2014: My Top 50 books

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I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

The Odin catalogue

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The Guardian seems a bit stingy about Telly Addict at the moment, rarely leaving the traditional plug for it up on the homepage for longer than a day, which, it seems, reduces traffic to a trickle, thus sealing my longterm fate by their own hand. Boo! I can’t really do much more than provide an alert on Twitter and on this blog. So …

This week, we have two historical dramas, the Game Of Thrones-influenced Vikings on History and Penny Dreadful from Showtime on Sky Atlantic (I won’t ruin it for you, but I much preferred Vikings); also, the return of Showtime/BBC co-prod Episodes, and my highlights of Sunday night’s Bafta TV Awards, which I hope you enjoy.

Whoooooooooooooooooo

TA130It’s not all Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary this week on Telly Addict, but some of it is: The Day Of The Doctor (not in 3D in our case) on BBC1; the lovely An Adventure In Space And Time on BBC2; plus some similarly nostalgic black-and-white footage from Dominic Sandbrook’s 60s-set Cold War Britain on BBC2; from a little less far back, some Gogglebox from last week on C4, reviewing the week before; and – a treat – Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, from S4C, a Scandi-style noir in Welsh that’s available here to view on their website, something I suggest you do, especially if you aren’t a Welsh speaker and can enjoy the language barrier and the concentration aid that is subtitles.

In a field of its own

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We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Episodes

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Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.

Korean opportunities

TA99What interesting connections we can make on this week’s telly on Telly Addict. Brushing Up On … British Tunnels with Danny Baker on BBC4 is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on Sky Atlantic (from Showtime in the US) is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; in Panorama: North Korea Undercover, easily the most talked about TV show of last week, reporter John Sweeney attempts, as does Stone, to get under the skin of a country whose propaganda is all-powerful (and in both cases, Stone and Sweeney risk excommunication from the nation which they criticise); 30 Rock‘s Season 6 finale, on Comedy Central, includes jokes – aired in May 2012 on NBC – about the totalitarian quirks of the North Korean regime; Modern Family, an imported US comedy not given to inter-textual cross-media jokes that are the stock-in-trade of 30 Rock, tries one on for size with a coda based on The Godfather on Sky1; and I also review new ITV three-parter The Ice Cream Girls, which has no link whatsoever with the other shows. Ah well. You can’t join everything up.

Bondage: up yours!

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I hope it is not being too melodramatic to state that slavery is a cancer on the history of the United States of America. (Just as it is on any nation that shipped in Africans, or other foreigners, to do their dirty work, pressing them into forced servitude.) That the descendents of those slaves had to wait until the year I was born before they achieved full voting rights is a further stain on a nation that loves to call itself “great.” I speak, of course, as an Englishman by birth – a native of a country that has plenty to be ashamed of in its history, and as a nation in the present day; I also speak as one of the gender which caused most of the trouble, so I speak of this issue objectively and without any sense of moral superiority.

As you may know, Roots, the 1977 TV miniseries that famously addressed the issue of slavery head-on, and it is said, changed attitudes across America, was my favourite programme as a schoolboy. I was so moved by and invested in the freeing of the black African slaves, thanks to Alex Haley’s book (which I chose to receive at a middle school prizegiving), that I wrote many diary entries of the time in phonetic Southern African-American; hence, the notoriously inept compliment from a besotted 12-year-old white English abolitionist, “Roots is mah favourite programme.” (This is all in my own memoir, whose roots have never been contested in court, as Alex Haley’s were.)

The issue of slavery was central to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), although much of that film’s central story revolved around a Supreme Court ruling. It was however, unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty to African slaves. Its take-home message was: the only good white American is an abolitionist. Spielberg’s Lincoln, already Golden Globe-garlanded and likely to win Baftas and Oscars, is, by coincidence just one of two major motion pictures to address slavery this awards season. The other – quite, quite different in tone and effect – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (honoured at the Globes for its screenplay, and for supporting actor Christoph Waltz). I saw both films last week – on the same day, believe it or not. And am moved to compare them.

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Lincoln was initially conceived, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), as a Presidential biopic, but in the event focuses on the knotty, nail-biting, filibustering progress through the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good. Taking place over a couple of months, it distils Lincoln’s presidency down to his most far-reaching achievement, which also marked the end of the Civil War, despite seemingly putting peace in jeopardy to many naysayers. The 16th President is brought back to life, with understated authority, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who resembles him physically (especially in great height), and sidesteps his usual showboating, which is apt, as, amid the eloquent barracking of 19th century politics, the President is mostly absent. We see him in back rooms, on the sidelines, manipulating and commentating.

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Venerated by many as one of America’s greatest commanders in chief, he is cleverly lit and depicted in Lincoln as a kind of sepia deity. To many on the left, he was a hero, or a god, certainly a celeb. As he says, in one of his more animated moments, as the President he was “clothed in immense power”, and used it. And then he was shot dead. Revisionism has, naturally, taken place in the centuries since, and some historians enjoy calling him a “white supremacist” whose views on blacks were not entirely progressive. Such rewrites are not important to Spielberg’s black-and-white film. (Actually, even the most hardline Confederate in the Southern states today is probably beyond thinking slavery was a good thing. In that sense, it is a black-and-white issue.) At the time of the Civil War, many in the South felt that their economy would collapse if slavery was banned; perhaps it was less about race and human rights, and more about that age-old American concern of money.

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Few black people appear in Lincoln. There are a couple of kindly servants at the White House (Gloria Reuben – Jeannie off of ER! – and Stephen Henderson), freed slaves of course but still essentially bowing and scraping to a white employer. But Lincoln is not about the plight of slaves, it is of their plight; although it does open on a rare action sequence (it’s mostly talking), in which black Union soldiers are attacked by white Confederates. A powerful case is then made, to Lincoln’s kindly face, by a Union soldier (our own David Oyelowo, off of Spooks) about the inequality of wages, and of the chances for promotion, in the US Army, at which even the Emancipation President is challenged about the woeful limits of his vision for equality, even after the Proclamation. Django Unchained, meanwhile, is full of black people. It takes place two years before the Civil War, and is, of course, a wholesale fantasy. It is probably unkind to compare it to Lincoln, but many will find it more palatable and entertaining, so it’s just as important.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django is an African slave, chained and en route through Texas, who is effectively stolen by a foppish German bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) at the beginning of the film; he is a prize because of information he has about certain slave owners with a bounty on their heads. The two hit it off, and after offering freedom to Django in exchange for his assistance, Schultz eventually takes him on as an “associate”, an equal. (When Django rides into town, the very idea of a “nigger” on horseback is enough to rile the locals.)

This against-the-grain, black-and-white merger is symbolic of Tarantino’s liberal wish-fulfillment: a white European and a black African taking revenge on evil white plantation owners, riding side by side as compatriots. When Django takes up the whip against one of his former masters, the poetic revenge is literal. The pair are initially driven by money (Django is promised a horse and $75 as well as his freedom), but their combined cause takes on a less mercenary, more ideological and political hue, as they home in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s arch-villain Calvin Candie, not just a sadistic slave-owner, but one who wheels and deals in the gentleman’s sport of “Mandingo fighting”, where black slaves are set upon each other like dogs, or cocks. He is a bad man. Schultz, who elevates Django to the status of the noble hero Siegfried in German mythology, is a good man, but rare among whites in being so.

Django Unchained might once, in the 70s, have been made by a black director, of whom there were very few, but it would have been for the midnight-movie circuit only. Today, thanks to the mainstream profile of Tarantino – Hollywood’s pet cult director, its “house rebel” – it is a major movie, taken seriously by critics and peers alike, and already stamped with award glory (including a Globe for Tarantino’s screenplay). As such, it sends out a powerful message. Equally, it preaches to the choir. If a single member of Hollywood’s royalty did not stand for Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes, he or she was not caught on camera.

Spike Lee has said he refuses to watch it, as for him, the issue is not suitable for entertainment, which this film surely is. It’s up to him, of course, but you might accuse Roots of being simplistic, or melodramatic, or even sentimental, about a serious issue, but it stirred the soul of at least one 12-year-old in England in 1977, and thousands more elsewhere, I suspect. Django Unchained strives for no such educational nobility or legitimacy; it is violent cartoon schlock, whose mischievous humour at one point strays into pure Mel Brooks territory, and in fact, by fantasising a black rebellion against the white oppressor in spaghetti western style, you could argue that it makes a mockery of the true violence done before emancipation.

You could also argue that sending a group of Jewish Americans out into a fantasy Nazi-occupied Europe to kill them (and carve swastikas into their foreheads), as Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, mocks the memory of the millions who died in World War II. But it’s hard not to think of Nazis or cruel white slave-owners as “the baddies”, so who’s to dictate whether it’s in good or bad taste?

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On points, I’d say that Lincoln is by far a better film than Django. It may be “boring” to some, but I lapped up its constitutional detail. It may iron out some of the inconsistencies that get in the way of Abe’s deification (ooh, his wife, Mary, came from a slave-holding family – that’s because there was slavery), but I still found it compelling. Tarantino’s film is uneven. It starts well, but descends into a relentless bloodbath; and even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, Django’s “journey” seems to jump-cut from character development to comic-book hero-avenger without a great deal of grey area in between. (Oh, and Waltz dominates for two thirds, and then sort of fades into the sidelines. Bad decision.)

That Tarantino wishes he’d been born black seems no longer in doubt. He’s been in trouble before for metronomic use of the n-word, although his previous films – including Jackie Brown, which drew a lot of heat – have been set post-reclamation of the word. Django is set at a time when “nigger” was a word filled exclusively with hate and oppression, and when Samuel L Jackson’s cowed, Uncle Tom-style butler uses it, we’re in very uncomfortable territory. This n-word is not spelled N-I-G-G-A. Perhaps it’s Quentin’s first truly responsible use of the epithet.

I realise I’ve just written an essay. Sorry about that. If I had been writing it for a magazine that was paying me to write it, I would have gone back and edited it.