Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Last Jedi


So, I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi on New Years Day. I picked the first performance I could find, which meant I got the screen to myself. And due to a cock-up by the cinema, I didn't have to watch any stupid ads before it started either. It was trailers and then film. As it should be.

I loved it. Genuinely loved it. Enjoyed it more than any Star Wars film since...Return of the Jedi. I'd almost go as far as to say it was my favourite Star Wars film of the entire lot so far but that might be pushing it.

And yet I see an internet full of complaints. Now, I'm not a Star Wars 'geek'. I'm a Doctor Who 'geek'. That's where my fandom pound gets spent. I like Star Wars. I'd put it in with a handful of other SF related things that I have an interest in but don't know every detail about. You can make a judgement of the value of my opinion based on that. A lot of Star Wars fans seem to be very angry about this film.

I'm going to ignore the SJW angle because if this series has been about a bunch of good guys trying to take down the fascists with a dash of mysticism attached from the very beginning. Or alternatively, it's just supposed to have been a series of adventure movies to which we have all become slightly over-attached to. And that's not a bad thing. Doctor Who is just a family TV series designed to keep everyone watching BBC One between the football results and Juke Box Jury to which I have become ridiculously and expensively attached.

I'll start with Luke's character as this seems to be the big issue people have with the film, including to some degree Mark Hamill himself. Yes, Luke in the earlier films was always the least cynical and most optimistic character of the main characters. Yes, it is hard to see what Luke has become. But I don't believe it is 'out of character'. This is Luke after he's lost his nephew to the Dark Side. This is Luke after he's utterly failed. This is Luke after another series of killings. Is there any wonder he's become cynical and cut-off from the force and the galaxy. There isn't anything 'out of character' here. This is Luke after an emotional battering, which most of us would struggle to recover from. And Hamill - whatever his personal doubts - is brilliant. And yet, however much he wants to stop being a legend, in the end, he saves the day at the cost of his own life. His legendary status is cemented. He does the right thing.

Everyone talks about the Jedi as if they're great but in the prequel trilogy, they were basically a bunch of politicians quibbling over midichlorians whilst a Sith Lord out-manoeuvred them. Like any number of mediaeval religious orders in this world, they found that their temporal power meant they lost sight of their spiritual goals. The Jedi that the original trilogy remembered were the legends, not the politicians. It seems that Luke saw that too (and so did Yoda). All the organisation needed to be pulled down and something new should take its place, which learned the lessons from their previous failures.

Which is where Kylo Ren's call to Rey to 'let go of the past' echoes with Luke's story. Kylo Ren is still conflicted. He's asking the same questions as Rey about his place in the universe. Luke couldn't show it too him. Snoke can't. He's hoping perhaps Rey can.

The other key thing in this film I think is that it is about failure and learning lessons from failure: Poe, learns to go from bull in a china shop to leader; Rey fails to convert Kylo Ren back to the light, but she learns that she can find her own way; Finn learns - and that's why the sequence on Canto Bite matters - that there is something worth fighting for. In defeat, he finds his place.

I felt that the film was aiming to say something about balance and that Leia was the person who would bring balance to the Force, perhaps through Kylo Ren. Perhaps herself. I wonder whether the next film will be about balance.

This is the Rebellion's Dunkirk. Now it has to rebuild.

People seemed disappointed that Rey's family were 'nobodies'. Why? Does every major force wielding character in Star Wars have to be related? What else could she be? Luke's daughter? Obi-Wan Kenobi's? Isn't that all a little incestuous. And the scene when she's standing to look at the (almost) infinite line of herself is just her learning that she's who she is because of herself. She hasn't needed to be part of the bloodline of some Force Nobility. And that makes her a stronger and better character.*

A similar thing applies to Snoke. I think because fans love theories it is disappointing when we aren't given one of them as the answer to who is what. All those guesses about who Snoke is or was are never going to get answered because his own hubris gets him killed. And I'm all right with that. Again why do we want to make the Star Wars Universe so incestuous? Snoke has to be someone connected to somewhere else in the films. Why? We fans love our theories, but it is funny when we're all wrong. Snoke is just Snoke. And now he's dead.

It seems to me that people dislike this film because it has tried to do something new. You can't freeze something like this in carbonite. It needs to stretch out and develop.

O and on a couple of the little things:

Porgs: they're hardly in it and they're mostly comic relief. Get over it.
Leia's Space Flight: this we're supposed to disapprove of because why? Is it any weirder than being able to move rocks with your mind. Or lifting R2-D2 up? Or...etc. Who knows what sneaky practice Leia has been doing on her Force control when no one is looking.

And finally, after all this waffling on, I like this film because it was entertaining. Perhaps, having seen Abel Gance's 5 and 1/2 hour Napoleon a couple of days earlier, my tolerance for film length was at an all-time high but it flew by. I was never bored. I was moved to tears when Leia and Luke talk towards the end of the film. I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as Rose.

Plus Adrian Edmondson.

Sorry if this isn't to your liking but frankly I don't give a damn. 


*This might all turn out to be a double-bluff and the final film reveal she's really the daughter of Qui-Gon Jinn or something equally tedious.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Reading in 2017

So, the last book I completed in 2017 was Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, whilst the first was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. One of them I enjoyed more than the other. In between those two books I read a few other books.

I'm going to list my Top Ten, which as with all things is utterly arbitrary and might change as books settle in the mind and heart. Actually, I'm going to split them into Top Ten Fiction and Top Ten Non-Fiction. Just because.

TOP TEN FICTION

Autumn, Ali Smith
The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes
The Door, Magda Szabo
A Month in the Country, J. L. Carr
Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
A General Theory of Oblivion, Jose Eduardo Agualusa
A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler
Exit West, Moshin Hamid
Sally Heathcote Suffragette, Mary M Talbot/Kate Charlesworth/Bryan Talbot
Under The Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta
The Monkey's Mask, Dorothy Porter

I actually made a concerted effort to broaden my fiction reading this year, which I did. So I am smugly pleased about that. There were two books I read this year that I actively loathed. I might name them later.

I've been influenced in my reading choices this year by a couple of podcasts. Firstly, Robin Ince and Josie Long's Book Shambles, which I've been listening to for some time. That's where I first heard of The Monkey's Mask. The other is Backlisted Podcast, which is why I ended up reading A Month in the County and The Year of Reading Dangerously. For non-fiction, I blame Dan Snow's History Hit podcast for throwing up lots of books I'd like to read. Too many for my wallet, unfortunately.

The Top Ten isn't in any particular order but I'd probably nominate Autumn, by Ali Smith as my favourite fiction read of 2017. It's a beautiful book. I couldn't put it down and when I finished I felt that little pang of grief that comes with finishing a brilliant book for the first time. I can't recommend it enough.

TOP TEN NON-FICTION

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter, Lucinda Hawksley
Breakdown, The Crisis of Shell Shock on The Somme, Taylor Downing
In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, Jenny Uglow
All Behind You Winston: Churchill's Great Coalition, 1940-45, Roger Hermiston
Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelmann
On Bullfighting, A.L. Kennedy
A Short History of Drunkenness, Scott Murray
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, Andy Miller
Little Me, Matt Lucas
Julian of Norwich, Janina Ramirez

That's a mixed set of subjects. There are the usual Tony Cross obsessions there: World War One, World War Two and Churchill. All three are subject areas that are the gift that keeps on giving. Again there in no particular order, but if I had to pick one it would be Taylor Downing's book Breakdown, The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, which is a well-researched and well-written book covering a subject capable of raising issues even now. It tries to be fair to the British Army, but there are still moments where I felt genuine anger about the way individuals (or groups) were treated.

The full list of what I read is below. If you've got any questions then feel free to answer. As you'll see from that list I did manage to read some poetry, but not as much as I'd like. I read two different Ted Hughes books. One, Crow: From Life and Songs of the Crow I struggled with. The other Tales From Ovid: Twenty-Four Passages from 'Metamorphoses' was fantastic. Make of that what you will.

FULL LIST OF BOOKS

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari
The Owl Service Alan Garner
The Noise Of Time Julian Barnes
Myra Breckenridge Gore Vidal
Blood River: A Journey Through Africa's Broken Heart Tim Butcher
A Perilous Undertaking Deanna Raybourn
The Door Magda Szabó
The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter Lucinda Hawksley
Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme Taylor Downing
Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s Tom Doyle
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
Hope In The Dark Rebecca Solnit
Tales from Ovid: Twenty-four Passages from the "Metamorphoses" Ted Hughes [Trans]
In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815 Jenny Uglow
The Pirate Planet James Goss
Running Through Corridors: Volume 2-The 70s Toby Hadoke & Robert Shearman
All Behind You Winston: Churchill's Great Coalition, 1940-1945 Roger Hermiston
After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 Ben Shephard
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta Marc Morris
The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove Andrew Cartmel
The Moonstone's Curse Sam Siciliano
Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone J.K. Rowling
Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition Nasid Hajari
Dynasty: The Rise & Fall of the House of Caesar Tom Holland
The Age of Olympus Gavin Scott
Truths, Half-Truths & Little White Lies Nick Frost
Indian Summer Alex Von Tunzelmann
If This Is A Man Primo Levi
Space Helmet For A Cow: The Mad True Story of Doctor Who, Volume 2: 1990-2013 Paul Kirkley
Go Tell It On The Mountain James Baldwin
On Bullfighting AL Kennedy
Giovanni's Room James Baldwin
Confessions of a Lioness Mia Couto
A General Theory of Oblivion José Eduardo Agualusa
A Whole Life Robert Seethaler
The Sense Of An Ending Julian Barnes
Reel History - The World According to the Movies Alex Von Tunzelmann
Sherlock Holmes vs Cthulu - The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions Lois H. Gresh
Money Martin Amis
Sherlock Holmes: The Labyrinth of Death James Lovegrove
Directed by Douglas Camfield Michael Seeley
Selected Poems Anna Akhmatova
The Underground Rail Road Colson Whitehead
Exit West Moshin Hamid
Stalin Ate My Homework Alexei Sayle
Aeneid VI Seamus Heaney
Autumn Ali Smith
Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow Ted Hughes
A Study in Scarlet Arthur Conan Doyle
A Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir Kenneth Clarke
Now We Are Six Hundred: A Collection of Time Lord Verse James Goss
James Baldwin: The Last Interview & Other Conversations James Baldwin
Hero of the Empire: The Making of Winston Churchill Candice Millard
Solar Bones Mike McCormack
Fear & Loathing on the Oche: A Gonzo Journey Through The World of Championship Darts King Adz
Little Me Matt Lucas
A Short History of Drunkenness Mark Forsyth
Blade of the Immortal - Omnibus I Hiroaki Sumura
Julian of Norwich Janina Ramirez
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
The Title: The Story of the First Division Scott Murray
A Month in the Country J L Carr
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life Andy Miller
Introducing Fascism: A Graphic Guide Stuart Hood/Litza Jansz
Sally Heathcote Suffragette Mary M Talbot/Kate Charlesworth/Bryan Talbot
Penguin's Poems For Love Laura Barber [Editor]
Under The Udala Trees Chinelo Okparanta
The Story of my Teeth Valeria Luiselli
The Monkey's Mask Dorothy Porter
Rendevous With Rama Arthur C Clarke





My Favourite Things from 2017

Well, I went to a lot of films and art in 2017. I also saw about 20 plays and 2 operas, although I left half-way through one of them, Jane Eyre at the National Theatre. I also managed to attend two plays in a week that failed to reach their end - Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre and Coriolanus at the Barbican - which has to be an unusual event.

So, my Top Ten Theatre/Opera were:

Salome, National Theatre
Incident at Vichy, King's Head Theatre
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter Theatre
The Seagull, Lyric Hammersmith
Kiss Me, Trafalgar Studio
Coriolanus, RSC at The Barbican
Art, The Old Vic
The Life of Galileo, The Young Vic
Richard III, Arcola Theatre
Aida, ENO

Salome, which was a new version by Yaël Farber. It took a little while for me to get into but it eventually blew my mind. A real example of what theatre can do with a story you think you know. Incident at Vichy is a Miller play that doesn't get performed often but seemed to be a play for 2017. The cast was astonishing and if a play had deserved a West End transfer then this was it. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf featured probably the best performance I saw from anyone in 2017, which was Imelda Staunton's Martha, although Greg Hick's Richard III was pretty astonishing. 

I saw a terrible Romeo & Juliet at The Globe, which managed to make one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays utterly awful. And as I said about we left Jane Eyre at the National Theatre at the interval. The less said about this the better. 

I wish I could go to more theatre as at its best I don't think there's anything as absorbing or as moving, even film. If I had the money and the time I'd go to the theatre every night. Almost. 

I saw 61 films in 2017. My Top Ten is

The Death of Stalin
Dunkirk
In Between
Logan
I Am Not Your Negro
After The Storm
Wonder Woman
A Ghost Story
My Life As A Courgette
The Road to Mandalay


Now that Top Ten is 2017 films. I also saw a number of films that were made before 2017. That included probably my favourite film of all time, A Matter of Life and Death, which I got to see in its new digital print. I finally got to see Le Samouraï on the big screen and found that sometimes the memory doesn't cheat. I saw Lawrence of Arabia again, which is as impressive this time as it was when I saw it last year. I can see a Lawrence of Arabia re-watch becoming an annual thing if I can find a cinema showing it because you really do need to see it on the big screen. That was the same with Abel Gance's Napoléon, which I saw last night. So here is my Top Ten Films I Saw in 2017 regardless of when they were made:

A Matter of Life & Death
The Death of Stalin
Dunkirk
In Between
Le Samouraï
Lawrence of Arabia
I Am Not Your Negro
A Star Is Born (Mason/Garland-obviously)
Logan
Cabaret

So, well done Carrie Dunn whose work on exposing me to musicals seems to have finally succeeded. That's two musicals in the Top Ten. Five films of 2017 itself still made the list. The Death of Stalin was darkly funny, superbly acted and was absolutely the best film from 2017 that I saw. It even nudged Dunkirk off the Top Spot, even though that is an astonishing film that had to be seen on the big screen. In Between was the film that surprised me most and probably moved me most if truth be told. I Am Not Your Negro was a stonkingly well-made documentary, which in the age of Donald Trump needed to be made. That's a fucking tragic thing to have to write.

I saw a lot of exhibitions at various galleries and museums in 2017. It helps to have lots of memberships courtesy of relatives and Christmas. (Thanks, Mum, Dad and Uncle Robin and Aunty Sue.) My Top Ten Exhibitions were:

David Hockney, Tate Britain
Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, British Museum
Australia's Impressionists, National Gallery
Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask, NPG
Giacometti, Tate Modern
Fahreinessa Zahid, Tate Modern
Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, National Gallery
Jasper Johns, Royal Academy
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern
Opera: Power, Passion & Politics, V&A

But this list is utterly arbitrary really as there was so much good art to see in London in 2017. Obviously, the advantage of living in London (and having an income to afford these things) is that there are galleries, museums, cinemas and theatres everywhere. If I had a 2018 wish it would be to visit a few more of the smaller theatres and galleries. If I had the money. 

I should also put in a word here for the day I spent at the Royal Festival Hall watching a live reading of Primo Levi's 'Is This A Man', which you can find an audio version of here. It is worth a listen. 

I saw a handful of live music. All of which I loved. Gretchen Peters was fantastic as always, as were Depeche Mode and The Unthanks. I also saw a couple of classical music concerts, Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grove at The Royal Festival Hall. Both of which were amazing. 

So, there you have it. The only thing left is books, but that's a whole other column of its own. 

Thanks to everyone who came with me, bought tickets and/or memberships. So that'll be Aya, Emma, Mark, Chris, Leslie and Carrie. It's been a good year. It wouldn't have been so good without you all. 







Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Favourite Things From 2016

I saw a lot of art in 2016. That's what will stand out I think. I hardly saw a film, went to the theatre and opera a bit & read a lot but I made my way to a lot of art.

Now, my knowledge of art extends pretty much as far as that cliche: "I may not know a lot about art but I know what I like." The amusing thing though is even the stuff I like I couldn't always explain to you why I like it. Especially the more abstract stuff. Perhaps it is simply that there's a mix of colour, shapes & textures that work for me without too much actual thinking being required. Perhaps that line about 'all art aspires to the condition of music' applies. The stuff hits you without being too smacked about by your mind.

So, the only films I saw in an actual cinema in 2016 were: Deadpool, Lawrence of Arabia, Hail, Caesar!, Mustang, Son of Saul, Nice Guys, Our Kind of Traitor & Embrace The Serpent. I enjoyed them all - although I'm not sure 'enjoy' is the correct word for Son of Saul, which is a pretty harrowing film but one I think everyone should see. I'd say similar things about Mustang, but that isn't as bleak. Embrace The Serpent was an astonishing film with an interesting structure. It was brilliant finally seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, where you can lose yourself in the desert properly. Nice Guys, Hail Caesar! and Deadpool were all highly entertaining whilst Our Kind of Traitor was fine up to a point. And that point was the ending. So, if I'm going to pick a film of 2016 from that list it would have to be Son of Saul.

My friends - Caroline Dunn and Emma Parry in particular - will probably find my selection of a really depressing subtitled film unsurprising. I am nothing if not easy to read.

OK, on the theatre & opera type stuff I saw Guys and Dolls (Savoy Theatre), Macbeth (Young Vic), Hangmen (Wyndhams), Battlefield (Young Vic), The Magic Flute (ENO), The Caretaker (Old Vic), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Globe), Taming of the Shrew (Globe), Madam Butterfly (ENO), The Deep Blue Sea (NT), Tristan & Isolde (ENO), Macbeth (Globe), Imogen (Globe) The Plough & The Stars (NT), Don Giovanni (ENO), No Man's Land (Wyndhams). Annoyingly ill-health (or perhaps my own anxiety related to my ill-health if truth be told) led me to cancel a few other things I was supposed to see. This has been a problem recently and one I'm determined to see the back of in 2017.

The only one of those that I thought was an utter dud was Macbeth at the Globe. I'm not 'in' on arts politics but having seen everything from Emma Rice's 'Wonder Season' I'm a bit baffled as to why the Globe have gone and given her the - polite - boot. A Midsummer Night's Dream was (almost) the best thing I saw in 2016, The Taming of the Shrew was an OK take on a terrible play, Imogen was an interesting attempt to do something with one of Shakespeare's less often performed plays and Macbeth was rubbish but that was more to do with its director than Emma Rice. But The Globe is my favourite place to watch Shakespeare. There's something about feeling part of the production that other theatres don't have.

My favourite things I saw though were: Don Giovanni (ENO), Guys and Dolls (Savoy Theatre), Macbeth (Young Vic) and Hangmen

I would say I enjoyed everything I saw at the ENO, even the five and a half hours of Wagner that was Tristan & Isolde. I love the ENO though, even as they struggle to find a place in the new austerity-driven arts culture of the 21st century. They still have lots of reasonably priced tickets and they seem less pompous than the Royal Opera House, which - and this may be unfair - seems to be home to the wealthy and the snobby but I base that on one visit & feeble attempts to buy tickets that aren't outrageously priced.

I saw two more Pinter plays this year - The Caretaker and No Man's Land - which just reinforce my love of Pinter's black comic verbal hostility where you have to read not just between the lines but between the lines between the lines.

The Deep Blue Sea was a disappointment, The Plough & the Stars interesting and Battlefield though provoking and very, very Peter Brook.

The only live music I saw this year was the magnificent Gretchen Peters who is the finest purveyor of warm melancholy I've seen recently and I'd go see her every time she comes to Britain if I have the money. I did make it to The Cambridge Folk Festival, though, which was fun. This time with my friend Mark and my god-daughter Gemma. There were some great bands on and some great pubs in town to explore but I really enjoyed Lisa O'Neill, Songs of Separation, Sam Outlaw, Kate Rusby, Mary Chapin Carpenter & Baaba Maal. I'd like to see more live music next year (and Depeche Mode are touring so that's already on the list.)

So, now for the arts/museums list. I went to: Alexander Calder : Performing Sculpture (Tate Modern), The World Goes Pop (Tate Modern), Artists & Empire (Tate Britain), Frank Auerbach (Tate Britain), Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (2015 & 2016) (National Portrait Gallery), Vogue: A Century of Style (National Portrait Gallery), Bletchley Park (with Aya), Painting with the Light (Tate Britain), Russia & The Arts (National Portrait Gallery), Mona Hatoum (Tate Modern), Bhupen Khakhar: You Can't Please All (Tate Modern), Georgia O'Keeffe (Tate Modern), William Egglestone (National Portrait Gallery), Picasso Portraits (National Portrait Gallery), Paul Nash (Tate Britain), Turner Prize 2016 (Tate Britain), Painting The Artist : Van Dyck & Early Self-Portraiture in Britain (National Portrait Gallery), Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery) & Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy). So that's not too bad.

I particularly loved Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture (Tate Modern), Vogue: A Century of Style (National Portrait Gallery), Painting with the Light (Tate Britain), Russia & The Arts (National Portrait Gallery), William Egglestone (National Portrait Gallery), Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery) & Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy) but Mona Hatoum shook me up & blew my mind in a way that I hadn't been expecting even as I wasn't sure about how much I liked what I was seeing, which makes for an interesting response. I'll probably try to get to Beyond Caravaggio again before it closes and I'm going to pop in to see the Wilfredo Lam (Tate Modern) Exhibition on New Year's Eve so the year isn't closed yet.

If I had to pick one though I'd go for...Mona Hatoum. 

I missed a couple of things because friends wanted to go but we couldn't pin dates down. Next year I'll go regardless.

The best thing is having memberships to various Museums and Galleries, which are funded by generous relatives (mostly). It means that these things are doable even when I'm skint, which as those of you who know me well know that's often. It also helps that I live in a city with such an amazing set of galleries and museums. It's easy in London to get that London mindset that means weirdly you end up not going to all the things you're surrounded by because you just don't. There's no real explanation for it. I've lived in London for about twenty years. For half that time I barely saw a play, went to an art gallery or did anything else but get drunk, sleep and work. Now, I'm more aware of what's out there and more determined to take advantage of it.

It helps that there are people I know who enjoy this stuff as much as I do so here's an end of 2016 thank you list:

To Gemma, for joining me at Don Giovanni in our lucky dip seats & having a whale of a time. As well as The Cambridge Folk Festival.
To Mark, Emma & Chris, for the various plays & trips. To Emma also thanks for being one of the few people to get around art galleries and museums at the same speed as me. To Marky for having a similar taste in music to me also & for making the Cambridge Folk Festival such an excellent combination of beer and music. Maybe we'll get round to Hampton Court this year. ;-)
To Carrie for the continuing education in the world of musicals. More next year as I've been rubbish this.
To Aya for getting me to go the Bletchley Park again & for her help with tickets at the Prince Charles Cinema.
To Mum & Dad for funding a lot of this stuff through Xmas & Birthday presents.

I hope you all had a lovely 2016. And here's to 2017.



Friday, December 23, 2016

Reading in 2016

So, I set out to read 100 books in 2016. 

I know - and thank you, Professor Parry, for also pointing it out to me - that setting targets isn't really what reading should be about but hey, that's how I roll. It also allows me to indulge in my love of Excel spreadsheets. 

What I also set out to do was read more fiction, more poetry and more writing by non-white men. I have certainly read more fiction than usual. Of the 64 books, I read in 2016 26 of them were fiction, 28 non-fiction, 6 poetry and 4 Doctor Who (which I've made a separate category just because.)

How did I pick the books? Well, partly I am very slowly working through a list I found on the Guardian website of 1000 novels you should read so some of them came via that list. Another chunk was picked via my Reading Group.* Most of the non-fiction was just a random choice but reflects my interest in World War One and World War Two. Often though one book on a particular topic will lead to another one, e.g. reading Geoff Dyer's excellent The Missing of the Somme led me to the older (and also excellent) The Great War & Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. I also read a couple of books on the recommendation of podcasts - Dan Snow's History Hit was a particular contributor here - but you can also thank Tim Keys's Radio programme on Daniil Kharms' The Plummeting Old Women. 

I only read six poetry books, which wasn't quite what I was hoping - ignoring for the sake of argument The Poetry Society's fantastic Poetry Review, which arrives Quarterly & features a fine selection of poetry to read as well as interviews, criticism and reviews. If you like poetry & have a decent income I can't recommend joining The Poetry Society enough. It would be worth it for the Poetry Review alone. However one of my favourite books of 2016 was Katherine Towers' 'The Remedies'. 

Poetry books sometimes feel like a luxury - perhaps because they are - because they tend to be quite expensive but I'll take them over watches (as a random example of pointlessly expensive bling.) 

The one thing my reading does often do is miss contemporary or literary fiction so I'll end up reading a lot of 2016's best books in 2017 & beyond. Any recommendations of podcasts about current fiction eagerly received. 

So, what were my favourite books I read in 2016?

I've already mentioned The Remedies, by Katherine Towers so that's one. Then there is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, which is an astonishingly well-written & crafted novel. Also Elizabeth Smart's By Central Station I Sat Down & Wept, which feels more like a long narrative poem than a novel. It's also incredibly and almost unbearably personal. I can see why some people might dislike it but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which I expect not to like at all but fell in love with to such a degree that I found myself a little tearful twice whilst reading it. On public transport. It wasn't far from Joey's reaction in Friends. I also really enjoyed Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love, which is a classic example of a book I wouldn't have read based on its cover if I'd picked it up in a shop but which deserves to be read by as many people as possible. It being a story of love and philosophy (which might just be the same thing.) I also really enjoyed The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel, which I described as 'James Bond with carrier bags'. That's a line I'm still proud of. 
I also loved Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude but with more cooking. So it is tough to pick a single best book but I've randomly (and perhaps pointlessly) decided to select one: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which just pips By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept.)

Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the great books of military reportage and I regret not having read it in 1989 when it would have probably changed my life. Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R. Thorpe, which is a biography of the kind of Conservative that I suspect is if not extinct certainly endangered. Geoff Dyer's 'The Missing of the Somme is moving, wonderfully researched and well-written. But I think the best non-fiction book I read in 2016 was Sarah Helm's This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, which is a tough read - there were moments when I had to put it down for a bit to read something less real - but well-worth it. 

Perhaps the book I found toughest to get through in 2016 was T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which I find had great moments but did sometimes feel like a long, dull trudge through the desert. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, was the book I felt I needed more knowledge to appreciate properly but did enjoy. Kobe Abe's Face of Another was the only book in 2016 that I really ended up disliking, despite it being clearly a fine book. There was something about it that lost me towards the end. 

So there you have it. That was my 2016. Below is the full list of the books I read. Feel free to comment. 

Fools & Jesters in the English Court, John Southworth
The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion & Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, Janina Ramirez
The Silver Stallion, Ahn Junghyo
After Hitler: The Last Days Of The Second World War, Michael Jones
The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning & Making of English Football, David Goldblatt
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart
The Mask of Dimitrious, Eric Ambler
Non-Stop, Brian Aldiss
This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, Sarah Helm
Beowulf, Seamus Heaney
Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke
The Wild Swans at Coole, W. B. Yeats
The Happiness Patrol, Graeme Curry
Forensics, Val McDermid
Trumbo, Bruce Cook
The Crystal Bucket: TV Criticism from the Observer, 1976-79, Clive James
The Pompous Tory: The Wife in Space, Volume 3. Neil & Sue Perryman
Cultural Amnesia: Notes On The Margins of My Time, Clive James
The Plummeting Old Women, Daniil Kharms
1971 - Never a Dull Moment: Rock's Golden Year, David Hepworth
Like Water For Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance in the Last Year of WW2, Randall Hansen
Rasputin - A Short Life, Frances Welch
Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe
The Wind Among The Reeds, W. B. Yeats
The Vinyl Detective, Andrew Cartmel
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence
Resistance is Useless, Jenny Colgan
The Movie Doctors, Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode
Stage Whispers, Douglas Wilmer
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Dan Fox
Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan, D.R. Thorpe
The Victorian Guide To Sex: Desire & Deviance in the 19th Century, Fern Riddell
The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer
The Waste Land & Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Where Adam Delved & Eve Span: A History of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, Mark O'Brien
The Mad One: The Wife in Space, Volume 4, Neil & Sue Perryman
The War Machines, Ian Stuart Black
Operation Insanity, Colonel Richard Westley
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
England, Arise: The People, The King & the Revolt of 1381, Juliet Barker
The Face of Another, Kobo Abe
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe
Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Death of a Hero, Richard Aldington
The Man With The Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
Fantômas, Marcel Allain/Pierre Souvestre
Epitaph for a Spy, Eric Ambler
Journey into Fear, Eric Ambler
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
The Great War & Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Sex & Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire, Eric Berkowitz
The Remedies, Katherine Towers
The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak
Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, Sarah Ladipo Manyika
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee & The Final Solution, Mark Roseman
Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945, Raul Hilberg
Dispatches, Michael Herr

 





















*A thank you here to Rachael Barnes, Leslie McMurtry & Aya Vandebussche for making me read books that I might not have picked myself. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Longest Afternoon - Brendan Simms



'The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided The Battle of Waterloo' by Brendan Simms, is my fourth Waterloo book of the year. 

This focuses on the King's German Legion's (KGL) defence of La Haye Sainte, which Simms claims was the key battle within the battle. Their defence held the centre of the field for Wellington long enough to allow von Blücher's Prussians to arrive & effectively finish Napoleon. 

It's a well-written & researched account of the day at La Haye Sainte & does well by all who fought there, including the French. 

He is very insistent about La Haye Sainte's significance, which he points out (at least three times in very similar words): "is still lost amid the (understandable) emphasis on the Guards at Hougoument, the heavy cavalry charges, Picton's death, the resilience of the British infantry squares...and finally Maitland's coup de grâce to the Imperial Guard." 

He makes a good case, but as that list shows battles are more than just single incidents one after another. They are interconnected, often happening at the same time & wreathed in the smoke, chaos & terror of the day. 

The importance of a single part of that battle is often hard to say without straying into counter-factuals. La Haye Sainte was clearly important but if it had fallen earlier in the day would Napoleon have won? It's impossible to say but it is worth a detailed look. And the men - on both sides - who fought there are worth remembering.

Simms does an excellent job of explaining not just the battle but the creation & make-up of the King's German Legion, individual stories from within that battle and putting the KGL into a post-Waterloo context too. He quotes Field-Marshal Lord Bramall who refers to Waterloo as 'the first NATO operation' so multi-national was the army that fought there: British, Hanoverian, Brunswickers, Dutch, Flemish and Walloon (before you throw in the Prussians).  

It is good to be reminded that our history is not as separate from Europe as we might like to believe and that Waterloo wasn't won - just - on the playing fields of Eton. Not that I think this is the book's intention, just something I took from it.

Definitely worth a read if Waterloo is your thing, although it is actually as much about the trials of men in battle as it is the strategic and tactical stuff of military history. The story of Friedrich von Ompteda would be worth a book in its own right (and makes the Prince of Orange the nearest thing to a villain this book has.)


Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Futility



"I knew it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be. I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm."

This quote was taken from Adam Hochschild's excellent book, To End All Wars and when, as now, voices start calling once more for us to go to war or when the press start beating the drums of war and start calling anyone who questions the government, 'Cowards' it might do us good to remember this quote. 

The price many of those who objected to World War One paid could be high, especially in the early years when anti-war activists could be attacked by patriotic mobs or when one chose not to fight and ended up imprisoned and - in the case of c.30 concious objectors - threatened with the death penalty for refusing to fight. 

I've just finished To End All Wars, which I'm reading side-by-side with Douglas Newton's The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain's Rush To War, 1914, and the role of press barons and editors in pushing war and punishing and mocking dissidents hasn't changed much. The Sun branding the potential leaders of the Labour Party, 'Cowards' is part of the same culture even if the wars they want us to take part in are very different. 

So the calls have begun for us to bomb Syria. A country that has already been pretty comprehensively bombed. Our bombs, of course, are special stability bombs. Designed not to kill but to bring stability to a region that has clearly already massively benefited from our previous stability campaigns. And yesterday we announced the killing of two British ISIS fighters by drone. 

We're all supposed to be OK with this because these people were ISIS fighters. They, apparently, wanted to organise terrorist atrocities in the UK. So killing them without trial is perfectly fine. They chose to fight. They deserved to die. 

Except...except...is anyone else uncomfortable with a politician playing judge, jury and executioner without consultation? Is anyone uncomfortable with vague discussions of 'intelligence', which since the Iraq War is questionable in both accuracy and/or its use by politicians eager to make a case for war. 

We talk about how untrustworthy politicians are seen to be. We talk about cover-ups, sexed-up dossiers and conspiracies. Yet we seem willing to allow David Cameron to - effectively - reintroduce the death penalty with barely a whimper. 

These things matter because they set precedents. We have nothing to fear from our government, I hear, if we've done nothing wrong. And perhaps that is true but history shows that laws accepted on the basis of being used in the fight against terrorism have a tendency to creep into other areas. 

So I write this and paraphrase Bertrand Russell: I know it is my business to protest, however futile protest might be. I feel that for the honour of human nature those who are not swept off their feet should show that they stand firm.