This is going to be one of those posts with little content related to films.
Recently I have often found the question of whether an event occurred in 2020 or 2021 strangely difficult to answer; the pandemic has caused a limbo-like sense of time not really passing, in conjunction with the repetitive series of events (in the UK anyway – the Govt being extremely resistant to learning from past mistakes) creating a strong feeling of déjà vu. This in turn has contributed to my sense of 2021 being a real trudge to get through. Although I both recognised and identified with aspects of Adam Grant’s much-circulated article about languishing (“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”), I also liked Austin Kleon’s counter-response:
I’m not languishing, I’m dormant.
Like a plant. Or a volcano.
I am waiting to be activated.
That chimes with my favourite book from last year – Katherine May’s Wintering – and what it says about needing to accept that time is cyclical and passes in seasons; we can’t thrive or flourish all of the time. So I’m declaring this a dormant year for myself and am trying to look at it in terms of what I did achieve rather than what I didn’t.
The other reason that Kleon’s analogy – and May’s book – appeals is because I’ve got into gardening during the pandemic; a surprising number of plants take more than a year to get going. The garden has always been my Mum’s “thing” – I carried out some of the heavier donkey work but she was in charge. Slightly prior to the pandemic starting, I realised that the reason that the garden had got slightly out of control in the last couple of years was not that she was no longer interested but because she was overwhelmed by the size of the task (a neighbour-from-hell’s parting shot had been to spray some kind of pesticide over the fence, which resulted in quite a lot of dead plants including two thirds of a substantial cluster of bamboo [you could actually tell where she must have been standing from the arc of dead plant material], and then a few months later the entire back fence had to be replaced which resulted in more than a decade’s-worth of growth having to be cut down and dug up), but also her health conditions meant that she was physically struggling with the work. 2020 (I have photographic evidence to assist me with the sequence of events) mainly involved me cutting back anything that had overgrown, digging up some things that were not languishing but dead, and repainting the (older) fencing and seating. Almost the entire garden is in raised planters or pots (for accessibility reasons), so we also started moving things around but were still working out where different plants were happy to be.
In 2021 we’ve concentrated on the back fence. The rattan-like covering on the lower part of the fence was done late last year as an attempt to block some of the view through the fence (we’re overlooked by people who like to gawp), but wasn’t really sufficient. So trellis was added, climbers (three different sorts of honeysuckle) spaced out along whole length, small planters that attach to the fence positioned so as to block sightlines into our house, and some larger shrubs and bamboos moved around as further screens. As things grow, it should become more enveloping. I also grew around half a dozen different plants from seed (too many – I wasn’t expecting every seed to germinate, but they did), including some of those slow-growers referred to above; they’ve only grown foliage so far but should flower in 2022 (and then get spectacular seed heads in the autumn). I’ve tried to take on the work of the garden but not completely take over, given that it has always been Mum’s realm. Less happily, we had an infestation of rats in the summer – not actually living in our garden but seemingly using the space as a cut-through to the gawper garden over the back – so although a lot of work was done outside, not much time was spent sitting in the garden. I also decided to do something about the part of the front garden that was dominated by our bins. My proudest achievement this year (apart from actually growing something from seed) was designing a bin cupboard with a planter on the top – I measured the space and the bins, ordered the wood, cut it to size, built it and then planted it out as a gravel garden.
The garden remains a work-in-progress for 2022 (I think that is a perpetual requirement). I will be planting more seeds in the spring (fewer seeds this time, but for more varieties) and am looking forward to further adventures in horticulture as the seasons progress. I’m intending to also start drawing some of the plants in the garden – and perhaps develop a series of related collages – as an intentional method for creatively working my way out of dormancy.
My target was 70. I got to 85! I am currently reading Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori (illustrated by Lucille Clerc), but won’t finish it before the chimes at midnight tonight, so that’ll be first on the 2022 list. I had far fewer periods of not reading this year, which was a conscious effort on my part – I tried to start a new book within a week of finishing one, but sometimes also had more than one on the go (usually if one of them was hard going). I can see some preoccupations over the course of the year: the recurrence of books about anxiety or relaxation is about me trying to find a reliable mechanism/method for dealing with situations of heightened stress/anxiety (nothing much has stuck from what I read this year; Just Breathe, which I read at the tail end of 2020, has been the most useful so far); I can see a run of books that occurred when I was seriously fed up with work (look for Bullshit Jobs as the starting point); some of the workplace-related non-fiction relates to things I was researching (because of workplace stuff); I continue to hunt out books about different ways of thinking (e.g. Mindset, Think Again), which I often find contain useful nuggets that can unlock different ways to see/approach things [these books are completely distinct to the ‘self-help’ genre, which I do nonetheless also read]; and crime fiction continues to be a reliable form of escapism.
In the past two years I’ve had a stand-out favourite book, so have put my end-of-year list in order of preference. That hasn’t happened this year, so here’s my top ten in alphabetical order:
- A Book of Bones – John Connolly
- A Spy’s Life – Henry Porter
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence – Steven Lovatt
- Funeral in Berlin – Len Deighton
- Real Estate – Deborah Levy
- Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
- The Killing Hills – Chris Offutt
- The Liar’s Dictionary – Eley Williams
- The Shapeless Unease – Samantha Harvey
- Weather – Jenny Offill
Honourable mentions: A Dangerous Man – Robert Crais, The Galton Case – Ross MacDonald, Mindset – Carol Dweck, The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark, Think Again – Adam Grant, and James Sallis’s Lew Griffin books. Of the authors in the top ten, only Connolly, Deighton, and Levy were people I’d read previously, so it’s nice to discover new writers (especially when they’ve already got a back catalogue for further exploration).
Reading intentions for 2022? I’ll aim for a similar number of books, but I think it’s now not so much about a target number as maintaining the habit of continuous reading. I’d like to make sure that I read a wide range of voices – more books in translation, more books from smaller / independent presses – and works that stretch my thinking. It has been noticeable to me that I haven’t done a lot of structured learning during the pandemic (I would usually do several online courses in my own time over the course of a year) – partly, I think, because it has taken quite a lot of effort to stay afloat with work during this period and I’ve felt like I don’t have the bandwidth for additional new things. But I know that I am happier when actively engaged in something – whether that’s a book, a craft project, a garden project, or a new project at work – and I think that I need to put more effort into having that active engagement outside of work, and to better delineate home from work. I am starting an online course via the V&A in January (completely not work related), so I’m hoping that will at least prove an engaging and thought-provoking distraction from the world. That also leads us onto…
Hmmmm. Well, I was aiming for at least one film per month. Unfortunately, nine of the films were watched from early November onwards. So I need to work on watching films between February and October (the other three films were watched in January 2020). Two of the films – GoodFellas and La grande bellezza – were rewatches (the former because I was about to read Glenn Kenny’s book on the making of the film and the latter just because). I’m not entirely sure why my film watching picks up in the last couple of months of the year (which has been the pattern for at least three or four years) – shorter days, less likely to be outside in the evening, perhaps.
Anyway, I think I need to have a bigger target and to try to make film viewing into a habit again, the same way I had to make a conscious effort with reading after a period when I read very little. So, I’m going to aim for 25. Still a tiny number compared to what I watched in 2015, but still double what I managed this year. Hell, if I manage that many, they may even merit a post of their own rather than being combined with books! I’m going to retrace my steps and go back to the last time I felt really enthused about watching films, and that was in 2019 after watching Bertrand Tavernier’s documentary film and TV series on French cinema. As I mentioned in that end-of-year round-up, I had started acquiring some of the films he speaks about – so my intention is that I will try to watch at least half a dozen of those films as a way of kickstarting the habit again. This intended strategy is partly prompted by Farran Smith Nehme recently writing about the same source of inspiration, but Tavernier also transmits his affection and enthusiasm for these films in such a way as to really pique my curiosity. I don’t know that I will write about what I watch throughout the year – I don’t want to make writing a condition of viewing, because that was part of what led to the impasse in the first place – but hopefully I will write more film posts than ‘in memoriam’ ones in the coming year.
As ever, thank you for reading this far. I wish you and yours health and happiness in 2022.