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My best of 2016 – yes, there were some highlights

December 29, 2016

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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