Archive for December, 2019

Here's hoping… New Year 2019/2020

It’s just another New Year’s Eve. Nothing actually changes on New Year’s Day, we know that … but that never stops us hoping that some things will change, making plans and resolutions, wishing and wondering.

For many of us, looking back at the year just ending cannot be wholeheartedly celebratory. Of course, there have been good things – friends and family, love and laughter, things that brought us pleasure and achievements of which we are proud. We will recall those tonight, and be glad for every one of those moments and those memories. At the same time, if grief and loss has been part of our year we will acknowledge our sadness, and raise a glass to the people who we lost in 2019.

For many of us, looking forward to the year just about to begin cannot be simply hopeful, knowing that some of what we fear will happen. Some of us will be learning to live with loss, others will be anticipating loss. Many hearts will be heavy.

How do we face that countdown, knowing what we know? With tears, probably. With warmth and solidarity and love, wherever possible. With people to hold on to, literally or metaphorically, to accept our sadness and our fear, and to remind us of the good things that there were in 2019, and that will still be there in 2020.

When it comes to the state of the nation and of the world, it would be terribly easy to give up. I’ve noticed how often these days I choose not to watch the news or read the headlines which, for a politics junkie as I have been all my life, raised on family discussions around the tea table of the events of the day, is a big change. I can’t let that inertia continue.

I need to hang on to hope, and faith in humanity. There are reasons to be, if not cheerful, at least very cautiously hopeful, reasons to nurture those glimmers of hope. In the wake of attacks on mosques or synagogues, communities have come together to assert solidarity in the face of murderous bigotry. So many young people are fighting the good fight on the climate emergency.

Hope lies in recognising that the biggest problems we face are problems we can only deal with across borders and oceans, not by retreating behind our walls. Hope lies in people choosing to identify with and stand with people who aren’t like them, giving a damn whether or not it’s not their turn.

Meantime, in the face of lies we have to keep speaking and showing truth.  In the face of hate we have to keep speaking and showing love. In the face of the horrors that seem to happen daily, far away from us or close to home, we have to keep speaking and showing faith.

Keep on keeping on.

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

(Sheenagh Pugh – Sometimes)

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day

(E B White)

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)

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Albums of the decade

Final list of the year/decade end. Honest.

Just ten albums, not ranked in order of importance or merit.

  1. Arctic Monkeys – AM
  2. Bjork – Utopia
  3. David Bowie – Black Star
  4. Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet – Inspiration
  5. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
  6. P J Harvey – Let England Shake
  7. Christian Scott – Ancestral Recall
  8. Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile
  9. Tinariwen – Emmaar
  10. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

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Five years

Way, way back, in 2015, I wrote a piece responding to the outcome of a general election, with the same title. Things seem to be immeasurably worse today than they were then. (If you’d told me then about Brexit, Trump and a Labour Party poisoned by anti-semitism I would simply not have believed you.) But somehow we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. We have to decide what’s important now.

We go into 2020 with a Prime Minister who is devoid of integrity and principle, an Opposition that is (perhaps irrevocably) divided and even weaker than its numbers would suggest, and the certainty that we will be leaving the EU, quite possibly without a deal. It’s hard to find hope in that.

I can hope (though my hopes have been not just dashed but stomped on and the crushed fragments stomped on some more and then set fire to so many times since 2016 that I hardly dare) for a Democrat victory in the US elections. I don’t even know what to hope for, for the UK.

One day, somehow, we may be back in Europe (but let’s not start thinking about that now). One day, somehow, we may have an Opposition that will be willing to sacrifice ideological purity in order to gain power, so that they can actually do something about the things they claim to care about, other than shouting (usually at the wrong people) from the sidelines. Perhaps.

If we’re concerned about the impact of a rampant Tory government and a potential hard Brexit, not necessarily on ourselves but on others, what are we going to do about that? If we now feel politically homeless, how are we going to engage with politics over the things that really matter? If we despair at the mendacity, the bigotry, the contempt shown by too many politicians for the electorate or sections of it, and the overt bigotry faced on our streets by those whose accent, skin colour, or dress proclaim them to be different, how do we stand up for each other? I can’t answer my own questions, not yet.

My friend Mike Press doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but he’s asking the same questions. He posted this on Facebook, but it deserves a wider readership. It gives me a little, just a little, glimmer of hope. With enough thoughtful people, with enough kind people, with enough people who give a damn whether or not it’s their turn, maybe we can do this.

In the twelve years that I lived in Stoke-on-Trent there was a recurrent joke that did the rounds at election time – there’s no point in voting in Stoke, so the joke ran, they may as well keep all the Labour votes in the cellar of the town hall and take them out to weigh them every few years, such was the certainty that being a Potteries Labour MP was a job for life.

Clay runs in the veins of all Stokies, so it was suggested, on account of their passion for their craft, industry and identification with it. If it did then that clay was the same deep crimson as their politics. Nowhere else in Britain had swept Labour to power so decisively and swiftly as Stoke in the elections of 1918 and 1922. In the 1997 election – my last while living there – Labour was returned with 66% of the vote. We believed we were about to build the New Jerusalem. Since early on Friday morning all of The Potteries’ constituencies have become safe Tory seats.

I have voted in twelve general elections and in none of them has the defeat been as disastrous as this one. We have to go back to 1935 – the age of mass unemployment and Nazi Germany – for an election as catastrophic for Labour as the one we’ve just experienced. Our reactions to this have been perhaps understandable. After venting our anger on Boris Johnson and the Tory Party, we turn our barrels on the electorate itself. I’ve read comments from people here on Facebook and on twitter that described the English as “swinging to the far right”, that people who vote Tory are “stomach churning” or “just plain thick”. I’ve read comments that wish increased child poverty on Tory supporters “because they’ve just voted for it”.

The people of Stoke (and Blyth, Darlington, Redcar, etc, etc) have not swung to the far right, they are far from thick and they – along with all other folk – should never have child poverty wished upon them. There is serious thinking to be done to understand why people voted (or did not vote) in the way they did, and what is needed to build a new politics of hope. Because as progressives, we never lose hope. Out of every disaster comes hope. After Labour’s calamity of 1935, the party needed to rebuild, so it elected a little known new leader – Clement Attlee.

But a politics of hope requires empathy and kindness – despite the shock, anger and grief many of us currently feel. It also requires that we look very carefully at the data.

The English have not swung to the far right. The increase in the Conservative vote in England was 1.2% – a small increase on their lacklustre 2017 election performance. While many former Labour voters did vote Tory, more of them simply stayed at home. The demographics of age and education (and identity) are clearly reshaping political allegiances and replacing the old certainties of class. An interesting (and hopeful) phenomenon is a significantly reduced tribalism in politics. According to the Ashcroft poll, around one third of voters for all parties are now ‘tribal’ – the rest make up their minds as the campaign develops.

People vote for a whole variety of reasons. Along with 25% of SNP and 43% of Lib Dem voters, I voted for a party that is not my first choice, but I did so for tactical reasons. People voted Tory for three main reasons (according to the data): Brexit, the economy and leadership. None of the Tories I know support the party because they wish child poverty on others. A vote for Brexit and Scottish independence? Well the data also shows that 53% of UK voters supported pro-remain parties, and 54% of Scottish voters backed unionist parties. Those figures in themselves don’t tell us very much, apart from the need for a root and branch overhaul of our parliamentary democracy.

But looking at the data remains challenging given the distortions of the stultifying and dangerous bubbles we have created for ourselves. Social media has served to provide us with instant validation for our biases, assumptions and prejudices. As a consequence we do not engage with views we don’t agree with. We do not debate, we do not argue, we assert and feel validated by the ‘likes’ our assertions attract. We don’t need to empathise because we keep within our bubble of largely like minded people.

A few weeks ago my friend Adam StJohn Lawrence sent me a video he filmed on the streets of Hong Kong minutes after a riot. He was there to run workshops with government workers and citizens – not on the conflict, but on other issues. He recalled one of the people he was working with who gave their explanation of the crisis. They’re stuck – he suggested – they’ve run out of vocabulary, and this is the consequence.

It’s the same here. We’re stuck. There are no words that can bring us together – we’ve run out of them. We are in a state of continual conflict. How the Scottish question will be resolved by two governments that cannot find common ground, is very uncertain. Unlike European models of modern democracy that require negotiation and compromise, the British system is built on conflict, on “opposition”.

Now, let’s suggest an alternative – based on empathy and kindness.

There are two reasons that this is possible. First, because since Friday the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are women, and that will necessarily bring in new values and behaviours both to those parties and to political discourse. Second, because Scotland has already placed kindness at the centre of its National Performance Framework. As Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, has said (not of this election, but in terms of public policy): “We need to recognise that the challenge ahead is not primarily a technical ask but a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture. And if we can succeed in making this shift to instil kindness within public policy, we will succeed in improving lives.”

Politics is not an indulgence to prove a point. It’s no gladiatorial combat to entertain TV viewers. It’s not a game: “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.” Politics is “a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture” and we either behave with kindness and respect, despite our differences, and at times actually relishing those differences, or we descend into a form of barbarism.

The UK and Scotland may well be on different paths to different futures. The task of all of us is to find a way into our respective futures based on empathy and kindness – understanding and respecting each other. With that foundation then we can empower citizens to make their own futures – to be active participants in democracy and in the public domain.

Despite all I’ve written about kindness, I still feel angry, still raw. I’m angry with Corbyn and the infantile disorder of the left who gave some folk no choice but to vote Tory. Above all, I’m angry with Johnson, Gove and the others for their lies, for their disrespect, for their self-serving and misplaced sense of entitlement.

But the folk of Stoke I feel no anger towards at all. They lost the steel works, then the mines, just before most of the potteries closed and as a consequence their sense of identity has been bulldozed. How do you think it feels to vote for one party for your whole life, and then switch to its arch political enemy? How do you think it feels to spend over a year on strike in a forlorn attempt to keep your mine open then decades later to use that stubby pencil to put a cross against Conservative in an election?

I don’t know either. All I know is that empathy and kindness might take us beyond this. And I know that getting angry with people just trying to get through life and make the best choices they can isn’t really on. We can and should be angry with those who lie and mislead. But for the rest, let’s just try to listen and understand.

Well, over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And, yeah, they might overstep the line
But you just cannot get angry in the same way
No, not in the same way
Said, not in the same way
Oh no, oh no no

Arctic Monkeys

‘I never thought I’d need / So many people’

David Bowie, ‘Five Years’

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2010-2019 – the best bits… and some of the other bits

I honestly hadn’t thought about it being the end of a decade until I saw the first few ‘best of’ lists appearing.

On a personal level, it’s been quite momentous. We both retired, midway through the decade, a decision which we haven’t regretted for a nano-second. I finished my (second) undergrad degree before I left work, and then went straight on to study for a PhD, which I hope to complete early in the next decade. Each of our children graduated twice (four different Universities, three different cities) and found permanent, rewarding employment.

I lost a good friend and colleague to cancer and helped to set up and then chair a charity as his legacy, raising around £30k since 2013 for cancer charities, through a fabulous fundraising event, the 24 Hour Inspire, and other ventures.

I started this blog in January 2012, and whilst I’ve had periods of writer’s block this year it’s given me a way of being creative, having spent most of my life denying that I am or could be. I was also offered the chance to go to the opera for free with a friend, and write reviews of the productions, which has been an absolute delight.

We put lots of things on hold for a while as my mother in law’s dementia worsened, and her care needs became urgent. She died last Christmas. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018 and the chemo he’s been on is no longer working. We go into the New Year with heavy hearts.  

Politically it’s been a nightmarish decade. The Tories back in power, first in coalition, then in their own right, albeit for a while as a minority government. The EU Referendum and the government’s complete inability to approach the negotiations in good faith and with understanding and intelligence. Obama replaced in the White House by someone so utterly unfit for any kind of high office that I still wonder whether we slipped into some parallel universe at about the halfway point of the decade, after which nothing made any kind of sense. 

Should have realised, when I woke one morning in early January 2016 to learn that Bowie had left us. Should have known it was a portent.

So since looking forward is a mug’s game at present, I’ll look back, to the books, films and TV programmes that have sustained me during the last ten years.

Books of the Decade

Some of these titles feature in my already published Books of the Year and Books of the Century lists, as one might expect. I’ll indicate those that do, or that are reviewed in my 60 Books challenge series, so as not to repeat myself too much (and have time to also do the full panoply of decade and year lists that I am somehow compelled to do).

Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho (Books of the Century)

Ferdinand Addis – Rome: The Eternal City was a birthday gift from the Roman branch of our family, following a recent visit to the city, which had made me realise just how fragmented and unreliable my sense of its history was. A hotch-potch of Shakespeare, the New Testament, Robert Graves and Robert Harris, I really needed to get a grip on it all. Addis’s tome is just the thing. It’s very entertainingly written, it takes key events and explains how they came to pass and what followed, and it takes us from Romulus & Remus to Federico Fellini.

Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah.  Her Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the top three books of the century (according to me). Adichie’s protagonist here goes off to University in the States, and we follow her struggles to acclimatise and to understand what race means in America, as well as her feelings for her lover back in Lagos. It’s often very funny, and always very sharp and perceptive. The Guardian said that ‘It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.’

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (Books of the Century)

Naomi Alderman – The Power (Books of the Century)

Lynne Alexander – The Sister illuminates a life lived in the shadows: Alice James was sister to the more famous Henry and William, prevented by ill health and the constraints of Victorian society from expressing her own creativity. Alexander doesn’t hammer this message home simplistically but brings Alice to sympathetic life. ‘A furious volcano of thoughts and desires trapped within a carapace of pain, Alice is a feminist cipher but, more movingly, a beautifully drawn and memorable individual, brave, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent.’ (The Guardian)

Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities is an exuberant and wildly eclectic tour of cities in Western civilisation drawing on books, films, architecture, myth, visual arts. Totally my cup of tea.  Described as ‘an exhaustive, engaging book’ which generates ‘sheer joy for the curious reader’. It certainly did for this curious reader.

Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a fascinating study of Poland, the GDR and Hungary after the end of the Second World War. The Telegraph said that she takes ‘a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable – and even occasionally witty. In that respect alone, it is a true masterpiece’. (Books of the Year)

Kate Atkinson – Life after Life (Books of the Century)

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It does take the action forward – we get to see some of what happened after that book’s final page, but perhaps more significantly, we see Gilead from perspectives other than that of June/Offred, and so we understand more about how Gilead works, and about, in particular the role of the Aunts.  It’s completely compelling, and very disturbing. (Books of the Year)

Julian Barnes – The Levels of Life (Books of the Century)

Linda Buckley-Archer – The Many Lives of John Stone. Buckley-Archer began her literary career with the YA Timequake trilogy. This is beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.

James Lee Burke – Robicheaux (Books of the Century)

Jane Casey – Cruel Acts (Books of the Year, and Century)

Jonathan Coe – Middle England. I picked The Rotter’s Club for my books of the century, and this is the third part of that trilogy. This made me laugh a lot. Made me weep a bit. Reminded me of music I love (Hatfield & the North, Vaughan Williams) and of lyrics that always move me: Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’. (Not mentioned in Coe’s book, but I kept on thinking of the line ‘Sweet moderation, heart of our nation’). It’s rueful and wistful and, I think, hopeful… (Books of the Year)

Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay is the final part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Another series aimed at a young adult readership, this one is pretty dark (not that YA reading should be sugar-coated or cosy, it should challenge and disrupt if it’s doing its job). Vivid and exciting, with a splendid hero in Katniss Everdene, and resists too neat an ending – after so much tragedy and trauma, that would have jarred horribly.

Stevie Davies – Awakening (Books of the Century)

Edmund de Waal – Hare with the Amber Eyes (Books of the Century)

Emma Donoghue – Room (Books of the Century)

Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk. Sadly the last novel from Dunmore, who died of cancer in 2018. I picked The Siege as one of my Books of the Century, and read The Betrayal as part of my 60 books challenge – her novels are very varied but always beautifully and powerfully written. The Guardian describes her writing as ‘hazardously human’. It’s particularly poignant to note that the fictional Julia Fawkes ‘lies buried with the inscription “Her words remain our inheritance.” Julia may have disappeared from the record, but Dunmore’s words remain.

Sue Eckstein – Interpreters (Books of the Century)

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race (Books of the Century)

Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (Books of the Century)

Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (60 Books)

Lara Feigel – The Bitter Taste of Victory (Books of the Century)

Will Ferguson – 419 (Books of the Century)

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Books of the Century)

Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is particularly difficult to write about without revealing a vital twist, so I will avoid any discussion of the plot. Read it anyway, just avoid the reviews (so no link to the Guardian, which called It an ‘achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker … a moral comedy to shout from the rooftops’.) (Books of the Year)

Tana French – Broken Harbour (Books of the Year and Century)

Esther Freud – Mr Mac and Me reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. A writer/artist (D H Lawrence for Dunmore, Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Freud) finds themselves in a rural community at the start of the First World War, and is regarded with suspicion by the locals due to their unconventional behaviour). Mackintosh is seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, intoxicated by the glimpses of a wider world, of art and beauty, that Mackintosh brings.

Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (60 Books)

Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Books of the Century)

Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition (Books of the Century)

Alan Garner – Boneland (Books of the Century)

Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (Books of the Century)

Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (Books of the Century)

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things.  I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, having a deep-rooted suspicion of the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. But I really did. Gilbert’s fictional protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is brilliant, lonely, not pretty. She’s a scientist, a naturalist, in the wrong era (she’s born in 1800) to have any chance of fulfilling her ambitions, or her desires. She’s remarkable, utterly believable, her openness and imagination endearing and fascinating.  It’s an ambitious novel, that fully succeeds in its ambitions.

Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Gildea brings out of the shadows the Resistance that was marginalised for decades – women, Communists, foreigners. It’s much more complicated than the myth that de Gaulle propagated at the Liberation, and more interesting.  

Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (Books of the Century)

David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon (Books of the Century)

Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (60 Books)

Elly Griffiths – The Stone Circle (Books of the Year and Century)

Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (Books of the Year and Century)

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (Books of the Year and Century)

Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Books of the Century)

John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness – the final part of the series of novels featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick

Noah Hawley – Before the Fall is an excellent thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality, from the writer of the TV version of Fargo

Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (Books of the Century)

Sarah Helm – If this is a Woman (Books of the Century)

Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken (Books of the Year and Century)

Susan Hill – The Comforts of Home is the most recent (that I’ve read) of the Simon Serrailler series. (Books of the Year. The Various Haunts of Men was one of my Books of the Century).

Christopher Hitchen – Mortality (Books of the Century)

Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (Books of the Century)

Jessica Frances Kane – The Report is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of the novel is a little known wartime tragedy, in which no bombs fell, but 173 civilians died. I had never heard about the Bethnal Green disaster when I came across this book, and it set off many trains of thought.

Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale.  Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther blend crime fiction with World War II European history. They span from the immediate pre-war period to the long aftermath of the war, and Bernie has been part of it all. He’s a survivor, who’s done bad things and seen worse ones, but somehow retained his humanity, a dry humour, and at least some of his integrity.

Stephen King – The Institute. King’s latest references a number of his previous novels (Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…) but does something a bit different with these themes. In a way, he’s setting two version of America against each other: the corporate world of the Institute, ‘the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil, run by ‘a bunch of middle-management automatons’, against small-town America (the good and the bad thereof). It’s proper cancel all other activities including meals and sleep till the last page King. (Books of the Year)

Otto Dov Kulka – Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Books of the Century)

John le Carre – Pigeon Tunnel (60 Books)

Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman (Books of the Century)

Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (Books of the Year and Century)

Kenan Malik – Quest for a Moral Compass (Books of the Century)

Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies. We’re still eagerly awaiting the third part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. (Wolf Hall was one of my Books of the Century).

Helen Mathers – Patron Saint of Prostitutes is a fascinating biography of Josephine Butler, the remarkable Victorian campaigner who challenged all of the conventions about how a pious and respectable woman should behave by working with prostitutes, and challenging publicly the way in which they were brutalised and abused in the name of public morals.

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13 (Books of the Century)

Dervla McTiernan – The Ruin (Books of the Century)

Livi Michael – Succession (Books of the Century)

Denise Mina – The Long Drop (Books of the Century)

Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know is an account by someone diagnosed with early onset dementia. She’s frank and fearless about explaining how the condition affects her as it progresses, but uses her energies to campaign for awareness and understanding, and for practical support. Her blog is funny, sad and enlightening, and it is so rare and refreshing to hear about dementia from someone who is actually experiencing it.

Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (Books of the Century)

Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (Books of the Year and Century)

Thomas Mullen – Darktown (Books of the Century)

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…

Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand that First Held Mine (Books of the Century)

Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Trees movingly explores the Biafran war, sexuality and love across the ethnic and religious divides, class and status in Nigerian society.

David Olusoga – Black and British (Books of the Century)

Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Book 1). I won’t say too much about this as I don’t want to risk giving any spoilers. But it is sheer delight to be back in this world and to re-experience the sheer power, the subtlety, the glorious imagination of Pullman’s writing.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies, the most recent Rebus. He’s retired now, and battling with COPD and the lifestyle changes that has forced on him. Does any of that stop him getting involved in the solving of a crime, and getting under the feet of the cops? Have you met Rebus? (Books of the Year)

Danny Rhodes – Fan is about football and football culture, about supporting Nottingham Forest, and, inexorably, about Hillsborough. It’s powerful and harrowing.

Sally Rooney – Normal People (Books of the Year and Century)

Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (Books of the Year and Century)

Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (Books of the Year and Century)

Philippe Sands – East-West Street (Books of the Century)

Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland (Books of the Century)

Phil Scraton – Hillsborough: The Truth. When Scraton published this 2016 edition of his authoritative, rigorous, and personal account of the disaster, he would not have imagined the news that broke in December 2019, that Duckenfield had been found not guilty. Again, the families who have endured so much – lies, betrayal, vilification, dismissal – for so long, are in pain, and again, it seems no one will be held accountable for 96 entirely avoidable deaths.

Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (Books of the Century)

Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go (Books of the Century)

Lynn Shepherd – Tom All-Alone’s (Books of the Century)

Anita Shreve – The Stars are Fire was Shreve’s last book. Her protagonist, Grace, has a life that is limited by societal convention and tight family budgets but she thinks it’s fine, mostly, until she loses almost everything, in the terrible fires that swept Maine in 1947. The disaster is described with visceral power and horror, but Shreve is just as interested in its aftermath, as Grace tries to find a way to start again.

Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Books of the Century)

Patti Smith – M Train.  I picked Just Kids for my Books of the Century, but could just as well have chosen this. With the humour, self-deprecation and warmth that characterised her earlier memoir, she talks about her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the series of terrible losses that she experienced, of her music. And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders.

Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Occupation of France, and I’m well versed in its horrors. I know better than to minimise the brutality – but the majority of the murders of French citizens and those who were in France during the Occupation took place not on French soil but in what Snyder calls the Bloodlands. ‘Both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter… The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. …  The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”

Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark (Books of the Century)

Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. I was torn when I did the list of books of the century, and chose The Silence between Breaths. So I’m making recompense now. What Staincliffe does so well is to focus not just on the crime (though there is a strong police procedural element to this one, unlike some of her stand-alone novels) but on the ripples created by the crime, on the families of victim and perpetrators, on the police officers themselves. This one will break your heart.

Susie Steiner – Missing, Presumed (Books of the Century)

Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now (Books of the Century)

Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (Books of the Century)

Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity is a brilliant and moving YA novel about young women undercover in Occupied France in WWII. It’s so very cleverly structured – things that don’t seem to quite make sense suddenly become clear in the second half, when the narrator changes. The plot is utterly gripping and the ending made me weep. A lot.

Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn. This is part 1 of the Plague Times trilogy, a dystopian future where plague wipes out large swathes of the population. We’ve been here, or hereabouts, before of course – Day of the Triffids, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Stand… Welsh makes it work though, she gives weight to the moral issues as well as giving us suspense, action, horror, and everything we’d expect from the post-apocalypse.

Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad (Books of the Century)

Jeanette Winterson – Why be Happy when you could be Normal? (Books of the Century)

Farewell to those writers listed above who we lost during the decade: Helen Dunmore, Sue Eckstein, Philip Kerr, Harper Lee and Anita Shreve. Thank you all.

Films of the Decade

I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite films in each of these categories. Many of them I’ve written about already elsewhere, so again I’m not attempting to review or even comment on each one.  

Scifi and Superheroes: A brilliant decade both for the superhero genre and – IMHO – Marvel specifically, and for other sci-fi franchises: Star Trek had Beyond, and Star Wars fielded The Last Jedi and Rogue One. My pick from the MCU: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Guardians of the Galaxy I, Thor: Ragnarok. And outside this particular arc, from the X Men, the elegiac Logan. And though I don’t generally do DC, I have to have Wonder Woman.

Best of the bunch: Not dissing Endgame, but Assemble is when I fell in love with Marvel (and with Captain America, TBH). And Black Panther had a significance beyond its place in the Avengers story, and was exhilarating not just for people of colour in the audience, but for anyone who cares about seeing the rich diversity of humanity on screen, as heroes and as villains.

We had Inception and Interstellar, Her and Ex Machina, Looper and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity, Monsters and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place and Source Code.

And the two best SF films of the decade: Annihilation, and Arrival. Visually stunning, intelligent sci-fi. Of the two, Arrival, with its emotionally devastating twist, and its fascinating exploration of language, edges it.

Thrills, Crimes & Heists: Baby Driver and Drive, Bad Times at the El Royale, Skyfall, Gone Girl and Widows. I’m torn on which to pick. With caveats, to do with the film’s failure to meet the low bar of the Bechdel test, I’d pick Baby Driver, which was beautifully described by Empire as: ‘not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.’ Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.

War: Anthropoid (the assassination of Heydrich), Childhood of a Leader (a more allegorical account of the birth of fascism), Lore (a German teenager in the aftermath of the war). And the best one: Dunkirk –  I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.

French films: Michael Haneke’s Amour,  Xavier Giannoli’s  Marguerite (a French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins story), Olivier Assayas’s Double Vies (Non-Fiction), Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. Varda by Agnes and Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. My favourites: Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (so much in this movie, but just watch that opening sequence, with the young women leaving hockey match and returning to their homes in the banlieues, and a gorgeous sequence as they dance in shoplifted dresses to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’) , Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (a stunning Malian film, beautiful and shattering, but with unexpected moments of humour too).

Horror: Cabin in the Woods, What we do in the Shadows. Get Out and Us. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl with all the Gifts. Under the Skin.

History/Biography: First Man and Hidden Figures, Lincoln, Selma and BlackKKlansman. Love and Mercy (biopic of Brian Wilson).

Comedy: Booksmart and Lady Bird. Death of Stalin and Four Lions. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You. World’s End and Submarine. The Muppets, and Paddington.

Animation: Inside Out, Tangled, Toy Story 3.

Adaptations: Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.

Documentaries: I Believe in Miracles (Johnny Owen’s account of the glory years at Nottingham Forest), Night will Fall and They Shall Not Grow Old, Nine Muses, They will have to Kill us First.

Drama: Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. Dallas Buyers Club and Pride. Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Beauty. The Farewell and Short-term 12. Twentieth-century Women and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Winter’s Bone and Room. We Need to Talk about Kevin and If Beale Street Could Talk. Life, above all and Cold War.

Music: La la Land

Farewell and thank you to Marvel man Stan Lee, to Emmanuelle Riva (star of Haneke’s Amour, and long before that, of Hiroshima mon amour), to Agnes Varda, and to Michael Bond, creator of Paddington.

TV of the Decade

Subtitled Crime/Thrillers: Dicte, Follow the Money, Greyzone, Rough Justice, Spiral, The Team, Trapped, Wallander, Witnesses, Beck, Before we Die, Blue Eyes, The Bridge, Deutschland 83/86. Plus the bilingual English/Welsh productions, Hidden and Hinterland. Best of the bunch – Spiral (a master-class in French profanity, and a compelling if infuriating bunch of characters, dealing with grim and gritty crime on the streets of Paris.

Brit Crime/Thrillers: Endeavour, The Fall, Foyle’s War, Happy Valley, , Informer, Killing Eve, Kiri, Lewis, Line of Duty, Little Drummer Girl, London Spy, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jenkins, Midsomer Murders, The Missing, No Offence, River, Scott and Bailey, Sherlock, Shetland, Southcliffe, Strike, Suspects, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Unforgotten, Vera, Wallander, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, DCI Banks, Black Earth Rising, Ashes to Ashes. Best of the bunch – Endeavour for beautiful, subtle writing for all the lead characters; Killing Eve for deranged, delicious wickedness, Line of Duty for twisty turny plotting, and stunning, forget-to-breathe set pieces in the interview room, Unforgotten for the warmth and humanity of the two leads, the clever subtlety of the writing, and the emotional complexity of cold case investigation.

Other Crime/Thrillers: Fargo, Homeland, Mystery Road, Southland, The Americans. Best of the bunch – Fargo. Bonkers, funny and very very dark.

Sci-fi/Fantasy: Agent Carter, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, The Fades, Utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, Humans, Misfits, Orphan Black, The Returned, Star Trek: Discovery, True Blood, Being Human. Best of the bunch – Agents of Shield for daring plotting and terrific writing. Doctor Who for bringing us not only Doctors 11, 12 and 13, but the War Doctor and the reappearance of the very first Doctor, River Song and a whole raft of new companions, new and old foes… And Who, as always, through this decade, has given us a hero who thinks, who cares, who values kindness above all things, who isn’t human but somehow reflects back to us the best of humanity. Orphan Black for Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as most of the key characters. The Returned for a spooky, troubling, atmospheric take on the notion of the revenant.

Comedy: Big Bang Theory, Community, Derry Girls, Doc Martin, Fleabag, The Good Place, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Raised by Wolves, The Thick of It, W1A, Young Sheldon. Best of the bunch – Derry Girls

History/Biography: A Very English Scandal, Brexit: An Uncivil War, Cilla, Gentleman Jack, Mo, Poldark, Resistance, To Walk Invisible, Wolf Hall, Summer of Rockets, World on Fire, War and Peace. A Very English Scandal was a startlingly funny and somehow touching take on a scandal that I recall from my early teenage years (the newspaper coverage at the time was highly educational!). I wrote about Gentleman Jack in my review of the year. And Resistance was a powerful – and historically sound, whilst using the device of a fictional central character who could link to all of the key resistance groups and events – account of Occupied Paris, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.

Drama: The Casual Vacancy, Desperate Housewives, Doctor Foster, Spin, This is England, Treme, Years and Years. This is England (the TV series) was so powerful that I haven’t rewatched it. It broke me – particularly TiE88. Treme was a joy – it drew its characters with so much love and understanding, that we ended up loving them too. The cast was brilliant, as was the music (it’s the only drama of the decade that has led us to seek out a whole raft of CDs). And Years and Years was timely, moving and let us hope not overly prescient…

Music

This was the decade that I really got into opera. Having the chance to see (and latterly to review) Opera North productions at Leeds Grand Theatre and Town Hall has been not only a delight but an education. I’ve seen productions from across the centuries, and not only has the singing been glorious, but the stagings have been wonderfully inventive. You can find my reviews of the titles in bold elsewhere on this site.

  • Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate
  • Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
  • Poulenc’s La Voix humaine
  • Puccini’s La Boheme, Gianni Schicchi, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot
  • Britten’s Death in Venice and Peter Grimes
  • Ravel’s L’Enfant et ses sortileges
  • Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in Maschero
  • Falla’s La Vida Breva
  • Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury
  • Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti
  • Giordano’s Andrea Chenier
  • Kevin Puts’s Silent Night
  • Handel’s Giulio Cesare
  • Martinu’s The Greek Passion
  • Strauss’s Salome
  • Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
  • Lehar’s The Merry Widow
  • Janacek’s Jenufa, Osud and Katya Kabanaova
  • Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppeia
  • Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute
  • Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden
  • Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
  • Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana

As always, we have listened to a LOT of music. And over the course of the decade, more and more of it has been jazz. That’s partly thanks to Radio 3, with Jazz Record Requests and J to Z bringing us artists we weren’t familiar with along with lots of stuff from long-term favourites (Monk, Miles, Mingus et al). We’ve seen some live jazz too, from the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation, Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes from the City, and the Stan Tracey Octet.

For several years of this decade, Tramlines was where we went, one weekend a year, for live music. Music in pubs and clubs, in parks, in the art gallery, the Cathedral… It’s changed now, and it’s more a conventional music festival, which doesn’t suit us as well (though it’s a great success and a huge achievement for the city) – what we loved was just wandering around the city centre, from one venue to another, catching bands we’d never heard of as well as a few big names. It was bloody brilliant. And it was where we first saw Songhoy Blues, one of my bands of the decade. These young Malian musicians made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.  

We’re privileged in Sheffield too to have Music in the Round – chamber music in the Crucible Studio from the house band, Ensemble 360, and a host of guest musicians. As the name suggests, the audience sits around the performers, so you’re guaranteed a good view, and it gives an intimate feel to the event. I could not begin to list the concerts we’ve attended there. Not just classical either – some of the jazz concerts referred to above were in the Crucible Studio, as was a wonderful gig from the Unthanks.

There have been other venues too – a remarkable performance of Terry Riley’s In C, in the Arts Tower paternoster lifts, and a programme of Reich, Adams, Zorn and others at the Leadmill, from the Ligeti Quartet.

So, another decade bites the dust. These have been some of the best bits. Love and thanks to all of the people who’ve shared these cultural delights with me, to all of the people who’ve created and performed these cultural delights for me, and to all of those who’ve passed on their own enthusiasms to me over the years.

Onwards. Whatever the next decade brings, let’s ensure it’s full of wonderful books, films, TV and music. Let’s hang on to the hope that things can and will get better…

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My Life in Books – what I read in 2019

As you might expect, quite a lot of these titles crop up in my lists of the century and the decade (watch this space), but I’ve read things that fall well outside of those time frames, and things that I very much enjoyed but which didn’t quite make the cut. I haven’t included absolutely everything I read. One or two things were just a bit rubbish, and I’m going to ignore them. What that means is that everything here I enjoyed and/or was glad I had read (not necessarily the same thing), with the occasional caveat, and there are things that I enjoyed a very great deal. I’m not attempting to do a full review for all titles, or I’ll be here till 2021, just a few notes and links here and there, particularly for those titles which I haven’t written about elsewhere or which aren’t going to feature in all of the other (less fun) Books of the Year guides that are beginning to appear. The books that were published in 2019 are in bold, and my favourites have a little star by them, just so’s you know.

Crime, Thrillers, that sort of thing

Ben Aaronovich – The Furthest Station (part of the Rivers of London series, which I love. Moon over Soho is on my Century list)

Megan Abbott – Give me your Hand (a new author to me this year but one who I will follow up.)

Eric Ambler – Journey into Fear (classic thriller from 1940)

Kate Atkinson – Big Sky (new Jackson Brodie!)*

Mark Billingham – Love Like Blood, As Good as Dead, The Bones Beneath, Die of Shame, The Killing Habit (the excellent Tom Thorne series)

Stephen Booth – Fall Down Dead (Cooper & Fry series, set in the Peak District – I’ve read quite a few of these, but not in chronological order, and I keep feeling there’s back story that I’m missing! Will have to fill in the gaps.)

Sam Bourne/aka Jonathan Freedland – To Kill the Truth (follow up to To Kill the President, which was a startlingly close to reality account of Trump’s presidency as well as a nail-biting thriller. This one’s preoccupation is clear from the title – the events described may not be entirely plausible but the basic premiss chills, nonetheless, and Bourne/Freedland knows how to keep his audience gripped.)

James Lee Burke – New Iberia Blues, Robicheaux* (Dave Robicheaux series. Robicheaux is on my Century list)

Jane CaseyLove Lies Bleeding, One in Custody (two Maeve Kerrigan novellas), Cruel Acts* (new Maeve Kerrigan! on my Century list), How to Fall (first in Casey’s YA Jess Tennant series)

Harlan Coben – Tell No One, The Woods

Eva Dolan – Tell no Tales (second in the Zigic & Ferrera series, set in a Hate Crimes Unit)

Louise Doughty – Dance with Me, Honey Dew, Crazy Paving

Tana French – In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbour* (the first four in the Dublin Murders series – Broken Harbour is on my Century list), The Wych Elm*

Frances Fyfield – Half-Light (I read several of her crime novels back in the ‘80s and ‘90s but nothing more recently. This one is from ’92 and published under her real name, Frances Hegarty, but has reminded me to read anything by her that I’d missed).

Robert Galbraith – Lethal White (the latest Cormoran Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling is on my Century list)*

Isabelle Grey – Good Girls Don’t Die (another new writer to me this year, and another who I will follow up)

Elly GriffithsZig Zag Girl, The Blood Card, Smoke and Mirrors, The Vanishing Box* (the first four in the Brighton Mysteries series, which I love), The Stone Circle* (the latest Ruth Galloway – on my Century list), The Stranger Diaries (first in an intriguing new series)

Jane Harper – Force of Nature, The Lost Man* (the latter is on my Century list)

Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken* (new Marnie Rome! on my Century list)

Susan Hill – Hero, The Comforts of Home* (a novella and the latest in the Simon Serrailler series, on my Decade list)

Doug Johnstone – The Jump, Gone Again

Philip Kerr – The Lady from Zagreb, The One from the Other, Prussian Blue*, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Bernie Gunther series. Sadly Kerr died last year, and so whilst there are a couple of Bernie Gunther novels that I haven’t yet read, that will be that. I’ll miss him. Prague Fatale is on my Decade list.)

John le Carré – Our Game, Absolute Friends (The Constant Gardener is on my Century list, and his memoir Pigeon Tunnel on the Decade list)

Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (on my Century list)*

Attica Locke – Black Water Rising (on my Century list)*

Mary McCluskey – Intrusion

Val McDermid – A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie series – I have read a couple of these now and much prefer them to the Wire in the Blood series, which I just can’t get along with. That puzzled me, given my love for the genre and McDermid’s place in the crime-writing pantheon, so I’m glad to have found these and will follow the series up )

Thomas Mullen – The Lightning Men (sequel to Darktown, which is on my Century list)*

Louise Penny – Still Life (first in the Inspector Garnache series – another series to follow up)*

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies* (on my Decade list), Rather be the Devil, Hide and Seek, Naming the Dead* (on my Century list) (all Rebus novels)

Cath Staincliffe – Desperate Measures (a Blue Murder novel. Staincliffe’s stand-alone novels The Silence between Breaths and The Girl in the Green Dress are on my Century and Decade lists respectively, and I have thoroughly enjoyed her Sal Kilkenny series too)

Lesley Thomson – Ghost Girl (follow up to The Detective’s Daughter)*

Sarah Vaughan – Anatomy of a Scandal (political/psychological thriller, disturbing and compelling)

Sci-fi/Horror/Dystopian Futures etc

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments (sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, on my Decade list)*

Ted Chiang – Stories of Your Life and Others (includes the short story that inspired the film Arrival, on my Century list)*

Andrew Michael Hurley – Devil’s Day* (his second novel – his debut The Loney was on my Century list)

Stephen KingElevation, Gwendy’s Button Box, The Institute* (two fairly slight novellas and a stonking new one, which is on my Decade list)

Audrey Nifenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry*(there’s a sequel to her more famous Time Traveller’s Wife in the works, I believe, but this one is also excellent, spooky and moving)

Claire North – 84k* (a gripping and disturbing dystopia, in a society where everything is commodified and human rights have been abolished)

Iain Pears – Arcadia

Philip PullmanLa Belle Sauvage (on my Decade list), The Secret Commonwealth (the first two in his new trilogy)*

Historical Fiction

Marjorie Bowen – Dickon (a 1929 novel about Richard III, from a hugely prolific but largely forgotten author. The Viper of Milan thrilled me to bits as a young teenager)

Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (third in her Renaissance trilogy. It’s set in a convent, and by chance I read it immediately after The Testaments, which set off all sorts of interesting echoes)*

Robert Harris – Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator (the Cicero trilogy, read in preparation for and during a visit to Rome)

Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (on my Century list)*, Signs for Lost Children, Night Waking*

Elizabeth Strout – Abide with Me

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests

Kate Atkinson – Transcription* (WWII/Cold War set novel, about secrets, lies, paranoia, invention. The Guardian described it as ‘an unapologetic novel of ideas, which is also wise, funny and paced like a spy thriller’.)

Other Fiction

André Aciman – Call me by Your Name

Peter Ackroyd – The Great Fire of London

James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room* (Baldwin’s 1956 novel is a groundbreaking account of bisexuality, with a non-linear timeline. It’s a powerful read – I read quite a lot of Baldwin as a teenager, including the later Another Country, where the themes of race and sexuality are intertwined, as well as his novels exploring the black experience in the US)

Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger (published 1910, first in a trilogy – or possibly a quartet – set in Bennett’s ‘five towns’ in the Potteries, with a very striking female character in Hilda Lessways)

Jonathan Coe – Middle England* (on my Decade list, the follow up to The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle)

J M Coetzee – Disgrace (this has been on my bookshelf for many years and for some reason I only got round to it this year. It was excellent, but I don’t know that I want to read more by him, however good and important he is)

Michel Faber – The 199 Steps (read following a short break in Whitby)

Sebastian Faulks – Paris Echo (this should have been right up my street, and I did enjoy a great deal about it. Some critics felt that the history – Occupied Paris – was rather didactically presented rather than being integrated in the narrative. But the stumbling block for me was rather that some of that history was wrong. Careless mistakes that Faulks or someone should have spotted. Does it matter? I think it really does – if you’re going to invoke this (still contentious and disputed) history, get the details right.

Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves (on my Decade list)*

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour

Chris Mullins – The Friends of Harry Perkins (a late sequel to A Very British Coup)

Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient (another one that I hadn’t got round to for years, and that somehow didn’t connect with me. Whether that’s down to me or Ondaatje, I cannot tell…)

Georges Perec – W: Une Memoir d’enfance

Sally Rooney – Normal People (on my Century list)*

Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (on my Century list)*

Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (on my Century list)*

Kit de Waal – The Trick to Time*

Biography and Autobiography

Sue Black – All that Remains: A Life in Death (musings on life and career from a leading forensic anthropologist)

George L MosseConfronting History (engaging autobiography of one of the leading historians of the Nazi era and ideology, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany)

Keith Richard – Life (on my Century list)*

Bart Van Es – The Cut Out Girl: A story of War and Family, Lost and Found(the story of one of the ‘hidden children’ in occupied Netherlands, and of the author’s family, who sheltered her)

Tara Westover – Educated (grim and fascinating autobiographical account of growing up in the Church of the Latter-Day Saints)

History

Ferdinand Addis – Rome: Eternal City (on my Decade list)*

Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain (on my Decade list)*

Saul Friedlander – Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (first of a two-part history by Friedlander, a refugee from Prague who survived the war as a ‘hidden child’ in France)

Anton Gill – An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler

Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (on my Century list)*

Claudio Magris – Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea* (inspired by my cruise up part of the Danube. Magris does the whole river, as the title suggests, and his journey predated the lifting of the Iron Curtain, so it was fascinating to contrast his impressions with my own)

Renée Poznanski – The Jews in France during World War II

Michael Rosen – The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case (a fascinating, touching and often quite funny account of the great novelist holed up in various hotel rooms in England, suffering the dreadful food – he is baffled by gravy: why roast meat and then pour water on it? – and trying to juggle his complicated domestic arrangements.  Obviously, Rosen also gives plenty of insight into the Dreyfus Affair which prompted Zola’s exile – and probably his murder).

Other Non-Fiction

David Andress – Cultural Dementia: How the West has Lost its History, and Risks Losing Everything Else (I only came across this because I follow Andress on Twitter and find his contributions there to be so well-informed and incisive that I wanted to read more of his thinking about the state of things. As the blurb suggests, it’s not exactly an optimistic view, but vitally important if we’re to understand how to fight back.)*   

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World*

Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (on my Century list)*

Dave Rich – The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism* (this made a lot of sense, for me, of the specific nature of left-wing anti-semitism. Unless we understand this, we are trapped in endlessly asserting people’s anti-racist credentials as if that should be sufficient response, or whataboutery focusing on the Islamophobia of the Tory party.)

Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks* (on my Century list)

Postscript – what I read after I posted this:

  • Ben Aaronovich – Lies Sleeping
  • Claire Askew – All the Hidden Truths
  • James Baldwin – If Beale Street could Talk
  • Chris Brookmyre – Places in the Darkness
  • Viet Dinh – After Disasters
  • Louise Doughty – Platform Seven
  • Tana French – The Secret Place
  • Elly Griffiths – Now You See Them
  • Philip Kerr – Metropolis
  • Jane Lythell – After the Storm
  • Liz Rosenberg – Beauty and Attention

Allons-y to 2020, to new new books and new old books, e-books and tatty paperbacks, books that make me laugh, that make me cry, that make me think.

And to all the writers who’ve brought me so much enjoyment and enlightenment in 2019, my thanks, my love and admiration.

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Film and TV – the best of 2019

As always, a couple of caveats. When I say ‘the best’, I mean the stuff I really really liked. So I’m quite comfortable with you disagreeing – if you didn’t like something I did, then probably the reverse is true, and that’s totally fine. Secondly, whilst I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in what follows, read on at your own peril if you haven’t seen the programme/film concerned.

Onwards!

Small Screen

We’ve watched crime dramas from around the world – Cardinal (Canada), Crimson Rivers, No Second Chance and Les Dames (France), Darkness (Those who Kill) and Follow the Money (Denmark), Greyzone (Denmark/Sweden), The River (Norway), Night and Day (Spain), Trapped (Iceland), The Team (Denmark/Netherlands/Germany/France), Harrow (Australia), Perception and The Sinner (USA). These are a mixed bag – not all these series are ones we will follow up if we get a chance – and you may note a significant omission. Spiral is currently airing but at the time of writing we haven’t yet watched it – it’s accumulating on the BT box and we’re saving it up as a treat once it’s complete. Those are the rules, sorry. We’re also part way through Deutschland 86 which is excellent, and so extraordinary to contemplate how the world and the mindset of the GDR were due to disintegrate so completely only three years later.

Obviously, there’s plenty of home-grown crime too.  Again, they’re a mixed bag – we weren’t entirely persuaded by Cheat, The Bay, Trust Me or The Widow, although they were entertaining enough. Baptiste, Innocent and Informer all had strong plots and strong casts, and emotional heft as well. The Le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, was excellent too.

But in their own league were:

Endeavour – this keeps on getting better. The final episode was superb, and very moving. But for my money, the writing and acting in a brief scene between Bright (Anton Lesser) and Thursday (Roger Allam) was television at its finest. They were talking about the women they loved and feared (or knew) they were losing, how they had met them – and as each of them reminisced, it was as if they were each in their own world of memory, their words interweaving in a way that was somehow operatic (whilst being very understated, as befits the two characters).

Killing Eve season 2 was widely reckoned to be not up to the first. I can see some of that. But it was still quite deranged, deliciously wicked, and wickedly delicious. Whether a third season is a good idea, I don’t know, but will give it a go – I can’t think of any other series that has delivered the utterly unexpected quite so frequently. And Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh totally deserve all of the praise they’ve received for their performances.

Line of Duty was as nail-bitingly tense as ever. The elements are familiar now but the twists and turns of the plot are still gripping, and the performances excellent. I think before the next season, whenever that lands, we will have to re-watch the whole thing from the beginning, because it’s clearly all interconnected and I’m sure all the clues as to who is H (if indeed there is an H) are there somewhere… (and no, of course it isn’t Ted. Don’t be silly).

After all that murder, we do need the occasional laugh. I’m super-critical of comedy. I’ll give a new programme a try, but if it makes me wince more than it makes me laugh it doesn’t get a second chance. These passed the test.

This year saw the last Big Bang Theory – there was a point when I thought it had exhausted the comedic possibilities of the sitch and the central (male) characters, but bringing the women into the foreground gave it a new lease of life, and the final season was funny and often touching. Young Sheldon turned out to be excellent, the Cooper family drawn and performed with real affection and warmth.

We got to Fleabag rather late in the day but it was brilliant and funny. I was starting to find the glances to camera slightly irritating, when she changed the rules again in Season 2, with the hot priest noticing and asking her about it.  Weirdly, Gentleman Jack also used the same trick (no idea who was copying who).

Derry Girls was fabulous, and silly, but never let one quite forget the context. The events around the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry may have been mere background as far as the teenagers were concerned, but were heavy with meaning, at a time when the GFA seemed under threat from a no-deal Brexit. (It may still be – only a fool would attempt to make predictions at present.)

And The Good Place took us into unexpected realms of moral philosophy whilst being very funny along the way. (We’ve just finished season 2.)

Of these, I’m going to pick Derry Girls as my fave. I love those girls (and boy). And Sister Michael, obvs.

Having welcomed the Thirteenth Doctor in 2018, we had just the one episode of Who to sustain us through 2019, a New Year’s Day special. But the trailer’s out now for the new series, ‘coming soon in 2020’ so will just have to be patient till then…

Agents of Shield continued to be complex and compelling drama. The latest season ended with another unexpected swerve. My only quibble – and it applies to the next programme too – is the tendency to appear to kill off a key and beloved character and then renege on death. It’s something that happens a lot in fantasy/sci fi, given that there are myriad ways in which death can be cheated or reversed, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… Cumulatively, it can mean that the next death doesn’t move you because you kind of know they’ll be back.

Star Trek Discovery is still excellent, even without Jason Isaacs. And the arrival of Captain Pike was most intriguing, given the tie in to original Trek as well as to the reboot movies. There are some great characters (I’m especially fond of Ensign Tilly). Too much death-reversing (see above). But thoroughly enjoyable, exciting, unexpected.

Walking Dead has come back from a real creative slump. The war with the Saviours just went on too long, and was over-reliant on our supposed fascination with Negan. But with a jump forward in time, we’ve now (in Series 10) got a really creepy and interesting new threat, which also weaponises the zombie hordes, who had come to seem almost irrelevant during the Saviour wars. The mid-season finale (or should that be semi-finale?) was a classic example of key character doing something utterly stupid that endangers nearly every other key character – but it did it well, and the other plot strands that were left as cliff-hangers were powerful too. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Hard to pick one – but I’ll go with Shield.

Years and Years almost qualifies as sci-fi. This Russell T Davies near future dystopia deals extensively with tech and how it affects every detail of people’s lives. But its main focus is the rise of a cynical, populist politician, who through a mixture of public support and chicanery gains power and uses it to horrific effect. It being RTD, this is emotionally intense, often funny, always scary. 

Gentleman Jack stars the wonderful Suranne Jones as the early nineteenth-century lesbian diarist Anne Lister. She’s a fascinating character, particularly when one sees her through a contemporary  lens – her sexuality and determination to follow her own path in that regard, despite all of the obstacles that society places in her way on the one hand, her belief in the class system and the interests of the landowning aristocracy on the other. It’s a hugely entertaining account, which reminds us that it’s based on Anne’s encrypted diaries with her asides to camera (as noted above, very Fleabag, even to the extent of having Anne’s lover notice at one point and comment on it).

More conventional costume drama in Poldark which reached its final season, so no more lingering shots of Ross riding along the Cornish clifftops or Demelza gazing out to sea. There are more books in the Winston Graham series than have been televised, but I think they focus on the next generation, so who knows, there might be a Poldark 2 at some stage, but without Ross, Demelza, Dwight, Drake, evil George… Of course, it would still have the staggeringly beautiful north Cornish coast, and a fascinating and turbulent period in terms of national and social history to explore. 

World on Fire takes two families, one working-class, one wealthy, in late 1930s Manchester, and through the various family members and an American journalist explores the build-up to and the first couple of years of the war. That it relies on coincidence to connect these individuals with so many key events of the period (the fall of Poland, Dunkirk, the sinking of the Graf Spee, the Nazi euthaniasia programme, the occupation of Paris…) is absolutely fine. It’s a dramatic device, but it works. However. I’m happy to suspend disbelief at the aforementioned coincidences, but I cannot for the life of me see how Grzegorz gets from Gdansk to Warsaw to the Soviet occupied area of Poland and then within a period of less than nine months, without false papers, crosses most of Nazi Europe to turn up at Dunkirk and blag a place on a boat. It feels like there’s a whole story there to be told, if we’re to accept it at all, but instead we just jump from Soviet Poland to the beaches at Dunkirk. I would be less hard on this if I didn’t like the series so much in every other respect, but I shouted at the telly a couple of times over this strand of the narrative and no further explanation was forthcoming. Hmmm.

Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets explores Cold War Britain, through the family of a Russian Jewish inventor recruited by MI5. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the world into which I was born (it’s set in 1958) but which I don’t recognise at all. Keeley Hawes is as splendid as ever, amongst a strong cast. Beautifully written and filmed, it’s thoroughly intriguing and quirky.

Best of these – another hard choice but I’ll go with Years and Years.

This year the children of 7 Up turned 63. We’ve been following them for decades now – they’re our contemporaries, and have been part of our lives for so long that we feel they’re almost like distant relations, who we only see every few years, but still kind of care about. I wonder how many of them will continue with the series (some of them said that their continued participation depends on Michael Apted, who’s now 71). Not only that, but whilst we have so far weathered divorces, the loss of parents, serious illness, and the death of one of the cohort, it can only get tougher from here on in. But for as long as they continue, we will continue to check in with them. Whatever the flaws in the original conception it’s been the most extraordinarily fascinating series.

One more doc, The Yorkshire Ripper Files. The last thing I watched about the Ripper, the drama-doc, This is Personal, gave me horrific nightmares. It ostensibly focused on the investigation but dramatized at least one attempted murder, and it took me right back to the fear that we lived with in Yorkshire whilst he was out there, killing women. I used to come back from work, always hoping that Karen from next door would be on my bus, and that we would scurry back from the bus stop to our road, feeling marginally safer for being together, but not feeling fully safe until we were home and the door shut and chained. And every night, those nightmares. The Yorkshire Ripper Files focused on how the investigation was derailed not just by the hoax tape but by the conventional attitudes of the time, fixating on the fact that some early victims were sex workers, and thus discounting attacks on women who were not, even when one of those women provided a chillingly accurate description of Sutcliffe. There was much I didn’t know, despite having followed the case so closely at the time, and it was a powerful reminder of how far, in many ways, we’ve come since the 70s, even if much still needs to change.

The Big Screen (even if seen on DVD on the small screen…)

It’s been a Marvellous year in the cinema. We had the arrival of the most powerful Avenger, and then the culmination of the Avengers saga with the mighty Endgame. I can’t be doing with the auteur-led dismissal of the superhero genre – my cinematic world is broad enough to encompass enigmatic French art films where nothing happens at considerable length AND epic battles between good and evil, packed with action (also at considerable length) but also with wit and heart. I’m contemplating a lengthier defence of the genre for this blog at some stage but for now, Scorsese, et al, leave it out. As well as the two major films, there were hugely enjoyable outings for Ant Man and the Wasp, and for Spiderman (both in the form of Tom Holland and in the animated Into the Spiderverse).

Leave No Trace was a beautiful, subtle piece of film-making, full of warmth and compassion, and faith in people. So many situations where one feared the worst but where people turned out to be decent, to be doing their best, to be kind. It hurt my heart, but it soothed it too. I know not everyone is ok, but perhaps sometimes we need to be reminded that most people are.

Bad Times at the El Royale was fairly bonkers, a lot of fun, with fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in particular. The body count was pretty spectacular, but again, there were instances where people turned out to be better than one might have feared, rather than worse.

Erivo turned up again in Widows, one of a number of excellent films we saw this year with predominantly black casts. A heist movie wasn’t what I would have expected from Steve McQueen after Twelve Years a Slave, but as the Empire reviewer put it, ‘with the help of a staggering ensemble cast, Steve McQueen has made an intelligent, emotional thriller that contemplates contemporary American politics as confidently as it does blowing shit up.’

Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman got some stick for preaching to the choir, for making the contemporary parallels too obvious, and for making the KKK too stupid to be scary. I’m not sure that I agree. The final scene in which the lead players chuckle at their victory would be far too complacent and cheesy were it not for the news footage that follows, of Charlottesville and the contemporary equivalents of those bigots, still here, still spouting their hate. Lee’s film is often very funny and yes, a lot of the laughs come at the expense of the Klan.  But there’s plenty here – even without the bookending of the 1950s racist PSA and the Charlottesville fascist demos – to shock and disturb. Denzel’s son, John David Washington, and Adam Driver, are great in the leads.

We only saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out this year, but had managed to avoid having much idea of what happened, beyond the initial premise of a young black guy visiting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. It builds brilliantly – initially things are just that bit awkward, a bit clumsy, but we could be in for social comedy at this stage. We see Chris (brilliantly played by Daniel Kaluuya) initially smiling along – his whole life he’s been encountering the many and varied forms of white racism, and he knows there’s no point in calling it out, not at first. But then it gets weirder, and wronger, and every time you think you know where we’re heading, you’re wrongfooted…

Peele’s most recent film, Us, is ‘a superb doppelganger satire of the American dream’, which, like Get Out, builds its terrors gradually and relentlessly, and pulls surprise after surprise. Its mythology is more opaque than that of Get Out, but it resonates very powerfully nonetheless, and the chills and shocks stay with you. Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely mesmerising.

Sorry to Bother You is madly satirical sci-fi. It may sound mundane: a young black telemarketer who adopts a white accent to succeed at his job. Swept into a corporate conspiracy, he must choose between profit and joining his activist friends to organise labour. But whilst there’s an absolutely dizzying swerve part way through that no one could possibly have predicted, there are elements right from the start that mark it out as not social realism.

If Beale Street could Talk is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s even quietly optimistic and hopeful about humanity, despite everything that happens to the protagonists, because it portrays real and lasting romantic love, and real and powerful family love. The Guardian said: ‘Here is a film almost woozy with its own beauty and dignity, a film going transcendently high in the face of a racist world going low. It is a tribute of quiet passion extended to those lives fractured by injustice, and seems to serenely offer up their hard-won heroism to ward off bigotry’s corrosive evil’.

There have been fewer opportunities to watch French art-house movies of late, but we did see Agnes Varda’s final film, which gives us the delight of spending two hours in her very engaging company, through interviews and clips from her movies. Varda by Agnes should take one immediately to seeing all of her films. We also caught Non-Fiction, which is about as archetypal a French film as one could find – populated by writers, publishers, actors and their ilk, all of whom are sleeping with each other, when they’re not having intense debates about the future of literature in a digital age. It’s clever and funny and very enjoyable.

The Farewell was great too – very touching and funny, about families and about cultural differences. As it opens we see Billi, the protagonist, in New York, juggling cultures adeptly as she talks on her phone to her grandmother in China and telling her what she wants to hear. But the grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the family follow tradition in not telling the patient of her prognosis, all gathering in China for a slightly rushed wedding in order to say their farewells without actually saying farewell…

Booksmart was a ridiculously funny and smart coming-of-age film, starring Beanie Feldstein (the best friend in Lady Bird) and Kathryn Dever. They carry the film completely – parents and potential boy or girlfriends are in a way peripheral.  The Guardian review said: ‘there are sequences that will feel familiar to anyone well-versed in high school comedies, but Wilde manages to grace her film with a distinctive aura all of its own. For one, romance and sex are relatively low down on the list for the girls while friendship, feminism and the pursuit of fun are of more importance, turning them from archetypes into fully fleshed, and flawed, young women.’ 

If I have to pick from these, my top three films would be Avengers: Endgame, If Beale Street could Talk, and Us.

Allons-y to 2020!

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