I’ve read a lot less so far this year than in the first half of 2021 – half as many books, in fact – despite the fact that back then I was intensively working on my PhD thesis, trying to finish and submit it by the end of the summer (spoiler – I did, and was awarded the doctorate in May 2022). My ability to concentrate, and to sleep well enough at night not to fall asleep over a book in the daytime, is still impaired following the loss of my husband, but for several months of this year was also limited by the painful aftermath of knee surgery. However, I did read (and the flip side of the surgery recovery was relative inactivity), and it’s a reasonably eclectic selection. As always, I try to avoid spoilers, but you takes your chances if you read on. And, as always, I have missed one or two books out that really weren’t worth drawing anyone’s attention to. I haven’t picked out a winner from this half-year’s crop, but I have starred those books which had the greatest impact on me and which I’m most eager to share.
Ben Aaronovitch – Amongst Our Weapons
The latest in the funny, engaging and often rather magical (yes, it’s about magic, but there are so many moments that achieve that, rather than just describing it) Rivers of London series. The interface between ‘the weird stuff’ and regular policing never fails to entertain (e.g. the senior copper who won’t take any lip from witnesses, whatever they say they’re the god of).
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Very, very unsettling. Especially when, whilst I was reading it, on holiday with friends, we had an episode when none of us could get internet on our phones, and there was this weird looking cloud up ahead… Can say no more without spoilers but it’s excellent and unnerving.
J L Carr – A Month in the Country*
This is beautiful. A tender gem of a book. There’s joy here, something almost magical in the uncovering of the long-hidden mural, which mirrors the gradual revelations about some of the characters, but there’s such deep sadness too. Remarkable.
Sinead Crowley – Can Anybody Help Me?
A decent thriller, with an interesting setting, in the world of ‘mumsnet’ type fora, where people seek reassurance and online friendship via online identities, but end up giving away more about themselves than they intend.
Will Dean – Black River
Third outing for Dean’s deaf female detective, Tuva Moodyson. It’s a dark and gripping tale, the lead character is fascinating and I will certainly find the first two in the series and then read on.
Maurizio de Giovanni – The Bastards of Pizzofalcone
Hard-boiled Naples-set Italian crime. The series has been compared to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which we read voraciously for years (it may still be going on, I’m not sure, with Steve Carella et al mysteriously un-aged). There’s an earlier novel, The Crocodile, which I haven’t read, but must do so.
Bernardine Evaristo – Mr Loverman
This is lovely – we see our hero through his own eyes and through those of other people close to him, and he isn’t who he initially seems to be. There is warmth and humour and real sadness, and one ends up kind of rooting for all of the characters, even when they’re most at odds with each other.
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop*
Low-key and heartbreaking, and beautifully written. The initial reviews when this appeared in 1979 were screechingly condescending – ‘a harmless, conventional little anecdote’, according to The Times – but there have been more discerning readers since. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple – it may appear gentle but it’s razor sharp.
Alan Garner – Treaclewalker*
Every Alan Garner book brings with it echoes from every other Alan Garner book, including his memoir, Where Shall We Run To? It’s all part of this rich weave of folk tales, childhood memories, of place and landscape. His style is as spare as ever and the rhythms of his writing as mesmerising as ever.
Winston Graham – Poldark
I started binge reading the Poldark series (which, surprisingly, I never read during my historical fiction obsessed teens), after my husband died and I needed reading matter that was not going to challenge or break me. They are very well written, and clearly well researched, the plots were familiar from the more recent TV adaptation (at least for the first five of the series), and very enjoyable.
Elly Griffiths – The Locked Room
The latest Ruth Galloway novel, set just at the start of the pandemic, which is beautifully well handled and conveys the strangeness and the anxiety of that time.
Robert Harris – Enigma/The Fear Index/Pompeii/The Second Sleep
I had a bit of a binge on Robert Harris, evidently. They’re all very different. Enigma fed into my long-standing fascination with WWII codebreaking, with a plot blending actual events with invention, but thoroughly researched and much better than the film of the book. The Fear Index is a highly intriguing contemporary thriller, however probable or otherwise its central premiss may be. Pompeii is, unsurprisingly, a historical account of the destruction of the city, which gives us not only the individual and social dramas, but the scientific background too, whether in terms of volcanic eruptions, or the engineering of water supplies – gripping and fascinating, even though of course we know what’s coming. The Second Sleep is most intriguing – I won’t say anything about the plot because you have to read it and pick up on the subtle hints and clues before things become clear (and if anyone reads this and Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, which I talk about below, there’s a surprising link).
Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley
‘As an evocation of place and a lost way of life, Harrison’s novel is astonishing, as potent and irresistible as a magic spell’, as the Guardian reviewer puts it. But there’s nothing romantic or sentimentalised about it, and there are darker undercurrents as national politics starts to infiltrate the life of the countryside.
Tayari Jones – Silver Sparrow/Leaving Atlanta*
I read An American Marriage last year, and loved it, so I followed it up with these two. Silver Sparrow explores the lives of two sisters, who share a bigamous father. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘moving, intimate and wise’. Leaving Atlanta was Jones’ debut and is a response to the Atlanta child murders (see also James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen), drawing on her childhood in that city at the time. It’s compelling and dark, and offers a different, child-centred insight into these strange and deeply troubling crimes.
Philip Kazan – The Black Earth
A bow drawn at a venture, but I very much enjoyed this account of WWII in Greece (about which I knew very little) and the internecine battles which engulfed the country so that the bloodshed didn’t end with the end of the war. It’s got a romance at its heart, but it’s not romantic fiction, it’s well constructed, dark and gritty.
Barbara Kingsolver – The Bean Trees
Kingsolver’s debut. Well worth reading, though it’s kind of softer than some of her later work, verging on sentimental.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano*
A friend told me this was his absolute all-time favourite book, and I had to admit I’d never read it. I have now remedied that, and I can entirely see how one could become lost in it, and obsessed with it. I would not dream of offering any insights without a re-read, but I can still summon up its woozy, shifting realities and its deep sadness.
Val McDermid – 1979
One can practically smell the cigarette smoke in this thriller set in a newspaper office in, oddly enough, 1979. McDermid at the top of her game. I love all her work, except for the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series which I have never got on with. Soz Val – that still leaves a lot for me to enjoy!
Dervla McTiernan – The Murder Rule
I was disappointed in this, having enjoyed a couple of her others (The Ruin and The Scholar) very much. This is a stand-alone, and the setting is the US rather than Ireland. Neither the plot nor the characters entirely convinced me, I’m afraid.
Sarah Moss – The Fell*
One of my favourite contemporary novelists, and this is a remarkable, powerful novel. It’s set mid-pandemic, with one character shielding, another self-isolating after contact with Covid, and it explores subtly and sensitively the sense of ‘accumulating dread’ as Moss puts it. But the dread is less of Covid itself, more of the effects of isolation and confinement. Beautifully written, with the voices of the four protagonists creating ‘polyphonic momentum’.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Fair Maiden
A troubling tale, with echoes of Lolita, which was widely regarded as a disappointment from Oates. I think I agree – I’m not sure what she was attempting here (a reworking/reimagining of Lolita? To what purpose?). It is of course well written and the protagonist (the ‘fair maiden’) is an excellent creation.
Rob Palk – Animal Lovers
Very funny, and very touching. Palk has a delicious turn of phrase, but never lets the comedic elements turn the characters into mere jokes or caricatures.
Philip Pullman – Serpentine
This novella is set between the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust. It seems slight, but it sheds light on the troubled relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon. Eagerly awaiting the final part of the second trilogy…
Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men
I have read the Rebus novels in an entirely random order, and thought I had read this already but it turns out the plot is familiar from the TV adaptation – it matters not, I’m absorbed and entertained.
Donal Ryan – Strange Flowers
Ryan writes with such beauty and tenderness, about people and about landscape. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story within the story, which took me out of the narrative that I was fully invested in, rather than enriching it or shedding light on it. But it’s a fine novel, even with that caveat, and will stay with me.
Sunjeev Sahota – China Room
I’ve read both of Sahota’s previous novels, and this one didn’t disappoint. Much of it is set in the 1920s, with a contemporary plot woven through, and it’s quite different in pace and tone to its predecessors. Subtly powerful and very moving.
Elizabeth Strout – Oh, William!*
Oh, Elizabeth! I thought I might have got used to Strout’s writing, and that it might therefore affect me less. I was mistaken. As always, her narratives overlap with one another and so we meet or hear of people and stories from other books, and with every novel the tapestry becomes richer. As the Guardian’s reviewer says, ‘the intense pleasure of Strout’s writing becomes the simple joy of learning more while – always – understanding less. “We are all mysterious, is what I mean,” says Lucy towards the close of this novel, leaving us already hungry for the next one’.
Russ Thomas – Firewatching
Sheffield set crime, very dark. This is Thomas’s debut and I will look out for more from him. The plot is complex, as are the characters, but it’s not driven, as far too many thrillers are, by the need to include ‘an incredible twist which you’ll never guess’. (That’s a bugbear of mine. Twist away, but it’s got to work with the plot and the characters, rather than just blasting in from nowhere simply to make us gasp.)
Lesley Thomson – The House with no Rooms
The fourth in the Detective’s Daughter series. The two leads are each decidedly odd, and not in the classic ‘detective with a fatal flaw/memorable quirk’ way, and the crimes are odd and troubling too.
Rose Tremain – Music and Silence*
This is fabulous. Set in the Danish royal court in the mid-17th century, it interweaves the stories of royalty and musicians and servants in the most intriguing and moving ways. And as the title would suggest, music plays a major, almost magical, certainly spiritual role.
Nicola Upson – Josephine Tey series
I started binging this series last year, and have continued. The conceit of having a writer of crime fiction getting involved in real crimes is hardly a new one, but it’s nicely done, and the period setting (the series has now reached the start of WWII) is interestingly handled, drawing out complexities that could only have been hinted at by Tey and her contemporaries.
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
I found this difficult to read, and am not sure why. It may well be that my concentration, which has at times been sadly lacking this year, was insufficient to follow the narrative or fully appreciate the very beautiful poetic prose. Another attempt may be called for, given how strong the recommendations have been for this.
S J Watson – Before I go to Sleep
This was certainly gripping (and much better than the film, which had to skate over so many aspects of the plot that the improbabilities were sharply highlighted). I don’t think I quite believed in any of it, but I was fascinated to see how Watson put the narrative together and how he was going to resolve things. Entertaining.
Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle
After the horrors of slavery in The Underground Railroad, and of a brutal reform school in The Nickel Boys, there is really quite a lot of hope, and much more scope for humour in this story of a furniture salesman’s attempt to negotiate the blurred lines and moral grey areas of Harlem in the 50s/60s. The writing is just as acute as in his other, darker novels, and the narrative just as gripping.
James Baldwin – The Evidence of Things not Seen
This is Baldwin’s essay on the Atlanta Child Murders (see Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, above). As always with Baldwin, it’s both passionate and lucid, and if it comes to no firm conclusions about guilt or innocence, that is hardly surprising since we appear to have moved on barely at all since Wayne Williams was charged with two of the murders back in 1982.
Antony Beevor – The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
I’ve read most of Beevor’s WWII history tomes, but this is a bit different. It’s a complex narrative, and one is very grateful for the Dramatis Personae at the front, to help the reader keep track of who is who (I remember reading Dr Zhivago as a teenager and struggling with the many variants of each character’s name). Gripping stuff.
Ruth Coker Burks – All the Young Men: How One Young Woman Risked it all to Care for the Dying
I feared this might be a bit sentimental, and also a bit too much God-stuff for my liking, but Burks is not given to soppiness, or to judgement. She’s an outsider, as a single parent in a rather conventional society, and her chance encounter with an AIDS patient – isolated, terrified, uncared for – immediately starts her on a path which leads to remarkable work both in exercising practical compassion and in lobbying for changes to the way people with AIDS are treated. The title isn’t as hyperbolic as it appears either – she lost friends and jobs, and ran the real risk of losing custody of her daughter due to her activism.
Michel Butor – Selected Essays*
A new translation of some of Butor’s essays on the novel. He writes with such clarity, so refreshing for those of us who have wrestled with some of his slipperier contemporaries (looking at you, Deleuze, in particular), and sheds light on his own four novels, as well as giving an insight into his later work.
Joe Hadju – Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe
I had a tantalisingly brief visit to Budapest, as part of a Danube cruise, which left me wanting to know much more about the city. I am unlikely to visit in the near future given the political climate there, but the history is fascinating.
Debora Harding – Dancing with the Octopus
As the sub-title tells us, this is ‘The Telling of a True Crime’. And it really is about ‘the telling’ – the remembering and attempted forgetting, the being believed and, horrifically, not being believed. It’s a tough read and a gripping one.
Kerry Hudson – Lowborn*
This is a vital read, as more and more families are forced into the kind of poverty that Hudson experienced as a child and a teenager. What hits me most is what bloody hard work it is being poor. The simplest things – eating nourishing food, keeping warm, keeping clean, staying safe – things that many of us take for granted, can only be achieved with constant, relentless battling against the system.
Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
I’ve been fascinated by Partition since reading Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown novels, and watching the dramatisation. I think the experience of living in Northern Nigeria during the build up to its Civil war, when Igbo people were murdered or driven out of the northern territories, gave those events particular resonance for me. I’ve previously read a collection of personal accounts of these events (Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices) but this is a detailed, solid history, with an emphasis on the human consequences of violence and displacement.
Rachel Lichtenstein – On Brick Lane
Portrait of a changing community through time, as different waves of immigration each reshape the area (Huguenot, Jewish, Bangladeshi) and its culture.
Wendy Lower – The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
When we are losing day by day the eye-witnesses to the Holocaust these scraps of photographic evidence become more vital, and Lower uses an image of one of the massacres of Jews in what is now Ukraine to identify killers, witnesses and victims. It’s a brutal read, as it should be.
Patrick Marnham – War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France
A gripping account of the murkier aspects of SOE’s activities in Occupied France. It’s a very complicated story – it helps if one already knows some of the story of at least some of the protagonists – and sheds some light on who was doing the betraying…
Wendy Mitchell – What I Wish People Knew about Dementia
I read a lot about dementia when my mother-in-law was diagnosed. Some things were helpful, others less so. Wendy Mitchell’s first book didn’t so much give us practical help, as tremendous insight, from the person actually with the dementia, into what the condition means. Remarkably, she’s still writing, still sharing her experiences and this book may give us some useful ideas in supporting my father who has recently been diagnosed. He’s aware of his condition, as Mitchell is, and so can be involved to some extent in finding work-arounds to make life easier (mother-in-law’s confusion progressed so quickly that any solution we came up with one week was useless by the next).
Caroline Moorehead – A House in the Mountains: The Women who Liberated Italy from Fascism*
I know very little about Italy’s war (see above for the same admission re Greece), but this was a fantastic, inspiring read. It focuses on four young women, in the mountains around Turin, who risked their lives daily during German occupation to move weapons and pass on messages, to fight, to take prisoners, to help liberate their country.
Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
Another biography of Hendrix, and dammit, the ending is the same as always. Having read so much about the man, there were anecdotes here about which I was sceptical, but also real new research and insights.
Tim Parks – Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal
Fascinating account of how HE in Italy works – the subtitle is very revealing. Having just completed a PhD in English HE, I am very thankful not to have had to go through the Italian system!
Samantha Power – The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
An essential read for anyone interested in international politics, particularly in the politics of war and genocide from someone who, both as a journalist and as a US government official (including as Obama’s ambassador to the UN), saw at close quarters many of the events she discusses.
Tracy Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star
A delight. Funny and touching, beautifully written.
Dorothy Whipple – Random Commentary
I only recently discovered Whipple’s novels and that she had lived in Nottinghamshire, including a spell in the vicinity of Newstead Abbey, very close to my teenage home. These are her own edited extracts from her diaries between 1925 and 1945, touching on the minutiae of everyday life, the successes and frustrations of her writing career and the momentous world events just off stage.
Reading has, over the last eight months, to some extent been an escape. But that doesn’t mean only reading easy stuff, or cosy stuff (I feel about ‘cosy’ books similarly to how I feel about Classic FM’s insistence that music should be ‘soothing’). The books I’ve read – the funny ones, the challenging ones, the heartbreaking ones, the gripping ones – have all taken me out of my immediate situation, out of the familiar home that is so strange without him in it. I’ve not only gained that respite, but also what George Eliot called the extension of sympathies – it’s easy to become very self-focused in a situation like mine, but books take me into other lives, other places, other histories. And I’m grateful for that.
There’s a correlation between the relatively low book count this half-year (see my 2022 Reading post), and the unprecedentedly high film/TV count. On the days when I couldn’t focus enough to read or to tackle any of the jobs on my to-do list, I watched movies in the afternoons. Most of the films were seen via Netflix or other streaming services, which I’d barely explored until this last eight months, with only two cinema expeditions so far this year.The pattern of my TV watching is more as it used to be – a few things which I would never have persuaded my husband to watch, but most programmes/series are ones which I had watched with him, or would have done had he still been here.
I haven’t attempted a full review of everything – this year isn’t normal in any respect, and so my comments on these films and television series may tend to reflect my circumstances, the stage I’ve reached in processing my bereavement, and how that colours my response to what I’ve watched. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but no guarantees…
I have missed out a few things about which there was really nothing to say – a film/programme that did what it set out to do but left little impression, one which I dozed off during, and woke to see the final credits rolling, or started watching and couldn’t be bothered to finish. Because the latter two categories may be about me as much as the quality of the material, I would not necessarily seek to judge… Where something aimed high and fell short, or did a disservice either to its source material or to its subject, I say so, however. And the best of what I’ve watched so far this year is marked with an asterisk.
Films (via large and small screen)
10 Cloverfield Avenue
When I was recovering after knee surgery my son came to stay for three weeks and brought a stack of DVDs, handpicked for my enjoyment (he knows me very well), but also avoiding anything too heavy about loss and grief. This was an excellent choice – the claustrophobia and paranoia set in early on, and I really could not predict how the plot was going to play out, nor were the loose ends tied up too neatly at the end.
The triggers I was trying to avoid were personal and specific, so didn’t condemn me to bland fare. Far from it – this one was a tough watch; it moved me but didn’t (apart from an odd moment) cause me deep distress. My interest in this account of the 2011 Norway killings was in the aftermath rather than the atrocity per se, and specifically how the trial was handled. Perhaps also there is some release in confronting a bigger tragedy than my own, with wider impact and implications. I’d very much admired Greengrass’s United 93 and this was just as good.
Absolutely gripping, the sort of thriller where you forget to breathe… Added power in the knowledge of the reality of, if not this specific story, then the general situation on the streets of Belfast at the start of the Troubles, and added interest in the knowledge that some of the Belfast scenes were actually filmed here in Sheffield.
Could have been good. But it was so wooden and predictable. It flips the scenario at the heart of both Vercors’ clandestine wartime novel, The Silence of the Sea, and Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (see below), as a French home is taken over by a German officer who, however, proves to be cultured and troubled. (Those two sources are more or less contemporary – I can’t see any way they could have been aware of each other.) But this film doesn’t do anything more interesting with the plot than make the occupying forces the Brits and the cultured German the person whose home has been taken over. The love affair which results is both predictable and unconvincing, at least in its denouement.
Ali and Ava*
This was wonderful. It goes to some dark places but I was rooting for Ali and Ava from the start; the characters are beautifully written, and beautifully played, by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, it’s often funny, and very touching.
Another film from a movie night with my son, who was shocked to learn that I’d seen Alien but none of its sequels. This was thoroughly gripping, with plenty of jump scary moments and obviously a proper kick-ass female lead.
All About my Mother
My first Almodovar. Cruz is wonderful, as is Cecilia Roth. The plot is quite overwrought, which is emphasised by the interweaving of Streetcar Named Desire (amongst other intertextual references), but it’s witty and warm and compassionate.
Fascinating account of the legal case brought after the mutiny on slave ship Amistad, in which the status of the mutineers – had they been brought from Africa, illegally, or were they owned as slaves, legally? – was crucial to the verdict. Djimon Hounsou’s performance is magnificent and very moving.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
I was afraid this was going to be really sentimental and sugary but it managed not to be (Tom Hanks really is good at negotiating that territory), and in fact was frequently quite cathartically moving.
Before I Go to Sleep
I’d read the book quite recently – it’s much better than the film, as the film has to miss out so much of the painstaking accumulation of detail that one is unavoidably aware of the plot holes… Kidman and Firth do a decent job in the circs.
Fantastic – beautiful, gripping and memorable. I should probably have rewatched the original which I hadn’t seen for decades, but no matter, I loved this.
The Blue Dahlia
A proper film noir, courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, from 1946, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Interesting post-war context – Ladd’s character comes home, with two other demobbed air force buddies, and that one of the two has PTSD and a metal plate in his head.
Bloody hell, this was tense. I felt myself getting more and more hot and bothered as the film went on. Stephen Graham is, as always, brilliant.
One of the pleasures of Netflix has been access to European films about aspects of WWII – this one tells the story of a bombing attack on occupied Copenhagen, towards the end of the war, which attacked the wrong target, killing children and teachers at a local school. The lead characters appear to be fictional, but the basic events are accurately and powerfully depicted, even if the ending is a bit abrupt.
The Book Thief
I wasn’t sure how well the book would transfer to the screen but it’s beautifully and movingly done.
Call to Spy
A film I’d never heard of, about two of the female SOE operatives in France in WWII, Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan. Some of the details are tweaked to place the two of them together in occupied territory, but the depictions of the two women are very true to all of the accounts I’ve read. And I don’t know why there haven’t been more films about Noor Inayat Khan in particular. I ran a session for Year 10s on a gifted and talented programme a few years back, talking about what history is, and talked about the French Resistance and about the real choices people had under occupation. When I told Noor’s story, I swear the South Asian young women in the room lit up – the last thing they had expected was that one of these Resistance heroes would be someone who looked like them.
A Cold War thriller, based on the real story of Greville Wynne and his Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky. Very well done, Cumberbatch excellent in the lead role, even if Jessie Buckley is somewhat underused as the long-suffering wife (I’ve lost track of how many brilliant women I’ve seen in these movies as long-suffering wife, supportive girlfriend, etc etc, which I thought were tropes that had had their day…).
Another gem. Curtiz was the director of Casablanca, a film which gets better every time I see it. And one of the things that gives it so much depth and life is that so many of those involved in the making, on both sides of the camera, were themselves refugees from Nazi Europe, including Curtiz himself, who is seen, during the battles with the studios to make the film, also desperately negotiating to try to get a relative out of Hungary. Fascinating.
Da 5 Bloods*
I loved this, so much. Wonderful performances from, esp., Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and the late Chadwick Boseman, riffing on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, humour and horror and heart.
Great performance from Oldman, and the film manages to create real tension even though we know how it all turned out. The scene on the Underground though – pure hokum! However, as sceptical as I was, it did bring a tear or two to my eye.
Glorious. Ianucci captures and revels in Dickens’ exuberance. The performances are wonderful – Dev Patel is perfect in the lead, with brilliant support from Capaldi, Whishaw, Laurie, Swinton et al, and lesser-known names such as Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield. And, oh lord, the bit where Dora says, ‘Write me out, Dodie’ breaks my heart.
Don’t Look Up
Crikey, this one was divisive. I can see both sides – I think it’s funnier than some of the critics acknowledged, but less important politically than its creator and its advocates claim. It gets some nice punches in at some fairly predictable targets, but is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or behaviour. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.
Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
If you’re going to call your film a multiverse of madness, it can’t have a linear plot with all loose ends neatly tied up. This doesn’t – there’s too much happening, too fast, to keep track of the various ‘verses, let alone the implications of what happens in one for all of the others, or to recall which one is the one we started off in. Sam Raimi brings a horror sensibility to the film, which is scarier than Marvels generally are. Cumberbatch is great, Olsen is terrifying and heartbreaking.
Villeneuve is one of my favourite directors (see also Bladerunner 2049, Sicario) and this is stunning, visually and in its interpretation of a book I haven’t read for decades, but dearly loved. The soundtrack is great too.
Delightful, with a very un-princessy hero and some nice tunes.
I’m in two minds about McEwan’s novels. On the one hand, there’s Atonement, one of my favourite 21st century novels, and on the other, there’s Solar… I haven’t read the book on which this is based so can only comment on the film, which is gripping and troubling and quite talky but with moments of physical shock, and the performances are excellent.
This is what happens when you put every WWII movie cliché into a pile and shuffle them and then just sprinkle them liberally throughout your narrative and script. There were some here I hadn’t heard since Pearl Harbour.
Based on the Robert Harris novel which I read this year (see my books blog), it suffers from over-simplification, as we lose so much of Harris’s detailed analysis and explanation that it ends up being just another thriller. The leading man is miscast, but Kate Winslet is great.
Millie Bobbie Brown from Stranger Things tackling crime and outwitting her more famous brothers. A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s watching.
This was often baffling, without the excuse of Dr Strange that it was juggling an infinite number of different universes. As familiar as I am with the Marvel cinematic universe(s) this required me to pick up a whole lot of new cosmology which I didn’t totally get, and I really didn’t connect with the characters. All of the above may be partly my fault, if I was feeling particularly foggy when I watched it, so a rewatch may clarify matters.
Film Stars don’t Die in Liverpool*
This is so good. Annette Bening’s portrayal of Gloria Grahame’s last years is so moving – she’s fractious and demanding and incredibly vulnerable. Jamie Bell is excellent too as her much younger lover, and the juxtaposition of the Hollywood star with his Liverpool family is funny and touching.
The Forgotten Battle
Another of the European WWII films that I found on Netflix, this excellent Dutch movie covers the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944, strategically of huge importance, but as the title suggests, somewhat forgotten.
The Ghost Writer
Adaptation of a Robert Harris novel that I haven’t yet read. Very much enjoyed this – the viewer is figuring things out along with Ewan McGregor’s character, so is being constantly wrongfooted, and increasingly paranoid (but maybe not paranoid enough…) and the ending was genuinely a shock.
The Girl on the Train
I wasn’t sure about Emily Blunt in the lead role – too obviously attractive? – but she made it work, and it was a decent adaptation of the book.
Yes, I did watch it this year for the first time. And I thoroughly enjoyed it too.
The Hand of God*
Recommended by the Italian branch of the family – I’d previously enjoyed Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and The New Pope (in which my brother appeared for a brief but profoundly significant moment as a Cardinal). This one is a coming of age story, strongly autobiographical, and it is quirky, funny and heartbreaking.
A Polish/UK co-production focusing on the Polish RAF squadron, their role in the Battle of Britain, and the grubby way they were treated after the war. The condescension of the establishment towards them, and their consuming grief and rage at what the Nazis are doing to their homeland and their families, are very powerfully conveyed and the air war scenes are thrilling.
Based on an eye witness account of the 2004 tsunami, this is a pretty intense watch. I did feel that the ending relied rather heavily on repeated coincidences to bring the survivors back together, but for all I know this may reflect what actually happened. Tom Holland as the teenage son is brilliant.
Is Paris Burning?
1966 epic about the liberation of Paris by the Resistance and Free French forces.
Quite a tough watch. I guess watching a film about someone being suddenly widowed wasn’t a great idea, although the overall mood of the film was slightly chilly, which created some distance.
Kobo and the Two Strings*
Wonderful anime, with a story that went to much darker and complicated places than I was expecting, and was very moving (the version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ that played at the end just broke me and I sobbed for quite a while).
The Last Sentence
Long (well, it felt long) and slow, this account of the life of a Swedish newspaper editor between 1933 and 1945, when Sweden was a neutral country. It deals with his political activity (anti-Nazi), but also with his relationships with wife and mistress(es). He’s a far from sympathetic character who treats the women in his life appallingly.
I loved this – the kid who plays the protagonist as a child (Sunny Pawar) is utterly mesmerising and for the whole of that part of the narrative I was on the edge of my seat wanting him to be safe. Dev Patel as the adult version is also compelling as he becomes obsessed with finding the home that he’d lost before he even knew where it was.
The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman is superb – as is Jessie Buckley as her younger self – and it’s quite a disturbing watch, with some visual shocks that may be real or hallucinations, and an ambiguous ending.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Chadwick Boseman is excellent again in this, and Viola Davis makes the most of her role as Ma Rainey – it’s a very powerful image of a black woman demanding to be treated not just with respect but as a kind of royalty.
The Tragedy of Macbeth*
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Macbeth & Mrs Macbeth. I very much liked the Fassbender/Cotillard version from a few years back, but this one is brilliant too – the black & white expressionist cinematography creates, as the Time Out reviewer put it, magic with shadow and light.
Spike Lee’s biopic, with Denzel again. Controversial at every stage of its writing and production, it’s a compelling portrait of a complex man.
Mary Queen of Scots
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as Elizabeth and Mary respectively, in a historical drama that takes some liberties with history but to very enjoyable effect.
Another of my son’s choices for post-surgery watching, and another excellent thriller with a philosophical dimension (free will v. determinism), and lots of opportunities for Cruise to do his thing.
Another Spielberg, and lord, this is dark. It kicks off with the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and moves on to the Mossad pursuit of the presumed killers – relentless, and brutal, but not without moral debate, and anguish on the part of at least some of the Mossad team about what they’re doing.
Munich: Edge of War
Another Robert Harris adaptation, setting up a slightly different reading of Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler, with a (presumably) fictional plot involving a document that lays out unambiguously Hitler’s intentions that has to be smuggled from an anti-Nazi German to a member of Chamberlain’s team. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how faithful it is to Harris’s plot, but it’s a fine thriller, with some very tense moments.
No Time to Die
Daniel Craig in his last outing as Bond. Classic stuff.
Gory, shouty, completely gripping. Draws on the original story that Shakespeare used for Hamlet. With Alexander Skarsgard in the lead, and Bjork popping up as a seer. NB I first encountered Skarsgard in True Blood, where he played vampire Eric Northman…
The capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina – manages to generate some tension despite the fact that we know the outcome, largely through the conversations between Eichmann and his captors as they wait until they can get a flight to Israel. Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac give strong performances.
I had never heard of this until I read some of the obits for Sidney Poitier. Poitier and Paul Newman are jazz musicians in Paris, who meet up with two women (Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward). It’s not much of a plot but who cares – those four beautiful people, wandering around Paris to a Duke Ellington score, and Poitier and Carroll talking about racial politics in the US, the reasons he won’t go back home, and the reasons she knows she must.
A woman’s search for the child taken from her when she was a single mother back in Ireland in the ‘50s, this is a hefty emotional drama, played subtly by Dench and with real restraint by Steve Coogan. It exposes a cruel system, which continued until far more recently than one might have imagined, and how the Church managed also to profit from that system.
Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman’s remarkable first-band account of his survival in Warsaw during the Nazi Occupation. The film doesn’t pull its punches – there are no last minute reprieves for most of the characters, nor miraculous returns from Treblinka – but we see only what Szpilman saw, the ghetto and the city, not the gas chambers and the crematoria, and it doesn’t milk the story for tears or shock.
Edward Norton’s film debut and he’s absolutely brilliant, really lifts a decent thriller to a different level.
Quo Vadis Aida*
Incredibly powerful film, set during the siege of Srebenica by the Serbian army. Aida is a teacher who’s working as a translator for the UN and whose family are caught up in the horrors. The tension ramps up and up until it’s almost unbearable.
The Resistance Banker
Another of those European (Dutch again) WWII movies, this one does what the title says, tells the true story of a banker who devised a scheme to fund the Resistance and help Jewish families to escape. A really interesting and (to me) completely unknown story.
Gripping, dark, brutal. Great soundtrack.
One of my son’s choices, and another win, not just because Chris Evans. I mean, there’s John Hurt and Tilda Swinton too… But the set-up is intriguing and the reveal is gradual and intelligently done, and with real impact.
The Social Network
This is very well done, and well played. It’s just that really, spending that amount of time in the company of these people isn’t my idea of fun.
Another Dutch WWII film, this one explores racism through the experiences of a young man from Suriname who moves to The Hague and forms a relationship with a white Dutch woman, before the war. It’s based on a true story, and it’s moving and thoughtful.
Spiderman: No Way Home*
This is an absolute blast. More multiverse madness, but amongst it all real heart, real poignancy as well as humour.
It’s All the President’s Men but with a newspaper office exposing the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. The tone is deliberately low-key, no histrionics, and it’s all the more powerful for that. Excellent performances from Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.
Way, way, over the top black comedy as Matt Damon’s apparently conventional 1950s businessman is drawn into more and more violence to cover up a domestic crime, but this plot runs alongside a rather underdeveloped one concerning the arrival of a black family in a white neighbourhood and the campaign of hatred against them.
A decent historical drama about the Suffragette movement. Somehow it didn’t manage to be more than that.
See above for the plot similarities with The Silence of the Sea and The Aftermath. This is based on one of the two surviving sections of Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, which was left unfinished when she was deported to her death in Auschwitz in 1942, and only published this century. She was an established and successful novelist before the Occupation but this was written clandestinely, while she tried to keep her children and husband safe. The film is faithful enough to the novel, but has a rather soapy feel to it. It’s impossible to respond to the novel without thinking of the story of its publication, and unusual to read a fictional account of the Occupation which is totally without hindsight (someone in my book group criticised Nemirovsky for not talking about the deportation of the Jews, but focusing on romantic tension between occupied and occupier…).
Tom Hanks as the good, decent, ordinary guy again. Laura Linney as his long-suffering wife (she’s having much more fun in Ozark (see below)). The film depicts not only the extraordinary landing on the Hudson after birds fly into and incapacitate the plane’s engines, but the inquiry afterwards, which seems to be challenging Sully’s professional judgement that this was the only way he could save the plane’s passengers. It’s gripping stuff, and the effect on Sully of these traumatic events is conveyed very powerfully.
Adaptation of one of Lissa Evans’ marvellous WWII novels, this is a funny and sharp account of the making of wartime propaganda films, with great dialogue and characters.
Train to Busan*
One of the best zombie films I’ve seen. It reminded me of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, with the sheer relentlessness of the onslaught. It’s very very gory and it keeps the tension up right to the end.
Lovely, funny and touching film about adolescence and the mayhem of hormones in a newly teenaged girl. Coping with her own turmoil of emotions and sensations, and with her mother’s embarrassing attempts at solidarity and support has a surprising effect on Mei Lee… A delight.
A moving account of the Munich air crash through the eyes of the very young Bobby Charlton. It could have been better – we didn’t need the cartoon villainy of the FA and the portrayal of Matt Busby was odd (and offended his family deeply), but it worked, and the period detail of how even top-flight footballers lived back then is fascinating.
World Trade Center
An extraordinary achievement, to make a boring film about 9/11. I’m not underplaying the courage of the firefighters portrayed in the film, who did what they had to do regardless of their own safety, but they deserved a much better cinematic tribute.
A very different take on 9/11 as Michael Keaton plays an accountant who has to devise the algorithms to determine compensation for victims and their families, and Stanley Tucci is the widower who challenges the impersonality of the approach. We share Keaton’s detached perspective for much of the film, which gives the sections where members of his team interview victims and families huge power. It’s interesting, challenging and moving.
Zero Dark Thirty
Still with 9/11, this is a cracking thriller about the hunt for Bin Laden, which doesn’t shy away from the morally grey areas.
The long and ultimately unresolved hunt for the Zodiac killer is here shown not only through the murders themselves but through the effect on those involved in the hunt – Ruffalo, Downey Jr and Gyllenhaal give strong performances.
Very silly, visually witty, cracking script. A lot of fun.
All Creatures Great & Small
Proper comfort telly. Yes, it risks cosiness and I hate that word, but it actually never dodges the brutal realities of farming and livestock management, and it has given Mrs Hall (in the 1980s televisation a stereotypical older woman, stout and no-nonsense) an emotionally powerful back story and a lot more agency. And Sam West is now Siegfried Farnon, as far as I’m concerned.
Anatomy of a Scandal
Sillier than I’d expected from reading the book, which I recall being quite a decent thriller. The dramatization uses some very odd visual tricks (a man suddenly being thrown backwards by an invisible force when police take him in for questioning about a rape, and flashbacks where present-day version and past version of a character are both visible, and so on) which were just gimmicky. The inevitable compression of the plot made its weaknesses more obvious, plus I got very tired of the wronged wife’s incredibly beige wardrobe.
Harrowing account of the life of Anne Williams, mother of one of the Hillsborough dead, and relentless campaigner for justice for all of the 97. It starts off as a tough watch and doesn’t get any easier, but it’s important as a reminder of what it takes to win any kind of recognition of institutional wrongdoing, and of how fragile any win is likely to be.
I do very much like Tcheky Karyo’s grizzled detective and Fiona Shaw was a great addition to the cast. I enjoyed the plot, although I found myself not quite believing the central premiss, and not at all believing Baptiste’s remarkable full recovery from what looked like a pretty comprehensive battering by a man half his age. Just for once, it would be good to have an older hero whose age was acknowledged a bit more honestly – I don’t mean they spend the whole show complaining about their joints, but don’t suddenly make them into an almost invulnerable action hero, OK?
Now Beck is an older hero whose age is acknowledged, both directly in terms of his health, and tacitly – he doesn’t suddenly chase down a perp, or engage in fisticuffs with young thugs. He uses his vast experience and lets the young cops do the risky stuff, and quite right too. The supporting cast are great, and the plots are dark and tense. Though I am slightly tired of the usual coda with Martin and his neighbour on the balcony – might be time to retire that.
I would never, ever, have persuaded my husband to watch this. I only started because a couple of friends whose judgement I trust told me how good it was, and they weren’t kidding. The period it spans is pretty much my lifetime, plus my parents’ recollections of earlier events and it was absolutely fascinating to see the events I recall from this very different, very odd perspective. The cast are brilliant – I did wonder how the transition from one set of actors to another would work, but after half an episode or so to recalibrate, it was fine. It’s all very bizarre really, and I wonder how they’re going to handle some current royal issues when they get to them…
Bertie Carvel is my third Dalgliesh. First up Roy Marsden, cerebral and ascetic, then a seriously miscast Martin Shaw (nothing against Shaw, but he’s not Dalgliesh). Carvel was just right, the supporting cast were excellent, and the plots pretty faithful to the books. I look forward to future series.
A dark, grim crime thriller set in Berlin immediately after the war, a city divided into different occupied zones, a city of rubble and displaced people and people just trying to survive by legitimate or corrupt means. I didn’t take to the leading man, thought he was a bit characterless, but the portrayal of that world, and the interweaving stories were very powerfully done. Lots of threads left dangling, for a second series to pick up.
Glorious. Lisa McGee’s writing is pitch perfect – she gets the balance between the teenage self-preoccupation and silliness and the events around them just right, and knows just when and how to punch us in the guts. I don’t know what to pick out for special mention – the episode with the mammies, Liam Neeson’s cameo appearance with Uncle Colm, Orla dancing through Derry… The finale was a thing of great beauty and power and I loved it.
One can’t claim now that there aren’t black officers in senior roles in TV crime dramas but I haven’t seen before such an honest treatment of the microaggressions that those officers encounter along the way. There were a few plot issues (why does the plot always require our hero to behave stupidly and unprofessionally when they’ve been portrayed up to that point as bright and professional?), and the overall mood was rather dour, but I’ll be interested to see if it gets picked up for a second series.
Just two specials in this half-year. The New Year’s Day episode was great, funny and clever, and I do love a time loop. The Sea Devils episode was fun but had rather too much plot for its running time, so ended up feeling a bit disjointed, and will be remembered for the tentative and awkward acknowledgement of mutual feelings between Yaz and the Doctor (very nicely handled). Only one more special to go – I’ll be sorry to see Whitaker go, and wish she’d had consistently better scripts and not had a pandemic to interrupt the flow (though her broadcast in character during the first lockdown was a thing of beauty). But I’m really, really looking forward to RTD’s return and to meeting 14 (even if it’s also hurting my heart that 14 will be the first Doctor Martyn will never have encountered).
The Falklands Play
I think my response when this was originally broadcast in 2002 (in an amended and abridged version) would have been much more cynical about its comparatively positive portrayal of the then Conservative government, and it speaks volumes about the state of our current cluster of incompetence and dishonesty that my main reaction was, good lord, here are people seriously considering what is the right thing to do, and insisting on resigning if they got it wrong (in failing to foresee the invasion), and isn’t that extraordinary? Obviously, Patricia Hodge’s Thatcher is a far less odd and far more sympathetic portrayal than Gillian Anderson’s in The Crown, and the reality was probably somewhere between the two. The production history and the politics of the writing, production and broadcast are as interesting as the play itself in a way.
The fourth spin-off series from the film, this time set in 1950/51, in Kansas City, and the scene is set as successive generations of gangsters (Irish, Jewish, Italian, African-American) jostle bloodily for dominance. If it doesn’t quite match up to the brilliance of previous series, there’s plenty of very dark humour, and a sharply written script, as well as a mesmerising turn from Jessie Buckley, to enjoy.
Five Came Back
This fascinating documentary series explores the work done during WWII by five Hollywood directors (Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, Stevens) who were recruited to create propaganda films to win hearts and minds at home. It explores each of the five’s response to what they saw on the front line, and how what they wanted to say wasn’t always permitted (Huston’s film about PTSD in returning soldiers, for example), and how their experiences affected their post-war careers.
German documentary featuring interviews with some of the last generation of German participants and witnesses to Nazism. It’s a deeply troubling watch – even the best of the interviewees clearly have fond memories of their days in the Hitler Youth, and for the most part there is a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge what they knew.
Suranne Jones is striding across the Yorkshire countryside again, and it’s marvellous.
Grimly gripping crime drama set in the least happy valley one could imagine. The writing and the performances are top notch.
Mind you, the Welsh landscape of Hidden is hardly a tranquil haven either. Again, writing and performances ensure that you can’t look away.
Dramatisation of real events, carried by a bravura performance by Julia Garner as Anna Delvey/Sorokin, who conned people out of millions basically just by acting as if she was super rich and telling people she was super rich. Delvey/Sorokin is a very odd character, sociopathic and ruthless, and if one didn’t know it was a true story, one would find it very hard to believe that she convinced anyone to part with even a used fiver.
The Ipcress File
Clearly there was no need for a remake but here we are, and I rather enjoyed it. I liked Joe Cole in the lead, it was all very stylishly done, and no more or less faithful to the Deighton novel than the 1960s film was.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
Vile. I can remember when he was ubiquitous on the telly, and I never liked him, but I thought he was just irritating rather than being dangerous. And yet some of the clips included in the documentary practically advertise his predilections. Did we learn anything new or useful? I don’t know – except that if someone tells the world that they are a monster, it’s probably sensible to believe them…
Yes, it should have probably finished at the end of season 2, or 3, but having got this far I was always going to watch the final series. There were some good moments, and some important revelations, and quite a few scenes from which I had to look away.
The Last Days
1998 documentary telling the story of five Hungarian Jews who survived deportation to Auschwitz in the last year of the war. As always, I am struck by the sheer obsessive insanity of a regime losing a war on several fronts which channels huge resources into rounding up and murdering people who pose no threat to the regime other than by their existence as Jews.
Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain
Fascinating interviews, wonderful music, and a forceful reminder of the daily experience of racism in all its forms that all of the participants have encountered. I would have loved a longer series that could have gone into greater depth into some aspects – particularly the interface between African and Caribbean cultures.
Life after Life*
Superb. Beautiful and so very moving. Kate Atkinson’s book is one of my favourite novels of this century – I’ve re-read it several times and I love it. I did wonder about the wisdom of watching this, as life after life also means death after death, and I did have to have quite a big cry after each episode but in a strange way, this is life affirming and uplifting, and I’m glad I did.
French crime thriller with a light touch, as Omar Sy carries out heists inspired by the fictional detective Arsene Lupin. Sounds daft, but it’s v enjoyable.
A decent adaptation of the Wyndham novel. It updates the action, so that rather than everyone having conniptions about unmarried women being pregnant, the women, and any partners, all respond in much more nuanced and individual ways, at least until their unborn offspring start controlling their emotions and actions.
Whilst I often wished I could unhear some of the dialogue (during the FBI agents’ interviews with convicted serial murderers) this is really compelling – I hadn’t realised quite how the vocabulary and the profiling assumptions that we take for granted about serial killers grew out of the work of this small FBI team in the 70s. Whilst the two leads are fictionalised, the cases are real, and it was particularly interesting to see the treatment of the Atlanta child murders (watching this led me to read Tayari Jones’ novel, Leaving Atlanta, and James Baldwin’s essay, Evidence of Things Not Seen, to find out more, from different perspectives).
This was often bewildering, often funny, often quite scary.
Ms Marvel, like Spiderman, is dealing with the arrival of superhero-ness alongside the usual teenage challenges of school, parents who just don’t understand, friendships and crushes. Unlike Spiderman, she’s also negotiating the cultural heritage of her parents, and the history of Partition and what it did to their family. Hugely engaging.
My Name is Leon
Beautifully done, with a wonderful performance by Cole Martin in the lead as a ‘looked after’ child. Breaks your heart, but heals it too.
Oh, I have struggled with this. The performances are excellent, it’s not that. Maybe I just find being reminded of being that sort of age, and the agonies that go with it, too much. Every conversation, every interaction is so burdened with unspoken insecurities and with misunderstandings that could be cleared up in five minutes if they just had a proper chat.
The ebullient Antonio Pappano, currently music director of the Royal Opera House, but who we saw conducting at the Auditorium in Rome a few years back, is the perfect host for this history of Italian opera.
Brilliantly dark crime series, with a labyrinthine plot and a cast of characters who are, to a man, woman or teenager, morally compromised. That we root for some of those characters is because they are drawn with so much depth and detail that we understand who they are, even if we disapprove of what they do. Laura Linney, Jason Bateman and Julia Garner are particularly strong.
Parks & Recreation
I was told that if I got Season 1 out of the way and got into Season 2, I would love rather than just liking Parks & Rec, and would love rather than just liking Lesley Knope. This is indeed how it panned out.
The final season as far as TV is concerned – mention has been made of a movie, so we’ll see what comes of that. Season 6 was always going to be tricky, as the absence of Aunt Polly made things feel a little out of kilter, even whilst it made room for the other women in the cast in various ways to take centre stage. Whilst some of the earlier episodes seemed to take a lot of time to not progress the narrative very much, it gathered pace towards the end of the run, and the final episode was a masterclass in drawing threads together, but also leaving questions unanswered and possibilities dangling tantalisingly…
Pace was an issue with Season 2 of Picard too – the flashbacks to Picard’s childhood, though it became clear why they were so important, were too long drawn out and too often repeated. But the Borg are always a welcome arrival (in plot terms), and the time travel plot was fun, and the denouement was surprising and moving.
French crime. Enjoyable, but tiresomely dependent on good, professional cop behaving badly/foolishly.
Superb. The long afterlife of the divisions between mining communities and families during the 1984 strike was well known to us, having lived in Nottinghamshire and then subsequently in Yorkshire, and having had to explain to our son why Sheffield United supporters as yet unborn in ’84 were yelling ‘scab!’ at Nottingham Forest supporters as yet unborn in ’84… The cast list is packed with some of the best British actors of recent years, too many to mention but Adeel Akhtar is particularly outstanding. Its only misstep was a reference to ‘Notts Forest’ in ep. 1, but the writing and performances are so fine that I had to forgive that. And the ending… Subtle, intelligent and powerfully emotional.
This is le Carré territory, except that the spies are the dregs of the British secret services, all having been demoted for some dereliction of duty or failure of judgement, and are being led by one Jackson Lamb (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman) who is, or at least purports to be, completely cynical and disillusioned about the whole thing. It’s funny and sharply written, and gripping too, since despite Lamb’s best efforts, his motley collection of failed spies get drawn into some fairly heavy events.
We were told so many times by so many people, when this first started, to watch it, and I have no idea why we failed to heed that obviously sound advice. The homage to Stephen King, the echoes of Buffy, the nods to ET and Close Encounters, all mark this out as entirely our sort of thing. So I’m sad we never got round to it together, but I have been loving seasons 1 and 2 this year.
Season 2 experimented more with the format than Season 1, but kept the things that made this special. And the fact that it ends with Richmond’s skin-of-the-teeth promotion is a particular delight, given my own team’s success this year (Nottingham Forest, obviously).
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The film was too constrained for time (ha!) to really explore the complexities of the narrative, so stretching it out into at least two series certainly works better. The awkwardness of the scenes between adult Henry and child Claire is handled well, with due acknowledgement given to the disturbing way that their friendship could be interpreted and the two leads are charismatic.
Thriller based in a Met bomb squad. There’s certainly plenty of tension, but the script is often leaden and however good the leads are (and they are very good) there’s a limit to what they can do with the lines they have to speak…
Stanley Tucci: In Search of Italy
Delightful. Tucci is the most charming of hosts, clearly a man who loves his food (and somehow, annoyingly, maintains a svelte figure despite this) and he takes us region by region through the cuisine, the ingredients, the techniques, the history, the politics of food.
Documentary series about 9/11, which begins with the attack and then explores the US and international response. Very interesting and hard-hitting.
Powerful and gut-wrenching Steve McQueen documentary series about the New Cross fire and the ways racism twisted the media response to the deaths, and the police investigation into the cause of the fire.
Properly claustrophobic submarine-based thriller. Was it plausible? I don’t rightly know, but I totally bought into it, for the length of the series at least.
The Walking Dead
I’ve somewhat lost track of what season we’re in now, or how far through, what with all of the breaks. But I know we’re coming towards the end of what has been, overall, a bloody good run. It did lose its way a bit for a while, dragging the Saviours plot out too long, but it got back on track with the Whisperers, and took things in a whole new direction with the Commonwealth.
We are Lady Parts*
Fabulously funny series about an all-female Muslim punk band, with Anjana Vasan (also seen this year as Pam in Killing Eve) a delight in the lead role.
We Own this City
From the same stable of writers as The Wire, which is a damn fine pedigree. This is based on real events, police brutality and corruption within the Baltimore PD’s Gun Trace Task Force. Jon Bernthal is brilliant in the lead role, all swagger and strut, with Jamie Hector (Marlo in The Wire) as his polar opposite. It’s dark, and the non-linear narrative requires some concentration.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Another long-running series that I only started watching in the last few months. How interesting it is depends on the person whose family history is being explored – I found Sue Perkins’ story fascinating, and Matt Lucas’s was almost unbearably moving, all the more so because his normal TV persona (one that I find intensely irritating, TBH) was entirely absent. Instead a serious, grown-up person was there, one who at many points in the programme was struggling with deep emotions as he discovered the stories of relatives who had remained in Germany or fled to the Netherlands during the war.
Winter on Fire
Fine documentary about the Maidan uprising in Ukraine in 2013-14, obviously even more significant, pertinent and moving in the present circumstances.
A guest blog from Arthur Annabel
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.
How can I even begin to write about this year? As it began, we were still grieving the loss of my younger brother in 2020, still in lockdown, still despairing over the state of our present government, still unable to think very far ahead or make firm plans. The world continued on its headlong rush to hell in a handcart. I blogged only occasionally, about Passing Time, and for Holocaust Memorial Day, and about my reading during the year (all my writing energy was going into the PhD). All the usual sort of things happened, and some less usual ones – I had a fall, which reduced my mobility significantly for the rest of the year, we went to a family wedding, our son moved into his new house, I submitted the PhD, to general rejoicing.
And then, on 9 October, a week after I’d submitted the thesis, I woke in the early hours to realise that my husband was having a cardiac arrest, and in the blur and muddle of a sudden awakening to realise that I was losing him. The paramedics did everything there was to be done, and kept on doing it until they knew there was nothing more that could be done. Our kids were summoned and arrived, and we sat, shell-shocked, trying to understand what had happened. In the space of an hour our world had utterly changed, for ever.
Since that day, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve watched or listened to, has been about that loss. The mountain of bereavement admin, of course, and the planning of the funeral. The decisions about how to manage here on my own, especially as I’m not very mobile at present. Every conversation, even when we’re not explicitly talking about ‘it’. I was determined to do my usual summaries of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched during the year, but I had to acknowledge and address the huge gulf between Before and After. And I still find I cannot listen to music in the focused way we used to.
It’s too early for me to have any profound reflections on grief. I’m just at the beginning of that journey. I’ve encountered it before, of course – the loss of my mother 26 years ago, the loss of my mother-in-law gradually to dementia and then finally to a stroke three Christmases ago, the loss of my younger brother to cancer in 2020. The difference here is that, as much as all of them were loved, however important they were to me, none of them was woven into the fabric of my daily life. And so I could go for hours, even days, feeling normal until I bumped into something or was ambushed by something that brought it back. Nothing is normal for me now and yet everything around me is familiar.
I know that the old Kubler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ hypothesis has been re-thought, to describe ‘states’ rather than stages, getting away from any notion of a linear process. If I have learned anything about grieving it is that it is not linear. The description of the five states also clearly encompasses a wide range of situations, including coming to terms with one’s own illness and mortality, and other life crises, and some of them seem alien to at least my experience of bereavement.
I have not in any of my grieving so far felt anger. Perhaps, as I do not believe in God, I have nothing/no one to rail and rage against, and the people I’ve lost have been lost to illnesses that, however cruel and brutal, are common, rather than to tragedies with a human cause. I haven’t ever asked, why him? why her? why me? The question makes no sense. Why? Because cancer invaded their body, because their heart had a genetic weakness, because dementia took away not only cognitive but other physical functions too. The same goes for bargaining: who would I be bargaining with, and for what? The people I’ve loved and lost aren’t coming back, however virtuous my life from this point on.
Denial? Only in the sense that in those early hours, as we prepared to make phone calls, we all had this sense of unreality, that we were perhaps about to waken family members and close friends with bad news that we had somehow hallucinated. But we knew. We knew there was no alternative reality to cling to, that the sense of unreality was a product of shock at something utterly unexpected, and of the only possible human response to death, that it makes no sense.
It makes no more sense now, over two months later, than it did in those awful first hours. How can a person be there, fully there, and then not, and so completely not that their absence from their own body is unmistakable and irrevocable? There’s an episode of Buffy that I will never, I suspect, be able to watch again, which confronts this, using a non-human to express what we all feel but don’t usually say:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5)
Faced with this incomprehensible reality, it is little wonder that human beings feel the need to believe in something after life, whether it is heaven, or reincarnation. Unfortunately those ideas seem as incomprehensible to me as death does. What lives on, I believe, is not the person, in some other sphere or inhabiting some other form, it is the memory of the person, the shape of them in the lives that they’ve left behind, the echo of their voice, the physical objects that they touched, the music that they loved. I do like this, however, which our son quoted in his tribute to his father at the funeral:
Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through – and it’s there, and you can see it, and you know what it is: it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be.Michael Schur, The Good Place
I was very moved by the way death was shown in The Good Place, the origin of this quote, a comedy about what happens after you die. Various versions of heaven and hell (the Good Place, the Bad Place) are encountered, but in the end, our protagonists choose, instead of going on forever, to become part of the ocean, part of the universe. And I can find more comfort in the idea that the people I have loved and lost are part of the ocean now than in the idea that they exist in some other plane, where I could theoretically be reunited with them in due course.
I know that this process of grieving will be lifelong. Each loss has altered me, and this one most profoundly. There is nothing in my life that is the same as it was on 8 October. And so I have to learn how to be myself, how to order my life, how to enjoy the things we used to share. It’s not that he defined me, rather that our partnership helped me to figure out who I am, to define myself.
I’ve learned some things so far.
I need to accept offers of help, whether I could manage without them or not, where they are prompted by the desire to support me and be useful. If I turn that away, I am in some way rejecting that person’s love. I’d rather swallow my stubborn independence in some small measure and say yes, thank you. And I need to ask for help clearly and directly when I really do need it. That’s not easy but it’s going to be vital.
Life is short, and one may get no notice that it’s about to end. After he died, we found so many things bought for him with love, that he was delighted to get, but so delighted that he saved them ‘for special’. That ‘special’ bottle of wine or whisky was untouched, the new rucksack still had its labels on, the book’s pages had not been opened, the cellophane was still on the CD or DVD. That’s not going to be the way I live, not now. If I have something lovely, especially something lovely that someone has given me, I will use and enjoy it now. Now may be the special time, for all we know.
The kindness of strangers has helped me more than I could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed with messages from my friends and family, and their support has been what has kept us from going under in these last two months. Practical and emotional support. Hugs and flowers and scones and lasagne and shared tears. But since I spoke about this on social media, I’ve also had support from people I’ve never met in real life. People may hesitate before expressing sympathy with someone they only know from a few tweets, because they fear intruding, or because they don’t feel they can express themselves articulately enough. The thing is, I’ve been public about what’s happened, so an expression of sympathy and support is not an intrusion. And I don’t expect anyone to have anything mind-blowingly profound to say – clichés have their place, in allowing us to reach out to someone we don’t know. And all of the ‘you’re in my thoughts’, ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘sending love’, and just ‘Oh, Cath’ have comforted and strengthened me, made me feel less alone. So, if you feel moved by someone’s situation, tell them. (Please, though, don’t give advice unless asked for, and don’t tell them they’ll feel better soon, and don’t say that everything happens for a reason…)
This is going to be a long haul. I will learn to live on my own, but to ask for help when I need it. I will learn to live in our home in a way that suits my needs and circumstances, and to celebrate the good things and the good times, and to enjoy the music and the TV and films that we used to enjoy together, as well as the new things I find, and the things that I always had to cajole him into watching or listening to. I’ll adapt, and I’ll cope, and I’ll be OK.
But we had 47 years of companionship, 44 years of marriage, and in all those years we were never apart for more than a week or so. We’ve now been apart for nearly twelve weeks, and I don’t understand where he’s got to. Our conversation hadn’t ended; there are so many things I want to tell him or discuss with him, things I want to ask him (the name of that neighbour who was so kind the other day, where on earth he put the locking wheel nuts for the car, that sort of thing), plans I want to make with him. Maybe the strength of that sensation, that he’s just popped out somewhere and been inexplicably delayed, will fade. But for the last 47 years, our lives were woven together and that can’t be unravelled. The pattern of my life will be different, but I will still see the threads of our companionship running through it.
What is grief, if not love, persevering? I took that line from the Marvel TV series, Wandavision. It took us a while to understand what was happening in the show, but I can see now that it was all about grief. And grief is all about love. The shape and power of that grief and that love will change, but I don’t believe they’ll fade into nothingness. And I don’t want them to.
At the funeral, I talked about the ordinariness of the last day we had together, a day which is only memorable because it was the last one.
In 44 years of marriage, there are more days like that than there are portentous or memorable ones. Days like that are what a lifetime of companionship is all about. A lifetime (all our adult lives, anyway) of affection, laughter, sharing out tasks and sharing worries, bickering (about things that mattered and about things that absolutely didn’t), watching detective dramas and Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and listening to music. Lots and lots of listening to music.
I don’t know what the shape of my days will be, without him. I’ll learn to listen to music and to watch the programmes and films we both loved, without him. I’ll go to concerts and the cinema and the theatre with other people, and I’ll spend time with our kids and our families and with friends. It will be strange, and difficult. But I’m thankful for those 44 years of everyday days, as well as the momentous and challenging and glorious and awful days, every kind of day. So, as Ray Davies put it (and as Kirsty MacColl sang it):
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.
I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.(R. Davies)
My love goes out to our children, who in their own profound grief, have given me so much strength, comfort and practical support. He was so very proud of them both, as am I.
So, 2022? I hope it will bring the completion of the PhD, weddings and babies, maybe a new knee for me. I can’t think much more widely than that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m deliberately trying not to grasp the enormity of living alone as a permanent state not just (as it sometimes feels at present) as an anomaly, or an experiment, because when I do for a moment I feel so weary and so daunted. If I think a day or a week at a time, I can do this. Because I’m not doing it alone, but with people I love and who love me. And if I hold on tight to that, I’ll find the strength I need to keep on keeping on.
I will hold on to my hat and hang on my hope, and wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day. And this poem, Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’, which you can hear read by my dear friend Ruth Arnold, is for all of us: ‘The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.’
I only saw two films at the cinema in 2021. It took me a while to feel confident in going back, but I’m glad I did, for the delight that was Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. (I subsequently saw West Side Story, see below) It seemed fitting, as well, given that the last films I saw at the cinema, in March 2020, were her Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The second of those was the last film I saw at the cinema with my late husband.
There are plenty of films here, viewed on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and regular TV channels. It’s a different experience, certainly, less immersive (I wouldn’t check my phone during a film at the cinema whereas, I’m afraid, I can’t always help myself when at home). But it’s been invaluable, during the various phases of lockdown, and during the weeks immediately after my husband’s death when some already familiar films provided comfort and distraction.
Anyone who has read my reviews of previous years will expect, and will get, a lot of detective, crime and thriller series, a fair bit of scifi/fantasy, and some serious drama. They might not expect a flurry of reality shows – indeed, neither did I. If anyone had told me that in October/November 2021, I would be binging Married at First Sight Australia, The Bachelor (Australia), and Selling Sunset, I would have scoffed. But there, indeed, I was. They served a very useful purpose – they were ludicrous, and despite featuring ‘real’ people, seemed to have no connection to any reality that I recognised, and that was fine, because (for the most part) nothing that happened on these shows was going to break my heart into little pieces. Rather, I spent a lot of time shaking my head in disbelief…
The following list of TV programmes and films (some with commentary, some not) includes things I watched with him, things we’d watched together but which I continued on my own, things I watched with the kids in the strange weeks following his death, and programmes/films to which they introduced me.
The A Word (series 3) – excellent performances, and very touching. Not the last word on autism (it’s far too complex to be that – as they say, if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person) but a portrait of one autistic child and his family.
It’s A Sin – this was stunning, and devastating. Superbly played by all of the leads (special mention to Keeley Hawes, who was horrifying as Ritchie’s mother).
Elizabeth R – I rewatched this to see how something that at the time seemed like landmark television held up 50 years later. It was slow by contemporary standards, and the budget constraints were pretty obvious in the crowd scenes, processions, battles, etc, but Glenda Jackson’s performance was as powerful as I remembered it.
Peaky Blinders – My husband never fancied watching this, despite so many people saying how good it was. I started watching it, with my son, after his death – whilst it’s not what you might call comfort watching, it was something that was good in its own right and had no associations with him that might have ambushed me. It’s brilliantly done, the script, the performances, the pacing, the sets are all marvellous, even if the accents are a bit wonky…
Small Axe – What struck me most forcibly was how different each film is from the others in the series. Mangrove is, of necessity, talky, with a fair bit of declaiming in the courtroom scenes, but Lovers’ Rock has only minimal dialogue, with long sequences where we are just watching people dance and sing along to the music. Music is at the heart of all the episodes except the final one, Education where the appalling travesty of education that was all too often SEN schooling was illustrated by a teacher inflicting his rendition of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on his class (and compounding the crime by claiming that the Animals wrote it…). These films were, individually and as a group, powerful and moving, and vital. It was hard to watch and listen to at times, but well worth doing so, whether one was generally familiar with the events and situations described or not.
Passing – Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel is understated, beautifully shot and full of tension. Wonderful performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson.
Petite Maman – a beautiful, magical exploration of loss. The trigger warning referred to ‘mild bereavement references’, and thankfully they were mild, poignant rather than heart wrenching.
The Dig – understated account of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo treasure, during the uneasy days just before the Second World War. Along the way it deals with class and gender prejudices, but with a very gentle touch.
The Harder They Fall – gripping and violent account of black outlaws in the wild west. Not only are most of the characters black, but women play key roles too (Regina King in particular is magnificent). The soundtrack is brilliant – gospel, rap, afrobeat…
1917 – a super-tense account of two young soldiers’ attempt to get an urgent message through to another batallion, across no-man’s land and behind enemy lines. The tension is heightened by the filming which is, for much of the film, a long continuous take
Good Vibrations – warm and funny account of the eponymous record shop in Belfast, and its role in the success of the Undertones.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – fascinating, flawed depiction of the trial of activists for incitement of violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. I wanted more, a lot more, about Bobby Seale, originally the eighth man, without legal representation, and at one point bound and gagged in the courtroom, but it wasn’t that film. Very talky (but how could a courtroom drama be otherwise?), and I suspect somewhat romanticised (did that final scene – the reading of the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam during the course of the trial – take place, and did junior prosecutor Richard Schultz stand, out of respect to the fallen?). The word that crops up most often in reviews is ‘portentous’ and I guess that’s fair.
Battlestar Galactica – the 2004 series, and very different to the original 1970s show. This is gritty and hard-hitting – blood, sweat and tears all in copious supply. The plot was complex and intelligent, and rarely predictable (even when one is very familiar with the genre). The political/religious threads were fascinating, and the ending didn’t tie them all up neatly, leaving viewers to decide, or to wonder.
His Dark Materials – series 2 of the Philip Pullman adaptation was even better than the first. I knew the plot, but still got goosebumps
The Last Wave – ludicrous French fantasy which failed to make any sense at all. We’d watched in hope of something more like The Returned, but it wasn’t even close.
The Mandalorian – very engaging Star Wars spin-off which I managed to comprehend despite not being entirely au fait with that world.
Agents of Shield – the last ever series, and it went out with impeccable style, lots of heart, and a final episode that eschewed high drama and tragedy for a poignant glimpse of something resembling real life.
Loki – wonderfully entertaining, and the double act between Hiddleston and Owen Wilson was a joy to watch.
Wandavision – this was outstanding television. We had no idea what was going on, for quite a while, and the darkness crept up on us. Ultimately, it’s about grief. ‘What is grief, if not love, persevering?’.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – more like the Avengers films than the previous two spin-offs, this marked out new territory with its recognition of race, a tough look at the realities rather than just cheering the notion of a black Captain America.
Hawkeye pairs the supposedly low-key Avenger with an Avenger wannabe, played by Hailee Steinfeld. This works extremely well – she’s desperate to be a super hero, and to be the partner of a super hero, he just wants to get home for Christmas with his kids. There are also obviously bad guys and conspiracies and some jolly good archery.
Black Widow – about bloody time. But also a bit late, in that Natasha died in Endgame. But it fills in her story very satisfyingly, with a good dash of humour and lots of fighting and exploding. Loved Florence Pugh as Yelena.
Shang Chi & the Legend of the Ten Rings – a cracking addition to the MCU, with a predominantly Asian cast, this is visually stunning, and I love the cast, particularly Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh.
The Walking Dead – on to the final stretch now (disregarding any future spinoffs). Since the Whisperers storyline it has been back to full strength, with inventive approaches to storytelling forced on them by the pandemic.
Doctor Who – a New Year’s special and the final series for Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor.The Special was OK, the series was much better – it threw any number of elements into the mix and then stirred them up furiously, and it was genuinely exhilarating. The ‘Village of the Angels’ ep was also genuinely chilling. A couple more specials and then a new (old) showrunner and a new Doc…
Deadpool 2 – very funny, very rude
Fantastic Beasts 2 – completely baffling. Did I nod off partway through? What was all that about? And why?
Happy Deathday – a Halloween choice, and a good one. I do love a time loop.
28 Weeks Later – I saw 28 Days later years ago, but had never got round to the sequel. It may not live up to that, and there were some dodgy elements of the plot that were never explained (e.g., given that the zombies are driven by mindless rage, how does the zombified father have the mental control to stalk and pursue his children?), but it was thoroughly entertaining.
Justice League – this was long. Entertaining enough (once we’d worked out that the reason we seemed to have been pitched right into the middle of the action without any explanation as to what was going on was that we’d mistakenly selected the recording of part 2, thus pitching us right into the middle of the action). I can’t get along with this Batman though – the dark broodiness seems comical.
Kingsman – very silly, very violent, quite rude, very diverting.
Lucy – started off brilliantly, got dafter, if more visually exciting, as it went along.
The Shape of Water – beautiful, magical, strange and moving. It will also always be to me the last thing that I watched with my husband, the night before he died.
Shazam – post-bereavement fun watch
Starship Troopers – violent political satire on militaristic nationalism, based on a Heinlein novel which celebrated militaristic nationalism (and which director Verhoeven described as ‘a very bad book’ and so right wing he could not bear to read it all).
Zombieland Double Tap – not as good as the first film, but entertaining
NB – the adjective ‘grim’ crops up a number of times below. This is not necessarily a criticism, more of a warning that in this particular drama we are a long way from Midsomer, Mallorca or Paradise.
All the Sins (Finland, series 1 & 2) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Darkness (Those That Kill) (Denmark, series 2) – serial killer series focusing on a profiler, who is so bad at her job that she sleeps with the perp (sorry if I’ve spoilered it, but actually I’ve saved you some time…)
Deutschland 89 (Germany, series 3) – a fine finale to the series, as we’ve followed Martin through the last six years of the GDR. Whereas much of the history invoked in ’83 and ’86 wasn’t too familiar to us, this one of course was, and it was fascinating to see if from such a different perspective.
DNA (Denmark) – entertaining, but plot holes aplenty
Ice Cold Murders – Rocco Schiavone (Italy) – the plots are ok, and the maverick detective is ok if a bit of a cliché, but the ‘comedic’ elements haven’t travelled very well and sit poorly with the darker elements of the plot
Monster (Norway) – grim. Lots of religious repression.
Nordic Murders (Germany) – not really Nordic, as we understand it. Set on an island that is part Polish, part German. Series 1 (I haven’t followed up subsequent series) started off well enough with the release of a former prosecutor after serving a prison sentence for murder, but then every episode seemed to feature said former prosecutor somehow getting involved in, and miraculously solving, the crimes.
Paris Police 1900 (France) – fascinating, set in the days when the Dreyfus affair was tearing France apart, and antisemitic conspiracy theories were rife.
Rebecka Martinsson (Sweden) – we watched series 1 some time ago so were slightly thrown when the eponymous detective looked entirely different in series 2 thanks to a change of actor. Having got used to that, it was entertaining, even if the lead characters were quite annoying.
Spiral (France) – our final encounter with Laure, Gilou and Josephine. They will be sorely missed.
The Twelve (Belgium) – a courtroom drama with two strands, a murder trial, and the personal lives of some of the jurors. There were some holes in the former plot line, and the second was a bit soapy, but overall it was enjoyable enough.
21 Bridges – v. enjoyable cop thriller with Chadwick Boseman in the lead.
The Valhalla Murders (Iceland) – Grim.
Bloodlands – convoluted plot, not entirely convincing. A second series is apparently in the works but I may not bother.
Inspector George Gently – I do love a period detective drama, if it’s done well and thoughtfully uses the period setting rather than just tapping into some vague nostalgia for the old days when there were bobbies on the beat. Gently is an excellent example of the genre – the 60s setting brings out, in early episodes, the fact that murderers faced the death penalty, the way in which the war was still so present in the minds of those who fought in it, and a barrier to understanding between the generations, the racism, sexism, homophobia and so on that were taken for granted…
WPC 56 – the tone of this is all over the place. Quite serious stuff about racism and sexism and heavy-handed policing, mingled with rather heavy-handed comedy/slapstick involving a bumbling spiv, or a clumsy copper. The lead character (in series 1 and 2) is also an unconvincing mixture of forthright and gutsy, with naïve and romantic (not an impossible combination, I do realise, but neither the script nor the performance is good enough to make it work).
Endeavour (season 6) – yes, this is period detective drama. But it’s so much more. The quality of the writing is consistently high, and the performances, particularly from the core team of Evans, Allam and Lesser, are subtle and convincing – and often very moving. And of course, whilst we are enjoying the 60s/70s setting, we are always conscious that this is the ‘origin story’ of Morse and there’s a fascination in seeing Evans’ portrayal, and the scripts, gradually connecting with the original series.
Grace – didn’t quite work, despite John Simm, who I really like. It’s quite a cracker of a plot (based on, though its ending departs from, Peter James’ Dead Simple) but the eponymous DI’s dabbling in the supernatural (he consults a medium, despite having nearly lost his job over doing so in a previous case) was odd – I think we were meant to believe that the medium was the real deal and his input valuable to the case, but it wasn’t very convincing.
Innocent – series 2, but with an entirely different cast and plot from series 1. The link is that both feature people who have done time but then had their convictions overturned, and focus both on the difficulty of reintegrating with their previous lives, and their desire to expose the real murderer.
Killing Eve – season 3. OK, I know it’s not quite as brilliant as the first two, but even slightly less good Killing Eve is a cut above the average.
Line of Duty – I did not share the disappointment that some felt about the big reveal which turned out not to be such a big reveal. Yes, our household did let out an incredulous shout as we realised who was being led into the interrogation suite, but it was obvious immediately that this was no criminal mastermind but someone obeying orders from much higher up, so we are still waiting for the actual Big Reveal (series 7?)
Mystery Road – gritty Australian crime series (series 2). Excellent, and featuring a significant number of indigenous Australian actors, including the lead, Aaron Pederson. He’s incredibly dour – the character was described by the Guardian’s reviewer as ‘caught between traditions, between worldviews, between laws and lores’. The history and racial politics of Australia are always present here, whether as a troubling undercurrent or in the foreground of the plot.
Shetland – the series has long since parted company with Ann Cleeves’ novels, but stands on its own two feet very well.
Too Close – a psychological drama with a number of glaring plot holes, but great performances from Emily Watson and Denise Gough.
Traces – excellent crime drama written by Val McDermid, set in Dundee, and featuring Martin Compston (Line of Duty).
Unforgotten (Season 4) – this series is always emotionally hard-hitting. The ‘reveal’ scene at the end of Season 3 still haunts me, and the focus on the way in which the impact of the crime continues to devastate long afterwards is powerfully done. This series was no exception. Apparently some viewers were cross about the ending, which I don’t really understand – I thought it was, yes, heartbreaking but handled with subtlety and humanity.
Vera (Season 10) – we do love Vera. And I have a very soft spot for her DS, especially (I may have mentioned this in previous years’ reviews) the way he kneels down to put her crime scene shoe covers on.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the 1979 series, with Alec Guinness as (surely) the definitive Smiley. I remember watching it at the time and being enthralled. The opening sequence was slow, and almost dialogue-free, but told us an awful lot regardless – subtle atmosphere building and character development. Everything was slightly sepia, as if nicotine stained. The 2011 film was excellent, but I was surprised how closely they followed the series.
Gosford Park – easy to get distracted by the star cast, but one did have to concentrate to follow the plot. Thoroughly entertaining, great script, splendid performances, no depth or nuance but that didn’t stop it being most enjoyable.
Death in Paradise/The Mallorca Files/McDonald & Dodds/Midsomer Murders – murder in a beautiful setting and/or with a slightly tongue in cheek approach, nothing too heavy or emotionally engaging. There are times when that’s just what one needs.
Brooklyn 99 – having been urged for several years to watch this by my son, I finally started to watch it, with him, in the days following Martyn’s death. Very funny, very well written.
Community (Season 6) – They got six seasons, but no sign of a movie… Continued to be super-meta and bonkers to the very end.
Good Girls – this one was my daughter’s contribution to post-bereavement watching. Whilst some (many) plot developments could be seen coming, the script and the performances make it immensely enjoyable.
Modern Family (Season 9) – it tends to re-tread the same ground repeatedly, but Phil makes me laugh such a lot that all is forgiven.
Parks & Recreation (Season 1) – I gather that Season 1 is simply an intro to when it gets really good, from Season 2 onwards. I intend to check that out soon. Meantime, we rather enjoyed Season 1.
What We Do in the Shadows – mad, silly, rude and gory
This Way Up – Aisling Bea’s comedy has so much heart. It’s full of people who aren’t horrible, just human and who make mistakes and hurt people without particularly intending to, and people who are trying really hard to cope with life. It made me laugh and cry.
Ted Lasso (Season 1) – a warm hug of a show. But not as cosy as that suggests, it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness and unkindness, and Ted isn’t a Forrest Gump, as I feared, but a very intelligent person who’s found a way of living and relating to people that merely seems simple. I loved it. And it’s about football.
Films we watched, huddled together on the sofa, in the aftermath: Bridesmaids, Hitch, Lovebirds, Murder Mystery. All enjoyable and silly, and just what we needed.
Strictly Come Dancing – I had never watched this before. I can’t imagine how I could have sold it to Martyn, TBH. But I am now so invested, having wept my way through Rose’s silent dance, and John and Johannes talking about coming out, and Rhys’s Dad and AJ’s Mum… The dancing is so joyous and life affirming, and for all the clichés about ‘journeys’ we are watching people grow and flourish in a most extraordinary way. I’m hooked.
The Great British Bake-off – another bit of joyful telly. These people are competing against one another, but they seem to care about each other too. As the final three waited for the announcement of the winner, they were all holding hands, which was rather sweet. Baking, like dancing, is something I cannot comprehend or imagine ever doing, even incompetently, so it does all feel rather like magic.
Taskmaster – it does depend a bit on who the competitors are, but generally it’s engaging, funny, and bonkers.
Get Back – this was glorious. I remember watching the Let it Be documentary, way way back, with Martyn, and the selection of material made everything seem sour, and sad. Seeing all these hours of footage, what comes across is the joy that they still found in making music, the laughter, the sweet moments, the magical process where we hear the song we know emerging from what seemed to be an aimless jam. There’s friction, sure, but ‘you know, lads, the band!’ as Paul says. And I’ve always loved that rooftop performance. Favourite moments – the ‘Get Back’ moment, John and Yoko waltzing to ‘I Me Mine’, Heather mimicking Yoko’s primal screamy vocals, Paul saying, very early on, that it would be really cool if the gig were to be interrupted by the cops. Paul mocking the idea that future generations might think the band broke up because Yoko sat on an amp. Mal. And Glyn. Everyone trying to stall the cops as they head for the roof. I know some people (probably quite a few) found its running time too long. All I can say is that it never outstayed its welcome for me. My apprenticeship was 47 years of listening to musicians jamming, trying things out, allowing tunes to emerge. Listening as it happened, and then listening to recordings of it happening… So every minute of this was tinged with sadness, that Martyn wasn’t there to watch it with me, and memories of listening to this music with him, and listening to him making his own music.
Summer of Soul (or – when the revolution could not be televised) – 2021 documentary, mixing footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival with commentary from some of the artists, and some members of the audience. It features performances from (amongst others), Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder… An extraordinary record of an extraordinary event.
Hamilton – a real treat. The conceit (rapping about 18th century American history) is audacious, and carried off with such flair and style. As the Guardian reviewer put it, it offers us ‘history de-wigged’, it captures ‘the fervour and excitement of revolution’, and celebrates the ways in which immigrants shaped America by casting almost entirely non-white performers. Stunning, and I will be re-watching this soon.
Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace – wonderful footage from the recording of the Amazing Grace album, Aretha paying her gospel dues. That voice, oh lord. And she sang her mash-up of ‘You’ve got a friend’ with ‘Precious Lord’.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool – brilliant doc on one of my absolute favourite musicians, a most remarkable and fascinating man with an extraordinary life.
Once were Brothers – another excellent doc, this one on The Band, largely through Robbie Robertson’s reminiscences, which are very articulate and thoughtful.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes – a labour of love from writer/director and actor Caroline Catz, exploring the life and work of this innovator in electronic music, someone who undoubtedly should be better known.
West Side Story – Spielberg was never going to diss the original movie, so my fear was that it might be just a bit too reverential, rather than that he would ditch any of the things that are most vital about it. The music, the lyrics, the choreography, are all there, and any changes are contextual – the setting for some of the big dance numbers, who some of the songs are given to, for example. There’s additional dialogue which allows for a fleshing out of the social issues touched upon in ‘Gee Officer Krupke’, and the context of a neighbourhood that’s not only disputed territory between the rival gangs, but scheduled for demolition and future gentrification. Lovely as Natalie Wood was, I much prefer Rachel Zegler, and whilst Ariana Debose can’t eclipse Rita Moreno (who could), she matches the vibrancy of that performance and, of course, we get Moreno anyway, in an added role as Doc’s widow. She gets to sing ‘Somewhere’, which broke me, that song, in her still lovely but more fragile voice, reflecting her own attempts to find a place for her and the man she loved. I loved it, and I cried, quite a lot, as I always do, but I also smiled in sheer delight, as I always do.
Carousel/South Pacific – first time for the former, the second (my Mum’s favourite musical) I have watched many, many times. I really disliked Carousel. Most of the music didn’t really move me (apart from it’s one really big wonderful tune), and I loathed Billy Bigelow, at best a charmless yob, at worst a violent bully, and so I hated him being given another chance to show Julie that he loved her (by hitting their daughter, apparently – but it’s OK because it felt like a kiss…). This stuff is seriously toxic and that one really big wonderful tune cannot redeem it. South Pacific, on the other hand, only a couple of years later from the same team, is wonderful. Now I know they dodge the issue of racial prejudice by having lovely Joe Cable die before he can keep his promise to Liat, but that song, ‘You Have to be Carefully Taught’ is brilliant, and pretty radical. Just to have Nellie and Joe acknowledging the irrationality of their prejudices, and their feeling of helplessness in the face of those irrational responses, is pretty radical. The tunes are great, the performances are great, and the use of coloured filters (a lot more extreme than the director had intended) is still startling and strange.
A mixed bag of musical biogs on Billie, Ella, Fela Kuti and Betty Davis (this last one rather undermined by the dearth of performance footage)
It’s impossible to think back over this year without constantly labelling the memories as ‘before’ or ‘after’. There are things I’d never have watched if he’d still been here, and things it seems awful that he missed because he would have loved them (Get Back, the latest series of Endeavour, to name but two). I don’t want to get maudlin but melancholy is inevitable. We had 44 years of watching telly on the sofa together, and we shared a love for Doctor Who for the last 47 years (starting with Pertwee, ending with Whitaker – I go on alone to the next regeneration). This time next year that before/after feeling will be less acute. I will have a whole 12 months of watching on my own, with family, with friends. I’ll still wish he was here though.
This is a second half of two halves. In the first three months, my reading patterns were as normal, two or three books on the go at any one time, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, of high, low and middle brow, of different genres. On 9 October everything changed, for ever. My husband’s sudden death left me shell-shocked, devastated. I could not concentrate enough to read anything demanding – indeed, for a week or so I read nothing at all, a completely unprecedented state. When I felt able to read again I had to pick very carefully, and I started and discarded any number of books that I would normally relish. The variation in length and depth of the reviews which follow largely depends on whether I had completed and made some notes on the book before, or after.
As always, I aim to avoid spoilers but read on at your own risk. As always, my aim is to share my enthusiasms, so I’ve missed out one or two books about which I could only have said negative things. That doesn’t mean an unqualified recommendation for everything I read this year but I think it will be clear where I have major caveats…
James Baldwin – Going to Meet the Man/Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone
I read the former, a collection of short stories, a very long time ago, so they seem only faintly familiar (and some of the themes and ideas obviously are in the novels too) but the joy in reading Baldwin’s prose, and dialogue, is something I will never tire of. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is probably my favourite story – it taps into the church and musical environments which stimulated some of Baldwin’s most beautiful writing. But there is no beauty in the brilliant title story – just horror, plainly told. Tell Me… is classic Baldwin, exploring race and sexuality with candour and courage. It is, as he so often is, deeply moving.
Laurent Binet – HHhH
This was fascinating. I can’t imagine how one could make the story of the Anthropoid mission to assassinate Heydrich boring, even if one just recounted the facts. But what Binet does is to interrogate his own processes as a writer, to tell us a story and then cast doubt on it, to question his own motives in writing about Heydrich himself (is he becoming unhealthily fascinated with this man?). I find fiction about the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities inherently problematic – why tell fictionalised stories when the real stories still need telling, and re-telling – but this confronts the problem head on, acknowledges the invention as such, but in so doing gives us a powerful and vivid account of extraordinary, tragic events.
Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half
Not so long back I read Nella Larson’s Passing, which was my first (fictional) encounter with the phenomenon of passing for white. This powerful novel brings that to life through the portrayal of two twins, both of whom could pass, and the decisions they both make. I had absorbed from Larson’s account the constant agony of those who decided to pass, the hyperconsciousness of everything they say and do, the fear of exposure. What this account gave me, in addition, was the way in which the person passing for white is forced to identify more strongly with their white neighbours, and avoid all contact with black people for fear that they, somehow, would sense the pretence and expose them. It’s a brilliant, complex picture of racial politics at the personal level, through two generations, and it will stay with me for a long time.
Susannah Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell/Piranesi
I’d seen the TV dramatization of JS & Mr N – which was very good – but the book was even better. And then Piranesi was on a whole other level. I don’t really know how to talk about the book before going back and re-reading it again. It is beautiful, mysterious and moving, without losing the dry humour that was so much a part of its predecessor. And I’m a sucker for labyrinths, so there’s that. Nods to Narnia, echoes of Le Guin. One of my books of the year, without a doubt. Just read it, OK?
Harlan Coben – Win
Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me
What a delight. For anyone who enjoys Coe’s writing, for anyone fascinated by cinema, or who’s ever seen a Billy Wilder movie. I knew a bit about Wilder’s life and have seen several of his films, including Fedora, which is at the heart of the narrative, and this casts a fascinating light on him and his sidekick Iz Diamond. A warm, humorous and touching novel.
Abigail Dean – Girl A
I was afraid this was going to be a harrowing account of abusive parenting and I guess it is but it is far more the account of the aftermath, of how one learns – tries to learn – to live again, to love oneself and other people, to trust, through the account of ‘Girl A’. Reminders of Room, though it’s structured very differently, going back to the awful past, and then to the aftermath of escape, and then to the present.
Len Deighton – Berlin Game
Having nearly run out of unread Le Carrés, I thought I’d revisit Deighton, by whom I’ve read a fair few over the years, but not this series. Thoroughly enjoyable, will read more.
Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle
I do love a bit of alt. history, especially WWII related. I’m surprised therefore that I never read this, during my sci-fi phase in my late teens/early 20s, but I think I only ever read Do Androids…. This was excellent – the depiction of the alt. US is thoroughly thought through and convincing and the ending turns everything inside out. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation, but I suspect it’s very different. Might give it a watch at some point.
Eva Dolan – After You Die
The fourth in the gripping, Peterborough set Zigic & Ferreira series, set in a Hate Crimes unit.
Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar
A powerful, uncomfortable read. None of the characters are exactly likeable, but they are convincingly drawn and the narrative plays with, if not our sympathies, at least our willingness to be convinced by them.
Margaret Drabble – Pure Gold Baby
I hadn’t read any Drabble for about 30 years. That was a re-read of The Millstone, and I recall it vividly, sitting in our garden, and reading about the protagonist’s experience of having a sick child in hospital and being excluded from being by her side. I’d just been through that, the first part of that, but I’d been cared for by the hospital, and had been able to be with my son throughout (I also had a partner, unlike Rosamund). This new book shouts out to The Millstone – its central character is a single parent, with a child who has some learning/developmental disability, never clearly defined. At one point, she recalls the way in which she was expected to think about her child, as a ‘millstone’. She doesn’t, the child is her pure gold baby. We follow Jess and her daughter through the decades as the narrator, a close friend, shares not only what happened, but the debates and discussions that the group of friends had about mental health and women’s lives and love and parenthood. I loved it.
Helen Fields – Perfect Prey
I’ve been reading these in entirely the wrong order, but this is the second in the DI Callanach series.
Jo Furniss – The Last to Know
I’ve read the previous two of Furniss’ books, the post-apocalypse All the Little Children, the psychological thriller The Trailing Spouse, and now this one, which has a very strong Gothic flavour about it. The set up is familiar – a married couple return to his family home, and the wife feels immediately an atmosphere of threat which leads her to doubt everything she thinks she knows about her husband. It’s nicely, and not too predictably, worked out, and Furniss builds up the tension very effectively.
Amitav Ghosh – Flood of Fire
Final volume in the Ibis trilogy which was just fantastic, exhilarating, teeming with characters and landscapes and plot and historical detail, and sweeping the reader along with the narrative.
Lesley Glaister – Blasted Things
Glaister never lets me down. Most of her novels have a contemporary setting but this one pitches us right into the horrors of a WWI field hospital, and then the conventionality of a 1920s middle-class marriage. The brutality of the first and the claustrophobia of the second are skilfully conveyed, and the characters are vivid and multi-dimensional. At times I thought I could see where the plot was leading but I was invariably wrong. I’d like to re-read this to savour the writing, as my concentration is still shot and I have a tendency to race through books to get the plot.
Winston Graham – Ross Poldark/Demelza/Jeremy Poldark/Warleggan/Black Moon
Post-bereavement binge reading. I’d never read the Poldark series, but was content to revisit the plot familiar to me from the recent TV series, and to conjure up mental images of the Cornish coastline.
Elly Griffiths – The Midnight Hour
The latest Brighton mystery, with police and private detectives working together to solve a crime. As always, Griffiths’ novels are a delight.
Susan Hill – A Change of Circumstance
The latest Simon Serrailer novel.
Nick Hornby – Juliet Naked
I did feel ‘seen’, as they say, whilst reading this. Musical obsessions, the kind that make one track down an alternative mix or a rare bootleg live recording because it has an extra few notes from the object of one’s obsession, yes, thank you, we know about that. Very funny, and rather touching too.
Katherine Ryan Howard – 56 Days
Writing about the pandemic is tricky, given where we are now. I’ve seen TV programmes take various tacks – ignore, nod to it with the occasional shot of masked shoppers or whatever, or set something in the build up to ‘all this’ (see Series 2 of This Way Up). This one goes for it – the narrative starts in mid-pandemic but darts back to the days when we were talking about it but with no idea of what was to come – and really uses the ideas of lockdown and isolation to drive the plot forward. Very intriguing and tense and took me by surprise at a number of points.
Stephen King – Billy Summers
King, it would be pretty uncontroversial to say, is on a roll. His recent books are amongst his very best, and his embrace of the crime genre (even when he turns it to his own purposes) has helped to overcome the one problem with his fiction, the endings. This one is completely gripping throughout.
John Lanchester – The Wall
I had no idea what to expect of this, having downloaded it on the strength of Capital. We’re in a future Britain, changed irrevocably because of climate change (the past events which have created this new version of the world are only touched upon lightly, we have to accept this world as it is, with its rules and structures).
John le Carré – The Tailor of Panama
This was the book I was reading at the point when my life changed completely. I bear it no particular grudge, but would need to re-read before reviewing its place in the Le Carré oeuvre.
Laura Lippman – Dream Girl
Lippman possibly channelling King here (I won’t say which King, because that might be slightly spoilery). As always, superbly written.
Megha Majumdar – A Burning
This one is a heartbreaker. Majumdar gives the reader hope and then snatches it away, over and over. Beautifully done, and the three voices that we hear are clear and convincing, however flawed their characters and perspectives.
Jennifer Makumbi – Manchester Happened
A fascinating collection of short stories about migration, specifically between Uganda and Manchester, that illuminate many different perspectives. I was particularly taken with the first story, set in the early 50s, as I’ve been doing a PhD on a novel written at that time, and set in Manchester (Passing Time – I may have mentioned it once or twice)
Klaus Mann – Mephisto
This isn’t a fun read – it’s bitter, cynical, despairing. How could it be other, written as it was by an exile from Nazi Germany, in 1936? It is based very much on real people (Goering, Goebbels and their wives, future Hollywood star Elisabeth Bergner, and many others), and got Mann into difficulties when the model for central character Hendrik Hofgens objected vigorously to Mann’s portrayal of him as someone who made a pact with the devil, in exchange for fame and success…
Denise Mina – The End of the Wasp Season
Mina’s crime novels are always unsettling and this is no exception. She wrongfooted me several times during this narrative, but not just for the sake of it.
Erich Maria Remarque – Arch of Triumph
I read a lot of Remarque during my teens (starting in the obvious place with All Quiet, but particularly enjoying his novels set between the wars, Three Comrades, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, A Night in Lisbon. This one powerfully conveys the life of people who’ve ended up in Paris in those precarious days, without documents. Coincidentally, it reminded me that I had the remnants of a bottle of Calvados at the back of a pantry shelf. I no longer have those remnants.
C J Sansom – Heartstone/Lamentation
Two Shardlake historical detective novels. I enjoy these, although sometimes the style grates (too much ‘he said sadly/she said quietly/he said grimly’ and a bit too much of people telling each other the history)
Elif Shafak – 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World
A strange one, this. The narratives of our protagonist, who is dead when we first meet her, but whose memories take 10 minutes, 38 seconds to fade, and she shares them with us, as she passes from one world to another, and of her loyal friends, all of them people who for one reason or another are on the margins, are powerful and moving. The tone changes in the final act, becomes almost comedic, which is strange.
Ali Smith – How to be Both
It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this, with the shifting tenses and then the shifting timeframes and perspectives, but as with all of Ali Smith’s work, it’s worth the effort, and will be worth re-reading.
Zadie Smith – Swingtime
I still haven’t quite come to terms with Zadie Smith, but I enjoyed this one more than NW. There was something troubling about the portrayal of Tracey and her mum though, a hint of snobbery?
Cath Staincliffe – Running out of Road
Not for the first time, Staincliffe made me hold my breath for long stretches of narrative.
Stuart Turton – The Devil and the Dark Water
A vividly written historical thriller, set on the high seas, with a supernatural (is it or isn’t it?) thread. Very vividly written
Nicola Upson – Sorry for the Dead/An Expert in Murder/Angel with Two Faces/Two for Sorrow/Fear in the Sunlight/The Death of Lucy Kyte
Post-bereavement binge reading of a series in which the real-life crime writer/dramatist Josephine Tey is the protagonist in various fictional murders.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – Lolly Willowes
Dorothy Whipple – High Wages
I loved this, my second Whipple. A resourceful young woman as our hero, and the crushing weight of social conventions at the time (written in 1930).
Chris Whitaker – We Begin at the End
An absolutely gripping and moving crime thriller, with a compelling young female hero.
Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller – The Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan
Carole Angier – Speak Silence: In Search of W G Sebald
The first biography of W G Sebald, hampered somewhat by its author not having the cooperation of Sebald’s wife or daughter. This does mean that a lot of it is very speculative and dependent on sources whose reliability we might reasonably question. There’s lots of new information here, however, and some useful insights.
James Baldwin – The Last Interview
Anthony Burgess – Obscenity & the Arts
Ciaran Carson – Belfast Confetti
I discovered this poet accidentally through my PhD researches, which brought up a remarkable poem, ‘Turn Around’, about maps and labyrinths.
Kate Clanchy – Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me
Oh boy, where to start. I read this having already seen some of the negative comments on Twitter, but also having read many of the poems that Clanchy has posted from the young poets she’s worked with, and found them very striking, and moving. She is trying, I think, in Some Kids, to let us see the diversity of these young people in all its glory, but there’s something very off-key about the way she describes them, and ultimately it was a very uncomfortable read.
Teju Cole – Known & Strange Things: Essays
Dan Davies – In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile
If I say that this is the one book I’ve read so far this year that made me feel physically sick, it is no reflection on the author or the writing. It’s a response to his subject. I felt a sense of hopelessness in reading it, at the opportunities to stop him that were missed, through bad luck or deliberate blindness, or corruption. It’s a shocking read, rightly so.
Grant Graff – The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11
An extraordinary account of 9/11, built from the words of those who experienced it, directly or vicariously as they waited to hear from people they loved, including the transcripts of phone calls from the planes and other emergency calls. It’s fascinating, often heartbreaking, and sheds new light on an event that we might all feel we know, because those images are so ubiquitous and burned into our memories.
Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump
Leo Marks – Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945
The memoir of a man who was key to the code-setting and code-breaking activities during the war, and who knew most of the SOE operatives who were sent into France. It’s self-deprecating, with a wry humour, but Marks speaks movingly and powerfully of the tragedy of what happened to those young men and women.
Ben MacIntyre – Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II
An account of one of the more improbable seeming exploits of British intelligence during the war – a corpse, bearing apparent secrets that were meant to deceive the enemy.
Caitlin Moran – More than a Woman
Ridiculously funny, but also very moving when Moran talks about her daughter’s eating disorder. It doesn’t always resonate with me – for starters, I’m much further ahead on that journey than Moran or probably much of her intended readership – but when it does, it really does.
Mary Oliver – American Primitive
I chose ‘In Blackwater Woods’ for my husband’s funeral ceremony. ‘To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go’.
Kavita Puri – Partition Voices: Untold British Stories
First hand accounts from the Partition of India and Pakistan. Harrowing and haunting.
Philippe Sands – The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive
Reads like a thriller, the account of a senior Nazi who escaped arrest after the war, but it never loses sight of what Otto Wachter was responsible for, and Sands draws out the connections between Wachter and the fate of his own family.
Kate Vigurs – Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE
SOE again. I’ve been fascinated by these stories since I was a teenager, watching old black & white films – Odette, and Carve her Name with Pride. This is a much less romanticised account than those films gave, and doesn’t shy away from the extent to which naivety or over-confidence led to some of the tragedies which befell the agents.
Isobel Wilkerson – The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
I thought I knew nothing about the Great Migration, but reading this gripping account, I realised that everything I’ve read about the African-American experience in the 20th century, fictional and non-fictional, has had this at the core. Fascinating.
Reading has always been my solace as well as my inspiration. It will be again, even if for now I’m reluctant to tackle anything too challenging, or anything which might come too close to my own grief and loss.
My two novels of the year are Jon McGregor’s Lean, Fall, Stand, and Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi. In non-fiction, I’ll pick Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking, an account of the early months of the pandemic, and Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors, about child survivors of the Holocaust. (Both are reviewed in my half-time report.)
Thank you to all of the writers whose work has entertained, comforted, amazed, intrigued and in whatever other ways enriched me in 2021.
I do appear to have read quite a lot of books in the first half of 2021… And this isn’t quite everything – I’ve left out one or two re-reads, one or two very academic books that I read solely for purposes of my thesis, and one or two that were just such a waste of time to read that I couldn’t be bothered to waste further time saying how rubbish they were. Not that everything I list here was marvellous, but there is a difference, I would say, between noting my issues with, e.g., Ian McEwan’s Solar, and slating a random thriller that I got for 99p off Amazon. I’m reasonably discriminating in my acquisitions, so it’s rare that there are more than a couple of utter duds. And ultimately, the reason I write about what I read is to share the good stuff, to infect other people with my own enthusiasms, and big up the writers who’ve given me pleasure and enlightenment.
I’ve split fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is in strictly alphabetical author order, not grouped by genre. Non-fiction is grouped, very roughly, by topic. I’ve included links to reviews where they’re not too spoilery but as always, caveat lector.
Eric Ambler – The Mask of Dimitrios. A cracking thriller, set in the tense period before the outbreak of WWII, and pitting a writer of detective novels against an international network of crime, from Istanbul to Paris. Ambler was hugely influential, particularly on Graham Greene, and his perspective is politically informed and leftist.
James Baldwin – Another Country/Just Above my Head. I read the former as a teenager, and it is just as bleakly powerful half a century later. The latter is new to me, and I gather is not regarded as one of his best but I loved it, loving the rhythms of the prose and the dialogue, the elegiac tone, the immersion in the church and in music. I’ve been absorbed in Baldwin’s life and work over the last couple of years, his essays and novels, an excellent biography (see below), and Raoul Peck’s remarkable film, I Am Not Your Negro. Plus he cropped up in a Radio 4 programme hosted by Clarke Peters, about the 1987 performance of his play, The Amen Corner. Everything I read, hear, watch makes me admire and love Baldwin more.
Belinda Bauer – Exit. I’ve been a fan of Bauer’s sharp, off-beat crime novels for several years now, and this is terrific. It’s very funny, in a dark way, and it keeps on surprising the reader without resorting to the kind of twists for twists’ sake that too many thriller writers employ in lieu of convincing characterisation and intelligent plotting…
Mark Billingham – Cry Baby – another excellent crime writer. This is a Tom Thorne novel, but a prequel, going back to the time before the start of the series (Sleepyhead). Thorne is a not a rookie here though, he’s already got ten years (and associated traumas) under his belt, and this case is a brute.
William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms. One never knows what to expect with Boyd. This starts off in seemingly very familiar territory – in fact, we’re in The 39 Steps territory. From there on we go all over the shop really, big pharma conspiracies, London’s marginalised communities of illegal migrants, sex workers and the homeless, hit-men and a good man on the run. It doesn’t entirely hold together, but it’s a great read and – being Boyd – beautifully written.
Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders. Historical fiction this time, and the setting is a village in Derbyshire, in the year of the Great Plague. It’s based (at least in the set-up) on the true story of Eyam, familiar to anyone who grew up in Notts/Derbyshire/South Yorkshire, the story of the vicar who persuaded his parishioners to quarantine themselves after a case of plague in the village. This is dramatic and remarkable enough but Brooks then takes the plot in even more dramatic and unexpected directions… Oddly, one of the reviews seemed to be saying that the Eyam story was itself melodramatic and improbable. Clearly didn’t go to school in our neck of the woods…
Anthony Burgess – Nothing Like the Sun. Fascinating to read this so soon after reading Orlando (see below), as it connects so powerfully with the Elizabethan section of the latter. The language is exuberantly, extravagantly Shakespearian, but it subtly evolves over the life of the writer, who as a boy plays with language that goes beyond his understanding, but learns its power, and the limits of that power.
James Lee Burke – A Private Cathedral. I’ve really enjoyed the Dave Robicheaux series but this one was odd. It all got a bit supernatural, and whilst there’s always been that undercurrent, with Robicheaux having dream-like visions of the past, this takes it to another level and I’m not sure I’m convinced…
Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist. Another one that didn’t quite convince me. The historical setting and detail were great, but, as with the Burke, there was a supernatural element that didn’t quite work (for me) and the way the feminist/gay/racial strands of the plot were handled felt anachronistic and a bit artificial.
Michel Butor – Passing Time. Of course I’ve read this book this year, as I have every year for the last 15. I’m including it this time because I’ve unusually spent a lot of time immersed in the English translation, which I’ve been helping to revise for a new edition, out now…
Peter Carey – True History of the Kelly Gang. I’ve read most of Carey’s novels, and I love them. The language of this one took a bit of getting into (though no more than Illywhacker, say) because it is all in Ned Kelly’s voice, but once I was comfortable with that, it was a riot. It’s ‘true history’ but one should note that there is no definite or indefinite article in the title, which alerts us that Carey, as always, tells stories that are ‘playful, shape-changing’. The story is remarkable enough, as is Ned himself, who as we are constantly reminded in the narrative, is just a boy, and Carey makes it vivid and viscerally immediate.
M R Carey – The Girl with All the Gifts. Excellent – whenever you think the ‘zombie’ idea has been done, as it were, to death, there’s a new take on it that creates new possibilities not just for drama but for emotional heft.
Candice Carty-Williams – Queenie. Funny, perceptive, heartbreaking. My daughter is Queenie’s age, and that undoubtedly made my emotional response more intense – I wanted to hold that girl and keep her from harm, keep her from harming herself.
Jane Casey – The Killing Kind. A stand-alone thriller by one of my favourite contemporary crime writers, it had me gripped from the start, and kind of scared too, that prickling feeling at the back of the neck, that sense of unease was pervasive, and not entirely resolved at the end of the novel…
Harlan Coben – The Boy from the Woods/The Stranger. Coben’s thrillers are reliably slick page turners, even if one doesn’t look to them for in-depth characterisation (and it does sometimes grate that all of his protagonists are both rich AND gorgeous…). I do like to have one or two on my Kindle to turn to between more demanding reads.
Jonathan Coe – The Rain before it Falls. Beautiful and moving. I’ve read several of Coe’s including his trilogy (The Rotters’ Club/The Closed Circle/Middle England) and he writes with warmth, understanding and compassion about even the less sympathetic of his characters, as well as incisively and with humour about the world we live in. Here we are taken back into the past life of an elderly woman through the series of cassette tapes she leaves for the benefit of an elusive legatee, a story told through a series of photographs. This is clever stuff, but it’s never merely clever. It is, as the Guardian reviewer said, ‘a brief, sad, often very moving story of mothers and daughters, of pain passed on through generations, and of deep and abiding loneliness’.
Suzanne Collins – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I knew this was linked to the Hunger Games trilogy, but hadn’t twigged that it was a prequel so was mightily confused for a while… Once I’d grasped that it was the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, that obviously coloured the way I understood the protagonist, but not so much that it destroyed any suspense, and not so much that one didn’t occasionally sympathise with him (to a point). The book wasn’t necessary in any way, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt. This attracted some controversy, which I don’t think was entirely fair. OK, Cummins relied on research rather than shared experience or background to create the world of the refugees, but isn’t that what novelists do? Should they only write what they know? And Cummins is very aware of this issue, and it is clear that her migrants are not presented as being representative, that this is one story, albeit one that touches on a lot of other stories. I found it a totally compelling read, had to keep reminding myself to breathe…
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions/The Book of Not/This Mournable Body. I read these in the wrong order by mistake (1, 3, 2…)! Nervous Conditions was the first novel by a Zimbabwean woman to be published in English, and This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker. The novels explore the intersections between race, colonialism and gender in a way that’s engaging and moving.
A A Dhand – Streets of Darkness. Bradford set crime novel, the first in a series. I loved the setting, but found the plot a tad melodramatic, and the over-use of ‘dark secrets from the past’ a bit wearisome. Will give it another go, this had a lot to recommend it even with those caveats.
Charles Dickens – Mugby Junction. I thought I’d read all Dickens but I’d missed this short story, part of a collection, featuring a few by Dickens and then stories by other contributors. I haven’t yet tracked down an edition with all of the stories, so read this primarily for Mugby Junction itself. The opening sequence, a man arriving at a railway station late at night, got me hooked, though the plot subsequently veered towards Dickens’ more sentimental side.
Louise Doughty – Black Water. The setting is Indonesia, in 1965 and 1998, and it is a tense political thriller, rooted in character and tackling head-on the complex moral dilemmas of those times. Doughty may be best known for Apple Tree Yard, which is excellent, but her work is incredibly varied – I would always put Fires in the Dark, a harrowing and important novel that addresses the Romani Holocaust, as my top Doughty but I also loved the recent Platform 7 which was different again.
Sebastian Faulks – Engleby. We’re not left in any doubt that our eponymous protagonist is odd, an outsider, but as we see things through his eyes (until late in the novel), we don’t entirely realise who he is and what he is capable of. Our sympathies gradually detach from him as we see him more clearly, and Faulks lets us hear what others say about Engleby through diary entries etc. I doubt that any reader would be shocked and amazed by the major plot development, of which I will say nothing, however, in case I am mistaken.
Helen Fields – Perfect Silence. Book 4 in her DI Luc Callanach series, tense and well plotted.
Nicci French – Frieda Klein series. I binged these over Christmas/New Year. Eight books, starting with Blue Monday and ending with Day of the Dead. Proper edge of the seat stuff, though I had some plot issues, about which I can say no more without spoilers.
Tana French – The Searcher. A stand-alone from the author of the superb Dublin Murders series. Rural Irish noir with an ex-Chicago cop as protagonist, and a host of references to the Western genre. Very enjoyable, if not quite French’s best.
Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies/River of Smoke. Books 1 and 2 of the Ibis Trilogy, and book 3 will feature in my end of year list, as I am looking forward to it enormously. Ghosh’s canvas here is vast – the setting is early 19th century, and the story ranges across India, Mauritius, Canton and Hong Kong, as a cast of diverse and fascinating individuals are drawn together directly or indirectly by the opium trade, and the ship, the Ibis, on which they all find themselves at some point. There is a Babel of different languages, not just the native languages of the Bihari, Bengali, Parsi, Cantonese, English and Americans, but the nautical languages, the ‘pidgin’ languages developed to enable trade between these diverse peoples. It’s glorious and exhilarating.
Isabelle Grey – Out of Sight. This is a stand-alone novel from the author of the DI Grace Fisher series, and it was actually her fictional debut. It’s a psychological thriller, which builds the emotional tension with great skill.
Elly Griffiths – The Night Hawks. The latest Ruth Galloway and another highly enjoyable read. Griffiths is great at creating atmosphere and tension, and her characters (both the familiar ones, who are old friends now, and the new characters) are fully real.
Sophie Hannah – Haven’t They Grown. Psychological thriller that presents us right at the start with something impossible, even crazy, that the protagonist – and the reader – have to try to figure out. It’s very twisty, and I couldn’t see how on earth Hannah was going to resolve it all, but she does, and it’s all hugely enjoyable.
Jane Harper – The Survivors. Harper’s four crime novels are all exceptionally strong on landscape and location. Here the setting is a coastal community in Tasmania, far from the scorching heat of The Lost Man, where storms at sea are part of the local history whilst resonating in the present. There’s real tragedy here, coming from human frailty and fear rather than from evil.
Sarah Hilary – Fragile. A stand-alone thriller from the author of the Marnie Rome series. This is not just about secrets and lies (without secrets and lies there would be very little fiction of any genre, after all), it’s about responsibility and guilt and how even when everything is known, there is no absolute truth, and no complete absolution. The sense of place is potent, and the characters subtly drawn, with compassion and understanding.
Joe Hill – NOS4A2. Son of King. And this is very King, which is not a criticism, because I love King, though on the strength of this I would say that ‘son of’ shares not only the best qualities but also some of the flaws of his father. No matter, this was a cracking read, with real terror, and an excellent protagonist, a teenage girl whose life becomes entangled with evil.
Dorothy Hughes – In A Lonely Place. This is noir, very noir. (There’s a 1950 Nicholas Ray film based on the book, which, however, changes the central premise.) It’s brilliant, and I’m baffled as to why Hughes is not better known. (Well, perhaps not entirely baffled, but it’s a grave injustice in any case.)
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant. Ishiguro wrongfoots his readers once again, with this venture into the historical/mythical Dark Ages, with giants and dragons and Arthurian knights, through which he explores old age, memory, loss, love and war, and a huge ethical question about forgetting and healing.
Peter James – Dead Simple. The first in the DI Roy Grace series, recently televised with John Simm in the lead role. A great plot, though I was less taken with DI Grace himself – I will persevere and hope to warm to him a little more (I might watch the TV one – if John Simm doesn’t win me over it’s probably a lost cause).
Stephen King – Later. The latest in his Hard Case Crime series. There is crime, but as King reminds us from time to time, this is horror. Sometimes King loses his grasp of plot and things get a bit baggy and muddled but not here – it’s taut and tense and gripping. As the Washington Post reviewer said, ‘The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench, or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller’.
John le Carré – A Most Wanted Man. Only a few more unread le Carrés, sadly. Hari Kunzru in The Guardian called it ‘one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the war on terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey’.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman. A coming-of-age story from Idi Amin’s Uganda, which moves back in time to explore the lives of earlier generations of women, with diversions into feminist origin myths, as the protagonist tries to navigate a complicated and feud-ridden family life. There’s lots of humour and warmth here, and it is ultimately celebratory, with a final scene that gave me goose-bumps and a huge lump in my throat.
Val McDermid – Killing the Shadows/The Grave Tattoo/Still Life. Three very different McDermids. Killing the Shadows is a highly ingenious serial killer story, with a twist, that the killer is targeting crime writers. It’s done very cleverly, and with self-aware dark humour. The Grave Tattoo gives us a crime that connects with 18th century history and literature. These two are both stand-alones, and in neither case is the protagonist a detective. The third, Still Life, published in 2020, is book 6 in the excellent Karen Pirie series
Ian McEwan – Solar. Hmm. Sometimes acerbically funny, sometimes merely farcical. None of the characters was particularly convincing, and I found it wearying to see yet again the trope of a male protagonist who is made as unappealing (physically and morally) as possible and yet still pulls attractive, younger women. Yaawwwnn. I also was a bit gobsmacked by the reviewer who claimed that McEwan had ‘swotted up to PhD level in Physics’ for the purposes of this book. Even if he had started off with a strong scientific background, I cannot see how he could have done this on any plausible time frame. So, it had its moments, but overall it was too annoying to be enjoyable.
Jon McGregor – Lean Fall Stand. Fiction book of the year (so far, but it will take quite something to dislodge it). McGregor is possibly my favourite contemporary novelist – each of his books has had quite an extraordinary impact on me, subtle and delicate and brutal and compelling. Reviewers tended to all praise the first section but then to favour one or other of the other two sections. I can see why – I felt a sense of regret as each section ended and I realised that the perspective, and the style, had shifted, but then was quickly won over by the brilliance and beauty of the writing. I read it, as I read most things, in too much of a rush and immediately started again at the beginning, taking it slow, savouring it.
Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar. Sequel to The Ruin and featuring the same detective, Cormac O’Reilly. It’s even better than its predecessor, I would say, and I very much enjoyed The Ruin – well-drawn characters, a very clever and thoroughly worked out plot with a lot of tension.
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King. Set in Ethiopia in 1935, during the Italian invasion. It’s a very intense read, violent and dark, absolutely fascinating, with a focus on the women soldiers who fought to defend their homeland against the invaders.
Denise Mina – The Less Dead is a crime novel which wants to challenge the way we tell the stories of the victims of crime, particularly those whose chaotic lives make them both more vulnerable to violence and more likely to be blamed for their own demise, marginalised in both life and death. The story in itself was powerful and of course it chimed with one of last year’s reads, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, and with The Thirteen too…
Sarah Moss – Summerwater. I love Sarah Moss’s books and this one will repay an early re-read to appreciate its subtleties (see my remarks re Jon McGregor). There is, throughout, a sense of unease, something not quite right, that the occupants of these loch-side cabins are not as they appear through the eyes of their neighbours or even to their closest family.
Thomas Mullen – Midnight Atlanta. The third in a superb series along with Darktown and The Lightning Men, set in Atlanta in the 1950s with racial politics absolutely at the heart of the action.
Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies. The invulnerability of youth, friendship, aging and mortality. The first half was gloriously funny, the second broke me.
Caryl Phillips – Crossing the River. Fragments of the history of the African diaspora, linked by a (not literal) familial connection. We start on a West African shore as a man acknowledges his guilt and grief over his children, sold into slavery. We join those lost children in Liberia, as a freed slave endeavours to take the gospel and ‘civilisation’ back to Africa, in Colorado as a slave, freed after the Civil War, dreams of finding her own lost child, and some kind of real freedom, and in Yorkshire where a black GI and a local woman recognise each other’s lostness. And we have the journal of the man to whom those lost children were sold. The chronologies do not make sense, historical plausibility is not the priority here. They are powerful narratives, different voices persuasively rendered, moments that stay with you.
John Preston – The Dig. Lightly fictionalised version of the Sutton Hoo dig. It’s the people that interest Preston, rather than their discoveries, and not those who are most prominent in the official narrative but those who were overshadowed, due to their own natural reticence or the prejudices of others. A lovely, poignant read.
Ian Rankin – A Song for the Dark Times. The latest Rebus. Rebus is still splendidly Rebus and has not allowed his retirement to in any way constrain his mission to annoy the hell out of the establishment.
C J Sansom – Tombland. I was slightly disappointed with the last one I read in the Shardlake series due to some clunky writing but thoroughly enjoyed this, partly because the setting was very different – we’re in Norfolk, at the time of Kett’s Rebellion, and it’s a gripping story (there’s a murder mystery here, but the context is just as compelling as the crime).
Francis Spufford – Light Perpetual. A wonderful book. The opening is a tour de force, and that force propels us through the lives of five children, lives that might not have been. The Guardian calls it ‘both a requiem and a giving of life’. And it’s profoundly musical too, whether in its subject matter or in the way that these five lives interweave in harmony or dissonance.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Again. Olive Kitteridge is, I think, Strout’s finest creation. She’s not a comfortable person, she’s abrasive and clumsy. But she’s utterly convincing, and fascinating. As is Strout’s usual approach, she gives us a series of short stories, with recurring characters, so that we see some of the same events from different perspectives. Olive Again is unflinching in its portrayal of ageing, its indignities and regrets, but it is somehow hopeful, that we can still change, still love.
Graham Swift – Here We Are. This is kind of magical. The Guardian said: ‘This is a beautiful, gentle, intricate novella, the kind of book that stays with you despite not appearing to do anything particularly new or special. In fact, perhaps that’s what makes it so very good: Here We Are smuggles within the pages of a seemingly commonplace tale depths of emotion and narrative complexity that take the breath away.’
Antal Szerb – Journey by Moonlight. This is the great Hungarian novel, and it’s quite something. Written in 1937, its author was murdered by the Nazis during the last months of the war. The book is hard to describe – it reminded me at times of Sebald and at others of Ishiguro. This fascinating article describes it as ‘a brief reprieve from the logic according to which happiness and sadness are opposed to one another’. What that quote doesn’t convey perhaps is that it’s often very funny.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Corner that Held Them. Warner is a most intriguing writer. About this novel, published in 1948 and set in a convent at the time of the Black Death (I know…), she apparently said, ‘I am still inclined to call it People Growing Old. It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant’. This curiously compelling, and often drily humorous novel is about history as ‘a tangle of events’; about a community, rather than about the individuals who comprise that community.
Dorothy Whipple – Greenbanks. I’d not even heard of Whipple until the last year or so (I do apologise to her) but during the plague times I think many people turned back to some of the literature of the interwar period (this is from 1932), and Whipple’s name just kept coming up in recommendations from friends and acquaintances. So, I have now Whippled and I will assuredly do so again, because Greenbanks was lovely. And by that I don’t mean it was all cosy comfort, far from it. It leaves the younger of the two main protagonists with much about her life and future happiness unresolved, and its male characters are portrayed incisively, their ‘pretensions and presumptions’ exposed and punctured. The writing is absolutely delicious.
Christa Wolf – Cassandra. Published in 1983, this is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the woman cursed to prophesy and not be believed. There are many resonances with life in the GDR, and the book was censored when first published. It’s also got a strong theme of the marginalisation of women’s lives, the lack of choice and agency (even for the daughter of a King).
Virginia Woolf – Orlando. I’d been meaning to read this for years, having tried and failed to read other Woolf novels. This was the one to break that pattern, it’s quite extraordinary, a wild ride through the centuries, through English literary history, with a male protagonist who quite suddenly becomes a female protagonist, albeit one who presents as male when it suits her purposes, and who takes male and female lovers. Glorious.
Peter Jones – Little Piece of Harm. I read poetry a lot less often than I intend to. What tempts me to go there is usually a new publication from Longbarrow Press, and this one was a gem. It’s ‘a narrative sequence that focuses on 24 hours in the life of a city that has been shut down in the aftermath of a shooting. As this act of violence ramifies outwards, the sequence explores the geographical reach of Sheffield – its urban settings and its rural landmarks – and eavesdrops on the city’s conversations.’
David Leeming – James Baldwin. A wonderful biography, from someone who knew Baldwin well. I was immersed in this, so much so that I felt quite overwhelmed at his death, as if he was someone I’d known. This isn’t a hagiography – Baldwin was a complicated and often difficult man, who fell out with a lot of people over the years, a man who never worked out how to love himself, who saw himself as ugly, who never found the true love that he wanted. But he’s a towering figure, his vision and passion are so powerfully articulated in his fiction and essays as well as in interviews. Charisma and intellect in such abundance.
W E B Dubois – The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois’ work obviously influenced Baldwin, as it did all of the writers who’ve talked about race in the twentieth century, and into our own. Dubois’ style seems a bit florid (it is of its time, 1903) but nonetheless it is clear and lucid and passionate. He talks about the veil between the black and white worlds, he talks about how it feels to ‘be a problem’. He says it so well that it is no wonder that by the time Baldwin is saying similar things, in a very different style, 60-70 years later, he is angry and weary that they still need saying. They still do.
David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel follows his powerful documentary on Holocaust denial with this passionate, funny, angry account of how Jews are somehow omitted from consideration so often when racial prejudice is under discussion. It’s quite shattering – so many things that I had seen out of the corner of my eye, in a way, but not confronted, in my own thinking about race and in the way it is written and spoken about. Groundbreaking.
Alexandra Wilson – In Black and White Wilson came to attention with a piece in the Guardian, recounting a day in which she, a barrister, on three separate occasions had to persuade court officials that she was not, in fact, the defendant… This sets those incidents in the context of her career in the law, and of the way in which race and class affect the way in which people fare in the legal system.
Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child. The account of a child of the Kindertransport, who came to England with her sister, was fostered with a couple who tried to erase all memory and knowledge of their previous life, and who only discovered the fate of her mother in middle age. W G Sebald used (without her permission) many elements of her story in Austerlitz.
Rachel Clifford – Survivors. Clifford’s study of child survivors of the Holocaust (specifically, those who were in camps, or in hiding, or who otherwise lived out the war in Europe) is fascinating, particularly in its exploration of how understanding of trauma developed over the post-war period.
Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague. Somewhat breathlessly written (perhaps for a YA readership), it’s nonetheless a gripping and powerful story.
Hadley Freeman – The House of Glass. A meticulously researched and emotionally powerful family history, driven by the need to understand her grandmother, and to know what happened to the wider family, who survived the Holocaust and how, who didn’t and why.
Saul Friedlander – The Years of Extermination. Volume 2 of Friedlander’s history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. What can one say – it is exhaustive and relentless, and as always one is struck by the sheer mad obsession of that hatred, that led the Nazis to continue searching for, rounding up and transporting Jewish men, women and children to their deaths, even as the Allies were closing in on Berlin.
Lillian Furst – Random Destinations. A study of various fictionalised accounts of the lives of those who escaped the Holocaust, and how these narratives could face some of the darker aspects of those lives, marked by trauma, struggling with their own sense of identity, with their Jewishness, with their exile, aspects that have sometimes been neglected due to the focus on the successes of the more prominent survivors.
Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto. A detailed and fascinating study of Theresienstadt, the town that became a ghetto prison, and then a Potemkin village to delude the Red Cross into believing that the occupants were well looked after, a place where many died of disease and from which many more were deported to Auschwitz. Hajkova talks about the way in which the ghetto was organised, the hierarchies and power balances between the inhabitants, putting the brief episode with the Red Cross into context rather than making it the centre of the narrative.
Michael Rosen – The Missing. Like Freeman, Rosen set out to find out what happened to the ‘missing’ members of his family. This account is aimed at children/young adults, but does not pull its punches. Rosen incorporates poems and source documents to help readers understand both the facts and their emotional weight. It’s a moving read for adults who feel they know this stuff already, too.
Anne Applebaum – The Twilight of Democracy. I read a while ago Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, which was excellent. This one is different, because it is intensely personal, as well as being rigorously analytical. It’s the account of how, at the start of the millennium, she and her friends (in the US, the UK, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe) were in broad agreement about the future of democracy and how, in the years since, many of those friends have moved so far to the nationalist right that she and they no longer speak.
Adam Hothschild – King Leopold’s Ghost. The horrific story of the exploitation of the Congo Free State (which included the whole of what is now DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908. Leopold exploited the land and its natural resources, but most appallingly its people, who were treated as entirely expendable, and who were, in vast numbers, mutilated, tortured and killed. Those who want to defend colonialism will argue that this is an extreme case, and it is, but the mentality behind it – greed, combined with the deep rooted belief that the African people were inferior beings – can be seen in even the most benign colonial regimes.
Barrack Obama – Promised Land. Volume 1 of his presidential memoirs and it’s huge… I have to admit that some of the detail lost me – I don’t have quite sufficient grasp of the mechanics and structures of the US system to follow it all – but it was (as one would expect from Obama) beautifully and lucidly written, and critical as much of himself as of others.
Shirley Williams – Climbing the Bookshelves. A very engaging memoir that I reached for from my TBR pile when I heard of her death. I’ve always liked and admired Williams, though her politics and mine don’t entirely align – she was always a tad to the right of my natural position, though that would not preclude major areas of agreement. Most of all, she was a politician of complete integrity and that’s a rare and valuable commodity these days. We need more of her ilk.
Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. Highly entertaining – a rambunctious literary life, and a seriously unreliable autobiographer – as Biswell sifts reality from contradictory self-mythologising and explores the work itself. It makes me want to read more Burgess (but selectively).
Richard Coles – Fathomless Riches/Bringing in the Sheaves/The Madness of Grief. The fascination of Volume 1 of this trilogy of memoirs is Coles’ involvement in the music scene, with the Communards, but it is particularly powerful on the AIDs epidemic, to which he lost many friends. He is very honest, self-deprecating and often extremely funny. Vol. 2 covers his life in the church and is very oriented around the church year – I did find this harder to enjoy, although he is a lovely writer and person, as although I was brought up as a Christian, my experiences were in Methodist and ‘charismatic’ church communities, very different to the higher end of the CofE, and it felt quite alien. My atheism remains unshaken. Vol. 3 is about the death of Coles’ husband and it is a heartbreaking and, again, brutally honest account. I loved the bit about the group of widows who saw him in a café and embraced him, physically and with comforting chat, from the perspective of those who know what it is to lose one’s other half and yet go on.
Pamela des Barres – I’m With the Band. I’d always been intrigued by this and it was quite a surprising read. Obviously, a lot of sex was had. But mostly what comes across is the breathless romanticism of des Barres: she isn’t so much adding notches to her bedpost as falling in love with one after another of the rock gods she encounters, each time of course facing disillusionment as they move on to another town and other girls. She does care a lot and know a lot about the music – it isn’t just the fame that turns her on.
Jackie Kay – Bessie Smith. Not a straight biography, more a prose poem. It’s thoroughly researched, but feels as much personal as it is scholarly. The Guardian describes it is ‘a joyous and formally daring undertaking. … an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.
James Young – Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio. An account of the author’s travels with Nico on various UK and European tours in the years leading up to her death. Often grim, and often grimly funny.
Rachel Clarke – Breathtaking. Having read Dear Life, I knew Clarke could write beautifully about mortality and compassion, and here she covers the Covid pandemic and the experience of the medics called upon to take huge risks and work beyond exhaustion to try to keep people alive in those deadly days (days we hope we won’t see again). I also read Dominic Pimenta’s Duty of Care – like Clarke, Pimenta was taken out of his normal work to treat Covid patients, and to help organise resources to deal with the crisis. Both of them are at times incandescent with anger about the failure of government to recognise what needed to be done and to act quickly, to protect NHS staff with adequate PPE, to protect the vulnerable in care homes and in hospital wards.
Daniel Levitin – The Changing Mind. Levitin argues that, contrary to what we’re often told, we don’t lose the capacity to learn and change as we age. We’re likely to get worse at some things, but potentially better at others, and exercising our minds (not just by doing sudokus) has huge benefits in keeping us well into old age.
Bessel van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score, is a fascinating study of how trauma is realised physically, and what that means for therapeutic solutions.
I may not have travelled much in the last six months IRL, but I’ve crossed continents and centuries through the books I’ve read. As always, I am so very grateful to the writers who have taken me to all of these times and places, who have moved, entertained, enlightened and informed me.
I do this to share the good stuff, as I said at the beginning. I hope some readers will find things here that they go on to enjoy, maybe to discover a new writer or to venture into a different genre. If you do, I’d love to know. If you have recommendations for me, feel free to share them. If you hate something I love, fair enough, but I take no responsibility…
I will wait until I’ve got a full year’s reading under my belt before I pick any ‘Best of’ but Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand will be a tough act to beat…
About fifteen years ago I started reading a 1950s French novel by someone I’d only just heard of, right at the start of my part-time undergraduate degree studies. Nothing remarkable there, except that I’m still reading it.
It drew me in, intrigued by the idea of a young French novelist writing about Manchester, and by the first few pages with their blend of ‘grim up north’ dry humour, poetry and dark foreboding. And then things got more confusing, and more intriguing. It’s an account of mundane events (dreadful weather and even worse food) – and of murder, betrayal and revenge. Bleston, which stands in for Manchester (specifically and as the archetypal northern industrial city) in the novel, is both recognisable and realistically described (street names and bus timetables) and also a fantastical place, a monster, a labyrinth.
People who know I’ve been studying this book for such a long time often ask me what it’s about. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that. It’s not that kind of a book – and I can’t imagine I’d have spent all these years obsessing about it, reading about it, researching it, and writing about it, if it had been. Every time I open it I see something I hadn’t seen before. It’s almost as if it’s shapeshifting, it grows and alters as I read.
Michel Butor is often labelled as part of the nouveau roman group, which was never actually a group and of which he never felt he was a part. He has a lot more in common with Proust than with any of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and this novel in particular is a quest for lost time, as Revel, the diarist/narrator, feeling himself overwhelmed by the city and its fogs, tries to set down on paper everything that has happened since his arrival in the town eight months previously. He feels that he’s in a labyrinth, disorientating and tricksy, a trap from which he might never escape – but he ends up creating a labyrinth with his diary entries, as the time line starts to loop back on itself, the present day intruding on the attempt to chronologically record the past, and he finds he has to revisit earlier events to explain what’s happening now.
If Passing Time looks back to Proust, it also looks forward, to the work of W G Sebald. Sebald read the novel when he arrived in Manchester, fifteen years after Butor and it resonated through his writing, from the early poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, through to his final work, Austerlitz. He picked up on the dark undercurrents in Butor’s work, the hauntedness, the theme of exile and displacement, and the sense that wherever we are in Bleston, we are not just in Bleston.
I’ve been not only reading Butor but writing about Butor, and about the connections between this novel and W G Sebald, for a very long time now. The title of this blog is obviously a reference to Butor – if I’ve posted less Butor stuff over recent years its because all of that is going into my PhD thesis, but there’s still plenty here, if you search for Butor or Sebald, and on a range of themes, from music to maps to Manchester, and to the labyrinth, which is the unifying motif in my thesis, one that recurs throughout Passing Time, and Sebald’s oeuvre.
When Butor died in 2016, I posted a tribute here, and said at the end:
It is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.https://cathannabel.blog/2016/08/29/butor-in-manchester/
And that is, pretty much, exactly what happened. Manchester-based Pariah Press are publishing a new edition of Jean Stewart’s excellent translation, in paperback, in May. It is a thing of beauty and I’d urge anyone who is interested in twentieth-century postwar fiction, in Manchester and/or the mythology of the northern city, in displacement and exile, in the detective novel, in labyrinths, in time and memory, in non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators, to order it now…
Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling.Michel Butor, Passing Time, trans. Jean Stewart
Go on. You can thank me (and Pariah Press) later…
Be the light in the darkness is an affirmation and a call to action for everyone marking HMD. This theme asks us to consider different kinds of ‘darkness’, for example, identity-based persecution, misinformation, denial of justice; and different ways of ‘being the light’, for example, resistance, acts of solidarity, rescue and illuminating mistruths.https://www.hmd.org.uk/what-is-holocaust-memorial-day/this-years-theme/
For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.Amanda Gorman, ‘The Hill We Climb’
The darkness that overwhelmed Europe’s Jews under Nazi persecution has engulfed so many since then, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Cambodia and Darfur. And today in China and in Myanmar, Uighur and Rohingya Muslims face the threat of genocide. We’ve been here before, again and again, and every time, when it’s over, we pledge that we will never again allow hatred to triumph. But at the point when the world could make that pledge real, could stop genocide in its tracks, then we hesitate, fatally. Now is that point, yet again, when we need to name what is happening, with all of the implications and responsibilities that carries, to shine a light on what is happening now, rather than afterwards.
And the darkness creeps back again too, when far right activists wear their Holocaust denial openly. We’ve seen the swastika flag flown in Charlottesville. The ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T shirt in the Capitol Building. The British Union of Fascists banner in Trafalgar Square. It’s not that we haven’t seen it in daylight before – it has never really gone away. But the murky corners of the internet have proved to be the ideal environment for conspiracy theories to grow, to be shared, to ensnare more and more people. People who start off as 9-11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, Covid-hoax activists, almost any conspiracy theory you care to mention, will find Holocaust denial thriving on the websites and forums. And it spills out, and where it isn’t opposed, it gains confidence and feels emboldened, legitimised, empowered. It is, as David Baddiel says, ‘the archetypal lie in our culture, from which all the other lies fan out’. It is so very hard to counter. Facts, evidence, personal testimony, all seem to bounce off without leaving any mark. But we have to speak the truth anyway, we have to offer the facts, the evidence, the personal testimony, the common sense to counter the fantasy, the rigour to expose the lies. We have to call it out whenever and wherever we encounter it. Baddiel’s superb documentary did just that, with passion and clarity.
I don’t have my own story to tell. So I will carry on reading and sharing both the scholarship and the personal testimonies, of those whose accounts shine light not only on what happened at those other times and in those other places but what is happening now.
My 2020/21 Reading List
- Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child: One Woman’s Search for her Past
- Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague
- Saul Friedlander – Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination
- Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto: An Every History of Theresienstadt
- Heda Margolius Kovaly – Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968
- Eva Noack-Mosse – Last Days of Theresienstadt
- Michael Rosen – The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II
Normally, as New Year’s Eve approaches, I post some reflections on the year just passed, hopes for the next one, that sort of thing. This year, there seems to be nothing I can say about the year that I haven’t already said, or that others have not said better. I wrote about the loss of my lovely brother here, I bade au revoir to the EU here, I said my piece, for what it’s worth, on #BLM here, and I’ve referred to the pandemic, directly or indirectly, in most of my posts since March.
2020 was wretched, for all of us, to different degrees (we may have all been in the same storm, but not in the same boat…). Let’s not rehash that now. And if we ever thought we could embark on a New Year blithely confident in what lay ahead, the last few years, and especially this last one, have disabused us rather brutally. So I won’t look ahead much either, except in very general terms.
I do, though, want to celebrate the people who’ve made this year a little bit better, directly or indirectly.
NHS staff – and by that I mean not only GPs, consultants, doctors, midwives and nurses, but health care assistants, the staff who clean the wards, who feed the patients, who provide the services that underpin front-line patient care. I know that many of those staff have paid a price this year, in stress and anxiety, in their own losses and grief, in sickness and, in a tragically large number of cases, with their lives.
The people who keep essential basic services going – the bin collectors, the postal workers, the supermarket staff (I know from chatting to staff at the till that they have at times been subjected to abuse from customers when supplies run short or queues are long), the bus drivers, the lorry drivers moving supplies around the country… We tend not to think about them, until something we take for granted doesn’t happen.
The international teams of scientists and researchers who’ve been battling to find out everything they can about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat it and how we can protect ourselves against it. And many have been battling too to counter the relentless tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories that flows on social media. (Shout out to Prof. Carl Smythe (Professor of Cell Biology) at the University of Sheffield, who’s been refuting arrant (and lethal) nonsense on a daily basis for the last nine months… )
The people who’ve helped out, whenever and wherever. Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity (who also sprang into action during the Somerset floods a few years ago), one of a number of organisations who delivered provisions to lorry drivers stranded at Dover because of the border closures. And the cafés, shops, pubs and other small businesses (many struggling themselves during the pandemic) who nonetheless stepped up to offer free meals for schoolchildren during school hols when the government declined to do so.
Some people who have brightened our world, or my life in particular, in absolutely no order: The Doctor, Marcus Rashford (and his Mum), Jacinda Ardern, Pariah Press, Angela Davis, Ruth Arnold, Jackie Kay, David Olusoga, Persephone Books, The Good Place, Greg Fell, Songhoy Blues, Caroline Shaw, Michael Rosen, Hilary Mantel, Music Planet, Céline Sciamma, Lissa Evans, Inspiration for Life, Alyn Shipton, Jean-Luc Picard, Ensemble 360, John le Carré, J to Z, Stephen King, Brian Lewis’s Lockdown Walks. You’ve made me smile, given me hope, made me dance around the kitchen, informed and challenged me, brought me books and films and music to inspire and delight me. Love and gratitude to all of you.
And whatever is around the corner, we can keep our eyes on two beacons of hope.
Firstly, there are the vaccines, which will save lives and reunite us with our friends and families – oh, the hugs that will be hugged.
And then there’s the inauguration of a new US President and VP. Whatever their flaws, and whatever difficulties the GOP will place in their path, once again this major power will be led by people with intelligence, integrity, concern for the powerless at home and abroad, and a commitment to engage positively with the world.
Some stuff that gives me a glimmer of hope and optimism, that I hang on to in the bleak nights:
First off, I refer you to the project I’ve been involved with in recent weeks. Inspiration for Life is the charity I helped to set up in 2012, and then chaired until last month, which raises funds for cancer charities. Our major fundraiser has always been the 24 Hour Inspire, a 24-hour lecture marathon, which was, obviously, impossible to run in the midst of a pandemic. So instead, we offered 24 Reasons to be Cheerful, our on-line Advent Calendar. There’s some lovely stuff – music from Fay Hield, Ayusp, the Cancer Choir and the Creating Hope choir, plus comedy, art and craft, a bit of science, and contributions from our partner charities. If you feel moved to donate a few quids, that would be lovely.
One of the films is a reading of the poem ‘Sometimes’, by Sheenagh Pugh, which I usually include in my NYE post. This time I’ll let you hear Ruth Arnold reading it.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
(Joss Whedon – Angel)
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.
(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)
Last time I posted these, we had no thoughts of a pandemic, of health care workers dying, of care home occupants separated from their families, of theatres, concert halls, football grounds, churches empty of people, of pubs and restaurants with doors closed to customers, of facemasks and R numbers and shielding and bubbles.
Nonetheless, they hold true. And they’re worth holding on to.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be blue skies ahead…