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 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.