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Ordinary People – Holocaust Memorial Day 2023
Posted in Genocide, History, Second World War on January 27, 2023
One of my first posts when I started this blog in 2012 was to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Each year after that – until last year, for reasons which may be obvious from some of my other recent posts – I wrote about some aspect of the Holocaust. Looking back I can see how much research went into those posts, how hard I tried to do justice to a subject which is both impossible and imperative to write about.
I haven’t done that research this year, but the 2023 theme, Ordinary People, is reflected in a number of my past posts. I have often touched on how the complicity, indifference or obliviousness of ordinary people, the collaborators and bystanders, was essential to the achievement of the final solution, as it is to all genocides. But I’ve also talked about, and named, some of the ordinary people who died in such unthinkable numbers, in mass shootings, in gas chambers, through starvation and exhaustion, through disease, and some of those who survived. And there are others too, the ordinary people who did not stand by, who gave a damn when it wasn’t their turn and when it would certainly have been safer to look the other way.
It’s a subject to which I have returned over and over again, in my reading and my watching. It was a major theme in my doctoral research. My very first HMD post tried to explain why I have needed to keep returning, when I have no direct personal connections to those events. But leaving aside my early encounter with a different genocide, I study the Holocaust because it addresses so profoundly and in so many ways what it is to be human, and what being human might mean at its worst and its best.
This year three documentaries have brought new light to bear on those events.
The first, The US and the Holocaust, focuses as the title would suggest on the role of the USA, and the glaring disparity between the Statue of Liberty’s claim to offer refuge to the ‘tempest-tossed’ and its refusal to help the Jews of Europe. Had the immigration quotas been waived, had more visas been offered before war broke out, before the Nazis blocked all means of escape, how many could have been saved? What is clear is that the reason for this obduracy in the face of the known facts was anti-semitism, and the fear of fuelling anti-semitism by allowing an influx of Jews. We followed the efforts of some ordinary families, with relatives already in the US, to get visas, and the fate of those who did not get out in time. This was an exemplary documentary, which made excellent use of archive footage and contemporary interviews, and balanced the institutional with the personal to moving effect.
How the Holocaust Began‘s mission was to show the chaotic and spontaneous beginnings, before the death camps, before the gas chambers. The focus on Auschwitz as the symbol of the Holocaust obscures the fact that millions were already dead before it began operation, in mass shootings at sites such as Babi Yar in Ukraine. It began even before the Einsatzgruppen, the units who had been specifically tasked with clearing the newly invaded territories of Jews and other despised categories of humanity, arrived on the scene. Clearly the local commanders knew that their actions would be approved, and were enthusiastic about what they were doing. The programme also looked at some of the research now being undertaken to identify the sites of mass graves and some of the people who were murdered. (See Wendy Lower’s book, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, for one such project.) Ordinary people lying in those mass graves, and ordinary people who colluded or participated directly in their murder.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening embodies this year’s HMD theme in the most powerful way. It begins with three minutes of amateur film, no soundtrack, no commentary. People milling around in a town, drawn to the man with the film camera, jostling and waving and smiling for posterity. One year before that town was invaded, and its inhabitants rounded up in the square and deported to ghettos and thence to Treblinka. This bit of film was discovered, providentially, just before it would have been lost, either destroyed, or to the process of decay. The documentary shows how the location of the film was identified, Nasielsk, in Poland, and how the testimony of one survivor (Nasielsk’s pre-war population was 7,000, of whom 3,000 were Jews, and of whom only 100 survived) enabled the identification of a handful of the people we see. If we saw this clip without knowing its context, we might wonder what became of them all, but the horror of this is that we do know, they are Jews, and they are in Poland and it is 1938. The film, which we see repeatedly over the course of the programme, gives the 150 people who appear in it just over an hour, from those three minutes. Watching it is a profound experience.
As much as I have read and seen, I still feel that sense of shock. I hope I always will.
Ring out the old, ring in the new
Every week, for the last three and a half years, I’ve posted on Facebook about ‘Good Things’. This isn’t a ‘let’s not talk about the bad stuff’ exercise – it acknowledges, explicitly, that the reason I’m doing it is because there is a lot of bad stuff, globally and personally, and it is thus important sometimes to home in on and hold on to the good that is there, even if that good stuff seems rather small and trivial in comparison to war and climate change and poverty and everything. It’s not ‘always look on the bright side’ so much as ‘always look for the bright moments’. Older readers might think of the 1913 children’s book Pollyanna, whose central character is known for being relentlessly cheery at all times. Whilst this can be rather cloying, and I would refute the notion that there is something good to be found in every situation, the idea that it is healthy to remind oneself that there are good things is a valid one. Which is why I’ve kept those posts going, and why they invariably get likes and comments, and people urging me to continue.
It’s certainly not as if the period during which I’ve been doing this (and there were sporadic efforts before, my ‘reasons to be cheerful’) lent itself particularly to optimism, on any front. The world has been going to hell in a handcart faster than ever, it would seem. And on a personal level, when I posted my first ‘Good Things’ my youngest brother was terminally ill with cancer. He died the following February, just before the pandemic deprived us of so many of the things that might normally bring us comfort in hard times. Then, of course, in October 2021, I lost my husband. He died less than 24 hours after I’d posted that week’s Good Things, and when I re-read it I realised that despite the horror of what had happened, I stood by everything I’d said. Those good things were real and true and not invalidated by the huge Bad Thing that had engulfed us. So I’ve carried on.
It’s hard to find much on the national or global scale to celebrate – at most, some things didn’t turn out quite as badly as we feared (the US mid-terms, notably). Our government was incompetent and corrupt, chaotic and callous, as we’ve come to expect, and the usual people are suffering as a result – don’t be poor, don’t be disabled, don’t be old, don’t be sick, and for heaven’s sake, don’t be a refugee… Conspiracy theories, whether about climate change or vaccines or anything else one can think of, seem to be multiplying and spreading more rapidly each year, not helped by the takeover of Twitter, already an excellent breeding ground, by a leading conspiracy theory enabler and exponent. Ukraine is still suffering under – and fighting back against – the Russian invasion. Women in Afghanistan are shut out of the universities. It is easy to despair.
Of course there are always good people standing up for the vulnerable. The RNLI will carry on risking their members’ lives to save those whose dinghies are capsizing in the Channel. Food banks will continue handing out essentials to families who can’t make ends meet. Individuals and organisations will continue to provide safety nets, to challenge bigotry, to tell the truth and to shame (or at least try to shame) the powerful into using their power for good, and the brave will stand up anyway, in Iran and Afghanistan as in so many other places, whatever the risk.
In my own life, despite the sadness, I’ve had good things.
I got a new knee in February and (after a short but tough period of recovery) that gave me the confidence to be braver and more adventurous than I would have done otherwise. I went to Wembley to the Championship Playoff final, with my son. (The football has actually been a Good Thing in 2022, the first year for decades when I could have said that.) I went to Progfest with my brother in law and to the Tramlines music festival, with my son and with friends. I travelled to Rome, on my own (but was met by my brother, with whom I stayed). I would have done none of those things without the op, I would have been too scared, not only of the pain, but of my knee suddenly refusing to bear my weight, or of falling. That fear nearly paralysed me when he died – I could see myself so easily becoming virtually housebound, dependent entirely on others to get around, and that hasn’t happened.
I have needed more help this year, especially without a car or someone to drive it, and I’ve always found the help that I’ve needed, sometimes by asking very directly for it (anyone taller than me – i.e. most adults – entering the house is likely to be greeted on the doorstep with a request to change a light bulb or lift something down off a high shelf), at other times because some nice young man or woman has seen me struggling with a suitcase or whatever and has offered assistance. I’ve also found someone to help me with the cleaning, someone to help me with the garden, a handyman and a decorator.
I finished the PhD, submitting just over a week before he died, and had my viva in May. I’m very proud of the thesis, and I absolutely could not have done it without his support, in big ways and small – so many times I was writing away, lost in my work, only to realise that he had snuck in, delivered a hot cup of tea or coffee and snuck out again, without breaking my train of thought.
I’ve been to the theatre, to a stunning production of Much Ado, by Ramps on the Moon which used its cast of (mainly) deaf and disabled actors inventively and boldly, and tweaked the text accordingly. Much Ado works or doesn’t depending on Beatrice and Benedick, and here both were outstanding and unforgettable. The Guardian reviewer described Daneka Etchell (who is autistic) as ‘the most compelling Beatrice you might ever see’, and she was responsible for an extraordinary scene, when, in her distress at the injustice being inflicted on Hero, she starts stimming. Both her anguish and Benedick’s tenderness in trying to help calm her were very moving.
We very much enjoyed a performance by Under the Stars, an organisation who we supported with Martyn’s memorial fundraiser, who are an arts and events charity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism, running music and drama workshops and nightclubs. The play was The Many Journeys of Maria Rossini and it used words, music and dance, exuberantly and engagingly, to tell the story. Under the Stars band also performed at Tramlines.
Final theatre outing of the year was to Richard Hawley’s musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which we’d somehow missed when it was first produced at the Crucible in 2019. We loved it. The musical weaves together the stories of some of the inhabitants of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, over five decades, telling those stories through some of Hawley’s songs. The action is beautifully choreographed, the singing is marvellous, and it builds to a very moving climax. Obviously this piece has special relevance and resonance for Sheffielders, but it goes beyond that – every major city has communities like Park Hill.
I’ve done my usual summaries of what I’ve read and watched over the year. As far as listening to music at home goes, I’ve tried to develop my own approach to music nights, which were so much about our shared enjoyment of music that initially I couldn’t see at all how I would do it. Now, I pick a few things over the course of the week, prompted by someone mentioning an artist or a band, by an artist’s death, or some other kind of event, just so that I don’t get paralysed by the vast choice when I look at our CD wall. I listen when I can to the Radio 3 weekend programmes we used to love, to Inside Music, Sound of Cinema, Music Planet, J to Z, Jazz Record Requests, and these also often suggest what I listen to from our collection.
Highlights amongst the music that I’ve heard live this year:
- Beethoven String Quartets plus a piece by Caroline Shaw (‘Entr’acte’), in a Music in the Round concert which I sponsored in Martyn’s memory, at the Crucible in May
- Focus, the highlight of the Progfest in April. Still led by Thijs van Leer, who may not be able to reach all the high notes these days but is still a great performer, and the band (which included Pierre van der Linden, another veteran) was great and of course the music brought back so many memories of listening with Martyn.
- Jazz Sheffield gigs from Laura Jurd, Zoe Rahman and the Espen Ericksen Trio with Andy Shephard, all excellent.
- Tramlines highlights: my old favourite, the Coral, and new favourite, Self Esteem.
- A rare orchestral concert, at a great venue, the Auditorium in Rome: Gershwin, Bernstein and Stravinsky.
Last New Year’s Day was one of the hardest to wake up to in all of the days since he died. Knowing that I was about to start on a year without him, the first year without him since 1973… It was bleak. Perhaps, whilst this NYE/NYD will acknowledge the sadness, it may be easier. I hope it will be less bleak, less raw.
So, allons-y to 2023. I will formally graduate (for the last time, definitely, categorically) on 11 January, and my next project will be to look for a publisher for a version of the thesis. I’ll have chapters published in two forthcoming books, both on W G Sebald. I’ll travel, to see friends in Scotland, to see family in various parts of the country, maybe a city break in Europe. I’ll go to two family weddings. I’ll finish phase 2 of the decorating, maybe even phase 3. I’ll carry on sharing the cultural riches of Sheffield with friends and family.
Without being Pollyanna-ish, I do know how very lucky I am, to be surrounded by people who want to and do help me, emotionally and practically. I am thankful for them, every day.
For you, I wish for health and strength, for peace and comfort, for love and support.
In 2023 I wish, of course, for a world without war, a world where people are not persecuted for their beliefs, or simply for who they are, a world where women can be safe on the streets and in their homes. I wish for action on climate change, before it’s too late. That’s a lot, I know.
But as we go into another new year I think, as always, of this poem, which gives me hope.
2022 Reading: Full-time Report
Posted in History, Literature, Personal, Second World War on December 16, 2022
I’m still not reading as much as I used to. It’s the silence that’s the problem. Lord knows I used to tut sometimes when I was reading and he broke my train of thought with his own train of thought, but Lord knows I would love to have him do that now. So I turn to the TV sometimes when in the past I would have turned to a book, just to break the silence. Nonetheless, I’ve still normally got two or three books on the go – one on the Kindle and a couple of physical books, usually one fiction and one non, and nonetheless it’s still quite an eclectic list. As always, I haven’t listed absolutely everything – I want to share my enthusiasms rather than my disappointments – and as always I have tried to avoid spoilers but make no guarantees. Top reads this half-year? Jan Carson’s The Raptures, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land. From the first half of the year, I’d pick out Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, and Sarah Moss’s The Fell. Since I make the rules for this blog, I shan’t require myself to choose amongst those six titles.
Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
This, and its sequel The Women of Troy (which I have yet to read) tell the familiar story (familiar not only from Homer but from countless retellings – in my case the first encounter was with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans and The Luck of Troy) with the focus shifted to the women. In this one, the central role is that of Briseis, handed over to Achilles, appropriated by Agamemnon and retrieved by Achilles, all as part of the spoils of war. It’s a grim tale, beautifully told.
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Sebald and Bernhard are often linked, and I figured it was about time I gave the latter a go. The choice of book was a foregone conclusion once I discovered that The Loser was about (in part) Glenn Gould, who fascinates me. There are elements of the style that certainly recall Sebald (any influence was from Bernhard on Sebald) – the novel, like Austerlitz, is one unbroken paragraph, and the narrator’s voice constantly makes it explicit that these are his thoughts, and when he was thinking them (‘I thought, as I entered the inn’, ‘I thought in the inn’ , ‘he said, I thought’, etc) which reminded me again of Austerlitz.
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Shuttle
I adored The Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a child (never read Fauntleroy, as far as I can recall) and this adult novel was a delight too. It’s quite Gothic in places, but punctured with humour, and with a hero (Bettina) who shines from the pages. The theme is intermarriage between British aristos (broke, with run-down country estates to maintain) and wealthy American heiresses but it’s also a very perceptive (based on first-hand experience) account of coercive control.
Jan Carson – The Raptures
This is stunning. I had no idea for most of it where it was heading, what the answers to the questions were going to be, and indeed ultimately there were no firm answers. But it grips on every page, its characters live and breathe, even when they’re no longer living and breathing. It’s a supernatural mystery, a who (or what) dunit, an allegory about plague and pandemic, a coming of age narrative, a portrait of a small Protestant Northern Irish community. Never mind all that, just read it.
Ann Cleeves – The Rising Tide
A new Vera! I wasn’t sure Cleeves was still writing Veras. Anyway, very pleased to get this and it’s as enjoyable as ever.
Robert Galbraith – Ink Black Heart
Oh dear. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike books so far, although few of them need to be the length they are. But this one desperately needed an editor to tell her to slash great chunks of the book so that it’s coherent, and particularly to cut back the use of verbatim online conversations (three columns of different conversations, going over several pages) which are incredibly hard to read and to follow. There’s also the issue of the subject matter – online abuse – and its proximity to the author’s life on Twitter and other social media over recent years. I think it’s too close for her to be able to examine that world with any objectivity and the book is a mess.
Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls
I read The Signature of All Things a few years back and loved it. Still haven’t read Eat Love Pray or whatever it’s called, fairly sure that would not be my cup of tea. But she’s a lovely writer – City of Girls is captivating, and very witty, it sparkles like one of those screwball comedies from the era in which the book is set. And then the tone shifts, and whilst it’s every bit as witty it’s also darker and deeper and very moving.
Graham Greene – The Quiet American
I honestly thought I’d read all of Greene, many years ago (he was a favourite of my mum’s). But this one had eluded me and it’s a fine example of his style and of his preoccupations.
Elly Griffiths – Bleeding Heart Yard
This is Griffiths’ third novel featuring detective Harbinder Kaur, now relocated in that London, and it is hugely enjoyable. As always with Griffiths, the characters are drawn with humour and affection (mostly), and with compassion and insight.
Abdulrazak Gurnah – After Lives
Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 but his name had never registered with me. I shall put that right now and read his other books, because this one was excellent. Set in what is now Tanzania, in the early 20th century when the area was a German colony, it sweeps across that century, through the first and second world wars, the shifting boundaries and colonial rulers, but is always centred on the lives of a handful of characters who are battered, in different ways, by these forces. Despite the scale and the horror of what is unfolding, it manages to be, in relation to these people, gentle and subtle and, somehow, hopeful.
Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
I’d read Homegoing a couple of years ago, an epic family history that begins in Kumasi, Ghana, and crosses continents and centuries. The scale in Transcendent Kingdom is much smaller, although it still reaches back to Kumasi, but the central family is contracting rather than expanding (as the narrator says, “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one”. Its concerns are philosophical, scientific even, as the central character is a neuroscientist, her research intimately connected with her family’s tragedy.
Robert Harris – Act of Oblivion
After Cromwell’s death, those who signed King Charles’ death warrant are on the run, and supporters of the new King are determined to track them down. Harris cleverly builds the tension but also gives us insight into both sides, so we as readers have to keep switching our perspective, as we are with first the regicides and then the manhunter, and we see how both are driven by the absolute certainty that they and their cause are absolutely right.
Mick Herron – Live Tigers/Spook Street
The third and fourth of the Slough House novels and they’re as sharp and funny and dark as ever. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and to seeing the dramatisation of the second book – Gary Oldman has a marvellous time as Jackson Lamb, really letting rip, in every sense.
Tayari Jones – The Untelling
Secrets and lies and their toxic effects upon relationships are the theme here, and Jones is perceptive and subtle in her portrayal of Aria(dne) and the small circle of people who matter to her.
Stephen King – Fairy Tale
This resembles his 1984 collaboration with the late Peter Straub, The Talisman, more than it does his most recent spate of novels. That’s deliberate, I’m sure – King often makes references to his other books, sometimes in passing, sometimes to create resonant connections (see his various books set in or around Castle Rock, for example), and there are some nice echoes here. He and Straub had talked about another collaboration, although it had never got off the ground, so maybe we can take this as a tribute. It’s King on top form, in any case.
John le Carré – Silverview
Ah, the last le Carré. Edited by his son, from what was a virtually complete manuscript. It’s not the best le Carré but it’s bloody good le Carré and it has the melancholy and the anger that have characterised his work in later years.
Attica Locke – The Cutting Season
A stand-alone from Locke, after her two excellent short series of crime novels. This is crime that drags one back into the past, the slavery past, and it is tense and gripping stuff.
David Park – A Run in the Park/Travelling in a Strange Land
Beautiful writing. A Run in the Park is the gentler read, although there’s plenty of emotional heft in there. Travelling in a Strange Land goes to dark places but in both books there is always darkness and light, loss and love, grief and hope.
Sara Paretsky – Tunnel Vision
The eighth in Paretsky’s excellent detective series, featuring PI V I Warshawsky battling corporate crime and corruption. I’ve read these in random order as I got hold of them, so at some point I will try and fill in the gaps.
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
My first Patchett – this is compelling and often moving. It’s about a terrorist attack, and the fate of the hostages, but its also about love, beauty and music.
Louise Penny – The Madness of Crowds
Inspector Gamache series, no. 17, the most recent. As with the Paretsky, I’m reading these in a totally random order, so there are references in this one to events which I don’t yet know about, but the main plot stands alone. As always with Penny, there are times when Three Pines seems just too magically cosy but she always undercuts that with the crime and its motivation, which are anything but.
Bapsi Sidwha – The Ice Candy Man
Many years ago I read Sidwha’s debut novel, The Crow Eaters, which I remember loving even if its plot has faded from my memory. The setting is Lahore, once in India, then allocated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. The Ice Candy Man (also published as Cracking India) starts in the period leading up to Partition and confronts the horrors of what happened, through the eyes of a child, who at first has no real notion that the different communities (Sikh, Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian) are potentially a threat to one another. Indeed, her home is a place where people from these communities meet and bicker and insult one another in a largely friendly way, and when violence is predicted insist that they will stand by their friends. We see things through Lenny’s eyes, not all of which she understands, not all of which adults are prepared to explain to her. It’s unflinching, but also often funny and touching.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
I struggle with Zadie Smith and am still trying to work out why. Her characters never quite seem to live and breathe, as if she’s at too much of a distance from them to really bring them to life. This, her debut, didn’t change my view, unfortunately.
Russ Thomas – Nightwalking/Cold Reckoning
Parts 2 and 3 of Thomas’s Sheffield-based trilogy which began with Firewatching. Excellent plotting and interesting, complicated lead characters.
Anne Tyler – Redhead at the Side of the Road
I hadn’t read any Tyler for ages, not since being so disappointed with Vinegar Girl (kind of a take on Taming of the Shrew, but it really didn’t work). But I have read most of her stuff, and I love most of her stuff (top two are Saint Maybe and Breathing Lessons, I think). This one is a lovely variation on ‘a perennial Tyler theme: the decent, mundane, settling-for-less kind of life whose uneasy decorum is suddenly exploded by the random, the uncontrolled, the latent sense of what might have been’, as The Guardian’s reviewer put it.
Molly Bell – Just the one Ice Cream?
I read this account of widowhood, by a family friend, a few years back when it was first published. Reading it again now was a remarkable experience – so many of Molly’s observations are ones that I can relate to – I kept thinking ‘Yes! Yes, that’s it!’. It’s insightful, honest and warm.
Sarah Churchwell – The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe
Having felt rather grubby after watching Blonde I thought this would be a good antidote. It’s the story of the stories of Monroe’s life, of the clichés and stereotypes, the biographies and memoirs and attempts to uncover the ‘real’ Monroe. It’s incisive and rigorous and fascinating. It was published before the film of Blonde came out, but includes Joyce Carol Oates’ novel in her analysis, along with Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and a host of lesser lights whose accounts have been published over the years.
Laura Cumming – On Chapel Sands: My Mother and other Missing Persons
A very intriguing memoir/detective story. Cummings gradually reveals the secrets of her mother’s early life, and at each step shows how she had to reevaluate everything she thought she knew, and her understanding of the people involved. If it were fiction it would be a great read but it gains depth through the knowledge that it is a true story – it’s deeply personal, and terribly sad.
Mike Duncan – The Storm before the Storm
The rise of the Roman Republic, as Duncan tells it, was the beginning of its fall. Fascinating, accessibly written account.
Sebastian Haffner – Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Haffner (real name Raimund Pretzel) wrote this account of Germany in the First World War, the Weimar Republic and during the rise of Nazism, in 1939, after he had emigrated to England. It was only published in 2003, having been left unfinished, as Haffner worked on his less personal account, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, and was collated for publication by his son. It is therefore written without hindsight, at least without the knowledge of what lay inexorably at the end of the Nazi road, and thus its insights are fresh and passionate, exploring how Germans came to choose Hitler.
Sudhir Hazareesingh – Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
Epic is right. An extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life and achievements, which resonate to this day (as I was reminded in the cinema the other day, watching Wakanda Forever…)
Hans Jahner – Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955
An excellent study, exploring many aspects of the post-war period, and taking the story further, beyond the bomb sites and the hunger, to recovery, and division. He draws on a number of memoirs, often from women, which shed light on daily life, on culture and politics, on work and money. It’s rigorous but entertainingly written, often with a wry humour.
Michelle Obama – Becoming
Great stuff – she writes interestingly and engagingly, about her life before she hooked up with Barack as well as showing us his presidency from her perspective and that of the family. I would have liked to hear her account of the years after his presidency ended – maybe another volume will be forthcoming…
My reading this year has taken me out of my own time and place and as always I feel enriched by it, I feel my sympathies have been extended, as George Eliot puts it. I’ve been entertained as well as educated, often at the same time, and I’ve been moved to both laughter (laughing out loud is something I do too little of these days, living alone) and tears (well, no shortage of those, nor any surprise to those who know me, even before recent losses). I am deeply grateful to all of the writers with whom I’ve shared 2022 and who, in their various ways, have helped me through it.
2022 On Screen: Full-time Report
Posted in Film, Television on December 16, 2022
The usual caveats and footnotes. I try to avoid spoilers but you take your chances if you read on. I haven’t listed things I watched that were just a bit rubbish in an uninteresting way. I’m still watching more than I ever used to before he died – the TV brings human voices into my home, which would otherwise be far too quiet much of the time. I do still read a lot too, but the balance between the two has certainly shifted, whether permanently or not it is too early to say. I haven’t included ongoing series which featured in the half-time report, unless there was something significant to add. I’ve noted which of the films I saw at the cinema rather than in my living-room via streaming services, only to mark the gradual return to the cinema over the last year or so, and in recognition of the very different experience that this represents. And I’ve asterisked the best stuff, though to pick a film or TV series of the year would be too difficult, given the range of genres and styles and brows.
All Quiet on the Western Front (cinema)*
Superb remake of the Milestone milestone (and the ‘70s adaptation which seems to be largely forgotten – I haven’t seen it so can’t say whether or not that’s deserved). It is faithful to the book apart from introducing a narrative strand showing the negotiations leading up to the Armistice, which is very powerful, and there is a stunning opening sequence that is both shocking and moving.
This is a fine, beautiful film. I read the WWI poets at school and independently, and I also read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which intersects with the narrative of this film about Siegfried Sassoon. Superb performances, beautiful soundtrack which intersperses the popular songs of Ivor Novello, amongst others, with the music of Butterworth, Britten and Vaughan Williams, very powerful and moving.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (cinema)*
How can they follow up Black Panther, without Chadwick Boseman? By acknowledging his loss in a very powerful way, letting it suffuse the film, not pulling any punches about what grief and loss can do to us. Of course those themes were going to resonate with me even more intensely this year, as the anniversary of my husband’s funeral loomed – but I was so glad that they didn’t do the fantasy/scifi/superhero thing of in some way undoing death, or de-stinging it. Tchalla died as Boseman did, of a regular common or garden mortal ailment which all of the medical brilliance in the world couldn’t fix. And that was right. The rest of the movie – well, it was grand, it packed probably too many ideas in (a common flaw) and not all of them quite worked, but it was visually lovely, and even without Boseman (except for glimpses in flashback) the cast is superb (inc. Nyongo, Bassett, Wright, Gurira).
Don’t. Just don’t. This was a gratuitous and exploitative take on the life of Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe, which gave her no growth and no agency, and the viewer no insight into her intelligence, her wit and her convictions. I read Joyce Carol Oates’ book quite a few years ago and don’t remember feeling like this about it, so perhaps some of the problem is the difference between reading, where I can identify with Norma Jean/Marilyn, and watching, where I am forced into a voyeur’s role. But in any case, just don’t.
Bridge of Spies
Essentially, a Tom Hanks movie about an ordinaryish sort of a bloke who sticks to his guns and does what’s right even when everyone is telling him not to. Excellent, if not groundbreaking. I liked Rylance’s repeated refrain of ‘Would it help?’ when asked whether he is worried or afraid. And his characterisation of Hanks’ character (in this film and so many others) as The Standing Man, a man who gets up again every time he is knocked down.
Highly enjoyable fictionalised account of the Supremes’ rise to fame and Diana Ross’s rise to the lead role, displacing Jennifer Hudson’s Florence Ballard equivalent. The music, inevitably, is pastiche Motown, but very good pastiche Motown, and then there’s Hudson’s blockbuster number, ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’) which blows your socks off.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Dr Strange’s Multiverse of Madness looks relatively sane compared to this. Michelle Yeoh is brilliant (when isn’t she?), as is Jamie Lee Curtis. I had no idea what was going on half the time, some of it was quite gross, a lot of it was very funny and ultimately it was rather poignant. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Eye in the Sky
Very, very tense. And doesn’t shirk the moral murkiness of warfare. Helen Mirren is excellently steely in the lead.
What possessed me to watch this, after spending a weekend with my father, who has dementia? I don’t know. It’s exceptionally good, of course, and the fact that it was, as one gradually realises, from his perspective, not from that of those caring for him, was fascinating and very moving.
An old-fashioned star biopic with added sleaze. Its relationship with the facts of Frances Farmer’s life seems to be tenuous at times, but Jessica Lange is brilliant. Interesting to compare it with Blonde – obviously the life stories of Farmer and Monroe have both similarities and profound differences – but despite the inevitable sense of voyeurism as we see Farmer suffer, she is shown, right until the final act, to have agency, to have some fight in her.
Cynthia Erivo is superb as Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railway. It’s an incredible story, but whilst the film obviously simplifies some things a little, it is faithful to the history, whilst leaving us to decide whether Tubman’s own belief that she is guided and strengthened by God in her work to escort slaves to freedom is right, or whether her ‘visions’ are the result of a head injury in childhood. The soundtrack, by Terence Blanchard who also did the soundtrack to The Woman King, is excellent too, and the film makes use of Erivo’s stunning voice as she uses gospel songs to communicate with the slaves on the plantation.
A Hidden Life*
Franz Katzenkammer’s life may have been hidden but posthumously he was beatified by his Church as a martyr, having been executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler, so he has not been forgotten. And this film is a beautiful and subtle portrait of a man who, as heroes have done in every unjust and brutal regime, simply said no, this isn’t right, I can’t do it. It wasn’t just the refusal to fight for the Nazi regime, because even if he’d been given a medical corps option, that oath of loyalty would still have been required, and he couldn’t do it. It’s a long film and I started off wondering how on earth this fairly simple story could be spun out to three hours plus. But the pacing of the film was just right, and it was essential that we felt the pattern of his life on the farm, the seasons and the harvests, to know what he was risking and why.
I Came By
Well, Hugh Bonneville may not have convinced me as Mountbatten (see below) but he actually was quite convincingly sinister in this thriller, even if the plot was a bit creaky.
The Iron Lady
And another film about dementia. Why do I do this? I watched it not because of that, but out of curiosity to see how Streep played Thatcher, particularly having seen Gillian Anderson (The Crown) and Patricia Hodge (The Falklands Play) in the role recently. Streep is somewhere between the two – her Thatcher is not as odd as Anderson’s, nor as sympathetic as Hodge’s, though the scenes of her confusion are inevitably touching.
Lord, this was long. And turgid. And talky. I may have learned my lesson about Stone – he managed to make 9/11 tedious in World Trade Center and this is only marginally better. I don’t know the conspiracy theories all that well, but it seems from my minimal research that much of what he’s presenting here (via Jim Garrison) is dodgy and effectively discredited. And I can’t see why a judge would allow Garrison to expound on his theories at enormous length without tying it in clearly to the person who was actually on trial. No wonder the jury let him off. Enough already.
A Jazzman’s Blues
A labour of love from director Tyler Perry, this is a classic narrative of racism, escape through music, ‘passing’, so all of the elements are familiar, but it’s well done.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
2022 adaptation, from Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. I haven’t read the book since I was an undergrad (first time around) so I’m not sure how faithfully it follows Lawrence’s plot, but it has the feel of Lawrence, in its combination of earthiness, sensuality and reverence. Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell are well cast and play it with conviction.
The Lives of Others*
Brilliant. Subtle and low-key, the oppressive atmosphere of Stasi surveillance and control is unnerving, and the character of Stasi Captain Gert Wiesler, beautifully portrayed by Ulrich Muhe, is ultimately very moving.
Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton are wonderful as the Loving couple whose marriage broke state laws in Virginia about interracial mixing and who fought this right up to Supreme Court level, and won.
The Man with the Iron Heart
Based on Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, which I read last year, this account of the assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942 starts with the attack, then freeze frames and we return to the young Heydrich himself and follow him through his career before going back to the parachutists and the resistance in Prague. Because it takes this approach, there’s less time to develop the characters of the resistance members but it’s well done, nonetheless. Impossible not to compare with Anthropoid, which came out a year or so after this, and whose focus is on the resistance throughout. My one quibble with this version of events is that, for reasons I do not comprehend, it makes the son of the family who sheltered the parachutists a boy of, at most, 10/11, whereas in reality he was 17. This makes the scenes of his capture and interrogation even worse, of course, but we hardly need to make the Nazis’ crimes more hideous, given that we are about to see the wiping out of the population of Lidice.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Proper unsettling. We have a potentially unreliable narrator in Elisabeth Olsen’s Martha – it’s a while before we get a glimpse of what her life had been before escaping to her sister, and we can’t be sure of everything we see. There’s a sense of threat remaining with her, which could just be the effects of trauma, but we can’t be sure of that either. Olsen is wonderful, and Sarah Paulson manages to get the balance between exasperation and incomprehension, and sympathy. John Hawkes is compelling in an awful way as the cult leader.
Moonage Daydream (cinema)*
This one got a lot of love from those who love Bowie, but also a lot of criticism from people who wanted Brett Morgen to make a different kind of film about Bowie. It was a visual and aural onslaught, sound and vision bombarding us with the music and the changing images of Bowie, interwoven with interview material. The latter is chronological, unlike the music and visuals, so that we get a sense of a man learning about himself, growing up in public, gradually finding a way to be at ease with himself, which was very moving.
I loved Get Out and Us, and I am more ambivalent about Nope. It is more sci fi than horror, so I had to recalibrate a bit, as I was expecting something more like Peele’s first two movies. But I think possibly there are just too many ideas jostling for the audience’s attention here – I want to rewatch it to see if some of that comes more into focus. Performances are excellent, and there are many moments that have stayed with me, but I can’t quite grasp it as a whole.
Fascinating Nigerian crime thriller set in the weeks leading up to independence. It’s not a whodunnit, strictly speaking, since the perp is pretty easily identifiable early on. What we don’t know is why. But even that isn’t where all of the interest lies – that’s in the tensions that exist between the Hausa detective who’s leading the investigation, and the Igbo and Yoruba people who live in the area, along with a handful of supercilious Brits. The bit where one character ‘foresees’ that in seven years there would be civil war is a bit on the nose – by 1966 civil war was gearing up with coups, counter-coups and pogroms, and in ‘67 it was raging – but of course it was all too foreseeable, even if not with that level of precision.
See How they Run
Highly enjoyable, very meta, Christie spoof/hommage, with an excellent odd couple pairing of cops in Sam Rockwell’s weary, boozed up Inspector, and Saoirse Ronan’s bright eyed and idealistic Constable.
Another Pixar gem. Obviously I was going to love the jazz theme, and the score, and I loved the central character (voiced by Jamie Foxx). It’s about what makes us who we are, what is the spark that animates our lives, and it’s very touching.
The anniversary of her death meant lots of Diana-centred TV. This was very good, not a conventional or realistic biopic but a glimpse into the world of someone on the edge, who’s given up on being what her circumstances require her to be. The scenes with her and her children are very touching, and ring true. The Family are kept largely in the background (apart from a couple of scenes with the (then) PoW, played by Poldark’s Evil George, Jack Farthing). It’s interesting to compare with Elizabeth Debicki’s take in The Crown Season 5 – I think Stewart is somewhere between Debicki and Emma Corrin’s earlier version of Diana).
Thor: Love & Thunder (cinema)
Tonally all over the place – the humour is pretty broad (the goats), but the scenes with the captured children are genuinely tense and scary, and the ending packs some emotional power. Thoroughly enjoyable.
This would have passed me by entirely as I’m neither a Burt Lancaster fan, particularly, nor interested in trains, at all. However, someone on Twitter mentioned it and I am glad they did, as it confounded all of my expectations. I envisaged a straightforward early 60s action movie (Alistair MacLean, that sort of thing), but whilst there is plenty of action, there are also moral dilemmas – do we risk lives to save artworks from being removed to Germany before the Allies reach Paris? – and the tension of waiting for the Allies to arrive and how that affects the actions of the Resistance, is powerfully present (reminded me of Is Paris Burning?). Lancaster apparently learned some of the skills of a railway engineer and you can almost smell the sweat and the engine oil. Absolutely gripping, and avoids the typical war movie clichés.
Trees of Peace
A very different treatment of the Rwandan genocide. We see only what can be seen from the hiding place under the kitchen of a Hutu home, by the four women sheltered there – through a small window, which they dare not look out of for long, and through the trap door when the husband periodically brings them food supplies. It’s extremely claustrophobic, and the horror outside is powerfully conveyed through sound – gunfire, shouting, weeping, screaming. It’s a tribute to the Rwandan women who led much of the reconciliation and justice initiatives after the genocide was over.
A United Kingdom
Excellent portrayal of the marriage between the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and an English girl, which had huge political ramifications. Oyelowo and Pike are very convincing, and Pike does a lovely job of showing her uncertainty as to how to behave when she first arrives in her new ‘kingdom’.
Partition, a theme in this year’s watching and reading, due to the anniversary, here from the perspective of Mountbatten and his wife, arriving as the last Viceroy, and overseeing the process that carved up India and left whole populations on the wrong side of new borders, with horrific consequences. We see the violence, the queues of refugees, but also the ludicrous carving up of the Viceroy’s library (does Pakistan get Jane Austen, or the Brontes?) and the silverware (divvied up proportionally according to population size). I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. But the biggest problem with the film is the Romeo & Juliet romance across the divide, which seemed manufactured, and the happy ending was both predictable and entirely improbable. It was, perhaps, a missed opportunity given that the director’s grandmother survived (barely) the events of Partition, and her real story might have been more compelling for being less romantic.
Who You Think I Am
Juliette Binoche (excellent) in a very twisty tale of false identity and internet romance. It took me a while to put the pieces together, and I’m still not sure they all fitted, but it was compelling and entertaining.
The Woman King (cinema)*
Women warriors in 18th century Dahomey (now Benin)? Sounds like my kind of movie, and indeed it was. Viola Davis was brilliant, as was Thuso Mbedu as the young recruit to her army. The film doesn’t dodge the tricky questions about slavery and about the treatment of women (even in a society which has an army of powerful women). It was filmed in South Africa but the scenes along the coast reminded me powerfully of my childhood visits to Cape Coast, where we visited the castle and its Door of No Return, from which the captured slaves were loaded onto the ships.
The Young Victoria
Enjoyable, but not massively enlightening. Emily Blunt is excellent, of course, and her Vic is pretty feisty, and the relationship with Albert is charming. It resonated often with the early series of The Crown, where Claire Foy’s Elizabeth is discovering that whilst she may be a monarch she can’t actually change anything.
AIDS: The Unheard Tapes
Recorded interviews with people with AIDS, some who made it, some who didn’t. Honest and direct, these interviews take us through from the first early warnings of an epidemic to the miracle of a treatment that actually worked. All of the interviews are voiced by actors so the viewer does not know, until the final episode, who died and who survived, and that realisation – in both cases – is incredibly moving.
Prequel to Rogue One, one of my favourite latter-day Star Wars films. It takes a while to get going but once it does, it’s phenomenal. I enjoyed Mando, but this is stronger and darker, and – once it builds up the momentum – totally compelling.
Fascinating series – here the personal is political and vice versa, as we accompany Birgitte Nyborg Christensen on her rise to power. She’s a sympathetic character, but we see her flaws, we see how she’s prepared to manipulate people (even her own family), and how ruthless she can be, whilst being fundamentally a good person. It’s intelligently done and I now understand an awful lot more about Danish politics than I ever expected to.
Call my Agent
The French original, not the remake. Very funny, often wildly OTT, with highly enjoyable turns from some of the top stars of French cinema (Binoche, Huppert, Reno and many more), sending themselves up something rotten.
Even more than Series 1, this second series is likely to induce a degree of paranoia in any of us. Can we trust anything we see or hear? Apparently not. I have no idea how plausible it all is, but no matter, it was gripping and kept on wrongfooting me.
This got a critical hammering from some reviewers, but I enjoyed it – it was very tense, the lead character (Keeley Hawes, brilliant as always) was not entirely likeable (she does that very well too – see Line of Duty and It’s a Sin), but we end up rooting for her anyway, as the hotel she and her family and friends are staying in is attacked by armed men (terrorists? We don’t know who or why at first). Written by Louise Doughty, one of my favourite contemporary writers (and very versatile – best known for Apple Tree Yard, but her finest book (IMHO) is Fires in the Dark about the Roma Holocaust), which is why I decided to watch even after some rather snarky reviews, and I’m glad I did.
Marvel noir. We’d watched Series 1 a couple of years back but for some reason hadn’t continued with it. Series 2 was strongest when focusing on the Punisher rather than on Electra, I think, but Series 3 was the strongest, with the return of Kingpin. Daredevil himself is a bit broody (OK, he’s given plenty of reasons to brood, but it can be wearing – which is why his appearance in She Hulk was such a delight). Very enjoyable.
This is a remarkable documentary, about the recovery of the slave ship Clotilda, which brought slaves to Alabama after the abolition of the trade, and which was then sunk to avoid prosecution. There’s a community there who are directly descended from the Africans who were on that ship. Not only that, but Zora Neale Hurston made a film about that community, featuring the last of those Africans, Cudjo Lewis. Seeing him on screen gave me goosebumps. The descendants have had conflicted emotions about the raising of the ship, fearing that their history would be appropriated for tourism and profit by, in some cases, the descendants of the very people who had kidnapped and enslaved their own ancestors, and those who had encouraged the liberalisation of rules about heavy industry in the area, resulting in cancer clusters amongst the Africatown people. But they have allies who are determined to ensure that their history remains their history.
The last time the Doctor is Jodie Whitaker. The season finale was typical of the Chibnall era, loads of stuff happening, impossible (at least on a single watching) to keep track of all the threads, but things come together very nicely at the end. Her final words included a nod to Dennis Potter’s extraordinary interview with Melvyn Bragg after he knew he was terminally ill – ‘the blossomest blossom’ – which was very moving (that interview has stayed with me ever since we watched when it was first broadcast, as a beautiful musing on mortality). There’s a lot in this finale for the Whovians, which is fine by me, especially as we’re coming up to the show’s 60th anniversary – it was rather lovely to see Docs 5, 6, 7 and 8, and 1 as portrayed by David Bradley, and to see Ace and Tegan back in the fray. And the Doctor’s companions’ support group was a delightful idea – I would have liked to listen in on a lot more of that. I’ve loved Whitaker’s Doctor, even if not all of the stories have been quite as strong as the best of RTD and Moffat, and she’s opened the door for future Doctors to be anything they damn well please. Lots to look forward to in 2023.
The landscapes are stunning, the pace is varied, sometimes dreamily slow, sometimes all crackle and fire and violence. Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer are both excellent and make a compelling duo. It’s hard to write about, but it’s exceptional TV and I will rewatch it soon, to appreciate its subtleties and its beauty.
Rev. Richard Coles exploring ways of working through bereavement (laughter yoga, skydiving, animal therapy, widows’ retreat). As always, his engaging, reflective, self-deprecating style was just right for the topic, and whilst it did, inevitably, make me cry a fair bit, it also made me think a lot about the process I’m going through, and how I can understand it better. Thanks, Rev.
The Good Nazi
A Nazi who saved Jews in Vilnius by employing and housing them, and who enabled at least some of them to find hiding places when the SS decided to eradicate them. I would have been interested to know a lot more about Plagge – why did someone who was a very early member of the Nazi party and rose through the ranks, suddenly become so appalled by what they were doing that he decided to risk his life to undermine it? But a lot of the programme was about the archaeological investigation in the housing blocks where the Jewish workers were living, and the search for evidence of the spaces where they hid during the last days before the Red Army arrived, and this was fascinating in itself.
I couldn’t bring myself to watch this when it was first broadcast, too close to the events. I’d found the news footage from care homes particularly heartbreaking, with elderly residents unable to understand why their family members couldn’t come in to see them. The drama focuses right down on one care home, and within that one care worker (Jodie Comer) and one resident (Stephen Graham, playing a 47 year old with early onset Alzheimers). Given those two in the cast, it was always going to be powerful (and the other actors included Ian Hart, Sheila Johnston and Cathy Tyson, so the quality throughout was high). The central part, where Comer’s Sarah finds herself managing alone through a night shift with a resident dying of Covid is shot in a long take so we see her rushing from one place to another, from the phone to the critically ill resident and back again, trying to manage, trying to get help, and weeping as she does so, and it’s a stunning piece of film making. The third act didn’t convince me (or the Guardian reviewer) but up to that point it was a triumph and if you didn’t feel angry as well as heartbroken by the end you probably don’t have a soul.
A gender switched version of Nick Hornby’s book, which was filmed with John Cusack in the lead role, here taken by Zoe Kravitz. I’m so up for that – when I read the book, I felt some affinity with the lead character despite him being a bit of a dick, mainly because of his obsessiveness about music, and making lists of songs, all of which I could identify with. I gather there will only be this one series which is a shame, but it was very enjoyable, and Kravitz is very engaging.
India 1947: Partition in Colour
Partition again – a documentary series using contemporary footage as well as talking heads. Very well constructed, lucid explanations, passionately expressed, of what happened and why.
David Tennant, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Moffat – what more could one wish for? If one wished for an entirely plausible plot one would be disappointed. However, the way it works is to create a sequence of chance events that set in motion an inexorable series of desperate and disastrous decisions that build and twist towards a desperate and disastrous outcome, all overseen, bizarrely, by Tucci’s criminologist/death row prisoner. To say more than that would risk spoilers – if you’re prepared to suspend your credulity and just enjoy the ride, as I did, go for it.
Is That Black Enough for You?
In-depth account of black Hollywood – actors, directors, producers – from the 30s to the late 70s. Fascinating stuff, though the narration is sometimes a little dry, and I would have liked it to take the story a few decades further – maybe a Part 2? The big names are here (interviewees include Belafonte, Fishburne and Samuel L Jackson) but so are many, both behind and in front of the camera, of whom I had never, or barely, heard.
This, like Daredevil, is noir, very noir. And it twists the beguiling charm of David Tennant into something terrifying and horrific, for which I may never forgive them…
Jewel in the Crown
I wondered how this series, which had a huge impact on me when first broadcast (1984) would stand up. I need not have worried – it is superb throughout. The cast is outstanding and the narrative tension is so intense – I re-watched it around the time of the anniversary of Partition so it had an added, very powerful resonance (Paul Scott’s novels were where I first learned about Partition). The final episode, the scene with the train, is imprinted so firmly in my memory after all these years that I could have said, with Ahmed, ‘It seems to be me they want’, as he stepped out of the carriage. And other moments too: Daphne Manners, saying ‘Steady the buffs’ as she walks into the darkness of the Bibaghar Gardens, or the way she lifts her chin defiantly and resolutely when she says of Hari Kumar, ‘Oh, he’s just a boy who went to Chillingborough’.
Superlative detective drama from Val McDermid. Pirie is a fine creation, entirely believable and likeable, and the writing and plotting were of a very high standard.
The Lazarus Project*
This is a cracker of a thriller, by the writer of Giri Haji, the best thriller series of 2021. That didn’t get a second series, but I am very much hoping this one will. Great cast, fascinating premiss, and the idea of a timeloop (I do love a timeloop) is explored rigorously and pitilessly.
The Long Call
An Ann Cleeves adaptation that is neither Vera nor Shetland – as always, well plotted and an interesting setting (in an extreme fundamentalist community). The lead detective could have been given a bit more character but if there are future series he might well grow on me.
This probably shouldn’t have been done, but as it was, and as I watched it, I have to say it was done well. There was nothing voyeuristic here as far as the murders were concerned, and the portrayal of Maxine Carr was ambiguous – she is shown as clearly being in a coercive relationship but she’s far from being a mere victim, much more complicated than that.
Our Friends in the North
Another trip to the archives for this series, notable for the stellar careers it launched (Eccleston, Craig, McKee and Strong). It’s a gritty take on politics and social change from the ’60s to just before the Tories lost power in 1997. Some things don’t wear too well – the sex scenes were excruciating, and the amount of nudity required of the female characters was annoying. But it had a lot of heart, and a lot of anger, and great performances (aside from the four already mentioned, Peter Vaughan was particularly brilliant).
Passport to Freedom
Gripping Brazilian series about the staff at the consulate in Hamburg who managed to get visas for hundreds of Jews, until the point when Brazil entered the War on the Allies’ side. I had never heard of Aracy de Carvalho but she has been recognised as one of the Righteous among the Nations. I assume some of the peripheral characters and events may have been invented or enhanced for dramatic purposes, but it the core of the narrative was soundly researched, and it was all very well done.
We were late coming to this delightful party, but fell hopelessly in love with all five of the Queer Eye guys. They’re funny, warm and utterly charming, and spending time in their company is most therapeutic.
Rings of Power
This looks absolutely stunning – it takes a while to build and seems quite slow at first, but it’s setting up a world, and this pays off as the series progresses. Morfydd Clark is excellent as Galadriel.
The Roads to Freedom
Another archive treasure, this is an adaptation from 1971 of Sartre’s trilogy, set in the period just before the Nazi invasion and the fall of the French army. Would anyone make something like this now? Not a lot happens, at least until the final episode, the ‘action’ is all in Matthieu’s head (Michael Bryant, superb, playing Sartre’s representative in the novels) as he constantly questions his own motivations and desires, the nature of freedom, and so on. I loved it.
The frankness is slightly startling at first, but one quickly gets used to it, because the tone overall is really very sweet and funny. The setting is odd – the school is straight out of Sunnydale, and it appears to be set in open countryside, which makes one wonder about its catchment area – but that gives it perhaps more universality than if we’d been able to locate it somewhere recognisable. The performances are delightful.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
Firstly, it’s always brilliant to see Tatiana Maslany, who pulled off a real acting coup in Orphan Black by playing multiple clones so cleverly that I more than once had to stop myself looking them up on IMdB. Secondly, it’s funny, and feminist. Thirdly, Daredevil shows up, and Tim Roth having enormous fun as Emil Blonsky.
This documentary on Sidney Poitier is fascinating and moving. I had no idea about his early life, about how he got into acting, and it made me admire and respect him even more than I did already. For anyone interested in the civil rights movement, and in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, this is a must-watch.
Strange New Worlds*
I enjoyed this unequivocally (in comparison to Star Trek Discovery, about which I have longstanding reservations). Anson Mount as Captain Pike is great, and I love Spock and Uhura, but all of the lead characters have a bit more spikiness to them than their Discovery opposite numbers. Some great storylines here, a nice balance of peril and humour.
Aidan Turner in a rather impressive beard portrays a very clever man who behaves like an idiot when he realises he’s potentially compromised in a murder investigation. It’s all very gripping and enjoyable but I didn’t really believe a word of it.
This series really couldn’t decide what it was trying to do and the various elements clash horribly. There’s no need for reconstructions of the events that we all saw on the screen only a couple of years ago – it’s much more interesting, even if highly speculative, to go behind the scenes and see the private interplay between Johnson and Cummings and so forth. And these scenes are intercut with sequences in care homes and IC wards, which are relentless and powerful, genuinely hard to watch (much as the daily updates from London hospitals were at the time), which makes the indulgence of watching Boris and Carrie, or the daft dream sequences as Boris succumbs to fever, seem really quite crass. There could be several films to be made here, perhaps when a bit more time has elapsed.
Solid Nordic noir, based in the Faro Islands, and taking in police corruption, anti-whaling activism and murder.
The Undeclared War
This is in similar territory to The Capture but works rather less well, due to some dodgy plotting. What was great was the imaginative way of showing the process of cyber detective work in literal terms, rather than just endless sequences of people sitting in front of computers and pressing keys.
Documentary series about the still unsolved disappearance in 1983 of Emanuela Orlandi, who lived within the Vatican itself. The investigation takes in the attempted murder of the Pope, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the Mafia and corruption within the Vatican. It’s compelling material, even if the programme suffers from documentary disease – repetition, gimmicky camera work and an ever-present soundtrack – as if the makers lack confidence in the story they’re telling (or have rashly committed to more episodes than the material can really sustain).
Stephen Graham again, this time in the true story of Matthew Collins, the former far-right activist who now works for Hope Not Hate, and who linked up with a member of National Action who was scared and alienated by their murderous plans. What it does terrifically well is to refuse to show Robbie, the ‘walk-in’, as a reformed character, as having had the kind of Damascene conversion that Collins had. He’s still a racist, just maybe not as much of one, and not one who can contemplate the murder of an MP.
The Walking Dead
The final season. Although the many loose ends will, we assume, be picked up in one or more spin-off series – I’ll wait and see whether those look tantalising enough to watch. The final episode itself would have been better split into two, one feature length, and then a shorter coda. As it was, some of the – very gripping – action seemed compressed, with unexplained jumps in time which made some of the escapes from apparently certain death seem ridiculously easy, and one therefore resented the drawn-out reunions and farewells which had strong Return of the King vibes. But there were some brilliant sequences and not all of our guys made it (though rather more of them than we might have expected at the start, at least if we hadn’t been watching this series for as many years as we have). Overall, I’ve loved TWD, even with the Saviour-shaped slump in the middle. Along the way there have been many episodes watched from the very edge of the sofa, many great characters, many stunning set pieces, and some really inventive direction. And a lot of gore.
Norwegian noir, Seasons 2 and 3. Good, solid crime drama that brings together the worlds of policing and investigative journalism through the lead cop, Wisting, and his daughter Line.
One Year and One Day
Posted in Personal on November 25, 2022
Lissa Evans’ lovely novel, Spencer’s List, talks about how grief moves into a different phase one year and a day after the death. That until that point, every day one thinks, ‘this time last year’, and recalls a world in which that person is there, in which one can reach out and speak to them, hear their voice, hold their hand. And one year and one day later, ‘this time last year’ recalls a world that they have already left. It doesn’t mean it gets easier – that realisation in itself is painful – but it is different. And it goes on becoming different, as we are different, each time we lose someone close.https://cathannabel.blog/2020/05/29/some-fantastic-place-2/
A couple of years back when I wrote the above, I was talking about the loss of my mother and my youngest brother. I had no idea then what I would soon face, or how it would affect me. But there’s truth in that idea, that one year and one day is a staging post in the weird, convoluted journey of grief.
It’s not only that you’ve accumulated a whole year of memories of the world without them in it. You have got through the practical stuff, by and large – you’ve dealt with the bereavement admin, maybe tidied their clothes away or donated things to charity shops, figured out how to do the stuff around the house that they always dealt with (or figured out who to ask for help). You’ve got through the ‘firsts’ – first birthday, first Father’s Day, first Christmas, first wedding anniversary without them, and the new anniversaries, of the day they died, of the funeral.
And then you realise, this is it now. Which is why, I think, many people have said that the second year is tougher than the first.
During that first year, it often felt a bit as if I was part of an experiment in solo living. A friend, Molly Bell, in her warm and insightful book on living alone after her husband died, likens it to ‘those TV series, where a willing group of people are made to live as though they existed at a different point in history … for a year, perhaps, … before returning to life as it was before’. But there is no returning.
The things I’ve learned to do for the first time on my own now seem normal. Cooking a meal for one and eating it alone now seems normal. Going to sleep and waking up on my own, coming home after an evening out to an empty house, deciding on my own what and when to eat, what to watch or listen to – all normal. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when it seems ridiculous, impossible, that I’m on my own, when I still think, even after all this time, where the heck has he got to?)
Some of this is kind of OK. I can do the cooking and eating alone thing, as long as every now and again I have a meal out with friends or family, or I can cook a meal for them. It’s OK, but it’s harder to find the motivation to tackle a meal with a lot of ingredients and a lot of prep time, when it’s just for me. I go to concerts on my own, if friends aren’t free to go with me, and it’s OK. I go for walks on my own, although I am much more cautious about going off-road, if there isn’t someone with me whose arm I can grab if I wobble, and just because I generally feel more vulnerable.
Other things are much less OK. It’s quite possible to go for days without speaking out loud (other than when doing my Duolingo sessions), or hearing another person’s voice (other than via the TV or radio) in the room. It’s quite possible to go for days without laughing out loud. We were always talking – mostly nonsense, trivia or simple practical discussions, but also about what we were reading, what was going on in the news, what was going on in the lives of the people we loved. And we did laugh together, a lot. It feels odd to laugh at something when I’m sitting on my own.
I spend as much time as I can with family and friends, but at the end of the meal or the cinema trip I come home to an empty house. I am used to it – though there are odd times when it hits me all over again as if it was the first time – but I don’t suppose I will ever like it. I think it’s the starkness of the contrasts that makes it hardest, between being with other people and being completely alone. For over 44 years I was only alone at home for a few hours in a day, if that. The norm was that companionable presence, no need to talk, but he was there, and either of us could share our thoughts with the other whenever we wished. And so when I’ve been out, or the house has been full of voices and laughter, and then it’s just me and there’s silence, that abrupt, brutal contrast sometimes lays me very low. And so no matter how many more outings or visits I arrange, how much of my time I spend with other people, at home or away, at the end of that I will still feel that aloneness.
Loneliness is now normal. Sadness is normal too. It’s not a mood so much as a presence. I’m not talking about being wracked with grief, though that happens sometimes too – just about that sense of having lost, of being less, of an absence that will still be palpable in every room in the house, in every activity outside the house, whatever I do.
Those things can’t be fixed. I’m not asking anyone to suggest how I could fix them, or asking anyone to do more than they’re already doing to support me. I have to work through this process – and writing about it is part of how I do that – and believe that I will over time get a better balance, feel less bleak less often.
My experience of widowhood is, obviously, very much mine, and will not follow the same pattern as anyone else’s (if any of us are following any discernible pattern). The ‘one year’ thing is very different if the year leading up to the loss of your person was spent watching them weaken, anticipating their loss, nursing them, trying to support your children through that gradual bereavement in advance. My year up to 9 October was entirely, utterly normal. With hindsight there are events – occasions when we spent time with family or friends, for the first time since Covid – that have gained significance because they were both the first and the last time, but then, they were just lovely occasions, that we expected would and could be repeated in the years to come.
Whatever differences there are in the way we – widows – lost our person, what we share is that the person we lost is the one with whom our lives were inextricably entwined, so that there is nothing that has nothing to do with them. So the loss is inescapable. Because we share that, we can help each other. I’ve found immense comfort and strength in talking to other widows (in person or online) – not that they have answers for me, but to have someone say, yes, I know, I know what that’s like, I feel it too, and to understand that isn’t an imaginative leap on their part, but real, deep, lived knowledge.
So what has helped me through this year and a bit? Obviously, love. The love of my children, as we support each other. The love of my family and friends, which has been steadfast and sustaining. Letting myself feel what I feel – not berating myself for having weepy days, not feeling bad for not weeping as much as I ‘should’. Being practical – getting things done, getting things fixed, making plans, reminding myself that I have a future, even if it’s not the one I envisaged. Enjoying – on my own or with other people – things we used to enjoy together: music, films, TV, books, the view from our windows, local walks, good food and wine. Talking about him, reminiscing about him, never shutting him out of the life I have now. Being sentimental – the yellow roses to remind me of our wedding day, the patchwork cushions made from his old shirts, the playlist I made for the wake, wearing his old dressing gown, dedicating a track to him on Jazz Record Requests.
There is no road map, no itinerary, no timetable for any of this. I can be fine, and then ambushed by grief. I can be strong and practical and able to cope, and then whimpering in a corner because the central heating thermostat needs new batteries. I can be adventurous and bold and then want to just be here, in our home, with the familiar things that we shared around me.
And so I go on into that difficult second year, trying to be kind to myself, holding on to the many, many good things in my life, holding on to the people who’ve got me through this far. Allons-y.
Hope, and the people who give it to you
Posted in Football on October 9, 2022
Guest blog by Arthur Annabel
Bottom of the league after eight games. Five straight defeats. Baffling tactical decisions. Ripe circumstances for fan unrest and anger, directed at the person who has to face up to the myriad of factors that dictate the success or failure of a football club. 99 times out of a hundred, if not more, the fans would be calling for the manager’s head.
Add in that the most recent of those defeats was a 4-0 battering away from home at the hands of a local rival and you’re bordering on grounds for insurrection if they’re not sacked.
But there’s a piece missing from this story.
It’s a piece that explains why, while 4-0 down in that game, the dominant noise from the crowd was the away fans singing the managers name, over and over again. It’s a piece that explains why when news started to break over the following 24 hours that his job was on the line, that there were potential replacements being lined up, that change was on the horizon, the dominant reaction online was a fan campaign to make it clear that whatever else might need changing, the name on the manager’s door should stay the same.
A week of briefings and counter briefings, of Twitter ‘In The Knows’ stating with certainty the latest updates and seemingly a vast majority of fans dreading the official statement and the solemn corner flag of doom that would mean they were gone.
Then, out of the blue, midway through Friday morning it was confirmed that Steve Cooper had signed a new contract committing him to Nottingham Forest until 2025.
I’ll be honest and admit I found myself surprisingly emotional at the news. Now part of that is inevitably the time of the year and the coincidental interweaving of last season’s triumph with personal grief (see my previous blog post for a more personal take on what last year meant – https://cathannabel.blog/2022/06/05/right-when-i-needed-them/), but I don’t think that’s all, or even most, of the story here. If it was, I’d have been a lone voice projecting my need for meaning on to an otherwise disinterested fan base.
But I wasn’t alone. The announcement was met with near universal praise and emotion. How often can a manager being offered a new contract after a run of results like this have been greeted with such enthusiasm?
To understand it I think you have to understand where we were as a club before Cooper walked through the door.
Bottom of the Championship, sure, 8 games without a win, sure, managed by the undoubtedly very nice Chris Hughton who delivered some of the most dire football I’ve ever watched amongst stiff competition, sure.
But it wasn’t just how the past month or so had gone.
It was the past 23 years.
For many fans like me, their entire time supporting the club.
There’d been four managers in that time who’d delivered anything resembling success. Hart, who built a team of academy kids into a free-flowing side that came close but fell short and was sold off to the highest bidder. Calderwood, who grafted to get us out of League One, culminating in a glorious last day of the season against Yeovil. Davies (first time round specifically), who delivered play off campaigns two years in a row but couldn’t get us to a final and more importantly couldn’t avoid his ego derailing everything, but it is what it is. Then Lamouchi, who built up hope then saw it collapse in farcical fashion as we missed out on the play offs when it genuinely seemed impossible to do so.
Those four cover barely a third of the 23 years and all ended in calamity and depression.
We’d seen a whole range of approaches over the years but in the end the conclusion to be drawn was the same. Don’t ever get your hopes up because Forest will make you pay for such naivety.
We’d become a joke of a club. The only time national media paid attention to us was to mark how far we’d fallen.
Older fans could potentially cling to past successes (though I suspect the disparity between what was and what is brought its own pain), but for any fan born after around 1985 true pride and joy in Forest was at best a childhood memory and for most of us, fleeting moments enjoyed almost despite rather than because of the club.
We’d learned not to truly hope. We’d learned that whatever we’d once been as a club, we were now a Championship team at best. We’d learned that whoever took over that particular poisoned chalice would be out the door before we could form a solid bond (though we tried, Lamouchi, J’adore).
Then Cooper arrived and gradually, really quite subtly, started to rehabilitate us.
In the immediate aftermath of the play off final our captain Joe Worrall used the analogy of a beaten dog finally shown kindness. He was talking about the players but it applied to the fans too. Cautiously, always waiting for the rug to be pulled and the pain to return, we started to believe that the joy we’d seen so many other teams enjoy could really be ours.
And that sense of hope built. One of my most abiding memories of last season was how the atmosphere ramped up almost exponentially, how Mull of Kintyre was belted out each week with that little bit more passion, how “Nottingham Forest are magic, on and off the pitch” moved from being an occasional away day place holder to a loud and proud declaration by the whole city ground. how those opening few bars of Depeche Mode signalled that we were one step closer to a dream we’d started to believe would never come true.
His low drama interviews, full of self-deprecation and appreciation of the people around him, his fist bumps to each stand after one more win, his ability to make the team recover from occasional setbacks with statement wins. It created a bond I’ve never known between the fans and the manager. Previous generations had Clough, and to an extent Clark, but my generation of fans never knew what it was to truly love a manger.
Not because we believe we’ll only see triumph with them, not because we think they’ve solved all our problems, not because we believe we’re entitled to anything.
No, we love Steve Cooper because he gave us permission to hope again. He provided therapy to a fanbase as he guided us to promotion. He delivered something that so many had failed to and in doing so expanded the fan base’s view of what was possible.
There’s a lot of fans saying that they’d rather go down this season with Cooper in charge and try again than change manager and I’m in that group, but even if this all ends in tears and P45s long before that, the reaction to the news of his contract shows something. It shows that in the seemingly every increasingly brutal world of club management, where there’s no margin for error, that it’s still possible for managers to form a bond that transcends short term results.
Whatever happens over the next few weeks or months, however Cooper’s story ends with Forest, he will always be the man who made us hope again, who offered us something to believe in and that’s not a debt Forest fans take lightly.
2022 Reading – Half-Time Report
Posted in Literature, Personal on June 30, 2022
I’ve read a lot less so far this year than in the first half of 2021 – half as many books, in fact – despite the fact that back then I was intensively working on my PhD thesis, trying to finish and submit it by the end of the summer (spoiler – I did, and was awarded the doctorate in May 2022). My ability to concentrate, and to sleep well enough at night not to fall asleep over a book in the daytime, is still impaired following the loss of my husband, but for several months of this year was also limited by the painful aftermath of knee surgery. However, I did read (and the flip side of the surgery recovery was relative inactivity), and it’s a reasonably eclectic selection. As always, I try to avoid spoilers, but you takes your chances if you read on. And, as always, I have missed one or two books out that really weren’t worth drawing anyone’s attention to. I haven’t picked out a winner from this half-year’s crop, but I have starred those books which had the greatest impact on me and which I’m most eager to share.
Ben Aaronovitch – Amongst Our Weapons
The latest in the funny, engaging and often rather magical (yes, it’s about magic, but there are so many moments that achieve that, rather than just describing it) Rivers of London series. The interface between ‘the weird stuff’ and regular policing never fails to entertain (e.g. the senior copper who won’t take any lip from witnesses, whatever they say they’re the god of).
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Very, very unsettling. Especially when, whilst I was reading it, on holiday with friends, we had an episode when none of us could get internet on our phones, and there was this weird looking cloud up ahead… Can say no more without spoilers but it’s excellent and unnerving.
J L Carr – A Month in the Country*
This is beautiful. A tender gem of a book. There’s joy here, something almost magical in the uncovering of the long-hidden mural, which mirrors the gradual revelations about some of the characters, but there’s such deep sadness too. Remarkable.
Sinead Crowley – Can Anybody Help Me?
A decent thriller, with an interesting setting, in the world of ‘mumsnet’ type fora, where people seek reassurance and online friendship via online identities, but end up giving away more about themselves than they intend.
Will Dean – Black River
Third outing for Dean’s deaf female detective, Tuva Moodyson. It’s a dark and gripping tale, the lead character is fascinating and I will certainly find the first two in the series and then read on.
Maurizio de Giovanni – The Bastards of Pizzofalcone
Hard-boiled Naples-set Italian crime. The series has been compared to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which we read voraciously for years (it may still be going on, I’m not sure, with Steve Carella et al mysteriously un-aged). There’s an earlier novel, The Crocodile, which I haven’t read, but must do so.
Bernardine Evaristo – Mr Loverman
This is lovely – we see our hero through his own eyes and through those of other people close to him, and he isn’t who he initially seems to be. There is warmth and humour and real sadness, and one ends up kind of rooting for all of the characters, even when they’re most at odds with each other.
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop*
Low-key and heartbreaking, and beautifully written. The initial reviews when this appeared in 1979 were screechingly condescending – ‘a harmless, conventional little anecdote’, according to The Times – but there have been more discerning readers since. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple – it may appear gentle but it’s razor sharp.
Alan Garner – Treaclewalker*
Every Alan Garner book brings with it echoes from every other Alan Garner book, including his memoir, Where Shall We Run To? It’s all part of this rich weave of folk tales, childhood memories, of place and landscape. His style is as spare as ever and the rhythms of his writing as mesmerising as ever.
Winston Graham – Poldark
I started binge reading the Poldark series (which, surprisingly, I never read during my historical fiction obsessed teens), after my husband died and I needed reading matter that was not going to challenge or break me. They are very well written, and clearly well researched, the plots were familiar from the more recent TV adaptation (at least for the first five of the series), and very enjoyable.
Elly Griffiths – The Locked Room
The latest Ruth Galloway novel, set just at the start of the pandemic, which is beautifully well handled and conveys the strangeness and the anxiety of that time.
Robert Harris – Enigma/The Fear Index/Pompeii/The Second Sleep
I had a bit of a binge on Robert Harris, evidently. They’re all very different. Enigma fed into my long-standing fascination with WWII codebreaking, with a plot blending actual events with invention, but thoroughly researched and much better than the film of the book. The Fear Index is a highly intriguing contemporary thriller, however probable or otherwise its central premiss may be. Pompeii is, unsurprisingly, a historical account of the destruction of the city, which gives us not only the individual and social dramas, but the scientific background too, whether in terms of volcanic eruptions, or the engineering of water supplies – gripping and fascinating, even though of course we know what’s coming. The Second Sleep is most intriguing – I won’t say anything about the plot because you have to read it and pick up on the subtle hints and clues before things become clear (and if anyone reads this and Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, which I talk about below, there’s a surprising link).
Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley
‘As an evocation of place and a lost way of life, Harrison’s novel is astonishing, as potent and irresistible as a magic spell’, as the Guardian reviewer puts it. But there’s nothing romantic or sentimentalised about it, and there are darker undercurrents as national politics starts to infiltrate the life of the countryside.
Tayari Jones – Silver Sparrow/Leaving Atlanta*
I read An American Marriage last year, and loved it, so I followed it up with these two. Silver Sparrow explores the lives of two sisters, who share a bigamous father. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘moving, intimate and wise’. Leaving Atlanta was Jones’ debut and is a response to the Atlanta child murders (see also James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen), drawing on her childhood in that city at the time. It’s compelling and dark, and offers a different, child-centred insight into these strange and deeply troubling crimes.
Philip Kazan – The Black Earth
A bow drawn at a venture, but I very much enjoyed this account of WWII in Greece (about which I knew very little) and the internecine battles which engulfed the country so that the bloodshed didn’t end with the end of the war. It’s got a romance at its heart, but it’s not romantic fiction, it’s well constructed, dark and gritty.
Barbara Kingsolver – The Bean Trees
Kingsolver’s debut. Well worth reading, though it’s kind of softer than some of her later work, verging on sentimental.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano*
A friend told me this was his absolute all-time favourite book, and I had to admit I’d never read it. I have now remedied that, and I can entirely see how one could become lost in it, and obsessed with it. I would not dream of offering any insights without a re-read, but I can still summon up its woozy, shifting realities and its deep sadness.
Val McDermid – 1979
One can practically smell the cigarette smoke in this thriller set in a newspaper office in, oddly enough, 1979. McDermid at the top of her game. I love all her work, except for the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series which I have never got on with. Soz Val – that still leaves a lot for me to enjoy!
Dervla McTiernan – The Murder Rule
I was disappointed in this, having enjoyed a couple of her others (The Ruin and The Scholar) very much. This is a stand-alone, and the setting is the US rather than Ireland. Neither the plot nor the characters entirely convinced me, I’m afraid.
Sarah Moss – The Fell*
One of my favourite contemporary novelists, and this is a remarkable, powerful novel. It’s set mid-pandemic, with one character shielding, another self-isolating after contact with Covid, and it explores subtly and sensitively the sense of ‘accumulating dread’ as Moss puts it. But the dread is less of Covid itself, more of the effects of isolation and confinement. Beautifully written, with the voices of the four protagonists creating ‘polyphonic momentum’.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Fair Maiden
A troubling tale, with echoes of Lolita, which was widely regarded as a disappointment from Oates. I think I agree – I’m not sure what she was attempting here (a reworking/reimagining of Lolita? To what purpose?). It is of course well written and the protagonist (the ‘fair maiden’) is an excellent creation.
Rob Palk – Animal Lovers
Very funny, and very touching. Palk has a delicious turn of phrase, but never lets the comedic elements turn the characters into mere jokes or caricatures.
Philip Pullman – Serpentine
This novella is set between the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust. It seems slight, but it sheds light on the troubled relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon. Eagerly awaiting the final part of the second trilogy…
Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men
I have read the Rebus novels in an entirely random order, and thought I had read this already but it turns out the plot is familiar from the TV adaptation – it matters not, I’m absorbed and entertained.
Donal Ryan – Strange Flowers
Ryan writes with such beauty and tenderness, about people and about landscape. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story within the story, which took me out of the narrative that I was fully invested in, rather than enriching it or shedding light on it. But it’s a fine novel, even with that caveat, and will stay with me.
Sunjeev Sahota – China Room
I’ve read both of Sahota’s previous novels, and this one didn’t disappoint. Much of it is set in the 1920s, with a contemporary plot woven through, and it’s quite different in pace and tone to its predecessors. Subtly powerful and very moving.
Elizabeth Strout – Oh, William!*
Oh, Elizabeth! I thought I might have got used to Strout’s writing, and that it might therefore affect me less. I was mistaken. As always, her narratives overlap with one another and so we meet or hear of people and stories from other books, and with every novel the tapestry becomes richer. As the Guardian’s reviewer says, ‘the intense pleasure of Strout’s writing becomes the simple joy of learning more while – always – understanding less. “We are all mysterious, is what I mean,” says Lucy towards the close of this novel, leaving us already hungry for the next one’.
Russ Thomas – Firewatching
Sheffield set crime, very dark. This is Thomas’s debut and I will look out for more from him. The plot is complex, as are the characters, but it’s not driven, as far too many thrillers are, by the need to include ‘an incredible twist which you’ll never guess’. (That’s a bugbear of mine. Twist away, but it’s got to work with the plot and the characters, rather than just blasting in from nowhere simply to make us gasp.)
Lesley Thomson – The House with no Rooms
The fourth in the Detective’s Daughter series. The two leads are each decidedly odd, and not in the classic ‘detective with a fatal flaw/memorable quirk’ way, and the crimes are odd and troubling too.
Rose Tremain – Music and Silence*
This is fabulous. Set in the Danish royal court in the mid-17th century, it interweaves the stories of royalty and musicians and servants in the most intriguing and moving ways. And as the title would suggest, music plays a major, almost magical, certainly spiritual role.
Nicola Upson – Josephine Tey series
I started binging this series last year, and have continued. The conceit of having a writer of crime fiction getting involved in real crimes is hardly a new one, but it’s nicely done, and the period setting (the series has now reached the start of WWII) is interestingly handled, drawing out complexities that could only have been hinted at by Tey and her contemporaries.
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
I found this difficult to read, and am not sure why. It may well be that my concentration, which has at times been sadly lacking this year, was insufficient to follow the narrative or fully appreciate the very beautiful poetic prose. Another attempt may be called for, given how strong the recommendations have been for this.
S J Watson – Before I go to Sleep
This was certainly gripping (and much better than the film, which had to skate over so many aspects of the plot that the improbabilities were sharply highlighted). I don’t think I quite believed in any of it, but I was fascinated to see how Watson put the narrative together and how he was going to resolve things. Entertaining.
Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle
After the horrors of slavery in The Underground Railroad, and of a brutal reform school in The Nickel Boys, there is really quite a lot of hope, and much more scope for humour in this story of a furniture salesman’s attempt to negotiate the blurred lines and moral grey areas of Harlem in the 50s/60s. The writing is just as acute as in his other, darker novels, and the narrative just as gripping.
James Baldwin – The Evidence of Things not Seen
This is Baldwin’s essay on the Atlanta Child Murders (see Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, above). As always with Baldwin, it’s both passionate and lucid, and if it comes to no firm conclusions about guilt or innocence, that is hardly surprising since we appear to have moved on barely at all since Wayne Williams was charged with two of the murders back in 1982.
Antony Beevor – The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
I’ve read most of Beevor’s WWII history tomes, but this is a bit different. It’s a complex narrative, and one is very grateful for the Dramatis Personae at the front, to help the reader keep track of who is who (I remember reading Dr Zhivago as a teenager and struggling with the many variants of each character’s name). Gripping stuff.
Ruth Coker Burks – All the Young Men: How One Young Woman Risked it all to Care for the Dying
I feared this might be a bit sentimental, and also a bit too much God-stuff for my liking, but Burks is not given to soppiness, or to judgement. She’s an outsider, as a single parent in a rather conventional society, and her chance encounter with an AIDS patient – isolated, terrified, uncared for – immediately starts her on a path which leads to remarkable work both in exercising practical compassion and in lobbying for changes to the way people with AIDS are treated. The title isn’t as hyperbolic as it appears either – she lost friends and jobs, and ran the real risk of losing custody of her daughter due to her activism.
Michel Butor – Selected Essays*
A new translation of some of Butor’s essays on the novel. He writes with such clarity, so refreshing for those of us who have wrestled with some of his slipperier contemporaries (looking at you, Deleuze, in particular), and sheds light on his own four novels, as well as giving an insight into his later work.
Joe Hadju – Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe
I had a tantalisingly brief visit to Budapest, as part of a Danube cruise, which left me wanting to know much more about the city. I am unlikely to visit in the near future given the political climate there, but the history is fascinating.
Debora Harding – Dancing with the Octopus
As the sub-title tells us, this is ‘The Telling of a True Crime’. And it really is about ‘the telling’ – the remembering and attempted forgetting, the being believed and, horrifically, not being believed. It’s a tough read and a gripping one.
Kerry Hudson – Lowborn*
This is a vital read, as more and more families are forced into the kind of poverty that Hudson experienced as a child and a teenager. What hits me most is what bloody hard work it is being poor. The simplest things – eating nourishing food, keeping warm, keeping clean, staying safe – things that many of us take for granted, can only be achieved with constant, relentless battling against the system.
Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
I’ve been fascinated by Partition since reading Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown novels, and watching the dramatisation. I think the experience of living in Northern Nigeria during the build up to its Civil war, when Igbo people were murdered or driven out of the northern territories, gave those events particular resonance for me. I’ve previously read a collection of personal accounts of these events (Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices) but this is a detailed, solid history, with an emphasis on the human consequences of violence and displacement.
Rachel Lichtenstein – On Brick Lane
Portrait of a changing community through time, as different waves of immigration each reshape the area (Huguenot, Jewish, Bangladeshi) and its culture.
Wendy Lower – The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
When we are losing day by day the eye-witnesses to the Holocaust these scraps of photographic evidence become more vital, and Lower uses an image of one of the massacres of Jews in what is now Ukraine to identify killers, witnesses and victims. It’s a brutal read, as it should be.
Patrick Marnham – War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France
A gripping account of the murkier aspects of SOE’s activities in Occupied France. It’s a very complicated story – it helps if one already knows some of the story of at least some of the protagonists – and sheds some light on who was doing the betraying…
Wendy Mitchell – What I Wish People Knew about Dementia
I read a lot about dementia when my mother-in-law was diagnosed. Some things were helpful, others less so. Wendy Mitchell’s first book didn’t so much give us practical help, as tremendous insight, from the person actually with the dementia, into what the condition means. Remarkably, she’s still writing, still sharing her experiences and this book may give us some useful ideas in supporting my father who has recently been diagnosed. He’s aware of his condition, as Mitchell is, and so can be involved to some extent in finding work-arounds to make life easier (mother-in-law’s confusion progressed so quickly that any solution we came up with one week was useless by the next).
Caroline Moorehead – A House in the Mountains: The Women who Liberated Italy from Fascism*
I know very little about Italy’s war (see above for the same admission re Greece), but this was a fantastic, inspiring read. It focuses on four young women, in the mountains around Turin, who risked their lives daily during German occupation to move weapons and pass on messages, to fight, to take prisoners, to help liberate their country.
Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
Another biography of Hendrix, and dammit, the ending is the same as always. Having read so much about the man, there were anecdotes here about which I was sceptical, but also real new research and insights.
Tim Parks – Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal
Fascinating account of how HE in Italy works – the subtitle is very revealing. Having just completed a PhD in English HE, I am very thankful not to have had to go through the Italian system!
Samantha Power – The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
An essential read for anyone interested in international politics, particularly in the politics of war and genocide from someone who, both as a journalist and as a US government official (including as Obama’s ambassador to the UN), saw at close quarters many of the events she discusses.
Tracy Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star
A delight. Funny and touching, beautifully written.
Dorothy Whipple – Random Commentary
I only recently discovered Whipple’s novels and that she had lived in Nottinghamshire, including a spell in the vicinity of Newstead Abbey, very close to my teenage home. These are her own edited extracts from her diaries between 1925 and 1945, touching on the minutiae of everyday life, the successes and frustrations of her writing career and the momentous world events just off stage.
Reading has, over the last eight months, to some extent been an escape. But that doesn’t mean only reading easy stuff, or cosy stuff (I feel about ‘cosy’ books similarly to how I feel about Classic FM’s insistence that music should be ‘soothing’). The books I’ve read – the funny ones, the challenging ones, the heartbreaking ones, the gripping ones – have all taken me out of my immediate situation, out of the familiar home that is so strange without him in it. I’ve not only gained that respite, but also what George Eliot called the extension of sympathies – it’s easy to become very self-focused in a situation like mine, but books take me into other lives, other places, other histories. And I’m grateful for that.
2022 On Screen (the first half)
Posted in Uncategorized on June 30, 2022
There’s a correlation between the relatively low book count this half-year (see my 2022 Reading post), and the unprecedentedly high film/TV count. On the days when I couldn’t focus enough to read or to tackle any of the jobs on my to-do list, I watched movies in the afternoons. Most of the films were seen via Netflix or other streaming services, which I’d barely explored until this last eight months, with only two cinema expeditions so far this year.The pattern of my TV watching is more as it used to be – a few things which I would never have persuaded my husband to watch, but most programmes/series are ones which I had watched with him, or would have done had he still been here.
I haven’t attempted a full review of everything – this year isn’t normal in any respect, and so my comments on these films and television series may tend to reflect my circumstances, the stage I’ve reached in processing my bereavement, and how that colours my response to what I’ve watched. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but no guarantees…
I have missed out a few things about which there was really nothing to say – a film/programme that did what it set out to do but left little impression, one which I dozed off during, and woke to see the final credits rolling, or started watching and couldn’t be bothered to finish. Because the latter two categories may be about me as much as the quality of the material, I would not necessarily seek to judge… Where something aimed high and fell short, or did a disservice either to its source material or to its subject, I say so, however. And the best of what I’ve watched so far this year is marked with an asterisk.
Films (via large and small screen)
10 Cloverfield Avenue
When I was recovering after knee surgery my son came to stay for three weeks and brought a stack of DVDs, handpicked for my enjoyment (he knows me very well), but also avoiding anything too heavy about loss and grief. This was an excellent choice – the claustrophobia and paranoia set in early on, and I really could not predict how the plot was going to play out, nor were the loose ends tied up too neatly at the end.
The triggers I was trying to avoid were personal and specific, so didn’t condemn me to bland fare. Far from it – this one was a tough watch; it moved me but didn’t (apart from an odd moment) cause me deep distress. My interest in this account of the 2011 Norway killings was in the aftermath rather than the atrocity per se, and specifically how the trial was handled. Perhaps also there is some release in confronting a bigger tragedy than my own, with wider impact and implications. I’d very much admired Greengrass’s United 93 and this was just as good.
Absolutely gripping, the sort of thriller where you forget to breathe… Added power in the knowledge of the reality of, if not this specific story, then the general situation on the streets of Belfast at the start of the Troubles, and added interest in the knowledge that some of the Belfast scenes were actually filmed here in Sheffield.
Could have been good. But it was so wooden and predictable. It flips the scenario at the heart of both Vercors’ clandestine wartime novel, The Silence of the Sea, and Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (see below), as a French home is taken over by a German officer who, however, proves to be cultured and troubled. (Those two sources are more or less contemporary – I can’t see any way they could have been aware of each other.) But this film doesn’t do anything more interesting with the plot than make the occupying forces the Brits and the cultured German the person whose home has been taken over. The love affair which results is both predictable and unconvincing, at least in its denouement.
Ali and Ava*
This was wonderful. It goes to some dark places but I was rooting for Ali and Ava from the start; the characters are beautifully written, and beautifully played, by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, it’s often funny, and very touching.
Another film from a movie night with my son, who was shocked to learn that I’d seen Alien but none of its sequels. This was thoroughly gripping, with plenty of jump scary moments and obviously a proper kick-ass female lead.
All About my Mother
My first Almodovar. Cruz is wonderful, as is Cecilia Roth. The plot is quite overwrought, which is emphasised by the interweaving of Streetcar Named Desire (amongst other intertextual references), but it’s witty and warm and compassionate.
Fascinating account of the legal case brought after the mutiny on slave ship Amistad, in which the status of the mutineers – had they been brought from Africa, illegally, or were they owned as slaves, legally? – was crucial to the verdict. Djimon Hounsou’s performance is magnificent and very moving.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
I was afraid this was going to be really sentimental and sugary but it managed not to be (Tom Hanks really is good at negotiating that territory), and in fact was frequently quite cathartically moving.
Before I Go to Sleep
I’d read the book quite recently – it’s much better than the film, as the film has to miss out so much of the painstaking accumulation of detail that one is unavoidably aware of the plot holes… Kidman and Firth do a decent job in the circs.
Fantastic – beautiful, gripping and memorable. I should probably have rewatched the original which I hadn’t seen for decades, but no matter, I loved this.
The Blue Dahlia
A proper film noir, courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, from 1946, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Interesting post-war context – Ladd’s character comes home, with two other demobbed air force buddies, and that one of the two has PTSD and a metal plate in his head.
Bloody hell, this was tense. I felt myself getting more and more hot and bothered as the film went on. Stephen Graham is, as always, brilliant.
One of the pleasures of Netflix has been access to European films about aspects of WWII – this one tells the story of a bombing attack on occupied Copenhagen, towards the end of the war, which attacked the wrong target, killing children and teachers at a local school. The lead characters appear to be fictional, but the basic events are accurately and powerfully depicted, even if the ending is a bit abrupt.
The Book Thief
I wasn’t sure how well the book would transfer to the screen but it’s beautifully and movingly done.
Call to Spy
A film I’d never heard of, about two of the female SOE operatives in France in WWII, Virginia Hall and Noor Inayat Khan. Some of the details are tweaked to place the two of them together in occupied territory, but the depictions of the two women are very true to all of the accounts I’ve read. And I don’t know why there haven’t been more films about Noor Inayat Khan in particular. I ran a session for Year 10s on a gifted and talented programme a few years back, talking about what history is, and talked about the French Resistance and about the real choices people had under occupation. When I told Noor’s story, I swear the South Asian young women in the room lit up – the last thing they had expected was that one of these Resistance heroes would be someone who looked like them.
A Cold War thriller, based on the real story of Greville Wynne and his Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky. Very well done, Cumberbatch excellent in the lead role, even if Jessie Buckley is somewhat underused as the long-suffering wife (I’ve lost track of how many brilliant women I’ve seen in these movies as long-suffering wife, supportive girlfriend, etc etc, which I thought were tropes that had had their day…).
Another gem. Curtiz was the director of Casablanca, a film which gets better every time I see it. And one of the things that gives it so much depth and life is that so many of those involved in the making, on both sides of the camera, were themselves refugees from Nazi Europe, including Curtiz himself, who is seen, during the battles with the studios to make the film, also desperately negotiating to try to get a relative out of Hungary. Fascinating.
Da 5 Bloods*
I loved this, so much. Wonderful performances from, esp., Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and the late Chadwick Boseman, riffing on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, humour and horror and heart.
Great performance from Oldman, and the film manages to create real tension even though we know how it all turned out. The scene on the Underground though – pure hokum! However, as sceptical as I was, it did bring a tear or two to my eye.
Glorious. Ianucci captures and revels in Dickens’ exuberance. The performances are wonderful – Dev Patel is perfect in the lead, with brilliant support from Capaldi, Whishaw, Laurie, Swinton et al, and lesser-known names such as Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield. And, oh lord, the bit where Dora says, ‘Write me out, Dodie’ breaks my heart.
Don’t Look Up
Crikey, this one was divisive. I can see both sides – I think it’s funnier than some of the critics acknowledged, but less important politically than its creator and its advocates claim. It gets some nice punches in at some fairly predictable targets, but is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or behaviour. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.
Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
If you’re going to call your film a multiverse of madness, it can’t have a linear plot with all loose ends neatly tied up. This doesn’t – there’s too much happening, too fast, to keep track of the various ‘verses, let alone the implications of what happens in one for all of the others, or to recall which one is the one we started off in. Sam Raimi brings a horror sensibility to the film, which is scarier than Marvels generally are. Cumberbatch is great, Olsen is terrifying and heartbreaking.
Villeneuve is one of my favourite directors (see also Bladerunner 2049, Sicario) and this is stunning, visually and in its interpretation of a book I haven’t read for decades, but dearly loved. The soundtrack is great too.
Delightful, with a very un-princessy hero and some nice tunes.
I’m in two minds about McEwan’s novels. On the one hand, there’s Atonement, one of my favourite 21st century novels, and on the other, there’s Solar… I haven’t read the book on which this is based so can only comment on the film, which is gripping and troubling and quite talky but with moments of physical shock, and the performances are excellent.
This is what happens when you put every WWII movie cliché into a pile and shuffle them and then just sprinkle them liberally throughout your narrative and script. There were some here I hadn’t heard since Pearl Harbour.
Based on the Robert Harris novel which I read this year (see my books blog), it suffers from over-simplification, as we lose so much of Harris’s detailed analysis and explanation that it ends up being just another thriller. The leading man is miscast, but Kate Winslet is great.
Millie Bobbie Brown from Stranger Things tackling crime and outwitting her more famous brothers. A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s watching.
This was often baffling, without the excuse of Dr Strange that it was juggling an infinite number of different universes. As familiar as I am with the Marvel cinematic universe(s) this required me to pick up a whole lot of new cosmology which I didn’t totally get, and I really didn’t connect with the characters. All of the above may be partly my fault, if I was feeling particularly foggy when I watched it, so a rewatch may clarify matters.
Film Stars don’t Die in Liverpool*
This is so good. Annette Bening’s portrayal of Gloria Grahame’s last years is so moving – she’s fractious and demanding and incredibly vulnerable. Jamie Bell is excellent too as her much younger lover, and the juxtaposition of the Hollywood star with his Liverpool family is funny and touching.
The Forgotten Battle
Another of the European WWII films that I found on Netflix, this excellent Dutch movie covers the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944, strategically of huge importance, but as the title suggests, somewhat forgotten.
The Ghost Writer
Adaptation of a Robert Harris novel that I haven’t yet read. Very much enjoyed this – the viewer is figuring things out along with Ewan McGregor’s character, so is being constantly wrongfooted, and increasingly paranoid (but maybe not paranoid enough…) and the ending was genuinely a shock.
The Girl on the Train
I wasn’t sure about Emily Blunt in the lead role – too obviously attractive? – but she made it work, and it was a decent adaptation of the book.
Yes, I did watch it this year for the first time. And I thoroughly enjoyed it too.
The Hand of God*
Recommended by the Italian branch of the family – I’d previously enjoyed Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and The New Pope (in which my brother appeared for a brief but profoundly significant moment as a Cardinal). This one is a coming of age story, strongly autobiographical, and it is quirky, funny and heartbreaking.
A Polish/UK co-production focusing on the Polish RAF squadron, their role in the Battle of Britain, and the grubby way they were treated after the war. The condescension of the establishment towards them, and their consuming grief and rage at what the Nazis are doing to their homeland and their families, are very powerfully conveyed and the air war scenes are thrilling.
Based on an eye witness account of the 2004 tsunami, this is a pretty intense watch. I did feel that the ending relied rather heavily on repeated coincidences to bring the survivors back together, but for all I know this may reflect what actually happened. Tom Holland as the teenage son is brilliant.
Is Paris Burning?
1966 epic about the liberation of Paris by the Resistance and Free French forces.
Quite a tough watch. I guess watching a film about someone being suddenly widowed wasn’t a great idea, although the overall mood of the film was slightly chilly, which created some distance.
Kobo and the Two Strings*
Wonderful anime, with a story that went to much darker and complicated places than I was expecting, and was very moving (the version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ that played at the end just broke me and I sobbed for quite a while).
The Last Sentence
Long (well, it felt long) and slow, this account of the life of a Swedish newspaper editor between 1933 and 1945, when Sweden was a neutral country. It deals with his political activity (anti-Nazi), but also with his relationships with wife and mistress(es). He’s a far from sympathetic character who treats the women in his life appallingly.
I loved this – the kid who plays the protagonist as a child (Sunny Pawar) is utterly mesmerising and for the whole of that part of the narrative I was on the edge of my seat wanting him to be safe. Dev Patel as the adult version is also compelling as he becomes obsessed with finding the home that he’d lost before he even knew where it was.
The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman is superb – as is Jessie Buckley as her younger self – and it’s quite a disturbing watch, with some visual shocks that may be real or hallucinations, and an ambiguous ending.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Chadwick Boseman is excellent again in this, and Viola Davis makes the most of her role as Ma Rainey – it’s a very powerful image of a black woman demanding to be treated not just with respect but as a kind of royalty.
The Tragedy of Macbeth*
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Macbeth & Mrs Macbeth. I very much liked the Fassbender/Cotillard version from a few years back, but this one is brilliant too – the black & white expressionist cinematography creates, as the Time Out reviewer put it, magic with shadow and light.
Spike Lee’s biopic, with Denzel again. Controversial at every stage of its writing and production, it’s a compelling portrait of a complex man.
Mary Queen of Scots
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as Elizabeth and Mary respectively, in a historical drama that takes some liberties with history but to very enjoyable effect.
Another of my son’s choices for post-surgery watching, and another excellent thriller with a philosophical dimension (free will v. determinism), and lots of opportunities for Cruise to do his thing.
Another Spielberg, and lord, this is dark. It kicks off with the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and moves on to the Mossad pursuit of the presumed killers – relentless, and brutal, but not without moral debate, and anguish on the part of at least some of the Mossad team about what they’re doing.
Munich: Edge of War
Another Robert Harris adaptation, setting up a slightly different reading of Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler, with a (presumably) fictional plot involving a document that lays out unambiguously Hitler’s intentions that has to be smuggled from an anti-Nazi German to a member of Chamberlain’s team. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how faithful it is to Harris’s plot, but it’s a fine thriller, with some very tense moments.
No Time to Die
Daniel Craig in his last outing as Bond. Classic stuff.
Gory, shouty, completely gripping. Draws on the original story that Shakespeare used for Hamlet. With Alexander Skarsgard in the lead, and Bjork popping up as a seer. NB I first encountered Skarsgard in True Blood, where he played vampire Eric Northman…
The capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina – manages to generate some tension despite the fact that we know the outcome, largely through the conversations between Eichmann and his captors as they wait until they can get a flight to Israel. Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac give strong performances.
I had never heard of this until I read some of the obits for Sidney Poitier. Poitier and Paul Newman are jazz musicians in Paris, who meet up with two women (Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward). It’s not much of a plot but who cares – those four beautiful people, wandering around Paris to a Duke Ellington score, and Poitier and Carroll talking about racial politics in the US, the reasons he won’t go back home, and the reasons she knows she must.
A woman’s search for the child taken from her when she was a single mother back in Ireland in the ‘50s, this is a hefty emotional drama, played subtly by Dench and with real restraint by Steve Coogan. It exposes a cruel system, which continued until far more recently than one might have imagined, and how the Church managed also to profit from that system.
Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman’s remarkable first-band account of his survival in Warsaw during the Nazi Occupation. The film doesn’t pull its punches – there are no last minute reprieves for most of the characters, nor miraculous returns from Treblinka – but we see only what Szpilman saw, the ghetto and the city, not the gas chambers and the crematoria, and it doesn’t milk the story for tears or shock.
Edward Norton’s film debut and he’s absolutely brilliant, really lifts a decent thriller to a different level.
Quo Vadis Aida*
Incredibly powerful film, set during the siege of Srebenica by the Serbian army. Aida is a teacher who’s working as a translator for the UN and whose family are caught up in the horrors. The tension ramps up and up until it’s almost unbearable.
The Resistance Banker
Another of those European (Dutch again) WWII movies, this one does what the title says, tells the true story of a banker who devised a scheme to fund the Resistance and help Jewish families to escape. A really interesting and (to me) completely unknown story.
Gripping, dark, brutal. Great soundtrack.
One of my son’s choices, and another win, not just because Chris Evans. I mean, there’s John Hurt and Tilda Swinton too… But the set-up is intriguing and the reveal is gradual and intelligently done, and with real impact.
The Social Network
This is very well done, and well played. It’s just that really, spending that amount of time in the company of these people isn’t my idea of fun.
Another Dutch WWII film, this one explores racism through the experiences of a young man from Suriname who moves to The Hague and forms a relationship with a white Dutch woman, before the war. It’s based on a true story, and it’s moving and thoughtful.
Spiderman: No Way Home*
This is an absolute blast. More multiverse madness, but amongst it all real heart, real poignancy as well as humour.
It’s All the President’s Men but with a newspaper office exposing the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. The tone is deliberately low-key, no histrionics, and it’s all the more powerful for that. Excellent performances from Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.
Way, way, over the top black comedy as Matt Damon’s apparently conventional 1950s businessman is drawn into more and more violence to cover up a domestic crime, but this plot runs alongside a rather underdeveloped one concerning the arrival of a black family in a white neighbourhood and the campaign of hatred against them.
A decent historical drama about the Suffragette movement. Somehow it didn’t manage to be more than that.
See above for the plot similarities with The Silence of the Sea and The Aftermath. This is based on one of the two surviving sections of Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, which was left unfinished when she was deported to her death in Auschwitz in 1942, and only published this century. She was an established and successful novelist before the Occupation but this was written clandestinely, while she tried to keep her children and husband safe. The film is faithful enough to the novel, but has a rather soapy feel to it. It’s impossible to respond to the novel without thinking of the story of its publication, and unusual to read a fictional account of the Occupation which is totally without hindsight (someone in my book group criticised Nemirovsky for not talking about the deportation of the Jews, but focusing on romantic tension between occupied and occupier…).
Tom Hanks as the good, decent, ordinary guy again. Laura Linney as his long-suffering wife (she’s having much more fun in Ozark (see below)). The film depicts not only the extraordinary landing on the Hudson after birds fly into and incapacitate the plane’s engines, but the inquiry afterwards, which seems to be challenging Sully’s professional judgement that this was the only way he could save the plane’s passengers. It’s gripping stuff, and the effect on Sully of these traumatic events is conveyed very powerfully.
Adaptation of one of Lissa Evans’ marvellous WWII novels, this is a funny and sharp account of the making of wartime propaganda films, with great dialogue and characters.
Train to Busan*
One of the best zombie films I’ve seen. It reminded me of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, with the sheer relentlessness of the onslaught. It’s very very gory and it keeps the tension up right to the end.
Lovely, funny and touching film about adolescence and the mayhem of hormones in a newly teenaged girl. Coping with her own turmoil of emotions and sensations, and with her mother’s embarrassing attempts at solidarity and support has a surprising effect on Mei Lee… A delight.
A moving account of the Munich air crash through the eyes of the very young Bobby Charlton. It could have been better – we didn’t need the cartoon villainy of the FA and the portrayal of Matt Busby was odd (and offended his family deeply), but it worked, and the period detail of how even top-flight footballers lived back then is fascinating.
World Trade Center
An extraordinary achievement, to make a boring film about 9/11. I’m not underplaying the courage of the firefighters portrayed in the film, who did what they had to do regardless of their own safety, but they deserved a much better cinematic tribute.
A very different take on 9/11 as Michael Keaton plays an accountant who has to devise the algorithms to determine compensation for victims and their families, and Stanley Tucci is the widower who challenges the impersonality of the approach. We share Keaton’s detached perspective for much of the film, which gives the sections where members of his team interview victims and families huge power. It’s interesting, challenging and moving.
Zero Dark Thirty
Still with 9/11, this is a cracking thriller about the hunt for Bin Laden, which doesn’t shy away from the morally grey areas.
The long and ultimately unresolved hunt for the Zodiac killer is here shown not only through the murders themselves but through the effect on those involved in the hunt – Ruffalo, Downey Jr and Gyllenhaal give strong performances.
Very silly, visually witty, cracking script. A lot of fun.
All Creatures Great & Small
Proper comfort telly. Yes, it risks cosiness and I hate that word, but it actually never dodges the brutal realities of farming and livestock management, and it has given Mrs Hall (in the 1980s televisation a stereotypical older woman, stout and no-nonsense) an emotionally powerful back story and a lot more agency. And Sam West is now Siegfried Farnon, as far as I’m concerned.
Anatomy of a Scandal
Sillier than I’d expected from reading the book, which I recall being quite a decent thriller. The dramatization uses some very odd visual tricks (a man suddenly being thrown backwards by an invisible force when police take him in for questioning about a rape, and flashbacks where present-day version and past version of a character are both visible, and so on) which were just gimmicky. The inevitable compression of the plot made its weaknesses more obvious, plus I got very tired of the wronged wife’s incredibly beige wardrobe.
Harrowing account of the life of Anne Williams, mother of one of the Hillsborough dead, and relentless campaigner for justice for all of the 97. It starts off as a tough watch and doesn’t get any easier, but it’s important as a reminder of what it takes to win any kind of recognition of institutional wrongdoing, and of how fragile any win is likely to be.
I do very much like Tcheky Karyo’s grizzled detective and Fiona Shaw was a great addition to the cast. I enjoyed the plot, although I found myself not quite believing the central premiss, and not at all believing Baptiste’s remarkable full recovery from what looked like a pretty comprehensive battering by a man half his age. Just for once, it would be good to have an older hero whose age was acknowledged a bit more honestly – I don’t mean they spend the whole show complaining about their joints, but don’t suddenly make them into an almost invulnerable action hero, OK?
Now Beck is an older hero whose age is acknowledged, both directly in terms of his health, and tacitly – he doesn’t suddenly chase down a perp, or engage in fisticuffs with young thugs. He uses his vast experience and lets the young cops do the risky stuff, and quite right too. The supporting cast are great, and the plots are dark and tense. Though I am slightly tired of the usual coda with Martin and his neighbour on the balcony – might be time to retire that.
I would never, ever, have persuaded my husband to watch this. I only started because a couple of friends whose judgement I trust told me how good it was, and they weren’t kidding. The period it spans is pretty much my lifetime, plus my parents’ recollections of earlier events and it was absolutely fascinating to see the events I recall from this very different, very odd perspective. The cast are brilliant – I did wonder how the transition from one set of actors to another would work, but after half an episode or so to recalibrate, it was fine. It’s all very bizarre really, and I wonder how they’re going to handle some current royal issues when they get to them…
Bertie Carvel is my third Dalgliesh. First up Roy Marsden, cerebral and ascetic, then a seriously miscast Martin Shaw (nothing against Shaw, but he’s not Dalgliesh). Carvel was just right, the supporting cast were excellent, and the plots pretty faithful to the books. I look forward to future series.
A dark, grim crime thriller set in Berlin immediately after the war, a city divided into different occupied zones, a city of rubble and displaced people and people just trying to survive by legitimate or corrupt means. I didn’t take to the leading man, thought he was a bit characterless, but the portrayal of that world, and the interweaving stories were very powerfully done. Lots of threads left dangling, for a second series to pick up.
Glorious. Lisa McGee’s writing is pitch perfect – she gets the balance between the teenage self-preoccupation and silliness and the events around them just right, and knows just when and how to punch us in the guts. I don’t know what to pick out for special mention – the episode with the mammies, Liam Neeson’s cameo appearance with Uncle Colm, Orla dancing through Derry… The finale was a thing of great beauty and power and I loved it.
One can’t claim now that there aren’t black officers in senior roles in TV crime dramas but I haven’t seen before such an honest treatment of the microaggressions that those officers encounter along the way. There were a few plot issues (why does the plot always require our hero to behave stupidly and unprofessionally when they’ve been portrayed up to that point as bright and professional?), and the overall mood was rather dour, but I’ll be interested to see if it gets picked up for a second series.
Just two specials in this half-year. The New Year’s Day episode was great, funny and clever, and I do love a time loop. The Sea Devils episode was fun but had rather too much plot for its running time, so ended up feeling a bit disjointed, and will be remembered for the tentative and awkward acknowledgement of mutual feelings between Yaz and the Doctor (very nicely handled). Only one more special to go – I’ll be sorry to see Whitaker go, and wish she’d had consistently better scripts and not had a pandemic to interrupt the flow (though her broadcast in character during the first lockdown was a thing of beauty). But I’m really, really looking forward to RTD’s return and to meeting 14 (even if it’s also hurting my heart that 14 will be the first Doctor Martyn will never have encountered).
The Falklands Play
I think my response when this was originally broadcast in 2002 (in an amended and abridged version) would have been much more cynical about its comparatively positive portrayal of the then Conservative government, and it speaks volumes about the state of our current cluster of incompetence and dishonesty that my main reaction was, good lord, here are people seriously considering what is the right thing to do, and insisting on resigning if they got it wrong (in failing to foresee the invasion), and isn’t that extraordinary? Obviously, Patricia Hodge’s Thatcher is a far less odd and far more sympathetic portrayal than Gillian Anderson’s in The Crown, and the reality was probably somewhere between the two. The production history and the politics of the writing, production and broadcast are as interesting as the play itself in a way.
The fourth spin-off series from the film, this time set in 1950/51, in Kansas City, and the scene is set as successive generations of gangsters (Irish, Jewish, Italian, African-American) jostle bloodily for dominance. If it doesn’t quite match up to the brilliance of previous series, there’s plenty of very dark humour, and a sharply written script, as well as a mesmerising turn from Jessie Buckley, to enjoy.
Five Came Back
This fascinating documentary series explores the work done during WWII by five Hollywood directors (Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, Stevens) who were recruited to create propaganda films to win hearts and minds at home. It explores each of the five’s response to what they saw on the front line, and how what they wanted to say wasn’t always permitted (Huston’s film about PTSD in returning soldiers, for example), and how their experiences affected their post-war careers.
German documentary featuring interviews with some of the last generation of German participants and witnesses to Nazism. It’s a deeply troubling watch – even the best of the interviewees clearly have fond memories of their days in the Hitler Youth, and for the most part there is a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge what they knew.
Suranne Jones is striding across the Yorkshire countryside again, and it’s marvellous.
Grimly gripping crime drama set in the least happy valley one could imagine. The writing and the performances are top notch.
Mind you, the Welsh landscape of Hidden is hardly a tranquil haven either. Again, writing and performances ensure that you can’t look away.
Dramatisation of real events, carried by a bravura performance by Julia Garner as Anna Delvey/Sorokin, who conned people out of millions basically just by acting as if she was super rich and telling people she was super rich. Delvey/Sorokin is a very odd character, sociopathic and ruthless, and if one didn’t know it was a true story, one would find it very hard to believe that she convinced anyone to part with even a used fiver.
The Ipcress File
Clearly there was no need for a remake but here we are, and I rather enjoyed it. I liked Joe Cole in the lead, it was all very stylishly done, and no more or less faithful to the Deighton novel than the 1960s film was.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
Vile. I can remember when he was ubiquitous on the telly, and I never liked him, but I thought he was just irritating rather than being dangerous. And yet some of the clips included in the documentary practically advertise his predilections. Did we learn anything new or useful? I don’t know – except that if someone tells the world that they are a monster, it’s probably sensible to believe them…
Yes, it should have probably finished at the end of season 2, or 3, but having got this far I was always going to watch the final series. There were some good moments, and some important revelations, and quite a few scenes from which I had to look away.
The Last Days
1998 documentary telling the story of five Hungarian Jews who survived deportation to Auschwitz in the last year of the war. As always, I am struck by the sheer obsessive insanity of a regime losing a war on several fronts which channels huge resources into rounding up and murdering people who pose no threat to the regime other than by their existence as Jews.
Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain
Fascinating interviews, wonderful music, and a forceful reminder of the daily experience of racism in all its forms that all of the participants have encountered. I would have loved a longer series that could have gone into greater depth into some aspects – particularly the interface between African and Caribbean cultures.
Life after Life*
Superb. Beautiful and so very moving. Kate Atkinson’s book is one of my favourite novels of this century – I’ve re-read it several times and I love it. I did wonder about the wisdom of watching this, as life after life also means death after death, and I did have to have quite a big cry after each episode but in a strange way, this is life affirming and uplifting, and I’m glad I did.
French crime thriller with a light touch, as Omar Sy carries out heists inspired by the fictional detective Arsene Lupin. Sounds daft, but it’s v enjoyable.
A decent adaptation of the Wyndham novel. It updates the action, so that rather than everyone having conniptions about unmarried women being pregnant, the women, and any partners, all respond in much more nuanced and individual ways, at least until their unborn offspring start controlling their emotions and actions.
Whilst I often wished I could unhear some of the dialogue (during the FBI agents’ interviews with convicted serial murderers) this is really compelling – I hadn’t realised quite how the vocabulary and the profiling assumptions that we take for granted about serial killers grew out of the work of this small FBI team in the 70s. Whilst the two leads are fictionalised, the cases are real, and it was particularly interesting to see the treatment of the Atlanta child murders (watching this led me to read Tayari Jones’ novel, Leaving Atlanta, and James Baldwin’s essay, Evidence of Things Not Seen, to find out more, from different perspectives).
This was often bewildering, often funny, often quite scary.
Ms Marvel, like Spiderman, is dealing with the arrival of superhero-ness alongside the usual teenage challenges of school, parents who just don’t understand, friendships and crushes. Unlike Spiderman, she’s also negotiating the cultural heritage of her parents, and the history of Partition and what it did to their family. Hugely engaging.
My Name is Leon
Beautifully done, with a wonderful performance by Cole Martin in the lead as a ‘looked after’ child. Breaks your heart, but heals it too.
Oh, I have struggled with this. The performances are excellent, it’s not that. Maybe I just find being reminded of being that sort of age, and the agonies that go with it, too much. Every conversation, every interaction is so burdened with unspoken insecurities and with misunderstandings that could be cleared up in five minutes if they just had a proper chat.
The ebullient Antonio Pappano, currently music director of the Royal Opera House, but who we saw conducting at the Auditorium in Rome a few years back, is the perfect host for this history of Italian opera.
Brilliantly dark crime series, with a labyrinthine plot and a cast of characters who are, to a man, woman or teenager, morally compromised. That we root for some of those characters is because they are drawn with so much depth and detail that we understand who they are, even if we disapprove of what they do. Laura Linney, Jason Bateman and Julia Garner are particularly strong.
Parks & Recreation
I was told that if I got Season 1 out of the way and got into Season 2, I would love rather than just liking Parks & Rec, and would love rather than just liking Lesley Knope. This is indeed how it panned out.
The final season as far as TV is concerned – mention has been made of a movie, so we’ll see what comes of that. Season 6 was always going to be tricky, as the absence of Aunt Polly made things feel a little out of kilter, even whilst it made room for the other women in the cast in various ways to take centre stage. Whilst some of the earlier episodes seemed to take a lot of time to not progress the narrative very much, it gathered pace towards the end of the run, and the final episode was a masterclass in drawing threads together, but also leaving questions unanswered and possibilities dangling tantalisingly…
Pace was an issue with Season 2 of Picard too – the flashbacks to Picard’s childhood, though it became clear why they were so important, were too long drawn out and too often repeated. But the Borg are always a welcome arrival (in plot terms), and the time travel plot was fun, and the denouement was surprising and moving.
French crime. Enjoyable, but tiresomely dependent on good, professional cop behaving badly/foolishly.
Superb. The long afterlife of the divisions between mining communities and families during the 1984 strike was well known to us, having lived in Nottinghamshire and then subsequently in Yorkshire, and having had to explain to our son why Sheffield United supporters as yet unborn in ’84 were yelling ‘scab!’ at Nottingham Forest supporters as yet unborn in ’84… The cast list is packed with some of the best British actors of recent years, too many to mention but Adeel Akhtar is particularly outstanding. Its only misstep was a reference to ‘Notts Forest’ in ep. 1, but the writing and performances are so fine that I had to forgive that. And the ending… Subtle, intelligent and powerfully emotional.
This is le Carré territory, except that the spies are the dregs of the British secret services, all having been demoted for some dereliction of duty or failure of judgement, and are being led by one Jackson Lamb (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman) who is, or at least purports to be, completely cynical and disillusioned about the whole thing. It’s funny and sharply written, and gripping too, since despite Lamb’s best efforts, his motley collection of failed spies get drawn into some fairly heavy events.
We were told so many times by so many people, when this first started, to watch it, and I have no idea why we failed to heed that obviously sound advice. The homage to Stephen King, the echoes of Buffy, the nods to ET and Close Encounters, all mark this out as entirely our sort of thing. So I’m sad we never got round to it together, but I have been loving seasons 1 and 2 this year.
Season 2 experimented more with the format than Season 1, but kept the things that made this special. And the fact that it ends with Richmond’s skin-of-the-teeth promotion is a particular delight, given my own team’s success this year (Nottingham Forest, obviously).
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The film was too constrained for time (ha!) to really explore the complexities of the narrative, so stretching it out into at least two series certainly works better. The awkwardness of the scenes between adult Henry and child Claire is handled well, with due acknowledgement given to the disturbing way that their friendship could be interpreted and the two leads are charismatic.
Thriller based in a Met bomb squad. There’s certainly plenty of tension, but the script is often leaden and however good the leads are (and they are very good) there’s a limit to what they can do with the lines they have to speak…
Stanley Tucci: In Search of Italy
Delightful. Tucci is the most charming of hosts, clearly a man who loves his food (and somehow, annoyingly, maintains a svelte figure despite this) and he takes us region by region through the cuisine, the ingredients, the techniques, the history, the politics of food.
Documentary series about 9/11, which begins with the attack and then explores the US and international response. Very interesting and hard-hitting.
Powerful and gut-wrenching Steve McQueen documentary series about the New Cross fire and the ways racism twisted the media response to the deaths, and the police investigation into the cause of the fire.
Properly claustrophobic submarine-based thriller. Was it plausible? I don’t rightly know, but I totally bought into it, for the length of the series at least.
The Walking Dead
I’ve somewhat lost track of what season we’re in now, or how far through, what with all of the breaks. But I know we’re coming towards the end of what has been, overall, a bloody good run. It did lose its way a bit for a while, dragging the Saviours plot out too long, but it got back on track with the Whisperers, and took things in a whole new direction with the Commonwealth.
We are Lady Parts*
Fabulously funny series about an all-female Muslim punk band, with Anjana Vasan (also seen this year as Pam in Killing Eve) a delight in the lead role.
We Own this City
From the same stable of writers as The Wire, which is a damn fine pedigree. This is based on real events, police brutality and corruption within the Baltimore PD’s Gun Trace Task Force. Jon Bernthal is brilliant in the lead role, all swagger and strut, with Jamie Hector (Marlo in The Wire) as his polar opposite. It’s dark, and the non-linear narrative requires some concentration.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Another long-running series that I only started watching in the last few months. How interesting it is depends on the person whose family history is being explored – I found Sue Perkins’ story fascinating, and Matt Lucas’s was almost unbearably moving, all the more so because his normal TV persona (one that I find intensely irritating, TBH) was entirely absent. Instead a serious, grown-up person was there, one who at many points in the programme was struggling with deep emotions as he discovered the stories of relatives who had remained in Germany or fled to the Netherlands during the war.
Winter on Fire
Fine documentary about the Maidan uprising in Ukraine in 2013-14, obviously even more significant, pertinent and moving in the present circumstances.
Right when I needed them…
A guest blog from Arthur Annabel
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.
Love, persevering (thoughts on 2021)
Posted in Personal on December 31, 2021
How can I even begin to write about this year? As it began, we were still grieving the loss of my younger brother in 2020, still in lockdown, still despairing over the state of our present government, still unable to think very far ahead or make firm plans. The world continued on its headlong rush to hell in a handcart. I blogged only occasionally, about Passing Time, and for Holocaust Memorial Day, and about my reading during the year (all my writing energy was going into the PhD). All the usual sort of things happened, and some less usual ones – I had a fall, which reduced my mobility significantly for the rest of the year, we went to a family wedding, our son moved into his new house, I submitted the PhD, to general rejoicing.
And then, on 9 October, a week after I’d submitted the thesis, I woke in the early hours to realise that my husband was having a cardiac arrest, and in the blur and muddle of a sudden awakening to realise that I was losing him. The paramedics did everything there was to be done, and kept on doing it until they knew there was nothing more that could be done. Our kids were summoned and arrived, and we sat, shell-shocked, trying to understand what had happened. In the space of an hour our world had utterly changed, for ever.
Since that day, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve watched or listened to, has been about that loss. The mountain of bereavement admin, of course, and the planning of the funeral. The decisions about how to manage here on my own, especially as I’m not very mobile at present. Every conversation, even when we’re not explicitly talking about ‘it’. I was determined to do my usual summaries of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched during the year, but I had to acknowledge and address the huge gulf between Before and After. And I still find I cannot listen to music in the focused way we used to.
It’s too early for me to have any profound reflections on grief. I’m just at the beginning of that journey. I’ve encountered it before, of course – the loss of my mother 26 years ago, the loss of my mother-in-law gradually to dementia and then finally to a stroke three Christmases ago, the loss of my younger brother to cancer in 2020. The difference here is that, as much as all of them were loved, however important they were to me, none of them was woven into the fabric of my daily life. And so I could go for hours, even days, feeling normal until I bumped into something or was ambushed by something that brought it back. Nothing is normal for me now and yet everything around me is familiar.
I know that the old Kubler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ hypothesis has been re-thought, to describe ‘states’ rather than stages, getting away from any notion of a linear process. If I have learned anything about grieving it is that it is not linear. The description of the five states also clearly encompasses a wide range of situations, including coming to terms with one’s own illness and mortality, and other life crises, and some of them seem alien to at least my experience of bereavement.
I have not in any of my grieving so far felt anger. Perhaps, as I do not believe in God, I have nothing/no one to rail and rage against, and the people I’ve lost have been lost to illnesses that, however cruel and brutal, are common, rather than to tragedies with a human cause. I haven’t ever asked, why him? why her? why me? The question makes no sense. Why? Because cancer invaded their body, because their heart had a genetic weakness, because dementia took away not only cognitive but other physical functions too. The same goes for bargaining: who would I be bargaining with, and for what? The people I’ve loved and lost aren’t coming back, however virtuous my life from this point on.
Denial? Only in the sense that in those early hours, as we prepared to make phone calls, we all had this sense of unreality, that we were perhaps about to waken family members and close friends with bad news that we had somehow hallucinated. But we knew. We knew there was no alternative reality to cling to, that the sense of unreality was a product of shock at something utterly unexpected, and of the only possible human response to death, that it makes no sense.
It makes no more sense now, over two months later, than it did in those awful first hours. How can a person be there, fully there, and then not, and so completely not that their absence from their own body is unmistakable and irrevocable? There’s an episode of Buffy that I will never, I suspect, be able to watch again, which confronts this, using a non-human to express what we all feel but don’t usually say:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5)
Faced with this incomprehensible reality, it is little wonder that human beings feel the need to believe in something after life, whether it is heaven, or reincarnation. Unfortunately those ideas seem as incomprehensible to me as death does. What lives on, I believe, is not the person, in some other sphere or inhabiting some other form, it is the memory of the person, the shape of them in the lives that they’ve left behind, the echo of their voice, the physical objects that they touched, the music that they loved. I do like this, however, which our son quoted in his tribute to his father at the funeral:
Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through – and it’s there, and you can see it, and you know what it is: it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be.Michael Schur, The Good Place
I was very moved by the way death was shown in The Good Place, the origin of this quote, a comedy about what happens after you die. Various versions of heaven and hell (the Good Place, the Bad Place) are encountered, but in the end, our protagonists choose, instead of going on forever, to become part of the ocean, part of the universe. And I can find more comfort in the idea that the people I have loved and lost are part of the ocean now than in the idea that they exist in some other plane, where I could theoretically be reunited with them in due course.
I know that this process of grieving will be lifelong. Each loss has altered me, and this one most profoundly. There is nothing in my life that is the same as it was on 8 October. And so I have to learn how to be myself, how to order my life, how to enjoy the things we used to share. It’s not that he defined me, rather that our partnership helped me to figure out who I am, to define myself.
I’ve learned some things so far.
I need to accept offers of help, whether I could manage without them or not, where they are prompted by the desire to support me and be useful. If I turn that away, I am in some way rejecting that person’s love. I’d rather swallow my stubborn independence in some small measure and say yes, thank you. And I need to ask for help clearly and directly when I really do need it. That’s not easy but it’s going to be vital.
Life is short, and one may get no notice that it’s about to end. After he died, we found so many things bought for him with love, that he was delighted to get, but so delighted that he saved them ‘for special’. That ‘special’ bottle of wine or whisky was untouched, the new rucksack still had its labels on, the book’s pages had not been opened, the cellophane was still on the CD or DVD. That’s not going to be the way I live, not now. If I have something lovely, especially something lovely that someone has given me, I will use and enjoy it now. Now may be the special time, for all we know.
The kindness of strangers has helped me more than I could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed with messages from my friends and family, and their support has been what has kept us from going under in these last two months. Practical and emotional support. Hugs and flowers and scones and lasagne and shared tears. But since I spoke about this on social media, I’ve also had support from people I’ve never met in real life. People may hesitate before expressing sympathy with someone they only know from a few tweets, because they fear intruding, or because they don’t feel they can express themselves articulately enough. The thing is, I’ve been public about what’s happened, so an expression of sympathy and support is not an intrusion. And I don’t expect anyone to have anything mind-blowingly profound to say – clichés have their place, in allowing us to reach out to someone we don’t know. And all of the ‘you’re in my thoughts’, ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘sending love’, and just ‘Oh, Cath’ have comforted and strengthened me, made me feel less alone. So, if you feel moved by someone’s situation, tell them. (Please, though, don’t give advice unless asked for, and don’t tell them they’ll feel better soon, and don’t say that everything happens for a reason…)
This is going to be a long haul. I will learn to live on my own, but to ask for help when I need it. I will learn to live in our home in a way that suits my needs and circumstances, and to celebrate the good things and the good times, and to enjoy the music and the TV and films that we used to enjoy together, as well as the new things I find, and the things that I always had to cajole him into watching or listening to. I’ll adapt, and I’ll cope, and I’ll be OK.
But we had 47 years of companionship, 44 years of marriage, and in all those years we were never apart for more than a week or so. We’ve now been apart for nearly twelve weeks, and I don’t understand where he’s got to. Our conversation hadn’t ended; there are so many things I want to tell him or discuss with him, things I want to ask him (the name of that neighbour who was so kind the other day, where on earth he put the locking wheel nuts for the car, that sort of thing), plans I want to make with him. Maybe the strength of that sensation, that he’s just popped out somewhere and been inexplicably delayed, will fade. But for the last 47 years, our lives were woven together and that can’t be unravelled. The pattern of my life will be different, but I will still see the threads of our companionship running through it.
What is grief, if not love, persevering? I took that line from the Marvel TV series, Wandavision. It took us a while to understand what was happening in the show, but I can see now that it was all about grief. And grief is all about love. The shape and power of that grief and that love will change, but I don’t believe they’ll fade into nothingness. And I don’t want them to.
At the funeral, I talked about the ordinariness of the last day we had together, a day which is only memorable because it was the last one.
In 44 years of marriage, there are more days like that than there are portentous or memorable ones. Days like that are what a lifetime of companionship is all about. A lifetime (all our adult lives, anyway) of affection, laughter, sharing out tasks and sharing worries, bickering (about things that mattered and about things that absolutely didn’t), watching detective dramas and Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and listening to music. Lots and lots of listening to music.
I don’t know what the shape of my days will be, without him. I’ll learn to listen to music and to watch the programmes and films we both loved, without him. I’ll go to concerts and the cinema and the theatre with other people, and I’ll spend time with our kids and our families and with friends. It will be strange, and difficult. But I’m thankful for those 44 years of everyday days, as well as the momentous and challenging and glorious and awful days, every kind of day. So, as Ray Davies put it (and as Kirsty MacColl sang it):
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.
I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.(R. Davies)
My love goes out to our children, who in their own profound grief, have given me so much strength, comfort and practical support. He was so very proud of them both, as am I.
So, 2022? I hope it will bring the completion of the PhD, weddings and babies, maybe a new knee for me. I can’t think much more widely than that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m deliberately trying not to grasp the enormity of living alone as a permanent state not just (as it sometimes feels at present) as an anomaly, or an experiment, because when I do for a moment I feel so weary and so daunted. If I think a day or a week at a time, I can do this. Because I’m not doing it alone, but with people I love and who love me. And if I hold on tight to that, I’ll find the strength I need to keep on keeping on.
I will hold on to my hat and hang on my hope, and wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day. And this poem, Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’, which you can hear read by my dear friend Ruth Arnold, is for all of us: ‘The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.’