End of

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So, 2016 then. Everybody begins everything they say now with the prefix “So …”, as if perhaps what they’re about to say is a continuation of a previous statement, but actually isn’t. I can’t be the only person to have noticed this. You hear correspondents doing it when asked to comment on the news. You hear contestants doing it when they’re asked to describe the dish they’re about to prepare on Masterchef. Young people seem unable to start a sentence without it. It’s a tick; more like a punctuation mark than a word – a deep breath if you like. Like “like” it has crept into common verbal usage (you’ll note that nobody uses it in written text) and it means literally nothing, as with so much in contemporary dialogue.

So … it was way back in that prelapsarian age that was the second week in January when Squeeze, a band whose original members are around 60 years old, used a performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to protest against fellow guest, then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

They changed the lyrics of hit Cradle to the Grave to sing the line: “There are some here who are hell bent on the destruction of the welfare state,” with that preening waste of space Cameron watching. Glenn Tilbrook also slipped in the line: “I grew up in council houses, part of what made Britain great.”

It did not bring down the venal Tory government. In fact, the Tory government continued to destroy the welfare state, along with much else when it held a referendum without at any point thinking through what might happen if the British public voted “Non!” to staying in the European Union. Cameron did way more than kill the welfare state, he sleepwalked the electorate into an abyss, and then resigned five minutes after the votes had been counted so that he could spend more time with his money. The political picture has largely been dominated by quitting, and not quitting in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is Westminster’s mystery man. They seek him here, they seek him there. I stuck with him for way longer than he deserved, if only to disavow his fellow Labour MPs who sought only to stab him in the back while Rome burned all around them. It has been a shoddy display from them all.

You’ll note that 10 January, the day Squeeze made their valiant protest, is also the day David Bowie died, and with him, the universe. This year has been fucking awful. From Brexit to Trump, via Brietbart, post-truth, alt-right, fake news, black lives not mattering, saying that ice cream is gay, and acts of terror that almost became business as usual amid more unexpected deaths of the supremely talented than any other in living memory, the only response to the passing of 2016 is to say, “Fuck you!”

So, here are my books of the year.

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What was once a refrain has hardened into a truth. Most of my reading happens between the covers of the New Yorker magazine, which has the temerity to arrive on a weekly basis on my doormat (and which feels even more vital since Trump was voted in). However, a nice man at the Mail on Sunday called Neil took it upon himself to send me three books to review in 2016, all of which I enjoyed. They are almost half the books I read. Of the other four, two are by people I know, but both stimulating in their particular fields. And the sixth and seventh are by people who write for the New Yorker, with roots in work they did for the New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin and Clive James (one of the chapters in the delightful Play All is reprinted verbatim from the New Yorker).

I almost wrote a cover story for Radio Times, but – typically for 2016 – it was rightly superseded by a last-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who had died. Interestingly, they left Peaky Blinders on the cover in the Midlands, and here it is.

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Which takes us to the best telly. With Telly Addict cancelled by the Guardian in April, and revived by UKTV in June, I have spent a lot of the year watching television professionally. And these have been my personal TV shows of the year. Firstly, in pictures.

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And here they are, in pointless list form.

1. The Crown, Netflix
2. Fleabag, BBC3/BBC Two
3. Versailles, BBC Two
4. Westworld, Sky Atlantic/HBO
5. The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic/HBO
6. Masterchef: The Professionals/Celebrity Masterchef, BBC Two
7. Line of Duty, BBC Two
8. Dickensian, BBC One (cancelled by idiots)
9. Happy Valley, BBC Two
10. The Missing, BBC Two

11. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX/Fox
12. Peaky Blinders, BBC Two
13. Trapped, BBC Four
14. The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
15. Gogglebox/Gogglesprogs, Channel 4
16. The Code, BBC Four/ABC
17. National Treasure, Channel 4
18. First Dates, Channel 4
19. Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
20. The Night Of, Sky Atlantic/HBO

Oh, come on. It’s self-evident from here that these brilliant shows could be in any order:

Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Thirteen, BBC3/BBC Two
The A Word, BBC Two
The Knick, Sky Atlantic/Cinemax (season two aired at the end of 2015, but early 2016 here)
Deutschland 83, Channel 4
Mr Robot, Universal/Amazon Prime
Planet Earth II, BBC One
Taskmaster, Dave
Grayson Perry: All Man, Channel 4
Billions, Showtime, Sky Atlantic
Ballers, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hypernormalisation, BBC iPlayer
The Durrells, ITV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hillsborough: The Truth, BBC Two (updated after the inquest verdicts)
Brief Encounters, ITV (cancelled by idiots)
Rillington Place, BBC One
Parks & Recreation, Dave (ended in 2015 in the States, but this year, here)
Victoria, ITV
NW, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon Prime/BBC Two

And a special nod to Escape to The Country (BBC One/BBC Two), the show whose 15 series exist forever on a loop, providing harmless dreams to people in towns and cities. Also, Top of the Pops (BBC Four), whose interrupted loop continues apace, racing through 1981 and 1982 this year, and giving constant pleasure to the musically disillusioned.

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So … from music on TV to the best LPs. Like books, a finite field.

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It’s been a slow year for albums. Once again I’ve relied on 6 Music and Later for information and inspiration, with the added input this year of subscriptions to both Mojo and Uncut, whose compilations have been a source of joy, and helped create this Top 12 in no order. No single album put all the others in the shade, but without C Duncan’s A Midnight Sun (and his previous album Architect, which we only cottoned on to this year; likewise Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness), Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Black Star by David Bowie, a few car journeys would have been less enjoyable. Nick Cave’s beautiful, personal, dissonant dirge Skeleton Tree was hard to listen to, and hard to stop listening to. The Kills did it again. And Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos has proven impossible to listen to on headphones while simultaneously reading, as it demands your full attention. I like that about it. Dickensian was my favourite TV score LP of the year (the show sadly cancelled), and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … comeback the only hip-hop record I’ve listened to from one end to the other.

For self-evident reasons, I spent much of my waking life listening to film scores, old and new, and doing so has brought peace to my soul. If you’re interested in my Top 10 Film Soundtracks of 2016, and my Top 10 Videogame Soundtracks of 2016, click on these Classic FM links.

Now, my other day job: films.

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I’m always torn as to whether or not to put my favourite films in a numbered list. It always seems so arbitrary. My ongoing system is this: I put an asterisk next to every film I see that’s in some way exceptional, and of the 223 films I’ve seen for the first time in 2016 (not all of them films released in 2016), around 80 are starred, although my Top 10 was easy enough to cordon off. The bulk of the films I see as a rule are in English, but the ones that often stand out and stay with me are not. Six out of the Top 10 are English-language (one of them, The Witch, in 17th century English); the others are not. It’s good to see so many unfamiliar names of directors so high up; I don’t believe I had ever typed Grímur Hákonarson, László Nemes or Robert Eggers in previous years, and they made my Top 3 films – and two of those are debuts! Pete Middleton and James Spinney, who co-directed the unique Notes on Blindness, a stunning film, don’t have Wikipedia entries, and neither does their film. I have to say, without Curzon cinemas and, more pertinently, Curzon Home Cinema, this list would be considerably less colourful and varied.

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1. Rams | Grímur Hákonarson (Iceland/Denmark)
2. Son of Saul | László Nemes (Hungary)
3. The Witch | Robert Eggers (US/Canada)
4. Spotlight | Tom McCarthy (US)
5. I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards (US)
7. Mustang | Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Turkey)
8. Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
9. The Clan | Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
10. Notes on Blindness | Pete Middleton, James Spinney (UK)

11. The Childhood of a Leader | Brady Corbet (UK/France)
12. Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
13. Life, Animated | Roger Ross Williams (US)
14. Hail Caesar! | Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (US)
15. The Survivalist | Stephen Fingleton (UK)
16. Victoria | Sebastian Schipper (Germany)
17. Arrival | Denis Villeneuve (US)
18. I Am Not a Serial Killer | Billy O’Brien (Ireland/UK)
19. Paterson | Jim Jarmusch (US)
20. Chi-Raq | Spike Lee (US)

21. The Revenant | Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (US)
22. The Hateful Eight | Quentin Tarantino (US)
23. I Am Belfast | Mark Cousins (UK)
24. Wiener-Dog | Todd Solondz (US)
25. Cemetery of Splendour | Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
26. Sully | Clint Eastwood (US)
27. Julieta | Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
28. Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier (US)
29. Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love (France/Germany)
30. Room | Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada)

Thanks to my continuing tenure at the helm of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM once again I was lucky enough to speak at length to these people about film music this year.

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It has been a terribly busy year, and I did not get out to art exhibitions. Which makes Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern a rare and thrilling treat. In the perfect pairing below, you can see O’Keeffe’s painting of the same Manhattan view captured in a photograph by her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the many illuminations in the way the exhibition was laid out.

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I went to the theatre twice and loved both productions I saw.

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Hangmen at the Wyndhams in London’s shittering West End by Martin McDonagh (whose film In Bruges I loved), a terrific black comedy about the last days of hanging, with David Morrissey as Britain’s last hangman, now running a boozer. The cast was further ennobled by Craig Parkinson, Andy Nyman, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers, and newcomers Bronwyn James and Josef Davies – not to mention the ingenious set. Because I know David and Craig, I met them for a drink afterwards in a theatre hangout and bathed in the cast’s glow. It must be tough doing the same thing at the same level of intensity every night. Mind you, they may not have any lines to learn, but we must give thanks to the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s company who threw themselves hither and thither in the name of bringing that beloved Powell and Pressburger film-about-a-ballet The Red Shoes to Sadlers Wells and turning it back into a ballet-about-a-ballet. This was our Christmas treat. It may not have been Christmassy – in fact, as you may know, it’s a tragedy – but it lit advent up all the same. I love watching dance. It’s not just the sight, it’s the sound of their physical exertion that makes it so special. Watching it on telly just doesn’t capture it. theredshoessadlers-com

In terms of live entertainment, I was privileged to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry premiere their Shine A Light album at St Pancras Church in London in August. It’s a fine item to own, but seeing and hearing it essayed up close and personal was a rare pleasure. I’ve hosted a number of panels and Q&As, which means I was lucky to meet a whole host of interesting people in the arts: James Buckley, Paul Kaye, Louise Emerick and Ken Collard from the Dave sitcom Zapped; Maxine Peake and the original stars of The Comic Strip Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer for their latest escapade Red Top, also featuring Stephen Mangan and Eleanor Matsura; plus, the entire cast and crew of Peaky Blinders on two occasions: at the press launch and at the BFI (greedy!), an association with an ongoing show that I’ve loved being an ephemeral part of.

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It was a hell of a year. Enough to turn your hair grey. George Michael, Liz Smith and Carrie Fisher finished off the year in the manner in which it began. I was glancing down the UK “trending” topics late on Christmas Day and felt warm inside when I double-checked that all ten were related to telly programmes, on the telly. No capital cities, no celebrity names, no hashtags that began with #PrayFor. I went to sleep before 11pm satisfied that we’d made it through one day at least without the death knell tolling. I woke up on Boxing Day to the news that George Michael had been found dead, alone, at his home, the previous afternoon.

Feast, if you can, on all the amazing art and culture that was produced by the still-alive in 2016. It has to give us hope that perhaps the human race en masse isn’t hellbent on self-destruction, just a toxic few.

I am slightly fearful of pressing the “PUBLISH” key with three days left to go. But nobody ever won Masterchef that way.

 

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Inevitable Postscript: Debbie Reynolds, died a day after her daughter, on December 28, aged 84.

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Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

2015: the year in TV

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It’s been a momentous year for television. Mainly in the sense that I entered the world of a TV show that I love, Gogglebox, which proceeded to take over my life when I was tasked with the labour of love that was writing the official Gogglebox book for Christmas. When I say it’s a show I love, that love has not been reduced or tainted by the privileged position of having met, interacted and forged modest bonds with its participants. Do you get me?

Although I have met, interviewed, interacted with on Twitter and worked in real life wife a large number of actors, writers, directors and other key crew on TV shows, and toil silently in the backroom on scripts for most of the time (most of it, this year, in the basement of development), my most important relationship with television takes place in my living room, or at my computer. And that’s fine with me. For the time being.

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There is always a danger when you meet your heroes that they turn out to have feet of clay. As a viewer, I always regarded the Gogglebox families and couples not as heroes, or gods, or celestial beings, but something even stranger: as close friends. Being invited across their threshholds during April and May this year to meet their pets, drink their coffee, eat their biscuits and use their facilities was a cosmic experience unlike any other in my quarter-century in the media; not only does Gogglebox infer intimate knowledge on the besotted viewer (and there are more of us now than ever before), it makes you feel as if you know your way around the houses, even though you don’t, as you only ever view them through one permanently fixed frame. Thanks to the book publisher Macmillan, I was able to go through the looking glass. It has been a rare treat, one not to be repeated. I’m proud of the book. I hope it raised some smiles this Christmas.

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Back in front of my own TV, on the appropriate side of the glass, I watched loads of great telly. I shall list my Top 26 in no particular order, although you may have heard me say already that season two of HBO’s The Leftovers was my favourite show of 2015, just as season one of this beguiling, heartbreaking drama about loss and grief was my favourite show of 2014. The news that HBO have ordered up a third (albeit final) season made my year. It’s also right and proper to name two talented British TV writers, each responsible for two dramas in my Top 26: Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers; This Is England 90 – co-written with Shane Meadows), and Sarah Phelps (the adaptation of And Then There Were None; one episode of Dickensian, story by Tony Jordan). There are two shows with Peter Kay in. Two with the actor David Dawson in. Two with Jerome Flynn. And so on. It’s natural to genuflect to America, but we’ve still got the old magic here.

The Leftovers, HBO (thus Sky Atlantic)
Detectorists, BBC Four
First Dates, Chanel 4
The Last Kingdom, BBC Two
The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic
Fargo, Fox
Catastrophe, Channel 4
Gogglebox, Channel 4
Wolf Hall, BBC Two
This Is England 90, Channel 4
Unforgotten, ITV
Cradle To Grave, BBC Two
The Walking Dead, Fox
Dickensian, BBC One
The Bridge III, BBC Four
1864, BBC Four
The Game, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon/BBC One
Peter Kay’s Car Share, BBC Two
Masterchef: The Professionals, BBC Two
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
Game Of Thrones, HBO
The Frankenstein Chronicles, ITV Encore
Sound Of Song, BBC Four
Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
And Then There Were None, BBC One

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Having sifted 26 to the top, let’s doff the cap to another batch, all of which have entertained or informed me, in some cases both, and gripped me to the last episode (or in the case of the single drama The Go-Between, gripped me to the end of the only episode). In another year of countless first episodes dutifully watched and second episodes left untouched (From Darkness, River, season two of The Returned, Witnesses, Cuffs), sometimes through sheer bulk of telly to get through but mostly due to failure of engagement, I really appreciated those shows that pulled me back in and had me ’till goodbye.

Inside No. 9, BBC Two
Poldark, BBC one
Toast Of London, Channel 4
The Hunt, BBC One
True Detective, HBO
Broadchurch II, ITV
The Go-Between, BBC One
The Saboteurs, More4
Prey II, BBC Two
The Good Wife, More4
Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic
Lewis, ITV
Mad Men, Sky Atlantic
The Daily Show (prior to Jon Stewart leaving), Comedy Central
W1A, BBC Two
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Looking, Sky Atlantic
The Man In The High Castle, Amazon
Togetherness, Sky Atlantic
Show Me A Hero, Sky Atlantic
Silicon Valley, Sky Atlantic
The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
Dawn Chorus, BBC Four
Bitter Lake, BBC iPlayer
Fear Itself, BBC iPlayer

I must pay tribute to North One TV, the production company which keeps asking me to be a talking head on shows like The Best Of Bad TV on Channel 5, and – one for the New Year – The Greatest Animated Movies. I really enjoy doing these, as it’s basically talking about telly and films, which I’d be doing anyway! I’m not on the screen that much any more, except for the little one on the Guardian website, so it’s a pleasure to be asked.

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It curdles my insides to say it, but I think this is the first year for some time where my name didn’t appear in the credits for something on TV (or at the cinema, like last year, hem hem), unless you count the reruns of Not Going Out on Dave, which are on a loop. Oh, it goes without saying that I am still co-developing a TV drama, the one I was co-developing this time last year, but as anybody who’s been in development will concur, it’s better to still be developing it than no longer developing it. It’s not dead until pronounced so by the broadcaster. And, just before Christmas, another drama I was co-developing but which had been on ice all year, suddenly reared its pretty head again after a fortuitous coffee. So here’s to another year of it. All of it.

2015: the year in books

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The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

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Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

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My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

ISISbook

The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

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It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

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My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

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Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

Whatever | August 2010

Whatever | Guilty pleasures
They’re songs and books. What’s to feel guilty about?

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In May 1933, when the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund decided to collectively haul themselves out of bed before the Third Reich equivalent of Loose Women and organise a nationwide purge of “un-German” literature at universities across Germany, more than 25,000 titles were burned on bonfires which must have smelt powerfully musty. Around that time and under that particular regime in that particular swathe of Europe, if you chose to leaf through a play by Bertolt Brecht in the park, or a novel by Thomas Mann on the tram, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front just about anywhere, you were by definition experiencing the illicit thrill of a guilty pleasure.

Similarly, your enjoyment in the old Soviet Union of The Gulag Archipelago, Doctor Zhivago or Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been laced with that bracing buzz of the forbidden, as each might have earned you the bracing buzz of a KGB show trial. In 2008, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence banned the military from reading an armful of “seditious” books, including that well-thumbed squaddies’ standby Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism by Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang.

Even today, owning a copy of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard in the new Russia carries a 3,000 rouble fine and a jail term of up to 15 days. (Most of the arch-Thetan’s canon was banned under a recent law, for “undermining the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”) It remains illegal to read The Diary Of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List in Lebanon, all de-listed by the Sûreté General for portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism “favourably”. And The Da Vinci Code is conspicuous by its absence on the streets of Beirut, too, thanks to lobbying by Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center, who officially have nothing better to do.

Bear all of this in mind when you consider that in May 2010, the Guardian newspaper asked various browsers on a knoll at the Hay Literary Festival to reveal their “literary guilty pleasure”. Their willing responses included Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, “heavy metal biographies”, and The Kite Runner.

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Why should anyone literate enough to attend a Guardian-sponsored book fair in a country that even Mark Thomas would be hard pushed to call a totalitarian state, feel guilty about reading Zadie Smith, or Marian Keyes, or a heavy metal biography? These answers, like the spurious questionnaire standby itself, may be lightly thrown but they reveal weightier truths about our national neurosis: we are rendered daft by keeping up appearances like a bunch of insecure teenagers. Though we have little to fear from secret police or religious junta, we merrily and self-mockingly go along with the flimsy pretext that some books, films and TV shows can be consumed without guilt, while others must be enjoyed behind locked doors. Such as, apparently, the Celebrity Come Dine With Me of literature, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hey, people might think you’re reading a book about kites, rather than the rise of the Taliban in the power vacuum after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Incidentally, the popular film was banned in Afghanistan, making the DVD a cinematic guilty pleasure in Kabul.

In 2007, commissioned by the Costa Book Awards, a YouGov poll declared Stephen King “the UK’s favourite literary guilty pleasure.” UK readers also “freely admitted” to feeling a bit self-conscious about whipping out a Rowling, a Grisham or a Pratchett without first slipping it between the covers of a decoy copy of Fiesta or Knave. Expert comment on the coffee chain’s press release came from a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate To Love, published in hardback in 2006 and described by the Times Literary Supplement as “something of a guilty pleasure.” Its very opportunistic existence flagged up the phrase’s sudden marketability.

That this sado-masochistic concept should still linger in the popular imagination and across so many artforms is, I’m afraid, rock music’s fault, where lines are forever being drawn and redrawn in the dunes of credibility. It was enterprising London DJ Sean Rowley who first trademarked Guilty Pleasures™, which now covers an entire cheeky empire of club nights, compilation albums, SingStar tie-ins, a Fearne Cotton-fronted ITV1 karaoke show, and a mobile disco available for hire at festival tent, arena warm-up, corporate jolly and private function. Rowley was astute in locating the fecund no-man’s land between cool and uncool a few years back and bagging the salvage rights.

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I don’t wish to poop the party: the pics on the Guilty Pleasures website suggest a sizable slice of ongoing camp, works-outing fun in nightclubs up and down the land – verily, it is the new School Disco. But in taking the notion so irretrievably overground, gurning wig-outs of allegiance to ELO or Journey or Japanese Boy obviate any need for guilt. We live in a world of pop pluralism and Glee glasnost, where nostalgia packages and tribute bands make everything alright and, for anyone over 30, the last vestiges of embarrassment have been cast aside like a pair of crutches at Lourdes. Now is not the time to transfer our guilt to books.

Among the Guilty Pleasures website’s “celebrity confessionals”, Russell Brand cleverly eschews the obligatory Toto or Wham and plumps for Gary Glitter. “I feel a bit guilty about this,” he declares. “What with him being a convicted paedophile.”

In the same spirit of literalism, three cheers too for Alex, 70, retired, from mid-Wales, the sole Guardian respondent at Hay to break ranks and say, “I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.” Nor should you. Now, where’s my copy of Mein Kampf? I need something to wrap around The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures on the bus.

Whatever | November 2010

Whatever | In praise of print
The printed word is so last century. But you’ll miss the airport novel and the boarding pass when they’re gone

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I am against the Kindle. There, I’ve said it. As lightweight and graphite-cool as Amazon’s proprietary e-reader clearly is, I simply don’t want an electronic device designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books. But please don’t equate my antipathy with Ned Ludd’s violent decommissioning of two mechanical knitting machines in the early 19th century. My aversion to the e-reader is rooted not in ideological proletarian revenge or technological nostalgia, but in the simple truth that choosing which paperbacks to pack for my holiday gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure.

One year I used up most of my Ryanair baggage allowance by selecting Ian Kershaw’s Hitler for a relaxing week in Ireland; it defined my stay as much as the choice of cottage or location, and you can see it in the holiday snaps – unlike whatever’s on a Kindle screen. I have no beef with progress. But with each incremental tweak of our eternally rechargeable daily lives by stubbled geeks riding scooters around a place of work they genuinely believe to be a “campus”, we inch further from culture’s moorings: tactility, intimacy, fallibility and, yes, its occasionally musty smell. My bullshit detector always starts to twitch whenever an electronic device is advertised as having the same qualities as previously adequate acoustic delivery systems, such as talking, reading or doing. (“iPad is … delicious … playful … friendly … literary,” lies the commercial.)

We live in a word that’s shredding its paper. We’re glued to touch-screens and reliant on the mystical power of unseen hard drives, mainframes and servers to remember everything; utility companies offer rebates for “paper-free” billing; album “artwork” is merely an unclicked file document; and we recently learned that the third edition of the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary, due for completion in ten years, will only be available online.

Meanwhile, last June I cancelled my subscription to The Ecologist magazine. Not in a fit of purple-faced pique – the decision was forced upon me when, with laudable eco-intent, its print edition ceased production after 39 years and moved exclusively online. I’m old-skool enough to consider a “digital edition” an option and not a fait accompli.

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It was Massachusetts doctor Duncan MacDougal who discovered that the human body instantaneously loses 21 grams when we die; hence the attractive hippy myth that the departing human soul weighs 21 grams. If you delete the “digital edition” of a magazine, or drag an eBook to the trash, your tablet computer’s weight remains constant. Ergo, the laptop has no soul.

This July, although he didn’t live to see it, Stieg Larsson became the first author to sell a million eBooks on Amazon, a milestone dutifully fanfared in the national print media, an industry staring down the barrel of extinction because of the cleverly marketed convenience and alpha status of, well, e-readers. I for one am in predictive mourning. James Brown, who made his name in the 1990s by selling a whole stack of magazines when that’s all we knew, talks up Sabotage Times, his new online venture, by denouncing what he calls “dead tree publishing”; the very phrase makes me sad.

I hope it’s not just my age, but in common I think with many of my generation I grew up in a home full of felt tips, pads and propelling pencils; my dad brought home carbon paper, hole punches and other exotica from work; and I was educated by way of chalk, red pen and whiteboards. When I wrote my dissertation for college, Mum typed it up for me; to be “printed” bestowed legitimacy – it was proper.

My first fanzine was furtively designed at the office photocopier and printed at Kall Kwik; with it, I secured a foot in the door of the NME, where my first job involved laying out pages – that is, sticking Letraset and Xeroxed pics onto paper grids with carcinogenic aerosol glue. Perhaps I am masochistically wedded to an outmoded ideal of inconvenience. I certainly equate what you put in with what you get out. Kershaw’s Hitler is available as an eBook, as easy to cart around and read on the train as an idea or a vibration. But where’s the commitment? And if you have every book at your 3G fingertips, where’s the fun?

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American business and IT expert Nicholas Carr wrote an essay for Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? It now forms the bones of a book, The Shallows, whose subtitle is less inflammatory: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. Never mind changing – according to Carr, who blames scrolling screens for rewiring our neural pathways, leading tocursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” it’s doing to our patience what Ned Ludd did to those knitting machines.

It will only be by active and militant conservation that printed matter will defy the dustbin of history. We must protect magazines, maps, documents and Post-Its as we do tracts of marshland and designated places of historic interest and natural beauty. I recently returned to Ireland – having booked my flights online but printed out the boarding passes on paper – and found myself blissfully out of wi-fi range. More grateful than ever for paperbacks to thumb and newspapers to luxuriate in, I started filling in crosswords, something I haven’t done since I was a boy. I even bought a propelling pencil.

Sure, you can pull up an infinite catalogue of crosswords online, enter and re-enter the answers without recourse to a pencil eraser, and even click on words to see if you’re right. But where are you meant to scribble out the anagrams?

Now, as is my idiosyncratic wont, before delivering this column electronically, I will print it out in order to read it back. Because only then will it be proper.

First published in Word magazine, November 2010

Libération

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Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.

This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.

It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)

Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)

Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.

I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.

I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.