Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see. Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive. Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach. All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz). The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.
Night will Fall is a film about this film. Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng. The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there. Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death. As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least. These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail. Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…
The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved. But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive. Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.
Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide. What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve. There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening. But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.
Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe? To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished? At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.
If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence. Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves. They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did. Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.
The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers. The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living. This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes. It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again. As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world. And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.
As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:
There are those reluctant to believe
Or believing from time to time.
There are those who look at these ruins today
As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.
Those who take hope again as the image fades
As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.
Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t. And night has fallen for so many. It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today. The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.
Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)
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)
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.
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.
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…
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’sKiss 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
Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
Lehar’s The Merry Widow
Janacek’s Jenufa, Osudand 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…
I do appear to have read quite a lot of books in the first half of 2021… And this isn’t quite everything – I’ve left out one or two re-reads, one or two very academic books that I read solely for purposes of my thesis, and one or two that were just such a waste of time to read that I couldn’t be bothered to waste further time saying how rubbish they were. Not that everything I list here was marvellous, but there is a difference, I would say, between noting my issues with, e.g., Ian McEwan’s Solar, and slating a random thriller that I got for 99p off Amazon. I’m reasonably discriminating in my acquisitions, so it’s rare that there are more than a couple of utter duds. And ultimately, the reason I write about what I read is to share the good stuff, to infect other people with my own enthusiasms, and big up the writers who’ve given me pleasure and enlightenment.
I’ve split fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is in strictly alphabetical author order, not grouped by genre. Non-fiction is grouped, very roughly, by topic. I’ve included links to reviews where they’re not too spoilery but as always, caveat lector.
Eric Ambler – The Mask of Dimitrios. A cracking thriller, set in the tense period before the outbreak of WWII, and pitting a writer of detective novels against an international network of crime, from Istanbul to Paris. Ambler was hugely influential, particularly on Graham Greene, and his perspective is politically informed and leftist.
James Baldwin – Another Country/Just Above my Head. I read the former as a teenager, and it is just as bleakly powerful half a century later. The latter is new to me, and I gather is not regarded as one of his best but I loved it, loving the rhythms of the prose and the dialogue, the elegiac tone, the immersion in the church and in music. I’ve been absorbed in Baldwin’s life and work over the last couple of years, his essays and novels, an excellent biography (see below), and Raoul Peck’s remarkable film, I Am Not Your Negro. Plus he cropped up in a Radio 4 programme hosted by Clarke Peters, about the 1987 performance of his play, The Amen Corner. Everything I read, hear, watch makes me admire and love Baldwin more.
Belinda Bauer – Exit. I’ve been a fan of Bauer’s sharp, off-beat crime novels for several years now, and this is terrific. It’s very funny, in a dark way, and it keeps on surprising the reader without resorting to the kind of twists for twists’ sake that too many thriller writers employ in lieu of convincing characterisation and intelligent plotting…
Mark Billingham – Cry Baby – another excellent crime writer. This is a Tom Thorne novel, but a prequel, going back to the time before the start of the series (Sleepyhead). Thorne is a not a rookie here though, he’s already got ten years (and associated traumas) under his belt, and this case is a brute.
William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms. One never knows what to expect with Boyd. This starts off in seemingly very familiar territory – in fact, we’re in The 39 Steps territory. From there on we go all over the shop really, big pharma conspiracies, London’s marginalised communities of illegal migrants, sex workers and the homeless, hit-men and a good man on the run. It doesn’t entirely hold together, but it’s a great read and – being Boyd – beautifully written.
Geraldine Brooks – Year of Wonders. Historical fiction this time, and the setting is a village in Derbyshire, in the year of the Great Plague. It’s based (at least in the set-up) on the true story of Eyam, familiar to anyone who grew up in Notts/Derbyshire/South Yorkshire, the story of the vicar who persuaded his parishioners to quarantine themselves after a case of plague in the village. This is dramatic and remarkable enough but Brooks then takes the plot in even more dramatic and unexpected directions… Oddly, one of the reviews seemed to be saying that the Eyam story was itself melodramatic and improbable. Clearly didn’t go to school in our neck of the woods…
Anthony Burgess – Nothing Like the Sun. Fascinating to read this so soon after reading Orlando (see below), as it connects so powerfully with the Elizabethan section of the latter. The language is exuberantly, extravagantly Shakespearian, but it subtly evolves over the life of the writer, who as a boy plays with language that goes beyond his understanding, but learns its power, and the limits of that power.
James Lee Burke – A Private Cathedral. I’ve really enjoyed the Dave Robicheaux series but this one was odd. It all got a bit supernatural, and whilst there’s always been that undercurrent, with Robicheaux having dream-like visions of the past, this takes it to another level and I’m not sure I’m convinced…
Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist. Another one that didn’t quite convince me. The historical setting and detail were great, but, as with the Burke, there was a supernatural element that didn’t quite work (for me) and the way the feminist/gay/racial strands of the plot were handled felt anachronistic and a bit artificial.
Michel Butor – Passing Time. Of course I’ve read this book this year, as I have every year for the last 15. I’m including it this time because I’ve unusually spent a lot of time immersed in the English translation, which I’ve been helping to revise for a new edition, out now…
Peter Carey – True History of the Kelly Gang. I’ve read most of Carey’s novels, and I love them. The language of this one took a bit of getting into (though no more than Illywhacker, say) because it is all in Ned Kelly’s voice, but once I was comfortable with that, it was a riot. It’s ‘true history’ but one should note that there is no definite or indefinite article in the title, which alerts us that Carey, as always, tells stories that are ‘playful, shape-changing’. The story is remarkable enough, as is Ned himself, who as we are constantly reminded in the narrative, is just a boy, and Carey makes it vivid and viscerally immediate.
M R Carey – The Girl with All the Gifts. Excellent – whenever you think the ‘zombie’ idea has been done, as it were, to death, there’s a new take on it that creates new possibilities not just for drama but for emotional heft.
Candice Carty-Williams – Queenie. Funny, perceptive, heartbreaking. My daughter is Queenie’s age, and that undoubtedly made my emotional response more intense – I wanted to hold that girl and keep her from harm, keep her from harming herself.
Jane Casey – The Killing Kind. A stand-alone thriller by one of my favourite contemporary crime writers, it had me gripped from the start, and kind of scared too, that prickling feeling at the back of the neck, that sense of unease was pervasive, and not entirely resolved at the end of the novel…
Harlan Coben – The Boy from the Woods/The Stranger. Coben’s thrillers are reliably slick page turners, even if one doesn’t look to them for in-depth characterisation (and it does sometimes grate that all of his protagonists are both rich AND gorgeous…). I do like to have one or two on my Kindle to turn to between more demanding reads.
Jonathan Coe – The Rain before it Falls. Beautiful and moving. I’ve read several of Coe’s including his trilogy (The Rotters’ Club/The Closed Circle/Middle England) and he writes with warmth, understanding and compassion about even the less sympathetic of his characters, as well as incisively and with humour about the world we live in. Here we are taken back into the past life of an elderly woman through the series of cassette tapes she leaves for the benefit of an elusive legatee, a story told through a series of photographs. This is clever stuff, but it’s never merely clever. It is, as the Guardian reviewer said, ‘a brief, sad, often very moving story of mothers and daughters, of pain passed on through generations, and of deep and abiding loneliness’.
Suzanne Collins – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I knew this was linked to the Hunger Games trilogy, but hadn’t twigged that it was a prequel so was mightily confused for a while… Once I’d grasped that it was the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, that obviously coloured the way I understood the protagonist, but not so much that it destroyed any suspense, and not so much that one didn’t occasionally sympathise with him (to a point). The book wasn’t necessary in any way, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt. This attracted some controversy, which I don’t think was entirely fair. OK, Cummins relied on research rather than shared experience or background to create the world of the refugees, but isn’t that what novelists do? Should they only write what they know? And Cummins is very aware of this issue, and it is clear that her migrants are not presented as being representative, that this is one story, albeit one that touches on a lot of other stories. I found it a totally compelling read, had to keep reminding myself to breathe…
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions/The Book of Not/This Mournable Body. I read these in the wrong order by mistake (1, 3, 2…)! Nervous Conditions was the first novel by a Zimbabwean woman to be published in English, and This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker. The novels explore the intersections between race, colonialism and gender in a way that’s engaging and moving.
A A Dhand – Streets of Darkness. Bradford set crime novel, the first in a series. I loved the setting, but found the plot a tad melodramatic, and the over-use of ‘dark secrets from the past’ a bit wearisome. Will give it another go, this had a lot to recommend it even with those caveats.
Charles Dickens – Mugby Junction. I thought I’d read all Dickens but I’d missed this short story, part of a collection, featuring a few by Dickens and then stories by other contributors. I haven’t yet tracked down an edition with all of the stories, so read this primarily for Mugby Junction itself. The opening sequence, a man arriving at a railway station late at night, got me hooked, though the plot subsequently veered towards Dickens’ more sentimental side.
Louise Doughty – Black Water. The setting is Indonesia, in 1965 and 1998, and it is a tense political thriller, rooted in character and tackling head-on the complex moral dilemmas of those times. Doughty may be best known for Apple Tree Yard, which is excellent, but her work is incredibly varied – I would always put Fires in the Dark, a harrowing and important novel that addresses the Romani Holocaust, as my top Doughty but I also loved the recent Platform 7 which was different again.
Sebastian Faulks – Engleby. We’re not left in any doubt that our eponymous protagonist is odd, an outsider, but as we see things through his eyes (until late in the novel), we don’t entirely realise who he is and what he is capable of. Our sympathies gradually detach from him as we see him more clearly, and Faulks lets us hear what others say about Engleby through diary entries etc. I doubt that any reader would be shocked and amazed by the major plot development, of which I will say nothing, however, in case I am mistaken.
Helen Fields – Perfect Silence. Book 4 in her DI Luc Callanach series, tense and well plotted.
Nicci French – Frieda Klein series. I binged these over Christmas/New Year. Eight books, starting with Blue Monday and ending with Day of the Dead. Proper edge of the seat stuff, though I had some plot issues, about which I can say no more without spoilers.
Tana French – The Searcher. A stand-alone from the author of the superb Dublin Murders series. Rural Irish noir with an ex-Chicago cop as protagonist, and a host of references to the Western genre. Very enjoyable, if not quite French’s best.
Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies/River of Smoke. Books 1 and 2 of the Ibis Trilogy, and book 3 will feature in my end of year list, as I am looking forward to it enormously. Ghosh’s canvas here is vast – the setting is early 19th century, and the story ranges across India, Mauritius, Canton and Hong Kong, as a cast of diverse and fascinating individuals are drawn together directly or indirectly by the opium trade, and the ship, the Ibis, on which they all find themselves at some point. There is a Babel of different languages, not just the native languages of the Bihari, Bengali, Parsi, Cantonese, English and Americans, but the nautical languages, the ‘pidgin’ languages developed to enable trade between these diverse peoples. It’s glorious and exhilarating.
Isabelle Grey – Out of Sight. This is a stand-alone novel from the author of the DI Grace Fisher series, and it was actually her fictional debut. It’s a psychological thriller, which builds the emotional tension with great skill.
Elly Griffiths – The Night Hawks. The latest Ruth Galloway and another highly enjoyable read. Griffiths is great at creating atmosphere and tension, and her characters (both the familiar ones, who are old friends now, and the new characters) are fully real.
Sophie Hannah – Haven’t They Grown. Psychological thriller that presents us right at the start with something impossible, even crazy, that the protagonist – and the reader – have to try to figure out. It’s very twisty, and I couldn’t see how on earth Hannah was going to resolve it all, but she does, and it’s all hugely enjoyable.
Jane Harper – The Survivors. Harper’s four crime novels are all exceptionally strong on landscape and location. Here the setting is a coastal community in Tasmania, far from the scorching heat of The Lost Man, where storms at sea are part of the local history whilst resonating in the present. There’s real tragedy here, coming from human frailty and fear rather than from evil.
Sarah Hilary – Fragile. A stand-alone thriller from the author of the Marnie Rome series. This is not just about secrets and lies (without secrets and lies there would be very little fiction of any genre, after all), it’s about responsibility and guilt and how even when everything is known, there is no absolute truth, and no complete absolution. The sense of place is potent, and the characters subtly drawn, with compassion and understanding.
Joe Hill – NOS4A2. Son of King. And this is very King, which is not a criticism, because I love King, though on the strength of this I would say that ‘son of’ shares not only the best qualities but also some of the flaws of his father. No matter, this was a cracking read, with real terror, and an excellent protagonist, a teenage girl whose life becomes entangled with evil.
Dorothy Hughes – In A Lonely Place. This is noir, very noir. (There’s a 1950 Nicholas Ray film based on the book, which, however, changes the central premise.) It’s brilliant, and I’m baffled as to why Hughes is not better known. (Well, perhaps not entirely baffled, but it’s a grave injustice in any case.)
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant. Ishiguro wrongfoots his readers once again, with this venture into the historical/mythical Dark Ages, with giants and dragons and Arthurian knights, through which he explores old age, memory, loss, love and war, and a huge ethical question about forgetting and healing.
Peter James – Dead Simple. The first in the DI Roy Grace series, recently televised with John Simm in the lead role. A great plot, though I was less taken with DI Grace himself – I will persevere and hope to warm to him a little more (I might watch the TV one – if John Simm doesn’t win me over it’s probably a lost cause).
Stephen King – Later. The latest in his Hard Case Crime series. There is crime, but as King reminds us from time to time, this is horror. Sometimes King loses his grasp of plot and things get a bit baggy and muddled but not here – it’s taut and tense and gripping. As the Washington Post reviewer said, ‘The next time you see a dog look twice at a bench, or watch a baby cry for no obvious reason, this novel will be right there behind you, its hand on your shoulder, its whisper so close to your ear you might cringe a little, and then smile, because you’re in the hands of a master storyteller’.
John le Carré – A Most Wanted Man. Only a few more unread le Carrés, sadly. Hari Kunzru in The Guardian called it ‘one of the most sophisticated fictional responses to the war on terror yet published, a humane novel which takes on the world’s latest binarism and exposes troubling shades of grey’.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman. A coming-of-age story from Idi Amin’s Uganda, which moves back in time to explore the lives of earlier generations of women, with diversions into feminist origin myths, as the protagonist tries to navigate a complicated and feud-ridden family life. There’s lots of humour and warmth here, and it is ultimately celebratory, with a final scene that gave me goose-bumps and a huge lump in my throat.
Val McDermid – Killing the Shadows/The Grave Tattoo/Still Life. Three very different McDermids. Killing the Shadows is a highly ingenious serial killer story, with a twist, that the killer is targeting crime writers. It’s done very cleverly, and with self-aware dark humour. The Grave Tattoo gives us a crime that connects with 18th century history and literature. These two are both stand-alones, and in neither case is the protagonist a detective. The third, Still Life, published in 2020, is book 6 in the excellent Karen Pirie series
Ian McEwan – Solar. Hmm. Sometimes acerbically funny, sometimes merely farcical. None of the characters was particularly convincing, and I found it wearying to see yet again the trope of a male protagonist who is made as unappealing (physically and morally) as possible and yet still pulls attractive, younger women. Yaawwwnn. I also was a bit gobsmacked by the reviewer who claimed that McEwan had ‘swotted up to PhD level in Physics’ for the purposes of this book. Even if he had started off with a strong scientific background, I cannot see how he could have done this on any plausible time frame. So, it had its moments, but overall it was too annoying to be enjoyable.
Jon McGregor – Lean Fall Stand. Fiction book of the year (so far, but it will take quite something to dislodge it). McGregor is possibly my favourite contemporary novelist – each of his books has had quite an extraordinary impact on me, subtle and delicate and brutal and compelling. Reviewers tended to all praise the first section but then to favour one or other of the other two sections. I can see why – I felt a sense of regret as each section ended and I realised that the perspective, and the style, had shifted, but then was quickly won over by the brilliance and beauty of the writing. I read it, as I read most things, in too much of a rush and immediately started again at the beginning, taking it slow, savouring it.
Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar. Sequel to The Ruin and featuring the same detective, Cormac O’Reilly. It’s even better than its predecessor, I would say, and I very much enjoyed The Ruin – well-drawn characters, a very clever and thoroughly worked out plot with a lot of tension.
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King. Set in Ethiopia in 1935, during the Italian invasion. It’s a very intense read, violent and dark, absolutely fascinating, with a focus on the women soldiers who fought to defend their homeland against the invaders.
Denise Mina – The Less Dead is a crime novel which wants to challenge the way we tell the stories of the victims of crime, particularly those whose chaotic lives make them both more vulnerable to violence and more likely to be blamed for their own demise, marginalised in both life and death. The story in itself was powerful and of course it chimed with one of last year’s reads, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, and with The Thirteen too…
Sarah Moss – Summerwater. I love Sarah Moss’s books and this one will repay an early re-read to appreciate its subtleties (see my remarks re Jon McGregor). There is, throughout, a sense of unease, something not quite right, that the occupants of these loch-side cabins are not as they appear through the eyes of their neighbours or even to their closest family.
Thomas Mullen – Midnight Atlanta. The third in a superb series along with Darktown and The Lightning Men, set in Atlanta in the 1950s with racial politics absolutely at the heart of the action.
Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies. The invulnerability of youth, friendship, aging and mortality. The first half was gloriously funny, the second broke me.
Caryl Phillips – Crossing the River. Fragments of the history of the African diaspora, linked by a (not literal) familial connection. We start on a West African shore as a man acknowledges his guilt and grief over his children, sold into slavery. We join those lost children in Liberia, as a freed slave endeavours to take the gospel and ‘civilisation’ back to Africa, in Colorado as a slave, freed after the Civil War, dreams of finding her own lost child, and some kind of real freedom, and in Yorkshire where a black GI and a local woman recognise each other’s lostness. And we have the journal of the man to whom those lost children were sold. The chronologies do not make sense, historical plausibility is not the priority here. They are powerful narratives, different voices persuasively rendered, moments that stay with you.
John Preston – The Dig. Lightly fictionalised version of the Sutton Hoo dig. It’s the people that interest Preston, rather than their discoveries, and not those who are most prominent in the official narrative but those who were overshadowed, due to their own natural reticence or the prejudices of others. A lovely, poignant read.
Ian Rankin – A Song for the Dark Times. The latest Rebus. Rebus is still splendidly Rebus and has not allowed his retirement to in any way constrain his mission to annoy the hell out of the establishment.
C J Sansom – Tombland. I was slightly disappointed with the last one I read in the Shardlake series due to some clunky writing but thoroughly enjoyed this, partly because the setting was very different – we’re in Norfolk, at the time of Kett’s Rebellion, and it’s a gripping story (there’s a murder mystery here, but the context is just as compelling as the crime).
Francis Spufford – Light Perpetual. A wonderful book. The opening is a tour de force, and that force propels us through the lives of five children, lives that might not have been. The Guardian calls it ‘both a requiem and a giving of life’. And it’s profoundly musical too, whether in its subject matter or in the way that these five lives interweave in harmony or dissonance.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Again. Olive Kitteridge is, I think, Strout’s finest creation. She’s not a comfortable person, she’s abrasive and clumsy. But she’s utterly convincing, and fascinating. As is Strout’s usual approach, she gives us a series of short stories, with recurring characters, so that we see some of the same events from different perspectives. Olive Again is unflinching in its portrayal of ageing, its indignities and regrets, but it is somehow hopeful, that we can still change, still love.
Graham Swift – Here We Are. This is kind of magical. The Guardian said: ‘This is a beautiful, gentle, intricate novella, the kind of book that stays with you despite not appearing to do anything particularly new or special. In fact, perhaps that’s what makes it so very good: Here We Are smuggles within the pages of a seemingly commonplace tale depths of emotion and narrative complexity that take the breath away.’
Antal Szerb – Journey by Moonlight. This is the great Hungarian novel, and it’s quite something. Written in 1937, its author was murdered by the Nazis during the last months of the war. The book is hard to describe – it reminded me at times of Sebald and at others of Ishiguro. This fascinating article describes it as ‘a brief reprieve from the logic according to which happiness and sadness are opposed to one another’. What that quote doesn’t convey perhaps is that it’s often very funny.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Corner that Held Them. Warner is a most intriguing writer. About this novel, published in 1948 and set in a convent at the time of the Black Death (I know…), she apparently said, ‘I am still inclined to call it People Growing Old. It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant’. This curiously compelling, and often drily humorous novel is about history as ‘a tangle of events’; about a community, rather than about the individuals who comprise that community.
Dorothy Whipple – Greenbanks. I’d not even heard of Whipple until the last year or so (I do apologise to her) but during the plague times I think many people turned back to some of the literature of the interwar period (this is from 1932), and Whipple’s name just kept coming up in recommendations from friends and acquaintances. So, I have now Whippled and I will assuredly do so again, because Greenbanks was lovely. And by that I don’t mean it was all cosy comfort, far from it. It leaves the younger of the two main protagonists with much about her life and future happiness unresolved, and its male characters are portrayed incisively, their ‘pretensions and presumptions’ exposed and punctured. The writing is absolutely delicious.
Christa Wolf – Cassandra. Published in 1983, this is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the woman cursed to prophesy and not be believed. There are many resonances with life in the GDR, and the book was censored when first published. It’s also got a strong theme of the marginalisation of women’s lives, the lack of choice and agency (even for the daughter of a King).
Virginia Woolf – Orlando. I’d been meaning to read this for years, having tried and failed to read other Woolf novels. This was the one to break that pattern, it’s quite extraordinary, a wild ride through the centuries, through English literary history, with a male protagonist who quite suddenly becomes a female protagonist, albeit one who presents as male when it suits her purposes, and who takes male and female lovers. Glorious.
Peter Jones – Little Piece of Harm. I read poetry a lot less often than I intend to. What tempts me to go there is usually a new publication from Longbarrow Press, and this one was a gem. It’s ‘a narrative sequence that focuses on 24 hours in the life of a city that has been shut down in the aftermath of a shooting. As this act of violence ramifies outwards, the sequence explores the geographical reach of Sheffield – its urban settings and its rural landmarks – and eavesdrops on the city’s conversations.’
David Leeming – James Baldwin. A wonderful biography, from someone who knew Baldwin well. I was immersed in this, so much so that I felt quite overwhelmed at his death, as if he was someone I’d known. This isn’t a hagiography – Baldwin was a complicated and often difficult man, who fell out with a lot of people over the years, a man who never worked out how to love himself, who saw himself as ugly, who never found the true love that he wanted. But he’s a towering figure, his vision and passion are so powerfully articulated in his fiction and essays as well as in interviews. Charisma and intellect in such abundance.
W E B Dubois – The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois’ work obviously influenced Baldwin, as it did all of the writers who’ve talked about race in the twentieth century, and into our own. Dubois’ style seems a bit florid (it is of its time, 1903) but nonetheless it is clear and lucid and passionate. He talks about the veil between the black and white worlds, he talks about how it feels to ‘be a problem’. He says it so well that it is no wonder that by the time Baldwin is saying similar things, in a very different style, 60-70 years later, he is angry and weary that they still need saying. They still do.
David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel follows his powerful documentary on Holocaust denial with this passionate, funny, angry account of how Jews are somehow omitted from consideration so often when racial prejudice is under discussion. It’s quite shattering – so many things that I had seen out of the corner of my eye, in a way, but not confronted, in my own thinking about race and in the way it is written and spoken about. Groundbreaking.
Alexandra Wilson – In Black and White Wilson came to attention with a piece in the Guardian, recounting a day in which she, a barrister, on three separate occasions had to persuade court officials that she was not, in fact, the defendant… This sets those incidents in the context of her career in the law, and of the way in which race and class affect the way in which people fare in the legal system.
Susi Bechhofer – Rosa’s Child. The account of a child of the Kindertransport, who came to England with her sister, was fostered with a couple who tried to erase all memory and knowledge of their previous life, and who only discovered the fate of her mother in middle age. W G Sebald used (without her permission) many elements of her story in Austerlitz.
Rachel Clifford – Survivors. Clifford’s study of child survivors of the Holocaust (specifically, those who were in camps, or in hiding, or who otherwise lived out the war in Europe) is fascinating, particularly in its exploration of how understanding of trauma developed over the post-war period.
Miriam Darvas – Farewell to Prague. Somewhat breathlessly written (perhaps for a YA readership), it’s nonetheless a gripping and powerful story.
Hadley Freeman – The House of Glass. A meticulously researched and emotionally powerful family history, driven by the need to understand her grandmother, and to know what happened to the wider family, who survived the Holocaust and how, who didn’t and why.
Saul Friedlander – The Years of Extermination. Volume 2 of Friedlander’s history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. What can one say – it is exhaustive and relentless, and as always one is struck by the sheer mad obsession of that hatred, that led the Nazis to continue searching for, rounding up and transporting Jewish men, women and children to their deaths, even as the Allies were closing in on Berlin.
Lillian Furst – Random Destinations. A study of various fictionalised accounts of the lives of those who escaped the Holocaust, and how these narratives could face some of the darker aspects of those lives, marked by trauma, struggling with their own sense of identity, with their Jewishness, with their exile, aspects that have sometimes been neglected due to the focus on the successes of the more prominent survivors.
Anna Hajkova – The Last Ghetto. A detailed and fascinating study of Theresienstadt, the town that became a ghetto prison, and then a Potemkin village to delude the Red Cross into believing that the occupants were well looked after, a place where many died of disease and from which many more were deported to Auschwitz. Hajkova talks about the way in which the ghetto was organised, the hierarchies and power balances between the inhabitants, putting the brief episode with the Red Cross into context rather than making it the centre of the narrative.
Michael Rosen – The Missing. Like Freeman, Rosen set out to find out what happened to the ‘missing’ members of his family. This account is aimed at children/young adults, but does not pull its punches. Rosen incorporates poems and source documents to help readers understand both the facts and their emotional weight. It’s a moving read for adults who feel they know this stuff already, too.
Anne Applebaum – The Twilight of Democracy. I read a while ago Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, which was excellent. This one is different, because it is intensely personal, as well as being rigorously analytical. It’s the account of how, at the start of the millennium, she and her friends (in the US, the UK, in Poland and elsewhere in Europe) were in broad agreement about the future of democracy and how, in the years since, many of those friends have moved so far to the nationalist right that she and they no longer speak.
Adam Hothschild – King Leopold’s Ghost. The horrific story of the exploitation of the Congo Free State (which included the whole of what is now DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908. Leopold exploited the land and its natural resources, but most appallingly its people, who were treated as entirely expendable, and who were, in vast numbers, mutilated, tortured and killed. Those who want to defend colonialism will argue that this is an extreme case, and it is, but the mentality behind it – greed, combined with the deep rooted belief that the African people were inferior beings – can be seen in even the most benign colonial regimes.
Barrack Obama – Promised Land. Volume 1 of his presidential memoirs and it’s huge… I have to admit that some of the detail lost me – I don’t have quite sufficient grasp of the mechanics and structures of the US system to follow it all – but it was (as one would expect from Obama) beautifully and lucidly written, and critical as much of himself as of others.
Shirley Williams – Climbing the Bookshelves. A very engaging memoir that I reached for from my TBR pile when I heard of her death. I’ve always liked and admired Williams, though her politics and mine don’t entirely align – she was always a tad to the right of my natural position, though that would not preclude major areas of agreement. Most of all, she was a politician of complete integrity and that’s a rare and valuable commodity these days. We need more of her ilk.
Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. Highly entertaining – a rambunctious literary life, and a seriously unreliable autobiographer – as Biswell sifts reality from contradictory self-mythologising and explores the work itself. It makes me want to read more Burgess (but selectively).
Richard Coles – Fathomless Riches/Bringing in the Sheaves/The Madness of Grief. The fascination of Volume 1 of this trilogy of memoirs is Coles’ involvement in the music scene, with the Communards, but it is particularly powerful on the AIDs epidemic, to which he lost many friends. He is very honest, self-deprecating and often extremely funny. Vol. 2 covers his life in the church and is very oriented around the church year – I did find this harder to enjoy, although he is a lovely writer and person, as although I was brought up as a Christian, my experiences were in Methodist and ‘charismatic’ church communities, very different to the higher end of the CofE, and it felt quite alien. My atheism remains unshaken. Vol. 3 is about the death of Coles’ husband and it is a heartbreaking and, again, brutally honest account. I loved the bit about the group of widows who saw him in a café and embraced him, physically and with comforting chat, from the perspective of those who know what it is to lose one’s other half and yet go on.
Pamela des Barres – I’m With the Band. I’d always been intrigued by this and it was quite a surprising read. Obviously, a lot of sex was had. But mostly what comes across is the breathless romanticism of des Barres: she isn’t so much adding notches to her bedpost as falling in love with one after another of the rock gods she encounters, each time of course facing disillusionment as they move on to another town and other girls. She does care a lot and know a lot about the music – it isn’t just the fame that turns her on.
Jackie Kay – Bessie Smith. Not a straight biography, more a prose poem. It’s thoroughly researched, but feels as much personal as it is scholarly. The Guardian describes it is ‘a joyous and formally daring undertaking. … an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.
James Young – Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio. An account of the author’s travels with Nico on various UK and European tours in the years leading up to her death. Often grim, and often grimly funny.
Rachel Clarke – Breathtaking. Having read Dear Life, I knew Clarke could write beautifully about mortality and compassion, and here she covers the Covid pandemic and the experience of the medics called upon to take huge risks and work beyond exhaustion to try to keep people alive in those deadly days (days we hope we won’t see again). I also read Dominic Pimenta’s Duty of Care – like Clarke, Pimenta was taken out of his normal work to treat Covid patients, and to help organise resources to deal with the crisis. Both of them are at times incandescent with anger about the failure of government to recognise what needed to be done and to act quickly, to protect NHS staff with adequate PPE, to protect the vulnerable in care homes and in hospital wards.
Daniel Levitin – The Changing Mind. Levitin argues that, contrary to what we’re often told, we don’t lose the capacity to learn and change as we age. We’re likely to get worse at some things, but potentially better at others, and exercising our minds (not just by doing sudokus) has huge benefits in keeping us well into old age.
Bessel van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score, is a fascinating study of how trauma is realised physically, and what that means for therapeutic solutions.
I may not have travelled much in the last six months IRL, but I’ve crossed continents and centuries through the books I’ve read. As always, I am so very grateful to the writers who have taken me to all of these times and places, who have moved, entertained, enlightened and informed me.
I do this to share the good stuff, as I said at the beginning. I hope some readers will find things here that they go on to enjoy, maybe to discover a new writer or to venture into a different genre. If you do, I’d love to know. If you have recommendations for me, feel free to share them. If you hate something I love, fair enough, but I take no responsibility…
I will wait until I’ve got a full year’s reading under my belt before I pick any ‘Best of’ but Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand will be a tough act to beat…
Normally, there’s quite a bit about cinema in this review of the year on screen. This year was, obviously, different, and whilst I could have watched more films on screen via DVD, for a host of reasons I found refuge in telly, in short bursts of drama rather than longer forms. My concentration was shot in the first part of the year, with the loss of my brother, and the onset of the pandemic.
I got used to the latter, to the extent that those of us who weren’t directly affected got used to it (finding new routines involving lots of local walks and evenings in, as we had the luxury of no work or financial pressures, plenty of space indoors and out, and no one close to us being ill).
As for the former, grieving isn’t a linear process, one can seem to be fine and then walk into a wall that wasn’t there before, one can seem to be fine and then be ambushed by a memory, an image, a word. So there are things we’ve avoided watching because, well, why deliberately provoke it? The exception to this was Little Women, of which more below, which we saw at the cinema very early in 2020, in full knowledge of how it would foreshadow the inevitable loss that we were facing.
The Small Screen
Please note: this reflects what we have watched in 2020, and thus includes old stuff that is circling eternally on ITV 3 and Drama, stuff from 2019 that was still sitting on our BT Vision Box as the year turned, as well as this year’s TV. This is the telly that has diverted, amused, intrigued, enlightened, moved and informed us during 2020. I’ve missed out the things that we started watching and then decided life was simply too short to waste time on, but, whilst I don’t normally spend much time talking about things I haven’t liked, there are a few dishonourable mentions here, mainly for things that I expected to like and in the end was very cross with. I’ve linked to some reviews, where they are not too spoilery, but as always, caveat lector.
You know you’ve watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders when the ITV 3 intro causes eruptions of rage every single time it invites us to go to the ‘infamous village of Midsomer where only one thing’s for certain’. As any fule no, Midsomer is not a village but a county. I mean, that body count would be just too improbable in just one village, wouldn’t it? Another clue is when you overhear someone saying ‘Oh, hello, what are you doing here?’ and turn abruptly, expecting imminent violence with a pitchfork or perhaps a giant cheese. It’s very silly, and the writing is variable but at its best, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and there are lots of little in-jokes about the bloodthirsty nature of these picturesque villages (like the incoming DS from the Met who is shocked at the carnage). We’ve re-watched all the Nettles series, which allows us to marvel every episode at how Joyce manages to get involved in every single case, because she is a member of every single committee, book club, art class, choir, am dram group, and so forth in the entire county. I have my suspicions that she is actually the mastermind behind the whole murderous business.
There were lots more weighty contenders, of course. Foreign language offerings included Nordic crime from Twin, Before We Die, Wisting, and Below the Surface, and best of all The Bridge, whose first two series we had missed when they were first shown (I know! What were we thinking?) and enjoyed very much, whilst concluding that the plot, especially perhaps in Season 2, was a little too complex for its own good and if one was being picky one might mention a couple of possible holes. But one won’t, and one is now re-watching series 3 and 4. Saga is, of course, a most wonderful creation.
Wallander is obviously Nordic but Young Wallander is in English. It’s an oddity – if we hadn’t been alerted before watching we would have been most bemused by the contemporary setting. There are nods to ‘our’ Wallander (the father who paints the same scene over and over again, the girlfriend called Mona) but clearly this is not the equivalent of Endeavour. It was enjoyable, if not unmissable. Van der Valk is a remake of a 70s series which we never watched – again it’s in English but set in Amsterdam. The setting was, I fear, the best thing about it. The plots were ludicrously baroque, the motivation of the culprits unconvincing, the script clichéd – and if anyone wonders how I dare level such criticisms when I’ve just admitted to a fondness for Midsomer Murders, MM has a lightness, a touch of humour, that VdV lacked.
The latest series of Spiral had us shouting at the telly, primarily at Laure and Gilou. Excellent stuff – our deeply flawed heroes may be infuriating but they’re convincing and won our hearts a long while back, and the plot was gripping and tense. The other French offering was The Other Mother, based on Michel Bussi’s novel Maman a tort, which was also excellent – the plot was complex but just the right side of incomprehensible. The Team was a multinational European offering – it’s series 2 but with no characters in common from series 1, just the concept of a multinational team pulled together from different EU nations to solve a crime.
We also watched the movie Goldstone, which is linked to the Australian crime series Murder Road, whose new series is awaiting our attention, and the much lighter-weight but diverting Harrow, about an Aussie pathologist, the sort of pathologist who investigates crime, not the sort that gets called in when there’s a corpse and says ‘I’ll know more when I get him on the slab’ and then eats his sandwiches whilst foraging about in someone’s insides – see MM, Vera, et al. They know their place, unlike Harrow.
We visited the frozen landscapes of Canada for another dark and dour series of Cardinal, and back to the US for The Sinner (this was series 2, with only Bill Pullman in common with series 1). A much more unusual setting for Baghdad Central – an excellent, tautly plotted thriller with powerful performances by Waleed Zuaiter and Bertie Carvel. And we visited the past – Vienna in the 1900s -for Vienna Blood. The protagonists are an ‘unlikely duo’ of a brash young medical student and disciple of Freud, and a battered older cop, the production is very Sherlockian, and altogether it was slightly daft, but enjoyable, with a darker undercurrent running through it, of the endemic antisemitism of the time and the place, whose consequences we know too well.
Back in the UK, we enjoyed the Agatha Christie dramatization of The Pale Horse, with Rufus Sewell; Guilt, a blackly comic take on murder, with the always engaging Mark Bonnar; and McDonald & Dodds, with Jason Watkins, another lighter weight crime series, with good enough performances and writing to be worth catching when it returns. We watched Judge John Deed, which turned into a montage of 90s conspiracy theories about phone masts and the like, with improbable legal scenarios, and a protagonist whose compulsion to seduce every attractive woman he meets (key witness, fellow barrister, ex-wife, his therapist) becomes tiresome and frankly a bit creepy. Actually, all of the characters are intensely annoying, and one watched it mainly to be infuriated with it. Series 2 of Bancroft was just as ludicrous as the first.
The really good stuff:
Strike, Series 4 – charismatic leads, great plots, thoroughly enjoyable series, weaving the personal narratives of Strike and Robin in with the investigations very skilfully.
Hidden, Series 2 – Welsh noir – very, very noir – with an excellent female lead. As with the first series, the ending brings a very compromised and uncomfortable resolution.
Deadwater Fell – dark psychological drama, excellent cast, very unsettling.
Elizabeth is Missing– based on the book by Emma Healey. The lead character, Maud, has dementia, so when she insists that her friend Elizabeth is missing, no one takes her very seriously. Her recent memories keep getting mixed up with much older ones, of a much older disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s performance is absolutely mesmerisingly brilliant.
Dublin Murders – based on the first two books of the Tana French series. The plots are interwoven in a way that perhaps didn’t totally work, but the quality of the writing and the performances carried the day.
Endeavour– the penultimate series, apparently. The quality of the writing continues to be an absolute joy. The interplay between Morse, Strange, Thursday and Bright is so well played, often very emotionally powerful even though (or perhaps all the more because) none of them speak easily about their feelings.
Vera – Brenda Blethyn is a fine-looking woman, and so somewhat at odds with the descriptions in the novels, but she gets the character beautifully. The way in which the relationship with Joe’s replacement as DS is developed is convincing and touching (I particularly like the way he kneels to help her put on her crime scene shoe covers. As an older woman with dodgy knees I can so identify).
The Capture – about surveillance and deep fake images and whether or not we can trust what we see… A nicely paranoid atmosphere and a gradual blurring of the lines between right and wrong
Giri/Haji– my pick of the year, without a doubt. That it didn’t get commissioned for a second season speaks to a certain cowardice amongst the decision makers, but as the Independent’s reviewer says, it is pretty much faultless as it stands, so maybe it doesn’t need a sequel. This was stylish, often audacious, bloody, darkly humorous – really striking and memorable telly. Applause to all concerned.
Homeland returned for the last time. The final series was an encapsulation of everything that we’ve seen over its whole run, very consciously a drawing together of many of the threads from all the previous series, satisfying without being oversimplified. As a jazz fan I was delighted that Carrie’s love of jazz, rather forgotten about in recent series, was foregrounded in the final scenes, as the wonderful Kamasi Washington performed live on stage.
Deutschland 86 took us to the brink, everything in place for the collapse of the GDR and the destruction of the Wall. I hope we get one more series, to take these characters, and us, through those momentous events.
We would not normally have thought of watching The New Pope. The trailer, rather bafflingly, showed Jude Law in tiny (very tiny) Speedos walking along a beach, as women gazed, and fainted away, on either side. Hmmm. However, we knew that my brother had a moment on screen as one of the Cardinals gathered at a funeral, and we had to watch – and watch with full attention – to ensure we didn’t miss him. I’m glad we did – it was bonkers but beautiful. (So we got to see both of my brothers on screen this year, strangely enough, our Aidan in purple robes in The New Pope, and our Greg in an orange trackie at a football match over 40 years ago – see below.)
Philharmonia was bonkers too – the orchestral setting was unusual, and it was enjoyable, even if one didn’t ever believe a word of it.
The Accident was grim, and some of the plotting was a little bit careless, I thought – or maybe setting up for a second series where other things come to light? No idea. I just felt that – without giving too much away – a character was introduced who played a key role in events, but that role never seemed to be properly explored, and the images at the very end seemed, almost, to suggest that the truth was something other than the established official version. I may have imagined it! There were some powerful performances, from Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in particular.
The Plot against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire) from Philip Roth’s alt history, in which Charles Lindbergh, running on an America First ticket, wins the 1940 US election rather than FDR. It is, of course, incredibly topical (more so than the novel, which came out in 2004, when the events of 2016 could not have been imagined). It was powerful, incredibly tense, and subtle when it needed to be. Its final moments – and this is where it differed significantly from the book – with the central characters tensely awaiting the outcome of another election, hoping and fearing the outcome, kept coming back into my mind in November.
We’re saving up Small Axe. Looking forward so much to this.
Let’s draw a veil over the awful Batwoman. Wooden acting, clunky scripts, a plot that made no sense at all.
Devs – sci fi that’s about ideas, as much as it’s about tech. There was no predicting where this one was heading, or where it ended up. Whether it entirely made sense, I’m not sure, but it was, as the Guardian reviewer put it, a ‘deep, dark, wild ride’.
Dracula– yet another take on the Stoker original, this one was about as faithful as any of the others, but it really went for it, with conviction and style. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian put it, ‘It’s a proper job […] And that means proper scares. No spoilers, but the one in the [redacted] when the [redacted] suddenly [redacted] had me clinging to the ceiling. I advise parental supervision at all times. My dad was annoyed at having to come over, but needs must when the devil calls and starts emanating from your screen.’
His Dark Materials – As always with a screen version of a book/series that I have loved with a real passion, I was anxious that the adaptation would mess it up. I needn’t have worried. The performances are grand, the visuals stunning, and it’s powerful stuff. We loved it, and are looking forward to Series 2.
Star Trek: Discovery – we’re through the wormhole now, and it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This allows for real character development, though if I were to be picky I’d ask them to rein in the reaction shots of awe and wonderment and so forth. No idea where we’re headed but we’re now liberated from the need to be consistent with the existing series, which is pretty exciting, if you’re a long-term Trekker.
Star Trek: Picard – it’s a good time to be into Trek! Not only Discovery, but Picard too. My love for Jean-Luc is undimmed and he carried this very effectively. Some lovely shout-backs to NG, but its not pure nostalgia for the fans.
The Walking Dead – The first part of the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic – we only got the finale in October and now have to wait till next year for the second half. The series has come back strongly from quite a long slump, and whilst some of the regular gripes (apocalyptic battles which end up with only one peripheral character being killed, regular characters behaving with untypical stupidity to bring about some new peril, that sort of thing) are ever present, it’s back to being essential after a period where it was a mere duty watch.
Doctor Who – This year’s series was controversial amongst some Whovians, for seeming to change some of what we thought we knew about the Doctor’s origins. But did it? After all, our main source was the Master, who, as we know, lies… We will see. The Doctor did make a few appearances later in the year from her Judoon cell, to give us hopeful and inspiring messages about coping with lockdown isolation, which, I have to admit, brought a tear to my eye. She’ll be back on 1 January 2021, and let’s hope that the Tardis is a harbinger of hope for a better year ahead.
Some films watched on TV: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom was perfect New Year’s Day fare. And the general stress of lockdown drew us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first I rather enjoyed – the script was just clever enough, with some neat historical references buried in amongst the improbable action. The second, well, once we had chuckled at the Bennett girls practising martial arts and strapping lethal weapons to their stockinged legs, it was slightly thin stuff. Last but not least in this category, the only superhero movie we watched this year, very unusually, was Deadpool, which was, to say the least, different… Very funny, very rude.
We’re saving up Agents of Shield (the last ever series) and Series 2 of His Dark Materials – some things to look forward to early in 2021.
We caught up with Modern Family, which we’d abandoned at the end of series 4, for no good reason. I found myself laughing loud and often. The characters don’t develop, not really, but when the writing and the performances are this good, there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had. We discovered Friday Night Dinner (only series 1 so far) which also made us laugh a lot.
The Good Place managed to be both very, very funny and profound. It made full use of its fantasy license, regularly wrongfooting us in ways that made us shout out something along the lines of WTF, and its final couple of episodes reduced me to real sobs, not just ‘something in my eye’ but full-on weeping. And yet, right up to the end, it was very, very funny too. A fabulous achievement.
We enjoyed the ebullient and charismatic Stuart Copeland in a couple of docs, his own Adventures in Music series, and his episode of Guitar, Drums, Bass (Lenny Kaye and Tina Weymouth represented the other instruments). We enjoyed the Lennon at 80 radio programme hosted by Sean Lennon, and a documentary about John and Yoko, Above Us Only Sky. The film Matanga/Maya/MIA was fascinating, though it left me somewhat dubious about her, not so much musically as politically. K T Tunstall presented an absolutely charming documentary about Ivor Cutler. A number of classical documentaries featured members of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family: an Imagine programme, This House is Full of Music, Young, Gifted and Classical, focusing on cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who cropped up too in the excellent Black Classical Music, fronted by Lenny Henry and Suzie Klein, which introduced us to a number of composers we had not heard of previously. This last programme tied in with Black History Month, as did Gospel According to Mica, in which the singer explored the history of the genre through six songs, taking us from slavery days through the civil rights struggle to our own time. Soul America charted some of the same history, though taking a much narrower slice of history, broadly from the transmutation of gospel into soul, through the socially conscious sounds of the late 60s, to the sexual healing of the ’70s. Music, Money & Madness was a fascinating look at the background to Rainbow Bridge, the incoherent mess of a film that features Hendrix’s excellent 1970 gig in Maui, Hawaii.
Afua Hirsch presented African Renaissance (on African art), and co-presented with Samuel L Jackson the outstanding and at times overwhelming Enslaved.David Olusoga’s Africa Turns a Page put the spotlight on African writers, some familiar, others less so (see my books blog for some contemporary African fiction).
I Am Not Your Negrois an extraordinary film. It’s a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was one of the African American writers who I discovered in my teens and who inspired and challenged me. The film left me feeling quite shaken, such is the power of the images and Baldwin’s words.
France 1939: One Last Summer – A poignant compilation of home movies from France, from the summer of 1939. Impossible to see even the most carefree moments without the foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddielwas thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned.
On a somewhat (much) lighter note, Rome Unpacked was a lovely corollary to our recent visit, reminding us of how much we had yet to see (looking forward to our next trip, in the after-times…). I also fell somewhat (quite a bit) in love with Giorgio Locatelli. One quibble however – they visited the Jewish Ghetto and talked about the history of medieval antisemitism, without mentioning that the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It’s not that I wanted the programme to delve into that in any detail – it just needed a one sentence coda to that section of the programme, rather than leaving the impression that murderous anti-semitism was something from the distant past.
A documentary about Nottingham Forest’s 1970s European Cup successes turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I’d been anticipating, when I caught sight of my lovely kid brother, who died in February, on one of the clips. He’d been a ball-boy at the first-round match against Liverpool in our 1979 Euro cup campaign, and was caught on camera at the end, clapping the team off the pitch and then punching the air in celebration. I sobbed for quite some time after that.
The Big Screen
2020 cinema began shortly after New Year, with Little Women. I knew what was coming, of course, having known the books for most of my life, but it didn’t stop Beth’s death being devastating, as I knew how soon I would be losing my little brother. I have the DVD but will need to brace myself before rewatching, particularly the bits where… well, if you’ve seen it, or any of the previous versions or read the book, you won’t need me to spell out the parts of the film which will break me on the rewatch. In fact, I won’t even say any more now, just refer you to Rick Burin’s review. Hell, it broke him, and as he says, ‘I’m northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying’.
And then a two-film day in mid-March, watching Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood(second time round for me) with Liz at the Showroom, and then in the afternoon Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with Martyn. I loved both films, I found Girlhood just as powerful as I had the first time, with several moments that are firmly lodged in my mind, and Portrait definitely requires a re-watch. I wrote about both films for this year’s International Women’s Day blog but I’m going to send you to read Rick Burin again, as he reviews all of Sciamma’s films and much better than I can.
Note that the films I did see in 2020 totally kicked the Bechdel test‘s ass.
And that was it. No more cinema – they did reopen, of course, for a while, but as we have been super-cautious throughout the pandemic, we did not take advantage (I renewed my Showroom membership, as a gesture of support).
Can’t talk about cinema in 2020 without noting the tragically early death of Chadwick Boseman. I only knew him as Black Panther but that role alone was enough to imprint him on my consciousness – it was a performance of grace and power, as well as huge cultural significance. Will look out for chances to see Boseman’s other movies.
Previous years’ cultural highlights have included Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. Obviously, since March, the pandemic has put paid to that. In fact, I’d had to drop out before that – I could not attend the three productions in January/February as my brother’s condition worsened and I knew both that I needed to be available to see him whenever I could, and that I really couldn’t commit to producing a review in a reasonable timescale, or at all. I had no idea when I made that decision that my stint as an opera reviewer would have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I loved doing the reviews, and had a marvellous time seeing superb productions of works from Monteverdi to Britten and all points in between.
The move to on-line cultural activities, devastating as it was to the future of live performance, offered some delights. The Sheffield Classical Music Festival in May gave us access to some joyous and uplifting chamber music, as members of Ensemble 360 filmed performances in their gardens and living rooms. It was fabulous, even if it made us miss Music in the Round in the Crucible Studio even more.
Other online treats were Ian Dunt talking about being a liberal, David Olusoga talking about Black and British in Black History Month, Kit de Waal talking about My Name is Leon (all three talks part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival), Sarah Churchwell and Bonnie Greer talking about the US election outcome (part of the national Being Human festival) – and two chances to hear and see someone who was an idol during my teenage years, the awesome and inspiring Angela Davis, first in her own South Bank lecture, and then in conversation with Jackie Kay (as part of Manchester Literary Festival). I might, theoretically, have got to the Off the Shelf events in normal circs. But I wouldn’t have made it to the South Bank, or the University of London, or even across the Pennines to Manchester.
But I long to get back to live chamber music and theatre at the Crucible, live opera at Leeds Grand Theatre, arty French movies at the Showroom and blockbusters at the IMAX… We’ll get there, thanks to the vaccine(s). And it will be so very lovely when we do. I may, just possibly, weep.
Screens, in general, have been our lifeline in the plague times. Not just the entertainment and enlightenment of what our television channels offer, but the Zoom/Messenger/Facetime link ups with the people we love, who we can’t be with. It’s not the same, obviously, and in the early days at least it made me feel, briefly, sadder once we’d waved goodbye and blown kisses to the small figures on our laptop screens. But our isolation has been less stark, less absolute, and at best those virtual encounters have made us feel hope, made us feel loved, given us the chance to support each other.
Reading has taken me out of lockdown, out of Tier 3, out of my own postcode. As a quick perusal of the titles below will show, it’s hardly been six months of escapism – that’s not the point. The point is that as life closed in, books were always there to take me to different places, different times, where I could hear different voices telling fresh new stories, or old, old stories in a new voice. I’ve been in Ancient Greece, in Finland at the start of the twentieth century, and in the dustbowl of Oklahoma. My fascination with WWII has taken me to besieged Malta, to the Burma railroad, and to the home front and the Blitz. I’ve travelled to India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, West Africa, the Caribbean, postwar Vienna and Prague. I’ve listened to a diversity of voices and a diversity of ideas. I’ve read for pleasure and diversion, and for enlightenment, and I’ve found plenty of both (often in the same books).
As always, the few things I read that weren’t up to much I have simply ignored – I want to share the good stuff, to enthuse other people about the books that have enthused me. I’ve linked to reviews where they’re not too spoilery, but click with care! I may come back to this after I’ve published it, to add on whatever I read between publication and midnight on 31 December – there’s a fair bit of reading time between now and then. I hope that something on this list might inspire you to read and enjoy. Do tell me, if so. (If you read something on my list and hate it, I do apologise, but don’t feel you have to tell me…)
Ben Aaronovitch – I’ve continued to devour the Rivers of London novels, and have kept up with the series this autumn/winter by reading October Man (a novella), False Value, and a very tasty collection of short stories, Tales from the Folly.
Arvand Adiga – The White Tiger. Booker Prize winner from 2008. I didn’t love this, but I was gripped by it. I found it difficult to engage with the narrator – not that I always have to identify with, let alone like, the protagonist – but it was vivid and visceral and compelling.
Claire Askew – What You Pay For. A thriller in which the fact that we know or can work out early on some of the twists and turns of the plot doesn’t matter, because the strength of it lies with the two interweaving voices through whom it is told. An excellent follow-up to All The Hidden Truths, featuring the same detective but a very different story, focusing on a school shooting.
Nadeem Aslam – Maps for Lost Lovers. This is remarkable. It’s profoundly melancholy, sensual, full of colours (the fabrics, the birds and butterflies), smells of perfume and spices, sounds (jazz, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn). We’re in an English town, called Dasht-e-Tanhaii, at least by the Pakistani communities who live there, and who’ve given the streets their own names too. It’s their home but they don’t feel at home there, constantly reminded that they do not belong. The book does not shy away from the brutality of the harsh orthodoxy that means everyone lives in fear of transgression, but, as Kamila Shamsie says, ‘love never steps out of the picture’.
Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad. A funny, dark, feminist retelling of the story of Odysseus, from the point of view of the wife who waited – and the handmaids who were hanged on Odysseus’ return…
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister the Serial Killer. One of my top crime books. Described as ‘a morbidly funny slashfest’ by the Guardian’s reviewer, which is fair enough. One of the best openings of anything I’ve read for a while.
Jane Casey – Silent Kill. A Maeve Kerrigan novella, from the perspective of one of the secondary characters in the main series. Nicely done – as well as standing alone from a plot point of view, for afficionados of the series it sheds light both on the main protagonist here but on many of the other characters who we’ve not seen from this angle before.
Christopher Cleave – Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I wept my way through this. It took me by surprise, firstly because the two books I’ve read (and loved) by Cleave have had contemporary settings, and this one is WWII, secondly because at first I thought the clipped and brittle dialogue might become wearing. But the setting was beautifully described and the way the characters spoke was as revealing as it was meant to be concealing. It got under my skin and the more passionately I cared about those characters, the more I longed for them to be safe and happy and the more I grieved when bad stuff happened. (Spoiler: it did)
Ann Cleeves – I had a major catch-up with her Vera and Shetland series, and binged all the ones that I’d not read yet over the course of a week or so. I’ve also discovered and binged the Inspector Ramsey books, published in the 1990s and recently revived as e-books. Ramsey rapidly grew on me – one reviewer described him as ‘quiet, puzzled, human’, which is quite right.
Kit de Waal – My Name is Leon. I read The Trick to Time last year, and loved it. This was brilliant too. The voice is that of what we would now call a ‘looked-after’ child – never sure if that is a euphemistic term, or just a naively optimistic one… It’s another book that I wept through and hardly dared to read on at some points, as I so badly wanted Leon to be OK. It’s compassionate and warm and based in real knowledge of the care sector. It’s hopeful too, although de Waal noted in a recent interview (for Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival) that we leave him aged nine, with his most turbulent years to come and the odds are stacked against him.
Elizabeth de Waal – no relation to Kit, to the best of my knowledge. Elizabeth was part of the Ephrussi family, who lived in the eponymous palace in Vienna until the Anschluss. Their story forms part of Elizabeth’s grandson Edmund de Waal’s enthralling The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The Exiles Return is full of melancholy, and of humour. It was unpublished in Elizabeth’s lifetime, and has been brought out by Persephone Press, and is as beautiful to look at as all of their publications.
Helen Dunmore – The House of Orphans. I honestly thought I’d read all of Dunmore’s fiction, so it was a very welcome surprise to find this one. It isn’t my favourite of hers, but it was a compelling read and the setting was new to me (Finland in 1902)
Esi Edugyan – Washington Black. I read Half-Blood Blues a few years back and this is even better. The horrors of the plantation were familiar territory from other reading (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, to name but two recent reads, but going back to Alex Haley’s Roots), but Edugyan’s narrative takes off (literally) from there. It’s extraordinary, breathtaking and audacious.
Lissa Evans – V for Victory/Their Finest. I discovered Evans earlier this year, and had already read Spencer’s List, Old Baggage and Crooked Heart. I was waiting eagerly for V for Victory and it did not disappoint, funny and moving and beautifully written. As was Their Finest. Both, as the titles suggest, are set in WWII and paint a vivid picture of the home front, with the kind of sharp observation that is totally convincing. But most of all, the characters live and breathe and stay with you long after the book has ended.
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other. Richly deserving of its awards, this is a glorious polyphony, the voices weave in and out of each other’s stories, each having its moment in the spotlight, so that we see the people we meet from different points of view, including their own.
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North. A harrowing read. The descriptions of life in the PoW camps and the building of the Burma railway are hard to cope with. But truly, where one’s heart breaks is in the lives that the survivors have afterwards, the weight they have to carry from their experiences, the impossibility of anyone actually understanding.
Aminatta Forna – Happiness. I’d previously only read Forna’s memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, in which she writes of her childhood and the fate of her father, a political prisoner in Sierra Leone. This is a wonderful novel, which makes us see the night time Londoners that are so often invisible to us, whether that’s the urban foxes or the migrant security staff and bin men. All of the characters are in some way exiled, displaced or nomadic (a Ghanaian specialist in PTSD and an American wildlife biologist are at the heart of it). It’s beautiful and hopeful and melancholy.
Robert Galbraith – Troubled Blood. I wish it were possible to review this without any reference to Rowling’s views on trans rights. She made it impossible, by including a character who dresses as a woman to seem unthreatening to women he intends to kill. As many reviewers have said, that is tone deaf at best, and tends to reinforce the feeling that she has become sadly obsessed with this aspect of the trans issue. For the record, I disagree profoundly with her. However. This is a gripping – albeit very long – crime thriller, which kept me on tenterhooks to the end, and continues the development both of Strike and Robin’s characters and of their relationship.
Amitav Ghosh – Gun Island is about climate change, about human and animal migration. The Guardian said that it ‘brims with implausibility; outlandish coincidences and chance meetings blend with ancient myth and folklore, tales of heroism and the supernatural.’ I wasn’t sure at first, but decided to go with the flow, and I loved it.
Isabelle Grey – The Special Girls/Wrong Way Home/Shot through the Heart. I began this excellent series, featuring DI Grace Fisher, with Good Girls Don’t Die earlier this year, and binged these later titles more recently.
Elly Griffiths – The Postscript Murders. Sequel to The Stranger Diaries, featuring DS Harbinder Kaur. This is a delight, albeit a delight with a high body count…
Mohsin Hamid – Exit West. Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, blends fable and realism (there are moments when I thought of The Underground Railroad) in its account of refugees – what drives them to flee, what becomes of them.
Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills. Ishiguro reckoned that this, his debut, didn’t quite work. ‘I do think it’s too baffling. The ending is almost like a puzzle. I see nothing artistically to be gained by puzzling people to that extent. That was just inexperience—misjudging what is too obvious and what is subtle. Even at the time the ending felt unsatisfactory.’ Nonetheless, it is compelling, and very unsettling (something Ishiguro is rather good at – I was completely discombobulated by The Unconsoled, as if I was trapped in an anxiety dream).
Tayari Jones – An American Marriage. In some ways this is a contemporary take on James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk – the young married couple, the wrongful arrest, the judicial system weighted against him, the long wait. And speaking of the waiting wife, oddly and by pure coincidence, the book I picked up after this was Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad… The narrative is constructed through the voices of the husband, the wife, and later on, the friend, so we see the same events from those different perspectives, which adds depth and nuance. Compelling and moving.
Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You. This was another tough read, an autobiographical account of domestic violence, ‘a meditation on the art of writing about desire, abuse and trauma’.
Philip Kerr – Hitler’s Peace. I’ve read most of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, so was interested in this slice of alt history. As always with Kerr, it’s scrupulously researched – the scenario is startling but robustly established, and there’s that same sense of impossible moral choices that pervades the Gunther series. Gripping, and troubling.
Heda Margolius Kovaly – Innocence. Kovaly is fascinating – earlier this year I read her memoir Under a Cruel Star, which records her life through the Holocaust and Stalinist repression in post-war Czechoslovakia. She later became a translator, with a particular fondness for Raymond Chandler, which feeds into this crime novel set in Prague in 1951, and drawing on her own experiences.
Nella Larsen – Passing. I’d seen her name but had never realised she was an American writer of colour. The clue is in the book’s title – it’s about those who can ‘pass’ as white, and what it does to them, the insecurity, the fear of the consequences should their identity be exposed. Will explore her work further. Passing was published in 1929, and Larsen is one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
John le Carré – Agent Running in the Field. Le Carré never fails me. Elegantly satirical writing, taut plotting, and a dash of righteous indignation. This is his most recent novel, from 2019.
And as it turned out, it was his last. He’d said as much in a October 2019 interview, but there was no reason to suppose he might not go on for years. His recent novels were elegiac in tone, and often raging (about Brexit, Trump, the calibre of the current crop of political leaders), as sharp as ever, as funny as ever, as gripping as ever. I started reading him in my early teens, and never really stopped. I’ve five more to read, and then I think I will start again at the beginning, and our introduction to George Smiley, in Call for the Dead.
Laura Lipmann – The Power of Three. One of Lipmann’s earlier stand-alones, from 2005. Secrets, friendships, betrayals…
Attica Locke – Bluebird, Bluebird/Heaven my Home. Having read the two Jay Porter novels (Black Water Rising and Pleasantville) I turned to the two Highway 59 titles. The protagonist is a black Texas Ranger, and race is the tension that’s humming away constantly, relentlessly, in everything that happens. Brilliantly done.
Richard Mathieson – I am Legend. I’d seen the Will Smith movie, but the book is very different, both in the initial premiss and the way the plot unfolds. Mathieson’s vampires are not only unlike those in the movie, but unlike those in the Buffy universe, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and the daddy of them all, Dracula. They don’t work to the same rules. His protagonist is utterly alone and utterly lonely, working out not only how to survive but how it all works, and applying a ruthlessly scientific approach to the process.
Denise Mina – ConvictionNever know quite what you’re going to get with Mina. This one is a very twisty thriller, described by The Scotsman as almost Hitchcockian in its evocation of paranoia and doubt.
Abir Mukherjee – Death in the East. I dived into the Sam Wyndham series with the most recent title, but will go back and read its predecessors with great enthusiasm. This one is a classic locked room mystery, a case that began in Whitechapel in 1905 and resurfaces unexpectedly in India in 1922. The racial politics of immigrant London and colonial India are vividly and often uncomfortably conveyed.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Book of American Martyrs. Two men, two families and the fall-out from a crime, the killing of a doctor by an anti-abortion fundamentalist. The focus moves from the killer and the victim to the wives and the children, struggling to work out who they can be without the men who have defined them. There was a fascinating synergy between this and Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (see above).
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust A poetic, complex novel of contemporary Kenya. ‘At the core of Owuor’s novel … is a moral concern to forgive past wrongs. … Dust is a fine, compassionate novel that relishes the complexity of human relations. It is written in a language that is often beautifully observant, and is alert in its insight and sympathy.’
Laksmi Pamuntjak – The Birdwoman’s Palate. This is a strange one! It’s about an epidemiological investigation (avian flu), and a culinary road trip. I’m not completely convinced that it all fitted together, but even if it didn’t, both elements were interesting and attractively written (Pamuntjak is a poet and a food writer)
Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only/Body Work. I’ve read a few V I Warshawskis over the years, in no particular order, but not these two – turns out Indemnity Only is the very first in the series. Lots more in that series for me to enjoy.
Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends. Admired rather than loved. I preferred Normal People, I think. I found the protagonists here frustrating, opaque even whilst so much of their inner and external lives was laid out for me.
Liz Rosenberg – The Laws of Gravity. I nearly stopped reading this when I realised that cancer was going to be a major driver of the plot. That made it a tougher read, this year of all years, than it would otherwise have been – but Rosenberg’s writing is warm, compassionate, empathetic, and unsparing.
Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways. The precariousness of a life on the margins, a life in which the most minor misfortune can be catastrophic, and in which choice is an illusion, a luxury. The ‘runaways’ have all ended up in Sheffield, which is where we first meet them, for a variety of reasons which we then discover. Some are in more desperate straits than others but the gulf between the life they live and the life they hoped for is vast and unbridgeable. ‘Sahota moves some of the most urgent political questions of the day away from rhetorical posturing and contested statistics into the realm of humanity.’
Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire/Burnt Shadows. Both excellent. But the take on Antigone in Home Fire passed me by somewhat, and Burnt Shadows is the one that stays with me, from the opening sequence in 1945 Nagasaki onwards, as it sweeps across countries, continents and decades. As Shamsie says, ‘History had blown them all off course, no one ending – or even middling, where they had begun’, and that’s turned out to be quite a theme of this year’s reading.
Ali Smith – Autumn. Whenever I read Ali Smith I remind myself I must read more Ali Smith. For some reason, I hadn’t embarked yet on her seasonal quartet and at a few pages in, already I was saying to myself that I must read everything Ali Smith has written.
Zadie Smith – NW. My first Zadie Smith, and I wasn’t quite sure about it. It seemed jumpy, fragmented, and whilst some sections or voices were convincing others weren’t quite. Adam Mars Smith’s review said that the real mystery of the book is that ‘it falls so far short of being a successful novel, though it contains the makings of three or four’. However, I will certainly read more of her work – when it works it works astoundingly well.
Cath Staincliffe – Quiet Acts of Violence. Staincliffe doesn’t deal in baroque serial killers, but in messy lives and messy crimes. Her speciality perhaps is the way in which the ripples from the crime spread out and touch other lives, and she tells these stories with humanity and compassion, whilst maintaining a powerful sense of tension. The crime is investigated by DI Donna Bell and DC Jade Bradshaw, who were introduced in Girl in the Green Dress and who I’m delighted to meet again here.
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, I know it’s a classic and I should have read it decades ago but hey, there are a lot of books out there, and I just hadn’t got round to this one, OK? I found the dialogue took quite a lot of concentration before I could ‘hear’ it in my head, but the narrative is relentless and powerful. Maybe I should read some other Steinbeck…
Lesley Thomson – The Detective’s Secret. The third in the Detective’s Daughter series, whose protagonists are untypical, to say the least – a cleaner (the detective’s daughter herself) and a train driver, both of them drawn into the investigation of crimes through a mix of chance and compulsion. The plot is complex and skilfully constructed, and, as with the earlier volumes in the series, it’s gripping stuff. Perhaps it’s a series best read in order as the back story of the two main characters is complex in itself.
Sylvia Townsend Warner – English Climate. Stories of England in wartime – the Home Front, gossip and judgement and boredom, Mothers’ Union and knitting circles, ordinary lives made extraordinary. Another Persephone publication. ‘Funny, brilliantly written, at times utterly heart-breaking, delightfully sharp, dry, intelligent and full of memorable characters’
I’m grouping these three together because I read them in fairly quick succession, and found that they were exploring quite similar territory, albeit with very distinct voices – the experience of being black and British, the stereotypes and prejudices (explicit and implicit) they’ve faced. Hirsch and Boakye both have Ghanaian heritage, Akala Caribbean. All three reflect on gender, and how that intersects with race. All three tell their stories and make their arguments with humour, grace and passion.
Jackie Kay – Red Dust Road. Poet Jackie Kay has a somewhat different story to tell, that of an adopted child with a Nigerian father, growing up in a deeply loving and warm white family and needing, as an adult, to find her birth parents. It’s beautiful, and moving without ever being merely sentimental.
Nikesh Shukla – The Good Immigrant. Shukla brings together a collection of 21 short reflections by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working across literature and the media on ‘what it means to be a person of colour’ in Britain today.
James Baldwin – Selected Essays. Some of these I read back in my teens when I was immersing myself in the literature of the civil rights movement, some are new to me. His writing is so compelling – having just seen the film I Am Not Your Negro I can see and hear him as I read.
Kamala Harris – The Truths we Hold: An American Journey. Read whilst waiting for news of the US election result to emerge, waiting, and hoping… That Harris will shortly become the first woman VP, the first woman of colour at the highest level of US politics, the first South Asian-American… and so on, and so on, is inspiring and wonderful. For Bonnie Greer it is even more deeply significant than Obama’s presidency.
Margot Lee Shetterley – Hidden Figures. This fascinating account gives far more depth to the remarkable Afro-American women ‘who helped win the space race’ than the film was able to do. It also gave much more weight to the science, which in the film came across as a kind of magic (inevitably, I guess).
Rachel Clarke – Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss. Why on earth did I choose to read a book about death, about the end of life, in the year that my darling kid brother died of cancer? Well, perhaps there was method in my madness. It is a very honest book, tough and unsparing. But it’s also tender and loving – the love is both for the dying and for those who are close to them (and for the doctors and nurses who help them in those last days and hours). It’s not just about dying, but ‘about living, loving, learning how to say goodbye’. And thus it is supremely life-affirming.
Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. That’s it, the subtitle says it really. What follows is a whole series of examples, taken from all sorts of environments which show not only that women have been invisible to planners, designers and policy makers, but that designing for the ‘default male’ results not only in annoyance and frustration but puts women’s physical and mental health at risk, whether from PPE that simply doesn’t fit the female shape, or from the misdiagnosis of heart failure because it presents differently in women. Some of the examples are relatively familiar, others startling. All are enraging.
Hallie Rubenhold – The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Inevitably, as I read this, I thought of other women, victims of another so-called Ripper. I could not have guessed that soon after I finished this brilliant, rigorous and compassionate account, the death of that other Ripper would have triggered news reports and analyses, many of which did try at least to right the wrongs done to the murdered women, by saying their names, and telling their stories. It was about time. Rubenhold’s account gives a richly detailed account of the life and precarious times of each of the ‘canonical’ Ripper victims, showing how their lives might have been different, as well as how and why things went wrong. It’s a vital, heartbreaking piece of work. I hope, some time, for another volume that restores to ‘the thirteen’ the stories of their lives, not merely of their deaths.
Daniel Trilling – Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe. So many of the novels I read this year (and in recent years) have been preoccupied with migration, with the forces that make individuals take huge risks in search of a better life (whether that is better economically or simply the chance of survival). Trilling visits the places where ‘the “fault lines” in Europe’s asylum system are clearest’ and talks to refugees and those who work with and try to help them, and his account is both thoroughly researched and compellingly human.
Rowena Edlin-White (ed.) – Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers. This goes way beyond the usual suspects (Byron, Sillitoe, Lawrence). From Walter Hilton, b. 1340, to writers still very much with us and publishing in a variety of genres. The accounts of their lives and works give us some fascinating social history of the region, and whilst some of the writers may be of historical interest only, others would seem well worth tracking down.
Rob Hindle – The Grail Roads. From my favourite poetry publisher, Longbarrow Press, whose virtues include not only an excellent and varied collection of contemporary poetry, but also books that are beautiful to behold as well as to read and a delivery system that (for those of us in the right postcodes) involves the publisher arriving at one’s front door, seemingly only hours after the order is placed, and handing over a package with the book and a handwritten thank you. This volume blends first hand accounts from WWI soldiers with Arthurian myth, and it’s a powerful piece of work, one that I know I will return to.
Owen Booth – What We’re Teaching our Sons. I don’t know how to categorise this book, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it is funny, observant, and touching. The Irish Times reviewer commented: ‘With the emotional depth of a novel mixed with the breezier form of a parenting manual, Booth has written a remarkable debut whose profound documenting of family life is achieved in less than 200 pages.’
You can find my account of the first half of 2020 here.
Postscript: Obviously, I didn’t stop reading once I’d posted this, so here’s what I read during the remainder of 2020.
Louise Penny – The Nature of the Beast and A Great Reckoning: two more from her always readable and engaging Inspector Gamache series
Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo – Roseanna, the first in their Martin Beck series. I’ve seen the TV adaptation but hadn’t read anything by them before – I was prompted to after a friend commented on their absence from my 100 top crime novels list!
Two more John le Carrés – The Russia House and The Secret Pilgrim.
Lee Jackson – The Welfare of the Dead, a Victorian-set crime novel by a new author to me.
Val McDermid – Place of Execution. Excellent stand-alone, completely gripping and very cleverly plotted.
Arnold Bennett – These Twain. The third in the Clayhanger trilogy (though it turns out there’s a fourth). Much less interesting than its predecessor, Hilda Lessways.
Nicci French – Blue Monday and Tuesday’s Gone. The first two in the Frieda Klein series.
I do love a list. And so I seized upon Dead Good’s list of the 100 best crime novels of all time, as chosen by their readers. I was surprised by how many were completely unfamiliar to me, and by how many of my favourite writers and novels didn’t feature at all.
So, obviously, I had no choice but to put together my own list…
Not ranked, just in alphabetical order of author’s names, only one title per author allowed. Many are in series, and I have been completely inconsistent in whether I cite the first in the series, or the latest, or just one I happen to particularly care for. I’ve linked to reviews, where they are not too spoilery.
The stories span the centuries – from 1327 to some time in the future – and the continents. Whilst most are set in the UK or the US, we also travel around Europe, and to Africa. It’s a pretty white list, only three black writers, to my chagrin. To my ‘read more black writers’ resolution I will add the postscript, ‘and more black crime writers’… About half the writers are women – and more than half if we just take contemporary writers.
Not all of these are whodunnits – in some we know who from the start, in others there may be uncertainty even on the final page, or the ‘who’ may simply not be the point. The protagonists may be coppers or PIs, perpetrators or victims. Not all feature police procedure or private detectives or lawyers. But all have crime at the heart of the story.
So. My top 100:
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho. My favourite (because jazz) from the brilliant Rivers of London series.
Ann Cleeves – Harbour Street. A Vera Stanhope title (I was torn, could have chosen a Shetland, but there you go, and I do like Vera a lot).
Harlan Coben – Home. The first of his that I read. Slick but very skilful.
Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White. Arguably one of the earliest detective novels. A brilliant story, with a great female character in Marian Hascombe.
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent. A political thriller, featuring Chief Inspector Heat, the precursor of so many dogged coppers in pursuit of criminals of various stripes.
Patricia Cornwell – Postmortem. The first Scarpetta novel.
Didier Daeninckz – Meurtres pour memoire (Murder in Memoriam). A contemporary crime leads back to a suppressed atrocity in 1961 and back further to war crimes under the Vichy government.
Jill Dawson – Fred and Edie. Based on the true story of Edie Thompson & Fred Bywater, who conspired to murder Edie’s husband, and were both hanged for the crime.
Colin Dexter – Last Bus to Woodstock. The first Morse.
Charles Dickens – Bleak House. Another early detective, Inspector Bucket, possibly based on real-life detective Jack Whicher (see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher). It’s also the finest novel in the English language, BTW.
Eva Dolan – Long Way Home. First in a series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit.
Jane Harper – The Lost Man. Third novel from Harper and the strongest, I think. The landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist.
Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only. Our introduction to the redoubtable V I Warshawski
Nii Ayikwei Parks – Tail of the Blue Bird. Set in the Ghanaian ‘hinterland’, the storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.
Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. Not at the gritty end of crime fiction but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.
Ruth Rendell – Judgement in Stone. Generally reckoned to be one of her greatest works. Adapted for the cinema by Claude Chabrol, no less.
C J Sansom – Dark Fire. Second title in the Tudor-set Shardlake series. If you’ve been missing Thomas Cromwell since finishing The Mirror & the Light, he’s here.
Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison. Probably my favourite of the Lord Peter Wimseys, which I have read and re-read for decades. Always loved Harriet Vane. Shout out, BTW, to the late Jill Paton Walsh who wrote a series of four Wimseys, which are very good indeed.
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All Alone’s. ‘Literary’, postmodern crime – this one riffs primarily on Bleak House (see above), and there’s a slice of The Woman in White in here as well.
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. Staincliffe is always concerned not just with the crime and its solution but the ripples that flow out from the crime, and her novels carry real emotional heft. This one is devastating.
Of course, if I were to do this again in a few years, some of these titles would have been superseded. But I am inclined to think many of the authors will still be there.
This genre has so much potential. The titles I’ve picked not only give us plot and character, suspense and tension. They also address issues of morality and mortality, class and race and gender, politics and psychology and sociology – the whole rich tapestry of human life is here. And human death, obviously…
We’re halfway through this strange, sad year. In theory, there’s been more time for reading since lockdown. But at times this year, not just due to Covid, I haven’t found it easy to focus on a book. Nonetheless, I’ve read a lot, and these are some of the highlights. In general, they reflect my need for what the brilliant Attica Locke recently described (in a tweet about Nicole Dennis Benn’s lovely novel Patsy, which I am reading at present) as ‘uplift with heft’. Too cosy and too obviously intended to be ‘heartwarming’ and I get angry, because life isn’t cosy, things don’t always work out OK, people die, people are sick, people are broken. Too grim and I just can’t bear it, not now, not in the midst of all this. There has to be something that lifts me up, some element of hope, the possibility of change for the better, the capacity of people to exceed one’s expectations, to be better and to do better.
There’s only one title here that specifically references the pandemic. But several of the fiction and non-fiction titles reflect my realisation part way through the year that my reading so far had been dismayingly white. It seemed appropriate, in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter protests worldwide, to address that.
This isn’t everything I’ve read. I’ve missed a few re-reads, and I have, as I always do, omitted things I found mediocre, or clunky. This is the good stuff.
Melanie Abrams – Meadowlark. A bow drawn at a venture, and a thoroughly good read. Like Glaister’s Chosen, it’s exploring the world of closed communities (aka cults), how seductive and deadly they are.
Belinda Bauer – The Shut Eye.A missing child mystery that doesn’t follow the path you expect, that is troubling and puzzling and shocking in all sorts of ways. Bauer is described by the Independent as ‘either so quirkily idiosyncratic – or just plain bloody-minded – that [her] books resolutely resist conforming to whatever the latest modishness is’.
Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy. I’m reading this on the recommendation of Attica Locke, as mentioned above. Patsy is a Jamaican immigrant in New York, living the precarious life of the undocumented, a life that separates her not only from her home and family, but from the hopes that brought her here.
Alan Bennett – The Uncommon Reader. This made me laugh, rather a lot, at a time when laughter was in short supply. Brilliantly witty and sharp, it also manages to be oddly touching.
Arnold Bennett – Hilda Lessways. This is Part 2 of his Clayhanger series, written in 1911, set in the Midlands in the late 19th century, with a female protagonist who blazes off the page.
William Boyd – Love is Blind. This is a tour de force, and my favourite of his books so far. It’s clever, but never just clever. ‘Audaciously unpredictable’ as the Guardian put it. The narrative takes us from Victorian Scotland to Paris to Russia and to the Bay of Bengal, it’s romantic and vivid, and totally engaging.
NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names. Fine, powerful writing – and with humour amongst the grim. The trajectory is familiar – the African diaspora, in this case from Zimbabwe to the USA, but the voice is fresh.
Jane Casey – The Cutting Place. The latest Maeve Kerrigan, and quite possibly the best yet (I probably say that each time, but the series really does keep upping its game).
Lissa Evans – Old Baggage. A writer I’ve discovered only recently. I read Spencer’s List earlier this year, and after Old Baggage, I read its sequel, Crooked Heart, and eagerly await V for Victory in August. Funny and moving, with characters that get under your skin and into your head and your heart.
Nicci French – The Lying Room. This is the first I’ve read from the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard (who I know as a campaigner for dementia patients in hospital, and author of the powerful and moving What Dementia Teaches us about Love) and Sean French. And very good it is too – steeped in secrets and lies. I will read more.
Tana French – The Trespasser. Latest in the splendid Dublin Murders series. Though we call it a series, French’s distinctive technique is to shift the focus from novel to novel, so that a peripheral character in one becomes the main protagonist in the next.
Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You. One of his best. And the writing about music is so vivid that I could almost hear it as I read.
Lesley Glaister – Chosen. The latest from a favourite writer whose work I’ve been following for many years, a gripping and intense psychological thriller, like Meadlowlark, exploring a closed community. Very twisty.
Elizabeth Goudge – The Bird in the Tree / The Herb of Grace / The Heart of the Family. First read when I was a teenager, and returned to in the hope of ‘uplift with heft’, The Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy is mystical, romantic, intense – all about hope, and the redemptive power of place to heal broken humans.
Elly Griffiths – The Lantern Men. The new Ruth Galloway. Always feel like I’m meeting up with a friend when I read these, I’d love to go down the pub with Ruth (when that sort of thing becomes normal again, obviously). And of course, there’s a splendid mystery, and the cast of supporting characters is drawn with humour, insight and affection.
Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing. I’ve had this one in my TBR pile for a while, but it felt as though this was the time to open it. It’s a complex narrative, on a huge scale (centuries, continents). It starts, though, in places that resonate with my own childhood in Ghana in the early 60s – Cape Coast Castle and Kumasi. Often harrowing, always compelling.
Emma Healey – Whistle in the Dark. By the author of the excellent Elizabeth is Missing, a mystery with an ending that is both terrifying and moving.
Mick Herron – Dead Lions. Second in his Slow Horses series, about a department of MI5 rejects – acerbically funny but without pulling any emotional punches.
Susan Hill – The Benefits of Hindsight. The latest in her excellent Simon Serailler detective series, as always musing on mortality and morality whilst solving the crime.
Judith Kerr – Out of the Hitler Time. This is a trilogy of lightly fictionalised autobiography by the late and dearly beloved author of Mog and The Tigerwho Came to Tea, starting with the Kerr family’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany.
Philip Kerr – Metropolis. Sadly the last in the brilliant Bernie Gunther series of detective novels set before, during and after the Nazi era.
Stephen King – If It Bleeds. This guy is unstoppable. A collection of short stories, two of which are kind of standard King – which is still a very good thing – and two of which are classic King which is brilliant.
John le Carré – Legacy of Spies. One more, probably last, Smiley novel from the master. It has an elegiac tone, including a final eulogy to the dream of European collaboration and unity.
Andrea Levy – The Long Song. Very powerful and moving. I loved the storyteller’s voice, the dialogue and the ongoing arguments between her and the person who’s pressing her to tell the story, the gaps that can’t be filled.
Laura Lippman – The Lady in the Lake. Another excellent psychological thriller from Lippman, a polyphonic narrative, using glimpses of events from a number of different points of view to complement or contradict the protagonist’s perspective.
Attica Locke – Pleasantville. Sequel to Black Water Rising, which I read last year, it picks up the story of black Texas lawyer Jay Porter fifteen years after the events of that book. It’s a riveting plot, with a great cast of complex characters and the ability to move between state politics and the domestic exigencies of single parenthood with grace and perception.
Adrian McKinty – The Cold, Cold Ground. First of his Belfast-set Sean Duffy crime series, which I will definitely be following up.
Denise Mina – Still Midnight. Starts with an Asian family facing a home invasion, doesn’t go where you expect it to, gets hold of you and doesn’t let you go till the last page.
Sarah Moss – The Tidal Zone. I properly got into Moss last year and this year have read The Ghost Wall and this one, which is entirely different again (one never does know quite what to expect with Moss). As the Guardian says, this is a novel about the NHS, which makes it rather timely, and about parental anxiety, but also about art, and ideas.
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must be the Place. Always brilliant. Not my top O’Farrell but excellent. As the Guardian says, she is ‘a deft and compelling chronicler of human relationships’.
Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. They’re not at the gritty end of crime fiction (it’s been said that they’re modelled on the classic British whodunit) but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.
Susie Steiner – Remain Silent. We’ve had a long wait for the new Manon Bradshaw but it was worth it. Manon is a tremendous, real, often abrasive and annoying central character. And one can’t be unaffected by the knowledge that Steiner has been undergoing treatment for a brain tumour, and that the latest news is not good.
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge. I read Abide with Me last year, and this is the third Strout I’ve read this year. Exceptionally good, deeply empathetic, a novel in interlinked short stories (like Anything is Possible).
Meg Waite-Clayton – Beautiful Exiles. This is a fascinating novel about the formidable Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn hated being described as the third Mrs Hemingway, so I did wish that Waite-Clayton had continued the story after she finally dumped Hemingway…
Elizabeth Wein – The Enigma Game Another brilliant WWII YA novel from the author of Code Name Verity. Thrilling and moving stuff.
Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys. This one I think even surpasses The Underground Railroad. It’s devastating. Brilliantly constructed, and with a twist that’s no gimmick, and a protagonist who you want so very badly to be OK whilst knowing the odds against that…
Chimanada Ngozi Adichie – Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. My favourite contemporary African writer, passing on her thoughts on feminism to a friend, who’s asked her advice on raising a daughter. The feminism itself isn’t revelatory but Adichie is writing from within the Nigerian Igbo culture that she and her friend share, and that makes it fresh and engaging.
Angela Davis – Women, Race and Class. Davis was one of my heroines, when I was educating myself about the civil rights movement as a teenager. She was, and is, awesome. This was written in 1983, and it’s ahead of the game in terms of what we would now call intersectionality, tracing the connections between the abolitionist movement, the suffragists, and the civil rights struggle to show how those priorities, those needs, coincided or conflicted.
Dorothy Day – The Long Loneliness. I knew absolutely nothing about Day until my son discovered her, whilst doing an MA in American History. She was a remarkable woman – a Catholic socialist anarchist, a journalist and activist, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and faced controversy for her refusal to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This autobiography was published in 1954 (she died in 1980). As baffling as I find her religious faith, her account of the social and political upheavals in which she was involved is fascinating.
Jason Diakite – A Drop of Midnight. Another fascinating memoir from someone I hadn’t heard of! Diakite is a black Swedish rapper, and here he explores his family history and his father’s roots in the American south, and musing on music, race, and the importance of shiny shoes.
Lara Feigel – The Love Charm of Bombs. The Blitz through the eyes of writers (including Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen) who lived through it and did their bit in some way (air-raid wardens, ambulance drivers, etc). The most interesting, actually, is the exiled Austrian novelist Hilde Spiel.
Alan Garner – Where Shall we Run to? A beautiful, brief memoir of growing up in a landscape that’s steeped in history (ancient and family) and in mythology, the landscape that inspired Garner’s novels, from his children’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to his most recent novel, Boneland.
Atul Gawande – Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. These are essays written whilst Gawande was doing his general surgery residency, focusing on fallibility, mystery and ethics. Honest, inspiring and terrifying.
Heda Margolius Kovaly – Under a Cruel Star. Cruel indeed – Kovaly survived the Łódź ghetto and Auschwitz, and escaped the death march to Belsen, but under the postwar regime in Czechoslovakia, her husband was murdered in one of Stalin’s show trials – the Slansky trial, which mainly targeted Jews, and she, tainted by association with a ‘traitor’, struggled to survive before escaping west in 1968.
Diarmaid MacCulloch – Thomas Cromwell. Homework, if you like, for my reading of The Mirror and the Light. It’s notable how much respect is given here to Mantel’s grasp of the history. It’s a hefty tome, but fascinating. I can’t pretend I was equipped to really appreciate the finer points of Tudor politics, but I got a lot from the book, nonetheless.
Ben MacIntyre – Double Cross. Another extraordinary account of WWII espionage. If this was a novel one might accuse it in places of implausibility – a cast of extraordinary characters and plots of extraordinary audacity, on which millions of lives depended.
Kenan Malik – From Fatwa to Jihad. The updated version of Malik’s 2010 exploration of how the Rushdie affair transformed the debate worldwide on multiculturalism, tolerance and free speech, helped fuel the rise of radical Islam and pointed the way to the horrors of 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…
Lucy Mangan – Bookworm. This memoir of a childhood spent reading, voraciously, obsessively, constantly reading, really spoke to me… Mangan is a lot younger, and so some of the books that she devoured were too young for me by the time they came out, but she read everything, so there’s a lot of common ground. Very funny, absolutely delightful.
Eva Noack-Mosse – Last Days of Theresienstadt. Noack-Mosse was deported in early 1945 to the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Working in the camp office, she compiled endless lists for the SS, but also her own clandestine statistics and observations. Postwar, this evidence not only helped to reconnect displaced people with their family and friends (or at least to know their fates) but also contributed to war crimes trials.
Marcus O’Dair – Different Every Time. Authorised biography of wonderful musician Robert Wyatt. Affectionate and admiring, but clear-sighted, it’s a fascinating insight into the music and, with it being Wyatt, the politics.
Maggie O’Farrell – I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. The only writer to crop up in both the fiction and non-fiction sections of this blog. Incredibly tense, these encounters with death are nonetheless about life. O’Farrell was inspired to write it because of her daughter’s severe immune disorder and the experience of facing down death with and vicariously through her daughter.
Pete Paphides – Broken Greek. In a way, this is the musical equivalent of Lucy Mangan’s memoir. It’s the account of a childhood where music – the pop music of the era, as naff as it often was – had overwhelming power and significance. It’s also a story of chip shops, where his Greek-Cypriot parents worked to support their family, and of colliding cultures. It’s very funny, and joyful.
Johnny Pitts – Afropean. I was always going to want to read an exploration of blackness and European identity that starts in my own home town of Sheffield, before heading out to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon, Moscow… Whether or not Pitts finds his tribe on this quest, as the Guardian puts it, ‘Afropean announces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen’.
Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things to Me. A 2014 collection of essays, of which the title essay is the earliest (2008) and is credited with launching the concept of ‘mansplaining’ (not the term, which Solnit doesn’t use or like). Solnit is witty, clear, and absolutely furious. Excellent stuff.
Laura Spinney – Pale Rider. This could hardly be more pertinent – a study of the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-19, how it spread, how it was treated, how different governments responded. Lots of parallels, of course, with our own time. Where we are lucky is that our own pandemic does not follow directly on one of the most destructive wars in history, with populations exhausted, malnourished, displaced. We could have learned a lot, though, if the right people had been interested in learning rather than posturing…
Ron Stallworth – Black Klansman. The story behind Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman, a story which one might have assumed to be a parable rather than reality. Stallworth himself didn’t tell how he infiltrated the KKK until 2006, and this account was only published in 2014. It’s fascinating and astonishing. It’s not just about the Klan, of course, it’s about what it was to be a black cop in the 1970s in the USA.
Under lockdown, I’ve travelled through time and around the globe. I’ve been back to 16th century England, 18th century Ghana, 19th century France and Russia, Nazi Berlin, Iron Curtain Prague. I’ve been to Jamaica, the Andaman Islands, Zimbabwe, Nigeria. I’ve been all over the US – Baltimore and Texas, Maine and Florida, Colorado and South Carolina, New York and Detroit. I’ve been all over my own homeland too. I’ve shared lives and experiences that are close to my own, and others that are so utterly different that I could never have imagined them.
Thanks to all of the writers who’ve opened those doors to me. Whatever else the second half of 2020 brings, there will be more books, more doors into other lives and experiences. I’ll let you know what I find.
What better way to draw this series of Refugee Week blogs to a close than with music? Refugees have always carried the music of their home with them, wherever they have travelled, and treasured it, wherever they have settled. The richest and most beautiful music we can hear, from whatever tradition, has been nourished by the music brought in by those travellers, the songs that have sustained them through hardship, the melodies that remind them of home.
None of us knows what the next year will bring. The virus has both ignored borders, and reinforced them. It poses a threat to us all, but most seriously to those already vulnerable due to age, health and living conditions. Refugees and asylum seekers are and will continue to be amongst the most vulnerable. And whatever happens during the course of the year, for good or ill, there will still be refugees. There will still be wars and persecution and famine and terrorism, forcing people to leave home. There will still be camps full of people in transit, waiting for the chance to leave for a more stable life somewhere else. And there will still be fragile crafts launched on to the oceans, full of people hoping for landfall somewhere that they will find safety.
Last year, Opera North put on a production of Bohuslav Martinů‘s powerful and pertinent opera, The Greek Passion. Martinu was a Czech composer, who was working in Paris when the Nazis invaded his homeland, and then had to flee France for Spain and then Portugal, before settling in the US. The opera, written in the 1950s, tells of a village whose inhabitants are putting on their annual Passion Play, when the arrival of a group of refugees challenges their community, their values and their courage.
It is an opera about migration, about society’s rejection of the destitute and the desperate when they arrive at our gates for help, about the dangers of failing to challenge populist rhetoric, about the manipulation of society by those in authority. It’s also about compassion, humility and, ultimately, tragedy.
As the manager of a small inner city community project based in Leeds called Meeting Point, I work with refugees and asylum seekers every day and I find it quite extraordinary that an opera written all those years ago can be directly relevant to the day to day work that I do now, as well as the lived experience of thousands of individuals across the UK today.
Part of Opera North’s Lullaby Project, People’s Lullabies are performed by participants in the company’s Community Partnerships scheme, which works with local organisations to provide access to live opera and music for people who might otherwise encounter barriers to those experiences. The Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ Conversation Club at Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds, provides tea, coffee, healthy food, nappies, sanitary protection and toiletries to vulnerable families who have had to leave the countries they love because of war and persecution.
Soundroutes is an initiative that networks musicians of very different international backgrounds in new homelands. The Soundroutes project created the Soundroutes Band, with members from scattered new domiciles in Berlin, Brussels, and Rome. Shalan Alhamwy on violin, Alaa Zaitounah on oud, and drummer Tarek Al Faham are all from Syria, Papis “Peace” Diouf of Senegal is on guitar. The group mixes tracks of Arab tradition and African rhythms, but leaps out to free jazz. In a related combo, Peace Diouf rearranges and composes powerful traditional Senegalese grooves as jazz with Roberto Durante on piano and Hammond organ, Giancarlo Bianchetti on guitar, and drummer Moulaye Niang,
With his brow furrowed in concentration, Abu Abdullah rhythmically strums his oud, exploring the core of a melancholic melody. Mohamad Isa Almaziodi’s robust and melismatic voice soars above, full of emotional ornamentation – sighing and repeating, rising and falling – until he runs out of breath and the phrase is forced to finish. In his song, Mohamad is singing about how strange life is, how harsh the nights are: ‘Oh this life is so strange… our home became very far. Very far.’ But before he can finish, he is overcome by homesickness and with his head in his hands, he cries. He is crying for his beloved country and for the father he left behind.
The band Musicians in Exile is based in Glasgow, and is made up of refugees and asylum seekers.
Afshin Karimi is sitting in a circle of musicians, his eyes tightly closed as he taps his foot in time with the beat. He waits patiently for his moment, then opens his mouth and sings. Music is part of the reason that the 44-year-old Iranian singer and keyboardist found himself here, in a makeshift rehearsal room overlooking a busy Glasgow street, thousands of miles from home. He fled his country three years ago, not only because he feared persecution after changing his religion, but because the kind of music he was making was banned by authorities.
Somehow the impending anniversary of VE Day had not impinged on my consciousness. I didn’t get the memo about the Mayday bank holiday being shifted to Friday so we could commemorate the end of WWII in Europe.
And I’m deeply uneasy about it. We’re in the midst of a crisis which, as we are reminded daily, is the toughest thing we’ve had to face since the last war. And it’s by no means over. We are assured that the infection has ‘passed the peak’ but people are still dying and the dying will continue for some time yet. Street parties – even physically distanced ones – surely aren’t quite capturing the mood. And the more cynical amongst us may suspect that this anniversary is giving government an opportunity for distraction – remind us of our finest hour, whilst offering us only spin and tweaked stats and pieties in place of decisive, timely and compassionate action.
And there’s more to my unease. Are we marking the defeat of a genocidal fascist dictatorship which had brought about the deaths of millions, not just soldiers, or civilian casualties of bombing, but people targeted for death because they were Jewish, Communist, Roma, homosexual, disabled? Are we marking the fact that in the wake of this horror, Europe forged a peace and a unity that has held ever since?
Or are we celebrating because ‘we’ defeated ‘them’? Because Churchill was the Boris of his day, facing down an enemy with British pluck and bulldog spirit? Just to illustrate my concerns:
What did the end of that war really mean for us here in Britain, and for our neighbours in Europe? Primarily, I would guess, for the British, it was relief. Relief that they no longer had to listen for the sirens, or listen for when the V1 engines cut out. Relief that nights in shelters or underground stations, waiting for the All Clear, were at an end. The prospect of life returning to some semblance of normality, or to what we would now call a ‘new normal’. The prospect of the return of the people they loved who had been serving in Europe, and the relief those people were no longer in daily peril.
But even then, it was tempered with the reality of loss. The gaps on the streets where houses used to stand, where families had lived. The people who would never come home, or who came home unutterably changed and damaged.
And the new normal had to accommodate – not right away, but soon – the full knowledge of what had happened ‘over there’. For those who’d arrived in the UK as refugees, there was the terrible wait for knowledge – and then the terrible weight of knowledge. Some returned to their families, if not to home, unutterably changed and damaged, and those to whom they returned had to wrestle not only with grief but the guilt that they had been spared, and the impossibility of truly understanding.
Across Europe, if not here, people had been starving – not just in the camps but in bombed-out cities, occupied territories. People now were sick, not just in the camps but across the continent, because of malnutrition and the breakdown of infrastructure in cities, towns and villages that had become rubble.
The thing is, VE Day didn’t mean it was all over (and not just because a brutal war continued in the Pacific, for another three months). For many it was never over. They may not have talked about it, often or at all, but it stayed with them. The survivors of the camps, the soldiers who liberated the camps, those who survived but saw more cruelty and destruction than their souls could bear. It may seem as if the war is being invoked all the time, especially at present, but rarely by those who really remember it, who were actually there.
I can’t mark VE Day with little flags and Vera Lynn and Keep Calm and Carry On. I mark this 75th anniversary by remembering the cost, remembering the loss and the pain and the destruction. And by remembering how Europe rebuilt and repaired, not only buildings and roads and ports, but alliances and communities and trust. I will think of victory in Europe, and the victory of Europe as an ideal of peaceful cooperation. Any VE day celebration that does not celebrate Europe is a sham, a fantasy of Little England, standing alone (apart from the Polish airmen, and the troops from across the Empire, and the Yanks, and the Red Army and the Free French and…), a myth that we use to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and our perverse decision to actually stand alone now.
Of course people celebrated 75 years ago. In that giddy moment of relief and release, they sang and danced and drank and kissed unsuitable strangers. It wasn’t all partying. There was joy, and pride in the courage and fortitude of soldiers and resistance fighters who had dared so much and won. There was hope that now things would be better. But as Frank Capra says in It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, on VE Day they ‘wept, and prayed’.
75 years on, we can recapture neither the giddy relief nor the raw sorrow. We have a different perspective, inevitably. We know so much that they didn’t, about what happened during the war, and what came after. Our commemoration must be honest and clear-sighted, not sentimental.
The hope that VE Day brought was not just the hope of being reunited with loved ones. It was the hope of lasting peace, the hope that with peace would come the chance to build a better, fairer society. That hope led to the European Community, to legislation to protect individuals and communities against prejudice and discrimination, to the UN and its role in establishing and protecting human rights worldwide. As imperfect as those protections are, they emerged directly from the victory we are commemorating tomorrow.
Here, it led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. If we really understand what VE Day meant, perhaps this anniversary will help us to see how a better, fairer society could emerge once we’re all able to emerge from our quarantine. Perhaps.
With respect and gratitude to all of those who fought and died to defeat Nazism, with deep sorrow to all of those engulfed by the barbarity, those who were murdered, those who survived, those who lost so much.
Let us commemorate, by all means. But most of all, let us learn. Because if we do not learn from this bitter victory, night might fall again.
We’re all experiencing varying degrees of anxiety just now, depending upon our own age and health, or that of the people we love, the people on whom we rely, or who rely on us. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re bombarded with information from sources of unknown reliability, and drip-fed information from our government.
What we do know is that all of us are already affected, our lives have already changed. We’re taking precautions that would have seemed silly a couple of weeks ago, and the things we were talking about so intently a couple of weeks ago (Brexit, the football results, holiday plans) are no longer occupying our minds. We’re scared, we’re frustrated, we are in limbo, we are at a loss.
If we find ourselves spending more time at home, as a precaution or through illness, we’ll need more books. Never mind the bog rolls, load up your Kindle or your bookshelves, because whatever the crisis, books are vital. They keep open a window on to the world, they connect us with other places, other times, other people. They inform, challenge, console, inspire, and distract.
This reading list for plague times will focus on consolation, inspiration and distraction. Sifting through my bookshelves I realise how dark much of my reading matter is. Given current world events, and recent personal loss, I feel a hankering for books that can lift me out of the darkness. So I am sharing some of these with you, in case they can lift you too.
I’m not promising that some of these won’t make you cry, if you’re prone to it. I’m not promising that no one dies, or gets diagnosed with a serious illness. I am confident they will leave you feeling cheerier than when you began, or at least having had a break from the grim.
Clive James – Unreliable Memoirs. When this first came out, I was working in a bookshop. During the lulls between customers, I started reading it, but had to stop because it made me laugh so much, so uncontrollably. NSFW, to be sure.
Keith Richard – Life. I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
Giles Smith – Lost in Music. John Peel said of this book that ‘if you have ever watched a band play or bought a pop record – if you even know someone who has bought one – you should read this book’.
Patti Smith – Just Kids/M Train. I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders. Her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Reading the Detectives
OK, by definition, crime fiction deals in death, often rather nasty death. But in these, what stays with you after reading is not the cruelty or the gore, but the characters, the wit, the dialogue, the humour.
Ben Aaronovich – the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight.
Dorothy L Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh posthumous titles) – Peter Wimsey series. I can re-read the Wimseys any number of times, because the writing, and esp. the dialogue is so glorious. Paton Walsh’s follow-up novels are pitch perfect, so if you want to renew your acquaintance with Peter, Harriet, Bunter and the Dowager Duchess, you’re in luck.
Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes. More great writing and dry humour, so even when you know from the start how it’s all going to pan out, you can enjoy the ride.
Elly Griffiths – Ruth Galloway series. Lots of Gothic darkness in the plots but Ruth is drawn with such warmth and humour that we feel we know her as a personal friend and would happily spend a few hours down the pub with her when this crisis is over.
Lynne Shepherd – Murder at Mansfield Park. Lynne specialises in literary mysteries. They’re pretty dark, but this one is a deliciously subversive take on the Austen.
Alexander McCall Smith – No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Love the setting, love the premise, love Mma Precious Ramotswe.
The further back the better, frankly. One can lose oneself amongst the Plantaganets or the Tudors – not that there are no echoes of our own times (the occasional plague, for example…) but they’re not overwhelming. I haven’t listed the obvious title, the new Hilary Mantel, which is brilliant (I’m halfway through) because you all know about it anyway and are either reading it or about to read it.
Livi Michael – Wars of the Roses trilogy. Michael tells the story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason. This was a swooningly romantic take on the story of Richard III which I adored as a teenager, but it stands up to a re-read by a more cynical adult. Skillfully as well as passionately written. A cut above the Jean Plaidys (which I devoured at the time, but suspect would find less sustaining now).
Anya Seton – Katherine. As above. I read lots of others by her but this was my favourite. I also loved Dragonwyck (pure Gothickry), and for a couple of slices of US history, The Winthrop Woman and My Theodosia.
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…
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Well, reading anything by Atkinson is a joy. Life after Life is one of my favourite books ever but I find it emotionally overwhelming so it’s not a recommendation for now (especially since it has a lot about the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic…) This, her debut, is delicious black comedy.
Anne Tyler – Saint Maybe. Oh, look, just read anything by Anne Tyler. This was my introduction to her work, but I could just as easily suggest Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist...
Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You/Notes on an Exhibition. The most recent Gale, and the first thing I read by him. They don’t shy away from tragedy but the warmth and generosity of the writing always leaves one with a sense of joy and hope. Take Nothing with You talks about music so vividly that somehow I felt I could hear every note as I read.
Roddy Doyle – Barrytown trilogy(The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper). Also, check out his Two Pints (and its sequel, Two More Pints). All of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book. Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’ Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).
There’s a particular comfort to be found in re-reading. You can look forward to favourite bits, brace yourself in advance for the bit that always makes you cry. You don’t have to worry about the plot, because you already know how it all turns out, so you can just savour the pleasures of the writing, the characters, the descriptions, the dialogue. In this category I would put my favourites of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, the Brontes. A lot of people rate Trollope but I could never quite take to him. And Hardy is a bit bleak for these times.
From the early part of the twentieth century, I’d go for:
Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her (I’m now old enough to be her nan).
Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger series. A recent discovery (is it a trilogy or a quartet?) I’ve read the first two in either event, and Hilda Lessways is a fantastic character, she blazes off the page.
John Galsworthy – Forsyte Saga. Family sagas are grand for times when the future is so imponderable, giving one a reassuring sense of continuity. I watched the original dramatisation in the late 60s, with Susan Hampshire & Eric Porter, the one that caused a bit of a kerfuffle because churches found their pews a bit under-occupied on Sunday nights, due to a clash with the BBC1 repeat showing, and some even changed the time of Evensong so their parishioners would not have to face this dilemma. Try telling your kids about the days when most tellies couldn’t get BBC2 and if you missed a programme it stayed missed…
Daphne du Maurier – impossible to pick just one. But if some are over-familiar, browse through her back catalogue, and try The Glassblowers, The House on the Strand, The Parasites – all much less well known but thoroughly good reads.
Revisiting one’s childhood reading is often another source of consolation (depending, I suppose, on one’s childhood). I wrote quite a bit about the most significant books of a childhood spent with my head in books in an earlier blog.
Of course, some may interpret ‘books for the plague times’ entirely differently, and I could easily construct an alternative list composed of books about plagues, and other varieties of apocalypse. However, just now there’s quite enough scary in the rolling Coronavirus updates that I don’t need any more. Books to console, inspire and distract, that’s my prescription.
You’ll have your own. And other people have been sharing their lists on social media, which is wonderful. Writer Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) has compiled hers (there’s a degree of overlap but lots of titles that are new to me and so lots of riches to explore:
These lists are as individual as their compilers. What brings me joy might leave you cold, and vice versa. But I love sharing the books I love. And if you’re reminded to track down something you read ages ago, or encouraged to read an author you haven’t tried before, I’ll be very happy.
Stay connected. Hang on to your hat, hang on to your hope. Be safe, be well, be kind.
Currently reading: Eddie Glaude – Begin Again;Winston Graham – Ross Poldark
Just finished: Sylvia Townsend Warner – Lolly Willowes; Harlan Coben – Win; Susan Hill – A Change of Circumstance; Jo Bloom – Ridley Road; John le Carré – The Tailor of Panama; Nicola Upson – An Expert in Death