Paul Kirkley’s honest review of 2017
As we say goodbye to 2017, we reflect on the highs, lows and the in-between bits of a bizarre year
For me, the best thing about 2017 was that it wasn’t 2016.
Last year was so notoriously rotten, its very name became a hashtag to denote a general, pervasive sense of awfulness. This one was better, not least because our national treasures were only dropping like flies at the rate of about one a week, not one an hour. (We still lost a lost a fair few legends, though – so RIP Brucie, Cheggers, Rodney Bewes, David Cassidy, Keith Barron, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Liz Dawn, Glen Campbell, Robert Hardy, Barry Norman, Michael Bond, Adam West, Peter Sallis, John Noakes, Roger Moore, Chuck Berry, Graham Taylor and John Hurt, among others.)
That said, it was the year in which we all had to start carrying the can for decisions made in the heat of #2016. Sworn in as President of the United States in January, Donald Trump confounded those who predicted the incendiary rhetoric of his campaign would give way to something more like business as usual; instead, he doubled down (or attempted to) on all his most inflammatory pledges, and provoked daily outrage with his 6am toilet tweets, in which he took aim (so to speak) at everyone from the “short and fat” Kim Jong-un to Theresa May, a 41-year-old mother from Bognor who just happens to share the same name as the British Prime Minister.
There were so many scandals, from allegations of collusion with the Russians to a reluctance to condemn murderous white supremacists in Charlottesville, it was impossible to keep up with it all, while Trump fired more people from the White House in one year than he managed on 14 seasons of The Apprentice. It would be funny, if it weren’t so awful.
Back home, Brexit was another tragi-comedy that kept on giving. It was a combination of high farce and low politics perfectly embodied in the person of David Davis, who was described – somewhat generously, many might say – by the former head of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, as “thick as mince and lazy as a toad”. (You should hear what his enemies say about him.)
Both these qualities were on show in abundance during the curious case of Schrödinger’s Brexit Impact Assessments – those much-heralded studies into the economic consequences of leaving the EU that simultaneously went into “excruciating detail” while also sort of not existing, at all, actually. The Brexit Secretary admitted he had been shown two chapters from the impact assessments – though that still didn’t mean they existed, OK? – but that he hadn’t bothered to read them. In retrospect, I think Mr Cummings may owe Britain’s toads an apology.
Theresa May hasn’t read them either, apparently, though Mr Davis said she had read the summaries. Summaries which presumably said: “In summary, there are no Brexit Impact Assessments. They don’t exist. But what they didn’t have to say, they said in excruciating detail.” Everyone clear on that? Good.
Poor Theresa. It’s hard to think of anyone who’s emerged from 2017 with a more tattered reputation – except perhaps that guy who cemented his head inside a microwave, and whoever’s in charge of the staff rota at Ryanair.
Much to the annoyance of Brenda from Bristol, the Prime Minister called an election she’d previously said we didn’t need in order to get a mandate she insisted she already had so she could enact a decision she didn’t think we should have made. In the process, she ended up losing her majority, her authority and pretty much all her dignity.
Luckily, the PM was able to shake a billion pounds from the Magic Money Tree – another Schrödinger-style philosophical construct that both existed and did not exist at the same time – in order to buy off the DUP to prop up the government. Thank goodness no-one’s thinking of doing anything reckless that might endanger the Irish peace process, eh? Otherwise the timing could be hashtag awks. (For me, nothing summed up Brexit in 2017 more perfectly than the day Northern Ireland was told it might have to stay in the single market, even though it doesn’t want to, while Scotland was told it can’t, even though it wants to. The will of the people, eh?)
And then, just when she was starting to think the worst might be over, Mrs May endured the conference speech from hell, highlights of which included her coughing up a furball, being handed her P45 and ploughing on as letters began dropping from the slogan behind her, resulting in the bold claim that the Conservatives would run A COUNTRY THAT WORKS OR EVERYON.
Despite this, the Tories still managed to finish the year ahead of Labour in the polls, thanks in large part to the so-called opposition’s hopelessly muddled ‘Hokey Cokey position’ (“in, out, shake it all about”) on Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn’s routinely dismal performance at PMQs: give this man an open goal and he’ll not only hit the crossbar, he’ll trip over the ball and probably lose his trousers, too.
Tragedy was never far away this year, especially during a grim period in the spring and early summer, when the nation reeled, punch drunk, from one horror – Westminster, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park – to the next. The Grenfell Tower fire, meanwhile, claimed 70 lives and raised urgent questions, ignored for decades, not just about fire safety but Britain’s widening equality gap, Grenfell’s burned-out shell looming like a blackened mausoleum over luxury mansions left empty by their billionaire owners.
Alongside all this, the UN’s warning that the world was facing its greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War – with millions at risk from famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria – barely registered as a blip in the rolling news cycle. As the Saudi blockade of Yemen tightened the screw, the UK government refused to rock the boat and risk losing £4.6bn worth of arms contracts. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?
There won’t be snow in Yemen this Christmastime – and not much to eat, either. But you may be waiting a long time for today’s pop stars to rally to the cause with a Band Aid-style charity single, as the young people don’t seem to take much interest in that sort of thing any more. We’re living in the era of identity politics, in which the world is increasingly filtered through our own experiences of it. That is to say, we take an interest in politics only so far as it impacts upon us, and the other members of our tribe. And I’m not saying conversations around issues like gender neutral bathrooms or representation on TV comedy panel shows aren’t important; I just wonder why we’re not shouting equally loud about famine, climate change and social mobility. But maybe that’s an easy thing for a white, middle-aged man to say.
Taking offence continued to be our national sport, and if there was a poster boy for the year’s endless outrage-apology merry-go-round, it was surely Jack Maynard, who became the first YouTuber to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here – an emblematic statement in itself – only to be forced out over that peak 2017 crime, “historic tweets”. (Which I guess proves the show’s title was at least half right.)
With so much noise and turmoil engulfing the world, I have never felt luckier to live in Cambridge, protected from all the Sturm und Drang in a city that still values quaint concepts like truth, facts and the painstaking accumulation of evidence. A tolerant, patient, open-minded city that increasingly feels like a utopian vision of a peaceful cosmopolitan future: a bit like Star Trek, but with more tea rooms, tweed skirts and cycle racks.
Not that we don’t have our problems, of course. Indeed, in January Cambridge was named Britain’s most unequal city, with a worse distribution of income even than London. While many reap the rewards of the city’s high wages, employment levels and house prices, others are frozen out of the boom; literally the victims of other people’s success. And even for those who, on paper at least, are doing well, getting on the property ladder remains a Disney-style fantasy in a city where the average house price (£475,800) is 16 times higher than the average wage.
In February, this civic stress fracture was demonstrated with all the subtlety of a Victorian Punch cartoon when posh Tory boy student Ronald Coyne literally set fire to a £20 note in front of a homeless man (even Jacob Rees-Mogg would think twice before doing that). Another uniquely Cambridge response to the wealth gap followed a few weeks later when a high-end property development in Water Street was covered in graffiti. Latin graffiti. Even the city’s most famous classicist, Mary Beard, admitted the message – Locus in Domos Loci Populum – was “a bit hard to translate”, but the general gist was a Royston Vasey-esque “local homes for local people”. (Clearly there’s no magic bullet solution to the city’s chronic housing problem – but the university did recently appoint its first Professor of Lego. Just sayin’.)
The aforesaid Prof Beard found a new BFF (amicus optimus in aeternum) this year in the form of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lavished praise on the Newnham academic in her book, What Happened, prompting a national newspaper to bring them together for a joint fat-chewing session. In the year of Weinstein, Spacey and #MeToo, they obviously had plenty to talk about, not least their shared experience of dealing with misogynist Twitter trolls – including the one in the Oval Office.
Another man elected to high(ish) office was James Palmer, who became the first mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. He’s since commissioned numerous studies into things like infrastructure and a countywide light rail scheme, and been pictured looking very angry indeed in lots of press and publicity photos. (I don’t think he is angry – it’s just he has a naturally murderous expression.)
At the General Election, Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge, Lab) defied the party line on Brexit (if you can call “Er… can we get back to you on that?” a party line) and was rewarded with a much-increased majority in one of Britain’s Remainer capitals. But he’s still on the nursery slopes of party disloyalty compared to Heidi Allen (South Cambs, Con – in theory at least), who has defied the Government whips so many times they’ve given up even trying. Earlier this month, she was one of 11 “self-consumed malcontents” which the Daily Mail accused of “pulling the rug from under our EU negotiators, betraying their leader, party and 17.4m Brexit voters and – most damning of all – increasing the possibility of a Marxist in No 10”. Not a bad night’s work, all in all. Unfortunately, the paper experienced its own rug-pulling moment when it was forced to note in the small print that Ms Allen’s constituency had overwhelmingly voted, er, Remain. Gosh, it’s almost like she’s respecting the will of the people or something.
With UKIP wiped from Cambridgeshire’s electoral map, that rotten stench you could smell hanging over the town was probably the Titum Arum – Cambridge University Botanic Gardens’ famous “corpse flower”, which bloomed for the first time in more than a decade. Thousands of visitors flocked – yes flocked – to take in its fragrant aroma of putrid flesh, and Amorphophallus titanium stood proud for five days before eventually wilting in the heat. No shame in that, son. No shame at all.
Other high achievers included Richard Henderson, from Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution. That’s easy for him to say. And congratulations to Dr Jenni Sidey – pictured far left – from the university’s Department of Engineering, who was selected by the Canadian Space Agency to become an astronaut. I know, it’s incredible – who knew Canada had a Space Agency?
But perhaps nothing says ‘Cambridge 2017’ like the story of the briefcase blown up by the bomb squad in King’s Parade. Naturally, the suspicious package was eventually revealed to contain books, not bombs (‘Books Not Bombs’ should be our new civic slogan), but not before an evacuation and a controlled explosion.
“A policeman came down and demanded everyone got out of the restaurant,” reported one diner in the nearby Cambridge Chop House. “So I grabbed my crème brûlée and ran.”
And that, my friends, is why the terrorists will never win.