Westminster is weakened
Yes, Donald Trump is still in charge of 6,450 nuclear warheads. Yes, the planet is boiling to death. And yes, the Brexit dream of empire 2.0 is hitting the skids because Britain keeps forgetting about its colonies from empire 1.0. But the public are talking about politics again – not just set-piece Westminster theatrics, but their own ability to transform the social forces that affect their lives. What the activist and writer Mark Fisher once called capitalist realism has been turned inside-out: devotees of neoliberal globalisation are today the exception rather than the rule. Ideas which were visionary just a few years ago – a four-day working week, universal basic income, a green new deal – are now serious policy proposals. Real power is being built outside of the establishment bubble, and that’s a good thing.
Thank you for the music
In culture, Cardi B and Pusha T slew your faves (RIP Nicki Minaj and Drake) and brought back snarling rap to a genre dominated by identikit Soundcloud mumblers. Rosalía’s El Mal Querer and The Blaze’s Dancehall were accompanied by sumptuous visuals. The latter’s video for Territory, filmed in a crisply shot Algiers, is a spotlight on life at the margins of Fortress Europe; the former’s video for Pienso En Tu Mirá manages to convey the tumult of a poisonous love affair in a set decked out like a basilica’s giftshop. In fact, 2018 has been so good for music that Beyoncé and her husband dropped an album and it’s not even my record of the year.
Lessons in love
More personally, it would be a dishonest piece if I didn’t mention the single most important thing that’s happened to me this year: learning to be happy alone, taking a vow of emotional celibacy, and then falling very smugly in love by accident. I wish I could tell you I’d had some kind of Damascene conversion while listening to Ariana Grande. In reality, there was just a cold dawning that perhaps the pursuit of men who on some level remind me of my absentee father isn’t a recipe for lasting joy or even particularly original. If you spent 2018 tapdancing for the validation of someone who you don’t even like very much, switch it up next year. Delete their number. Block them on Insta. Good things will happen.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at Anglia Ruskin and the Sandberg Instituut
The king of sports
In a year dominated by the epic idiot-circus that is Brexit, a glimpse of higher purity was offered by the World Chess Championship match held in London in November, between champion, Magnus Carlsen, and challenger, Fabiano Caruana. The indisputable highlight of the online coverage came when commentator Alexander Grischuk, a top Russian player, described playing in a basketball game against Carlsen a few years ago. Coming up against the larger Grischuk in defence, the super-competitive Carlsen couldn’t find any way around him. Until, as Grischuk revealed deadpan: “He started elbowing my balls.”
No need to fret …
Rock axe-botherers the world over became anxious in May when legendary American guitar-maker Gibson filed for bankruptcy; but luckily it was merely for restructuring purposes, and they are continuing to build covetable instruments. I celebrated belatedly by acquiring a Gibson SG in a natural walnut finish, to join the two Gibson Les Pauls that I have this year publicly abused in some of London’s smallest dive-bar venues. A guitar is the opposite of a smartphone: it is organic, beautiful, and environmentally sustainable, and it doesn’t make you stupid.
Noel Gallagher: Britain’s Dalai Lama
The virtue of guitars was proven once again by Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher, when he was interviewed by Laura Barton this summer. He enjoys the “multi-generational aspect” of his gig audiences now. “I love to look out and see children on the shoulders of their parents,” he enthused. “One day I hope to see grandparents with their middle-aged children on their shoulders, and atop them their millennial kids who, in turn, bear the weight of their newborn offspring. Great, tottering towers of life, all singing along, head to toe in my fucking merch.” Gallagher is like King Arthur and the Dalai Lama combined, and would doubtless be a shoo-in in any direct election for an emergency prime minister. We can but hope.
• Steven Poole is the author of Rethink, You Aren’t What You Eat, Unspeak, and Trigger Happy
Love comes Swift
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that bang in the middle of one of the grumpiest and most divisive years in living memory, a moment of massed togetherness – with musical accompaniment, on a hot June night, with my niece and daughters – was one of my highlights. The love that filled Wembley stadium was for Taylor Swift on her Reputation tour, but we were all feeling it. When she paused halfway through New Year’s Day, which she sang on her own at the piano, the crowd started cheering into the silence, and didn’t stop. Affection and enthusiasm filled the evening; alone on the huge stage, she looked momentarily overwhelmed. I’ve been to lots and lots of concerts (my husband is a pop critic), and have never experienced anything like it. So often fame at this level seems corrosive, dysfunctional. In her emotionally literate, commercial, diligent way, with an album and tour that are all about celebrity – in the aftermath of her humiliating public spat with Kanye West – Swift is trying to make superstardom work out for her. The tour film is on Netflix on New Year’s Eve.
In the last few months I’ve made space in my life for yoga, after a gap of many years. I was so well-taught in my 20s – by a wonderful teacher, Silvia Prescott, who wrote in the Guardian about her own teacher, the famous BKS Iyengar, after he died – that I can still do the poses, and am stiff in exactly the same places. If I hadn’t already done it, this would be my new year’s resolution.
A dip into the deep south
More women singing: Caroline, Or Change by Tony Kushner (with music by Jeanine Tesori) was the best play I saw this year, at Hampstead theatre (it’s now in the West End). The story is about an unhappy chapter of Kushner’s childhood, in rural Louisiana following the death of his mother. Sharon D Clarke plays Caroline – the family’s servant, who spends most of her days doing laundry in a sweltering basement. The music and the performances, the portrayal of black and Jewish lives rubbing up against each other in the 1960s deep south, the relationship between the boy and the woman, were so striking and artful as to be life-giving.
• Susanna Rustin is a Guardian leader writer
Try a little factfulness
This year was full of terrible events – we’re hurtling towards environmental destruction, mumble rap is very popular and makes no sense (see Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang), and Brexit is a never-ending disaster – but there are reasons to be cheerful.
One way to be cheered is by practising “factfulness”. Theorised by Swedish academic Hans Rosling, factfulness is an antidote to our over dramatisation of the world. While things might certainly be bad, they are also getting better in ways that can be overshadowed by negativity. For instance, over the past 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved, yet polls show that fewer than 10% of people know this. I’ve been lucky to be involved this year in the Guardian’s Upside project, which exists to foreground positive stories to combat the onslaught of news-pessimism. Memorable stories we reported on this year included the scientists nearing a cure for HIV, the regreening of millions of trees in Niger, and Kent’s music school for expelled students.
My new favourite thing
Another highlight in 2018 was the rediscovery of a “lost” John Coltrane record. A holy grail for jazz anoraks like myself, this 1963 recording of the saxophonist’s classic quartet was found in the basement of Coltrane’s ex-wife’s house and reissued in June. Over its six unreleased tracks, Both Directions at Once showcases the languorous beauty of Coltrane’s playing, cementing his status as a titan not only of the genre but of music in all its timelessness.
The soap that truly cleanses
Finally, I was cheered in 2018 by Neighbours. Not the people who live next door, but the long-running Australian soap. I may be the only person in the UK who still watches it daily and revels in the moral utopia of Ramsay Street; a place where everyone knows your name and nothing bad ever really happens. But it’s for this reason I’m thankful that Neighbours (incredibly) hasn’t been cancelled. The show is a 30-minute void where your mind can empty to imbibe the sun-soaked optimism and hackneyed dialogue of its characters – it is mindfulness for the couch potato, another remedy for the over dramatisation of our lives.
• Ammar Kalia is a Guardian journalist and holder of a Scott Trust bursary
I have a ream
A few pence on a shopping bag and the wider damning of plastic are bringing not only cleaner roads, but a return to paper. The high street is now a throng of colourful and clever design, as retailers come up with ever more distinctive carriers. Meanwhile, the refurbished loos at the local Marks & Spencer have replaced their deafening and useless hot-air driers with good old-fashioned paper towels, Scandi-style. Which prompts the thought – romantic (and media dinosaur) that I am – that this rediscovery of paper could extend to the news industry, and a revival of the actual printed newspaper, alongside all the hi-tech stuff.
Much of the UK basked in a long, warm summer – a glorious antidote to the agonies of Brexit. London took on a Mediterranean feel (in a good way). People looked happier; there was no agonising over what to wear, colourful sundresses and shorts became the cheerful uniform (which also helped the economy because we had to buy more of them). You could actually plan a picnic. Bars and restaurants were full.
It may have been a warning of the climate-change perils to come, but for a time it was possible to believe that just a little bit of sunshine might do us good.
From Russia with love
With an interest more in Russia than in football, I girded for the 2018 World Cup with foreboding. How would Russia, with its Soviet heritage, its ponderous bureaucracy, its lumbering transport system and – how shall we say? – its often unreconstructed attitude to exuberant free expression, cope with millions of foreign fans spread out over a dozen cities? I feared the worst – the worst being racist and homophobic chanting, even attacks, and heavy-handed police, quick to crack heads.
But the worst didn’t happen. Legions of foreigners, British included, praised the efficiency of the organisation, the warmth of the hosts, and the gap between the dire warnings and their happy experience.
I am not saying that Russia changed for ever overnight, nor that there has been no backsliding by officialdom since. But the 2018 World Cup gave a glimpse of a more relaxed, welcoming and modern Russia that would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. And it fostered the hope that one day its leaders might come to trust the people and this Russia could prevail.
• Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster
Thank god for experts
Amid all the gloom this year, I was absolutely amazed by a visit I made in June to the labs of Prof Molly Stevens at Imperial College London. The biomedical research in which she and her remarkable team are engaged is – in the true sense of the word – awesome.
From early diagnosis of HIV to advances in oncology that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, scientists such as Stevens are expanding the frontiers of medical knowledge and transforming the potentialities of health technology. Even as politics slides depressingly into polarised populism, and celebrities sell idiot pseudo-science, these warriors of human progress are the real deal.
I come to praise Caesar
My own year was dominated by culture as editor of the new magazine Drugstore Culture, which launched in September: setting up such a venture with an extraordinary group of journalists has been a rare privilege in itself. In this context, it’s hard to pick out a single production or creative event – but I would give a special mention to Julius Caesar at London’s new Bridge theatre.
What Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr have achieved in this riverside palace of the imagination shows what can be accomplished by determination, enterprise and cultural agency. But this immersive production starring David Morrissey as Mark Antony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus – beginning with a scratch band of actors playing rock songs as audience members mingled in the forum – was particularly remarkable.
The new power generation
For me, though, this was definitively the year in which today’s younger generation staked its claim to the political future. At the start of 2018, the People’s Vote campaign looked dangerously like the liberal elite asking for its job back; by the end, its driving force were youth groups like For Our Future’s Sake and Our Future Our Choice, represented by eloquent tribunes such as Femi Oluwole, Will Dry and Lara Spirit.
To characterise this cohort as losers or remoaners is a serious category error. They do not want to refight the 2016 referendum. Observing the spectacular failure of the Brexit project – mostly a failure of my age-group, Generation X – they want a say in their future. Dig the new breed, and cheer up.
• Matthew d’Ancona is a Guardian columnist