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.
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.
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:
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.
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):
- In these bleak times, imagine a world where you can thrive – Gary Younge, The Guardian, 10th January 2020.
- The making of Cary Grant – Pam Hutchinson, Sight & Sound, 20th January 2020.
- Performing an Idea of Ordinariness – Lynsey Hanley, LRB Blog, 22nd January 2020.
- Luis López Carrasco: “La reconversión industrial rompió la solidaridad entre la clase obrera” – Enric Albero, El Cultural, 31st January 2020.
- Networked Up – Evan Malmgren, The Baffler, January 2020.
- Present Tense: Nick Nolte – Sheila O’Malley, Film Comment, 6th February 2020.
- Chile: Notes from a Revolt – Ariel Dorfman, New York Review of Books, 13th March 2020.
- America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe – J.Hoberman, The Paris Review, 16th March 2020.
- “Lambs to the slaughter”: 50 lives ruined by the Windrush scandal – Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian, 19th March 2020.
- Not Buying It – Michael Koresky, Film Comment, March/April 2020.
- What my mother’s glorious life taught me about Britain today – Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian, 30th April 2020.
- Stepping Out: On Watching Women Walk – Imogen Sara Smith, Criterion, 27th May 2020.
- Hashtag Propaganda – Erica X. Eisen, The Baffler, 30th July 2019. [including here because I seem to have read it in either May or June 2020]
- The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history – David Olusoga, The Guardian, 8th June 2020.
- Why Minneapolis Was the Breaking Point – Wesley Lowery, The Atlantic, 10th June 2020.
- Curiosity and Eminem – Sheila O’Malley, The Sheila Variations, 8th July 2020.
- The Pro-Privatisation Shock Therapy of the UK’s Covid Response – Rachel Shabi, New York Review of Books, 8th July 2020.
- A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech – Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, 13th July 2020.
- Oliver Burkeman’s last column: the eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life – Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, 4th September 2020.
- State of the Substack Address – Nick Pinkerton, Employee Picks, 23rd October 2020.
- My Little Crony [an interactive visualisation of the connections between Tory politicians and companies being awarded government contracts during the pandemic] – Sophie E. Hill, November 2020.
- El tiempo inmóvil. Entrevista con Luis López Carrasco (versión ampliada de Caimán CdC no.98) – Jaime Pena, Caimán Cuarderno de Cine, 13th November 2020.
- The food bank paradox – Jem Bartholomew, Prospect Magazine, 7th December 2020.
- Waste, Negligence and Cronyism: Inside Britain’s Pandemic Spending – Jane Bradley, Selam Gebrekidian, and Allison McCann, The New York Times, 17th December 2020.
- These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, Harper’s Magazine, December 2020 [Jan 2021 issue].
- What went right in 2020: the top 20 good news stories of the year – Lucy Purdy, Positive News, 22nd December 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:
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.