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Postcard from Da Nang, on the eve of an inauguration

Pic: Steve Royston

Wreckage of a B-52 bomber shot down in North Vietnam – Hanoi Army Museum

My wife and I are “celebrating” the inauguration of the most powerful man on earth from a hotel in Vietnam.

We’re just twenty miles from Da Nang – a city that once had the busiest airport in the world. Busy not because of tourists like me coming and going between Hanoi, Saigon and the country’s beautiful hinterland. Busy because four and a half decades ago, Da Nang was the hub of America’s war machine. Transport aircraft re-supplying the materiel required to keep half a million troops fit and fighting. Bombers heading for Hanoi, Cambodia, Hue and a hundred other targets. Fighters on missions to strafe villages suspected of being Viet Cong hotbeds. Helicopters ferrying troops back and forth from the combat zones.

Vietnam is for many of Donald Trump’s compatriots the symbol of America’s overreach. It was a war that America, with its vast deployment of resources, couldn’t lose, but did. I wonder how President Trump would have handled such a war. Would he have stayed out, and let the domino fall? Or would he have let the military do what it had to – just as Lyndon Johnson did – to deliver the expected victory. After all, this is a man who told one of our failed politicians the other day:

You know, we’re gonna have a great military, we’re gonna have a much greater military because we’re gonna have – you know right now it’s very depleted, we’re gonna have great military, but we haven’t let our military win.

Lyndon Johnson let the military win, or tried to, by giving his generals more or less what they asked for in terms of men, materiel and moral support. They failed.

Or would Trump have pulled back from escalation, recognising an imminent mistake? Just as he condemned George W Bush’s expedition in Iraq, saying:

It was one of the worst decisions, possible the worst decision ever made in the history of our country. We’ve unleashed – it’s like throwing rocks in a beehive. It’s one of the great messes of all time.

We will never know, but if his priority is to crush ISIS, would he have taken the same view of the Viet Cong, who in 1964 were an insurgent group threatening the status quo in South Vietnam?

One thing’s for sure. If Trump had to make the decision to throw everything against the Viet Cong today, the protests, the personal vilification and the political pressure that led to Johnson standing down in 1969 would be amplified many times on the social media. There would be so much abuse thrown at him that he would take years to fire his customary retaliatory tweets at all the critics who would take aim at him.

Johnson, himself thin-skinned, endured the opprobrium for four years before he threw in the towel. Would Trump, who is a more fragile individual than LBJ ever was, last that long? I doubt it. It would probably be a matter of how long before he tried to do something irrational and catastrophically stupid, at which point one would hope that more grounded people around him would either thwart him or declare him no longer competent to continue in office.

How long? My guess is a year, maybe two.

Should the new president get sucked into a quagmire of his own making, let’s hope that the men in white coats don’t wait until 2.5 million people, including 58,000 Americans, lie dead. Or worse, until a catastrophe a hundred times greater is about to come to pass when he reaches for the red button.

Good luck America, and good luck to the rest of us.

This post is dedicated to Steve Smith, a friend and former colleague who served his country in Da Nang, and sadly is no longer with us.

Dirty Linen in Moscow


Worshipping the Golden Calf

So on the day Obama says goodbye, The Walrus (aka Trump) has to deny an “unsubstantiated report” that he has indulged in an extensive dalliance with the Russians. Which bit is not true, I wonder? Getting two prostitutes to pee on his bed? Or bribery? Or extensive contacts between members of his team and Russian intelligence? If the Russians have video evidence of his antics at the Ritz Carlton, it’s a fair bet that the two girls performed more, shall we say, personal, services for the cameras than just a bout of voluntary incontinence.

Lies, all of it, goddamit! As The Donald says, it’s fake news. But what if there’s a teeny-weeny grain of truth in the allegations made by our present-day George Smiley?

No doubt the religious right will forgive him for his sexual weakness – if the report is true of course. After all, there must be a few pastors and God-fearing brethren out there who have fantasised about some of the stuff allegedly on offer in Moscow.

That he got a helping hand from the Tsar during the election campaign is more or less a given. Trump can easily deny being aware of Russian efforts on his behalf. But if his people did have frequent discussions with Putin’s spooks, then the implications are very clear. He’s Putin’s patsy.

But financial shenanigans? That’s entirely another matter. The American right – religious or not – takes Mammon very seriously. As for the pastors, The Walrus’s position on the Golden Calf should be pretty obvious to anyone who has seen the inside of Trump Tower. He’s a worshipper.

What happens next? The nine days between now and the inauguration should be very interesting. Will it be President Pence and Vice-President Ryan who take the oath? Only if Trump is dragged off screaming, kicking and, of course, tweeting. If the report prepared by a former British spook can be substantiated, his demise will be slower and more painful for all concerned.

Beware, Mr Trump. Our spooks don’t mess around. Not these days anyway.

Mind the gaffe, Ma’am, he quipped….


Ma’am is an interesting word. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might think it’s Arabic. The apostrophe should signify the mysterious vowel that you can only pronounce if you nearly swallow your throat. At least that’s how it seems to those of us who are not confident Arabic speakers. It’s also the word flunkeys use to address the Queen.

The Daily Mirror reported yesterday that a soldier nearly shot our monarch when she was having a late-night wander through her garden, also known as the grounds of Buckingham Palace:

The Queen was once found strolling palace gardens at 3am by a guardsman, who told her: “Bloody hell, Your Majesty. I nearly shot you”, it has been claimed.

According to an account of the astonishing encounter, Her Majesty quipped in response: “That’s quite all right.

“Next time I’ll ring through beforehand so you don’t have to shoot me.”

Other reports said that the guardsman expected to be reprimanded for his breach of protocol. I’m not sure why. The “bloody hell” bit was entirely appropriate. Most likely she’s heard that phrase many times during her long marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh. In such an intimate encounter, perhaps he later thought that he should have called her Ma’am.

Be that as it may, the Royal Family has a special relationship with a number of words, of which ma’am is but one.

It’s short for Madam. In Britain, it’s mainly used to address the Queen and other female royals, although in recent years it’s been adopted by superior officers in the police and armed forces. In America, its use is wider. In customer service, for example, and by John Wayne in Westerns.

We Brits, on the other hand, if we are serving a female customer, have traditionally addressed her as “Madam”, sometimes with a slight Blackadderesque sneer in our voices, especially if we are addressing someone whom we perceive belongs to the lower orders.

So much social nuance in the presence or absence of one little apostrophe.

Another curiosity is the use in the royal context of “quip”. According to newspaper convention, the royals don’t make jokes. They quip. The only other place you would find this word outside the dictionary is on a Scrabble board.

There’s social nuance in quip too. A quip is the kind of inoffensive attempt at humour issuing from Ma’am and other members of the royal family. The sort of humour that’s may not be very funny, but provokes squeals of hysterical laughter from the general public when it comes from the mouths of our social superiors, or the side of the mouth in the case of Prince Charles.

Anything stronger, and potentially offensive, particularly when spoken by the Duke of Edinburgh, is known as a gaffe. It could often be interpreted as racist, as in references to people with slitty eyes, and sometimes as personally offensive. The sort of remark that would have provoked a duel among the upper classes two hundred years ago, and these days, particularly when the recipient is drunk, might result in a Glasgow Kiss – the term often used in Scotland to describe using your head to flatten another person’s facial features.

But the Duke of Edinburgh is a National Treasure, so he can say what he likes, and does. Anyone attempting to rearrange his face is likely to get shot.

The Duke has a couple of other things going for him that enable him to get away with his risqué humour. In the era of Trump and Farage, political correctness is under threat. Calling a spade a spade, especially if the spade happens to be of non-Caucasian ethnic origin, is quite the coming thing.

At 95, he’s also the patron saint of grumpy old people who think they can say anything rude or offensive, and be forgiven on grounds of their age. My mother had a friend who, as she entered old age, used to say some outrageous things. Everyone thought that this was very funny. She was considered a dotty old lady. These days old people are not called dotty. They are suffering from dementia.

All the evidence suggests that the Duke most definitely isn’t afflicted by that condition. He’s as sharp as a pin. And he’s been coming up with his special brand of witticism since way before he entered the ranks of the aged. So you could argue that he has no excuse beyond his royal immunity.

The rest of us don’t make gaffes. We commit hate crimes. We’re shamed on Twitter. Or possibly we’re offered a job with the Daily Mail.

Which goes to show what a sweet life our Royal Family lives. Not only do they live in palaces and fly around the world in the utmost luxury, but they get to have their very own words, and if they’re very old, they can say what they bloody well want (except the Queen, of course). And the rest of us aren’t that badly off, living as we do in a country where we can mock our rulers without being locked up for our pains.

I don’t suppose this post will have done my chances of a knighthood any good. But if I’ve helped a Japanese tourist wandering in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace to interpret a chance remark by a nearby courtier that “Ma’am’s made a quip about Philip’s gaffes”, then I’ll happily sacrifice the gong in the cause of international cultural understanding.

Get well soon Ma’am.

Clarity in the heavens, and maybe a little more here on Earth


Last night I stood in the garden looking at the sky. Despite the light pollution that prevents suburb dwellers from ever seeing the milky way, two light sources shone through with thrilling clarity: a crescent moon, and beneath it Venus, so big that it could never be mistaken for a star.

No flat-earther or post-truther could deny the existence of the moon, even if there are some who claim we never went there.  A reminder perhaps that as we face a muddled and uncertain year, there is some clarity to be found. The moon will wax and wane. Venus will come and go in the night sky, always outshining its neighbours.

Back on our planet, the events of the past year have left many of us more fearful and confused than usual. Yet there are signs that new clarities are emerging that might enable us to deal with the so-called known unknowns. Here are a couple:

Regardless of whether the cyber-attacks on US institutions during the presidential election campaign originate from the Kremlin or from some thrill-seeking teenager in a bedroom, there can hardly be any government that is now unaware of how vulnerable their political structures, commerce, infrastructures and armed forces are to a malicious and determined hacker. The threat has been out there for years, but in 2016 it moved to centre stage. And it’s apparent to not only to five-star generals and paranoid presidents, but to every user of the internet whose personal information has been stolen, whose email has been hijacked and who has been defrauded. And that’s billions of people. We have woken up. Forewarned is forearmed.

This is the new arms race. Multipolar, and far more significant than North Korea’s attempt to impress the rest of the world with its notional ICBMs. Can we defend ourselves? No more easily than we can shoot down every missile and dodge every bullet. But at least we know the danger, and hold to account those tasked with keeping us safe. We can also go some way towards protecting ourselves by using the same level of common sense that prevents us from leaving our wallets in cars and our doors open to strangers. When was the last time you changed your passwords?

The second clarity is that no political order, however old, entrenched and seemingly stable, is incapable of being subverted, or at least threatened with subversion. Whatever value judgements we might make about Western democracies, absolute monarchies and authoritarian oligarchies, all can be changed beyond recognition or even swept away.

That much is obvious to anyone who has read just a single history book. But reading about the end of empires and ancien regimes is one thing. Facing dramatic change in political systems we grew up with and take for granted is quite another. The former is academic, the latter is personal experience.

If Americans believe that the separation of powers cannot be breached, if the British believe that the independence of the judiciary is inviolable, and if citizens of the European Union believe that it will never fragment back into its component parts, 2016 has taught them that nothing is sacred, and nothing lasts for ever.

The threats to the status quo are clearer than ever, which is cause for optimism. Not because the status quo must be defended at all costs, but because the implications of change have been so widely debated. Whatever the elected officials US, Britain and the EU achieve over the next few years, we will not be able to say that we sleepwalked into disaster. We still have the opportunity to speak up, protest and take legal action against those who attack the institutions and freedoms we value.

And if we don’t value them enough, we can blame nobody if they disappear.

This year the hackers will still hack and the demagogues will do their best to subvert and infringe. But at least we see them coming.

To hell with Andy Murray, Britain should honour mediocrities – like me


F Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri

It’s New Year’s Eve. As the fireworks start to turn my neighbourhood into an imitation Aleppo, the dog sits shivering in the downstairs loo, and I sit mournfully at my desk, reflecting on another failure. I have been passed over yet again for an honour. Andy Murray and an array of anonymous worthies all got gongs in the New Year Honours. And I got nothing.

I’ve clearly been cozying up to the wrong people. I’m not even sure who I should be cultivating to get my moment with the monarch or one of her offspring, and to be able to put OBE or MBE after my name, or even to refer to myself hereafter as Sir Steve. Is it as it was in the old days, when some benign tutor used to sidle up to their students and tap them up for a career in Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Or is there a network of people whose job is to watch what you do and send your name to the Prime Minister? Is there a Commissioner of Gongs to whom you can write recommending your brother, sister or next-door neighbour? Or write under a pseudonym recommending yourself?

Whatever the process, I, the author of countless missives of bad prose (631 actually) should surely have been rewarded by now for sheer tenacity. Week after week for many years I have written nonsense in many forms, praying for that viral post that will turn me into a blogging superstar. Alas, it never comes. More likely that my wife will win the lottery. After all, she has a one in a billion chance, whereas I seem to be competing with at least that many bloggers to reach my rightful audience.

And what of my campaigns? I’ve spent the past year desperately trying to persuade Americans not to elect Donald Trump. Surely that deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. And ever since July, I’ve been barking away like a loquacious solitary drinker in a crowded pub about the evils of Brexit, while all those around me think I should be taken away to a secure institution.

If my literary efforts are not to be recognised, perhaps my sporting achievements should be. After all, if all those obsessives who flew the flag for Team GB in Rio get their names on the list, I should certainly be cited for my services to mediocrity. I am the exemplar of worthless golf. I’ve hacked away at the same course for the last fifteen years in search of the perfect round, yet never came close.

I know far more about the natural history of the outer reaches of my course than any local David Attenborough. I can tell you in which piece of impenetrable long grass adders lurk, where the red kites hang out, where the crows dump the balls they scoop up from the practice range, where you get bombed by kamikaze ladybirds and in which part of the rugged terrain you are likely to fall into a foxhole and never emerge. If dinner ladies and council clerks get their medals, surely I, as a representative of the millions of bad golfers digging up turf every week, should have my moment of glory. For services to agriculture, perhaps.

If not for blogging and golf, at the very least I should get my gong for destroying the entire canon of Delia Smith recipes and besmirching her reputation with everyone who comes to dine with us. For services to the National Health Service.

On second thoughts, maybe I should remain anonymous. Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For my generation at least, it seems that the more famous you are, the greater the chances of your dying at an age fairly close to mine right now. I’m also mindful of a story about my grandmother. She was a silent movie actress before she retired to look after my father and uncle. After she stopped acting, she got a series of tax demands, each of which she ignored. When the gentleman from the Inland Revenue finally came knocking, she told him that Madame Arcati (or whatever her stage name was) was deceased, and that they should stop bothering her forthwith. Which they did. The moral of the story was stay under the radar, and if it looks like you’ve been rumbled, deny everything.

If greatness is eventually thrust upon me, perhaps it would be better if it happens when I’m in my eighties, when it would be very difficult for me to partake in orgies, benders and nose candy. How wonderful to be Hendrick Groen, the Dutch inmate of an old people’s home who wrote a diary describing his life of increasing decrepitude, of accidentally poisoning fish with the remnants of the afternoon tea and quietly enjoying the sight of a large care worker who sits on a plate of cup cakes and rises with them firmly imprinted on her ample backside. Whether or not the writer isn’t who he claims to be is irrelevant. He’s produced a best seller, and given my generation new hope. When we finally get carted off to our care homes we might still get to have some malevolent fun at other people’s expense.

Until that day, I will be content to bask in my mediocrity. The William McGonagall of countless blog posts. The Salieri of deathly prose. And then, one fine day, after I’ve gone, I will be recognised as a shining beacon of thankless endeavour. An inspiration to all those who try and fail. Again, again and again.

For who would have thought that words like these made the great McGonagall immortal:

The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting
The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Which goes to show that there’s hope for all of us.


A few if only’s for 2017 – indulging the inner demagogue

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. But I do have a wish list for the coming year. Most of the items are unlikely to be achieved, but I wish them anyway. Some relate to Britain, my home country. Others apply more widely.

I make no pretence of impartiality, and I doubt if there’s a single person who won’t disagree with at least one item on the list. But what the hell – time to unchain my inner demagogue.

So in 2017, I would like:

To know exactly what hold Vladimir Putin has over Donald Trump. I’m not the only person who has noticed the Walrus’s unwavering support for the Vozhd, while so many of his other “policies” change with the wind, or vary according to the time of day when ;he tweets. We will know someday, and the consequences will be interesting. The sooner the better.

To find a country in the Middle East that is not fighting, funding fighting or being fought over. Hard to do. Oman probably comes closest right now. The region is in a more desperate state than at any time since I started visiting it thirty-five years ago. It’s a miracle that there are any sane people left – yet there are plenty. They need to be able to speak up without fear of persecution.

Nigel Farage never to be seen on our TV screens again. If that happens it will be because he is discredited, or because the British media finds him boring. Either reason will be evidence that the political climate is improving. Unless, of course, he fades away because the media stumbles upon an uberFarage to take his place.

The swift demise of Brexit before it can do further damage to the UK and the European Union. The game has been going on long enough. We are not the only country that is largely dissatisfied with the EU in its current form, but the only one that is preparing to stomp out without giving it time to reform itself.

A rapid decline in the circulation of the Daily Mail. I don’t want to see all those journalists and printers thrown out of work. And hateful though I find it, I don’t want the Daily Mail to be shut down – we are not Turkey. But any newspaper that attacks the independence of the judiciary by describing three of our most renowned judges as “Enemies of the People” deserves to be spurned by its readers. There probably needs to be a right-wing counterpart to the Morning Star, and the Daily Mail fits the bill. But far better that it should have a similar circulation and be equally irrelevant.

Young adults to realise that the only safe space is the one they create for themselves. Deep down, I think most of them know that. If we encourage our youngsters to seek refuge from the real world, the shock they experience when finally entering it will be all the greater. I suspect that in the decades to come the quality that our millennials will need more than any other is resilience, and this is precisely what we are not helping to instil by bubble-wrapping them in illusory safe spaces.

No more laws, anywhere, that dictate what clothes people should or should not wear. That includes burkinis, speedos, religious symbols, Nazi regalia and any other stuff that makes a statement, including wearing nothing. Laws are not the only things that can effectively dictate what people wear. Fashion, taste and culture are equally powerful, and they change over time, whereas laws stay on the statute book until repealed.

More careful use of the words “liberal” and “conservative”. The one is often used as the opposite to the other. But what, pray, is conservative democracy? The sort practised in China and Russia? Liberals are often labelled as bleeding hearts, wishy-washy, weak. When people talk about liberal beliefs, it’s an implied insult to all those people who don’t share them, and are thereby condemned as illiberal. There are liberal conservatives, and conservative liberals. The terms are pretty meaningless, except to those who like putting people into neat little boxes.

The repeal of all blasphemy laws. It won’t happen, I know. But blasphemy law is institutionalised religious intolerance. If just one country turns against criminalising what its citizens believe in and see fit to express, it will be a step in the right direction. If there is a God, surely he will deal those who offend him in his own good time without the assistance of his imperfect servants on Earth.

An end to the death sentence. Everywhere. If you acknowledge killing a person as a legitimate judicial sanction, it’s not hard to expand the penalty for crimes way beyond murder, as is the case in several countries. And it’s easier to defend extra-judicial killing on the grounds that those who are killed deserve it anyway, something that President Duterte of the Phillipines well understands. If we haven’t moved beyond an eye for an eye by now, in what way are we morally superior to ISIS and their ilk?

To decriminalise all drug use. So-called wars on drugs have never achieved their objectives. They have made a small number of violent people very wealthy. They are the source of criminality wherever they exist. If we are allowed to kill ourselves through drinking, smoking, polluting and eating MacDonalds, why not through other chemicals? There are enough laws that sanction those who harm others through their personal habits to cover the use of drugs. The resources we use to control drug crime could be put to far better use – combating people trafficking, for example.

To legalise voluntary euthanasia. Should my life start slipping towards mental oblivion or unremitting pain, I would want the right to call a halt. I don’t understand why it is legal in most countries for a woman to abort her foetus before it has the chance of life, yet illegal for someone whose life has become intolerable through illness to die at a moment of their choice.

A ban on betting ads during televised sporting events. Or any other events, for that matter. Gambling corrodes our society as much as alcohol, tobacco and all those other products that aren’t advertised on our TV screens. Either ban gambling ads or un-ban everything else. On-line gambling is simply an opportunity to lose money faster than you did when you had to go to the bookies. Taking risks is part of life. But doing so when the odds are always stacked against the risk-taker is stupidity.

Every Hollywood superhero movie to make massive losses. Hollywood is addicted to blockbusters. Marvel comics are not the only source of thrills and spills. Life is not about a choice between good and evil. Nor is it about truth, justice and the American way. It’s way more complicated, way more grey. If the studios start losing their shirts on such rubbish, then maybe they’ll start making more movies that appeal to adults.

The successful return of Tiger Woods. Tiger was a great golfer whom I would watch before any other. Watching his life disintegrate was beyond saddening. He may not be the most lovable sporting hero, but he inspired millions. He deserves a second coming.

To save our hedgehogs, ash trees and horse chestnuts. I still grieve for the chestnut we lost a few years ago. Mitigating the effects of climate change takes time, but saving once-common species from extinction we can achieve more quickly. Same goes for bees, whales, tuna, cheetah and all the other species we are threatening through negligence, greed and ignorance.

To celebrate the lives of talented people who pass away. I don’t believe that people die before their time, so long as in their time they achieve the most that they can. If I had a career like David Bowie’s, I’d take his sixty nine years. Few of us achieve anything close to our full potential. But we spend too much time mourning the departure of those who do. Instead, we should rejoice in what they gave us.

Life’s really very simple isn’t it? Just express all your prejudices in a few sentences, and you have the answer to all the world’s problems. If only.

Thanks to everyone who has visited 59steps this year. I wish you love and happiness in 2017. May the best of your dreams come true.

My best of 2016 – yes, there were some highlights

2016 may turn out to have been the Dawn of the Apocalypse, but it wasn’t all bad. It would be a sad thing if even in the worst of years we couldn’t look back on some moments of delight, and if we were unable to find people and things to admire.

Here are my highlights:

Young Germans welcoming refugees. Germans may be less happy about the influx of refugees now, but the welcome the huddled masses received from the young was moving and encouraging. Would we in Britain have been so charitable? Some, but not many.

Nick Kristof. I was not impressed by the New York Times journalist’s habit of putting himself at the centre of every story he covered during the 2011 Bahrain unrest, which I also experienced. But his coverage of the US elections made me realise what a superb writer he is. I would say that because I share his views on Trump. But so did many others, and he was the first person I would read on any development in the campaign. He may have a big ego, but goodness, he cares.

John Oliver. Maybe I’m biased because his Wolverhampton twang reminds me of where I grew up, but Oliver’s losing battle on Last Week Tonight to convince America not to elect a conman as president was one of the highlights of the campaign. What a shame he didn’t succeed.

The British Museum and all its exhibitions. The British Museum may be home to many treasures, but the institution itself is the greatest treasure. It opens minds, informs and educates. Its exhibitions are imaginative and inspiring, especially the Egyptian Sunken Cities. And it’s mostly free, as all museums should be.

East West Street. Stories of the Holocaust are legion. But Philippe Sands, by weaving the lives of two international lawyers – one who created the concept of genocide, the other who introduced crimes against humanity into the legal canon – into those of his grandfather and Hitler’s eastern viceroy, has written a book that is both an unravelling of family history and a primer on the legal basis for war crimes prosecutions. It sounds pretty dry by that description. But it isn’t. It’s moving, illuminating and always compelling.

Strangeness of my Mind. The story of a street vendor from Anatolia who scratches a tenuous living over four decades in Istanbul is not obvious best-seller material. But Orhan Pamuk sets his central character against a backdrop of recent Turkish social and political history. It’s a story of common humanity, but its insights into Turkey’s past add some context to the country’s present troubles. If you’re a lover of Istanbul, it’s well worth a read, as are so many of Pamuk’s other novels set in that city.

Ben Stokes. Ben Stokes is a cricketer who sets matches alight. He is fire made flesh. In January, he played an innings I will never forget. He forgot the difference between five-day cricket and and the rapid-fire T-20, and hit the fastest 250 in history. It was brilliant and brutal. It was why I watch cricket.

The Young Pope. Jude Law pays the role of his life as the new Pope seen by the church’s insiders as biddable, who turns out to be the very opposite. If only there were more series like Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece in nine parts.

Moeen Ali. An English cricketer whose beard would not be out of place in the tunnels of Mosul, Moeen is a symbol of Britain’s religious and ethnic diversity at its best. He’s probably the finest cricketer of Asian origin to have played for England. He’s a role model for British Muslims and a living demonstration that beards don’t necessarily mean bombs.

Sadiq Khan. In the era of the galumphing Boris Johnson, who would have thought that his successor as London mayor would be a Muslim? He’s competent, dignified and an excellent communicator. Well done London for electing him to lead one of the greatest cities on the planet. In the era of Brexit and Trump, it’s comforting to know that we’re still capable of judging a person on criteria other than religion and ethnicity.

Mary Beard. Britain’s best-loved and most-trolled academic would make my list every year. I love her unstuffy erudition. She writes a great blog. This year I especially enjoyed SPQR, her latest history of Rome. I wish she had been my professor at university – who knows, I might have ended up doing something useful with my life.

Tom Holland. If I include the aforementioned Professor Beard, I have to sing Tom Holland’s praises too. Lover of dinosaurs and hedgehogs, cricketer of substance (according to him), incessant tweeter and author of history books that never fail to hit my sweet spot. His latest, Dynasty, about the first Roman emperors, shows us that there’s nothing new in politics, and in his portrayal of Nero gives us a narcissistic equal of Donald Trump.

Planet Earth II. Britain’s stock of national treasures keeps dwindling, but David Attenborough is still standing at 90. His latest natural history series contains probably the best wildlife photography ever produced. His narration is pithy and wise. Long may he continue. Our heroes don’t always die in their sixties.

The Sanctuary. New York has many museums, but few match The Sanctuary. A piece of medieval Europe transplanted to Upper Manhattan. A place of calm and beauty, so close to Trump Tower and yet so far. Visit it in the summer, as I did, to be reminded that there’s more to America than belligerence and bigotry.

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