2015: the year in books

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The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

Capital

Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

TheCorrections

My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

ISISbook

The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

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It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

EndOfACentury

My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

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Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

Net migration

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Before I recycle this October 26 edition of the New Yorker by passing it on to my friend Lucy, I want to direct you to what is a typically very looooooong article detailing the journey of a young Syrian law student called Ghaith from his home town of Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of Damascus, to Sweden, where he now lives. (It’s available to read for free, in full, here.) I was struck, as I always am, by the sheer guts, determination and self-belief that takes a citizen from one side of the world to another, by land and sea. But then I have never fled from war, as I have never been in one. I have never fled from anywhere, except a dodgy early-80s houseparty in Northampton when the front door was being kicked in (a few of us actually escaped via the rooftops and ended up in an old lady’s back garden – she let us go through her house to the street outside and didn’t call the police). I won’t detail Ghaith’s entire, titanic journey – although X-Factor contestants should check their use of the term “journey” after reading about this actual one – as that’s not the point of what I’m writing about.

What fascinated me was the vital role played in one man’s escape from Syria by technology. It’s easy to bemoan the many insidious and disturbing effects of smartphones and the internet on modern society. The fact that nobody looks where they’re going any more, for instance, something that winds me up every time I make my way through a busy station concourse with my eyes straight ahead. I am reading a book called The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen, a former webvangelist who has turned against his master (“Rather than fostering a renaissance,” he writes of the internet, “it has created a selfie-centred culture of voyeurism and narcissism”). He is not the first see the online dream’s wanton destruction of middle class jobs (for which read: jobs) and the way its capacity for generating vast profits for a very slim section of society is crushing those at the bottom while a select few “young white men in black limousines” count their millions based on either having had one idea, or buying someone else’s idea and then selling it, but he sets it out well in a book. I tend towards his neo-Luddite position in my weaker moments of panic. But then I read Ten Borders: One refugee’s epic escape from Syria by Nicholas Schmidle.

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When we join the story, Ghaith’s older brother Ghalib has already fled Syria (initially, and with no choice, leaving behind his wife and three children, as is all too often the case). He did it by hiding in a crate in a truck and has settled in Gothenburg. Ghaith, also married, got a message from his brother via Facebook in May 2014, and this is where the tech journey begins. (By the way, if you ever hear some Daily Mail colonel complaining that the refugees can’t be that wretched, they seem to have enough money for mobile phones, punch them.) The Facebook message advised Ghaith to head to a Lebanese town to secure a fake passport from a smuggler. This didn’t work and he ended up in a detention centre. But he was not deterred. It is here that writer Nicholas Schmidle states, “The impact of social media on the Syrian refugee crisis has been profound.”

He refers to a 2012 paper by Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen, professors at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which states that social media has not only helped in “lowering the threshold for migration,” by allowing people to remain connected with faraway family members; it has also democratised the process, by facilitating “a form of silent resistance against restrictive immigration regimes.” It’s worth remembering this when we decide that Twitter is a force if not for evil, certainly for cheap distraction and exponential outrage at nothing.

We learn about the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers online community, which was created in June, 2013, by a 31-year-old Syrian known as Abu Amar. He became “an essential guide” for those wishing to escape Syria and re-settle in Europe. At its peak, the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers group had more than 60,000 members. Someone from the International Organization for Migration told Schmidle that when Syrians arrive in Italy or Greece “they just melt away at the pier … they get on Facebook, and they know where to go.” I’m not on Facebook, and I’m sort of petulantly against it, as it’s run as a megalomaniac’s wet dream, but it’s clear that social networks can be used for more than social reasons.

Phonecharge

Ghaith, like many others, found details of escape through the Facebook group, a “discounted trip on a boat bound for Italy, run by a smuggler,” that departed from Turkey’s southern coast and went via Cyprus. Ghaith “followed instructions from the Facebook post”. For all the physical and corporeal details of his arduous journey, he might simply have never made the trip without online access. Money was exchanged electronically, using codes, naturally.

Boats, docks, life jackets, trucks, offices, shared hotel rooms, skiffs, coast guards: the building blocks of Ghaith’s escape story are solid. But the connecting threads are often ethereal, crackling electronic synapses, passing information, maintaining human contact. No telecommunications giant would dare to use the flight of a refugee to advertise its product, and yet, the flimsy premise of “interconnectedness” used to sell us only marginally improved models of a smartphone can be the difference between life and death. (If Benneton made a phone, they’d have a photo of a group of refugees huddled round a recharging generator on a Greek beach on the next billboard.)

As Ghaith’s journey continues, his sister wires him $1,000 from Saudi Arabia, to help pay for a $4,000 boat ticket, he and his friend Jamil keep in touch “through the mobile messaging service WhatsApp”, the article even reproduces chat-room communications sent between Ghaith and his smuggler (“Is there anything today?”, “Inshallah”). After a perilously overcrowded, aborted trawler trip from Turkey to the coast of Italy, we learn the terrible news: “His phone had been soaked, so he borrowed one to call his wife. Normally, they texted throughout the day, but they had been out of contact for more than seventy-two hours.” (Can you imagine the despair of not being able to use your mobile in such grim circumstances? Puts the Three Mobile network’s failure to give me a signal in the Clapham Junction area into perspective.) During a protracted layover in Turkey, Ghaith “busied himself each day by using an app, Fabulo, to study Swedish.” Again.

En route to the next possible boat out, this time to Cyprus, the go-between Turkish smuggler points to the horizon: “See those lights? Go toward them.” He then directs everyone to “switch off their phones,” as the coast guard picks up transmission signals. This exodus would not be possible without Samsung. On arrival – finally – at Lesbos, Ghaith calls his wife (his mobile has dried out) and she bursts into tears.

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This passage has nothing to do with tech, but it moved me all the same. When Ghaith reaches the immigration center at Lesbos, after many instances of kindness from the strapped Greek locals, it is closed, “so he went to a former swimming facility next door, which had been converted into a shelter. He slept on the tiled floor, using his backpack as a pillow. ‘That was the best feeling in the world,’ he said. ‘For the first time in years, I knew that I could sleep without waking up with sweats, from fear. No bombs could fall on my head, no one would try to take me.’ He went on, ‘In Europe, it’s better to sleep for two hours than it is to sleep for 50 hours in Syria. Because, in Syria, in each one of those hours you’ll have hundreds of nightmares.'”

On the journey from Greece to Sweden, we get this vivid image: “Ghaith and his friends bought sleeping bags, then travelled to Thessaloniki by bus. At a coffee shop near the city’s train station, they charged their phones while Ghaith waited for Ghalib to wire him €1,500, through Western Union.” On a northbound train to Belgrade, Ghaith and pals hide in a bathroom for fear of being thrown off: “After Ghaith took a group selfie, they switched off their phones and locked the door.” I know, maybe the selfie wasn’t vital to their survival, but it may well have distracted them from detention or death.

The cards they played on the train were real. So were the metal police batons used to beat them in Macedonia. The viral, online world exists as an echo of the real one, a parallel universe. I’m using it now to type on a moving train and save my words to a cloud (and to refer to the text of the article on the New Yorker website for accuracy). Part of me does truly believe that the world was a safer and simpler place before the existentially blameless Tim Berners-Lee sent his first email. I grew up arranging to meet people at a certain time in a certain place and then hoping they’d turn up, with no way on earth of contacting them once they had left the house. We survived. Somehow.

And Ghaith survived the long haul to Gothenberg. The thankless Abu Amar continues to run what has become “a hotline for refugees”; he is “up late every night, guiding Syrians across borders and sending them annotated maps.” His Facebook group continues dispensing advice: “The sea today and tomorrow is fatally dangerous. Don’t underestimate the situation. We have enough victims.” … “The storm is practically over. The best island to leave for today is Mytilene.” He couldn’t provide this lifeline using a loudhailer. (He, too, got out, and lives in Hamburg.)

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I liked this section, when Ghaith finds himself stuck in Athens. “In a text message, Ghaith explained his dilemma to Abu Amar, who sent a map directing him and his companions to a nearby hill. They could easily skirt Gevgelija, Abu Amar said, without drawing attention from the authorities. The refugees climbed to the top of the hill, ducked in the bushes, ate from a blackberry patch, and rested until nightfall.” There’s something pleasing about the idea of a blackberry being eaten rather than used to send a text message.

Heading for the Serbian border, Ghaith tries to “preserve his phone’s battery life, in case he needed to use G.P.S.,” surely the defining tribulation for the modern migrant. On, through Hungary, into Austria, and Germany, where Ghaith sent his brother Ghalib “a dropped pin on Viber, the messaging app” (whatever that is), confirming that he was indeed in the country. After all this messaging and pinning and chat-rooming and recharging and life-preserving across ten borders, Ghaith landed in Sweden, where an immigration officer “recorded his fingerprints, ran the data through an E.U. database, and confirmed that he had not previously been processed in Europe. ‘You are now under the custody of Sweden,’ she told him. ‘Sweden will take care of you.'” A happy ending.

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Long, complex, discursive and at times unbearably arduous, I still recommend this New Yorker article. (Boom, boom!) We are living in times as yet unrehearsed, not even in the 30s and 40s. The migration from Middle East to Western Europe defines us, whichever side of the barbed wire fence we sit on. And it seems that if mobile, wireless communications are the scourge of so much of our modern life, leading us to walk blindly through station concourses as we travel freely about the place, they can also truly act as a device for escape, safety, freedom and life.

Now, let’s bomb a few more Syrians out of there. No charge.

 

 

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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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.

Towering, infernal

WTC ticket

It is on this day in history that I tend to remember October 6, 1997, the day I went up to the 107th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. It was called the Top Of The World Observation Deck and it was indoors. Weird, still, that the first World Trade Center is in past tense, and indeed that there’s now a second one. You were able to stand with your toes touching the floor-to-ceiling glass and look down 1,310 feet to the street below. Not one for those with vertigo, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although at the time I didn’t know the full, finite enormity of that clichéd description.

I remember queuing up on the ground floor – what would become, four years later, Ground Zero, with people queuing to get the fuck out – and pass through the security checks which had been added after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The one that failed. Looking back, I don’t know if it was the time of year, or the wind speed outside (it was certainly a clear day), but we didn’t take the short escalator ride up to the outdoor viewing platform on the 110th floor. I’ve since read that it incorporated an “anti-suicide fence”, artfully installed so as not to obstruct the panoramic view of the United States of America. (I’d been outside at the Empire State Building on a previous trip to New York, possibly my first, in 1990, when I bought an Oakland A’s baseball cap because it had a white, Gothic “A” against Hunter green on the front.) This was $10.00 well spent.

Oddly, we had planned to return to the top of the World Trade Center, in fact the North Tower, on a subsequent trip to New York in 2000, but we cancelled the trip. We’d promised ourselves a meal at the Windows On The World restaurant. It never happened.

Needless to say, on September 11, 2001, at 08.46 New York time, I felt the time-delayed impact on the South Tower, which was the second impact and the decisive, marrow-chilling one that confirmed premeditated attack and ruled out pilot error, and switched the world’s focus from one disaster movie to another disaster movie. Since we memorialise the date every year – and how wrong I was at the time to resist handed-down orthodoxy that named it “the day everything changed” – I don’t feel it’s too mawkish, or hawkish, to remember where I was.

I was in a windowless BBC recording studio in Western House, where, in 2001, the digital radio station yet to be called 6 Music (and in fact referred to as “Network Y” as if we were working for the Secret Service) was being piloted. I’d been given a stab at the presenter’s job on a show called My Life In CD, a blatant rock’n’roll spin on Desert Island Discs, which eventually went to Tracey MacLeod. I was interviewing the late Linda Smith, Radio 4 humorist, humanist and panel-show guru, about the records that described her life, which included songs by Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Squeeze, I remember that much. Having put the show in the can, we emerged into the corridor and kerfuffle led us into an office opposite, where BBC employees were crowded round a small television turned to rolling news.

I think I’m right in saying that the second plane had hit, so when I watched United Airlines Flight 175 “shark” (to use Martin Amis’s vivid verb) into the same South Tower that I had scaled from within four years before, I must have been watching a replay. The first of probably hundreds of replays on that day in history. Hundreds of thousands now. Feeling exposed and frightened by the idea of being even a couple of floors up in a Government building in a major capital city in the West, I headed home. While I was on the London Underground, heading south, the Towers collapsed. Again, it was old news and replays by the time I got back in front of a telly. Hell of a day. (It’s sad that Linda’s gone.)

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The world did change that day. Having this week watched Marcus Robinson’s moving C4 documentary Rebuilding The World Trade Center (which I recommend while it’s up on 4OD for the next 20 days), it’s easy to see the collective human spirit of endeavour that survived the rubble, especially in New York. I find myself something of a 9/11 addict, actually. This, I’m sure, goes back to my morbid boyhood fascination with disaster movies and catastrophe in general. I’m also deeply interested in American politics and foreign policy, and the way they feed into this one day in history is endlessly gripping to me. I’m one of those people who made The 9/11 Commission Report a bestseller in the summer of 2004 – I file it under “fiction”, ha ha. I could open a library of books about 9/11 and its military and political aftermath, including a number of “conspiracy theory” tomes that may infuriate some patriots and lovers of the status quo, but which I find just as relevant; you have to read around a subject, and I have. The world was interesting and scary before 9/11, but it was more interesting and more scary after. I thoroughly recommend Windows On The World, a semi-fictional, philosophical 2005 French novel by Frédéric Beigbeder, which was recommended to me by Brett Anderson, since you ask. I’m still reading the hardback of Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars. The wars go on, and so do I.

I’ll leave you with Art Spiegelman’s historic cover for the edition of the New Yorker that followed that horrible day. I didn’t start subscribing to what is now my all-time favourite magazine until March 2005, but I sought this one out on eBay. Lest we forget.

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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.

Mission not accomplished

Sometimes, you don’t need to annotate. This is a passage from a lengthy piece in a recent New Yorker (I’m behind; it has a smiling Obama on the cover after the Supreme Court ruling – that’s how behind I am), called After America by Dexter Filkins, looking ahead without optimism to the United States’ 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan and comparing it to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, which led to much of the trouble that caused America to go in, in 2001. Lesson: don’t invade Afghanistan.

After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.

I know. This excellent piece is available to read in its entirety – if, like me, you find war endlessly, grimly fascinating, but, unlike me, can be bothered to read thousands of words on a screen – in the New Yorker’s online archive.

I love this magazine.

Progress report: I now have four issues in circulation (by which I mean, in my shoulder bag, and sometimes carried around the house). The Obama-smiling issue is actually now satisfactorily read, and about to be passed on. I’m into a lengthy piece about the divided Sudan in the issue with the family on the beach on the cover, having already polished off the American drought, linguistic forensics, the Grimm brothers and Frank Ocean. Wish me luck.