Saturday, 13 July 2019

Bob Dylan at Hyde Park, London

Friday 12 July, 2019



They came, they drank, they talked. And off in the distance, the other side of a 'Golden Circle' sparsely populated with affluent boomers, Bob Dylan delivered what must be the best performance I've seen him give in 10 years*. At a time when seeing Bob had begun to feel more like a duty than a treat, he came roaring back.

Dylan doesn't really do crowdpleasing shows: at least, not for the casual gig-goer ticking another legend off their bucket list. It may be that he simply won't − after all, such popular staples as 'saying hello to the audience' are relatively easy to execute − but I've begun to think that he simply doesn't know how.

Seeing Dylan is purely about the music, those songs are in permanent flux ("It used to go like that and now it goes like this," he barks on Live 1966, before launching into a paranoid, gasping 'I Don't Believe You'), and such personality as you can glean and harvest comes from his treatment of five decades of material, some increasingly peculiar physical posturing − is he a self-satisfied cowboy courting adulation or a man with a bad back? − and the intrusion of his crooked grin, which on bad nights is kept within the crusty exterior, but flashed across Hyde Park for half the damn show.

That approach has its virtues and its vices. His shows are erratic: I've seen great ones, weak ones, and everything in between. And there's something to be said for an artist who can turn up on time, display a certain basic level of gratitude towards their fans, and play what the masses want to hear. But there's also something cheering, and instinctively hilarious, about a performer who is ornery enough to neglect the pallid norms of stadium rock − be it punctuality, platitudes or sing-along set-pieces − and charged with the creative inspiration to make every night different, even if sometimes that appears to be merely because he's in a bad mood.

I'll tell you something, though. For those leaving the fields of South Kensington uttering those tritest of generalities, now worn so threadbare they're practically transparent − "His voice has gone", "You can't tell which song it is till halfway through", "He could at least speak to the crowd" − know this: Friday night was the closest to a straight hits show that I've ever seen Dylan play. Who knows why, I can offer only tinpot psychology: he wanted to best Neil Young, he wants to impress Neil Young, he was just in the right mood… whatever, he kicked off with three cast-iron '60s behemoths, and seemed almost eager to please, committed to every last song, though with that indelible caveat that he's Bob Dylan and if we're going to do this, we're still going to do it his way.

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Before we get onto the main business, here's a quick word on the support:


A picture of Cat Power owned by a fairly non-litigious photographer.

I was most excited about seeing Cat Power, the scuzzily brilliant vocalist whose unhappy, often half-murmured laments seem almost singularly ill-suited to a big field in which people won't shut up. Time and again, she got the techs to turn up her mic, but despite throwing in a Dylan cover ('He Was a Friend of Mine', a fantastically if self-sabotagingly abstruse choice), it was only during a clutch of grungier numbers that her spellbinding set cut through to an audience waiting − for reasons unknown − for Neil Young. The songs from her current record, Wanderer, had a sensitive, beguiling if sometimes inaudible quality, coupled to a strutting stage style I hadn't anticipated, though the knock-out highlight was the title track from The Greatest, half-shorn of the anomalous shoo-wop style that defined that extraordinary record. It was weird, and oddly moving, to watch such life-stopping brilliance in a vacuum of complete disinterest.

Up next was Laura Marling, who has junked her treading-on-eggshells style for a more Carly Simon-ish approach (or was it just the wind buffeting her hair, like in that 'You're So Vain' video?). I have infinitesimal amounts of patience for British folkies who go all American, but Marling has some nice hooks and a flair for digging out a killingly sad line just when you think she's slipping into broad-brush mundanity.


Kermit the Frog's let himself go.

And then there was Neil Young. Imagine Neil Young being your favourite artist, it's like your favourite food being a packet of ham. There's a bit in Peep Show where Jez tells Mark that he loves Nancy, and Mark says: "You love her? What do you love about her?" That's me trying to understood people who love Neil Young. What do you love about him? His guitar? Still, the first CD we had in my house growing up was Live Rust and I seem to have absorbed most of his other stuff through cultural osmosis. Either way, I didn't expect to enjoy his set half as much as I did. A blistering 'Over and Over' was squeezed between the woozy 'Mansion on the Hill' and the appealingly corny 'Country Home' at the start of the set, and that was the perfect beginning, with what on record becomes an interminable jam session working just right in a live situation. And for an hour Young struck just the right balance, the set reaching its climax with a lovely 'Heart of Gold'.

Then his self-indulgence fuse blew, and every song started going on for four minutes too long, following the same format: song, jam, attempted audience ovation, Young fiddling frantically with the tremolo, drum solo, another jam, more tremolo... The apparent aim was to continue the song until everybody had stopped clapping. As a final insult, he then broke into 'Rockin' in the Free World', which is fun but also highly embarrassing, the Kissification of Neil Young. Is there anything more excruciating than saying 'rockin''? Except, that is, for the song's muscular Reaganism. Twice we thought the track was over, only for Young and co to burst into another chorus, which is a great idea for a comedy sketch, if not for a set of live guitar music.

I'd hoped for 'Like a Hurricane', but by the time it came along, I'd had about enough Neil Young for one year. This was partly due to him and partly due to me, as I'd been stood in one place for over four hours and was anxious to set off for my wee so I'd be back in time for Bob.

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The screens were blank. And for a moment, it seemed like Dylan's recent but noted aversion to having anybody see his face close-up (at Hop Farm he was shown from a distance; his stage lights have been getting dimmer; in the recent Rolling Thunder Revue doc, he is painted a most curious shade of auburn) was going to result in the funniest audience-baiting of modern times**, but as he wandered on stage in a muted fit of anti-climax, the vast panels crackled into life. Young had shared screen-time with his band, but there was no such egality here: the camera fixed on Dylan's small, stooping frame for the next 105 minutes.


'Ballad of a Thin Man', 1966.

With a justifiably self-satisfied grin, Dylan launched into 'Ballad of a Thin Man', the 1965 track irrevocably associated with his reinvention as a braying individualist with great hair who was enthusiastically kicking apart his legacy as a protest singer, and sneering at anybody who asked him not to. It's an absolute monster of a song, with a fantastically snide and direct central refrain: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?", the name typically squawked amid a squall of noise as "Jooooahhhhhrrrrnnnns". It's a perfect choice to kick off this type of show, as at this point several members of the audience who've never seen Dylan before, and are confronted with a jowly, wire-haired, tactiturn little man in a rhinestone jacket jabbering 54-year-old words in a half-swallowed 80-a-day rasp as he happily plinky-plonks on his piano will indeed be wondering what is happening here. Perhaps you have to have Dylan in your blood to react to this with a rush of utter euphoria, but I don't know any other way. Dylan will spend the rest of the evening reshaping his songs in the most exhilarating manner, but with this one, it's enough to just deliver your statement of intent, and give it both fucking barrels.

'It Ain't Me, Babe' is up second, and one of the highlights of the night, its hero now not so much nobly apologetic as cheekily elusive, a quality one more associates with the fantastically unfaithful 20-something Bob. The word "babe" is intoned with such gleefully dismissive malevolence that you really do begin to suspect the protagonist is avoiding this lovesick woman more for his own sake than hers. James Taylor may appear to genuinely like his own audience, and Paul Simon's voice may be in better nick, but no-one but Dylan would excavate a song from 1964 and then warp it out of all recognition: not just its tune or its style, but its actual theme.

He follows that with an explosive 'Highway 61 Revisited', the closest you'll get to him acknowledging that now and then people would like to hear the hits, perhaps with one of them sounding similar to the record. This song's a great gauge, incidentally, for how good a Dylan show is going to be (though unfortunately by the time this litmus test can be performed, you have bought your ticket, train pass and accommodation, and are midway through the show): whenever I've seen Dylan at his best, he has spent it grooving, grinning and very occasionally (Sheffield 2009) genuinely dancing. And it's such a great song: the best organ-driven Biblical comedy record of psychedelic '60s rock. After that 'Simple Twist of Fate', from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, feels slightly bland: it's a wonderful song: small, sad, wry and lyrical, but it feels swallowed up in this space, the reading almost perfunctory.


1974.

I've written about Dylan before and said in 2013 that, while you rarely get unequivocally great Dylan shows any more, you can usually rely on a run of three or four songs where he's really cooking, where he cares enough to make it count. I did wonder, as 'Simple Twist of Fate' meandered meekly out from the vast speakers strapped around Hyde Park, whether perhaps we might have had our three-song run.

So sometimes you worry. And then sometimes you can only laugh, in slack-jawed amazement, at this maddening, occasionally ridiculous genius, who takes absurd risks with his material, even in front of 70,000 people. On record, 'Can't Wait' is a stinging, ominous, Tom Waits-ish lament, a hymn to utter isolation, a paean to pain near the close of Dylan's saddest album, Time Out of Mind, recorded as his health dwindled, en route to a brush with death. On Friday, it's not. On Friday, it's a fantastically funky James Brown number, with Dylan a white-suited ringmaster, holding the mic-stand at a jaunty angle as he defiantly raps the lyrics from out front, turning one of his most heartbreaking lyrics ("It doesn't matter where I go anymore, I just go") into nothing short of a punchline.

'When I Paint My Masterpiece', which follows, is fine, but the song's main virtue is how its rapturous but yearning melody lends harmony and power to some rather trite lyrics, so when you junk that tune in favour of something pleasant but basically unmemorable, you're neutering it. And then we're into a stompy, somewhat impenetrable 'Honest with Me', from 2001's Love and Theft, which I'm sure Dylan would be proud to learn (and I'm only mildly ashamed to confess) I didn't recognise until at least two minutes in, and I know that album back-to-front.


1997.

We get four from Time Out of Mind in total, and the second is the best of the lot. The album is, I think, and after everything, my favourite of all Dylan's records: a wintry, introspective retrospective. It sounds like the last testament of a dying man, and it nearly was. 'Trying to Get to Heaven' is probably the single greatest thing on it: essentially an update of 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', his earlier defiance and desperation replaced by a wry and weary yearning pockmarked with pain ("You broke a heart that loved you/Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore"). Dylan is never content to trade on 22-year-old emotions, though, and last night the song became more like a whimsical quest, lines of alienation rendered playful, until the hammer-blow of its protagonist's essential pointlessness. "I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down," he sighs, "now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door."

At the end of the song, as at the end of many of these songs, he stands up for the final few bars, then begins to wander off, as if he's remembered that the remote is in the other room, and the screens cut to black.

'Make You Feel My Love' is a song that was stolen from us by Adele, and some absolute roasters near us insisted on singing her version over the top of it, but just as Dylan never wrote sadder, starker words than on Time Out of My Mind, he never wrote a more direct love song than this one***. At Hyde Park, it's an effectively conventional reading, and while we'll never get a better reading of the unexpectedly and breathtakingly seductive line that closes the penultimate verse ("You ain’t seen nothing like me yet") than the one on the album, I suppose he can keep trying.

You can certainly never accuse Dylan of not backing himself, and he continues to display a vaguely misguided loyalty to 'Pay In Blood' and 'Early Roman Kings', two of the more didactic tracks from his last album of original songs, Tempest, Both are rather long-winded, both benefit from his full-blooded investment in their mixture of threats and fantasy, and both are barked in the same unflinching but essentially unchanging tone. Unfortunately, both are also heard in direct comparison to 'Like a Rolling Stone', which he stretches out languorously between them.


2012, the time of Tempest.

The first seven or eight times I saw Dylan, he played 'Like a Rolling Stone' fairly straight, usually as an encore with a familiarly cacophonous organ part. He's stopped doing that now. If you want to sing along, you really have to be on your toes. At first, it seemed like Bob was actively trying to prevent this, then you realised it was more like delayed gratification: a piano-led rap; a jazzy, dialled-down and almost painfully slow lead-in to the chorus; then this ferocious burst of rock; and finally the potential for a fists-in-the-air resolution with the beats of a football chant. By the final two choruses, he was almost egging the audience on, through some flamboyant embellishments to the words.

After 'Early Roman Kings' comes the best five minutes of the whole show: a heartstoppingly beautiful version of 'Girl from the North Country', with Bob singing: like, really singing, exposing himself not just through the emotional vulnerability of his performance, but the vulnerability of his voice. It's not what it was in 1963, it's not even what it was in 2005, and for the most part his live vocals are nowadays snapped out or throatily hollered. So a stripped-down country-folk ballad, accompanied only by a piano line and the aching strains of a pedal steel, is a hell of a thing to try. What results is simply one of the most moving experiences I've had at a concert. Incredibly, Dylan wrote the song at 21, but it is an old man's song: reflective, regretful, nostalgic in the most acutely painful way. He sings it here with his heart on display; the vocal wistful, even desolate, negotiating the loss of innocence, love and youth. He sings it like it has only just become true. And like telling someone may make it hurt a little less.

That he can mine such pathos from a simple old song, then continue hammering his most elegiac record, Time Out of Mind into baffling new shapes is the mark of a man for whom reinvention is everything. Isn't that better than a greatest hits show? The fourth and final track from his 1997 record is 'Love Sick', which Dylan famously leased to Victoria's Secret, due to his long and enduring commitment to underpants. It's an enduringly fascinating collision of dystopian imagery coupled to a doth-protest-too-much renunciation of love itself, all because some bird has apparently put him through the wringer. Live, it runs the gamut from unrepentant to vulnerable, needy and ultimately knowing.


Alicia Keys (more of whom below).

For the best part of 10 years, 'Thunder on the Mountain' was one of the two main blues jams in Dylan's set, along with 'Summer Days', which I don't like nearly as much, though it's more interesting live than listening to it in your front room. Both dropped out for a while, but now 'Thunder on the Mountain' is back. The album it opens − Modern Times, the final part of a loose career-revival trilogy − came out during a happy period of my life, and Dylan did it at the two best shows I've seen him play: in Sheffield in 2007 and 2009, so it means a lot to me for those reasons. Having said that, I think he mostly wrote it to try to get Alicia Keys to kiss him, an endeavour that I believe was unfortunately unsuccessful. He has recently changed the wording around her birthplace on the track, though whether this will do the trick, I'm not sure. It's a rumbling, suitably thundering blues adventure that runs appropriately up and down the scales as Dylan mixes the unapologetic doom-mongering of Time Out of Mind with the absurdism and cheery punning of Love and Theft, and while it lacks the emotional sensitivity, freewheelin' poetry or acidic, steel-shelled mythology-shredding that constitutes Dylan's most enduring work, it's a lot of fun.

'Soon After Midnight' is something else entirely: Dylan's stab at a Great American Songbook standard, before he decided to go and record a load of fucking terrible versions of other people's. It has a lovely, yearning feel to it, half-familiar, as if overheard from someone else's wood-fronted '30s radio unit, and it has some of those wonderful pay-offs that mark Dylan's best work post-Time Out of Mind: when he sings, "I'm in no great hurry/I'm not afraid of your fury", you doubt his resilience, then he nails your fucking feet to the floor with the saddest of clinchers: "I've faced stronger walls than yours." And you wonder whether fighting the expectations of the 1960s almost broke him in two, and doubt that anything else would be half as hard. With all due respect (which actually isn't all that much), if you think Neil Young doing 18 songs that sound broadly the same is as interesting as Dylan segueing from heartbroken country to epic blues and then what appears to be a depressive Bing Crosby record, I think it unlikely that we will ultimately get on.

The main set ends with 'Gotta Serve Somebody', one of the handful of great songs to come out of Dylan's dalliance with evangelical Christianity. I've been going to see Dylan as regularly as money and geography can permit since 2002, and this is the first time I've seen him play it. The lead single from his first Christian album, 1979's Slow Train Coming, it's essentially a strident list song about people who are, at some stage, gonna have to serve somebody. I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that he means God. The studio version (a favourite of Sinéad O'Connor) is funky as hell − a bass-driven track that neatly mixes simple encouragement, finger-wagging and what sounds suspiciously like a series of threats − but since Dylan had already given us our serving of funk in the singularly improbably shape of 'Can't Wait', he does this as a simple rock number, one of the most confounding creative decisions of the night. I say 'one of', as at the end of the song he comes and stands at the front of the stage with his hand in one pocket, and just sort of lightly sways, in what I presume is his weird attempt at some straightforward rock-star posturing.


Would you trust this man with your revolution?

The encore begins in familiar fashion: 'Blowin' in the Wind' as it's generally played nowadays, its polemical power lost somewhere between now and then, presumably because its author doesn't seem to care about its questions, only the cynicism that greets them. He follows that in the only way a committed crowdpleasing people person can: with 1965 album track, 'It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry', an emblematic 'thin wild mercury sound'-era song, that period when genres seemed to be flowing through Dylan like water, and everything that came out of his pen and gob was effortlessly sublime. There are two moments in Dylan's career that will never be unsurpassed in terms of effortless cool. One is when Al Kooper rang Dylan (ultimately to resign from his touring band) and asked what he was up to. "I'm eating toast and listening to Smokey Robinson," replied Dylan. The other is in this song, when Bob's voice first casually joins the jaunty tune: "Well, I ride on a mail train, baby, can't buy a thrill," he offers, in a purposefully dismissive rejection of regressive folk norms. "Well, I been up all night, leanin' on the windowsill."

In Hyde Park, the song becomes the night's second legit blues jam, not as expansive (or lengthy) as 'Thunder on the Mountain', but with a relentless, lolloping beat that meshes astonishingly well with the song's hip, flip pronouncements: the mythos of Depression-era train-hopping filtered through the wired mind of a man busily shedding his hairshirt. In this bluesy guise, you could imagine it nestling between 'Workingman's Blues #2' and 'Beyond the Horizon' on Modern Times.

And that's your lot. It's the best I've seen Dylan for a decade. If you disagree, then I can only chastise you for your rank ingratitude.

Thanks for reading.

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Footnotes:

* "I dread to think what the others must be like, then!" is not good banter.
** pun intended
*** I suppose a rival would be the (somewhat risible and madly popular) 'Lay Lady Lay', the hit single from 1969's Nashville Skyline

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Setlist:

Ballad of a Thin Man
It Ain't Me, Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
Can't Wait
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Honest With Me
Tryin' to Get to Heaven
Make You Feel My Love
Pay in Blood
Like a Rolling Stone
Early Roman Kings
Girl From the North Country
Love Sick
Thunder on the Mountain
Soon After Midnight
Gotta Serve Somebody

Encore:
Blowin' in the Wind
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Monday, 24 December 2018

Review of 2018: Part 3 – Movies

Sometimes I wonder if I may have seen all the good films. I know they keep on making new ones but they're either Marvel or Zama and Roma, and I mean, come on. I wonder too about the value of a movie list with the same 'best film of the year' as the Oscars, and Pan's Labyrinthh in its Deep Cuts folder, and yet here we are. Hopefully you'll learn something, but it may only be one thing.

I spent January and February watching and re-watching Orson Welles films (and then trailers and then TV episodes; I went far down the Welles Hole). If that's of interest, you can catch up here.

The previous two Review of 2018 blogs are about books and live stuff. And here are the previous film round-ups (the ones that are any good, anyway): 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Top 10 of 2018

It wasn't the most thrilling year (I'm really scrabbling around for a #10 tbh), but we got there. Five classics, four imperfect knock-out blows and one relic of last year's film festival that for all its flaws had a certain something.



10. BPM (Director: Robin Campillo) – At its best, this confrontational, unsentimental but humanistic film has unexpected echoes of Melville's Army in the Shadows, which looked at action, division and necessity within the French Resistance, and I understand why it included so many sequences of illness and fucking, but those elements don't seem as interesting as the story it started to tell. When it returns to it in those final moments, loaded with the suffering and sadness of what's gone before, the results are admittedly astounding. Full review.



9. On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke) – For almost its entire length, this adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2007 novella is close to perfect: the beautifully-modulated, restrained story of a strait-laced couple in the still strait-laced early '60s who look back on their often idyllic courtship from the claustrophobic environs of their honeymoon suite. If only they'd ended it there. Full review.



8. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) – A dynamic, polemical retelling of a story that’s always fascinated me. The film’s great gamble is the blackly comic tone, and it works superbly, while never blunting the story’s harrowing edge. It’s only in the caper-ish, somewhat longwinded treatment leading up to the pivotal ‘incident’ that the movie errs, before kicking in hard again at the end. Who knew that Steven Rogers, the writer of weak, mawkish rom-coms, had this in his locker?! As everyone has said, Robbie is terrific, while the sequences on the ice are genuinely dazzling.



7. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – Well what did you think a Lynne Ramsay noir with Joaquin Phoenix as a hitman would be like? Ramsay can write great dialogue, but with a Hitchcockian desire to tell stories using just pictures, that visual imagination – CCTV action sequence ftw! – and her matchless ear for apposite pop music, she rarely needs it. Full review.



6. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – An almighty assault on the emotions in the tradition of Bicycle Thieves and Forbidden Games, though its inevitability is cloaked in surprises – and charm. Beautifully observed and filmed in the most extraordinarily tactile manner, with fine performances all round; Lily Franky is astonishingly good.



5. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper) – The best version of this story for 64 years. There’s the odd wrong note in the script – you could write books on its sexual politics and rock v pop posturing, not all of them positive – but it’s still something special, thrumming with emotional charge, crackling with chemistry. More here.



4. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) – Greta Gerwig: Origins. An unsentimental, painful, deceptively lyrical debut.


"Our revels now are ended..."

3. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles) – The first new Orson Welles film for 40 years, which was something I could look forward to for 10 months of 2018. And when it arrived, in a blur of bad Twitter takes about authorship and misogny, it truly delivered: as a maddening, daring, relentless, repetitive, often dazzling examination of creativity, cinematic artifice and Welles himself. Not just the director's self-destructiveness, myth-making and Falstaffian relationship with protégé Peter Bogdanovich (playing a barely fictionalised version of himself), but also the conflicts raging within him: his outsider posturing but need to belong, a buried tendency towards homoeroticism, the battle between art and commerce (at a time when art was becoming commerce, and vice versa) that had sunk him back in 1942. All of that filmed across six years, much of it in a Hollywood mansion peopled by the wizened faces of his old stock company and the directors that had usurped the old order. The passages that Welles edited himself – including the best sex scene ever put on celluloid – are utterly dazzling; despite the remarkable work done in completing the film, pure genius has a way of standing out.



2. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio) – Vega has the most fascinating face and the camera makes the most of it, not least in a dazzling nightclub sequence that moves from pain to sensuality to a fantasy dance number, but there's such depth to her characterisation too, and the film's refusal to give her easy, sassy victories is uniquely satisfying, grappling profoundly and humanely with issues that are both specific and universal. Full review.



1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) – A sci-fi, a horror, a monster movie, a romance, a Cold War thriller, and a history lesson about Alice Faye: this genre-bender is many things, but above all it's an emotional experience, a clear-sighted, glowing-hearted picture with some of the most beautiful imagery and a performance I'm going to be rhapsodising about for weeks, months, years. Full review.

***

14 'discoveries' of 2018

... being the best old things I hadn't seen before this year.



The Dawn Patrol (Edmund Goulding, 1938) – My pick of the year, an unexpectedly terrific anti-war film (though its polemicising isn’t perfect), about WWI flyers facing impossible odds – and for what? Niven, Rathbone and Crisp are all excellent in this understated, intensely moving movie, though it’s Flynn who leaves the greatest impression, as a carousing but stiff-upper-lipped flyboy suddenly shackled by responsibility, and flirting with despair. He was never better. Only complaint: almost all the action and even several scenes of dialogue are lifted from Howard Hawks’ 1930 original. Perhaps only Capra’s Riding High ever recycled footage so flagrantly/stingily.

The films of Alan Rudolph: Choose Me (1984), The Moderns (1988), Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) – Yes, reader, I found a new director to investigate, with thrilling results. Short reviews via those links. Here's how I started the one of Choose Me: "Sex and madness, Alan Rudolph style, as a group of unhappy souls in a pink-skied, neon-lit netherworld engage in fleeting erotic encounters..."



The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) – A beautiful film about Bernadette of Lourdes – from back when Fox doing religion meant faith, gentleness and visual poetry, not private healthcare, intolerance and assault rifles. Full review.

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) – Magical Del Toro film, in the tradition of Spirit of the Beehive and El Sur, about a young Spanish girl (Ivana Baqueiro) negotiating the horrors of war by passing into a fantasy world. Lyrical, moving and humanistic – but also shockingly and viscerally violent, existing almost entirely in the chilling real world, with mere doses of escapism. The director revisited many of its themes and touch points in The Shape of Water (see above), another haunting, beautiful movie about the collision between innocence and brutality.



Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) – So cinematic. A white-hot Lee polemic, masquerading (at first) as a slice-of-life drama. It nods to Night of the Hunter and Welles’ The Trial, but it’s conspicuously in communion with its times, and the unwanted touchstones of the contemporary African-American experience, Tawana Brawley to Howard Beach. Full of humanity, anger and pizza. My subsequent adventures in Lee have been mixed: I loved She's Gotta Have It, in all its scuzzy imperfection, until its hero sexually assaulted his ex-girlfriend and we were supposed to cheer along.

Best of Enemies (Robert Morgan and Gordon Neville, 2015) – A superb doc about the 1968 TV debates between influential Conservative commentator William F. Buckley and his arch nemesis (at least at this time), flamboyantly gay, left-leaning novelist Gore Vidal. It's brilliantly put together, though what makes it most thrilling is simply the raw footage of two intellectual behemoths going at it hammer and tongs. For all you want Vidal to triumph, Buckley is often on top, though watching Vidal needle someone until they explode is my new favourite spectator sport... and the pay-off is unforgettable. I've since read two books about Buckley and none about Vidal, so who's the real winner?



All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1962) – ‘60s London jazz Othello? Yes please. McGoohan’s the standout as Iago, drummer ‘Johnny Cousin’. Only the climax disappoints.

The Power and the Glory (William K. Howard, 1933) – Terrific Preston Sturges script about a working class industrialist (Spencer Tracy) whose controversial personal and professional lives are revealed in flashback. This one’s often cited as a key inspiration on Citizen Kane, but in truth, the similarities are fairly superficial. It’s a superb movie on its own terms, though, with a maturity, complexity and lack of moral judgement that’s really refreshing, and a panache in the storytelling that’s way ahead of its time, its human secrets gradually revealed, and the individual scenes imaginatively devised. Tracy is excellent. Slightly longer review.



What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi, 2014) – Disarmingly funny and original. This mockumentary about vampires (and werewolves) is full of well-sketched characters, and opens up its story in intelligent ways, but beyond all that it just made me laugh a lot.

Piccadilly (E. A. Dupont, 1929) – Pictorially striking silent, set in the clubs, dives and slums of London, with an electrifying performance from Anna May Wong as a sultry Chinese dancer whose moves make men knife each other. Director Dupont seems more interested in character and atmosphere than the thin, ultimately melodramatic story, and I’m with him, though the elements touching on race are quite interesting. Try to see Piccadilly with Neil Brand’s infectious jazz score if you can, music that matches the film’s energy, cynicism and modernity.



20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016) – They’re saying ‘menstruation’ wrong. But this film about women, written by a man, directed by a man, starring a boy, is insightful and interesting and only occasionally very irritating. As usual, Greta Gerwig is much better than everybody else, even when dealing with some of Mills' heaviest indie affectations.

Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955) (Cinema) – Everything Ophüls does to tell this story works, even if the story itself doesn’t. If you get the chance to see it on the big screen: leap. Otherwise, perhaps leave it, as without its grandiose visual sumptuousness there's not an enormous amount to embrace.


Jack Nicholson during those halcyon days (1969-74) when he did some acting.

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971) – A fascinating, distinctive New Hollywood film about sex, self and the death of love, which is steeped in macho despair, as well as a horror at what it reaps. Everyone in the film is great, though having Jack Nicholson (34) and Art Garfunkel (30) play the 18-year-old versions of their characters, nervous about touching a boob, does take a little getting used to. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, it’s probably not for everyone – talky, weirdly-paced, and as much about its characters as their times – but I found it really interesting: one of those movies that you fear might add up to nothing, then find yourself chewing over for days.

The Holly and the Ivy (George More O'Ferrall, 1952) – A literate British ensemble drama with a great cast; a little stagy and cheap-looking, but exhibiting considerable compensations. It’s the story of a family regathering in a Norfolk village at Christmas. They are Irish parson Ralph Richardson, his children – a damaged fashion journalist (Margaret Leighton), an aimless soldier (Denholm Elliott) and the live-in daughter who wants to spread her wings (Celia Johnson) – a couple of grandparents and a godfather. Over Christmas they’ll quietly tear one another apart and be born anew, so it’s hardly festive fluff, but it’s all the better for that. Full review.

***

I kept it short and sweet this year. Like I say, the books blog is generally the best one, but hopefully you found something halfway decent that you can watch in 2019. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Review of 2018: Part 2 – Live

This part focuses on LIVE things: mostly music and theatre. Part one (the best part) was about books, you can read that here. Without additional ado, here goes:



2018 had its challenges, but its artistic compensations too. If my seven-year-old self could have seen me in the staff box as Morrissey played 'Everyday Is Like Sunday', he would have first asked whether I'd already retired as a footballer, then asked me to explain exactly how my job was a job, and then felt curiously proud. It was a pinch-yourself moment, of which I've been lucky to have many. I may not see eye-to-eye with Mozza on Anne-Marie Waters, but we'll always have Viva Hate. Most of it, anyway. Not 'Bengali in Platforms'. I saw Lynne Ramsey talk about Morvern Callar (her reaction to seeing the movie for the first time since release, "What a weird fucking film"), Sally Rooney talk about Conversations with Friends, and Tom Courtenay get heckled by opponents of the 1960 Education Act during a seminar on Woodfall's kitchen sink cycle. The world seems to have moved on from stand-up Bridget Christie, judging by the words of friends and the empty seats, which is a shame, as she is better than ever and better than anyone else. I was invited to Edith Bowman's Soundtracking with Lenny Abrahamson, lured to the 2018 Panzini Lectures – blank space has never been so much fun – and dragged others to Elis James and John Robins' book tour. Is watching a man drunkenly planking while his friend recreates the whole of Freddie Mercury's Live Aid set in mime entertaining? I'm still not sure, but I think it is.

***

Gigs of the year:


This man was not in attendance.

10. A Celebration of John Williams/Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) – Don't worry, they won't all be things that took place in my office and for which I was responsible for the PR. Just three of the first four, and then the #2. The Williams show was originally 'An Evening with John Williams' and then became 'An Evening without John Williams' as he was regrettably checked into hospital while preparing for the show in London. This created an awful lot of work for the Hall's handsome Press Manager, but we found enough Blitz Spirit that wasn't already being used for Brexit to rally round and win the day. I say 'we', it was mostly the London Symphony Orchestra and substitute conductor Dirk Brossé. It was a hell of a night: poignant, nostalgic, life-affirming, with one great piece of music after another: a triumphant Superman, a lilting, heartbreaking Schindler's List. No-one sounds quite like this orchestra. They were back the following month to accompany the original Star Wars (well, the '97 version) in full: as the two suns rose over Tatooine, the LSO rose to meet them.



9. HAIM (Alexandra Palace) – Being a HAIM fan is like being in a cool gang where everyone is really nice. Support came from Maggie Rogers, who rocked up on stage wearing a cape and got increasingly less interesting.



8. The Snowman (Royal Albert Hall) – I watch this every Christmas. For me it is Christmas, though it was only this year that I realised its ending is a metaphor for Christmas as a grown-up – or at least can be. I watched it with thousands of children, and the Royal Philharmonic playing the music live, and the moment when it becomes clear (after a little ingenious use of perspective) that The Snowman and Young David Bowie are flying was as exalting as ever. The kids loved the show, though despite the neat jokes (pineapple nose!), the bit they laughed at most was when the boy gets changed out of his pyjamas and you see his bum. (Technically this was the second half of a show, but it was on in the middle of the afternoon and I do have to do some work.)


This is actually from the 2016 performance, don't tell anyone.

7. Guy Barker's Big Band Christmas (Royal Albert Hall) – This is one of my favourite things we do, and now an indispensable part of my Christmas. Paloma Faith turned up in a Big Hat, but as ever the incomparable Vanessa Haynes stole the show. She is our Aretha and I still don't understand how she isn't the biggest star in the world.


Still not quite sure about this publicity shot tbh.

6. Paul Brady and Andy Irvine (Barbican Centre) – It's not every day you get to see one of your all-time favourite records played live, long after you thought any such opportunity must have passed. The first half was deep cuts and obscurities, the second half that immortal debut album, featuring Irvine's 'Bonny Woodhall' and Brady's immortal 'Arthur McBride', up there with the best seven minutes of my year.


Somewhere in there is Bjӧrk.

5. All Points East: Bjӧrk and Father John Misty (Victoria Park) – I returned to the fray of the 'outdoor gig' after six years, irresistibly tempted by the two headliners. Neither were as good as the last time I saw them (Bjӧrk in 2016, Misty last year), but those were some unscalable bars. Her absurd sets, magical soundscapes and conga of flautists, and his stripped-back singer-songwriter shtick made for a lovely night. Highlights: 'Isobel' and 'Holy Shit'. And the queues for the loos weren't too bad at all.



4. David Ford presents Milk and Cookies 2018 (Bush Hall) – With #s 8 and 7, think of this as the third part of an informal trilogy of Christmas musical traditions, in which Eastbourne's finest digs out the charity buckets, lays off the songs about dashed dreams and macro-economics, and cranks up his guitar for a succession of unmissable covers. This year's highlights included a heartbreaking piano-led take on Lionel Richie's 'Hello', a gorgeous 'God Only Knows' and an uproarious 'Go Your Own Way', before he made his peace with 'YMCA' (once his punchline in a muddled interview with Rolling Stone) in thrilling, climactic fashion. There was space for his own material too, including a metal-ish freakout to 'Requiem'.



3. Courtney Barnett (Brixton Academy) was blistering and brilliant: intense and heavy and heart-open, warts-and-all joyous. Go get her new record – her best yet – and I'll see you there next time.



2. Nine Inch Nails (Royal Albert Hall) – Fourteen years ago I came down from Manchester on the £1 Megabus to see my first gig in London: Nine Inch Nails at Brixton Academy. This time I got to promote the show. That's not a humblebrag, it's just a brag. I knew this would be great, but not how confrontational and brutal and majestic the new material would sound against the old. Amidst songs from The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, the absolute stand-out was a relentless, furious 'Copy of A'. Sensational light show too: snapping timers casting rhythmic, perverse and iconic shadows.



1. Susanne Sundfør: Music for People in Trouble AV (Barbican Centre) – She just gets better and better. A suite of 11 songs, staged with a deceptively tricksy, pixie-ish sense of fun (the whole band dressed alike in hooded black capes, behind a mesh of projections, so Sundfør will be apparently sat behind a guitar at stage left, then pop up at the piano on the far side), but with a greater emotional heft than any gig I have been to in years. The album, and the show, begin with the quiet naïve simplicity of 'Mantra' and build, via 'Undercover' (the song of the decade), to the towering, escalating wall of sound that is 'Mountaineers'. An utterly singular experience that for an hour takes you out of the world, and then allows you to live in it a little more happily.

***

Theatre of the year...

... is quite a grand title considering I've only seen a dozen things, but here are my six favourites.



6. Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre) – My artistic appreciation of this production was hampered by having an overloaded kidney and a back spasm, meaning that Caesar was the only person who came out of this play worse than me... but through wincing eyes and a cloud of codeine I found much to love, especially the heartstopping 'Et tu, Brute?' set-piece, a sequence so profoundly moving that it has led me to stop using the phrase as a joke. The acting was variable and the Trumpian trappings a fairly unconvincing gimmick, but at its best it made Shakespeare new.



5. Witness for the Prosecution (County Hall) – As purely entertaining as anything I saw this year: a cleverly-staged production of the Agatha Christie story (memorably filmed by Billy Wilder in 1957): never profound or touched by genius, but remarkably enjoyable. It seems I can live without genius now and then.



4. Guys and Dolls in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) – I'm glad this was good, as I spent about a month working intensively on press for the show and we convinced lots of people to attend. Its abridged nature slightly undercut the play's emotional impact, but the numbers were astonishingly good. Clive Rowe's reprisal of his Olivier-winning role as Nicely Nicely meant that a show-stopping 'Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat' was guaranteed, Adrian Lester's 'Luck Be a Lady' was great fun and director Stephen Mear's take on the 'Crapshooters' Ballet' was inspired, but it was Australian cabaret star Meow Meow who absolutely stole the show, shrinking the Hall's notably large stage with her mammoth talent, presence and charisma.


It's-a-me, Iago!

3. Othello (The Globe), in which Mark Rylance (as Iago), manages to play the first half of the play almost exclusively for laughs. Genuinely. Rather than wickedness, Iago's evasiveness commences (at least in appearance) as a kind of shameless, confounded innocence – and his plotting as a clever caper – somehow dragging us to his side. Then he starts to drip cruel and complex villainy, all the time looking like Super Mario. Sheila Atim, as a bullish, knowing Emelia, is excellent in support too. The best five quid I've spent since the Merlin Premier League 1993-4 sticker album.



2. The Sea Wall (The Old Vic) – Andrew Scott stands on an otherwise empty stage for half an hour and breaks our hearts. Theatre at its most primal, modern and moving.



1. The Writer (Almeida Theatre) – Oh to write like this. Ella Hickson's confounding, irresistible, meta-textual exploration of gender and sexuality begins with a two-hander between a misogynistic but superficially reasonable theatre director (Samuel West) and a feminist audience member (Lara Rossi), then snaps back to reveal that these are just characters, and that writer Romola Garai is going somewhere else: perhaps to a quasi-psychedelic lesbian rural idyll (complete with a subsequent, sarcastic post-modern deconstruction), perhaps to the brink of masculinity and beyond, attaining power and control at the expense of her identity. It is so entertaining, so funny, so clever and so packed with ideas that it's exhilarating, but it's also utterly haunting: a profoundly disquieting and disorientating piece of theatre. And it even acknowledges that preaching to a small, committed choir in an Islington theatre is a complete waste of time. Maybe I do need some genius now and again.

***



Exhibitions get just a brief mention this year, as I didn't go to many. My favourite was Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A, which included genuine bits of the Titanic, alongside a celebration of the Normandie's hilarious levels of excess (perhaps not so hilarious during the Depression), and a crash course in liner design. The Great British Seaside, at the National Maritime Museum, was also a lot of fun, bringing together the work of four very different photographers, each preoccupied with a vanishing culture, whether capturing its inherent quirkiness (Martin Parr), its poetry, offbeat dignity and key to national character (Tony Ray-Jones), or its scale if you put a camera a long way away (I wasn't as into Simon Roberts).

***

Thanks for reading. Part three will be about FILMS.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Review of 2018: Part 1 – Books

The good, the bad and the Atlas Shrugged: here's everything I read in a vain attempt to stave off the comic hopelessness and soul-chewing despair of this toxic binfire of a year. Yay. It's divided into fiction (for adults and children) and non-fiction. 79 in total.

FICTION

Adults:



My favourites first, and call me Corporate McNosurprises, but the best book I read all year was George Saunders' miraculous Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), which won the Booker last year. A hypnotic, hilarious, heart-opening story of grief and redemption, it uses the implacable, granite greatness of Honest Abe – a man we can see only in retrospect, in simple terms and a mile high – as a counterpoint to human fragility, and a way to explore the essence of our heroic figures, who are both less and much more than we often realise. It's like Vonnegut shot by John Ford, and the most intensely moving, exhilaratingly imaginative work that I've read in years.

Similarly revelatory, and American, was Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (2018), which has only one shortcoming, and that is its pseudo-arthouse title. These five short stories may begin with a broadly conventional examination of middle-age malaise, but they end with an errant, unbalanced genius raiding Elvis Presley's grave, and are quite unlike anything else I've read. His off-kilter sentences, like his delicately warped view of society, are arresting and unsettling, and the third story – an epistolary one in which a psychiatric patient slowly loses his mind to medication – manages to be horrifying and hysterical, practically daring you to care. After that, I sought out Johnson's only previous short story collection, Jesus' Son (1993), which has an army of acolytes, but struck me as rather monotonous with its gallery of interchangeable addicts and losers.

I finally sat down and read Brideshead Revisited (1945) properly, susceptible as I expected (yes, OK, from the TV series) to Waugh's gluttonous story of youth and beauty laid low by drink-fuelled demons.



Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends (2016) – available in a variety of irrelevant, hideous covers – is deceptively immense: a 21st century Pursuit of Love turning inwards in blurry self-loathing and late-capitalist malaise. I gather that some people 'didn't like the characters', which is apparently a legitimate response. Rooney then had the temerity to follow it with Normal People (2018), which is somehow even better: an emotionally exhausting, effortlessly profound second book, with layer upon layer of characterisation and telling, memorable, incisive detail. She is so perceptive and so observant as to the details of human interactions (and human cruelty), with such extraordinary understanding of her characters’ inner workings. It's masterfully drawn, chokingly effective and deserving of all the hype, and then some. Quite how we're supposed to wait two years for the next one, I can't imagine, though I may take that long to recover.

Normal People is superficially similar to David Nicholls' One Day (2009), a book that I gather is easy to pick holes in, but why bother? I came to the party both late and snootily prepared to shrug off a book that had sold two million copies, but fuck me it got to me. An adroit, piercing love story between a smart, sharp, over-educated young woman and a guy who for most of the book is basically Tim Lovejoy, it shrugs off any danger of gimmickry with a pronounced insouciance, and proceeds to involve you in these tangled lives, before shattering your heart a dozen ways. The trappings may be mundane and the jokes variable, but I'm still thinking about it two months later.



Rounding up the list of the broadly unassailable, we have two books about old, lonely women. Firstly, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000), a dense and meticulous mystery steeped in a limping dotage and a need to reveal the truths underpinning our lives, in which ailing Iris Chase reflects on her sister's long-ago suicide, aided by dog-eared photographs, contemporary news reports and a devotion to veracity underpinned by a very Canadian reticence. It's the first of hers I've read (as I am a noted charlatan and fraudster), so I've got years of fun and education ahead of me. Less chilly, and more mordant and acidic and zippy, was Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), in which the residents of a South Kensington rooming house while away the hours until death, through artifice, self-delusion and the odd visit from a charming, utterly ruthless young writer. I think it taught me more about writing good sentences than anything else I've ever read. In comparison, her much earlier A View from the Harbour (1947) felt limp and somehow mean-spirited, the poetry of physical and moral decay summoning nothing but a sort of weary depression.

I've written before about my love of John Steinbeck, especially his trilogy about labourers in Depression-era california (In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men). East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck's sprawling, biblical Californian phantasmagoria – which drags Cain and Abel into the Salinas Valley – is dizzyingly ambitious and often impossibly rich, but also a little disjointed, its characters' fates too often anti-climactic and its central 400 pages dwarfing what's either side. In a similar vein, Ken Kesey's mammoth, magnificently-titled Sometimes a Great Notion (1962) frequently takes the breath away, humanising but scrutinising every one of its fucked up characters across 600+ pages of labour wrangling, Freudian familial strife and unexpected action sequences, as college-educated Leland Stamper returns to his old, erm, stamper-ing ground to lock horns with his half-brother, the none-more-alpha Hank. Told from a multitude of viewpoints, we watch the characters begin to destroy themselves and one another, forever misreading acts of gentleness or solidarity. It begins to plod a little, bogged down in repetition by page 500, but the ending is irresistible.



Alongside Steinbeck, another of my favourite writers is Jane Austen. This year I delved deep into the admittedly limited canon. You can get Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon in a single volume. Lady Susan (1793) is an epistolary novel, recently adapted as the film Love & Friendship by the great independent filmmaker, Whit Stillman. It is Austen, but not as we know her, reveling in the amorality (and admittedly the resulting downfall) of the thoroughly unscrupulous title character, who is interested purely in acquiring capital and getting her end away. By the time she embarked on her cycle of six great, major novels, Austen had shrugged off such vicarious pleasures, though scholars still bicker over whether she had reached an artistic and emotional maturity or was merely bowing to the demands of Christian society. It is hard to read something as still and gentle and moving as Persuasion and imagine that she wasn't sincere.

The Watsons is by far my favourite of the three short works and one of the great 'what ifs' of modern literature, started in 1803 but discontinued after her father's death, at which point she returned to redrafting earlier works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility. It's an overwhelmingly charming fragment about young Emma Watson (yes, very good), who returns to the bosom of her family after years away, and begins to negotiate the social and romantic traps of their world. I say 'begins to negotiate' because we only get 17,000 words. The highlight is a wonderful set-piece at a country dance. By 1817, the 40-year-old Austen was ailing, being treated for the illness that would kill her. Out of this decline came the wry, almost absurdist Sanditon, a comedy about hypochondriacs, set in a spa-town, which is minor in itself (and again unfinished), but a testament to Austen's absolute and enduring awesomeness. I also picked up The Beautiful Cassandra (1786-93), in the Penguin Little Black Classics series, which incorporates the minor, silly eponymous story and other pieces of juvenilia: some impenetrable (being pastiches of things no longer remembered), some disposable, and others disarmingly funny.

I was surprised how readable and contemporary Jane Eyre (1847) felt, in its language and storytelling if not its sexual politics: an immersing, appealing, fast-moving and agreeably unconventional book that rather runs out of steam after its most notable revelation. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is an unsettling, unforgettable riposte: feminist, anti-colonial, written in an abstract, authentic but unrooted vernacular and almost staccato prose, dragging you where you fear to go and casting Brontë's book in the eeriest and most searing of lights.



One of the most-lauded books of last year was Sean Edward Greer's Less, which won the Pulitzer. The sad, globe-trotting adventures of a lovelorn, failed author, I liked it a lot. I didn't find it as relentlessly hilarious as a lot of reviewers (I gather that it's Greer's first comedy, so perhaps they were surprised), but I loved its warm beating heart and he undoubtedly writes lovely sentences, especially about suits.

I've always loved Lynne Ramsay's film of Morvern Callar, but had never read the Alan Warner novel (1995) that inspired it. Written in an aggressively mannered first-person Scottish dialect, it's a quietly beguiling book with a quite brilliant protagonist – the chain-smoking, powerful, inscrutable Morvern, who deals with her boyfriend's suicide by passing off his unpublished novel as her own, and going clubbing with the money – and some observations on the beautiful, crumbling wasteland of working-class culture, all of which compensate for dull pastoral passages and a rather obvious ending. (I should add that I bought this book for my friend Jess and she thought Warner's idea of how women think was completely embarrassing.)

My favourite author is Kurt Vonnegut, but I'm rationing his work now, because I've read most of it in a mad, four-year blitz. This year I treated myself to two: Jailbird (1979), a counter-intuitive, hilarious, subversive and righteous riposte to the all-consuming national crisis that was Watergate, and his 1971 play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which has Vonnegut sort of playing at Orton: a bawdy farce with legitimate pretensions at indicting modern America. It doesn't all work, and it isn't the best medium for Vonnegut's singular gifts, but it's kind of fascinating.



I've long been fascinated by the waspish, tippling doyen of the Jazz Age, without really doing anything about it, so this year I read The Collected Dorothy Parker (1977). My abiding impression was that while her verse can be good and her stories can be great (Big Blonde, ffs), it’s Parker’s journalism that’s truly remarkable. She turned reviewing into an art form, increasingly using some recent book as a jumping off point for a ruthless, coruscating comic sketch radiating her caustic, devastating wit. One dreary Sunday afternoon I decided to dip into that part of the book, only to emerge six hours later, having devoured the lot. I don’t mean for it to sound like she’s hard to live with as an author: putdowns were only a twentieth of Parker’s repertoire, and her most brutal assessments were always of herself (or A. A. Milne). But while she had the pithiness and sarcasm to make for a Jazz Age Jane Austen, she didn’t tend to trust her warmth, and there’s a lack of scope to her sharp stories and pungent, pulchritudinous poetry that for every moment of amazement and exhilaration can – when essaying the collected works over a week or two – leave you ultimately a little unsatisfied, wishing she had cast her piercing gaze a little farther.

Perhaps the most fun I've had reading this year was with Chester Himes' The Real Cool Killers (1958), a dark hymn to Harlem, in which two black policemen (Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson) run around with nickel-plated handguns, shooting and pistol-whipping everyone in sight as they try to solve a murder. Written by ex-con Himes, who was living in Paris at the time, it's a fantastically entertaining slice of urban noir, the OTT violence and lashings of black comedy only slightly undercut by a bizarrely mawkish ending. I then discovered it was the second in a series, so I went back to the start with A Rage in Harlem (1957), which has the central cops as mere supporting characters in a somewhat self-satisfied tall tale about a dumb patsy unable to countenance his girlfriend's duplicity as the bodies pile up. It's good, and tries more transparently to evoke its setting, but it's not as good: certainly far less fun. I've asked for books three and four for Christmas.



Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1961) is one of the most brilliant and maddening books I've read in a while: beautiful phrases and life-changing ideas wrapped in a story so cloistered and myopic that it makes Wes Anderson look like Vittorio de Sica. Its historic contextualising and throwaway brilliance seems to anticipate Roth at his zenith, but I also wanted to headbutt the author quite a bit.

The Sound of Trumpets was, unexpectedly, one of 2017's greatest pleasures – for all its self-evident flaws, a nifty, near-mythic deconstruction of Blairite hypocrisy before the ink was barely dry on the '97 election results. This year I went back to the beginning of the Rapstone Chronicles, to find that a little John Mortimer goes a long way, and that his preoccupations (a love of conservation, women who smoke and slightly laboured one-liners) can tend to make his work distinctly samey. Paradise Postponed (1986), written with TV in mind, is a multi-generational, would-be-sprawling story hooked on a mystery: why has a socialist vicar left all of his money to the Tebbit-ian figure of Thatcherite cabinet minister, Lord Titmuss? You'll desperately want to know, and enjoy the ride too, but when you find out, you'll discover it's not that interesting. The second book in the series, Titmuss Regained is so slickly plotted, and hung on such a repetitious, nebulous sense of what it means to be human (Titmuss is motivated by revenge after being pushed in a river; his new girlfriend Jackie is fixated purely on honesty) that it feels about as deep as a puddle, and it's very 1990 (which seems to date it more than if it was 1945), though its refusal to demonise or sanctify any of its characters is at least refreshing.



William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa (1981) is like Lucky Jim (my favourite book of 2016) transplanted to the colonial world of Graham Greene, but nowhere near as good. It's one of those books that you like consistently less, the more you think about it, though there is a terrific joke near the end about the narrator's seduction technique, and my friend who grew up in post-colonial Africa finds the book extraordinarily perceptive. In a similar vein, but with its sexual misadventures haunted by genocide rather than the remnants of racism, is Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story (1966), a book that cleverer men than I have lauded to the heavens. I thought it was... fine, but found the presumably purposeful trivialities of its central story frankly mystifying in this context.

Which leaves us with just three more novels: The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952) – fitfully engaging shreds of baseball folklore fashioned into an uneven narrative – Anita Loos' influential but hopelessly weathered Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) and, of course, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957): a riotous, relentless, ridiculous book, with Rand enthusiastically punching a straw man in the face for 1,168 caustic, sentimental, weird pages. It’s full of BIG ideas (well, one big idea), BIG heroes, predictable ‘twists’, identikit imagery and a cast-iron commitment to never properly engaging with the other side, who don’t merely subscribe to a different ideology, but are all physically-repulsive con-men and gangsters, with flabby faces, drooling mouths and glassy, filmy, dead, panicked eyes. I can’t help but think that seeing all her family’s belongings getting pinched by the Bolsheviks as a kid might have influenced Rand’s worldview somewhat. I wrote about it a little more here, if that's of interest.

A quick mention finally for two books by friends, which I can't possibly review, as that would be insane. These are: Rob Palk's Animal Lovers and Sophia Money-Coutts' The Plus One (both 2018). And all I will say is that I resent both authors.

Children:

I read a lot of kids' books: partly because I love them, partly because I write them and want to understand the marketplace, and partly so I can weasel up to agents who persist in ignoring my questionable talents. Here's a quick round-up of 2018:



The Many Worlds of Albie Bright (2016) by Christopher Edge is extraordinarily beautiful: a miracle of a book about a boy searching for his late mother through alternate worlds. It's ingenious and amusing and the only thing that's made me cry this year (as established last year, I am very tough and northern and only cry once a year). It's not dissimilar, in fact, to my other favourite of this year: Ross Welford's multi-award-winning Time Travelling with a Hamster (2015), another utterly winning sci-fi story in which an imperfect hero searches for a deceased parent. Only the feelgood ending misses the target. I got so engrossed in it that I accidentally took a two-hour lunch break. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart books are a treat I'd recommend to anyone (except my friend Jess, who also hated these – what does she like? Titanic, that's what), pitching you into Victorian London with only a steely heroine and a good-looking portrait photographer for company. The Ruby in the Smoke (1985) is, appropriately, the jewel in the crown, though the second book – The Shadow in the North (1986) – compensates for some annoyingly faithless characterisation by being in all other ways terrific.



Genre fiction for kids doesn't get much more purely entertaining than Stuart Gibbs' Spy School (2012), which shakes off some apparently reactionary tendencies early on and throws in dozens of neat twists. The only disappointment is that the identity of its villain negates one of its funniest ideas. Also relentlessly entertaining are Andy Stanton's enormously successful Mr Gum books – beginning with You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum! (2006) and Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire (2007) – which are simply and effortlessly and consistently hilarious. The biscuit billionaire is a gingerbread man called Alan Warner who has a tin full of cash and electric muscles.

Lovely Liverpudlian socialist Frank Cottrell Boyce's book, Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth (2016), is offbeat and thrillingly unsentimental, dealing with an alien who comes to Earth to reluctantly destroy it, unless he can find 10 things worth saving. These are not the things you might expect, whether you're a tourist board, right-winger or mawkish humanitarian. It's full of clever conceits and comic flourishes. Other enjoyable comic books, with perhaps just a touch less heart, are the bizarrely overlooked Pirate McSnottbeard in the Zombie Terror Rampage (2017) – a deliriously post-modern romp with genuinely good jokes – and the overly plotty but nevertheless entertaining Jim Reaper: Son of Grim (2016).



For older kids, Gaby Halberstam's The Red Dress (2009) is troubling – even difficult – and starts conspicuously slowly, but is extremely rewarding: a heartfelt coming-of-age story, with a realistic heroine, set in a brutal, misogynistic, dirt-poor South Africa.

Tom Fletcher's The Christmasaurus (2016) is written in a slightly tiresome, patronising vernacular, but the story is lovely, even magical, with a great antagonist in the shape of charismatic bully, Brenda Payne. Maz Evans' popular Who Let the Gods Out? (2017) brings the Olympian gods (as well as a little formula plotting) to modern Britain in a book that's well-conceived, and learned and funny, though the point at which an author brings in a karate-chopping version of the Queen as a comic character is the moment in which I fucking despair. The Queen is also invoked in Onjali Q. Rauf's The Boy at the Back of the Class (2018), a simplistic but sincere story about a group of schoolchildren trying to help a refugee to integrate. The fact this involves Buckingham Palace would appear to be evidence of the cringing deference we seem committed to passing on to our children. Is what I would say if I had voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Which I did.

How Winston Delivered Christmas (2018) is a lovely new offering: an advent calendar of a book, divided into 24-and-a-half chapters, each with typically sumptuous Alex T. Smith illustrations, as a bedraggled mouse tries to get a kid's letter to Father Christmas in time for the big day. Emma Barnes' Wild Thing (2014) skirts by on the strength of its heart, The Nowhere Emporium (2015) adds up to a whole lot of vague nothing, and Paddington Races Ahead (2012) finds our hero rather adrift in a world that Michael Bond doesn't seem to understand (which after the pointedly political Paddington Here and Now is rather a disappointment).

And already at a charity shop near you are Jonathan Meres' inherently dislikeable May Contain Nuts (2011), the inexplicably successful Beetle Boy (2016) – in which the villain is a half-woman, half-beetle – and The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray (2018) by E. Latimer, a ludicrous semi-sequel to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which characters escape from paintings and kill people. It was written by a Canadian whose idea of how people in Victorian London speak memorably incorporates the phrase, "Did you just try to sass me?"

***

NON-FICTION

Favourites



Nothing could touch Fun Home (2006), the graphic novel in which Alison Bechdel explores her relationship with her closeted father, whose life was a succession of secrets that drove them apart and pulled them together. It's peppered with wonderful imagery and details that break and mend your heart, and is also really fucking sexy. Like the best art, it leaves you changed. I also got a huge amount from Sara Pascoe's Animal (2016), which may take evolutionary psychology as fact not theory, but also made me look at the world in a different way. It's fantastically honest, Pascoe transforming her fear into fearlessness, and full of good jokes.

History and politics



Most of the non-fic I read is about history and politics. The pick of the bunch this year was probably Andrew Lownie's biography, Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. It's a fabulously entertaining, spectacularly well-researched book which makes a convincing case that Burgess was the most brilliant and important of the Cambridge Spies – rather than the indiscreet, drunken liability of popular myth. Its flaws, such as they are, comprise an unfortunate tendency to introduce supporting characters by name without explaining who they are, and an inability to quite reach the heart of the garrulous, gossipy but complex Burgess – an analytical closing chapter coming rather closer than the 400 pages that precede it. Thanks to Lownie, we know far more of what Burgess did than we ever have before; we know when and how and definitely who, even if we’re not always sure why. The (crap) title seems to have more to do with marketing algorithms than the book it’s describing.

Another rip-roaring read was Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line (2016) by Heather Hendershot. The author, an unrepentant but open-minded liberal, delves deep into the archives to examine the story of Firing Line, the American debate show hosted by waspish, brilliant, perma-grinning William F. Buckley, which presaged the triumph of American conservatism. Broken down by themes (though in a roughly chronological order, such was Buckley’s cresting and declining interest in certain subjects), the book looks at how Firing Line covered conservatism, communism, feminism, black power, Nixon and Reagan, giving thinkers as inflammatory and revolutionary as Huey Newton and Germaine Greer a platform to air their views at length, and so find supporters, unless the audience was suitably convinced by Buckley’s rebuttals. The writing has the odd cliché or lapse into clunkiness, and Hendershot’s need to restate conclusions at the end of each chapter (and then write another chapter of woolly media studies material positing a potential ‘Firing Line 2.0’) is an academic affectation I could do without, but this is a gripping, thoughtful and revelatory book, a treat for anyone interested in political discourse, public intellectualism or just modern American history.



Alvin Felzenger's biography of Buckley, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley (2017), is a fine companion-piece, finding its niche (in bookshelves not ill-served by Buckley biographies) in focusing on his relationships with presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, via various other people he didn’t like much, and Reagan. While it’s a little too short, shallow and limited in scope to match a political biography like Jean Edward Smith’s FDR or T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long, it’s also enlightening and highly entertaining: Felzenberg’s research feels very comprehensive and, but for a little repetition and some shortcomings imposed by the restrictive structure, it’s nicely written too. Some of Buckley’s putdowns made me laugh out loud. It's a shame he was such a snake.

Continuing my obsession with FDR's cabinet, I also read The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins (2009), one of my political idols. Kirstin Downey's book is a little dry in places, but superbly researched. Perkins created the American welfare state, while providing for her mentally ill husband and daughter, then spent her last years living in a house with 30 left-wing college students, and there is honestly nothing cooler than that. And after enjoying the Slow Burn series on Watergate, I decided to investigate whether Tricky Dicky really was as terrible as he always appeared. Answer: mostly. Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell (2017) makes a case for Nixon being somewhat misunderstood, and certainly no one-dimensional HUAC bully in his early days, but from his first state senate campaign he's slippery, dangerous and undemocratic, and by 1972 he was absolutely off on one. There's no quibbling with Farrell as a scholar – his book is stuffed with primary sources – but I was rather bored by the end, and found Nixon's contradictions simply too legion to reconcile, at least by myself.



Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City tells the tale of a serial killer stalking Chicago as the city welcomes the World's Fair of 1893. At first the true crime narrative is rather more dynamic than the story of the fair, but by the end I felt that had switched around. It's grisly and unquestionably sensationalist (I have almost no stomach for true crime), but I certainly wasn't bored.

You don't get many books about the Nazis, so it was nice to happen across Julia Boyd's Travellers in the Third Reich (2017), an impressively diverse anthology that nevertheless feels more like a collection of interesting sources (many of them previously unpublished) than a book in its own right. The perspectives from artists, diplomats, politicians, writers, tourists, scholars, the hard left and the far-right, the duped and the clear-sighted, the oblivious and the righteous are full of fascinating details, from the sights, smells, sounds and neediness of Nazi Germany to moments of insight, absurdity, incongruity, comedy and tragedy. But they’re marshalled with a distinct lack of finesse, Boyd’s writing full of clunking segues that aren’t really necessary, and a leaden-handed, simple self-righteousness that – while on the side of right – doesn’t make the book the searing moral audit that she imagines. I've harped on about it all a bit more here.

This is where, for completism's sake, I also throw in Philippe Sands' East West Street (2016), which I read too late for last year's list, and which traces the genesis of the terms 'genocide' and 'crimes against humanity', coined by two very different lawyers from Lwow, the home of Sands' grandfather and subject of a litany of Nazi atroicities.



And then there are the books that weren't much good. I'm a big fan of Jon Ronson's work, but his Kindle-only book, The Elephant in the Room (2016) is so slight that it's barely there: a shallow rehash of old Alex Jones with a minimum of on-the-spot reporting and a couple of funny one-liners. Michael Wolff's notorious Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018), which briefly captured the zeitgeist, was gossipy and mildly illuminating on the various factions competing for power, but hardly trustworthy, which supporting characters clearly whitewashed if they gave decent access to the author. Lonely Courage: The True Story of the SOE Heroines Who Fought to Free Nazi-Occupied France (2017) is a completely fascinating story given severely botched treatment. There are a few gripping passages and at times the book evokes the brutal lottery of wartime espionage, but the facts – and stories – are marshalled in erratic, haphazard manner, so it’s difficult to stay immersed in the material, or indeed to remember (or follow) who everyone is. Stroud’s writing style is also clunky and repetitive: light on quotes and with a truly singular use of commas. It all seems rather half-finished.

Probably worst of all is Michelle Obama's autobiography, Becoming (2018). The most interesting bit is when her daughter gets chased by a cheetah, and that turns out to be a dream. Aside from moving reminiscences detailing her father’s decline, those early scenes with Barack, and some brief passages in the final stretch about gun violence and misogny, it all feels so crushingly banal: an astonishing story turned into 420 pages of work-family balance, in safe, quasi-inspirational corporate language. I couldn't tell if she wasn't who I thought she was or if this book has just had all the life and fire focus-grouped out of it.

Arts



Brett Anderson's Coal Black Mornings (2018) is a terrific memoir, tracing the author's life from his austere, eccentric satellite-town childhood – dominated by a domineering father who was obsessed with Franz Liszt and often wandered their council house dressed as T. E. Lawrence – to the cusp of stardom with singular indie heroes, Suede (who are, of course, the greatest band of all time). There’s the odd moment of repetition, cliché or pre-emptive defensiveness (perhaps unsurprising given the unwarranted kicking he received from a bitchy music media in the ‘90s), but it’s most often a total joy. Anderson is extraordinarily insightful when dealing with his music and the creative evolution of his band, searingly honest when required – his pathological aversion to gossip being wedded to an unblinking emotional sincerity – and possessed of a notable capacity for both a telling detail (which is hardly unexpected) and a droll one-liner (which may well be). The passage in which he shrugs off supposed influences to explain that he has always been more inspired by a lover, a friend or a flat than by someone else’s album made my jaw drop. Because of course, but who has ever said that? If your pulse doesn’t quicken over those last four pages, you are dead. Or even worse: a Blur fan.

We finally got to see Orson Welles' final movie this year, thanks – unexpectedly – to Netflix. Before that, your best bet was to read Josh Karp's invigorating, deadpan book: Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of 'The Other Side of the Wind' (2015), which traced both its haphazard production and the farce that followed. It's so much fun, at least now that there's a happy ending.

I also enjoyed, with some reservations, Otto Friedrich's City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, which inspired a recent series of You Must Remember This. A personal history of ‘40s Hollywood, which for this author means Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, labour unions and anti-semitism, as much as Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and Louis B. Mayer (and much more than Cary Grant, whose conflicted, confused and confusing existence is bizarrely consigned to the ‘boring’ pile). Friedrich shapes secondary sources into a narrative that at its best is panoramic and at worst somewhat bitty, but always elegantly written and highly readable. Some of the stories he tells have since been debunked and others are over-familiar (at least to massive Old Hollywood nerds), but there’s plenty that was new to me, and his contextualising is first-rate, as he explains how Hollywood got its water, America got racist and Bugsy Siegel got shot. Depending on your tastes, though, Friedrich’s endless sneering may begin to pall – aside from Double Indemnity, he is dismissive of just about everything and everybody, deriding most books and films and recordings as bad or brainless or embarrassing, and thinking the worst of almost everyone he encounters. In Brechtian fashion, he seems to take a particular delight in debunking heroism: toppling or dismantling those ‘40s figures that (left-leaning) history has since judged as stoic and virtuous – among them, John Garfield – an agenda which arguably undermines his objectivity, and is also really fucking depressing. I enjoyed it when he did it to Ronald Reagan, though, which just shows the double-standard I operate under.



Sadly I didn't enjoy A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True − Volume One (1907-40), which is clearly a labour of love, but also a mess, and something of a trial. It’s good in spots, particularly in its vivid sketches of the young Frank Fay, but it’s frequently long-winded – offering laborious descriptions of interior furnishings, interminable lists of names who attended events or belonged to certain Hollywood clubs, and every finger injury Stanwyck ever sustained – while often irrelevant when striving to be wide-ranging. Most disappointing of all is its vague and uninteresting portrait of Stanwyck, Wilson apparently so close to her subject (and so indebted to her subject’s family and friends) that she skirts shyly around topics like adultery and domestic abuse (though eventually engaging with the latter), neglects to confront the myriad contradictions of Stanwyck’s early life, and fails to articulate how the actor’s wellsprings of emotion were fed by her life’s surfeit of tragedy. I love a door-stop biography, particularly one about ‘20s and ‘30s America, and Stanwyck is one of my favourite actors, but Steel True massively outstays its welcome. As better critics than I have already pointed out: Wilson is a book editor in need of a book editor. This book is 860 pages long and ends when Stanwyck is 33.

Theory

is not something for which my brain is necessarily equipped, but I did try, reading Ha-Joon Chang's Economics: A User's Guide (2014), because I have been pretending to know about economics for years, simply regurgitating a few facts I remember from A-level politics. Chang's admirable attempts to create an accessible work unfortunately lead to him explaining who Martin Freeman is, but not what supply side economics is, but I have remembered at least two more facts for when I'm shouting at people I don't know on Twitter.



God's Funeral (1999) by A. N. Wilson purports to chart the decline of theism and faith within 19th century intellectualism, but doesn't quite do that, instead offering witty, wide-ranging pen-portraits of many major thinkers. I found it a lot livelier than Rupert Shortt's well-meaning but stodgy God Is No Thing, which has rare moments of profundity – like when examining scripture to debunk the idea that Heaven is a Christians-only club – but is hard to grasp. Or indeed read.

Football

is always more comfortable ground for me. Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (2004/2013) is still mentioned in hushed tones and rightly so, challenging much of what I thought I knew about football, and giving me an arsenal of good stories in the process.



Pete Davies' All Played Out (1995), the 'inside story' of my favourite World Cup (1990), is often cited as the great football book, so I picked up a copy to read between televised matches this time around. Boy can Davies write – and write emotively – when he wants to, ruminating on the suffocating horror of a visit to Auschwitz or the bitter glory of England’s semi-final defeat, and his access to Bobby Robson and his squad is truly remarkable, but too much of the book is about his personal itinerary, which evokes the breathless, sleepless insanity of what he terms ‘Planet Football’ but isn’t terribly compelling in itself, and makes the book an odd jumble of elements, alongside some laboured running jokes, and a little too much score-settling (though Davies is nothing if not even-handed in his portraits of the press, the fans and the England camp). His book is more incisive and insightful than James Erskine’s thin, glossy film adaptation, capturing some essential truths about what football gives us, and operating as a vivid snapshot of a turning point in the sport’s culture – hooliganism juddering in its death throes as rampant commercialism raps on the door – but it’s more uneven and self-indulgent than I expected: in World Cup terms, a Denilson rather than a Ronaldo. Andrew Downie's Doctor Socrates (2017) was more a Dunga, lacking the grace and spontaneity of its cult subject, and making claims about his political credos that it simply couldn't cash.

Comedy

James Acaster's Classic Scrapes (2017) is rather wonderful. I laughed out loud on the first page, and carried on in a similar vein from there. This succession of stories about Acaster messing stuff up, often in spectacular fashion, is inevitably uneven but frequently painfully funny. The story about the singer in his nu-metal band is genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever read (it made me cry with laughter on a train) and ‘Fell Foot Sound’ and ‘Cabadging’ are both classics, though there’s at least one great joke in even the most minor scrapes, and the cumulative effect – with most of them littered with callbacks – is joyous. Though the efforts to segue from one tale to the next are a little laboured, and Acaster’s written voice isn’t always as striking as the one he employs in stand-up (I think because it shouldn’t just be the same, even if sharing that sublime deadpan incredulity), now and then he’ll throw in something moving or profound. Mostly though it’s just very, very funny, which is really what you want from a comedy book. I haven’t laughed this hard at a book in a couple of years.



And finally: Elis and John present The Holy Vible: The Book The Bible Could Have Been by Elis James and John Robins (2018) My favourite podcast in the whole wide world becomes – if not my favourite book in the whole wide world – then definitely a book. And a proper book: not a lazy cash-in, but a labour of love (Elis’s labour not quite as heavy as John’s) from the two greatest men in the world (except my dad and Tom Waits). Individual chapters – typically written by one or the other – can be deeply beautiful, especially John’s on Queen and Oxford, and Elis’s on Gorky’s and the Welsh language, but my favourite bits are the interactions between the two, which is obviously the great joy of a double-act, and especially this one. Those are spotlighted in two chapters that consist purely of comic riffs – an editorial decision necessitated by Elis’s lack of administrative prowess and concurrent submission of a chapter that was “absolute dogshit” – and in the numerous, hilarious footnotes, which are mocking, appealing, affectionate and full of lovely and familiar in-jokes. A bit more here if you want it.

***

Thanks for reading. Live stuff next, then filums.