Tuesday, 2 January 2018

My cultural 2017: books, art, music, films (and sport)

Books: Fiction
Having set myself the goal of reading 25 novels I really should have read between 1st March 2017 and 28th February 2018, I have to report that I'm not going to make it. It seems that the emotional and intellectual effort required to fully engage with proper literature is simply too exhausting for me in my current enfeebled state. Still, I managed to read 19 of the titles before finally throwing in the sponge around the start of November. The most exciting discovery, for me, was probably Cormac McCarthy, whose All the Pretty Horses is a modern masterpiece.  My greatest relief was finding that my friend Christine Donougher's Penguin translation of Les Misérables is brilliant - utterly masterful.  My greatest feat, in terms of endurance, was finally reading Ulysses all the way through - and enjoying vast tranches of it. And my greatest surprises were rather enjoying Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and discovering just how funny David Copperfield is. One book which has stayed with me, despite my not enjoying it that much, is Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho - it has troubled my thoughts for months, and I rather wish I hadn't read it. My greatest disappointment was finding Henry James's The Wings of the Dove utterly unreadable - yet again...

...As for lighter, genre fiction, Roy Vickers's Department of Dead Ends, a 1947 collection of "impossible crime" short stories was fun. Josephine Tey's To Love and Be Wise (1950) was the last of her detective novels left for me to read - I'd been saving it up - and it was well worth the wait. She always tended to be knottier, more adult, than her rivals, and this one even features cross-dressing as a central theme (albeit as a means of concealing identity rather than the result of sexual perversion). I enjoyed Elizabeth Gill's trio of Golden Age detective novels featuring portrait painter and amateur detective Benvenuto Brown - The Crime Coast (1931), What Dread Hand? (1932), and Crime de Luxe (1933): escapist froth, but well-written, intelligent and with glamorous settings (the ex-patriate British art community in St Tropez features in one of them). The ludicrously accomplished Brown isn't that interesting - he's a fantasy figure - but the secondary characters are believable. I also read - and thoroughly enjoyed - the first genuine modern horror novel I've tackled in years: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix, which came out in 2014. Staff and customers find themselves trapped in a consumerist nightmare, unable to leave a ghastly IKEA-style furniture emporium in an American shopping mall. Very funny and reasonably scary.

Books: Non-fiction
I read a lot of non-fiction last year. Bill James's Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (2011) took a fresh look at a number of celebrated American murder cases, and was insanely readable. So was Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of (2012) by Harold Schechter. While James's book looks at crimes which captured the public imagination, Schechter wonders why the no-less grisly or sensational ones he studies have been entirely forgotten (timing appears to be the answer).

The best film book I read was Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, a 1997 compendium of interviews stretching back over 35 years, with such noted practitioners as Robert Aldrich  George Cukor, Allan Dwan (a contemporary of D.W. Griffith),  Howard Hawks,  Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel and Raoul Walsh. It's one of the best and most illuminating books about film-making I've ever read - every one of its 864 pages is rivetting. Veteran film critic David Simon's 'Have You Seen...?': a Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films including masterpieces, oddities and guilty pleasures (with just a few disasters) is over 1000 pages long, and his smug leftiness (one more passing sneer at Ronald Reagan and my Kindle would gone sailing out the window) and his tedious worship of all the usual trendy golden boy directors drove me up the wall, but I learned a lot, and he put me wise to some great films I'd never heard of. I've already banged on about Henry Hemming's fascinating biography, M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster, and Giles Milton's Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat was an absolute joy. Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction was a wonderful and unexpected treat (and not just because I'm in it).

Most of the good drama on television was on Netflix. The second series of the homage to Stephen King novels and1980s SF and horror movies, Stranger Things, was an unalloyed delight from start to finish. I'm about half-way through the second series of The Crown (I'm trying not to binge-watch it), and it's another triumph.

I raced through the new Netflix series, Mindhunter, based on John Douglas and Robert Ressler's development of the psychological profiling of serial killers at the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit - and I can't wait for the second series. As for non-Netflix American programmes, David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return was intriguing, and started strongly, but it was overlong and the ending was decidedly weak (I re-watched the original two series as a result, and they were as good as I remembered). Fargo (Season 3) was a triumph, with great performances from Ewan McGregor (in twin roles) and a splendidly creepy David Thewlis as a bulimic criminal fixer.

There was some good stuff on terrestrial TV earlier in the ear - the latest series of Line of Duty, the Prime Suspect prequel (sadly not to return), and the drama about the Bronte sisters, To Walk Invisible, were all solid, but there was no really memorable Scandi or French noir, and British television's output for the second half of the year struck me as fairly dreary, apart from the London-set detective series, Cormoran Strike, based on a character created by J.K. Rowling - Tom Burke is as the hulking, one-legged former military policeman private eye was terrific,  as was Holliday Grainger, who plays his corkingly attractive, spunky receptionist/assistant: an unexpected treat.

While it pains me to praise anything created by J.K. Rowling, having to admit that I enjoyed a series written by that ghastly knob Charlie Brooker is unbearable - but I've recently become acquainted with his science fiction series, Dark Mirror (my son put me onto it), and, dammit, it's really good. How annoying! As for comedy, the BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was surprisingly effective, and the second (and final) series of Peter Kay's Car Share was as brilliant as the first - i.e. really brilliant.

My art discovery of the year was the English science fiction artist/illustrator John Harris, who is an absolute genius - as far as I can see, he's the most original artist his field has yet produced. Apart from that, I've been enjoying the cityscapes of Charles Ginner (1878-1952), a member of the Camden Town Group; the abstract paintings of the Russian, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944); the realist paintings of Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) - especially the war-time ones; everything by Renée Magritte; the nature paintings of Gustave Klimt; the work of the American artist, Andrew Wyeth (who I'm pretty sure one is not meant to admire); Ewan Paddock's contemporary paintings of passengers on the London Underground; 17th Century Dutch still life paintings; and I've become  better acquainted with the work of the ridiculously talented and fecund Claude Monet, and that of Sir Stanley Spenser.

But I've spent most of my time enjoying illustrations - mainly vintage paperback book and magazine covers, and old film posters. Indulgent, maybe - but they represent a fascinating record of 20th Century popular culture.

It would take too long to cover the films I've seen in any sort of detail. Much as I tried to plug some of the many gaps in my literary knowledge, so, about three months ago, I decided to do the same with films. I was never a cineaste, or even a buff, but in my youth and my twenties, I was an enthusiastic film fan. That's fallen by the wayside over the years, as travelling into the centre of London to watch the latest films became progressively irksome - as did the loutish, selfish behaviour of cinema audiences. Videos and then DVDs partially filled the gap, as, later on, did a subscription to Sky Movies, a five-year membership of BAFTA, and the TCM and Talking Pictures TV channels, which specialise in old films.

The quality of the commercial films on offer since at least the early '90s has become progressively more dire, as Hollywood trained its guns on the American teenage audience, while increasingly turning its adult films into vehicles for dreary, progressivist propaganda: I really don't enjoy being lectured by pious left-wingers about the motes in America's eye while they studiously ignore the dirty great beams in the eyes of its many enemies. As for socially conscious British films - life is far too short. I can no longer bear crude foul-mouthed vomit and fart-filled "comedies", or 90 minutes of muscle-bound morons blasting the crap out of each other with scary weapons and driving vast, bulbous, penis-substitute cars. Whatever happened to fun, wit, sophistication and optimism? I knew the time was out of joint when the only new films I had any interest in watching were animated movies - some of the best films of the late nineties and the noughties were the Shrek and Ice Age series, the funniest script (I kid you not) was for something called Monsters v. Aliens, and Pixar ruled the quality roost.

Watching almost nothing but old movies for three months has led me to appreciate anew just how many brilliant films Hollywood produced during its Golden Age, and how much good stuff the British film industry turned out in the '40s and '50s. Here's a list of the best dozen old films I've seen for the first time since the start of October:

Nothing Sacred (1937) - Frederic March and Carole Lombard in a comedy for grown-ups
Tales of Manhattan (1942) - star-studded, multi-director 20th Century Fox anthology
Last Holiday (1950) - Alec Guinness in a J.B. Priestley comedy/social commentary film
The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) - Fritz Lang's last German picture: Hitler's spectre looms large
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) - tense, taut little film noir, directed by Ida Lupino
Quartet (1948) - civilised British-made anthology film consisting of four Somerset Maugham stories
The General (1926) - Buster Keaton's silent comedy masterpiece: a stunningly great film
My Man Godfrey (1936) - tremendous screwball comedy, with Carole Lombard and William Powell
Daddy Long Legs (1955) - sparkling musical, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron
The Old Dark House (1932) - James Whale horror comedy: Karloff and Laughton chew scenery
Les Enfants Terribles (1950) - strange, brittle, unsettling Melville film of a Jean Cocteau novel
Too Late for Tears (1949) - well-plotted film noir with Lizabeth Scott as a homicidal bitch-fiend

I'm ashamed to admit that I've listened to no new classical music this year, and that the only "new" pop recordings I've heard have been obscure '50s, '60s and '70s gems from genres I already enjoy, with more big band swing and cool, mainstream jazz instrumentals than usual. So I'll just bid farewell to three of my rock 'n' roll idols - Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and the great Sun rockabilly artist, Sonny Burgess - as well as to J. Geils, whose band's first two hard-edged R&B albums I adored (I bought an imported copy of the first one from One Stop Records in Soho in 1970, having read a review in Rolling Stone). Goodbye also to Glen  Campbell (mostly for "Wichita Lineman" and his session guitar work with the LA Wrecking Crew before he became a star) and to Tom Petty, who made some really good records and seems to have been a decent bloke.

Not a vintage year - but I'm pleased Lewis Hamilton, won the FI championship for the fourth time. There's something extremely annoying about him - but I can't bear Sebastian Vettel, who appears to be yet another classic non-sporting Teuton. That ghastly man, José Mourinho, picked up a few second-string trophies for Manchester United in his first season as manager, but seems to be making a bit of a horlicks of it now, despite spending lavishly: he has enough talent at his disposal - why can't he make it work? The signs that Andy Murray's glory days are over due to chronic injuries are depressing - I reckon he broke his body in that astonishing, successful dash for the No. 1 spot in 2016: but Roger Federer played the best tennis of his career to win seven titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and would have ended the year at No. 1 but for injuries (hardly surprising at the age of 36). Taking his age into account, Federer's 2017 was one of the most astonishing achievements in sporting history.

I was going to mention the England cricket team's performance in the current Ashes series - but why end on a bummer?


  1. Oh dear. I think I might have been with you in that trip to One Stop as I have a vague recollection of a large figure in the background looking disapprovingly as I bought Ladies of the Canyon and the first Stephen Stills solo LP.

    1. Definitely not disapproving - huge fan of both. You may be mixing them up with "Deep Purple in Rock". My role was to keep the "heads down no nonsense mindless boogie" flame alive, leaving my more musically adventurous companion to explore new sonic worlds.

      Anyway, what a privilege to be teenagers when there was so much great new music on offer!

      One question - how did we ever learn that One Stop stocked export LPs? Did they advertise in the music press?

  2. That's a very good question and I am not sure of the answer. I used to spend some Saturday afternoons when there were no games at school either heading off to a football match or rooting around record shops in London. So it could simply have been an accidental discovery. On the other hand, the NME (now a freebie), Sounds and Melody Maker (both long gone) used to play quite an important part in a teenage nerd's life. And here I am at pensionable age still ploughing through Mojo and Uncut, unsuccessfully trying to recapture the same thrill.

    1. ...not to mention Disc and Record Mirror! Spoiled, we were.

      Are Mojo and Uncut worth reading? I gave them both up years ago because they seemed to be endlessly recycling the same adulatory articles about the same set of old acts, in between getting over-excited by obscure old acts who turned out to be obscure for a very good reason. Or am I being unfair?

    2. You are right. I find myself reading less and less of each issue but still can't bring myself to admit that Classic Rock may now be more appropriate.

      I'll give Dark Matter a go. I enjoyed Charlie Brooker's A Touch of Cloth enormously, though it should carry a health warning that you'll never be able to take conventional detective series entirely seriously again.

  3. Tremendous post. Much enjoyed. "All the Pretty Horses" on the list for Amazon.

    When I read "David Copperfield" as a boy in the Illustrated Classics format [ in Norwegian, no less] Edward Murdstone and his sister gave me nightmares [the scar, the beating]. When I read the novel as an adult they had an even worse effect. Ditto Bill Sykes in "Oliver Twist" I have encountered the re-incarnation of "Mr Dick" many times in my career - they usually have the title "managing director" or "politician".

    1. Copperfield's headmaster, Mr. Creakle - an unpleasant, overbearing man who torments David at Mr. Murdstone's request, then becomes a magistrate and runs the prison where Uriah Heap and Steerforth's crooked valet have hoodwinked Creakle into believing they've been reformed by his silly, trendy, do-gooding system - seems a perfect embodiment of the sort of pompous, self-regarding, "enlightened" fools who make up our left-liberal establishment these days.