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.