Song: The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher do Fim do Mundo) by Elza Soares (2016)

Brazilian music – from bossa nova to Tropicalia and present sounds – has always been a passion of mine. Elza Soares is a Brazilian national treasure and inspiration who was born in poverty in one of Rio’s favelas.

She has had huge commercial success and, now in her 80s, a couple of years ago decided to make a contemporary album. This is no nostalgic act or even Rick Rubin “uncut” copy. It is a fierce, unapologetic call to arms. She surveys the world and Brazil in particular and embraces resistance, defiance, solidarity and sisterhood.

The title track sounds like a mix of trip-hop, Brazilian influence, the Pop Group and Gang of Four with her stunning ragged voice, full of power, insight and tenderness in equal measure. In other words – completely unique.

Its themes cover poverty, class, racism, hardship, heartache, men not living up to being men, getting older and the experience and resilience that go alongside. All this is sung in Portuguese – with the album notes providing English translations.

In a crowded music world of streaming and homogenisation, spend a few minutes with this and let it into your heart. It will change your life.

Book: The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky (2015)

This breath-taking insider history covers the Soviet Union, the British establishment, Nazi Germany – and the march to, and early years of, the Second World War. Maisky was ideally placed to chronicle this as Soviet ambassador to the UK for more than a decade.

This is an eyewitness account of some of the critical moments of last century: Maisky minding his back with Stalin, who worried his man in London might go native, alongside intimate accounts of high society and their attitudes.

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We get first-hand reflections on pro-Nazi sympathies of many of those with power and privilege while Rippentrop, Nazi ambassador to London, attempted to charm aristocratic society, including having an affair with the Duchess of Windsor. Maisky reflects on the genius of the British establishment, having the confidence not to crush a naval mutiny in Invergordon with brute force in the way that Mussolini would.

The cast of characters is exemplary and beautifully drawn with late night meetings in Downing Street with Churchill and Anthony Eden, as well as senior Labour figures. This is one of the most riveting and unexpected diaries from a pivotal period in British and global history.

TV: The Crown, Netflix (2016-2019)

An alternative history of modern Britain, The Crown is about so much more than it advertises. It throws light on the nexus of networks around the House of Windsor, its wider influence, while the institution contains and even at times imprisons members of the Royal Family –the Queen included.

It tells the changing story of the Royals having to adapt to a country which has witnessed seismic change, and their altered role in it; at one level diminished, and at another, it being more important to keep the show on the road and provide some magic, no matter how illusionary. It portrays the decline of deference, the rise and fall of organised labour, humiliations such as Suez, humanitarian disasters such as Aberfan, the attempted coup against Harold Wilson in 1968 and the relationship between the Queen and her prime ministers.

Series one and two presented some of the most important social history as drama shown in the UK and series three has been compelling but not quite as sure-footed.

A word of commendation to the brilliant actors: the queens of Claire Foy and Olivia Colman and those playing Philip, Charles and Mountbatten. We will be talking about The Crown for years.


Song: 22 by Taylor Swift (2012)

I’ve had a real soft spot for this song ever since I learned that my friend’s daughter had misheard the chorus as “I don’t know about you, but I feel sweaty too”, but beyond the sing-along hook this 2012 single does a decent job of capturing the contradictions of young adulthood in an age of uncertainty.

The tone may be celebratory, but “feeling 22” isn’t perhaps quite what it’s cracked up to be.

It’s both “miserable and magical”, and Tay-Tay and her millennial pals feel “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time”.

Swift was a slightly more mature 24 when she released it, at a time when the gossip magazines were more interested in her relationships with famous men than her music. The lyrics might still see her looking to fall in love, but the focus – as it should be aged 22(ish) – is on having fun.

Book: Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (2019)

If, at the start of 2019, someone had said that a popular non-fiction book about data bias would be the publishing sensation of the year – and indeed the most influential book of the decade – who among us would have believed it?

Yet that’s exactly what Caroline Criado Perez has achieved with her meticulously researched expose of the way in which women have been systematically ignored when it comes to everything from drug trials and crash test dummies to the design of toilets and the size of smartphones.

She lays bare the consequences of a “one-size-fits-men” approach, which in some cases are mere inconvenience but in others are a matter of life and death.

After the book was published she was overwhelmed by the number of women who contacted her with their own stories, telling her they finally felt seen. Reflecting on this “army of very visible women”, she said: “I stopped being so angry. I stopped feeling so powerless, alone at the top of my mountain of gaps. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a movement.” And indeed she was.

TV show: The Good Wife (2009-2016)

I can understand why the title might put people off: how regressive to have a 21st-century TV show in which the female lead character is defined in terms of her relationship to her husband.

But that is exactly how Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is defined – not just by others, but by herself – at the beginning of this superb legal drama by Michelle and Robert King.

She’s put her own career to one side to raise a family with her husband Peter, the local State’s Attorney (played by none other than Sex and the City’s Mr Big, Chris Noth), but her world is turned upside down when he is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal and she must return to work.

Across seven seasons Alicia grapples with the question of what makes a good wife, a good mother and a good person, but front and centre is her development into a pretty good lawyer.

This is an ensemble show about the complexities of life in the early 2010s (it ran from 2009-2016), addressing issues ripped from the headlines in an intelligent and witty way, and often spreading complex plot lines across episodes and indeed seasons.

Alan Cumming as political strategist Eli Gold (who makes Dominic Cummings look ethical) is just one of dozens of examples of genius casting of recurring roles.


Song: Hold Up by Beyonce (2016)

Lemonade is head and shoulders above every other album released this decade, encompassing any number of major political debates gripping the world in the past 10 years.

It was the album that saw Beyonce brilliantly link the person to the political, raging on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding the empowerment of women and ripping open the wounds inflicted by an act of infidelity which may or may not be autobiographical.

Hold Up is the song which sees the narrator discover her partner’s affair, sink into feelings of worthlessness and fight back. Ferociously. It’s accompanied by a video which sees the singer wielding a baseball bat to take out her anger on a series of cars in what seems to be a dire warning to husband Jay-Z and a heart-breaking sequel to the joyous Crazy in Love.

‘‘What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?’’ she asks, before deciding ‘‘I’d rather be crazy’’ to the sound of another bonnet crumpling.

TV: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2019)

I had delayed throwing myself into Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, fearing it would so be so grim it would plunge me into a spiral of despair.

To be honest there were many times I wished I had listened to my own advice. This misery often seemed unrelenting. Atwood’s novel was brilliantly brought to life and the series included so many breath-taking performances it’s a tribute to the genius of Elisabeth Moss that hers is the one that lingers longest.

The National:

The three series took the narrative well beyond the original source material, heaping ever-more gruelling tribulations on the shoulders of the handmaids of Gilead. Such was the power of the original idea that, although the book was written in 1984, it seemed to predict the rise of Trump and Johnson by embracing the idea that a civilised, liberal society can be subverted almost overnight.

Book: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)

This intoxicating and almost hallucinogenic mix of the real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976 and the fictionalised stories of imagined characters involved in the event deservedly won the Man Booker in 2015.

James incorporates a sometimes bewildering array of wildly different characters – gangsters, CIA agents, politicians, a rock journalist and a shape shifting nurse – into a story of sickening violence, poverty and post-colonialism.

The book’s portrayal of Jamaica wouldn’t win awards for encouraging tourism but it perfectly captures the country’s surreal mix of sticky reggae, Biblical apocalyptical prophesy and the ever-present threat of random murder.


Song: Sovereign Light Cafe by Keane (2012)

Just a great anthemic pop song from an excellent and underrated band. It was on a car playlist the summer I became a single dad. My middle kid Hamish and I would sing it together and I know in his mind it is “me and dad’s song”.

The lyrics are very simple and look back to a time when everything was to come, good times were ahead, all things were possible. Deeply romantic and makes me think of me and my special and gorgeous little man every time I hear it. And what is there not to love about that?

Book: Leaving Alexandria – A Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway (2012)

A deeply personal choice for me. Richard Holloway is one of the most important thinkers Scotland has produced in the last century.

He is also deeply human. Born in Possilpark in Glasgow at the same time as my parents were, he was adored by them.

I lost my mum this year which made me return to this book. He understands the struggle between certainty and faith and that these are the opposites across much of our journey through it all.

He has fought other people’s poverty all of his life. He keeps going. He speaks truth, he lives in it. The term “national treasure” is often handed out. For me it applies to him like few others, if any. This book is his story – so far.

Film: Life of Pi (2012)

A sumptuous film that was as good as the deeply moving book by Yann Martel. Witty, spectacular, shocking and deep. A brilliant way to introduce the concept of metaphor to children and understanding the role stories play in speaking to us on many levels.

I think everything was good in this film: the script, the editing, the effects, the direction, the music and the acting. In telling a story that could not be further from our small corner of the world it spoke exactly to people like me and mine. I loved this.


Song: Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen (2012) One of the joys of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show – broadcast earlier this year on Netflix – was his unshakable sense of place and self, all encapsulated in self-deprecation.

He is, as he freely admitted, something of a fraud, someone who in his songs hymns working in factories and driving cross-country in fast cars when in reality he has never properly got his hands dirty and can’t drive.

That doesn’t make his work any less valid. He is essentially a storyteller and Wrecking Ball, which is on the album of the same name, is one of those fire-in-the-belly anthems that couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

Here, Springsteen takes the persona of a man “raised outta steel”, raging against the demise of the industry that was for so many Americans their livelihood.

“Hold tight to your anger,” he sings and there’s no doubting that he’s up for the fight. You could say that if the Democrats had listened to the likes of The Boss then they might have anticipated – and cauterised – the rise of Trump.

TV: Treme (2010-2013)

How, one wondered, would David Simon follow up The Wire, surely the best television series ever? The answer was Treme which ran for four seasons and 36 episodes.

Set in New Orleans in the aftermath of the apocalyptic Hurricane Katrina, it followed the progress of citizens from a variety of backgrounds as they tried to rebuild their lives and resuscitate their swamped city.

In part inspirational, in part symbolic of what’s gone awry in a system polluted by rampant capitalism, it was a triumph of the vision of Simon and his co-creator, Eric Overmyer.

Among those starring were John Goodman, Steve Kahn (wonderful as a radio DJ who plays what he wants to play in defiance of station’s boss), Khandi Alexander, Melissa Leo, Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce, a loose-living trombonist.

Added to which are unforgettable performances from a host of musicians – Dr John, Steve Earle, Allen Toussaint, Shawn Colvin, Elvis Costello, Fats Domino and John Boutte, whose The Treme Song played over the opening credits – concerned for the future of those living below sea level on the banks of the Mississippi.

Book: Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman (2012)

Is James Kelman our least appreciated, most misunderstood writer? I sometimes think so despite the fact that he is our most decorated and, in my opinion, our most gifted.

Mo said she was quirky is a lovely, life-affirming and beautifully written novel with a woman called Helen at its heart. How dare he!

Helen is a single mother living in London and working late in a casino and must therefore trust the care of her son to Mo, her Muslim boyfriend.

As ever, Kelman is an astute and sensitive describer of ordinary lives. Except that the lives of Helen and Mo are not so ordinary.

Over the course of 24 hours we are allowed a glimpse of how people cope – or have been compelled to cope – in an age of suspicion, anxiety, insecurity, distrust and uncertainty.


TV: The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

This is an ice cream cone of show, with a cherry added. Every episode a panopticon of retro pleasure, a sweet and fabulous look behind the scenes at the life of the protagonist Midge Maisel who, sporting a riot of fabulous outfits, is the perfect 1950s housewife who has it all ... or at least what was taken for having it all in the 50s: handsome husband, indulgent parents, an upper west side address, and she’s gorgeous. Then it starts to fall apart ... and Midge takes control as a feminist heroine embracing women’s lib.

Our adorable heroine blazes her way onto the comedy scene via New York dive bars, a cheating husband and a charge of public obscenity. Add a banging cocktail dress and a brilliant portrayal of the real life of radical comedian Lenny Bruce as her will they/won’t they love interest, and you have a show that has the style and cool of Mad Men with one big difference: this is not boring.

Every episode snaps and fizzes and shines and makes you want to be at a party in a cocktail dress wearing red velvet high heels with the lighting low with Lenny Bruce lighting your cigarette whilst the bartender mixes you a martini dry.

Song: Get Lucky by Daft Punk

On what seemed like the brightest shiniest happiest summer of my life, Glasgow in 2014, the song that was everywhere featured the unmistakable riffs of Nile Rodgers and Pharell Williams’ vocal in front of a piano beat that combined classic disco and the unmistakable electronic beats of Daft Punk. It’s a song that sounds as fresh today as it did then. It makes me feel like I’m swanning down Buchanan Street in the sunshine with a Yes T-shirt on with hope in my heart as I stop by the Yes Bar. It seemed impossible that we wouldn’t get lucky.

Book: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 I knew that it was an important book, but it felt like I was reading dystopian science fiction, which was almost unbelievable.

Whilst it gained literary plaudits, it wasn’t until 2017 when the book was reworked for television that we knew it was a prescient warning. Thirty-four years later Atwood presented The Testaments set in a world in which we instantly recognise the image of the white winged, red-dressed handmaid as a symbol in the wider culture of resistance to the restriction of women’s rights and sexual oppression.

Set 15 years after the somewhat ambivalent ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, the witness testimonies of this book do not disappoint. It was worth the wait.


Book: The Binding by Bridget Collins

The Binding only came out in January of this year but with Bridget Collins’ magical writing style, gripping plot line and unforgettable characters, it made an unparalleled impact on me. Not only is this story of human complexity, the magic of the art of book binding and the complications of painful memories and the kind of book everyone should read, it is also the kind of book I aspire to write.

TV: The End Of The F***ing World

As soon as it came out on Netflix I was both intrigued and unsure of what to expect. What I got was so much more than I could have hoped for. It follows the story of James, a 17- year-old who believes himself to be a psychopath, and Alyssa, the girl he intends to make his very first kill. It explores the nature of human relationships and how lies can fade into truths in a way that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. Every episode was the perfect mixture of snappy dark, quirky adventures on the road trip that refused to take itself too seriously and a surprising but welcome dash of pure emotion and depth.

Song: Take Me To Church by Hozier

I can’t imagine my song of the decade to be anything other than the very first song on the debut album of an artist who has, since 2013, made his mark on the music scene with a beautiful bluesy sound. This is undoubtedly his best known song and deserves all of the attention it has received.

His use of religious imagery to express feelings so intense that all else fades away amazes me every time I listen to it. It’s the kind that both takes you away from every day life, and somehow makes you feel more alive than ever before all at once.