My attention span actually evaporated for the first two months of lockdown, a period I spent either working obsessively on the Royal Albert Hall's livestream programme (70 sets, including shows from Emilie Nicolas, Lucy Dacus and Richard Thompson) or watching only disposable Glenda Farrell vehicles. But since May I've been reading a lot and also writing a lot, firstly for the Guardian, and then for places like Sight & Sound, NME and the Independent. Freelancing had taken a back seat for a few years as I worked obsessively on fiction, and untangled some mental knots that were getting in the way, so it's been so nice to be read again, to reach a big audience, and to respond almost in real-time to art and politics and the enduring and shifting strangeness of 2020. Thanks so much to everyone who's supported my writing this year. Doing something creative has made me really happy.
Though I also have three full-time jobs – going on Twitter, managing the Albert Hall press office, and managing Derby County on Championship Manager 2000-01 – I've kept up with the reading, which for me is many things: a way to calm my brain, an education an escape. Mine is the kind of brain that likes a goal, and so the goal is always the same: a book a week across the year. And despite it taking me most of the first lockdown to read Dick Goodwin's interminable memoir, Remembering America, we got there in the end. So here's a meander through everything I read in 2020. Regular readers will notice some old favourites, including Penelope Fitzgerald, Robert Caro's biographies of LBJ, and books about football in the 1990s. I told you my brain liked goals.
My favourite novel of the year was...
Penelope Fitzgerald is just about my favourite writer nowadays and this small, short, quiet book is just about perfect. Based on her own wilderness years, Offshore (1979) is a ‘tragi-farce’ about outsiders living on barges off Battersea in the ‘60s, caught in the eddies of life, troubled by an undertow of regret or squandered promise. These are characters living between land and water, half one thing and half another: half-respectable, half-free, half-grown, half-content. She is a wonderfully non-judgemental, inquisitive and precise writer, who understands the different ways that people think, and act, and negotiate the world and one another. And she is fantastically funny, whether building a set-piece or resting on a brilliant turn of phrase. Who else would mire you in such intimate tragedy, then end on a comic cliffhanger? This is a book with a latent power, written in perfect sentences – a model of effective economy and restrained beauty – located in a strict time and place, but sending ripples in all directions.
I've never been the best timekeeper, but even by my standards I'm embarrassingly late to the Sarah Perry party. The Essex Serpent (2016) is such a wonderful novel, seeming to promise Gothic horrors but opting for something altogether darker: the pain, compromise and complexity of real life. Amidst mounting atmosphere, its salt on your tongue, the characterisation is impossibly rich. Though Perry is preoccupied primarily with the question of faith vs reason, one thing seeps into the other, her creations working one upon the next, and her characters are not manifestations of viewpoints, but living, breathing, bleeding beings. Her style is like no-one else’s: she tends to use simple words – aside from the specificities of the natural and Victorian worlds – but in juxtapositions as fresh as first frost. Her storytelling is swaggeringly-assured, full of life’s capricious abruptness, but this isn't merely a book of ruptures, it’s one of renewal, dealing with the way we heal, though then are never quite the same as we were before. I found it incredibly moving.
Another huge favourite this year was Eliza Clark's Boy Parts (2020), a fantastically malevolent book blessed with an indelible protagonist: a narrator-fatale whose misanthropy and violence is forever excused on the grounds of her beauty. She is the caustic, unapologetic Irina, a fetish photographer brutally reversing society’s gender power dynamics with the aid of some handcuffs, a wine bottle and a letter opener. It is swaggering and smooth, with incredibly clean and quick writing that immerses you in a world of coke bumps and dubious consent, then pierces the unease with shards of sudden black humour. It's a novel that puts two hands around your throat.
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015), meanwhile, is your standard spiky, absurdist prose-poem told from the points of view of a grieving father, two bereaved kids and a foul-mouthed crow. My favourite writing is often that which turns in an instant, shifting suddenly and seamlessly into a different emotional sphere; twisting your mouth all ways, as it slips into comedy, segues into sadness. Vonnegut does it, and George Saunders. Max Porter refines that gift, taking your breath away, and the floor out from under you.
It's a talent that's also in Lucy Prebble's skills wallet, though she does it for the stage. Because we haven't been allowed to go to the theatre since that man ate that bat, I've been going in my head. The Effect is my favourite of Prebble's plays, radiating something suspiciously like genius, but everything she does is great, like her earlier one, ENRON. Few people writing today are able to engender emotion with such sudden intensity, at least in me, and I'm not sure any have her facility for an unforgettable line. Arthur Miller's After the Fall felt like quite a comedown after that: an amazingly self-indulgent torrent of talk, if interesting principally for that reason. And also if you're obsessed with the communist witchhunt of the 1940s and '50s (am I or have I ever been obsessed with it? Yes).
I loved my first exposure to Wodehouse (yes, aged 35!), via The World of Jeeves (1967). You can find reasons to dislike him – his work has no real resonance beyond itself, he (sort of) collaborated with the Nazis, Julian Fellowes likes him – and he truly is to middle-aged Tories what Harry Potter is to millennials (by which I mean: ffs, read another book). But this compendium of mostly early Jeeves stories – airy, stylish, often brilliantly funny – is escapism of the highest order. I took to reading one before bed most evenings, and it just became a lovely thing to look forward to. Every story is basically the same, but then it’s a good story, and one illuminated by varying – and often dazzling – degrees of inspiration. Sample line: “Lay out some raiment suitable for travel, and leave the rest to me. Where is this waterpipe of which you speak so highly?” After that, the first novel in the series felt like a head wound. Thank You, Jeeves (1933) is extremely funny in places, largely due to Wodehouse's unique prose style, but the plot isnt terribly compelling, and Bertie spends the whole second half of the book in fucking blackface.
I will, of course, read anything that Lissa Evans ever cares to write. V for Victory (2020), the third in her Crooked Heart series, opens up the familiar world of her Crooked Heart series in such deft and affecting ways. It is so witty and good-hearted, with characters ennobled by their vulnerabilities. If it doesn’t make you cry, you should have to go to prison. It reminded me a little of London Belongs to Me, telling a wartime story largely through the lives of several residents of the same building. In fact, it’s what I imagined that earlier (and lesser) novel would be: humane, subtle and funny.
Perhaps the flat-out funniest book I read this year was Paul McVeigh's The Good Son (2015), about a smart but soft Belfast kid trying to navigate family life and the world of the Troubles. It's dark and rude, with a tender centre, and a dazzling, outsized comic voice. Though it does sag a little between a sensational opening and a warped fairy story of a finish, its sense of time and place is superb, and I loved the specificity of the central character, who adores his mam and his little sister, wants to live in America, and will never fit in at home – though he tries to, and sometimes almost manages. Falling Leaves (2018) by Stefan Mohamed is from the same publisher, Salt, and it's similarly glorious: moving, empathetic and also heading somewhere; written in a loose, informal style that turns out to be the best way to tell its story. That story is of 23-year-old Vanessa, whose life is rudely interrupted by the re-appearance of a missing school friend, who hasn't aged a day in seven years. It's cryptic, gripping, and funny when it wants to be, before erupting into metaphysical phantasmagoria in its mindbending final chapter.
I Love Dick (2016) by Chris Kraus is the best kind of contemporary book: one that reveals as much about its reader as its writer – and it reveals almost everything about her. It isn’t always easy, or easy to like, and it doesn’t follow any of the rules of book-writing, if indeed it’s ever heard what they are, but it makes you question so much, achieving a kind of universality in its hyper-specificity. Billionaires' Banquet (2017) by Ron Butlin, meanwhile, seemed to belong to a slightly earlier age, immune from the nervous self-questioning of the past decade. It's a sort of spiritually violent One Day, looking at how the passing of time affects a gaggle of Edinburgh students. The marketing bumf pegs it as a novel about Thatcherism, which it isn't quite, though it does deal with political, moral sacrifice and mental health. Crucially it's principally about its well-drawn characters, who are clever, sharp and real, saturated in philosophy, religion or maths. Butlin has some linguistic tics that lead to repetition, but there are also some wonderfully-wrought phrases, and his dark comedy just works: take-no-prisoners satire and impeccably constructed farce, all done with a light touch. It's sharp, pungent and surprising, with a latent layer of unsentimental compassion.
Jane Gardam's Old Filth (2004) was largely great: a lawyer’s life as it was, not as it appeared to be; some kind of constant tragedy, in which he is forever left by loved ones. Or is that just life? It is so unsentimental and splintered that it feels mannered, but in the best way, appearing to set up one type of book before refusing to deliver it – or indeed offer anything like emotional release. Another fine book about ageing – in this case, about growing old but having more to give – was Jonathan Coe's Mr Wilder and Me (2020), which also dwells on the subjects of family, the purpose of cinema and the delights of brie. The sequence in which it changes gear, and form, to deal with Wilder and the Holocaust is just virtuosic.
I don't read much crime, but I got a huge amount from Emma Flint's Little Deaths (2016), a gripping novel about missing children that's blessed with rich characterisation, a remarkable evocation of Queens in the 1960s, and vast amounts of empathy for its central character – the kids' mother, in a growing shadow of suspicion. It towered above this year's other crime book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) by Stuart Turton, which wasn't really my thing: death by simile, with a lot of recounted plot points and stabbings. Despite a morally ambitious climax, it all felt more like an elaborate game – a body-hop Groundhog Day ‘30s country house murder-mystery – than a satisfying emotional experience.
I had mixed feelings about Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), which was more experimental than I was expecting, more indebted to Faulkner, and more of its time: a bit rapey, a bit racist, and narrated by a Native American, which isn’t really How We Do Things Now. But this uneven, despairing howl of non-conformity still has the power to compel – and to move you, especially in its closing pages. The book centres on the escalating tug-of-war between the porcelain, plastic-smiled, big-titted Nurse Ratched – commandant of the Combine, which in the mind of Chief Bromden runs the world – and the hulking red-headed Irish gambler, R. P. McMurphy, who blasts into her asylum one day, figuring that it beats a stretch on a work farm. Milos Forman’s film ironed out some of its misogny (as well as adding one terrific, very Hollywood sequence in which McMurphy feigns being brain-dead) but also removed its more fantastical elements, particularly Bromden’s imaginings, both asleep and awake, as inmates are cut apart in the night, their cogs spilling out, and by day Nurse Ratchet pumps vast fields of fog into the ward.
How to Be a Kosovan Bride (2017) is most effective as a portal into a culture: a distinctive, sometimes harrowing, mostly solemn book elevated by the fact that author Naomi Hamill really cares. Written in the second person (you are one character's older brother, another's confidante), it's drenched in the details of daily life and fixated on the mores, desires and clashes of culture that define modern Kosovo, a place haunted by war. That culture clash means city vs country, English vs Kosovan, and also the female sense of self vs restrictive gender roles – there's a curious dichotomy here that recurs on the left and hasn't come close to being resolved: a complicated pride in a culture that seems to subjugate women.
Almost as traumatic as the ghosts of war are the scenes of former Fun House host Pat Sharp becoming addicted to hair conditioner in Darren Richman and Luke Catterson's terrific Re-run the Fun (2020). It's a very clever book masquerading as a very silly one, and one of the funniest things I've read in ages, a brilliantly precise spoof of celebrity memoirs, which re-imagines Sharp as a Zelig figure at the heart of modern popular culture. Across a couple of hundred pages, he reveals the sources of his particular genius, then confronts his rivalries, addictions and growing obsolescence. Not many books make me laugh out loud, but this did repeatedly; the scene in which Pat writes the voiceover for the opening credits of Fun House was a particular favourite. Kudos to Sharp for having the sense of humour to front the book, as one of the (terrific) running gags is that he has done nothing but sit at home for the past 20 years.
Its sense of irony, and fondness for a '90s cultural reference is shared by Scott Innes' lovely Galactic Keegan (2020), surely the definitive Kevin-Keegan-in-Space novel of the past decade. It has some truly fantastic jokes, and a breakout star in the shape of monotonous-voiced robot Barrington12, though my favourite thing about the book is how it dares to go for the big soppy moments – and hits them every time.
By contrast, I found Xan Brooks' The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (2017) almost wilfully offputting: a book about crippled war veterans having sex with underage girls in a forest. Its story develops in interesting ways, its characters are colourful (a special mention for Fred, a 14-year-old prostitute with a riotous sense of humour) and its view is often panoramic, but it can seem like a pastiche of a modern serious novel, with a purely mechanical use of language that drains the life from the page. I also struggled a little with J.G. Ballard's celebrated High Rise (1975), a purposefully impersonal book that charts the descent of a tower block full of urban professionals into violence, dissolution and primordial savagery. It’s a great concept, and the author's phrasemaking – especially in the opening chapters – is wonderfully clean and precise, augmented by deft little flashes forward that reminded me unexpectedly of Muriel Spark. But while it’s unusual and memorable, it becomes increasingly repetitive, especially in terms of its language, and Ballard makes some of his allegories – to a prison, to a hospital, to the world as a whole – inexplicably overt.
Joe Dunthorne's The Adulterants was one of my favourite books of last year, so I read his debut, Submarine (2008), which was turned into an excellent film by Richard Ayoade. It's decidedly erratic: smugly unpleasant and even irritating, with an oddball protagonist who doesn’t seem real, and broad comic set pieces that vary wildly in quality (nadirs include a shower of piss at a funfair, and a sex scene set against a Holocaust play). It's funny in places, the deluge of imagery contains flashes of imagination hinting at Dunthorne’s double-life as a poet, and there’s some off-kilter pathos amid its gleeful adolescent nastiness, but it’s also shapeless and unsatisfying, juggling its storylines and media with something less than control, and lacking the balance of sad sentiment and dry humour that made The Adulterants such a melancholy pleasure.
It was a similar story with Sayaka Murata's Earthlings (2018), the follow-up to her brilliant debut, Convenience Store Woman, and the worst novel I read this year (though not the worst book – keep reading!). You can see what Murata is trying to do – her heroine resigning from the human race as a response to child sexual abuse – and yet it’s an almost total misfire. There are moments of amusingly detached weirdness, particularly in an intriguing mid-section, but the alien concept is poorly defined and the translated text clunky, on the way to a shallow and pretentious climax that relies entirely on tiresome shock value. Convenience Store Woman was such a distinctive and impressive book; this feels like what happens when you trust that someone will repeat a phenomenon, even if what they’ve delivered appears to be largely dreadful. Goodreads is absolutely adamant that I have read this book twice – on Kindle and in hardback – please don't believe them, they are liars.
Just three this year. By far my favourite was The Hate U Give (2017), a gripping YA novel with a BLM theme, about a black teenager who’s the only witness to her friend’s murder by a cop. Already trapped between two worlds – her rough inner-city black neighbourhood and a mostly white, mostly affluent school – she feels the weight of the world coming down on her: guilt, grief, responsibility, fear. Written in the present tense, and in simple, direct language, it’s a page-turner that drops you into another world, where there’s humanity and a taut, desperate feeling of community, but also crack, gangs, and tanks on the street. You could work away at slight inconsistencies in its viewpoint (especially on gang violence and the police), at clunky synonyms or convenient plot developments, but it’s forthright and affecting and persuasive, and what’s more it’s right.
The returns of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series continued to diminish with the disappointing 2019 entry, The Secret Commonwealth, but Spy School Revolution (2020) was a reliable eighth instalment in Stuart Gibbs' likeable middle-grade series.
My favourite book of 2019 was volume one of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. And my favourite book of 2020 is... volume two of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Followed in quick succession by volumes three and four. It is truly the greatest biography I have ever read in my life. In volume five, Caro is going to get properly into Johnson's presidency, so that'll be the best book of whichever year it comes out.
If The Path to Power was Wolf Hall – sprawling and labyrinthine, fashioning rules that redefined its genre – then Volume 2: Means of Ascent (1990) is Bring Up the Bodies: a bracing, pulsating thriller that fastens your jaw to the floor, even as you know how it’s going to end. The first third of the book is about LBJ in exile from political influence – fabricating his war record, sulking in Congress – while the remainder deals with the 1948 Senate race, an election that Johnson tried to buy; when that failed, he stole it instead. Caro’s second instalment of this epic biography lacks the extraordinary scope of the first, and takes a while to get going, as he recaps the story so far and deals with some less promising raw material, but by any reasonable standards it’s a classic: assured in its tone, clear-sighted in its judgements, and revelatory in its forensic detail, an exhilarating combination of beautiful writing and utterly staggering research.
The third volume of Caro’s epic biography – weighing in at 1,167 pages and 3.6 lbs – is Master of the Senate (2002), a vast, panoramic book that tells an extraordinary story: the story of a bad man who did great things. In fact, Caro’s reading of his subject is the flipside of how Evan Thomas paints Robert Kennedy: Johnson had an instinctive compassion that was usually overridden by pragmatism –overridden by pragmatism until suddenly the compassionate route became the expedient one – whereas Kennedy was instinctively pragmatic, but on reflection, after that first burst of anger, his principles would win out. That’s perhaps why, although Kennedy was a good campaigner, a vital figurehead and a better man, LBJ got more done. That and Johnson’s drive, his unscrupulousness, his instinctive genius as a legislator. (And the fact that Robert Kennedy got shot.) I wrote about the book more here.
Volume 4: The Passage of Power (2012) covers the heroic portion of Johnson’s story: his unconquerable fear of failure sees him delay a presidential bid until it’s much too late, and after that follow the years of failure: the public humiliation he’d feared since his father’s bankruptcy turned the family into a laughing stock, only now Lyndon himself is the joke, derided by the witty, debonair New Frontier intellectuals as ‘Rufus Cornpone’, the southern master of the senate who traded his power for the vice-presidency and lost everything. “Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson” ask the editorials, and then in an instant, a heartbeat, a gunshot, he is catapulted to the height of ambition, of power, the book tracing his first seven weeks as president, in which he sows the seeds of his own destruction and yet guides the country towards greatness, stabilising an America that is drowning in paranoia, debilitated by paralysing grief, while finding the lever that will force through civil rights – and beginning to lean on it...
Another non-fic epic was Eric Bentley's Thirty Years of Treason (1971), which offers extended excerpts from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (1938-68), augmented by other valuable primary sources: articles, speeches, bits from plays. That may well sound like the most boring thing on earth, but I find the communist witchhunt enduringly fascinating, and if you do too, you'll find the book absolutely astonishing. The transcripts are, in turn, absurd, thrilling and chilling.
It took me an age to get through Dick Goodwin's Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), which I picked up because I was interested in the author's role in revealing the quiz show scandals of the late '50s, but which turned out to deal extensively with LBJ and RFK, two of my main five interests (the others are, of course, test cricket, Lillian Gish and HUAC). The book is a curious jumble of elements: at times deeply self-involved, at others as impersonal as a textbook, and only occasionally calling for a return to the values of American postwar liberalism – which Goodwin claims to be its raison d’être. But the period dealt with is enduringly fascinating, and there are more than enough insights into seismic events and totemic figures to make it worthwhile, provided you don’t mind being slightly bored along the way.
Briefer and breezier was Andy Beckett's Promised You a Miracle (2015), a hugely entertaining work of popular social history that essentially provides a succession of loosely-connected long reads about all aspects of Britain in 1980-82, when the country rediscovered its sense of pride and direction – but at what cost? Beckett's book was hugely evocative and enjoyable, without always making connections in the way you wanted, while The United States of Paranoia (2012) by Jesse Walker was almost the opposite. This history of American conspiracy theories makes endless connections, and gives you a broad but workable framework for understanding America’s particular brand of paranoia – but it doesn’t necessarily do anything else. By contrast, Sarah Churchwell's dazzling Behold, America (2018) works as both a polemic in favour of social democracy, and a dual history of American fascism and the shifting nature of the American Dream – before the latter became about materialism and the free market, before it atrophied. Drawing primarily on primary sources (especially regional newspaper, but also novels and national columnists), it's vivid, angry and witty, with remarkable insights and an extraordinary sense of immediacy.
Charles Lindbergh looms large in any discussion of the American far right, and the celebrated aviator had an extraordinary life, though you'd never know it from A. Scott Berg's unbelievably dry biography, which somehow won the Pulitzer. There are sections of Lindbergh (1998) that grip – particularly the investigation and prosecution of his son's murderer – and some interesting details here and there (two years before his legendary New York to Paris flight, Lindbergh’s activities in the air included carrying a judge to a sky wedding, claiming to cure deafness by spinning the hard of hearing repeatedly in the air, and allowing a man to urinate on his hometown). But it’s a compromised, turgid and stolid book, with its most moving story, in which an aged Lindbergh quietly alludes to his defining 1927 flight, relegated to an end note on p607.
I was also disappointed by Richard Herring's The Problem with Men (2020), which felt like a waffly cash-in. There are a handful of good jokes (though my favourite, about World Toilet Day, turned out to have been a misunderstanding by the reader), and it's well-meaning in its arguments, but it felt stretched, incoherent and perhaps in the wrong medium: you think that it might work better as a stand-up show, where its points could sneak through beneath the gags. I'd suggest either reading Bridget Christie's A Book for You, or Herring's touching and wistful 2010 memoir, How Not to Grow Up, a book that has really stayed with me. On the plus side, his new one does include a tweet I once sent him, so I am essentially the co-author.
By far the worst book I read this year were the putrid diaries of old racist-with-the-horn, Alan Clark. Into Politics (1979-82) is truly one of the most joyless and repulsive things I've ever had the misfortune to be assailed by. Seeing modern history through Clark's eyes is an almost unrelentingly depressing experience. He’s a lech, a misogynist and an unrepentant racist. In a way there’s a parallel with Errol Flynn’s performative wickedness, in that Clark is undoubtedly playing up to an image and we’re asked to weigh up how much of his Nazi sympathising is merely attention-seeking, but that’s honestly not something you should have to say about an MP. More here if you're so inclined.
Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football's Lost Genius (2016) is perhaps the best sporting biography I've read, and yet it's about a man who played just a month of professional football, and that in Ireland, years after the injury that wrecked his career. But whereas the tragedy of fellow United youngster Ben Thornley is that he had so little in his life except football, the tragedy of this one is that Doherty had so much, and yet died so young. Kay's book is sensitive, nuanced, tragic but – in the midst of that – uplifting. It's about a man who lived his life by defying every cliche, not through genius (though he was certainly talented), but through honesty, and the author does a superb job of articulating Doherty's complexities and contradictions, while swerving the pitfalls and temptations of this genre, from synthetic sentimentalism to pat theories. Kay writes exhilaratingly about football and superbly about character, only occasionally misordering his discoveries, or leaning on alliteration in place of truth. I really loved this, and it moved me very deeply.
With World in Motion: The Inside Story of Italia '90 (2018), I was looking for nostalgia but got something trickier – and better. The nicest thing about the book is how author Simon Hart delves into untold stories of countries like Yugoslavia, the UAE, Czechslovakia and the US – though even when he’s recounting the more familiar tales of Cameroon and Italy, his wealth of retrospective interviews offer new insights. If his writing isn’t of the same quality as his research, and now and then the focus and pacing seems determined by who he has managed to get time with, the amount of knowledge that lies behind the text is staggering. Every scandal or rumour you’ve heard about, from spiked drinks to match-fixing, is astutely appraised, just as every nation’s campaign is contextualised in terms of both its football and the wider socio-political picture. Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket (2019) seemed to skate along the surface of its subject, attempting to be numerous things – a dual biography, a social history, a sporting history – and ultimately not doing any of them very well. At times it’s more a collection of annotated transcripts and articles than it is an important new work, and it’s only in the final two chapters that the book becomes truly personal – and genuinely touching. I loved the cover, though.
Film, music and TV
The best film book I read this year was Louise Brooks (1989) by Barry Paris, one of the finest four or five film biographies I’ve read (up there with Lee Server’s on Mitchum, John Kobler's on John Barrymore, David Stenn’s Clara Bow book, and Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride). It has such a feel for its various worlds, strikes such a perfect balance between subject and context, and offers such a convincing – if contested – psychological reading of its heroine: a maddening, dazzling, difficult figure. Brooks was a dancer turned sex symbol, actor, call girl and finally writer, who torpedoed her various careers and most of her relationships through neurotic capriciousness, alcoholism or wilful neglect. But at her best – as an actor whose naturalness sliced through artifice, as a writer whose pared-down prose eviscerated her old nemeses – she was simply like no-one else. Paris wrestles with this enigma for 600 pages, nailing her singularity as an artist, and providing a credible reading of the woman, broken by child sexual abuse and never quite put back together again.
I think I've probably read more about Orson Welles than I have any other subject, but I'd never got around to his autobiography (of sorts), This Is Orson Welles (1992), co-created with Peter Bogdanovich. Like Citizen Kane, this book tells a life story in an experimental, fragmented way – eight discursive chats in eight different locations – and just as Welles inserted Kane into history through the March of Time sequence, so he repeatedly inserts himself and his family into improbable scenarios. The Welles who emerges from this book is far more likeable and generous than the one depicted by Simon Callow in his multi-volume biography. Absent too is the vague sage of countless interviews, who speaks in counter-intuitive aphorisms that on closer inspection mean nothing. Here he is fantastically astute and specific on the subject of cinema, shorn of pretension, and often forcing you to look at the form in a completely new way. That you have to sit through him pretending that he used to fight bulls is a concession I was ultimately happy to make.
The other towering figure of American auteurist cinema is of, course, Steven Seagal, so it was a delight to be forced to read Vern's Seagology (2007/12) – I've offered a full explanation of my actions here. One of Vern’s gifts is his ability to contextualise: you don’t need to know much about DTV action films, you don’t need to have seen most of these films, he’ll give you all the info you need to get the references – and the jokes. And fuck me, the jokes are brilliant. I laughed out loud quite a few times. My favourite punchline is the one where he describes the hopeless honeytrap operation in True Justice as being like if “instead of putting a worm on a fishhook they just threw the worm in the water”.
For a quid, you can read Truman Capote's famous feature interview with Marlon Brando, The Duke in His Domain (1957). This New Yorker profile is, of course, as much about himself as his subject – but then he was just as interesting. It finds Brando lost and aimless in a Japan hotel room, a talent without a cause, self-obsessed and meandering, a would-be philosopher king whose quest for understanding is more admirable than what he’s found. And then – near the death – the death of his mother intrudes, and Capote is off out into the wet street to think pretentious thoughts. My love of Capote (who seems so overlooked and underpraised nowadays) can clash with my lack of interest in interminable descriptions of everything – for which he had a weakness, especially early on – and his ruminations here on Japan are perhaps a distraction, but it’s a fantastically astute portrait, studded with supporting interviews and beautifully-rendered insights, and perceptively foreshadowing the slide into irrelevance and gluttony that would come to define Brando’s public image. FOR A QUID.
Another quick read was Ayoade on Top (2019), a mock-intellectual critical appreciation of the 2003 Gwyneth-Paltrow-as-air-hostess flick, A View from the Top, executed with some style. It’s erudite, funny in its purposefully pedantic way, and distinctively expressed, the main business augmented by brief flashes of autobiography and comic fantasy, but it does sometimes tip over into smugness and nastiness (I could have lived without the bulimia gags, tbh). As indeed does Craig Brown's One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (2020). To be honest, it's exactly what you would expect a book by Craig Brown about The Beatles to be like: gurningly self-satisfied, endlessly punching down and afflicted with a critical lack of empathy, but also amusing, and armed with both a viewpoint and an abundance of interesting connections. I disassembled and examined its moving parts here.
I was also left a little unsatisfied by Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye (2020), about the making of Polanski's Chinatown, a book that has attracted widespread raves and is now being adapted for the screen itself. It’s a little pretentious in the writing, and stretches at times to draw parallels between the world of the film and its makers (who are mostly wankers), thought it is also well-contextualised – at one point a history of Los Angeles, at others an elegy for a period of movie-making – conjuring the atmosphere of Hollywood in the '70s, and painting vivid portraits of its protagonists that lie somewhere between history and gossip. Where the book falls down, though, is in failing to properly address the film's greatest virtue: the singularity of its dialogue, which goes one better than the best of classic noir, providing some of the most beautiful, satisfying and sickening sentences on the American screen.
A cheerier book about easier films was Wild and Crazy Guys (2019) by Nick de Semlyen, a fast-moving history of the Hollywood comedy boom of the '80s (though we start a little earlier and stay a little later). I don't love these movies like he does – or quite get why these loud, rude, often broad films are considered so groundbreaking – but his enthusiasm is incredibly appealing, and there's so much to enjoy, with some amazing detail about how close we often were to not getting these movies, and vibrant sketches of the protagonists. I came out of it wanting to hug John Candy and live with Rick Moranis.
And, finally, I finally got a copy of former child actor Dick Moore's book about Hollywood child actors: Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star: But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car (1984). That copy turned out to be signed, and to have been given as a gift by Pat Carroll. In it, the '80s Moore searches for a Rosebud – or several – as he meets around 30 of his fellow former child stars, from Baby Peggy to Natalie Wood, trying to work out how their early years in Hollywood have affected their lives. It’s quite bleak, to be honest: only Mickey Rooney seems to have enjoyed his time as a star, and only Bonita Granville and the very together, polished Shirley Temple seem to be relatively well-adjusted now. For the others, it’s been poverty, failed marriages, feelings of guilt and oppressive responsibility, and an inability to reconcile a desire for anonymity with a need to emulate former glories. Bear in mind too that these are the ones who survived – Scotty Beckett, Bobby Driscoll and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer didn’t, and weirdly don’t get a mention. A bit more here if you're interested.
Thanks for reading.