If only we could be like the animals, unaware of this year’s pains. But we would lose the joys | Ian Jack | Opinion

In the year of his death I have tried and failed to follow the advice of my friend Alexander Chancellor, who decided that his poultry and his dog offered an exemplary approach to Brexit. At his house in Northamptonshire, he noticed that his Jack Russell and his hens and ducks lived “in blissful unawareness” of the referendum. While the result had left him depressed, they simply soldiered on. “They care not what is happening in the world, so long as they have enough to eat and enough space in which to peck and play,” he wrote in the Spectator soon after the vote. “They don’t even care if Iceland beats England at football. Birds and animals just get on with their lives as best they can, whatever circumstances they find themselves in. They aren’t given to moods. They don’t care whether they control their country; they don’t even know what country they are in.”

I like the thought of these friendly beasts clucking, barking and generally minding their own business in Alexander’s garden, while a troop of unlikely prophets – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Paul Dacre, David Davis – stalk among them distributing leaflets that promise better food in more splendid surroundings just over the hill. Naturally, these fifth-rate Moseses have no luck – leaflets can’t be eaten – and soon the racket of disappointed barking and clucking drives them back across the fields towards the cold, waiting waters of the Grand Union canal.

A dream. In life, the mindset of a hen is impossible to achieve and our destination hard to ignore. We are going to hell in a handcart. Here is my annual list of the personal experiences that relieved the year’s dark journey.

1. Creatures of the deep

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A newly hatched loggerhead turtle makes its way to the sea, Mersin, Turkey. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I never expected to go whale watching; and if I did, I never expected to see a whale. Waiting in vain for a tiger to appear in an Indian nature reserve persuaded me that the grandest animals were more reliably and comfortably witnessed on television, and the notion of spending a fruitless four or five hours at sea, making do with a faraway seal, held no appeal. But in July, on a tourist boat sailing out of Baltimore, County Cork, we saw dozens of dolphins dashing under and around us with log-like minke whales cruising close by; and then, as a grand finale, humpbacks spouting columns of water and vapour as they moved unstoppably forward, like a steam-driven fleet.

This was majestic. Two months later on a beach in Crete we saw animal life at the other end of the scale, when a tiny loggerhead turtle climbed out of its egg and crawled across 20 metres of sand to the sea, its route lined on either side with sun-loving tourists like ourselves, who have done so much to destroy the sea turtles’ nesting grounds. The odds against a turtle’s survival are formidable: for every thousand eggs laid, one creature will live into adulthood. If our descendants in the next century can still see species such as turtles and whales, to be humbled and moved by them, then David Attenborough will have done more good in the world than all the Christian saints put together.

2. A funny book about England now

The Beast, a first novel by Alexander Starritt, took a satirical look at the ways and means of tabloid journalism – in this case the Daily Mail – and some of it seemed to me as funny as its distinguished predecessors in the field, including Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning. But where were the reviews? An amusing novel about an important and topical subject secured no more than one or two. I add only that I’ve never met the author and that a paperback edition appears in the spring.

3. Schubert and the Sheep’s Head

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A stone circle near Ardgroom, County Cork. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Whale watching wasn’t the reason I was in County Cork. It was the West Cork chamber music festival that took me there for a week of concerts in the town of Bantry, with a day or two off for other pleasures that also included cycling and walking down the length of the Sheep’s Head peninsula. My wife made notes of the rich profusion of plants that filled the sheltering banks of the lanes: wild roses, meadowsweet, ferns, foxgloves, nasturtiums, hydrangeas, pink and red fuchsias, saxifrage, tormentil, honeysuckle, purple loosestrife, pink stonecrop, azaleas, buddleia.

The paths took more exposed routes along the clifftops, past blowholes echoing with the boom of the Atlantic far below, and to the isolated ruins of some terraced cottages that had briefly been home to the Cornish miners who’d dug for copper there in the 19th century. After one such day, we went to a late night concert at Bantry House, an old Ascendancy mansion that had somehow survived many turbulent years of Irish history. There the Pacifica Quartet and the cellist Johannes Moser played Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major in the candlelit drawing room. The sound was thrilling and sublime.

4. And the winner is… the bear

The films I liked in 2017 and would gladly see again included Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death in a new print, and a fine documentary, Machines – the debut of an Indian director, Rahul Jain, which without any sentimentalising effects such as music or voiceovers shows how hard the employees of a textile factory in Gujarat have to work to earn the equivalent of three dollars a day. But the film that delighted me most? Without any doubt, Paddington 2.

5. The majesty of Harrogate

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Bettys tearoom in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Photograph: Alamy

Driving back from a summer in Scotland, we stopped off in Harrogate. I had never been before – and rarely to any hotel as grand as the Majestic, which according to local legend was bombed in the war by a Luftwaffe pilot who had been turned away as improperly dressed on an earlier visit in the 1930s. (Imagine! Even Prussian officers were too scruffy!) The grandeur is a little faded these days, though the town itself is very smartly turned out, with an astonishing number of bespoke kitchen shops. Bettys tearoom is the jewel in this crown and one of the wonders of Yorkshire, or England.

6. RIP two great editors

It may seem callous to count a funeral or a memorial service as a “highlight” of the year – by this calculation would weddings be lowlights? But one of each I attended this year did have a celebratory feel about them, in the sense that the new cliche that gets spoken at such occasions (“we are not here to mourn but to celebrate the life of…”) seemed for once to have a ring of truth. In April, the publisher of the New York Review of Books, Rea Hederman, organised a radiant cast of speakers for the memorial, at the New York Public Library of Bob Silvers, who edited the Review from 1963 until his death in March aged 87. Fourteen people came to the lectern and spoke or, in Patti Smith’s case, sang their tributes, including Mary Beard, Ian Buruma, Samantha Power, Martin Scorsese and Zadie Smith. They were all eloquent; each of them managed to say something that the others hadn’t said; one or two were tearful, many more witty.

Long before he died, Bob’s reputation as both an inspirational and fiercely demanding editor was encrusted in anecdote; he would call contributors on Christmas Day to query a fact in their copy and return to the office from a night at the opera to work with his pencil until three in the morning. He made what he called “the paper” into what was arguably the most intelligent and intellectually uplifting periodical in the western world. You learned things from it.

Alexander Chancellor had just turned 77 when he died, after a career in journalism that included editing the Spectator, the Independent’s magazine and the Oldie, as well as contributing sharply observant but never cruel columns to several publications, including the Guardian. His funeral packed a village church in Northamptonshire. We sang a few hymns and heard a fine eulogy, and came out to the sight of falling snow. What can I say? I miss him. We must all learn to be hens.

Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist