2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

Neil Peart RIP

When people ask me what the first record I ever bought was, I usually tell them Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was the first single I purchased, but the first LP that I bought was Moving Pictures by Rush. I’ve been a little reluctant to admit that over the years, as Rush are not generally felt to be the coolest act on the planet, but I was definitely a big fan for a while, and they were one of the first bands that introduced me to the idea that music could be something beyond an ephemeral distraction.

After Moving Pictures I quickly acquired all their previous albums, and their next release Signals, but my initial enthusiasm didn’t last, partly for reasons I’ll mention below, and I hardly listened to them at all over the following three decades, until some nostalgic impulse prompted me to get 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which in turn led me to revisit my collection of their old material. I’m not sure that I would sit and listen to any of the albums all the way through, but there are certainly some highlights, especially on Fly by Night, Permanent Waves, and the aforementioned Moving Pictures.

So I was sad to read in the paper this morning that Neil Peart had passed away, at the early age of 67. Much of the appeal of Rush’s work lies in the storytelling of his lyrics, particularly on the earlier albums, where he crafts some intriguing Tolkienesque fantasy, while (mostly) avoiding any lapses into ridiculousness.

There are some problematic elements to Peart’s legacy though; 2112, dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand”, is difficult to forgive. It’s said that Peart later disavowed Rand and identified himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”, but the official Rush website featured a sympathetic portrait of the alt-right icon as late as 2012, and in 2018 Peart was still describing 2112 as the story of “a hero who fights against collectivist mentality (depicted by the evil red star)“, so I probably won’t be putting that back on the turntable any time soon.

I much preferred Peart when he stuck to the elf-related whimsy, so I think that’s how I’ll remember him.

2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…

2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.

Pete Shelley RIP

Sad news tonight of the sudden death of punk icon Pete Shelley, lead singer of the legendary Buzzcocks.

I was too young to see the band in their original incarnation, but I got into them towards the end of my school days, and listened to them a lot when I was in college, a time in my life when lovelorn pop-punk was exactly the right soundtrack. Of course I eventually grew out of that phase, and it’s a good while since I last put on one of their records, but I still turn the sound up, and dance around a bit, if they come on the radio.

Anyway, here’s my favourite Buzzcocks tune – how could it ever let me down?

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

Grant Hart RIP

Sad news about Grant Hart. The one and only time I saw Hüsker Dü play live was more than 30 years ago, just after Candy Apple Grey came out, but I can still remember it clearly. It was in a tiny venue, and I was right at the front, about two feet away from the PA, which probably explains why I couldn’t hear a thing for about a week afterwards. Temporary deafness seemed like a small price to pay to be in the vicinity of genius though.

I’ve subsequently seen Bob Mould play loads of times, solo and with Sugar, but I never managed to catch any of Grant’s later shows, and now I never will. That’s obviously a trivial concern, when we’re talking about a man passing away at a tragically young age, but it’s another reminder that the list of things that I always just assumed would happen some day, but probably, or definitely, won’t, is getting longer all the time, and that perhaps I should pay more attention to the ephemeral nature of life, and how important it is to be in the moment. That sentiment isn’t a million miles away from the themes that Grant touched on in his best work, and I guess that that’s an epitaph that he might have appreciated.