My 2021: A dormant year

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

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.

Four images of part of the garden in different months of the year
Development of the area alongside one stretch of the back fence. Top: March and May. Bottom: August and October.

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.

Bin planter
The bin planter

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.

Books

The books I read in 2021

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. MindsetThink 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…

Films

The films I watched in 2021

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.

 

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.