Archive for June, 2022

2022 Reading – Half-Time Report

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.

FICTION

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.

NON-FICTION

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.

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2022 On Screen (the first half)

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.  

22 July

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.

‘71

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.

The Aftermath

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. 

Aliens

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.

Amistad

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.

Bladerunner 2049*

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.

Boiling Point

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.

Bombardment

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.

The Courier

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…).

Curtiz*

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.

Darkest Hour

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.

David Copperfield*

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.

Dune*

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.

Encanto

Delightful, with a very un-princessy hero and some nice tunes.

Enduring Love

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.

Enemy Lines

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.                 

Enigma

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.

Enola Holmes

Millie Bobbie Brown from Stranger Things tackling crime and outwitting her more famous brothers. A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s watching.

The Eternals

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.

Gladiator

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.

Hurricane

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.

The Impossible

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.

Jackie

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.

Lion*

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.

Malcolm X

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.

Minority Report

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.

Munich

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.

The Northman

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…

Operation Finale

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.

Paris Blues*

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.

Philomena

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.

The Pianist

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.  

Primal Fear

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.

Sicario

Gripping, dark, brutal. Great soundtrack.

Snowpiercer

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.

Sonny Boy

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.

Spotlight

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.

Suburbicon

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.

Suffragette

A decent historical drama about the Suffragette movement. Somehow it didn’t manage to be more than that.

Suite Francaise

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…).

Sully

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.

Their Finest

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.

Turning Red

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.

United

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.

Worth

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.

Zodiac

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.

TV

After Party

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.

Anne

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.

Baptiste

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?

Beck

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.

The Crown

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…

Dalgliesh

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.  

The Defeated

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.

Derry Girls*

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.

DI Ray

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.

Doctor Who

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.

Fargo

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.

Final Account

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.  

Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones is striding across the Yorkshire countryside again, and it’s marvellous.

Happy Valley

Grimly gripping crime drama set in the least happy valley one could imagine. The writing and the performances are top notch.

Hidden

Mind you, the Welsh landscape of Hidden is hardly a tranquil haven either. Again, writing and performances ensure that you can’t look away.

Inventing Anna

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…

Killing Eve

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.

Lupin

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.

Midwich Cuckoos

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.

Mindhunter

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).

Moon Knight

This was often bewildering, often funny, often quite scary.

Ms Marvel

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.

Normal People

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.

Opera Italia

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.

Ozark

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.

Peaky Blinders

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…

Picard

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.

The Promise

French crime. Enjoyable, but tiresomely dependent on good, professional cop behaving badly/foolishly.

Sherwood*

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.

Slow Horses

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.

Stranger Things*

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.

Ted Lasso

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.

Trigger Point

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.

Turning Point

Documentary series about 9/11, which begins with the attack and then explores the US and international response. Very interesting and hard-hitting.

Uprising*

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.

Vigil

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.  

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Right when I needed them…

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.

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