My 2020

Image from The Simpsons amended to comment on the UK Govt
Evergreen

Where to begin? It feels inappropriate to summarise 2020 solely with a list of what I’ve read and watched. Bigger things were afoot. Although there are some global commonalities to this year, I’m sure that we have all experienced them differently at an individual level.

Time has taken on a strange elasticity this year. Certain events seem like another lifetime ago (e.g. the Australian wildfires), and some months draaaaaagged (I’m looking at you March, April, and May), but in other ways things seem to have occurred in the blink of an eye. I started the year trying to stick to my intention of reading non-fiction books on my morning commute, but mid-February my attention kept going back to the news story that started in China but steadily crept across the world. By March, it all felt too close for comfort. My Mum is immunocompromised and I became increasingly worried that – as someone who daily commuted into a city centre on public transport, to work in an open plan office with far too many people – I could unwittingly bring the virus into our home with fatal consequences for her. I was relieved when work started making noises about people working from home (rapidly escalated from a plan of teams splitting in two to work alternative weeks in the office, to suddenly being told on a Friday that anyone who could work from home should do so from the following Monday – we started working from home on 16th March), and actually felt calmer when lockdown finally began.

My immediate family has come through this year relatively unscathed. None of us has had Covid-19. I have been fortunate to be in full time employment throughout the pandemic, without any reduction in hours or pay. Some family members have been in more precarious situations, so I feel lucky in that respect (even if occasionally narked at media commentators’ assumptions that we’ve all taken up loungewear and macramé, with heaps of extra time – the only time I’ve acquired is from my commute, and I’ve put that to use by sleeping an hour later in the mornings, which seems to suit my body clock better than my normal alarm call). I am among the sizeable chunk of the population who have liked working from home. I am introverted and prefer to work quietly. Most of my work is data-heavy and requires concentration. I’ve liked having more control over my environment, fewer interruptions (and it’s easier to make myself unavailable to be interrupted), and no commute – and I can listen to music without headphones.

Image of my work station at home
My work space, March – September

Between March and August I was working in my bedroom on my personal laptop, which wasn’t ideal in terms of creating a work/life separation. I had to rig up a somewhat unstable and Heath Robinsonesque solution to get the screen to the height it needed to be if I was going to be looking at it all day. At work I have two monitors, so that was another adjustment. In the summer we were told that we were likely to be working from home until at least Easter 2021, and in August my employer supplied us with requested technology, so I got a work laptop and a monitor. I couldn’t get set up immediately because my existing “desk” was not big enough, but I bought a basic table from Ikea and got set up in a different room in the house at the end of September. I’ve now got a closer approximation to what I would be working with in the office, and am working in a space that I only spend time in during work hours.

I am still getting a daily hit of human interaction (via daily video call check-ins with my team) even if it’s not in person, and even though I’m not seeing other people from work who I would usually chat with (it only occurred to me in December that I could video call those people as we’re all on the same set-up). My Mum was in the shielding group during the first lockdown. Shielding lasted until August and since then has barely been mentioned by the government (despite the second wave, local lockdowns, and then another national lockdown), but Mum was told by her hospital consultant in September to start shielding again “irrespective of what the government is saying”. So she has been stuck with me as her only company for most of the year, although she has managed to see my brothers and their families in between lockdowns. As she has been shielding, I haven’t been out much either – grocery shopping has been done online, and I think I’ve only been into a physical store four or five times since March.

I miss walking home. My commute in the morning is entirely on a bus, but on the way home I go a different route and walk the second half of the journey. It’s a good way to rid myself of any irritations from the day, and to make a demarcation between work and home. I’ve lost weight this year but I think it is mainly lost muscle. Technically there’s nothing to stop me going for a walk as even during lockdown daily exercise was allowed, but in the first half of the year I wanted to stick close to the house. In spring/summer, I spent a lot of time in the garden (another piece of good fortune) but that has stopped as the weather got colder. In the autumn, I tried starting a daily walk during daylight but I don’t amble (my walking tends to be with a purpose, a fixed destination), it is not very scenic in the vicinity, and it seems to have been raining here for most of the past 6 weeks, so that hasn’t been very successful. Something to work on next year.

I think one other thing that I’ve missed in 2020 is the cross-pollination of information that you acquire by mixing with other people (I used to get this from Twitter as well). That hasn’t happened as much in the virtual environment, so I’ve had to rely on my own sources, and attempt to broaden my net. Trying to follow a global story highlighted the paucity of good international reporting in the UK. I know that as papers/news organisations have cut budgets, foreign desks have been reduced (along with arts coverage); that has been made manifest this year. It should also be said that the concerted focus on the UK and US – to the exclusion of anywhere else beyond a two-line reference to the current state of their daily death toll (although this also happens beyond coverage of the pandemic) – illustrates the parochialness of the British media. One notable exception was Channel 4 News, who did some first-rate reporting from a broad range of countries, avoiding sensationalism, and always according dignity to people interviewed in what were often distressing circumstances. But I have watched too much news this year. By the summer, I had stopped watching it on a nightly basis because rage is an exhausting emotion when you don’t feel that it can be turned into constructive action (it can be a galvanising force, but it hasn’t felt like that for me this year).

This was rage driven by government incompetence and indifference. Their consistent inability to do the right thing, to prepare, to listen to expert advice, to take hard decisions, to do anything at all in a timely fashion (beyond rewarding their chums with lucrative contracts) would almost be impressive as a spectacular streak of misjudgement, if it didn’t have real world consequences for the rest of us. They continue to look straight at the TV cameras and attempt to gaslight the nation, stating that they’ve always said X (when they actually said W – and it was broadcast live on national television) and claim they acknowledged that Y was likely without proper mitigation (whereas the suggestion was pooh-poohed as glumster exaggeration), but Z is going to be world-beating (adequate would be sufficient, but they don’t even manage to clear that bar). At the same time, they (and it doesn’t seem to matter which ministerial non-entity gets sent out) seem completely inured to the fact that the numbers that they’re reciting relate to actual people, with families and friends, and loss on an almost unimaginable scale. If you’re going to announce that several hundred people have died in the past 24 hours, or you’re going to suddenly upend Christmas a few days before the event after weeks of telling the country to crack on with festive planning, then kindly bin the protracted metaphors and latin bon mots, suppress the smirk, straighten your tie, and at the very least brush your fucking hair.

I haven’t been following the news closely in the past couple of months (that continuing rage issue…but also increasing anxiety as the same mistakes get repeated for the second or third time, and we get stuck in a loop of lockdowns), but the general rule of thumb that I’ve adopted is that if the British Government announces a policy, expect it to be reversed (or shown to be a complete shambles) within the next 2-3 weeks. If they say something is happening, it isn’t. If they say something isn’t going to happen, it will. Even with the vaccine being rolled out, there is still a lot of uncertainty ahead of us – but the forthcoming catastrophic mismanagement and endless series of u-turns from the British Government can be relied upon.

Books

Book covers of the books I read this year
The books I read in 2020

My reading year started off fairly well and then ground to a halt as the news took over. I was able to focus on work, but for the first 4-6 weeks of lockdown I was unable to concentrate on reading anything during my downtime other than the news or the occasional magazine. Several friends reported the same experience, and this inability to read seems to have been pretty widespread. When I managed to pick up a book, I was a lot slower than normal. Initially I tried to read a bit before work – to keep to the pattern of my commute – but that didn’t take off (difficult to be engrossed in something if you’ve got one eye on the clock). After April, I managed to pick up momentum but have had several periods throughout the year where my concentration has gone again. In October, I decided that I was going to stop reading the news or browsing the internet in the evening; I set myself a limit of being online for only an hour after work – mainly to be used reading personal email – and then after dinner I would read until I went to bed. That turned out to be an effective strategy, and my reading has been more fluidly continuous since then.

I have actually managed to surpass my book tally from last year (woo-hoo!), although I am aware that there are quite a few novellas and slim volumes of poetry in the mix. The image above is the complete set as of 29th December – I will start something else before New Year, but may not finish it before the chimes at midnight. I did not pick up The Honourable Schoolboy as I’d suggested I might in last year’s round-up post, but in homage to its recently-departed author I will aim to in 2021. Likewise, I don’t think I fulfilled the intention of reading more translated literature – there’s some in there, but not as much as I have managed in the past. I want to read a broad range of voices and perspectives. In a narrower reading habit, I continued catching up with the two long-running John Sandford series that I read several of last year, but may have reached the end of the road with at least one of them. A scene of sexual violence (and part of the abhorrent nature of the scene was how it was written) added nothing to the story and made completing the book feel like a chore. His two main series intertwine – some of the same characters crop up in both – but are tonally distinct, so I may continue with the other series for at least one more book. I used to read a lot of series but find they appeal less and less (apart from Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series), although Jacob Ross’s new series is excellent, and I thoroughly recommend those two books (Miss K. Stanislaus is one of the most original characters I’ve encountered).

I didn’t read very many “new” books this year, partly because I didn’t encounter the serendipitous finds from browsing a physical book shop (I usually head to Waterstones on payday for a good browse) and also because I mainly read books that I already owned. I don’t think I was looking to be challenged this year (reading was hard enough already), so I stuck to the familiar – I will attempt to roam further afield in the year ahead.

My top 5 books read in 2020:

Book covers of my top 5

These are the five that really stood out for me – the kind of books that you know that you will re-read in the future, even before you’ve finished them the first time.

  • Wintering – Katherine May. This is far and away my favourite book that I read this year. In On Connection, Kae Tempest argues that ‘connection is collaborative […] We are not impartial observers; we are a fundamental part of the circuitry; if we are not connected, the charge will not be able to flow’ (pp.49-50). I connected with this book. Part memoir and part philosophical exploration, it’s about “wintering” as a kind of ‘stowing yourself away’ either from actual winter or metaphorical winters, for recuperation.
  • The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett. A fast-talking, sleuthing joy. I haven’t seen the film it was made into but it caused me to speculate how much fun someone like Preston Sturges could have had with these characters.
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan. A proper boy’s own adventure and a real page turner.
  • The Bone Readers – Jacob Ross. An immersive experience into another place and culture – conversations are full of local vernacular and expressions often spelt phonetically, causing me to half whisper exchanges to myself – with characters who seem to have arrived fully formed but who hold the promise of further depth and insight in future books.
  • Sea Monsters – Chloe Aridjis. A female coming-of-age that avoids the clichés inherent to that phrase and written in a voice as fresh as a sea breeze.

Honourable mentions (A-Z by title): Brit(ish) – Afua Hirsch (it was educational to see this country through the eyes of someone of a similar age to me but whose experience of it was/is markedly different to my own), City of the Dead – Sara Gran (initially seems overly – and too knowingly – quirky but develops into an unusual exploration of the protagonist’s psyche), The Historians – Eavan Boland, On Connection – Kae Tempest, Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett, Surrounded By Idiots – Thomas Erikson (if you work in a large organisation, you will have “ah-ha!” moments reading this), We Need New Stories – Nesrine Malik.

2021: As already stated, an attempt to roam further afield, more translated works, a broad range of authors and topics (including non-fiction), and an appointment with The Honourable Schoolboy. I have also taken a lot of pleasure in reading older books this year, so I will seek out some other classics as well. I’m going to up my target as I’ve surpassed 52 two years in a row: I’m going to aim for 70 in 2021. I think it’s doable if I can avoid those periods when I stop reading for weeks at a time.

Other reading:

Below are are things I’ve read online in the past twelve months that made some kind of lasting impression on me, whether because they are particularly insightful, or maybe contain a perspective that I hadn’t considered, or perhaps the topic was one that I found interesting. Print publications I subscribe to (such as The London Review of Books) don’t feature much because I don’t read them online. Looking at this list I can see that the selection is very anglo-centric, a sign of that limited cross-pollination of information sources. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of various online sources of cultural coverage from Spain and Latin America, but apparently I don’t often bookmark what I read there. I haven’t included many Covid-related articles because the situation has been so fast-moving that I rarely bookmarked them. You can also see the impact of my changed reading strategy in the near absence of articles from October or November (two of those included came to me via mailing lists / subscriptions). I have tried to avoid including paywalled articles, but there are a couple. These are listed in chronological order (estimated where there is no obvious date):

Films:

Film posters of films I watched in 2020
The films I watched in 2020

At the start of the year people kept saying “This is like a film” and it was, but despite the air of unreality that still remains, I can’t help but feel that a film would be over by now (or at the very least much of this would have been shortened into some kind of montage sequence).
As I said above, I don’t feel that I acquired additional time this year, and I was not often in the frame of mind for making that circuit of connection via cinematic means. I didn’t fulfil my plan of exploring the French films featured in Bertrand Tavernier’s documentaries – or catch up with recent Spanish cinema – but I’m not going to beat myself up about it as I don’t think anyone’s plans turned out the way they expected this year. I watched more TV than is usual for me, but mainly documentaries (there was a very good 3-part documentary about Putin on C4 at the start of lockdown and The Innocence Files on Netflix is also worth catching) and gardening / home improvement programmes. I recorded Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology as they were broadcast on the BBC, but haven’t started watching them yet. As with last year, I didn’t feel that interested in / motivated to watch dramas. Half of the films shown above were watched in the last two months. 13th, Nostalgia for the Light, and Homecoming were all rewatches for me, but my Mum hadn’t seen them. The newest film I saw was Madrid, Interior (Juan Cavestany, 2020), which was filmed during Madrid’s first lockdown, a mixture of scripted sequences with well-known actors (filming themselves) and footage by members of the public, imbuing the surreal and suffocating nature of lockdown with a streak of absurdist humour. It was the closing film of the Festival Márgenes. I watched Knives Out on Christmas Day, and that was one of the most enjoyable films I’ve watched for some time.

Some cinematic moments that lingered from this year’s viewing:

Image from Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

The ethereal beauty of the closing sequences of Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) (still streaming for free on the Cinémathèque Française platform, here). [in looking up that link I’ve just discovered that they’re streaming Feuillade’s Les Vampires series until 5th January – scroll down from the top]

The public testimony of José María Galante – an indefatigable campaigner for justice in relation to crimes committed under/by the Franco dictatorship – about his own experience of torture, in The Silence of Others (Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, 2018). Sadly, he died of Covid-19 in March.

The expression on Merry Clayton’s face as she listens to her isolated vocal track from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ in 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013).

Daniel Craig’s performance / accent in Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019).

The sheer charisma of Teddy Pendergrass in Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Olivia Lichtenstein, 2018).

2021: I’m going to aim to watch at least one film a month – I don’t know that having a target will make any difference because I’m feeling quite disengaged from films, but I’ve found with reading that making it into a habit was key to my reading more (after a few years of reading very little). I’d like to watch some of the French films that I mentioned at the end of 2019, and some of the key Spanish titles from the last couple of years. I’m at a crossroads with Spanish cinema; I persist with trying to stay informed, but I’m unsure whether my recent lack of engagement with Spanish cinema is just my general lack of enthusiasm for cinema in general or whether I need to accept that I’m no longer as interested in that specific area as I once was. It may be a combination of the two, but this year I should decide whether to draw a line under it.

Feeling a pressure (entirely of my own making) to write about what I watch is part of what is stopping me watching films. I’ve written very little on the blog this year but I feel ok about that, so I think that my target of watching one film a month needs to be entirely without strings attached – I need to get back into watching films for sake of watching, for enjoyment, and wait and see if inspiration strikes. If it doesn’t, at least I’ll have tried to reconnect with an art form that at its best is utterly transportive. One film I’m putting to the top of my watchlist is Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003), which I’ve wanted to see for years (it finally got a UK release a couple of months ago) – if anything can rekindle the magic of cinema for me, I think it may be that, so I’ll make that one a priority.

 

Getting to the end of 2020 (and this overlong post) is no small thing and worth celebrating – I wish you health, happiness, and close proximity to your loved ones in 2021.

 

Sir Sean Connery (1930-2020)

I tend to mark the deaths of actors / filmmakers on here only when they meant something to me personally. I don’t usually feel the need to elaborate on what that “something” was; posting an acknowledgement of their passing is a way of doffing a digital hat in their direction. I think that those of whom I have acknowledged in that way in the last few years are generally people who mean something to me from film viewing in adulthood…but Sean Connery feels like someone I’ve been watching my whole life.

I grew up in an era when the UK only had four TV channels. The Bond films were a standard feature in the TV listings on all public holidays (they often still are, although they seem to favour Craig and Brosnan in terms of what gets shown regularly now) and I have clear memories of watching them with my grandfather on bank holidays. I can’t say that I am a Bond “fan” but they are part of the cultural fabric of this country and therefore take on an almost mythical resonance. But although Sean Connery is in many ways the definitive Bond, he did not allow the role to define him, by which I mean that he didn’t allow it to limit him. When I think of Connery, I think of James Bond, but also The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, The Name of the Rose, Robin and Marian, The Offence, and Time Bandits (and I’m aware that I haven’t seen the full breadth of his filmography). But in terms of the pure pleasure of cinema, the Indiana Jones series is right up there for me, and my favourite Connery role is that of Henry Jones Snr (not least because of how much he seems to be enjoying himself).

Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)

Olivia de Havilland in 1945

Farran Smith Nehme’s Sight & Sound appreciation of de Havilland (on the occasion of the actress’s centenary in 2016).

 

Stay at home: Viewing and reading suggestions

Stay at home, please.

I have been working from home for just over a week. My place of work had announced its impending closure earlier today, but I expect to still be working from home (rather than getting through my TBR pile) for the foreseeable as many of the services that my team support are either already online or will be adapted for delivery in that format. Anyhow, as it now (finally) looks like a whole lot more of us in the UK will be indoors, I thought I’d start compiling a list of things to watch / read online for free (or minimal cost). I’m going to divide things into Viewing and Reading (I may add Listening if I have time to get into podcasts), and then add links in alphabetical order as and when I encounter them. Update: I’m going to tidy this up as and when services end or links no longer work.

[Last updated: 18/05/20]

Viewing:

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki – VOD. Four-part documentary about the creator of Studio Ghibli’s best-loved films. Streaming on a Japanese platform for free, and appears to have subtitles in nine different languages.

The 100 Best Films Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime – compiled on the BFI site, and looks like it will be updated regularly.

40 Days to Learn Film – VOD. A film lecture from Mark Cousins (free to view).

Chili – VOD. Not a platform that I’ve heard a lot about but they have individual titles (including films recently in UK cinemas) available for digital rental, and although they don’t appear to have much in the way of World Cinema, they do have a fairly substantial documentary section.

Cinémathèque française – Streaming. The Cinémathèque française has launched a new online platform, Henri (named after Henri Langlois), on which they will add a different film every night at 8:30pm – and it will be accessible worldwide. They will be choosing films that they’ve restored in the past twenty years, including some that are otherwise unavailable. They’re starting tonight (9th April) with Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

Doc Alliance – VOD. Subscribe for 6€/month. A vast catalogue of documentaries (including shorts) from around the world (there are often multiple versions of the same film, each with subtitles in a different language).

Festival Scope – VOD. Hosts the online presence for various film festivals – films can either be rented individually, in batches with a discount, or sometimes for free. It will be worth periodically checking back to see which festivals are making films available.

Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel – VOD. Korean films put online for free by the national film archive (English subtitles are available – at least on the selection that I’ve browsed through).

Márgenes – VOD. This is the platform that hosts the Festival Márgenes every year. There are geographical restrictions on some titles, but a lot can be rented for a couple of euros. The bulk of their catalogue is effectively independent Spanish-language cinema, including quite a few of the ‘Otro cine español’ titles that I’ve written about in the past. Explore!

Panda cam (other animals/birds can be chosen from the main navigation bar) – filmed in nature reserves, national parks, and zoos. A whole lot more relaxing than the news.

Reading:

The Big Issue – The homeless population (ever expanding in recent years thanks to austerity and other government policies) are especially vulnerable to the pandemic, and The Big Issue‘s vendors will not be encountering customers during lockdown. Most of the magazine’s income comes from those street sales; they are asking people to show their support by either buying a digital copy, taking out a three month subscription, or making a one-off donation, to help them cover costs (and continue to support their vendors) during the lockdown and its aftermath.

Borderless Book Club – This developed out of the Translated Fiction Online Book Club [I’ve removed the details of that to avoid confusion], but they’ve now expanded their schedule and gone for a snappier title. The original six UK independent presses who specialise in translated fiction – Peirene Press, Charco Press (who have some excellent Latin American titles in their catalogue), Comma Press, Istros Books, Nordic Books, and Tilted Axis Press – have been joined by Bitter Lemon Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions in their online book club, which involves live discussion and interviews with authors and translators (all via Zoom). Even if you don’t want to participate in the book club (I haven’t had time and tbh video call discussions don’t appeal to me, not least because I’m using them for work), these indie presses merit bookworm support and their back catalogues will reward exploration.

Diverted Traffic – a new newsletter from the London Review of Books that each day releases an archive article from behind their paywall.

Nancy Campbell to Alicia Kopf | Alicia Kopf replying to Nancy Campbell

Pedro Almodóvar’s Lockdown DiaryPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

The Pudding – a ‘digital publication that explains ideas debated in culture through visual essays’. Among their greatest hits: Rappers, sorted by the size of their vocabulary; Women’s pockets are inferior; Colorism in high fashion.

Virtual Book Channel – from LitHub. Interviews, book launches, and more.

Weekly Film Bulletin – sign up for a new weekly email of feature writing and VOD recommendations from Sight & Sound.

My 2019

The covers of the various books I read in 2019
The books I read in 2019, in the order I read them

Books –

My Twitter bio used to say ‘Lives vicariously through books and films’, and I think that I have pursued escapism through books this year (films, not so much). I finally hit my ’52 books in a year’ target! I am currently reading book no.59, but I’m unlikely to finish it before the year is over. I started a new job back in May, and was doing a fair amount of background reading in the first half of the year (I applied in January and was interviewed in March, so the application process was quite elongated) – I usually only include books read ‘for fun’ or my own curiosity, but there is work-related reading in my tally this year (nothing ‘how to…’ but more thematic or topically relevant non-fiction), mainly because it was done in my own time and to answer my own questions, so it ‘counts’.

New job aside, 2019 can be characterised as ‘ugh’. We’re ending on a low. I wasn’t as shocked by the election result as I was in 2015, but I was still surprised and dismayed by the scale of the defeat. The Windrush scandal alone should have seen them turfed out on their arses…and that is the tip of the iceberg of what they have done in the last nine years. Now with a sizeable majority, they have a free rein. I don’t remember exactly what was going on at the time, but my reading a combination of ten John Sandford and Robert Crais books back-to-back over the course of two weeks or so in August is illustrative of a desire to block out the news (my literary crime sprees occur when I’m low or need distraction).

I usually list my standouts for the year in alphabetical order, but this year my favourite was far out ahead of everything else, so I’m going to list them in order of preference. My overall top 5 were:

  • West – Carys Davies
  • Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
  • The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy
  • Sarah Jane – James Sallis

Honourable mentions: An Honourable Man – Paul Vidich, Four Words for Friend – Marek Kohn, and The Equestrienne – Uršula Kovalyk. I’m aware that these selections are weighted towards the second half of the year, but I believe that has more to do with the first half of the year’s reading including the aforementioned background reading (and a focus on work), rather than them simply being fresher in my mind. My crime spree hit a reset button and I got on to a good run of fiction in the last few months of the year. I wouldn’t ordinarily read so many books by the same authors in one year, never mind back-to-back (even the best writers get a bit same-y or the stories run into each other, especially with recurring characters), but I was attempting to catch up on certain long running series by Sandford and Crais.

2020: I still have another series of Sandford’s to catch up with, and also Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, of which I’ve got at least four to read. I’ll keep on with the short stories and novellas – and I didn’t read as much in translation this year, so I’ll put more effort into that again. In the first half of the year I managed to read non-fiction during my morning commute and I want to re-start that (it tailed off after the summer and I either got sucked into reading the news or stared out the window instead). I still haven’t got back into longer books (I’m talking 400+ pages), but maybe this will be the year when I finally read John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Other reading –

Online articles that I’ve found interesting or thought provoking in one way or another (usual disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with them, but think that they are worth reading). I’m going to list them in chronological order because a number of them relate to situations that developed over the course of the year (UK politics/social issues, mainly). Where I don’t know the date, I’ve positioned them where they occur in my bookmarks (on the basis that I must have read them at that point in time). You will also notice that they are not evenly distributed throughout the year – the large gaps are where I was deliberately spending less time online, and the clusters in certain months are where I felt the need to pay attention (noticeably in relation to the General Election). There’s not much film writing included, which is indicative of my general levels of interest but also I’ve found that without Twitter I encounter less of that subject matter. Articles from The Guardian are mainly from their Long Reads series – I subscribe to the RSS feed of certain sections of the paper and those of specific journalists (part of a strategy to avoid the clickbaity provocations of the main page). The London Review of Books (LRB) has a new website and has removed the paywall until mid-January, so I’d advise you to fill your boots over there.

Films –

Posters of films watched in 2019

I was in half a mind to just have an image from the film(s) I want to talk about, but having displayed everything that I’ve read, I thought that I may as well display the entirety of what I’ve watched as well. It’s an odd assortment. Four more titles than last year but still very few in terms of my older habits. All but two of them are documentaries or documentary series – I have had zero interest in watching fiction recently.

My favourite thing that I’ve watched this year is the combination of Bertrand Tavernier’s 3 hour documentary on French cinema and his subsequent 6 part TV series that continued on the same subject (if you look closer, you’ll see that the second poster puts the title into the plural). The TV series (the French DVD set has optional English subtitles) covers the same time frame (he again stops at the point when he began making films himself) but different films and filmmakers to the documentary film – even with what must be more than 8 hours, it feels like he barely scratches the surface of his enthusiasms. As with Scorsese’s documentaries on Italian and American cinemas, you’re getting a personal view of the films rather than a straightforward history, but that’s what I find so engaging – not just that you’re getting a knowledgeable person’s recommendations, but that you’re getting introductions to titles that don’t necessarily feature in the sanctified canon. [If someone could make an equivalent for Spanish cinema, that’d be grand].

My knowledge of French cinema is fairly basic (certainly in comparison to Spanish cinema) or feels un-informed, essentially confined to what was covered in either an Introduction to Film Studies module, or a semester-long undergraduate module which concentrated on the 1980s (Besson, Beineix, Carax – and the cinéma du look) onwards. That said, French films had decent distribution during my teenage years and into my twenties, so I did watch a lot of French films – and developed a love of Claude Chabrol and Lino Ventura – both at the cinema and via Lovefilm, and initially my PhD was going to include French cinema, so I had subscriptions to French film magazines and was paying attention to what was being made at that point. But in terms of what French cinema means to French people, my understanding was limited (although the film magazines were interesting in that regard in terms of what was popular and who got coverage – that’s why I still have subscriptions to Spanish film mags; if I had to rely on information filtering through to UK/US publications, I wouldn’t know anything or anyone).

After watching Tavernier’s films, I have discovered that where Pathé and Gaumont have in recent years restored older films for French home viewing, a fair few have optional English subtitles – I now have a small pile of imported films by Duvivier, Clouzot, Lautner, Grangier, Grémillon, Becker, and others. In 2020 I’ll be looking to rekindle my interest in cinema via these treasures. I have given up on contemporary cinema at the moment – at least in terms of going to the cinema – but alongside the French imports (of old films) I am hoping to start watching some of the (recent) Spanish films that I’ve imported in the last couple of years (although I think I’ve said that in each of the equivalent posts in the last two years). So 2020 may be a year of French and Spanish cinema for me…and more documentaries, no doubt. Hasta pronto.

D.A. Pennebaker (1925-2019)

Daybreak Express (D.A. Pennebaker, 1953)

 

Agnès Varda (1928-2019)

Agnès Varda directing La Pointe Courte, 1954.

Albert Finney (1936-2019)

Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960).

My 2018: More books (and even fewer films)

Books I read in 2018, in the order I read them

Books –

I didn’t hit my target of 52 books in 2018, but I got close (50). I will start something else before the year is out, but I’m unlikely to finish it quick enough for inclusion here (unless I pick something short, but that would feel like cheating). I’ve only included things I’ve read for pleasure or personal curiosity, not anything I’ve read for work. I don’t continue with a book that becomes a chore (life is too short), so any of the above can be taken as ‘readable’ (not wishing to damn with faint praise but in my experience people’s taste in literature is harder to determine than their taste in films, so I wouldn’t recommend everything to everyone). There’s a range of genres, formats (I’ve developed a taste for short stories), and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction – something for everyone! I make no distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ titles, but the highlights for new-to-me books (Hope in the Dark was a re-read) were (in alphabetical order by title):

  • and our faces, my heart, brief as photos – John Berger
  • Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life – Yiyun Li
  • Down the Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos
  • Evening Descends Upon the Hills – Anna Maria Ortese
  • The Goodbye Look – Ross MacDonald
  • The History Thieves – Ian Cobain 
  • Jagua Nana – Cyprian Ekwensi
  • Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
  • The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies
  • Wise Children – Angela Carter

Honourable mentions: The Lady and the Little Fox Fur – Violette Leduc; The Little Virtues – Natalia Ginzburg; all of the Walter Mosley titles (all part of the Leonid McGill series).

2019: I’m just going to keep on reading, and try to avoid having periods where I don’t read at all (I had about five weeks between September and October where that happened this year, which was the longest I went, but there were several other shorter periods as well). I didn’t really carry out my intention of attempting longer books, so I’m going to aim for that as well – maybe have some short stories on the go at the same time.

Other reading –

A selection of the articles and essays that I’ve found informative, chucklesome, enraging, or thought-provoking this year (where they are available online) [a-z by title] (a couple of the LRB articles are behind a paywall – I’ve tried to pick ones that aren’t – but if you sign up with your email, you can usually read them without charge):

I’m aware that I have probably missed things this year – and will in the future as well – because I closed my Twitter account. I’ve signed up for mailing lists of publications that I find interesting, and I’ve tried subscriptions to a range of print titles…I might miss some things, but I’m still finding a rich seam of information.

Music –

Most-listened-to albums in 2018, in order of release date

I tend to be behind with music, so it’s actually quite surprising that a third of the twelve albums above were released in 2018. The rest aren’t necessarily new purchases (I think three were, but the rest I’ve had for longer), but collectively these were the albums that I listened to most often (usually in the form of my iPod shuffle whilst at work) throughout the year. The impetus for Lauryn Hill’s appearance was the realisation that the album came out twenty years ago (the year I left school and started university). In terms of ‘new discoveries’, Dessa and Rosalía were the highlights. For a musical dunce such as myself, this 38min video (in Spanish but subtitled) exploring what Rosalía does musically in El mal querer – and explaining why it is innovative – was enlightening.

Films –

Total films I’ve watched this year, in the order I saw them

No, that’s not my ‘best of the year’ (rolls eyes) but the sum total of films watched by me in 2018 (so far). I didn’t watch any films in the first half of the year (I watched some TV documentaries, but that’s about it), and more than half of the above were watched in December (due to the combination of being off sick for a week with norovirus and then the Christmas holidays). That Spanish cinema catch-up didn’t happen. If I have another year where my malaise in relation to cinema extends beyond writing about films to not even caring to watch them, it’ll probably be time to shutter the blog – but I’ll see what happens. I’m reading a lot more because I’m enjoying reading for the sake of reading; I need to get back to watching films for enjoyment, and leave the writing to one side.

Becoming Cary Grant (Mark Kidel, 2017) was my favourite of what I watched (I saw it twice); it is a melancholic (the reverberations of childhood trauma throughout his adult life) but insightful portrait of one of my favourite actors. I particularly liked the discussion/analysis of how different directors utilised and developed different aspects of his star image/persona. It made me want to hunt down some of his films that I haven’t yet seen. It screened on TV as part of Imagine, so I don’t know whether it had been edited or whether the redundant and tacked-on Alan Yentob introduction was the extent of the tinkering. The Dead Nation (Radu Jude, 2017) is also very good (making Radu Jude three for three where I’m concerned – Aferim! and Scarred Hearts have both previously been in my ‘best of the year’ posts), and a further dissection and exploration of Romania’s murky history. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (Radu Jude, 2018) in some manner. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2017) should have been cinematic catnip for me, but fleeting moments of magic aside I found it long and meandering. Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016) has Diego Luna, and that’s probably enough to warrant third position (although Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017) did make me laugh at various junctures).

2019: the films mentioned at the end of last year’s post are still things to catch up with, alongside the likes of Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018), First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018), Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR, 2018), You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018), Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018), Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2018), and Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, 2018). Plus more Spanish titles: Quién te cantará (Carlos Vermut, 2018), Petra (Jaime Rosales, 2018), La ciudad oculta (Victor Moreno, 2018), Entre dos aguas (Isaki Lacuesta, 2018), Viaje al cuarto de una madre (Celia Rico Clavellino, 2018)…and more. A certain man from La Mancha also has his new film out next year (in the Spring in Spain – I’ve not yet seen a date for the UK).

Anyway, for now I’ll wish you health and happiness in 2019!

My current obsession: Rosalía’s ‘Pienso en tu mirá’

The spirit of Bigas Luna lives on. Jamón jamón meets Yo soy la Juani, but slicker’ was my first thought, but mainly because the video shares his unashamed harnessing – and celebration – of españolidad (and youth).

The breadth of my cultural references seems to be the first casualty of my extended absences (and eventual full departure) from twitter; the song was a massive hit in Spain in the summer, but although I was aware of Rosalía (she is part of the cast of Almodóvar’s next film) it wasn’t until earlier this week that I encountered the video/song (her new album, El Mal Querer, was released yesterday). The video is directed by the Barcelona-based collective CANADA (they were also responsible for the video for Rosalía’s other 2018 hit, ‘Malamente‘) – there’s an interview about the video with one of the directors here. Plus, an English language interview with Rosalía about El Mal Querer.