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The best podcasts of 2016

From relationship horror stories to the solving of a decades-old cold case, it’s been a great year for listening.

When I started writing my podcast column for the New Statesman a few months ago, I had a bit of a dig at publications that only cover podcasts through lists. Yet here I am, at the end of the year, with a list the top ten shows I think you should catch up on over Christmas. I hope you enjoy them.


The Allusionist

Helen Zaltzman uncovers the surprising stories behind our words, from “Winterval” to “Pride”. Always surprising, this is a podcast that has earned its place on my “must listen immediately” list via well-structured episodes and carefully crafted interviews.

Where to start: With this episode about getting losing your words in Antarctic and this one about transatlantic differences in the use of “please”.

 


In the Dark

A thrilling investigative documentary into the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota in 1989. There are some similarities to Serial, but this true crime podcast is better, not least because you find out who did it.

Where to start: With the first of the nine episodes, “The Crime”, before you binge through the rest in short order.

 

The Receipts

Four funny, honest British women discuss love, sex, infidelity and the pitfalls of interracial dating. It’s a relatively new show, so there are four episodes so far, but it’s worth getting on board early with this one. It’s going far.

Where to start: This episode about, among other things, women who cheat.

 

Election Profit Makers

To really understand Donald Trump’s election victory, you need to hear from the people who bet against it. David Rees, Jon Kimball and Starlee Kine embarked on their profit-making adventure back in July, and, well, we all know how it ended.

Where to start: This episode about Clinton’s pneumonia scare. Or just immerse yourself in the podcast’s bonus mixtape, which features tunes remixed from the most memorable moments of the campaign.

 

Another Round

A superb interview show from New York. Guests include Hillary Clinton and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and there are plenty of regular rotating segments so it never feels stale.

Where to start: This interview with Rachel Wilkerson Miller about getting your life in order.

 

Not By Accident

An Australian documentary that follows one woman’s decision to become a single mother. Sophie Harper has been recording since she decided to get pregnant, and hasn't stopped. The result is a textured, intimate portrait of her life with her child.

Where to start: At the beginning, with her “Insemination Story”.

 

Wooden Overcoats

Move over, Radio 4. This ensemble scripted comedy about a pair of doomed undertakers is funnier than anything broadcast on the BBC. Siblings Rudyard and Antigone Funn battle to keep their undertaking business on the small island of Piffling going after a new competitor arrives in town.

Where to start: The opening episode of series two is a good introduction, if you don't want to go all the way back to the start.

 

Call Your Girlfriend

Two best friends maintain their relationship long distance via this heartwarming weekly podcast. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow talk about politics, current affairs, celebrities, books and anything else they want to catch up on.

Where to start: The 2016 in review episode features lots of clips from across the year.

 

Millennial

Megan Tan documents the struggles of Generation Y by recording every important moment in her own life. She’s incredibly honest and open on the podcast, so it's no surprise this show has gathered a strong community around it.

Where to start: This episode about income inequality in relationships.

 

The Secret History of Hollywood

Adam Roche makes beautifully produced, compelling documentaries about the early days of Hollywood. They’re like audiobooks, but better because there’s music and sound effects as well as narration.

Where to start: With the “Bullets and Blood” series that traces the origin story of Warner Brothers.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist