OK. I’m going to attempt a personal stock-take of 2008. I may miss things out. I may put in things that actually came out in 2007 (that will certainly be the case with books, as ever, because I rarely read books in hardback). I may change my mind in a week’s time. But I do think it’s good for the soul to try and pat some shape out of a departing year. On reflection, although historic in a geo-political sense and full of financial portent, it’s not been a vintage one for stuff. I have been about as underwhelmed by the long-playing record as at any other stage in my music-loving life – but there have been some tremendous songs, so all is not lost. Most of the films I saw – and I saw a lot, thanks to the holiday plans of Mark Kermode – were just OK; then again, those films that stood out did so by a mile. Pretty much every book I read and loved in 2008 was originally published in the 70s or 80s (I think you can guess why), apart from a couple of new ones. I watched a lot of television but not nearly enough of it was essential viewing, and it’s surprising how much of the better stuff was reality-based.
As a scriptwriter, I had no new work on telly in 2008, due to the postponement of the third series of Not Going Out to the end of January 2009 (check listings for details), and the continuing on-ice status of ITV’s Mumbai Calling – each of which I wrote, or co-wrote, one episode for. I look forward to seeing them on the small screen at some juncture. Simon Day and I continued to squash our noses up against the glass, but didn’t get anything away; we will, I have no doubt, plan another big push for the new year.
As a broadcaster, I continue to rely on Mark Kermode for my regular forays on 5 Live and BBC News, but this is not to be sniffed at. Pretty much everybody still thinks I have a show on 6 Music, which I left in March 2007, except those who actually listen to 6 Music. That’s rather galling. I had expected some “deps” this year but they never came; perhaps this is for the best. I certainly enjoyed being asked onto Michael Ball’s Sunday Brunch on Radio 2 – long may that pleasant gig continue. Yes, I did some talking-head shows, still unable to say no – the next one to be broadcast will be The Most Annoying People Of 2008 (which I think is on New Year’s Eve on BBC3), and yes, I realise by appearing on it, I risk becoming one of those very people. But one has to work, and one has to keep one’s hand in. (Authoring my own two-minute piece for The One Show was a step in the right direction, but I am experienced enough to know that this could turn out to be another cul-de-sac.)
It’s clear that the most stimulating work I did in 2008 was unpaid: the Collings & Herrin Podcast, which has led to live appearances, one podclash and a number of meetings, but continues to justify itself without leading to anything. Richard and I have cemented our professional relationship and produced 47 hours of unscripted material since January. Of this I am very proud, and by the warm reactions from those who listen, my cockles are warmed.
I’m not doing numbered lists this year. Not enough good stuff to merit that.
Terrible year for albums. Yes, there were some good ones: Elbow‘s The Seldom Seen Kid by far the finest and I’m hardly going out on a limb in saying so, followed swiftly by Adele‘s mighty 19; also Fleet Foxes, Nick Cave, Last Shadow Puppets, RZA, Santogold, the Kills and the Wedding Present, at which we start to hit that glut of albums that were OK but not exactly classics, despite the promise of a few decent tracks, such as MGMT, Black Kids, Neon Neon, Ladyhawke, TV On The Radio, Ladytron, even Sigur Ros, which gave me such an initial lift and then fell almost immediately into that depressingly common latter bracket. The Glasvegas album has to be one of the worst of the year, or at least the most crushingly disappointing and bafflingly overhyped. Meanwhile, The Ting Tings‘ That’s Not My Name endures as my song of the year (and a number one in the actual charts to boot), followed by Black Kids’ I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You, MGMT’s Kids, Ladyhawke’s From Dusk Till Dawn, Portishead’s Machine Gun, the Verve’s Love Is Noise and TV On The Radio’s Crying. Enough to form a decent ’08 playlist on my iPod, but patchy in the extreme. I accept it may be my age.
It should come as no surprise that my favourite book of the year was Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley, as it is the book that launched an obsession; it came out in hardback in 2007, but paperback in 2008, so I’m claiming it. Since devouring it, I have bought and read so many other books about the Mitford Sisters, I am in a position to start my own library. But all roads lead back to the letters, wherein I fell in love with Nancy, Pamela, Unity, Diana, Jessica and Debo and grew up with them through the 20th century. I give honorable mention to Unity Mitford: A Quest by David Pryce-Jones, Rules Of The Game by Nicholas Mosley, A Life Of Contrasts by Diana Mosley, Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford, Decca: The Letters edited by Peter T Sussman and Noblesse Oblige edited by Nancy Mitford. Off the Mitford track, I enjoyed Born Yesterday by Gordon Burn, even though it was more of an exercise than a book, and Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart by William Leith. Flat Earth News by Nick Davies was a landmark, and just as entertaining as its revelations were the reviews in the press and their attempts to praise the book without admitting to any wrongdoing. It’s a pity Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream tailed off, as I found much to nourish my soul in the first half. I am currently unable to put down Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker – an actual hardback that came out in 2008. It’s been a good year for reading.
Nothing this year touched Hunger, the one about Bobby Sands directed by Steve McQueen: poetic, hard-hitting, dramatic, politically charged without being preachy and a film never to leave you. I saw it twice. There Will Be Blood came in a close second, proof that an epic can be both insane and moving, big and intimate. I also fell in love with Times And Winds, a Turkish film about childhood, religion and rural subsistence living on the side of a mountain, written and directed by Reha Erdem. It’s small, personal, subtle, artistic films like this that make The Dark Knight seems all the more swollen and over-praised. Having studiously avoided Mamma Mia! and anything about torture with a number in the title, I found myself seeing a broad sweep of stuff while being Mark Kermode, from terrible romantic comedies and leaden action movies to ho-hum documentaries, and lots of “big films” along the way. Odd gems made the going that little bit easier, like In Bruges, a fabulous black comedy that changed my opinion of Colin Farrell and reinforced my opinion of Brendan Gleeson. Of the “big films” I was swept up by WALL-E and Iron Man, enjoyed Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and found that Man On Wire restored my faith in the feature length documentary. I’m not a film critic, I didn’t see everything I wanted to see, so I don’t wish to make too many sweeping generalisations, but American film looked in good shape at the beginning of the year, but without auteurs, you got nothing. And I have Gomorrah to watch on DVD, which I have a good feeling about and may make a late run for my final top ten.
In previous years, it’s been Channel 4 drama that’s taken the prize, but this year, without a doubt, it was Frank Cottrell Boyce’s God On Trial that showed us what TV can do, and it was on the BBC. A one-off play, of the old school, it took place in one set (aside from an exterior framing device) and gave us new insight into a subject that ought by now to have lost its dramatic edge, but hasn’t: the Holocaust. That it was written by an enquiring Catholic, and not a Jew, was worthy of note, and perhaps gave its central theological inquiry a broader aspect. Either way, it was great writing, coupled with great acting (oh, to see the likes of Eddie Marsan, Jack Shepherd, Lorcan Cranitch, Anthony Sher, Rupert Graves and Stephen Dillane in one place), and, lest we overlook it, great directing from Andy DeEmmony, choreographing a large cast around a small stage. Apparently it drew an audience of 700,000 to BBC2 on the night, but was up against Lost In Austen and Who Do You Think You Are? – if this isn’t what the BBC should be doing with our licence fee, I don’t know what is. But let’s not get too high-minded about it, I was also hooked this year on Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and Celebrity Masterchef, all BBC shows, two of them – gasp! – “celebrity”-based. (Actually, Strictly tried my patience in the end, with its pathetic own goal in the penultimate week, a voting farrago brought on by honesty-paranoia and the fact that the public had been punished for voting for the contestant – Sergeant – they wanted to win. It’s as if nobody behind the scenes had actually sat down and worked out what all the potential outcomes were and hoped for the best. BBC = own worst enemy, as usual.) Full marks to Outnumbered, which I picked up on belatedly and instantly became my comedy of the year, putting the tireless TV Burp into second place, but at least that’s one non-BBC show in the roll of honour. (By the way, The Wire finished in style, both self-indulgent and wildly surprising, but was hampered by a reduced running length and, on reflection, Season Five was no Season Four. It remains, on points, the finest television series ever made, for the record. True blood.)
I don’t listen to much radio, is the truth. Unlikely as it may once have seemed, Smooth has become my default, in car and kitchen. It is an unpretentious station with a clear remit that it sticks to. If you don’t feel like listening to “smooth” music, you turn over. Too much music radio tries to be all things to all listeners, and the result is mulch. The best radio show of the year – which I listened to as podcasts in my own time – was Danny Baker’s Euro 6-0-6 on 5 Live. He is a master and this joyous run showed why, again. When he and Zoe Ball sat briefly in for the disgraced Jonathan Ross on Radio 2, he wiped the floor with his old mate. Radcliffe and Maconie continue to coalesce brilliantly into one man on R2 – let us hope they are immune to the forthcoming game of managerial musical chairs. The lazy act of “getting somebody in off the telly” can no longer be radio’s mantra. Listen to those who are really good at it, and ask yourself if they came “off the telly”?
Because of the way it wove into the fabric of our podcasts, Wikipedia continues to reign as website of the year, with the wonders of YouTube a resource that can’t be matched, especially as a journalist – but which could be decimated if big companies like Warner start to take their ball home. And of course, it gives a platform to people like Nathan Jay and his Lion Man mixes, which were a joy, and the Simon’s Cat films.
The bell tolls. Unless I am very much mistaken, I do believe that 2008 was the first year since 1981 during which I did not attend one gig. Not one. You may blame my age, but frankly, you’d be off the mark, as I don’t feel any older at 43 than I did at any other time in my forties, during which Arctic Monkeys got me out of the house with a renewed gusto, and during which time I also paid good money to see Arcade Fire and Goldfrapp and Franz Ferdinand and Kasabian and various reformed oldies like Carter and PWEI and Bauhaus. Something has died inside me, I’m afraid. So, no gig of the year. Saw some good plays, such as That Face by Polly Stenham and God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), whose cast – Ralph Fiennes, Ken Stott, Tamsin Greig and Janet McTeer – it was an absolute privilege to have seen, right in front of my eyes. There really is something special about the theatre, but it must remain an occasional pleasure in these belt-tightening times. I loved Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells, too. As for live comedy, my two-night stay in Edinburgh meant I only saw Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, which was a little conservative of me, but I laughed loudly at both. While doing the School For Gifted Children I became captivated by Jo Neary, whose character comedy is so subtle, and whose Pan’s People routine at the Bloomsbury, while tangential to the theme of the evening, was a show-stopper.
Magazines and newspapers
Once again, the New Yorker has dominated my reading year, one during which I lost all interest in the New Statesman, which handed in its spirit when Brown entered Number 10 and has failed to reclaim it. I renewed my subscription at the beginning of the year, having dabbled with the Spectator, almost out of spite. (For the record, I admired its passion, however bloodsport-based, but this was not going to be enough to sustain me through our differences of opinion.) Until Labour are back in opposition, I’m afraid the Statesman and I must part ways, as a cost-cutting exercise if nothing else. As for the ever-enlightening New Yorker, maybe its political coverage too will fall into toothlessness without a Republican in power, but I doubt it. I continue to put up with the Guardian and all the woeful “personality journalism” that fills G2, but have read much more widely this year, due to the podcasts, and I’m starting to understand, without condoning the worst excesses of, the Mail. To ignore it and dismiss it is just as silly as believing it.
Now is not the time to be contrary: what greater feeling was there this year than when Barack Obama took Pennsylvania and it all fell into place after all those months of campaigning? I’m glad I experienced this crazy night at the CNN party, among political groupies, although I felt like death warmed up the next day and was physically unable to feel any joy for about 24 hours. I do not think Obama walks on water, but he’s the best chance the world has got, and something of a relief after the other man.
Let’s not dwell on those, for fear of me citing the damp squib sales and lack of any visible promotion of the paperback of That’s Me In The Corner – which I listed as a “low” last year! It’s the gift that goes on giving! Move on! Although when Scouting For Girls covered London Calling by The Clash at the Olympics handover party – and, to ensure its translation into an indie singalong, altered the words – I wondered if perhaps we hadn’t already arrived at hell in that handcart.
Here’s hoping for a good-mannered, energised, positive-thinking, not-too-unemployed 2009, with less territorial pissings and wanton aggression from scientists, a closed-down Guantanamo Bay, less intrusion on our private lives (some chance), and a more rigorous, tested voting system for the next series of Strictly.