Archive for category Personal
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.
A guest blog from Arthur Annabel
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.
How can I even begin to write about this year? As it began, we were still grieving the loss of my younger brother in 2020, still in lockdown, still despairing over the state of our present government, still unable to think very far ahead or make firm plans. The world continued on its headlong rush to hell in a handcart. I blogged only occasionally, about Passing Time, and for Holocaust Memorial Day, and about my reading during the year (all my writing energy was going into the PhD). All the usual sort of things happened, and some less usual ones – I had a fall, which reduced my mobility significantly for the rest of the year, we went to a family wedding, our son moved into his new house, I submitted the PhD, to general rejoicing.
And then, on 9 October, a week after I’d submitted the thesis, I woke in the early hours to realise that my husband was having a cardiac arrest, and in the blur and muddle of a sudden awakening to realise that I was losing him. The paramedics did everything there was to be done, and kept on doing it until they knew there was nothing more that could be done. Our kids were summoned and arrived, and we sat, shell-shocked, trying to understand what had happened. In the space of an hour our world had utterly changed, for ever.
Since that day, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve watched or listened to, has been about that loss. The mountain of bereavement admin, of course, and the planning of the funeral. The decisions about how to manage here on my own, especially as I’m not very mobile at present. Every conversation, even when we’re not explicitly talking about ‘it’. I was determined to do my usual summaries of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched during the year, but I had to acknowledge and address the huge gulf between Before and After. And I still find I cannot listen to music in the focused way we used to.
It’s too early for me to have any profound reflections on grief. I’m just at the beginning of that journey. I’ve encountered it before, of course – the loss of my mother 26 years ago, the loss of my mother-in-law gradually to dementia and then finally to a stroke three Christmases ago, the loss of my younger brother to cancer in 2020. The difference here is that, as much as all of them were loved, however important they were to me, none of them was woven into the fabric of my daily life. And so I could go for hours, even days, feeling normal until I bumped into something or was ambushed by something that brought it back. Nothing is normal for me now and yet everything around me is familiar.
I know that the old Kubler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ hypothesis has been re-thought, to describe ‘states’ rather than stages, getting away from any notion of a linear process. If I have learned anything about grieving it is that it is not linear. The description of the five states also clearly encompasses a wide range of situations, including coming to terms with one’s own illness and mortality, and other life crises, and some of them seem alien to at least my experience of bereavement.
I have not in any of my grieving so far felt anger. Perhaps, as I do not believe in God, I have nothing/no one to rail and rage against, and the people I’ve lost have been lost to illnesses that, however cruel and brutal, are common, rather than to tragedies with a human cause. I haven’t ever asked, why him? why her? why me? The question makes no sense. Why? Because cancer invaded their body, because their heart had a genetic weakness, because dementia took away not only cognitive but other physical functions too. The same goes for bargaining: who would I be bargaining with, and for what? The people I’ve loved and lost aren’t coming back, however virtuous my life from this point on.
Denial? Only in the sense that in those early hours, as we prepared to make phone calls, we all had this sense of unreality, that we were perhaps about to waken family members and close friends with bad news that we had somehow hallucinated. But we knew. We knew there was no alternative reality to cling to, that the sense of unreality was a product of shock at something utterly unexpected, and of the only possible human response to death, that it makes no sense.
It makes no more sense now, over two months later, than it did in those awful first hours. How can a person be there, fully there, and then not, and so completely not that their absence from their own body is unmistakable and irrevocable? There’s an episode of Buffy that I will never, I suspect, be able to watch again, which confronts this, using a non-human to express what we all feel but don’t usually say:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5)
Faced with this incomprehensible reality, it is little wonder that human beings feel the need to believe in something after life, whether it is heaven, or reincarnation. Unfortunately those ideas seem as incomprehensible to me as death does. What lives on, I believe, is not the person, in some other sphere or inhabiting some other form, it is the memory of the person, the shape of them in the lives that they’ve left behind, the echo of their voice, the physical objects that they touched, the music that they loved. I do like this, however, which our son quoted in his tribute to his father at the funeral:
Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through – and it’s there, and you can see it, and you know what it is: it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be.Michael Schur, The Good Place
I was very moved by the way death was shown in The Good Place, the origin of this quote, a comedy about what happens after you die. Various versions of heaven and hell (the Good Place, the Bad Place) are encountered, but in the end, our protagonists choose, instead of going on forever, to become part of the ocean, part of the universe. And I can find more comfort in the idea that the people I have loved and lost are part of the ocean now than in the idea that they exist in some other plane, where I could theoretically be reunited with them in due course.
I know that this process of grieving will be lifelong. Each loss has altered me, and this one most profoundly. There is nothing in my life that is the same as it was on 8 October. And so I have to learn how to be myself, how to order my life, how to enjoy the things we used to share. It’s not that he defined me, rather that our partnership helped me to figure out who I am, to define myself.
I’ve learned some things so far.
I need to accept offers of help, whether I could manage without them or not, where they are prompted by the desire to support me and be useful. If I turn that away, I am in some way rejecting that person’s love. I’d rather swallow my stubborn independence in some small measure and say yes, thank you. And I need to ask for help clearly and directly when I really do need it. That’s not easy but it’s going to be vital.
Life is short, and one may get no notice that it’s about to end. After he died, we found so many things bought for him with love, that he was delighted to get, but so delighted that he saved them ‘for special’. That ‘special’ bottle of wine or whisky was untouched, the new rucksack still had its labels on, the book’s pages had not been opened, the cellophane was still on the CD or DVD. That’s not going to be the way I live, not now. If I have something lovely, especially something lovely that someone has given me, I will use and enjoy it now. Now may be the special time, for all we know.
The kindness of strangers has helped me more than I could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed with messages from my friends and family, and their support has been what has kept us from going under in these last two months. Practical and emotional support. Hugs and flowers and scones and lasagne and shared tears. But since I spoke about this on social media, I’ve also had support from people I’ve never met in real life. People may hesitate before expressing sympathy with someone they only know from a few tweets, because they fear intruding, or because they don’t feel they can express themselves articulately enough. The thing is, I’ve been public about what’s happened, so an expression of sympathy and support is not an intrusion. And I don’t expect anyone to have anything mind-blowingly profound to say – clichés have their place, in allowing us to reach out to someone we don’t know. And all of the ‘you’re in my thoughts’, ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘sending love’, and just ‘Oh, Cath’ have comforted and strengthened me, made me feel less alone. So, if you feel moved by someone’s situation, tell them. (Please, though, don’t give advice unless asked for, and don’t tell them they’ll feel better soon, and don’t say that everything happens for a reason…)
This is going to be a long haul. I will learn to live on my own, but to ask for help when I need it. I will learn to live in our home in a way that suits my needs and circumstances, and to celebrate the good things and the good times, and to enjoy the music and the TV and films that we used to enjoy together, as well as the new things I find, and the things that I always had to cajole him into watching or listening to. I’ll adapt, and I’ll cope, and I’ll be OK.
But we had 47 years of companionship, 44 years of marriage, and in all those years we were never apart for more than a week or so. We’ve now been apart for nearly twelve weeks, and I don’t understand where he’s got to. Our conversation hadn’t ended; there are so many things I want to tell him or discuss with him, things I want to ask him (the name of that neighbour who was so kind the other day, where on earth he put the locking wheel nuts for the car, that sort of thing), plans I want to make with him. Maybe the strength of that sensation, that he’s just popped out somewhere and been inexplicably delayed, will fade. But for the last 47 years, our lives were woven together and that can’t be unravelled. The pattern of my life will be different, but I will still see the threads of our companionship running through it.
What is grief, if not love, persevering? I took that line from the Marvel TV series, Wandavision. It took us a while to understand what was happening in the show, but I can see now that it was all about grief. And grief is all about love. The shape and power of that grief and that love will change, but I don’t believe they’ll fade into nothingness. And I don’t want them to.
At the funeral, I talked about the ordinariness of the last day we had together, a day which is only memorable because it was the last one.
In 44 years of marriage, there are more days like that than there are portentous or memorable ones. Days like that are what a lifetime of companionship is all about. A lifetime (all our adult lives, anyway) of affection, laughter, sharing out tasks and sharing worries, bickering (about things that mattered and about things that absolutely didn’t), watching detective dramas and Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and listening to music. Lots and lots of listening to music.
I don’t know what the shape of my days will be, without him. I’ll learn to listen to music and to watch the programmes and films we both loved, without him. I’ll go to concerts and the cinema and the theatre with other people, and I’ll spend time with our kids and our families and with friends. It will be strange, and difficult. But I’m thankful for those 44 years of everyday days, as well as the momentous and challenging and glorious and awful days, every kind of day. So, as Ray Davies put it (and as Kirsty MacColl sang it):
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.
I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.(R. Davies)
My love goes out to our children, who in their own profound grief, have given me so much strength, comfort and practical support. He was so very proud of them both, as am I.
So, 2022? I hope it will bring the completion of the PhD, weddings and babies, maybe a new knee for me. I can’t think much more widely than that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m deliberately trying not to grasp the enormity of living alone as a permanent state not just (as it sometimes feels at present) as an anomaly, or an experiment, because when I do for a moment I feel so weary and so daunted. If I think a day or a week at a time, I can do this. Because I’m not doing it alone, but with people I love and who love me. And if I hold on tight to that, I’ll find the strength I need to keep on keeping on.
I will hold on to my hat and hang on my hope, and wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day. And this poem, Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’, which you can hear read by my dear friend Ruth Arnold, is for all of us: ‘The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.’
Normally, as New Year’s Eve approaches, I post some reflections on the year just passed, hopes for the next one, that sort of thing. This year, there seems to be nothing I can say about the year that I haven’t already said, or that others have not said better. I wrote about the loss of my lovely brother here, I bade au revoir to the EU here, I said my piece, for what it’s worth, on #BLM here, and I’ve referred to the pandemic, directly or indirectly, in most of my posts since March.
2020 was wretched, for all of us, to different degrees (we may have all been in the same storm, but not in the same boat…). Let’s not rehash that now. And if we ever thought we could embark on a New Year blithely confident in what lay ahead, the last few years, and especially this last one, have disabused us rather brutally. So I won’t look ahead much either, except in very general terms.
I do, though, want to celebrate the people who’ve made this year a little bit better, directly or indirectly.
NHS staff – and by that I mean not only GPs, consultants, doctors, midwives and nurses, but health care assistants, the staff who clean the wards, who feed the patients, who provide the services that underpin front-line patient care. I know that many of those staff have paid a price this year, in stress and anxiety, in their own losses and grief, in sickness and, in a tragically large number of cases, with their lives.
The people who keep essential basic services going – the bin collectors, the postal workers, the supermarket staff (I know from chatting to staff at the till that they have at times been subjected to abuse from customers when supplies run short or queues are long), the bus drivers, the lorry drivers moving supplies around the country… We tend not to think about them, until something we take for granted doesn’t happen.
The international teams of scientists and researchers who’ve been battling to find out everything they can about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat it and how we can protect ourselves against it. And many have been battling too to counter the relentless tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories that flows on social media. (Shout out to Prof. Carl Smythe (Professor of Cell Biology) at the University of Sheffield, who’s been refuting arrant (and lethal) nonsense on a daily basis for the last nine months… )
The people who’ve helped out, whenever and wherever. Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity (who also sprang into action during the Somerset floods a few years ago), one of a number of organisations who delivered provisions to lorry drivers stranded at Dover because of the border closures. And the cafés, shops, pubs and other small businesses (many struggling themselves during the pandemic) who nonetheless stepped up to offer free meals for schoolchildren during school hols when the government declined to do so.
Some people who have brightened our world, or my life in particular, in absolutely no order: The Doctor, Marcus Rashford (and his Mum), Jacinda Ardern, Pariah Press, Angela Davis, Ruth Arnold, Jackie Kay, David Olusoga, Persephone Books, The Good Place, Greg Fell, Songhoy Blues, Caroline Shaw, Michael Rosen, Hilary Mantel, Music Planet, Céline Sciamma, Lissa Evans, Inspiration for Life, Alyn Shipton, Jean-Luc Picard, Ensemble 360, John le Carré, J to Z, Stephen King, Brian Lewis’s Lockdown Walks. You’ve made me smile, given me hope, made me dance around the kitchen, informed and challenged me, brought me books and films and music to inspire and delight me. Love and gratitude to all of you.
And whatever is around the corner, we can keep our eyes on two beacons of hope.
Firstly, there are the vaccines, which will save lives and reunite us with our friends and families – oh, the hugs that will be hugged.
And then there’s the inauguration of a new US President and VP. Whatever their flaws, and whatever difficulties the GOP will place in their path, once again this major power will be led by people with intelligence, integrity, concern for the powerless at home and abroad, and a commitment to engage positively with the world.
Some stuff that gives me a glimmer of hope and optimism, that I hang on to in the bleak nights:
First off, I refer you to the project I’ve been involved with in recent weeks. Inspiration for Life is the charity I helped to set up in 2012, and then chaired until last month, which raises funds for cancer charities. Our major fundraiser has always been the 24 Hour Inspire, a 24-hour lecture marathon, which was, obviously, impossible to run in the midst of a pandemic. So instead, we offered 24 Reasons to be Cheerful, our on-line Advent Calendar. There’s some lovely stuff – music from Fay Hield, Ayusp, the Cancer Choir and the Creating Hope choir, plus comedy, art and craft, a bit of science, and contributions from our partner charities. If you feel moved to donate a few quids, that would be lovely.
One of the films is a reading of the poem ‘Sometimes’, by Sheenagh Pugh, which I usually include in my NYE post. This time I’ll let you hear Ruth Arnold reading it.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
(Joss Whedon – Angel)
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.
(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)
Last time I posted these, we had no thoughts of a pandemic, of health care workers dying, of care home occupants separated from their families, of theatres, concert halls, football grounds, churches empty of people, of pubs and restaurants with doors closed to customers, of facemasks and R numbers and shielding and bubbles.
Nonetheless, they hold true. And they’re worth holding on to.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be blue skies ahead…
Normally, there’s quite a bit about cinema in this review of the year on screen. This year was, obviously, different, and whilst I could have watched more films on screen via DVD, for a host of reasons I found refuge in telly, in short bursts of drama rather than longer forms. My concentration was shot in the first part of the year, with the loss of my brother, and the onset of the pandemic.
I got used to the latter, to the extent that those of us who weren’t directly affected got used to it (finding new routines involving lots of local walks and evenings in, as we had the luxury of no work or financial pressures, plenty of space indoors and out, and no one close to us being ill).
As for the former, grieving isn’t a linear process, one can seem to be fine and then walk into a wall that wasn’t there before, one can seem to be fine and then be ambushed by a memory, an image, a word. So there are things we’ve avoided watching because, well, why deliberately provoke it? The exception to this was Little Women, of which more below, which we saw at the cinema very early in 2020, in full knowledge of how it would foreshadow the inevitable loss that we were facing.
The Small Screen
Please note: this reflects what we have watched in 2020, and thus includes old stuff that is circling eternally on ITV 3 and Drama, stuff from 2019 that was still sitting on our BT Vision Box as the year turned, as well as this year’s TV. This is the telly that has diverted, amused, intrigued, enlightened, moved and informed us during 2020. I’ve missed out the things that we started watching and then decided life was simply too short to waste time on, but, whilst I don’t normally spend much time talking about things I haven’t liked, there are a few dishonourable mentions here, mainly for things that I expected to like and in the end was very cross with. I’ve linked to some reviews, where they are not too spoilery, but as always, caveat lector.
You know you’ve watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders when the ITV 3 intro causes eruptions of rage every single time it invites us to go to the ‘infamous village of Midsomer where only one thing’s for certain’. As any fule no, Midsomer is not a village but a county. I mean, that body count would be just too improbable in just one village, wouldn’t it? Another clue is when you overhear someone saying ‘Oh, hello, what are you doing here?’ and turn abruptly, expecting imminent violence with a pitchfork or perhaps a giant cheese. It’s very silly, and the writing is variable but at its best, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and there are lots of little in-jokes about the bloodthirsty nature of these picturesque villages (like the incoming DS from the Met who is shocked at the carnage). We’ve re-watched all the Nettles series, which allows us to marvel every episode at how Joyce manages to get involved in every single case, because she is a member of every single committee, book club, art class, choir, am dram group, and so forth in the entire county. I have my suspicions that she is actually the mastermind behind the whole murderous business.
There were lots more weighty contenders, of course. Foreign language offerings included Nordic crime from Twin, Before We Die, Wisting, and Below the Surface, and best of all The Bridge, whose first two series we had missed when they were first shown (I know! What were we thinking?) and enjoyed very much, whilst concluding that the plot, especially perhaps in Season 2, was a little too complex for its own good and if one was being picky one might mention a couple of possible holes. But one won’t, and one is now re-watching series 3 and 4. Saga is, of course, a most wonderful creation.
Wallander is obviously Nordic but Young Wallander is in English. It’s an oddity – if we hadn’t been alerted before watching we would have been most bemused by the contemporary setting. There are nods to ‘our’ Wallander (the father who paints the same scene over and over again, the girlfriend called Mona) but clearly this is not the equivalent of Endeavour. It was enjoyable, if not unmissable. Van der Valk is a remake of a 70s series which we never watched – again it’s in English but set in Amsterdam. The setting was, I fear, the best thing about it. The plots were ludicrously baroque, the motivation of the culprits unconvincing, the script clichéd – and if anyone wonders how I dare level such criticisms when I’ve just admitted to a fondness for Midsomer Murders, MM has a lightness, a touch of humour, that VdV lacked.
The latest series of Spiral had us shouting at the telly, primarily at Laure and Gilou. Excellent stuff – our deeply flawed heroes may be infuriating but they’re convincing and won our hearts a long while back, and the plot was gripping and tense. The other French offering was The Other Mother, based on Michel Bussi’s novel Maman a tort, which was also excellent – the plot was complex but just the right side of incomprehensible. The Team was a multinational European offering – it’s series 2 but with no characters in common from series 1, just the concept of a multinational team pulled together from different EU nations to solve a crime.
We also watched the movie Goldstone, which is linked to the Australian crime series Murder Road, whose new series is awaiting our attention, and the much lighter-weight but diverting Harrow, about an Aussie pathologist, the sort of pathologist who investigates crime, not the sort that gets called in when there’s a corpse and says ‘I’ll know more when I get him on the slab’ and then eats his sandwiches whilst foraging about in someone’s insides – see MM, Vera, et al. They know their place, unlike Harrow.
We visited the frozen landscapes of Canada for another dark and dour series of Cardinal, and back to the US for The Sinner (this was series 2, with only Bill Pullman in common with series 1). A much more unusual setting for Baghdad Central – an excellent, tautly plotted thriller with powerful performances by Waleed Zuaiter and Bertie Carvel. And we visited the past – Vienna in the 1900s -for Vienna Blood. The protagonists are an ‘unlikely duo’ of a brash young medical student and disciple of Freud, and a battered older cop, the production is very Sherlockian, and altogether it was slightly daft, but enjoyable, with a darker undercurrent running through it, of the endemic antisemitism of the time and the place, whose consequences we know too well.
Back in the UK, we enjoyed the Agatha Christie dramatization of The Pale Horse, with Rufus Sewell; Guilt, a blackly comic take on murder, with the always engaging Mark Bonnar; and McDonald & Dodds, with Jason Watkins, another lighter weight crime series, with good enough performances and writing to be worth catching when it returns. We watched Judge John Deed, which turned into a montage of 90s conspiracy theories about phone masts and the like, with improbable legal scenarios, and a protagonist whose compulsion to seduce every attractive woman he meets (key witness, fellow barrister, ex-wife, his therapist) becomes tiresome and frankly a bit creepy. Actually, all of the characters are intensely annoying, and one watched it mainly to be infuriated with it. Series 2 of Bancroft was just as ludicrous as the first.
The really good stuff:
Strike, Series 4 – charismatic leads, great plots, thoroughly enjoyable series, weaving the personal narratives of Strike and Robin in with the investigations very skilfully.
Hidden, Series 2 – Welsh noir – very, very noir – with an excellent female lead. As with the first series, the ending brings a very compromised and uncomfortable resolution.
Deadwater Fell – dark psychological drama, excellent cast, very unsettling.
Elizabeth is Missing – based on the book by Emma Healey. The lead character, Maud, has dementia, so when she insists that her friend Elizabeth is missing, no one takes her very seriously. Her recent memories keep getting mixed up with much older ones, of a much older disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s performance is absolutely mesmerisingly brilliant.
Dublin Murders – based on the first two books of the Tana French series. The plots are interwoven in a way that perhaps didn’t totally work, but the quality of the writing and the performances carried the day.
Endeavour – the penultimate series, apparently. The quality of the writing continues to be an absolute joy. The interplay between Morse, Strange, Thursday and Bright is so well played, often very emotionally powerful even though (or perhaps all the more because) none of them speak easily about their feelings.
Vera – Brenda Blethyn is a fine-looking woman, and so somewhat at odds with the descriptions in the novels, but she gets the character beautifully. The way in which the relationship with Joe’s replacement as DS is developed is convincing and touching (I particularly like the way he kneels to help her put on her crime scene shoe covers. As an older woman with dodgy knees I can so identify).
The Capture – about surveillance and deep fake images and whether or not we can trust what we see… A nicely paranoid atmosphere and a gradual blurring of the lines between right and wrong
Giri/Haji – my pick of the year, without a doubt. That it didn’t get commissioned for a second season speaks to a certain cowardice amongst the decision makers, but as the Independent’s reviewer says, it is pretty much faultless as it stands, so maybe it doesn’t need a sequel. This was stylish, often audacious, bloody, darkly humorous – really striking and memorable telly. Applause to all concerned.
Homeland returned for the last time. The final series was an encapsulation of everything that we’ve seen over its whole run, very consciously a drawing together of many of the threads from all the previous series, satisfying without being oversimplified. As a jazz fan I was delighted that Carrie’s love of jazz, rather forgotten about in recent series, was foregrounded in the final scenes, as the wonderful Kamasi Washington performed live on stage.
Deutschland 86 took us to the brink, everything in place for the collapse of the GDR and the destruction of the Wall. I hope we get one more series, to take these characters, and us, through those momentous events.
We would not normally have thought of watching The New Pope. The trailer, rather bafflingly, showed Jude Law in tiny (very tiny) Speedos walking along a beach, as women gazed, and fainted away, on either side. Hmmm. However, we knew that my brother had a moment on screen as one of the Cardinals gathered at a funeral, and we had to watch – and watch with full attention – to ensure we didn’t miss him. I’m glad we did – it was bonkers but beautiful. (So we got to see both of my brothers on screen this year, strangely enough, our Aidan in purple robes in The New Pope, and our Greg in an orange trackie at a football match over 40 years ago – see below.)
Philharmonia was bonkers too – the orchestral setting was unusual, and it was enjoyable, even if one didn’t ever believe a word of it.
The Accident was grim, and some of the plotting was a little bit careless, I thought – or maybe setting up for a second series where other things come to light? No idea. I just felt that – without giving too much away – a character was introduced who played a key role in events, but that role never seemed to be properly explored, and the images at the very end seemed, almost, to suggest that the truth was something other than the established official version. I may have imagined it! There were some powerful performances, from Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in particular.
The Plot against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire) from Philip Roth’s alt history, in which Charles Lindbergh, running on an America First ticket, wins the 1940 US election rather than FDR. It is, of course, incredibly topical (more so than the novel, which came out in 2004, when the events of 2016 could not have been imagined). It was powerful, incredibly tense, and subtle when it needed to be. Its final moments – and this is where it differed significantly from the book – with the central characters tensely awaiting the outcome of another election, hoping and fearing the outcome, kept coming back into my mind in November.
We’re saving up Small Axe. Looking forward so much to this.
Let’s draw a veil over the awful Batwoman. Wooden acting, clunky scripts, a plot that made no sense at all.
Devs – sci fi that’s about ideas, as much as it’s about tech. There was no predicting where this one was heading, or where it ended up. Whether it entirely made sense, I’m not sure, but it was, as the Guardian reviewer put it, a ‘deep, dark, wild ride’.
Dracula – yet another take on the Stoker original, this one was about as faithful as any of the others, but it really went for it, with conviction and style. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian put it, ‘It’s a proper job […] And that means proper scares. No spoilers, but the one in the [redacted] when the [redacted] suddenly [redacted] had me clinging to the ceiling. I advise parental supervision at all times. My dad was annoyed at having to come over, but needs must when the devil calls and starts emanating from your screen.’
His Dark Materials – As always with a screen version of a book/series that I have loved with a real passion, I was anxious that the adaptation would mess it up. I needn’t have worried. The performances are grand, the visuals stunning, and it’s powerful stuff. We loved it, and are looking forward to Series 2.
Star Trek: Discovery – we’re through the wormhole now, and it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This allows for real character development, though if I were to be picky I’d ask them to rein in the reaction shots of awe and wonderment and so forth. No idea where we’re headed but we’re now liberated from the need to be consistent with the existing series, which is pretty exciting, if you’re a long-term Trekker.
Star Trek: Picard – it’s a good time to be into Trek! Not only Discovery, but Picard too. My love for Jean-Luc is undimmed and he carried this very effectively. Some lovely shout-backs to NG, but its not pure nostalgia for the fans.
The Walking Dead – The first part of the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic – we only got the finale in October and now have to wait till next year for the second half. The series has come back strongly from quite a long slump, and whilst some of the regular gripes (apocalyptic battles which end up with only one peripheral character being killed, regular characters behaving with untypical stupidity to bring about some new peril, that sort of thing) are ever present, it’s back to being essential after a period where it was a mere duty watch.
Doctor Who – This year’s series was controversial amongst some Whovians, for seeming to change some of what we thought we knew about the Doctor’s origins. But did it? After all, our main source was the Master, who, as we know, lies… We will see. The Doctor did make a few appearances later in the year from her Judoon cell, to give us hopeful and inspiring messages about coping with lockdown isolation, which, I have to admit, brought a tear to my eye. She’ll be back on 1 January 2021, and let’s hope that the Tardis is a harbinger of hope for a better year ahead.
Some films watched on TV: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom was perfect New Year’s Day fare. And the general stress of lockdown drew us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first I rather enjoyed – the script was just clever enough, with some neat historical references buried in amongst the improbable action. The second, well, once we had chuckled at the Bennett girls practising martial arts and strapping lethal weapons to their stockinged legs, it was slightly thin stuff. Last but not least in this category, the only superhero movie we watched this year, very unusually, was Deadpool, which was, to say the least, different… Very funny, very rude.
We’re saving up Agents of Shield (the last ever series) and Series 2 of His Dark Materials – some things to look forward to early in 2021.
We caught up with Modern Family, which we’d abandoned at the end of series 4, for no good reason. I found myself laughing loud and often. The characters don’t develop, not really, but when the writing and the performances are this good, there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had. We discovered Friday Night Dinner (only series 1 so far) which also made us laugh a lot.
The Good Place managed to be both very, very funny and profound. It made full use of its fantasy license, regularly wrongfooting us in ways that made us shout out something along the lines of WTF, and its final couple of episodes reduced me to real sobs, not just ‘something in my eye’ but full-on weeping. And yet, right up to the end, it was very, very funny too. A fabulous achievement.
We enjoyed the ebullient and charismatic Stuart Copeland in a couple of docs, his own Adventures in Music series, and his episode of Guitar, Drums, Bass (Lenny Kaye and Tina Weymouth represented the other instruments). We enjoyed the Lennon at 80 radio programme hosted by Sean Lennon, and a documentary about John and Yoko, Above Us Only Sky. The film Matanga/Maya/MIA was fascinating, though it left me somewhat dubious about her, not so much musically as politically. K T Tunstall presented an absolutely charming documentary about Ivor Cutler. A number of classical documentaries featured members of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family: an Imagine programme, This House is Full of Music, Young, Gifted and Classical, focusing on cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who cropped up too in the excellent Black Classical Music, fronted by Lenny Henry and Suzie Klein, which introduced us to a number of composers we had not heard of previously. This last programme tied in with Black History Month, as did Gospel According to Mica, in which the singer explored the history of the genre through six songs, taking us from slavery days through the civil rights struggle to our own time. Soul America charted some of the same history, though taking a much narrower slice of history, broadly from the transmutation of gospel into soul, through the socially conscious sounds of the late 60s, to the sexual healing of the ’70s. Music, Money & Madness was a fascinating look at the background to Rainbow Bridge, the incoherent mess of a film that features Hendrix’s excellent 1970 gig in Maui, Hawaii.
Afua Hirsch presented African Renaissance (on African art), and co-presented with Samuel L Jackson the outstanding and at times overwhelming Enslaved. David Olusoga’s Africa Turns a Page put the spotlight on African writers, some familiar, others less so (see my books blog for some contemporary African fiction).
I Am Not Your Negro is an extraordinary film. It’s a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was one of the African American writers who I discovered in my teens and who inspired and challenged me. The film left me feeling quite shaken, such is the power of the images and Baldwin’s words.
France 1939: One Last Summer – A poignant compilation of home movies from France, from the summer of 1939. Impossible to see even the most carefree moments without the foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel was thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned.
On a somewhat (much) lighter note, Rome Unpacked was a lovely corollary to our recent visit, reminding us of how much we had yet to see (looking forward to our next trip, in the after-times…). I also fell somewhat (quite a bit) in love with Giorgio Locatelli. One quibble however – they visited the Jewish Ghetto and talked about the history of medieval antisemitism, without mentioning that the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It’s not that I wanted the programme to delve into that in any detail – it just needed a one sentence coda to that section of the programme, rather than leaving the impression that murderous anti-semitism was something from the distant past.
A documentary about Nottingham Forest’s 1970s European Cup successes turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I’d been anticipating, when I caught sight of my lovely kid brother, who died in February, on one of the clips. He’d been a ball-boy at the first-round match against Liverpool in our 1979 Euro cup campaign, and was caught on camera at the end, clapping the team off the pitch and then punching the air in celebration. I sobbed for quite some time after that.
The Big Screen
2020 cinema began shortly after New Year, with Little Women. I knew what was coming, of course, having known the books for most of my life, but it didn’t stop Beth’s death being devastating, as I knew how soon I would be losing my little brother. I have the DVD but will need to brace myself before rewatching, particularly the bits where… well, if you’ve seen it, or any of the previous versions or read the book, you won’t need me to spell out the parts of the film which will break me on the rewatch. In fact, I won’t even say any more now, just refer you to Rick Burin’s review. Hell, it broke him, and as he says, ‘I’m northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying’.
And then a two-film day in mid-March, watching Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (second time round for me) with Liz at the Showroom, and then in the afternoon Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with Martyn. I loved both films, I found Girlhood just as powerful as I had the first time, with several moments that are firmly lodged in my mind, and Portrait definitely requires a re-watch. I wrote about both films for this year’s International Women’s Day blog but I’m going to send you to read Rick Burin again, as he reviews all of Sciamma’s films and much better than I can.
Note that the films I did see in 2020 totally kicked the Bechdel test‘s ass.
And that was it. No more cinema – they did reopen, of course, for a while, but as we have been super-cautious throughout the pandemic, we did not take advantage (I renewed my Showroom membership, as a gesture of support).
Can’t talk about cinema in 2020 without noting the tragically early death of Chadwick Boseman. I only knew him as Black Panther but that role alone was enough to imprint him on my consciousness – it was a performance of grace and power, as well as huge cultural significance. Will look out for chances to see Boseman’s other movies.
Previous years’ cultural highlights have included Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. Obviously, since March, the pandemic has put paid to that. In fact, I’d had to drop out before that – I could not attend the three productions in January/February as my brother’s condition worsened and I knew both that I needed to be available to see him whenever I could, and that I really couldn’t commit to producing a review in a reasonable timescale, or at all. I had no idea when I made that decision that my stint as an opera reviewer would have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I loved doing the reviews, and had a marvellous time seeing superb productions of works from Monteverdi to Britten and all points in between.
The move to on-line cultural activities, devastating as it was to the future of live performance, offered some delights. The Sheffield Classical Music Festival in May gave us access to some joyous and uplifting chamber music, as members of Ensemble 360 filmed performances in their gardens and living rooms. It was fabulous, even if it made us miss Music in the Round in the Crucible Studio even more.
Other online treats were Ian Dunt talking about being a liberal, David Olusoga talking about Black and British in Black History Month, Kit de Waal talking about My Name is Leon (all three talks part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival), Sarah Churchwell and Bonnie Greer talking about the US election outcome (part of the national Being Human festival) – and two chances to hear and see someone who was an idol during my teenage years, the awesome and inspiring Angela Davis, first in her own South Bank lecture, and then in conversation with Jackie Kay (as part of Manchester Literary Festival). I might, theoretically, have got to the Off the Shelf events in normal circs. But I wouldn’t have made it to the South Bank, or the University of London, or even across the Pennines to Manchester.
But I long to get back to live chamber music and theatre at the Crucible, live opera at Leeds Grand Theatre, arty French movies at the Showroom and blockbusters at the IMAX… We’ll get there, thanks to the vaccine(s). And it will be so very lovely when we do. I may, just possibly, weep.
Screens, in general, have been our lifeline in the plague times. Not just the entertainment and enlightenment of what our television channels offer, but the Zoom/Messenger/Facetime link ups with the people we love, who we can’t be with. It’s not the same, obviously, and in the early days at least it made me feel, briefly, sadder once we’d waved goodbye and blown kisses to the small figures on our laptop screens. But our isolation has been less stark, less absolute, and at best those virtual encounters have made us feel hope, made us feel loved, given us the chance to support each other.
Eight years ago, I wrote about my Mum, on the anniversary of her death. It was the most personal thing I’d posted on this blog, which I’d only started a few months earlier – and whilst many of my posts since have been heartfelt, they haven’t, for the most part, been about me and my family. Earlier this year, though, I wrote about my youngest brother, on what would have been his 58th birthday. And now I feel compelled to write again to mark the 25th anniversary of Mum’s death.
What I’ve learned is that one doesn’t ‘get over it’. Loss changes us. The raw, wrenching pain of grief eases, with time, though it can still catch us unawares. But we adapt to a world without that person in it, to a world where we can no longer see, hear, hold that person. It takes time. 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.
As life goes on, we accumulate losses. We lose not only grandparents, but parents, siblings, partners, friends, even children. Each loss brings back every other loss. No wonder that as we get older, our tears flow more freely.
I still think of my mum so often. I ask myself what she would do, what she would say. And when I feel sad or lost, the thought that comes to me, even now, at 62 years old, is that I want my mum. I want her embrace, her unconditional love, her tenderness, her understanding. I know my brothers and sister, and sisters in law, feel the same. Not only that, but each year when I mark her loss with a post on Facebook I hear from other people who miss her too, people whose lives she had touched, people who turned to her in times of trouble and found understanding.
I’m always shocked to realise how few photographs I have of her. In those I have, she’s often looking down, at a small child at her side, or a baby in her arms. She never liked being photographed, that was the thing, and when forced to face the camera she tended to look a bit awkward, or anxious, her smile not the one we knew, the one that warmed us.
I wish she was here. But she was spared so much – the gradual decline into dependency that might have been her lot had the cancer not taken her at 65, and above all the loss of her youngest son. For the first time, when I knew my kid brother was terminally ill, I was thankful that she wasn’t still here to endure that pain.
She was intuitive and empathetic. Good luck ever trying to kid her that you were OK if you weren’t. She knew – even over the phone. And her emotional energies were channeled into sensing what others needed, not just her family but anyone she met.
She constantly questioned herself, and fell short of her own standards, whilst somehow setting an example for us that we can hardly hope to meet. (I remember her berating herself mercilessly because she had in a careless moment bought a tin of South African peaches during the apartheid era.) Her goodness was rooted in integrity and empathy, qualities she had in abundance. The latter prevented the former from becoming harsh and judgmental, the former prevented the latter from becoming mere sentimentality.
It was so quick, so brutally quick, just weeks from the diagnosis. But slow is brutal too, with cancer, and either way, at the end, as a wise man said, it’s always sudden. I remember this day 25 years ago, the unreality of it, as we came back from the hospital to the house where her absence was so tangible and incomprehensible. I remember the unfinished knitting (a child’s jumper) that came back from the hospital, the book that I’d lent her with a bookmark still halfway through. Powerful symbols of a life cut short far, far too soon. Those memories can still break me.
But most of all I remember her love. Love that nurtured and protected us, that showed us how to be loving and generous in our turn.
‘Her love was life and happiness and in her steps I traceSome Fantastic Place lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing
The way to live a better life
In some fantastic place’
Cecily Hallett, 8 January 1930-29 May 1995.
I miss her. Always will.
There’s only 4 years and 8 months between the eldest (me) and the youngest of us four. I can’t really remember the arrival of Two and Three. Two arrived when I was only 15 months old, and Three 15 months after him. There was a slight pause then, during which we relocated to West Africa from our home in Kent.
Four was born in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1962. A newly (1957) independent nation. It’s part of our heritage. We cheer on the Black Stars whenever they are in international competition, holding that loyalty alongside our support for the England national team and Nottingham Forest. We all know our day names, the names all children in that part of Ghana are given, to indicate the day of the week on which they were born. I’m Abena, Two and Four are Kwame, and Three is Akua.
I can’t claim to remember that much about Four’s arrival. I know from my father’s memoirs that the trip to the maternity hospital in Kumasi was somewhat eventful:
We very nearly didn’t make it to the hospital. The President was visiting Kumasi on that day and all roads were closed, with police and soldiers restraining the roadside crowds. We had to drive seven miles to the hospital and, at first, were refused permission to drive along the route that the President would shortly take. Later, a senior policeman responded to our pleas and we were allowed to drive along, a mile or two ahead of the procession, waving back to the crowds in royal fashion.
I do recall that on being introduced to Four, I didn’t think much to him. He was bright red in the face, and wrinkly. Thankfully, he became more appealing very soon, and grew on me.
Over the years, we four pursued our own paths to career and marriage and children and so on. At various points we were divided by considerable distances (Three in Bermuda, Two in Northern Ireland). And so the times when we could all be together became fewer.
We had our differences too, of course. Whilst I am the only heathen amongst us, Four was the only one to take a more conservative line politically. The former never became a source of tension, even if we don’t understand each others’ perspectives fully. The latter was, from time to time, thanks to the three more left-wing siblings’ tendency to express our views vigorously and not always sensitively on social media. We got past all of those things.
And we could always all agree on Nottingham Forest, having collectively nailed our colours to that particular mast back when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Before the glory days, and through the peaks and (mainly) troughs that followed.
Most of all, whenever one of us was having a tough time, the others rallied round. Whatever the circumstances, we knew we could count on that.
In July 2018, things got really, really tough. Four was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Chemo could buy him extra time and so he started on a punishing regime of first one type of chemo and then when that stopped working, another more experimental treatment.
Inevitably, time ran out. The second chemo stopped working, and the cancer was off the leash. Even so, until the last couple of weeks, one would not have guessed to see him how ill he was. But things moved terrifyingly fast, and it was clear that he would not see much of 2020.
Very early on 2 February, Four left us. Peacefully, at home, with his wife and his sons and daughter in law around him, with the music he’d chosen playing.
And so we are three. And it feels so wrong. It feels … kind of lopsided. We no longer balance. The perfect pattern of Girl, Boy, Girl, Boy doesn’t work. And, as Two put it:
‘THE LAST SHALL SHALL BE FIRST.
Early this morning, the last to arrive was the first of us siblings to leave. It feels all wrong and it’s deeply sad. The only consolation is that he did not linger in pain and discomfort.
We buried him on 17 February. He’d planned the service, and it was led by someone who loved him as a brother, with readings from Two, a close friend, and his daughter in law, and prayers from his cousin. We were all there, friends and family, old school-friends, recent colleagues, people from his church, neighbours. The love and respect were palpable.
And if he had to go so soon, I have thought in the last few weeks that I was grateful that we had the chance to say our goodbyes together, and to hold each other tight, literally. A few weeks more and the virus would have taken that from us. Small mercies. But it has taken the chance for us to spend time with each other, and with Four’s wife and sons, for whom the daily pain of loss is so cruel and unrelenting, just when we’d have wanted to be able to be close and supportive. We’ve got social media – and are very grateful for that – but of course it’s not the same.
Us Three will always, in our hearts, be Us Four. Always. Today he would have turned 58. Would have, should have. We hold him in our hearts, as we do the family he loved so much.
Greg Hallett, 24 March 1962-2 February 2020. Love you, our kid, always have, always will.
It’s just another New Year’s Eve. Nothing actually changes on New Year’s Day, we know that … but that never stops us hoping that some things will change, making plans and resolutions, wishing and wondering.
For many of us, looking back at the year just ending cannot be wholeheartedly celebratory. Of course, there have been good things – friends and family, love and laughter, things that brought us pleasure and achievements of which we are proud. We will recall those tonight, and be glad for every one of those moments and those memories. At the same time, if grief and loss has been part of our year we will acknowledge our sadness, and raise a glass to the people who we lost in 2019.
For many of us, looking forward to the year just about to begin cannot be simply hopeful, knowing that some of what we fear will happen. Some of us will be learning to live with loss, others will be anticipating loss. Many hearts will be heavy.
How do we face that countdown, knowing what we know? With tears, probably. With warmth and solidarity and love, wherever possible. With people to hold on to, literally or metaphorically, to accept our sadness and our fear, and to remind us of the good things that there were in 2019, and that will still be there in 2020.
When it comes to the state of the nation and of the world, it would be terribly easy to give up. I’ve noticed how often these days I choose not to watch the news or read the headlines which, for a politics junkie as I have been all my life, raised on family discussions around the tea table of the events of the day, is a big change. I can’t let that inertia continue.
I need to hang on to hope, and faith in humanity. There are reasons to be, if not cheerful, at least very cautiously hopeful, reasons to nurture those glimmers of hope. In the wake of attacks on mosques or synagogues, communities have come together to assert solidarity in the face of murderous bigotry. So many young people are fighting the good fight on the climate emergency.
Hope lies in recognising that the biggest problems we face are problems we can only deal with across borders and oceans, not by retreating behind our walls. Hope lies in people choosing to identify with and stand with people who aren’t like them, giving a damn whether or not it’s not their turn.
Meantime, in the face of lies we have to keep speaking and showing truth. In the face of hate we have to keep speaking and showing love. In the face of the horrors that seem to happen daily, far away from us or close to home, we have to keep speaking and showing faith.
Keep on keeping on.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
(Sheenagh Pugh – Sometimes)
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
(Joss Whedon – Angel)
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.
(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)
I honestly hadn’t thought about it being the end of a decade until I saw the first few ‘best of’ lists appearing.
On a personal level, it’s been quite momentous. We both retired, midway through the decade, a decision which we haven’t regretted for a nano-second. I finished my (second) undergrad degree before I left work, and then went straight on to study for a PhD, which I hope to complete early in the next decade. Each of our children graduated twice (four different Universities, three different cities) and found permanent, rewarding employment.
I lost a good friend and colleague to cancer and helped to set up and then chair a charity as his legacy, raising around £30k since 2013 for cancer charities, through a fabulous fundraising event, the 24 Hour Inspire, and other ventures.
I started this blog in January 2012, and whilst I’ve had periods of writer’s block this year it’s given me a way of being creative, having spent most of my life denying that I am or could be. I was also offered the chance to go to the opera for free with a friend, and write reviews of the productions, which has been an absolute delight.
We put lots of things on hold for a while as my mother in law’s dementia worsened, and her care needs became urgent. She died last Christmas. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018 and the chemo he’s been on is no longer working. We go into the New Year with heavy hearts.
Politically it’s been a nightmarish decade. The Tories back in power, first in coalition, then in their own right, albeit for a while as a minority government. The EU Referendum and the government’s complete inability to approach the negotiations in good faith and with understanding and intelligence. Obama replaced in the White House by someone so utterly unfit for any kind of high office that I still wonder whether we slipped into some parallel universe at about the halfway point of the decade, after which nothing made any kind of sense.
Should have realised, when I woke one morning in early January 2016 to learn that Bowie had left us. Should have known it was a portent.
So since looking forward is a mug’s game at present, I’ll look back, to the books, films and TV programmes that have sustained me during the last ten years.
Books of the Decade
Some of these titles feature in my already published Books of the Year and Books of the Century lists, as one might expect. I’ll indicate those that do, or that are reviewed in my 60 Books challenge series, so as not to repeat myself too much (and have time to also do the full panoply of decade and year lists that I am somehow compelled to do).
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho (Books of the Century)
Ferdinand Addis – Rome: The Eternal City was a birthday gift from the Roman branch of our family, following a recent visit to the city, which had made me realise just how fragmented and unreliable my sense of its history was. A hotch-potch of Shakespeare, the New Testament, Robert Graves and Robert Harris, I really needed to get a grip on it all. Addis’s tome is just the thing. It’s very entertainingly written, it takes key events and explains how they came to pass and what followed, and it takes us from Romulus & Remus to Federico Fellini.
Chimamanda Adichie – Americanah. Her Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the top three books of the century (according to me). Adichie’s protagonist here goes off to University in the States, and we follow her struggles to acclimatise and to understand what race means in America, as well as her feelings for her lover back in Lagos. It’s often very funny, and always very sharp and perceptive. The Guardian said that ‘It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.’
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (Books of the Century)
Naomi Alderman – The Power (Books of the Century)
Lynne Alexander – The Sister illuminates a life lived in the shadows: Alice James was sister to the more famous Henry and William, prevented by ill health and the constraints of Victorian society from expressing her own creativity. Alexander doesn’t hammer this message home simplistically but brings Alice to sympathetic life. ‘A furious volcano of thoughts and desires trapped within a carapace of pain, Alice is a feminist cipher but, more movingly, a beautifully drawn and memorable individual, brave, vulnerable and fiercely intelligent.’ (The Guardian)
Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities is an exuberant and wildly eclectic tour of cities in Western civilisation drawing on books, films, architecture, myth, visual arts. Totally my cup of tea. Described as ‘an exhaustive, engaging book’ which generates ‘sheer joy for the curious reader’. It certainly did for this curious reader.
Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a fascinating study of Poland, the GDR and Hungary after the end of the Second World War. The Telegraph said that she takes ‘a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable – and even occasionally witty. In that respect alone, it is a true masterpiece’. (Books of the Year)
Kate Atkinson – Life after Life (Books of the Century)
Margaret Atwood – The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It does take the action forward – we get to see some of what happened after that book’s final page, but perhaps more significantly, we see Gilead from perspectives other than that of June/Offred, and so we understand more about how Gilead works, and about, in particular the role of the Aunts. It’s completely compelling, and very disturbing. (Books of the Year)
Julian Barnes – The Levels of Life (Books of the Century)
Linda Buckley-Archer – The Many Lives of John Stone. Buckley-Archer began her literary career with the YA Timequake trilogy. This is beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
James Lee Burke – Robicheaux (Books of the Century)
Jane Casey – Cruel Acts (Books of the Year, and Century)
Jonathan Coe – Middle England. I picked The Rotter’s Club for my books of the century, and this is the third part of that trilogy. This made me laugh a lot. Made me weep a bit. Reminded me of music I love (Hatfield & the North, Vaughan Williams) and of lyrics that always move me: Billy Bragg’s ‘Between the Wars’. (Not mentioned in Coe’s book, but I kept on thinking of the line ‘Sweet moderation, heart of our nation’). It’s rueful and wistful and, I think, hopeful… (Books of the Year)
Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay is the final part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Another series aimed at a young adult readership, this one is pretty dark (not that YA reading should be sugar-coated or cosy, it should challenge and disrupt if it’s doing its job). Vivid and exciting, with a splendid hero in Katniss Everdene, and resists too neat an ending – after so much tragedy and trauma, that would have jarred horribly.
Stevie Davies – Awakening (Books of the Century)
Edmund de Waal – Hare with the Amber Eyes (Books of the Century)
Emma Donoghue – Room (Books of the Century)
Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk. Sadly the last novel from Dunmore, who died of cancer in 2018. I picked The Siege as one of my Books of the Century, and read The Betrayal as part of my 60 books challenge – her novels are very varied but always beautifully and powerfully written. The Guardian describes her writing as ‘hazardously human’. It’s particularly poignant to note that the fictional Julia Fawkes ‘lies buried with the inscription “Her words remain our inheritance.” Julia may have disappeared from the record, but Dunmore’s words remain.
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters (Books of the Century)
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m no longer talking to White People about Race (Books of the Century)
Esi Edugyan – Half-Blood Blues (Books of the Century)
Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (60 Books)
Lara Feigel – The Bitter Taste of Victory (Books of the Century)
Will Ferguson – 419 (Books of the Century)
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Books of the Century)
Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is particularly difficult to write about without revealing a vital twist, so I will avoid any discussion of the plot. Read it anyway, just avoid the reviews (so no link to the Guardian, which called It an ‘achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker … a moral comedy to shout from the rooftops’.) (Books of the Year)
Tana French – Broken Harbour (Books of the Year and Century)
Esther Freud – Mr Mac and Me reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. A writer/artist (D H Lawrence for Dunmore, Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Freud) finds themselves in a rural community at the start of the First World War, and is regarded with suspicion by the locals due to their unconventional behaviour). Mackintosh is seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, intoxicated by the glimpses of a wider world, of art and beauty, that Mackintosh brings.
Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (60 Books)
Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Books of the Century)
Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition (Books of the Century)
Alan Garner – Boneland (Books of the Century)
Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (Books of the Century)
Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, having a deep-rooted suspicion of the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. But I really did. Gilbert’s fictional protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is brilliant, lonely, not pretty. She’s a scientist, a naturalist, in the wrong era (she’s born in 1800) to have any chance of fulfilling her ambitions, or her desires. She’s remarkable, utterly believable, her openness and imagination endearing and fascinating. It’s an ambitious novel, that fully succeeds in its ambitions.
Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Gildea brings out of the shadows the Resistance that was marginalised for decades – women, Communists, foreigners. It’s much more complicated than the myth that de Gaulle propagated at the Liberation, and more interesting.
Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (Books of the Century)
David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon (Books of the Century)
Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (60 Books)
Elly Griffiths – The Stone Circle (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (Books of the Year and Century)
Jane Harper – The Lost Man (Books of the Year and Century)
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Books of the Century)
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness – the final part of the series of novels featuring Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick.
Noah Hawley – Before the Fall is an excellent thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality, from the writer of the TV version of Fargo
Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (Books of the Century)
Sarah Helm – If this is a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken (Books of the Year and Century)
Susan Hill – The Comforts of Home is the most recent (that I’ve read) of the Simon Serrailler series. (Books of the Year. The Various Haunts of Men was one of my Books of the Century).
Christopher Hitchen – Mortality (Books of the Century)
Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (Books of the Century)
Jessica Frances Kane – The Report is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of the novel is a little known wartime tragedy, in which no bombs fell, but 173 civilians died. I had never heard about the Bethnal Green disaster when I came across this book, and it set off many trains of thought.
Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale. Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther blend crime fiction with World War II European history. They span from the immediate pre-war period to the long aftermath of the war, and Bernie has been part of it all. He’s a survivor, who’s done bad things and seen worse ones, but somehow retained his humanity, a dry humour, and at least some of his integrity.
Stephen King – The Institute. King’s latest references a number of his previous novels (Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…) but does something a bit different with these themes. In a way, he’s setting two version of America against each other: the corporate world of the Institute, ‘the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil, run by ‘a bunch of middle-management automatons’, against small-town America (the good and the bad thereof). It’s proper cancel all other activities including meals and sleep till the last page King. (Books of the Year)
Otto Dov Kulka – Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Books of the Century)
John le Carre – Pigeon Tunnel (60 Books)
Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman (Books of the Century)
Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (Books of the Year and Century)
Kenan Malik – Quest for a Moral Compass (Books of the Century)
Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies. We’re still eagerly awaiting the third part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. (Wolf Hall was one of my Books of the Century).
Helen Mathers – Patron Saint of Prostitutes is a fascinating biography of Josephine Butler, the remarkable Victorian campaigner who challenged all of the conventions about how a pious and respectable woman should behave by working with prostitutes, and challenging publicly the way in which they were brutalised and abused in the name of public morals.
Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13 (Books of the Century)
Dervla McTiernan – The Ruin (Books of the Century)
Livi Michael – Succession (Books of the Century)
Denise Mina – The Long Drop (Books of the Century)
Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know is an account by someone diagnosed with early onset dementia. She’s frank and fearless about explaining how the condition affects her as it progresses, but uses her energies to campaign for awareness and understanding, and for practical support. Her blog is funny, sad and enlightening, and it is so rare and refreshing to hear about dementia from someone who is actually experiencing it.
Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (Books of the Century)
Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (Books of the Year and Century)
Thomas Mullen – Darktown (Books of the Century)
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…
Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand that First Held Mine (Books of the Century)
Chinelo Okparanta – Under the Udala Trees movingly explores the Biafran war, sexuality and love across the ethnic and religious divides, class and status in Nigerian society.
David Olusoga – Black and British (Books of the Century)
Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, Book 1). I won’t say too much about this as I don’t want to risk giving any spoilers. But it is sheer delight to be back in this world and to re-experience the sheer power, the subtlety, the glorious imagination of Pullman’s writing.
Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies, the most recent Rebus. He’s retired now, and battling with COPD and the lifestyle changes that has forced on him. Does any of that stop him getting involved in the solving of a crime, and getting under the feet of the cops? Have you met Rebus? (Books of the Year)
Danny Rhodes – Fan is about football and football culture, about supporting Nottingham Forest, and, inexorably, about Hillsborough. It’s powerful and harrowing.
Sally Rooney – Normal People (Books of the Year and Century)
Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (Books of the Year and Century)
Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (Books of the Year and Century)
Philippe Sands – East-West Street (Books of the Century)
Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland (Books of the Century)
Phil Scraton – Hillsborough: The Truth. When Scraton published this 2016 edition of his authoritative, rigorous, and personal account of the disaster, he would not have imagined the news that broke in December 2019, that Duckenfield had been found not guilty. Again, the families who have endured so much – lies, betrayal, vilification, dismissal – for so long, are in pain, and again, it seems no one will be held accountable for 96 entirely avoidable deaths.
Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (Books of the Century)
Taiye Selasi – Ghana Must Go (Books of the Century)
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All-Alone’s (Books of the Century)
Anita Shreve – The Stars are Fire was Shreve’s last book. Her protagonist, Grace, has a life that is limited by societal convention and tight family budgets but she thinks it’s fine, mostly, until she loses almost everything, in the terrible fires that swept Maine in 1947. The disaster is described with visceral power and horror, but Shreve is just as interested in its aftermath, as Grace tries to find a way to start again.
Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Books of the Century)
Patti Smith – M Train. I picked Just Kids for my Books of the Century, but could just as well have chosen this. With the humour, self-deprecation and warmth that characterised her earlier memoir, she talks about her marriage to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the series of terrible losses that she experienced, of her music. And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders.
Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Occupation of France, and I’m well versed in its horrors. I know better than to minimise the brutality – but the majority of the murders of French citizens and those who were in France during the Occupation took place not on French soil but in what Snyder calls the Bloodlands. ‘Both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter… The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. … The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”
Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark (Books of the Century)
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. I was torn when I did the list of books of the century, and chose The Silence between Breaths. So I’m making recompense now. What Staincliffe does so well is to focus not just on the crime (though there is a strong police procedural element to this one, unlike some of her stand-alone novels) but on the ripples created by the crime, on the families of victim and perpetrators, on the police officers themselves. This one will break your heart.
Susie Steiner – Missing, Presumed (Books of the Century)
Adrian Tempany – And the Sun Shines Now (Books of the Century)
Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (Books of the Century)
Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity is a brilliant and moving YA novel about young women undercover in Occupied France in WWII. It’s so very cleverly structured – things that don’t seem to quite make sense suddenly become clear in the second half, when the narrator changes. The plot is utterly gripping and the ending made me weep. A lot.
Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn. This is part 1 of the Plague Times trilogy, a dystopian future where plague wipes out large swathes of the population. We’ve been here, or hereabouts, before of course – Day of the Triffids, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Stand… Welsh makes it work though, she gives weight to the moral issues as well as giving us suspense, action, horror, and everything we’d expect from the post-apocalypse.
Colson Whitehead – Underground Railroad (Books of the Century)
Jeanette Winterson – Why be Happy when you could be Normal? (Books of the Century)
Farewell to those writers listed above who we lost during the decade: Helen Dunmore, Sue Eckstein, Philip Kerr, Harper Lee and Anita Shreve. Thank you all.
Films of the Decade
I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite films in each of these categories. Many of them I’ve written about already elsewhere, so again I’m not attempting to review or even comment on each one.
Scifi and Superheroes: A brilliant decade both for the superhero genre and – IMHO – Marvel specifically, and for other sci-fi franchises: Star Trek had Beyond, and Star Wars fielded The Last Jedi and Rogue One. My pick from the MCU: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Guardians of the Galaxy I, Thor: Ragnarok. And outside this particular arc, from the X Men, the elegiac Logan. And though I don’t generally do DC, I have to have Wonder Woman.
Best of the bunch: Not dissing Endgame, but Assemble is when I fell in love with Marvel (and with Captain America, TBH). And Black Panther had a significance beyond its place in the Avengers story, and was exhilarating not just for people of colour in the audience, but for anyone who cares about seeing the rich diversity of humanity on screen, as heroes and as villains.
We had Inception and Interstellar, Her and Ex Machina, Looper and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Gravity, Monsters and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place and Source Code.
And the two best SF films of the decade: Annihilation, and Arrival. Visually stunning, intelligent sci-fi. Of the two, Arrival, with its emotionally devastating twist, and its fascinating exploration of language, edges it.
Thrills, Crimes & Heists: Baby Driver and Drive, Bad Times at the El Royale, Skyfall, Gone Girl and Widows. I’m torn on which to pick. With caveats, to do with the film’s failure to meet the low bar of the Bechdel test, I’d pick Baby Driver, which was beautifully described by Empire as: ‘not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.’ Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
War: Anthropoid (the assassination of Heydrich), Childhood of a Leader (a more allegorical account of the birth of fascism), Lore (a German teenager in the aftermath of the war). And the best one: Dunkirk – I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
French films: Michael Haneke’s Amour, Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (a French take on the Florence Foster Jenkins story), Olivier Assayas’s Double Vies (Non-Fiction), Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. Varda by Agnes and Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. My favourites: Celine Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (so much in this movie, but just watch that opening sequence, with the young women leaving hockey match and returning to their homes in the banlieues, and a gorgeous sequence as they dance in shoplifted dresses to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’) , Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (a stunning Malian film, beautiful and shattering, but with unexpected moments of humour too).
History/Biography: First Man and Hidden Figures, Lincoln, Selma and BlackKKlansman. Love and Mercy (biopic of Brian Wilson).
Comedy: Booksmart and Lady Bird. Death of Stalin and Four Lions. Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You. World’s End and Submarine. The Muppets, and Paddington.
Animation: Inside Out, Tangled, Toy Story 3.
Adaptations: Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Drama: Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace. Dallas Buyers Club and Pride. Grand Budapest Hotel and The Great Beauty. The Farewell and Short-term 12. Twentieth-century Women and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Winter’s Bone and Room. We Need to Talk about Kevin and If Beale Street Could Talk. Life, above all and Cold War.
Music: La la Land
Farewell and thank you to Marvel man Stan Lee, to Emmanuelle Riva (star of Haneke’s Amour, and long before that, of Hiroshima mon amour), to Agnes Varda, and to Michael Bond, creator of Paddington.
TV of the Decade
Subtitled Crime/Thrillers: Dicte, Follow the Money, Greyzone, Rough Justice, Spiral, The Team, Trapped, Wallander, Witnesses, Beck, Before we Die, Blue Eyes, The Bridge, Deutschland 83/86. Plus the bilingual English/Welsh productions, Hidden and Hinterland. Best of the bunch – Spiral (a master-class in French profanity, and a compelling if infuriating bunch of characters, dealing with grim and gritty crime on the streets of Paris.
Brit Crime/Thrillers: Endeavour, The Fall, Foyle’s War, Happy Valley, , Informer, Killing Eve, Kiri, Lewis, Line of Duty, Little Drummer Girl, London Spy, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jenkins, Midsomer Murders, The Missing, No Offence, River, Scott and Bailey, Sherlock, Shetland, Southcliffe, Strike, Suspects, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Unforgotten, Vera, Wallander, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, DCI Banks, Black Earth Rising, Ashes to Ashes. Best of the bunch – Endeavour for beautiful, subtle writing for all the lead characters; Killing Eve for deranged, delicious wickedness, Line of Duty for twisty turny plotting, and stunning, forget-to-breathe set pieces in the interview room, Unforgotten for the warmth and humanity of the two leads, the clever subtlety of the writing, and the emotional complexity of cold case investigation.
Other Crime/Thrillers: Fargo, Homeland, Mystery Road, Southland, The Americans. Best of the bunch – Fargo. Bonkers, funny and very very dark.
Sci-fi/Fantasy: Agent Carter, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, The Fades, Utopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, Humans, Misfits, Orphan Black, The Returned, Star Trek: Discovery, True Blood, Being Human. Best of the bunch – Agents of Shield for daring plotting and terrific writing. Doctor Who for bringing us not only Doctors 11, 12 and 13, but the War Doctor and the reappearance of the very first Doctor, River Song and a whole raft of new companions, new and old foes… And Who, as always, through this decade, has given us a hero who thinks, who cares, who values kindness above all things, who isn’t human but somehow reflects back to us the best of humanity. Orphan Black for Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performance as most of the key characters. The Returned for a spooky, troubling, atmospheric take on the notion of the revenant.
Comedy: Big Bang Theory, Community, Derry Girls, Doc Martin, Fleabag, The Good Place, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Raised by Wolves, The Thick of It, W1A, Young Sheldon. Best of the bunch – Derry Girls
History/Biography: A Very English Scandal, Brexit: An Uncivil War, Cilla, Gentleman Jack, Mo, Poldark, Resistance, To Walk Invisible, Wolf Hall, Summer of Rockets, World on Fire, War and Peace. A Very English Scandal was a startlingly funny and somehow touching take on a scandal that I recall from my early teenage years (the newspaper coverage at the time was highly educational!). I wrote about Gentleman Jack in my review of the year. And Resistance was a powerful – and historically sound, whilst using the device of a fictional central character who could link to all of the key resistance groups and events – account of Occupied Paris, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.
Drama: The Casual Vacancy, Desperate Housewives, Doctor Foster, Spin, This is England, Treme, Years and Years. This is England (the TV series) was so powerful that I haven’t rewatched it. It broke me – particularly TiE88. Treme was a joy – it drew its characters with so much love and understanding, that we ended up loving them too. The cast was brilliant, as was the music (it’s the only drama of the decade that has led us to seek out a whole raft of CDs). And Years and Years was timely, moving and let us hope not overly prescient…
This was the decade that I really got into opera. Having the chance to see (and latterly to review) Opera North productions at Leeds Grand Theatre and Town Hall has been not only a delight but an education. I’ve seen productions from across the centuries, and not only has the singing been glorious, but the stagings have been wonderfully inventive. You can find my reviews of the titles in bold elsewhere on this site.
- Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate
- Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas
- Poulenc’s La Voix humaine
- Puccini’s La Boheme, Gianni Schicchi, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot
- Britten’s Death in Venice and Peter Grimes
- Ravel’s L’Enfant et ses sortileges
- Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in Maschero
- Falla’s La Vida Breva
- Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury
- Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti
- Giordano’s Andrea Chenier
- Kevin Puts’s Silent Night
- Handel’s Giulio Cesare
- Martinu’s The Greek Passion
- Strauss’s Salome
- Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
- Lehar’s The Merry Widow
- Janacek’s Jenufa, Osud and Katya Kabanaova
- Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppeia
- Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute
- Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden
- Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
- Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
As always, we have listened to a LOT of music. And over the course of the decade, more and more of it has been jazz. That’s partly thanks to Radio 3, with Jazz Record Requests and J to Z bringing us artists we weren’t familiar with along with lots of stuff from long-term favourites (Monk, Miles, Mingus et al). We’ve seen some live jazz too, from the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation, Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes from the City, and the Stan Tracey Octet.
For several years of this decade, Tramlines was where we went, one weekend a year, for live music. Music in pubs and clubs, in parks, in the art gallery, the Cathedral… It’s changed now, and it’s more a conventional music festival, which doesn’t suit us as well (though it’s a great success and a huge achievement for the city) – what we loved was just wandering around the city centre, from one venue to another, catching bands we’d never heard of as well as a few big names. It was bloody brilliant. And it was where we first saw Songhoy Blues, one of my bands of the decade. These young Malian musicians made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
We’re privileged in Sheffield too to have Music in the Round – chamber music in the Crucible Studio from the house band, Ensemble 360, and a host of guest musicians. As the name suggests, the audience sits around the performers, so you’re guaranteed a good view, and it gives an intimate feel to the event. I could not begin to list the concerts we’ve attended there. Not just classical either – some of the jazz concerts referred to above were in the Crucible Studio, as was a wonderful gig from the Unthanks.
There have been other venues too – a remarkable performance of Terry Riley’s In C, in the Arts Tower paternoster lifts, and a programme of Reich, Adams, Zorn and others at the Leadmill, from the Ligeti Quartet.
So, another decade bites the dust. These have been some of the best bits. Love and thanks to all of the people who’ve shared these cultural delights with me, to all of the people who’ve created and performed these cultural delights for me, and to all of those who’ve passed on their own enthusiasms to me over the years.
Onwards. Whatever the next decade brings, let’s ensure it’s full of wonderful books, films, TV and music. Let’s hang on to the hope that things can and will get better…
OK, I take anyone else doing this kind of list (looking at you, Guardian) as a personal challenge. So I have felt compelled to put together my own selection. Now, I’m not seriously claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly, given the randomness of what I’ve read and not read. The Guardian can draw upon the views of a range of reviewers; I can only draw upon my own. Over the course of this century I’ve been working, studying, running a charity, reviewing operas, bringing up a family, listening to music, as well as reading.
Nonetheless, I do read a LOT. Always have done. And these are the books from the last almost 20 years that have had a real impact on me, that have stayed with me after I’ve read them, that have offered the most enjoyment, enlightenment, hope – whatever their genre.
When we get to the end of this century (if we do…) the list will look very different. And of course you will disagree with me, and be horrified by both omissions and inclusions, and that’s fine!
I went through the Guardian list and added some of their titles to my long list, but then deleted them again (I’ve annotated the titles below which do still overlap), because I realised that whilst they were good, I’d not given them a thought since reading them, I’d not gone out and bought all of the author’s other books, or prioritised a re-read. All of the titles below have led me somewhere, if you like.
I’ve only allowed myself one per author otherwise certain favourite authors would have squeezed lots of other excellent books out. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order of author’s surname, rather than ranking them because I can’t be doing with that, but I’ve picked out my top three, books I’ve already read several times and will undoubtedly read again, and that I’ve insisted everyone I know reads.
Here we go…
Cath’s top books of the 21st century so far (with all the above caveats and disclaimers):
Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho is my favourite so far of the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight. This one has a jazz theme which is probably why it has a particular place in my heart.
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. This memoir from a key member of The Slits is just so fascinating, so funny, and at times so desperately sad, that even if I hadn’t been a fan of the band I’d have loved every minute of it.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is brilliant sci-fi, powerful and chilling. Its ‘book within a book’ structure adds a whole other level, and the writing is superb. The Guardian called it ‘an instant classic of speculative fiction’ and noted how devastatingly it inverts the status quo. Put very simply, what if men were afraid of us?
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian-British philosopher, based at New York University, himself the epitome of cosmopolitanism. (His father was a leading dissident under the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, and his mother the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps.) Appiah has written elsewhere about political and moral theory, and the philosophy of language and mind. This is a timely, accessible, and vitally important work.
Levels of Life. I haven’t loved the other things I’ve read by Julian Barnes, I’ve felt kind of detached from them. This one did get to me. The book’s three sections seem entirely separate but somehow they’re not, they’re connected in a marvellously subtle and moving way. And the third part will break the heart of anyone who has one to break. (Guardian top 100 title)
Robicheaux: You Know my Name is the 21st in James Lee Burke‘s series of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. It’s so dark, haunted and haunting. The Louisiana landscape and culture is a vital part of the narrative, and the eponymous hero is flawed and fascinating, a good man wrestling with inner demons as well as the bad guys.
Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is a gripping bit of WWII French history, with a very personal source. Callil (one of the founders of Virago Books) uncovered the story of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix after the death (possibly by suicide) of her therapist, his daughter. Darquier was one of the most repellent figures in Vichy France, a vicious and entirely unrepentant anti-Semite, a fraud and a crook. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of how the Nazi occupation enabled and legitimised the vilest views and the vilest people and its importance goes way beyond the family history it describes.
Cruel Acts is the latest in Jane Casey‘s splendid series featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve is an engaging protagonist, whose internal battles (about status and authority, complex personal and professional relationships), both enrich and complicate the police procedural plotting. These books get stronger and twistier and more compelling as the series continues.
Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others includes the story that inspired the film Arrival, one of my top films of all time, an extraordinarily beautiful bit of sci-fi. These stories are marvellous in their own right – proper philosophical, speculative fiction, with a particular interest (as in Arrival) in language. They’re diverse in style and approach, and whilst ‘Story of Your Life’ stands out, several others challenge it, for the strength of the concept, the beauty of the writing, and the emotional impact. (Guardian top 100 title)
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club appealed to me straight away. A ’70s adolescence, and the musical references (Hatfield & the North’s album, which gave the novel its title, plus the protagonists’ prog rock aspirations) gave it immense charm for anyone who shared those reference points. Apparently, it contains a sentence of 13,955 words, which I don’t remember even noticing when I read it, though thinking back I can guess when it occurs. It’s not just funny and charming, it skewers the politics of the time, and confronts real, brutal tragedy.
I’ve been reading Stevie Davies since the ’80s, and Awakening is one of my favourites. It’s set in Wiltshire in 1860, just after the publication of The Origin of Species, and it’s about science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion. It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal – but the focus of the novel is on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is family memoir and art history intertwined. I was lucky enough to hear de Waal talking about this story when he came to Sheffield University to present a gift of a piece of art called ‘fetched home’, the title taken from a poem by Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan on the subject of homelessness and displacement. (Guardian top 100 title)
When I read Emma Donoghue’s Room I could not have imagined it as a film. Of course, it was filmed, and brilliantly, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and it’s hard now to disentangle the book from that film. But I do remember the experience of reading it, of how it did my head in, gradually understanding the world that’s being described, and its terrifying implications.
Fires in the Dark is not what one might expect from Louise Doughty, if one came to it from Apple Tree Yard. This one takes us into the dark heart of the Romani genocide, also known as the Porajmos (the Devouring). Doughty draws the reader into the rich and complex culture of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into the lives of one family and the kumpania to which they belong, and then shows how this world was targeted for destruction.
Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. I could have picked several other Dunmores. I nearly picked her last published novel, Birdcage Walk, but I honestly can’t untangle my response to that from my sense of loss at her death. The Siege stands outside of that, on its own. Its setting is the siege of Leningrad, and it makes that experience viscerally real and moving. (Guardian top 100 title)
Interpreters was Sue Eckstein‘s second novel, and sadly her last – she died of cancer in 2013. It takes us across several generations of a family divided by the past, by what’s hidden and what’s remembered. It’s about memory and loss, and the continued resonance of the last world war. This is subtly done, and has all the more impact for that.
Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race is not a comfortable read for one of the aforesaid white people. Fair enough, I don’t expect to be comforted. What I want, and what Eddo-Lodge offers, is insight that I can translate into awareness that can inform what I say and do. Essential reading.
Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s debut novel, could have been designed to interest me. Jazz, and Nazi occupied France… It’s an extraordinary story, and problematic in some ways, as the Guardian review points out (it’s a very spoilery review, so avoid if you haven’t read the book and want to encounter it unspoiled!). But superbly written, and fascinating.
In The Bitter Taste of Victory Lara Feigel takes us into the ruined cities of Germany after the end of WW2, seen through the eyes of the journalists and writers (Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell, West and others) who went out there to try to figure out how to address the challenges of peace, and the complexities of guilt and culpability at all levels. A lot of the accounts Feigel presents were new to me, and truly compelling (and relevant to my research).
Will Ferguson’s 419 is a thriller, about the kind of scam where a Nigerian prince or such like emails you to say you can have millions if you just let them have your bank details, or send them a bit of cash up front to arrange the deal. It starts with a suicide, an elderly man in Canada. Then the action moves to Lagos and to the Nigerian Delta, and it’s all so much more complex than we might have imagined, as the scam finds its context in the messy politics of Nigeria. Riveting.
I imagine everyone by now has read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and/or seen the film. Quite right too. When you first read it, that twist takes you by surprise, but when you re-read you’re looking to see just how the writer sets that up so cleverly (rather like when you re-watch The Sixth Sense). It’s an excellent thriller, and it’s not Flynn’s fault if every publisher has jumped on the bandwagon and published endless sub-Gone Girls! (Guardian top 100 title)
In The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, Aminatta Forna takes us to Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her childhood, and where her father was imprisoned and executed for treason. It’s both memoir and investigation, a search for truth, and it was a quest that changed her irrevocably.
Broken Harbour is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and is really remarkable. It’s an unusual series, in that the main protagonist shifts with each book, so that a secondary character in book 1 becomes central in book 2, and so on. This one is extraordinarily unsettling and quite impossible to put down.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. OK, we all now know that this is J K Rowling. Reading the Harry Potters, one sees her growing as a writer, in confidence and skill, as the series progresses, and her post-Potter work has been excellent. The Casual Vacancy was terrific social satire (or if you’re the Daily Mail, ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’…), and the Cormoran Strike series (this was the first) is complex, often dark, often funny, detective fiction, with the thoroughly engaging duo of Strike and Robin. (The Guardian picked Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
Notes from an Exhibition was the first of Patrick Gale’s that I read, and still a favourite. It uses the device of, literally, notes from an exhibition, a posthumous exhibition of work from throughout an artist’s life, which allows Gale to tell her story in a non-linear fashion through different voices from different parts of that life. What marks Gale’s work out, apart from the beauty and the skill of the writing, is his warmth and compassion for all of his characters, however flawed.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s very belated return to the world of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, published in the ‘60s, which I read as a child and which have stayed with me ever since. Stylistically, Boneland is closer to Garner’s later work, particularly to Red Shift. It’s dreamlike, fragmented, pared back, haunted and haunting.
Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches us about Love is a memoir, a personal account of supporting a parent with dementia. But it’s more than that – it’s a manifesto for the campaign that Gerrard launched, together with Julia Jones, to improve support in hospitals for dementia sufferers and, crucially, to allow their carers to be part of that support, not just ‘visitors’ who can be shooed out as if they’re in the way. This is a tremendously moving book – so close to home that it was almost unbearable at times. But it’s inspiring too, and hugely important.
Sweet After Death is the latest in Valentina Giambanco’s series featuring Seattle Detective Alice Madison. She’s an excellent protagonist, steely and complicated. And there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy). It is one hell of a read, and the series gets stronger with each book.
Andrea Gillies’ Keeper is another dementia memoir, and an exploration of the nature of the disease. It’s often grimly funny as well as sad, but ultimately the latter predominates. Gillies scrupulously records her own naivety, in thinking that they could cope, that love would be enough. And – horrifyingly, given what she does record of her mother in law’s behaviour in the grip of the disease, she says that she held a lot back… There’s no comfort here, if one is caring for someone with dementia, although our experience was much milder, if equally sad, but there’s insight and understanding.
Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets. The Squeeze is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, is the history of a crime. What happens when some in the Osage Native American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s turn out to have lucrative oil on their land? Do they get to enjoy financial security? Are you kidding? This is a horrifying coda to the history of genocide against the Native American nations during the previous century, compellingly written and richly fascinating.
The Stone Circle is the latest in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, featuring not a detective but an archaeologist, who’s drawn into criminal investigations whenever old bones are unearthed. Ruth is a brilliant character; she’s clever and funny, she’s not young or gorgeous or slim, but isn’t tortured about any of those things. The other characters are equally well drawn. There’s more than a touch of the Gothic, and the Norfolk landscape is much more than a setting, it’s a pervasive atmosphere. This series is a delight.
Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake tells one hundred years of German history through one house, through its history during decades of staggering and traumatic change, different regimes and bureaucracies, and through the stories of the families who lived there. Harding’s family owned it once, but lost it when the Nazis took power. The Guardian reviewer said that ‘It is Harding’s great achievement that he has painted a large canvas of history, but done so with glinting individual stories. He has persevered in listening to those “quiet voices”.’
Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is another crime novel where the landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist. Harper’s debut, The Dry, won all sorts of awards, and this is actually even better.
In An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris takes us back to the Dreyfus affair, the ripples from which spread out over many decades of French and European history – and still do. The focus is less on Dreyfus himself than on the young officer, Picquart, who despite being as anti-semitic as the next chap, had a sense of fairness and justice that was outraged by the framing of Dreyfus and by the refusal to right the wrong, even after the forger had confessed. Harris is always a great read, and this is a period of history and a subject that fascinate me (reading Proust made me realise how ‘The Affair’ was the Brexit of its day – dividing friends and families, into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, no middle ground).
Cold in Hand is the penultimate novel in John Harvey‘s wonderful series about Charlie Resnick, who fights crime on the mean streets of Nottingham. We had to wait a further five years for the coda to the series (Darkness, Darkness), but it was worth it. These aren’t stories of baroque serial murders, but of chaotic crimes committed by people with chaotic lives, and Charlie himself is a tremendous creation.
Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a rarity – a novel whose protagonist has dementia. Maud is coping with her dementia in ways that were very familiar to me – writing herself notes that she then loses, rediscovers later and can’t remember writing, going to the shops and buying tinned peaches because she’s forgotten what she actually went in for. But mainly she’s preoccupied with the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Through the course of the novel we uncover another disappearance, much longer ago and we also see Maud’s grip on memory and reality slipping more and more. This is reflected in her narrative voice – it’s quite a tour de force, touching and often very funny.
If this is a Woman is a tough read, as it should be. It’s historian Sarah Helm’s account of Ravensbrück concentration camp, all of whose inmates were women. Its history is less well known than that of many other camps, and Helm spares us none of the horrors inflicted upon the women, drawing upon the accounts of survivors, several of whom went on to testify at the Nuremberg trials. It’s vitally important, particularly as those survivor voices fall silent, to know what happened there. As the Guardian‘s reviewer said, ‘As you read this 768-page book, it never feels too long. You will the women of Ravensbrück to live’.
Never be Broken is the latest in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome detective series. It’s probably the best, but I tend to think that of each new addition to the series. As Val McDermid says, ‘it isn’t all about the murders’ – it’s about social divisions, about mental health, about guilt and grief. And murder.
The Various Haunts of Men is the first in Susan Hill’s series featuring detective Simon Serailler. I read Hill’s earlier novels many years ago – Strange Meeting, In the Springtime of the Year and others – and having loved those, and loving crime fiction (that may have become evident already), I seized on these with enthusiasm and was not disappointed. Serailler is an interesting protagonist, and the supporting cast is well drawn. Hill explores issues of faith and morality, and her writing is always subtle and clever.
Mortality was published posthumously, after what Christopher Hitchens himself might have called ‘a long and brave struggle with mortality’ (he hated the rhetoric of ‘fighting cancer’). Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s ultimately uplifting.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is undefinably creepy from the start. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. We’re not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from the master of unease, Stephen King. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go is about mortality and humanity. It’s dystopian sci-fi, thoughtful and horrifying. We take a while to realise what’s happening here, because the protagonists can’t tell us – they’ve been fed lies throughout their lives, and continue to be fed rumours and to clutch at seemingly hopeful straws. (Guardian top 100 title)
Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ collection of brief pieces about various cultural figures (musicians, philosophers, novelists, politicians), made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid. Rather, I felt inspired to go away and read the stuff he’s talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
In Postwar, the late Tony Judt examined the history of Europe from the end of WW2 to 2005. Acclaimed as one of the best works on modern European history, its breadth is hugely impressive, and as reviewers at the time acknowledged, it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed. (Guardian top 100 title)
11/22/63 is one of my favourite 21st century Stephen Kings. I started reading him back in the ‘80s, having been put off for a while by the schlocky covers his books had back then, and by a degree of snobbery on my part. I’ve read them all, I think, and despite having announced his retirement from writing years ago after a serious accident, he’s still producing the goods. (His latest, The Institute, is a cracker.) 11/22/63 explores the idea of going back in time to change a past event. Now what could possibly go wrong with that? (The Guardian picked his brilliant On Writing, which is also well worth reading.)
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is, on one level, a Holocaust memoir. Otto Dov Kulka was deported as a child to Terezin, and from there to Auschwitz. It is also, ‘Reflections on Memory and Imagination’. It challenges Kulka’s own choice, ‘to sever the biographical from the historical past’, in his previous work as a historian. The book is ‘neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections […] of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been’.
Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were all published posthumously, as the Millennium Trilogy. Other authors have since expanded the series. Aside from being gripping and complex thrillers, they’re notable for two intriguing protagonists – journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson can’t be blamed for the proliferation of pale imitations since these were published (and filmed), and he could be said to have launched Scandi Noir, which on the whole is A Good Thing. (Guardian top 100 title)
John le Carré has been publishing beautifully written, complex thrillers for decades now. Though he might be thought to be an establishment figure, given his Security Service background, he’s still fuelled by a righteous anger, and nowhere more so than in The Constant Gardener. This deals with the murder of an activist in Kenya, and the uncovering of corruption on a huge scale by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Based on a real case, le Carré says that his plot is pretty tame compared to what actually happened. (Guardian top 100 title)
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an interesting one to place, timewise. Published in 2015, it seems clear now that it was in fact a first draft of, rather than a sequel to, To Kill a Mockingbird. There were controversies about its publication, about whether Lee fully had capacity to approve its appearance. And the narrative itself was troubling, for those of us who’d grown up seeing Atticus Finch as a hero (whether in the pages of the book, or on screen as portrayed by Gregory Peck). In Go Set a Watchman, the reader who loved To Kill a Mockingbird shares the disillusionment and shock of Scout as her idealised version of her father is shaken and fractured. Like her, we move gradually to a deeper, more nuanced understanding. It’s about growing up, really.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island tells interweaving stories of Jamaican immigration to Britain, centred on 1948 but going back to the lives of the central characters (two Jamaican, two British) during the war years. ‘A thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society’, according to the Guardian reviewer. (Guardian top 100 title)
I’ve read loads of Laura Lippman‘s books, all of her Tess Monaghan series (a young, female PI based in Baltimore) and most if not all of her standalone thrillers, most recently Sunburn. Lippman described this one as her first venture into ‘noir’ and ‘noir’ it certainly is. Her work typically features dark secrets but this one is steeped in them, and in obsession, desire, and violence. But she never forgets the humanity of her characters, as messed up as they may be, and the gradual revelation of who they are and how they got here keeps us gripped to the final page.
Black Water Rising is set in the 1980s, in Texas, and its protagonist is a struggling black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy when he witnesses a crime. Attica Locke is a powerful writer, and the racial politics give it a fascinating context and added tension. There’s a sequel, Pleasantville, set 15 years later.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Wolf Hall was the Guardian’s top 21st century book. It doesn’t actually make my top three, but it’s a deserving choice nonetheless. Hilary Mantel is one of the most versatile writers around, and one never knows quite what to expect from her – at least until she began her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since when all of her readers have been focused on the wait for the final volume. To read Wolf Hall is ‘to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes’ – a powerful and immersive experience. (Guardian top 100 title)
The Road is relentlessly grim but extraordinary. Cormac McCarthy forces the reader to inhabit this bleak world, and to accept how it works – ultimately to choose whether and when to trust. Whilst the notion of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is familiar in fiction and film, it’s unusual for the survivor group to have shrunk down to two, parent and child, which ramps up the tension and the terror. (Guardian top 100 title)
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is several novels in one. It’s a pre-war country house story about class and desire and adolescence. It’s a story of war and loss. And it’s the story of a story, about memory and guilt. There’s a revelation at the end which floored and shocked me but which on re-reading made perfect, desolate sense. (Guardian top 100 title)
Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin opens with a scene that neither the reader, nor the young policeman who witnesses it, will forget in a hurry. And when we move forward in time the mystery of that scene, and its emotional fall-out, are still potent and compelling. The follow-up, The Scholar, features the same detective and I will be sure to read that as soon as I can.
Succession is the first in Livi Michael’s trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
China Mieville’s The City and the City combines the police procedural with ‘weird fiction’, with a murder investigation across two separate cities that happen to occupy the same space. It’s a brilliant and unsettling concept, and requires concentration from the reader to hold on to it as the plot develops. It’s worth the effort, the narrative works on both levels (which demonstrates Mieville’s focus and discipline). Is this an allegory, or as the Guardian‘s reviewer puts it, a ‘police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances’? Or both?
Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a venture into true crime, the story of notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. She meets the challenge of how to create tension when the outcome of the story is already known, focusing on bit part players, whose perspective is fresh and unfamiliar. The Scotsman’s review said that ‘Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book.’
Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman is, as anyone familiar with Moran’s writing will expect, proper funny, and proper rude (NSFW, seriously, and NSF public transport too). It’s proper inspirational too, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer, punch the air, as well as laugh (and, at times, made me cry because it’s not all jokey, there’s stuff that hits you where it hurts). The Independent said that How to be a Woman ‘is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny’. And Moran also makes the very important point that one can’t change the world whilst wearing uncomfortable undergarments.
I read one of Sarah Moss‘s novels (Cold Earth) a couple of years back and made a note to self to read more by her. Bodies of Light is a brilliant and compelling narrative, set in Victorian Manchester. It went to some dark places; at times I almost didn’t want to go on, I was afraid for the protagonists. There’s a sequel, Signs for Lost Children, and a related title, Nightwaking, which was published before Bodies of Light but can be read at any point in the ‘trilogy’. (BTW, Josephine Butler features in the narrative – if you want to know more about her, read Helen Mathers’ excellent biography.)
Thomas Mullen sets Darktown in 1948 Atlanta, and gives us a pair of fictional black cops – amongst the first of the city’s African-American police officers. These officers had many constraints to work within: they only patrolled African-American neighborhoods, could not arrest white people, and while they were given guns, it was understood that they could not fire them. This is a brilliant crime thriller with a context that makes every detail hum with tension. There’s a sequel, Lightning Men.
As one blurb for Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife puts it, this is the story of Clare and Henry, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. It’s a fresh take on the kind of time travel paradoxes that make one’s head hurt – this makes one’s heart hurt as well. A sequel is in the offing, and Nifenegger’s second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is excellent too.
2006, when The Audacity of Hope was published, seems so very long ago. Barack Obama was still a Senator, and hadn’t yet announced his campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. It is in many ways his manifesto and thus, as the Guardian reviewer at the time said, cautious in a way that his personal memoir, Dreams from my Father, didn’t have to be. It would be impossible to re-read it now, without hindsight and without the constant horror of the inevitable comparison between this eloquent, thoughtful writer and his successor in the White House. I don’t think I can quite bear to do so. But at the time, apart from setting out Obama’s political priorities and convictions it represented hope – the mad hope that there might be a black PoTUS, someone with integrity and empathy, and what that could mean for the US and the world.
I wasn’t sure which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels to pick. And I could easily be talked into Instructions for a Heatwave, or her debut, After You’d Gone. But I settled on The Hand that first Held Mine. Her writing is always perceptive and subtle and in this novel she skilfully weaves together two different timelines – the 1950s and the present day – in a haunting study of memory and motherhood.
In Black and British, David Olusoga tells us of a ‘forgotten history’. To some extent this is not so much forgotten as ignored. No one is suggesting that in previous centuries our society was quite as diverse as it is today, but so much more so than it is usually represented – and every time a writer tries to represent the reality, which as Bill Potts says in Doctor Who is ‘a bit more black than they show in the movies’, there are howls of protest and shouts of ‘PC gone mad’. The history is there, and clear, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Olusoga presents so much that is new to me, even though I thought I knew a bit about this stuff, and some of it runs counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. And it’s a delight. The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is set in eastern Norway,and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
The first two volumes in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy fall outside the remit of this list, but the third just makes it. The Amber Spyglass (Guardian top 100 title). I re-read the original trilogy some weeks ago, in preparation for the new trilogy (the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, is wonderful and the second is due any day now), and they blew me away all over again. This is boldly imaginative fantasy, philosophical and literary, without the narrative ever losing impetus. As Pullman says, ‘the only thing that is interesting about fantasy is if you can use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature’.
The Naming of the Dead is the 16th in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is as stroppy and infuriating as ever (but we wouldn’t want him any other way). The setting is the 2005 G8 summit, and Rankin weaves the events surrounding the summit (protests, the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, and the 7 July London bombings) into this story of murder and corruption.
I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography, Life, because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
Sally Rooney is just getting started as a novelist, but her first two books have both generated an enormous amount of attention and praise. Normal People is her second – I’ve only read this once though I will undoubtedly go back to it (and will read Conversations with Friends, her debut). The ‘normal people’ of the title are, of course, not quite normal. Connell can pass for normal in his home and school environment, but only by hiding a lot of what he feels and thinks, and away from home he struggles to work out who he is and how he fits in. Marianne is regarded by her peers at school as weird, but comes into her own away from a damaging home environment. Their relationship is compelling and troubling – certainly not a conventional love affair – and Rooney doesn’t let us have a tidy or comfortable resolution.
I came across Liz Rosenberg’s Indigo Hill by chance as a Kindle offer, and loved it. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed, although she’s a fairly prolific writer, with children’s books and poetry as well as novels on her CV. Indigo Hill is about families, secrets and memories – and it’s beautifully written (one might have guessed that she was a poet).
In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes brilliantly and beautifully about the century when ‘classical’ music got difficult. He demythologises without ever dumbing down, and has a gift for the description or metaphor that makes something difficult suddenly clear, and for illuminating the context in which this music was composed. It isn’t, despite the title, about all twentieth-century music – jazz and rock and pop don’t get much of a look in except where they overlap with classical. But one book can’t do everything, and in shedding light on music that is often perceived to be impenetrable, he’s doing something wonderful, particularly for those of us who want to open our minds to it and yet still struggle sometimes.
The Plot against America is Philip Roth’s 2004 venture into alt-history or counter history, where he proposes that the 1940 US election returned Charles Lindbergh rather than Roosevelt to the White House. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We see the tragic consequences unfold through one Jewish family (modelled on Roth’s own). Contemporary parallels are all too easy to draw… (Guardian top 100 title)
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea gives us three stories, three protagonists, and then brings them together in the final part of the novel in ways that one could not have anticipated. With each story the tone changes, and Ryan skilfully takes us from lyricism to black comedy and everywhere in between. (I also loved his earlier The Thing about December. There too is humour and tragedy, and a lonely young man trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it.) ‘Filled with love and righteous anger’, as the Guardian reviewer of From a Low and Quiet Sea puts it.
Philippe Sands’ East West Street weaves his own family history into the development of the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer.
Looking for Transwonderland is Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division.
I don’t know where to begin with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (Guardian top 100 title). Sebald is at the heart of my PhD thesis, and so trying to say something succinct when I’m so immersed is hard. It also means that a lot of the reviews annoy me quite a bit. I would probably have selected The Emigrants to represent Sebald’s work, but Austerlitz is the only one of his four ‘novels’ that falls within the twenty-first century, and it was his last – he died in a car accident not long after its publication. It’s about time, place and memory, and about a life that intersects with and is shaped by the darkest period of European history. It’s the most problematic of his novels, but endlessly, obsessively compelling.
Les Parisiennes is Anne Sebba’s fascinating account of the lives of women during the Nazi occupation of Paris, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between. Sebba draws on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaves them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were.
I was drawn to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go at first just for the title. But then I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Lynn Shepherd’s Tom All Alone’s is the second of her ‘literary’, postmodern crime novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, turned that classic upside down in a most entertaining way. I approached this one with caution because it riffs primarily on Bleak House, the best novel in the English language, and just as I am hypercritical of cover versions of songs I particularly love, so I am sceptical at least about anyone messing with my favourite novels. However, Shepherd recreates the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, even while she subverts his characters. It’s a gripping tale, darker – dare I say, bleaker – than anything Dickens could have published back in the day. There’s a slice of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in here as well.
I’ve read most of Anita Shreve‘s novels, including her last (she died last year) The Stars are Fire. But it had been a while, and when I thought about her work, the one that I knew had to be my choice was The Last Time they Met. There’s a link between this and an earlier work, The Weight of Water, in the central character, Thomas Janes. The Last Time they Met uses a reverse chronologicy to unravel the story of a relationship, and past and present are interwoven skilfully as in so many of Shreve’s books. This one is particularly heartbreaking and I still remember the sense of shock at its ending.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Guardian top 100) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American who died in agony of cancer in a ‘coloured’ hospital ward in 1951. This is about medical and scientific history – but also about race. Henrietta did not know her cells were being taken, nor did her family – and there’s a murky history of black hospital patients being treated as experimental subjects without informed consent. Billions have been made from these ‘HeLa’ cells, which showed extraordinary capacity to multiply and were used around the world to develop new drugs. But Skloot tells the story not just of ‘HeLa’ but of Henrietta’s life and death, and of her surviving children, and their struggles after her death.
I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). Again her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Ali Smith’s Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. The Guardian picked her novel Autumn, which I haven’t read, but will.
Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark (Guardian top 100 title) finds hope in activism, and in the notion of the Angel of alternate history. This is based on the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man in despair sees what the world would look like if he hadn’t been born. We may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse. Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can.
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is an eloquent and rigorous account of depression. It comes from his own experience of this crippling illness and he tells his own story here, with painful honesty, but also explores the nature of depression, in terms of the science, the sociology, and how it is treated. ‘That Solomon has shaped a richly eloquent testament from his own seasons in hell kindles something like hope’.
I’ve read most, if not all, of Cath Staincliffe‘s work – her Sal Kilkenny PI series, the Scott & Bailey and Blue Murder novels, and her stand-alone titles, which, whilst they centre on a crime, are more concerned with the ripples from that crime as they spread out to victims and perpetrators and families. The Silence Between Breaths is a superlative example. I shall say nothing about the plot, but if you remember to breathe whilst reading it you will be doing better than I did. It’s gripping but also compassionate and moving. I’d highly recommend also The Girl in the Green Dress.
Another of the posse of brilliant young female crime writers whose books have given me so much enjoyment this century is Susie Steiner. Her detective is Manon Bradshaw, who made her debut in Missing, Presumed. What marks Steiner and her contemporaries out is the emphasis on character, rather than just on plot. Manon is a brilliant protagonist, but all of the secondary characters, whether colleagues or victims or their families, are subtly drawn too, with humour and empathy. There’s a sequel, Persons Unknown, and a new Manon title out next year.
The Hillsborough tragedy had a huge impact on me, even though I wasn’t there, and knew no one who died there. That afternoon and evening, watching the casualty count rise, trying to understand, are still so vivid in my memory. Since that day I’ve blogged regularly about it, as the fight for truth and justice for the victims and their families went on. Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is both a personal account of that day and what followed, and an exploration of the broader picture in contemporary football.
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). The Gustav Sonata is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfection’, which is quite an accolade. The setting is Switzerland during the Second World War, which allows an exploration of the notion of neutrality. This quote, which comes towards the end and gives nothing away of the plot, goes to the heart of things: ‘We have to become the people we always should have been’.
Of all the Sarah Waters novels that I have read, Night Watch in particular stayed with me (The Guardian picked Fingersmith). It’s another tale told in reverse, but the Blitz is at the heart of everything that happens here. Gradually, as the story unfolds, we understand the characters, war and world weary, and the puzzling events that open the novel.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Guardian top 100 title) begins as a historical novel, telling with extraordinary and brutal power of the live of slaves in the American deep south. We’ve been here before, or so we may think. And then Whitehead swerves into a different kind of fiction altogether, without leaving behind the real stories of slaves, masters and abolitionists, but allowing us to see it afresh, from a different angle.
Having read Oranges are the Only Fruit, I thought I knew a bit about Jeanette Winterson‘s upbringing. But whilst that is moving and even devastating, it doesn’t convey the full awfulness, the full damage of that childhood and adolescence. Why be Happy when you could be Normal? pulls no punches. But it also has passages of great joy, particularly as the young Jeanette gains access to books, libraries of books, that open up new worlds to her. The story of her later life is devastating too, but throughout there is humour and self-awareness and compassion. One of the finest memoirs I have read.
And my three top books of the century are:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read it several times and its impact never lessens. It’s personal, in a way, in that I lived in Nigeria at the time and during the events that she describes. The central characters begin in a period of peace and plenty, academics, privileged members of the wealthy Lagos business community, and ‘expats’. Gradually, as the country descends into pogroms and civil war, everything they have is gradually taken, their homes, their comforts, their food, their security. It’s an intensely powerful narrative – and it’s also about who gets to tell the story.
I love Kate Atkinson‘s work, her Jackson Brodie crime novels and, well, all of it really. But Life after Life is in a class of its own. Her writing is so perceptive, so piercing, often very funny, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s a contender for my Desert Island book, in that I could conceive of reading it over and over again (alongside the Bible and Shakespeare).
Jon McGregor is an extraordinary author – If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things breaks my heart, no matter how often I read it. Reservoir 13 is not a detective novel, despite the familiar opening scenes – a missing girl, a community in shock, a search. The reader becomes part of the rhythm of time and the seasons which continue to pass whether or not we find her. The voices and lives of the community interweave – life and death, grief, betrayal, loss, love, warmth, joy. The cliché is that when something terrible happens, ‘life goes on’. That’s what Reservoir 13 is about.
So there we are. It’s a very personal list – it reflects not only my general preferences (history, crime), but my particular interests (French World War II history, West Africa, music). So literally no one else is likely to pick the same 100 titles. And nor will I, if I repeat this exercise twenty years from now…
If this list turns you on to an author you didn’t know, or a book you hadn’t tried, I’d love to know, and will be absolutely delighted. If I haven’t included an author or a book that you think should be there, do tell me (note that I respond better to recommendations than to reproofs for not having read your favourites!). If I include things you hate, or think unworthy, that’s fine, but no need to tell me, there’s plenty of room for your tastes and mine. Nothing on this list is here because I think it ought to be here, I’m not trying to prove anything, just to share some of the joy I’ve found in reading in the 21st century.