Sky Atlantic (I won’t ruin it for you, but I much preferred Vikings); also, the return of Showtime/BBC co-prod Episodes, and my highlights of Sunday night’s Bafta TV Awards, which I hope you enjoy.

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TA130It’s not all Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary this week on Telly Addict, but some of it is: The Day Of The Doctor (not in 3D in our case) on BBC1; the lovely An Adventure In Space And Time on BBC2; plus some similarly nostalgic black-and-white footage from Dominic Sandbrook’s 60s-set Cold War Britain on BBC2; from a little less far back, some Gogglebox from last week on C4, reviewing the week before; and – a treat – Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, from S4C, a Scandi-style noir in Welsh that’s available here to view on their website, something I suggest you do, especially if you aren’t a Welsh speaker and can enjoy the language barrier and the concentration aid that is subtitles.

In a field of its own

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We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Episodes

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Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.

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TA99What interesting connections we can make on this week’s telly on Telly Addict. Brushing Up On … British Tunnels with Danny Baker on BBC4 is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on Sky Atlantic (from Showtime in the US) is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; in Panorama: North Korea Undercover, easily the most talked about TV show of last week, reporter John Sweeney attempts, as does Stone, to get under the skin of a country whose propaganda is all-powerful (and in both cases, Stone and Sweeney risk excommunication from the nation which they criticise); 30 Rock‘s Season 6 finale, on Comedy Central, includes jokes – aired in May 2012 on NBC – about the totalitarian quirks of the North Korean regime; Modern Family, an imported US comedy not given to inter-textual cross-media jokes that are the stock-in-trade of 30 Rock, tries one on for size with a coda based on The Godfather on Sky1; and I also review new ITV three-parter The Ice Cream Girls, which has no link whatsoever with the other shows. Ah well. You can’t join everything up.

Bondage: up yours!

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I hope it is not being too melodramatic to state that slavery is a cancer on the history of the United States of America. (Just as it is on any nation that shipped in Africans, or other foreigners, to do their dirty work, pressing them into forced servitude.) That the descendents of those slaves had to wait until the year I was born before they achieved full voting rights is a further stain on a nation that loves to call itself “great.” I speak, of course, as an Englishman by birth – a native of a country that has plenty to be ashamed of in its history, and as a nation in the present day; I also speak as one of the gender which caused most of the trouble, so I speak of this issue objectively and without any sense of moral superiority.

As you may know, Roots, the 1977 TV miniseries that famously addressed the issue of slavery head-on, and it is said, changed attitudes across America, was my favourite programme as a schoolboy. I was so moved by and invested in the freeing of the black African slaves, thanks to Alex Haley’s book (which I chose to receive at a middle school prizegiving), that I wrote many diary entries of the time in phonetic Southern African-American; hence, the notoriously inept compliment from a besotted 12-year-old white English abolitionist, “Roots is mah favourite programme.” (This is all in my own memoir, whose roots have never been contested in court, as Alex Haley’s were.)

The issue of slavery was central to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), although much of that film’s central story revolved around a Supreme Court ruling. It was however, unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty to African slaves. Its take-home message was: the only good white American is an abolitionist. Spielberg’s Lincoln, already Golden Globe-garlanded and likely to win Baftas and Oscars, is, by coincidence just one of two major motion pictures to address slavery this awards season. The other – quite, quite different in tone and effect – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (honoured at the Globes for its screenplay, and for supporting actor Christoph Waltz). I saw both films last week – on the same day, believe it or not. And am moved to compare them.

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Lincoln was initially conceived, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), as a Presidential biopic, but in the event focuses on the knotty, nail-biting, filibustering progress through the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good. Taking place over a couple of months, it distils Lincoln’s presidency down to his most far-reaching achievement, which also marked the end of the Civil War, despite seemingly putting peace in jeopardy to many naysayers. The 16th President is brought back to life, with understated authority, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who resembles him physically (especially in great height), and sidesteps his usual showboating, which is apt, as, amid the eloquent barracking of 19th century politics, the President is mostly absent. We see him in back rooms, on the sidelines, manipulating and commentating.

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Venerated by many as one of America’s greatest commanders in chief, he is cleverly lit and depicted in Lincoln as a kind of sepia deity. To many on the left, he was a hero, or a god, certainly a celeb. As he says, in one of his more animated moments, as the President he was “clothed in immense power”, and used it. And then he was shot dead. Revisionism has, naturally, taken place in the centuries since, and some historians enjoy calling him a “white supremacist” whose views on blacks were not entirely progressive. Such rewrites are not important to Spielberg’s black-and-white film. (Actually, even the most hardline Confederate in the Southern states today is probably beyond thinking slavery was a good thing. In that sense, it is a black-and-white issue.) At the time of the Civil War, many in the South felt that their economy would collapse if slavery was banned; perhaps it was less about race and human rights, and more about that age-old American concern of money.

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Few black people appear in Lincoln. There are a couple of kindly servants at the White House (Gloria Reuben – Jeannie off of ER! – and Stephen Henderson), freed slaves of course but still essentially bowing and scraping to a white employer. But Lincoln is not about the plight of slaves, it is of their plight; although it does open on a rare action sequence (it’s mostly talking), in which black Union soldiers are attacked by white Confederates. A powerful case is then made, to Lincoln’s kindly face, by a Union soldier (our own David Oyelowo, off of Spooks) about the inequality of wages, and of the chances for promotion, in the US Army, at which even the Emancipation President is challenged about the woeful limits of his vision for equality, even after the Proclamation. Django Unchained, meanwhile, is full of black people. It takes place two years before the Civil War, and is, of course, a wholesale fantasy. It is probably unkind to compare it to Lincoln, but many will find it more palatable and entertaining, so it’s just as important.

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Django is an African slave, chained and en route through Texas, who is effectively stolen by a foppish German bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) at the beginning of the film; he is a prize because of information he has about certain slave owners with a bounty on their heads. The two hit it off, and after offering freedom to Django in exchange for his assistance, Schultz eventually takes him on as an “associate”, an equal. (When Django rides into town, the very idea of a “nigger” on horseback is enough to rile the locals.)

This against-the-grain, black-and-white merger is symbolic of Tarantino’s liberal wish-fulfillment: a white European and a black African taking revenge on evil white plantation owners, riding side by side as compatriots. When Django takes up the whip against one of his former masters, the poetic revenge is literal. The pair are initially driven by money (Django is promised a horse and $75 as well as his freedom), but their combined cause takes on a less mercenary, more ideological and political hue, as they home in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s arch-villain Calvin Candie, not just a sadistic slave-owner, but one who wheels and deals in the gentleman’s sport of “Mandingo fighting”, where black slaves are set upon each other like dogs, or cocks. He is a bad man. Schultz, who elevates Django to the status of the noble hero Siegfried in German mythology, is a good man, but rare among whites in being so.

Django Unchained might once, in the 70s, have been made by a black director, of whom there were very few, but it would have been for the midnight-movie circuit only. Today, thanks to the mainstream profile of Tarantino – Hollywood’s pet cult director, its “house rebel” – it is a major movie, taken seriously by critics and peers alike, and already stamped with award glory (including a Globe for Tarantino’s screenplay). As such, it sends out a powerful message. Equally, it preaches to the choir. If a single member of Hollywood’s royalty did not stand for Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes, he or she was not caught on camera.

Spike Lee has said he refuses to watch it, as for him, the issue is not suitable for entertainment, which this film surely is. It’s up to him, of course, but you might accuse Roots of being simplistic, or melodramatic, or even sentimental, about a serious issue, but it stirred the soul of at least one 12-year-old in England in 1977, and thousands more elsewhere, I suspect. Django Unchained strives for no such educational nobility or legitimacy; it is violent cartoon schlock, whose mischievous humour at one point strays into pure Mel Brooks territory, and in fact, by fantasising a black rebellion against the white oppressor in spaghetti western style, you could argue that it makes a mockery of the true violence done before emancipation.

You could also argue that sending a group of Jewish Americans out into a fantasy Nazi-occupied Europe to kill them (and carve swastikas into their foreheads), as Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, mocks the memory of the millions who died in World War II. But it’s hard not to think of Nazis or cruel white slave-owners as “the baddies”, so who’s to dictate whether it’s in good or bad taste?

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On points, I’d say that Lincoln is by far a better film than Django. It may be “boring” to some, but I lapped up its constitutional detail. It may iron out some of the inconsistencies that get in the way of Abe’s deification (ooh, his wife, Mary, came from a slave-holding family – that’s because there was slavery), but I still found it compelling. Tarantino’s film is uneven. It starts well, but descends into a relentless bloodbath; and even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, Django’s “journey” seems to jump-cut from character development to comic-book hero-avenger without a great deal of grey area in between. (Oh, and Waltz dominates for two thirds, and then sort of fades into the sidelines. Bad decision.)

That Tarantino wishes he’d been born black seems no longer in doubt. He’s been in trouble before for metronomic use of the n-word, although his previous films – including Jackie Brown, which drew a lot of heat – have been set post-reclamation of the word. Django is set at a time when “nigger” was a word filled exclusively with hate and oppression, and when Samuel L Jackson’s cowed, Uncle Tom-style butler uses it, we’re in very uncomfortable territory. This n-word is not spelled N-I-G-G-A. Perhaps it’s Quentin’s first truly responsible use of the epithet.

I realise I’ve just written an essay. Sorry about that. If I had been writing it for a magazine that was paying me to write it, I would have gone back and edited it.

An education #1: The Supreme Court

Here’s the deal. Two thoughts have conflated. One occurred while watching the excellent final of Euro 2012 last night, before and after which we were invited to look back upon what has been a memorable tournament. It was at this point, as if to illustrate the deficiencies of my non-footballing brain, that I realised that I can’t even remember the scores, or the goal-scorers, from most of the matches I have watched over the last three weeks. This is not just my 47-year-old mind going, as I can remember the names of actors from way down the cast of films that I shouldn’t even remember. It’s just that my brain isn’t tuned to football the way serious football fans’ brains are. (When I sat down to watch this one, after my traditional two-year sabbatical, I seriously couldn’t remember off the top of my head who’d won the 2010 World Cup, or Euro 2008. Both are imprinted there now, but ask me in a year’s time.)

The other thought was this: with the sad closure of Word magazine, a couple of people looking down the barrel of a dystopia with less printed words in have asked if a subscription to the New Yorker (one of a number of influences on Word in its prenatal stage) might help ease the pain. I have been a subscriber to the New Yorker since March 2005, when Stuart Maconie thoughtfully bought me a year’s subscription as a 40th birthday present. Once it started arriving on my mat once a week, I became quickly hooked. I can’t imagine a world without it. (It’s particularly handy at Presidential Election time, but not just, as I sincerely believe that to be disinterested in US politics is to be disinterested in global politics. And if anyone’s going to report from the frontline of American life, I’d prefer it to be a bunch of die-hard liberals.)

Anyway, it’s a struggle most weeks to get through the whole magazine. (I recycle mine by passing them on to a friend at Radio Times, who, when she’s done with them, passes them on again – I rarely give an issue up to this value-added cycle within a week of receiving it.) As such, I’m always in intellectual arrears. There’s enough brain food in a single issue to last a month. This means serious reading, and serious staying power. If you don’t know already, the pieces in the New Yorker are long. And detailed. To put them into context, the cover story I wrote about the Stone Roses for a recent issue of Word, which by definition will have been about the longest story in the issue, was 4,000 words. The double-page spread I write for Radio Times most weeks comes in at around 800. The New Yorker doesn’t have a cover story (it doesn’t even tell you what’s inside the issue on the cover), but its longest pieces can be more like 12,000 words. That’s a tenth of Where Did It All Go Right?

The New Yorker article I’m about to disseminate is about 5,000 words.

So, in order to counter the erosion of my memory, and to perhaps pass on some interesting information from a magazine that is jam-packed full of information (its fact-checking culture is legendary), I have decided to run an occasional series on this blog of articles about articles I have read.

This one, by Jill Lepore, was tucked away at the back of the Jun 18 issue (cover image above), and entitled, with typical elan and economy, Benched. It’s about the Supreme Court and was written before this august and powerful institution voted for “Obamacare” and surprised everybody. (I can’t wait to read this week’s New Yorker and its editors’ thoughts on what might be a turning point for Obama’s re-election chances.)

Essentially a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, forged in New York (then the nation’s capital; still the nation’s capital according to the New Yorker!) in 1789 when George Washington appointed six Supreme Court Justices, Lepore’s end-point is, clearly, the Affordable Care Act and whether or not today’s bench of nine decide that it violates the Constitution or not, vis-a-vis “commerce.” (Can the government constitutionally force its citizens to take out health insurance? Spoiler alert: yes it can.)

As Lepore states early on, “under the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Court is quite limited.” Its executive branch “holds the sword”, the legislative branch “the purse”, and the judiciary, neither; “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society”. It’s tough for us Limeys to understand the Supreme Court, as we don’t have one, but if there’s one subject that comes up more frequently in the New Yorker than baseball and/or whatever Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about, it’s the Supreme Court, so it’s as well to do some homework, which is what this feature turned out to be, and why I ploughed through all 5,000 words of it.

I discovered that, under George Washington, the Justices of the Supreme Court were expected to “ride circuit” (one of those great phrases that make reading this magazine such a thrill), in other words, they were expected to judge ordinary cases as well as supreme ones, as it were. But this was scrapped. It’s basic stuff to American history students, but I now know that in 1800, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., and the following year president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was the first to live in the White House, while Congress met at the Capitol. His Chief Justice ensured that all the Justices rented rooms at the same boarding house, “so that they could at least have someplace to talk together, unobserved.”

Under Adams, the 1801 Judiciary Act reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices to five. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch when this was engorged to the present nine. Under Jefferson, the Supreme Court was granted the right to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. (“This was such an astonishing thing to do that the Court didn’t declare another federal law unconstitutional for fifty-four years.”) Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” During the New Deal in the 1930s, the “power to regulate commerce,” along with the definition of “commerce” itself, became the chief means by which Congress passed legislation “protecting people against an unbridled market.” (In 1964, the commerce clause formed part of the basis for the Civil Rights Act.) As you can guess, the solid Democrat base of the New Yorker means that the Supreme Court’s power to fiddle with commerce – that “unbridled market” which gives Republicans such an under-the-desk hard-on – is taken on trust as a good thing. To the right, it’s bad.

There are lots of landmark rulings cited along the way – Lochner v. New York in 1905, where the Court “voided a state law establishing that bakers could work no longer than ten hours a day, six days a week”, on the grounds that the law violated a “liberty of contract” (cue: sound of employers rubbing their hands in glee); U.S. v. Lopez, in which it was decreed that gun ownership is not commerce, “because it is in no sense an economic activity”; U.S. v. Morrison, in which parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act were judged unconstitutional; and one that is enshrined in US lore: Dred Scott v. Sandford (“Dred Scott”), which in 1857 voided the Missouri Compromise by arguing that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and effectively put slaves and their descendents outside of the constitution.

Lepore’s thesis, neatly woven through this chunky history, is simply that the Court is getting more political. Under game-changing arch-Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall’s 35 years in office – that’s six administrations from Adams to Jackson 1801-35 – we learn that the Court struck down only one act of Congress; by comparison, in the seven years since John G. Roberts, Jr. (a Bush appointee) took the job in 2005, the Court has struck down “a sizable number of federal laws, including one reforming the funding of political campaigns.” She describes it as “the most conservative court in modern times”, its rulings under Roberts pleasing the right 60% of the time, according to figures, which is way up basically.

We go back to the early American colonists, “who inherited from England a tradition in which the courts, like the legislature, were extensions of the crown.” Over here, a “defiant Parliament had been challenging the royal prerogative, demanding that judicial appointments be made not ‘at the king’s pleasure’ but ‘during good behavior.'” (This phrase “good behaviour”, which means, effectively, for life, recurs.) The Justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and it’s a gig for life. But who judges the judges?

Since it successfully rubbed out a “labor” law protecting the health of employees in favour of the employer, the aforementioned “Lochner” (known by just the one name) is said to have become “likely the most disreputable case in modern constitutional discourse.” (From where I’m sitting the American right are all for the individual, as long as that individual is an employer, not an employee.) In 1906, legal scholars rounded on it, one of them writing, “Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians … has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the Bench.”

As ever with a New Yorker piece, you learn some things off the bat, and you have to do a bit of further reading to understand others. It’s casually referred to, but I had no idea what Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose campaign” was, for instance. So I checked. It was the nickname of a political party (the Progressive Party) he set up in 1912 after a Republican split, and after he’d been shot but claimed to be as fit as a bull moose. The building that still houses the Court across from the Capitol had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1932, by Herbert Hoover and marble was shipped in from Spain, Italy, and Africa. Three weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in an actual landslide and those battles between Congress and the New Deal began. Exciting trivia: by June of 1933, less than 100 days after his inauguration, FDR had proposed 15 legislative elements and each had been made law, passed by the Court, whose four-out-of-nine conservative Justices were known as the Four Horsemen. During the passing of the 16th, one of the horsemen is said to have burst out, “The Constitution is gone!” (“a comment so unseemly that it was stricken from the record”).

The Supreme Court’s new building opened for business in 1935, described in the press as “a classical icebox decorated for some surreal reason by an insane upholsterer.” In the following 18 months, the newly-housed Justices struck down more than a dozen laws. “Congress kept passing them; the Court kept striking them down, generally 5-4. At one point, FDR’s Solicitor General fainted, right there in the courtroom.” You’ve got to love the way the best New Yorker writers humanise otherwise husk-dry material. It’s a detail like the fainting Solicitor General that could help you remember the trouble FDR had in the mid-30s.

Lepore sums up beautifully. “The Supreme Court has been deliberating in a temple of marble for three-quarters of a century. In March, it heard oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act. No one rode there in a horse and buggy.” She goes on, “The separation of law from politics for which the Revolution was fought has proved elusive. That’s not surprising – no such separation being wholly possible – but some years have been better than others. One of the worst was 2000, when the Court determined the outcome of a disputed Presidential election.”

I started reading the New Yorker in 2005, when Bush was into the second term of that “disputed” election. His presidency gave the magazine’s liberals something to push against. They do not, though, let Obama off the hook, and a 9,500-word piece by Ryan Lizza in the same issue about what the President might do if re-elected (again, written before the Supreme Court judgement went Obamacare’s way) is, although hopeful, honestly argued and superbly contextual. But that’s enough learning for one day.

The full, six-page Supreme Court piece is available online. So have a read. The 12-page Obama re-election piece also happens to be online, in full. (They aren’t always, so this is a bit of luck.) The New Yorker is available in full, digitally, to subscribers and as an iPad edition. It’s almost 90 years old, but it moves with the times. However, with such a lot of words to read, I couldn’t possibly read it offscreen. I need my paper copy. And long may it abide.

You’re history

Comparisons across 40 years are especially odious. But two history strands, on current on BBCHD and one recent on BBC4, tell us much about the history of the art history series: Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark, and Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture, presented by Alistair Sooke. (The latter, a three-parter, has finished airing, and I’m catching up on Sky+. Civilisation‘s most recent episode is available on iPlayer, although they’re only keeping the most recent one up for a week.)

I grew up knowing about Civilisation, though I never saw it. I was too young when it aired on BBC2 in 1969, but when I grew up, it was already legend. Clark was mentioned in a couple of Monty Python sketches (and maybe even pictured in one of the books?), and the moment the BBC started making documentaries about itself – my guess, starting around the 70s and early 80s, when the Corporation’s 50th and 60th birthdays were marked – I became aware of a man in a tweed suit standing in front of churches and declaiming, fruitily, to camera. (Around the same time, I became aware of a man called Jacob Bronowski and The Ascent Of Man, another BBC 13-parter which I’ve still never seen.) When Alan Clark MP rose to prominence in the 80s, I made the father-son connection, and probably allowed the son’s rather nauseating fancy for Margaret Thatcher and all-round rogueish manner to put me off his dad. Well, it turns out his dad is as much of a Marxist-hunting Tory as his son. But what a teacher he makes!

Sooke – a search for whose name is probably always destined to elicit the response, “Did you mean: Alistair Cooke?” – is the deputy art critic at the Telegraph, and, it says, started there as an assistant in 2003, which I guess ages him at very early thirties. At any rate, he’s around half the age of Kenneth Clark when he wrote, produced and presented Civilisation in 1969, who was 66. Which is not to do Sooke down – he’s one of those young or comparatively young, boyishly and girlishly enthusiast academics in their thirties and forties that modern TV loves: Tristram Hunt, Dan Snow, Bettany Hughes, Neil Oliver. I’m not tilting at ageism here – my beloved Andrew Graham-Dixon is 50, Matthew Collings and Tim Marlow are already well into their fifties, and even Professor Amanda Vickery is in her late forties (a figure belied by her cherishable, youthful energy), and they still send Michael Wood off, and he’s 62 – but my guess is that in 1969 the idea of a history programme being presented by a thirtysomething would have been unconscionable. I mean, where would our instant respect spring from?

Thanks to a seriously mind-blowing clean-up job on the original film footage, Civilisation is back, basically to advertise the BBC’s HD service. It’s a crying shame it’s not showing on BBC4 concurrently, but there you are; it’s doing its job, because the pictures, almost as old as me, are stunning. Clark reminds me of those old photos taken in the late 60s and early 70s of my grandparents on the beach, in which my granddad is wearing trousers, shirt and tie. On the beach. Similarly, Clark treads the highways and byways of Europe, in clement weather, trussed up in tweed, the button of his jacket not even unbuttoned for ventilation. He’s even wearing a cardy underneath the jacket. In Florence. What’s most strikingly different about the way Civilisation is presented and the presentation of Romancing The Stone, or to pluck another recent example: Neil Oliver’s chunky and windswept A History Of Ancient Britain (just finishing on BBC2 but all four eps still on iPlayer for a few more days), is that Clark’s is flagged up in the credits as a “Personal View”, whereas these days a personal view is the least we’d expect. Oh, and by the way – Romancing The Stone? What a blinking dreadful and meaningless title. It seems that BBC4 has caught the bug from its neighbours at BBC3 and fears we won’t watch a programme about sculpture unless it’s sexed up.

I guess that in 1969 a history strand that was “personal” needed explaining, or even disclaiming. Now, if it’s not personalised, it’s not on the telly. Personality is everything. The irony is, Clark helped define personality presenting of academic programmes. Without him, perhaps no Life On Earth? (David Attenborough was actually head of BBC2 when Civilisation was commissioned.) He is our guide: knowledgeable, inspired, eloquent, intellectually equipped and authoritative, but at the same time personal. If he’d taught history at my school, I might not have got a “U” at O-Level. In 1969 it was enough to set up the shot of a church or a fresco or a library and have Clark stand or sit in front of it, or, if the director was feeling especially cavalier, have him walk into shot. There are no camera tricks. The camera never comes off its tripod or rostrum. Clark does not speak to anybody but us; unlike Sooke, or Oliver, who are duty bound to consult micro-experts or help cast something in bronze in protective gear, Clark looks but does not touch. He often gazes in awe, but he does not say, “Wow!”, which modern presenters must do. Watching Civilisation, you are the one saying, “Wow!”

I enjoy history programmes on TV. The best ones send me to my bookshelf or the Internet to find out more. The enthusiasm and articulacy of presenters like Sooke and Oliver definitely inspire. But all have Clark to beat. What these presenters all have in common is locked-in knowledge. None appears to be reading from an Autocue or cards. Clark declaims as if giving a lecture, once or twice stumbling over words, stopping to suck down the spit he’s worked up – and there is an assumption you will be paying attention; Sooke and Oliver make more effort to engage and connect, they huddle right in with the camera, and technology allows us to go into caves with them, or peer into crypts. Civilisation is built largely from still shots of art and architecture and sculpture; the camera lingers as we might in a gallery or cathedral. The camera today probes and ducks and dives.

I don’t wish to come across as a grumpy old man here; I embrace the modern style, and understand why it dominates. But thank God Civilisation survives, and in remastered form, too. It is The Wire of history programmes: dense and demanding, almost foreign in its language, and when one episode finishes, you want to watch the next one straight away. Get the box set.

I’m so 20th century

There are not enough hours in the day, as the band Gomez noted. I am a voracious reader. I am also self-employed. These two truths do not rub along too easily together. I am one of those people – not rare – who always has more than one book on the go, a couple at home, one in my bag for public transport. At the moment I have three books on the go that I wish I had more time to read. I’d like a week off work so that I could concentrate on one and finish it. Then I could add a new one to the carousel and not get enough time to read that. When you are self-employed, you become very conscious of not working. (Word recently gave me two books to read and review, which means reading and working – Nileism by Allan Brown and The Celestial Café by Stuart Murdoch – so I put my leisuretime books on hold and read those.) My other problem is that I tend to pick big, fat books, which take up a lot of space in my bag which might be more usefully employed for a packed lunch.

My three books are, as pictured, Israel by Martin Gilbert (first published in 1998, but revised in 2008), The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (published in 1984), and When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett (published in 2009). The first, which I bought and started reading in 2009 after the three-week Gaza War and put aside when it was usurped by something a little easier, is back in circulation because of Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise on C4, which has not just reignited my interest in the troubled region, but underlined how little I know about its history. I aim to rectify that.

The second I bought in 1988 when I was co-writing a daft play about the assassination of JFK called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out. This was in the dark days before the internet, and the quickest way to “research” his shooting was to buy a book that covered it. I only read the assassination chapter at the time, and filed the book away for what turned out to be over 20 years. I plucked it from the bookshelf before Christmas after yet another documentary on TV about the Kennedys. Even though the family tree that’s helpfully supplied ends in 1984, at which point lot of Kennedys now dead were still alive, it’s their rise to prominence that I’m interested in and which is proving fascinating. It’s not just about trivia, but you’ll love this: in 1929 patriarch Joseph Kennedy made so many phonecalls to his lover Gloria Swanson that he had the highest personal phone bill in America for that year.

The third book is the easiest read of the three, although still unwieldy as I have it as a pre-publication advance proof, with a plain orange cover. Over Christmas and New Year, this was the book, and I was getting through its detailed political history of Britain in the 1970s at a rate of knots not seen since I rattled through the complete works of David Peace two years ago. (A rare excursion into fiction, although his novels are so rooted in history, they almost count as non-fiction.) When The Lights Went Out I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in the way we live now, since so much of the pain we’re feeling in 21st century Britain has its origins in what happened between the election of Heath in 1970 and the election Thatcher in 1979. It deserves finishing. I owe it that. I owe Andy Beckett that, for all his thorough research, and all the dying 70s politicians he interviewed in the process. But Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who has written more books than most of us will read in a lifetime, has barged Beckett off the top of the pile. I will return to Britain in the 70s, of course, but for much of the foreseeable I’ll be at the birth of a nation in Palestine.

So, like some kind of time traveller limited to the 20th century, I’m currently in Britain in the 1970s circa the Social Contract, Palestine in the 1920s circa the Balfour Declaration, and Hyannis Port in the 1940s circa the death of “Young Joe” Kennedy in a disastrous American bombing raid called Operation Aphrodite. Each time I pick up a book, I have to reacclimatise to the era and the climate. What I observe about myself, with no forward planning about what I’m going to read next, is that I am clearly a 20th century man. I have spent the last 15 years educating myself. I was no good at history at school. I’m not sure it was as interesting at O-level in the 70s – my main memory was the Industrial Revolution: canals, looms, the Stockton-Darlington line – and I certainly struggled to engage with it. I failed O-level history. In fact I got a “U” grade, which isn’t a grade, as it stood for ungraded. So, in my thirties I returned to the subject and filled my shelves with history books. I even joined a history book club, which meant one new paperback a month. I read about the Reformation, and about the two World Wars, and about the Russian gulags, and the Vietnam war, and … actually, apart from the Reformation, you can start to spot a theme. I devoted myself to understanding the 20th century. I’m still at it.

History is so much more fun when you plan your own curriculum. I think researching my biography of Billy Bragg in 1997 – using books, as I was pre-dial-up – really concentrated my mind on getting to grips with the century we were then still living through. Not all history books are fun to read. Some are dry. Some, like John Keegan and Eric Hobsbawn, are not. I’ll be honest, Israel is fairly dry – which is apt, I guess, as the very inhospitability of the Arab soil lies at the heart of the Zionists’ story, of the physical struggle and determination to lay down roots in a foreign land they felt was theirs, and the century of trouble that led to – but I will persevere. I notice that Simon Sebag-Montifiore has a new book out called Jerusalem, and he’s a very readable historian, but that doesn’t fit in with my New Year’s Resolution, which I am determined to stick to: only read books I already own.

I will review all three books when I finish them. I can see in a secondary pile Robert Service’s biography of Lenin and a brilliant book about post-Communist Russia called The Oligarchs by David Hoffman, both of which I started and set aside when more pressing reads took over. I will return to those first. Because I already own them.