In the summer of 2003, the Daily Mirror co-produced an album with War Child for children in Iraq facing the aftermath of the war. When I rang round artists who might appear on it, George Michael was the first to agree.
The song he gave us was one of the most haunting of that whole album – which also featured David Bowie singing ‘Everyone says hi’. A cover of Don Maclean’s The Grave, the story of soldiers fighting in the trenches sung a cappella, its distinctive lyric floats up ‘He’s gone’.
I listened to it this week, thinking of all those remarkable acts of generosity George performed throughout his lifetime, the hours at the homeless shelters, the millions given to good causes, the commitment to AIDS charities and LGBTQ rights.
He’s gone, but he did so much. This has been a tough year. But that album’s title was Hope.
In two short days’ time, 2016 is over, and it’s up to us how we face 2017. If Christmas is about anything it is about hope, twinkling lights brightening up the calendar’s longest nights.
And, my God, we need those lights to burn brightly this year. Since June 16, the day that hate took the life of my friend Jo Cox, everything has seemed to unravel in painful technicolour, accelerating wildly through Brexit to Donald Trump.
Yet I found hope at the close of the year in the words of the Mahmoud family responding to a forced apology from columnist Katie Hopkins. “Please forgive her for her actions,” the family said. “She may one day reflect and become a better human being.”
I found hope in the message Jo’s husband Brendan delivered on Channel 4 as he and his children faced their first Christmas without her. “Reach out in 2017 to someone who disagrees with you”.
And I found it in the foodbanks I spent time in this Christmas across the country , where volunteers gave out not just food but dignity and warmth.
Hope isn’t just an airy concept. Whether we choose to hope or hate defines how we feel about the world. If you feel hopeful, studies have repeatedly shown it is harder to feel hate. That’s why Nigel Farage tries to decry HOPE not hate – an organisation I have worked with since day one – as an ‘extremist’ organisation. He knows the first idea defeats the second.
How wonderful that he feels so threatened by the extremism of love.
As we face a new year in which Trump will be inaugurated, Putin energised, and ISIS and the far-right ever more rampant, we will need to keep creating our own supply of hope.
Aided and abetted by those bright little screens we carry in our pockets, the far right wants us atomised, broken up into lonely little entities, angry and powerless and fertile to its messages. Our response can only be to join hands and live Jo’s belief we have More In Common.
The outbreak of hatred and the loneliness epidemic are two sides of the same coin. That’s why loneliness was an issue so close to Jo’s heart. Being a better neighbour isn’t important just because we can see a lonely older person over the garden fence, but because it opens up our worlds. Joining a trade union isn’t just about protecting ourselves from rapacious bosses but about the gift of solidarity. Whether we volunteer at a foodbank or homeless shelter, teach a bit of English to some refugee kids or get more involved at our kids’ school, we find that we’re the ones who gain.
It’s how we reach out of our silicon silos, the shiny little spaces afforded us by the Facebook algorithms. It’s how we step away from the siren calls of our own people, however lulling and comfortable they may be.
In 2017, we will need to understand we can no longer trust the grown ups. Maybe we thought we could spin through the universe destroying our planet because we thought someone would stop us before it got too late. Now there is a team of climate change deniers in the White House. Maybe we thought we were safe behind our screens, but if we look out of the window we see we’re the ones who will have to apply the brake to the speeding bus.
It’s no good any longer being armchair critics, shouting about how everyone else is doing everything wrong on twitter, the ‘you-don’t-want-to-do-it-like-that’ generation. We need to stand for something ourselves.
Like generations before us, we face a new year fraught with new challenges. Doing nothing is no longer an option. When I think of the sacrifices my grandparents and their generation made to fight for hope against fascism, it doesn’t seem so much to ask.
Jo is gone. George is gone. David is gone. Many are lost. But to we can be Heroes, and not just for one day.
Happy New Year.