Socialist Review contributors pick their literary and cultural highlights of 2015.
Author and playwright
The Booker prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is an extraordinarily inventive imagining of the events surrounding the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Mecca: The Sacred City by Ziauddin Sardar is a highly readable personal, political and historical account of the holy city and how the Saudi ruling family have deliberately erased its past, abused its pilgrims and turned it into the Las Vegas of the Middle East. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C Ward is a superb biography of the African-American boxer who refused to allow racism to enter his soul.
Which brings me to the production at London’s Bush Theatre of The Royale by US playwright Marco Ramirez — about Jack Johnson’s 1910 racially-charged “battle of the century” title fight against “great white hope” Jim Jeffries. The production is due to return in 2016.
I’m a sucker for crime dramas that use a particular city as a character in its own right. One of this year’s highlights has been BBC’s River, set in London, starring the always inventive actor Stellan Skarsgård, with yet another great script by Abi Morgan. I also enjoyed From Darkness, set in Manchester, with a riveting performance by Anne-Marie Duff.
Author of Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae and Revolution
“Have you written a new book?” asked an acquaintance who misread the cover when he saw me reading US human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy. I wish. Stevenson brilliantly exposes the brutality of America’s criminal justice system. He also demonstrates however what can be achieved by those who are prepared to go the extra mile and highlights the incredible dignity of people falsely convicted of the most heinous offences.
On a lighter note, Fun Lovin’ Criminals frontman and Radio 6 Music presenter Huey Morgan has an infectious love of his genre. His eclectic and mischievous taste clearly comes across in his new book Rebel Heroes. Morgan’s claims about the malaise in modern music is a little overstated. His determination to pay homage to some great renegades we have loved and lost, many prematurely, is spot on however.
One of Morgan's heroes is bluesman BB King who died in 2015. In later years King may have appeared somewhat safe and sentimental, The reality is that his influence on generations of guitarists was massive. To mark what would have been his 90th birthday, Geffen Records have reissued a huge selection of recordings. If you haven’t done so already, check him out.
Author of Land and Labour
A publishing highlight of the year has to be Tamás Krausz’s political biography Reconstructing Lenin. After an excellent chapter summarising Lenin’s life, Krausz abandons the conventional biographical format, focusing on the development of Lenin’s thought. He explores Lenin in the context of taking the revolutionary movement forward to defeat capitalism. Krausz’s book has deservedly won the Deutscher memorial prize and should be on every socialist’s reading list.
In the context of renewed discussions of how we can win liberation, Judith Orr’s Marxism and Women’s Liberation is my second highlight of the year: a book that reasserts the importance of Marxism as a tool for understanding the origins of oppression and as a guide to overthrowing the system that perpetuates it.
Concerning Violence (Göran Hugo Olsson) is a startling documentary that uses the words of Frantz Fanon as a structuring device to expose the brutality of colonisation and decolonisation on the African continent. Some reviews of this film dismissed it as too cerebral and — horror — “art house”, but it’s not. Anyone interested in the struggle of oppressed people, in Fanon’s words “the wretched of the earth”, should see this film.
Another highlight is Still the Enemy Within (Owen Gower), a film about the miners’ strike 30 years on. There are no “experts” explaining and interpreting what happened back then; the story is told by the people who experienced the extreme brutality of Thatcher’s mission to destroy the miners’ union.
The book that stands out is Lisa McKenzie’s Getting By, not only because it’s a brilliant and committed piece of ethnographic research concerned with how working class people cope with the hardships of life, but because it is written by a working class academic, and there are not many of them about.
Peter Strickland’s erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy and Carol Morley’s disturbing rites of passage tale The Falling were outstanding examples of great new cinema, complemented by DVD reissues such as Raymond Bernard’s astonishing Great War classic, Wooden Crosses, and Andrzej Wajda’s epic retelling of Polish capitalism, The Promised Land.
With Banners Held High was a superb day of commemoration and celebration of the Miners’ Strike at Wakefield’s Unity Works, with films, speeches, theatre and rebel music.
Three examples of revelatory literature are Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism, Dark Alliance by Gary Webb, and Marxism and Women’s Liberation by Judith Orr.
Musically, Hinterland by Lonelady, Black Age Blues by Goatsnake and Soul Jazz’s latest Punk 45 compilation Exterminations in the Sixth City stand out, but my highlight of 2015 is the group Algiers. Their self-titled debut is an incredible mix of political articulation and sonic confrontation, rippling with raw energy and a torrent of ideas.
The art event of the year was an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude. Schiele is rarely shown as his work was and for some is still considered to be pornographic, plus most of his work is in private hands rather than public galleries. I had only ever seen his work in books and reproductions. But Schiele’s nudes in the original are amazing. They broke all conventions of their and our day — open and splayed, sexual, unashamed and a manifesto-like statement of a new unromantic sexuality and a new way of living.
Another artist whose work enthralled was Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy. Some of his landscapes actually gave me vertigo. Very different from these large canvases were the surprisingly small photographs by the French surrealist Pierre Molinier at the Richard Saltoun Gallery. Now recognised as an overlooked queer artist, Molinier was part of the surrealist movement but expelled by the homophobic Andre Breton for homosexuality. His works play with trans issues.
Finally, a film — Tangerine. Fantastic, funny, beautiful to look at and the most sympathetic film on trans issues since the days of the Warhol factory films such as Trash, starring the great Holly Woodlawn.
Bookmarks the socialist bookshop
It has been a very good year for music books. My favourite has been Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul by Stuart Cosgrove. It tells how, against a backdrop of riots, escalating war in Vietnam and police corruption, Motown songs climbed the charts, the original Supremes broke up and underground counterculture flourished. Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend by Karen Bartlett and Respect Yourself: Stax Records & The Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon were both released in paperback this year.
Thee Faction’s new album Reading Writing Revolution is another dose of storming socialist R’n’B. Darren Hayman caught me off guard with the lovely album Chants For Socialists, based on the work of William Morris. And check out The Hurriers, Grace Petrie and Steve White & The Protest Family too.
Author of Fortress Europe
My reading this year has been dominated by the American Civil War, 16th century Spanish history and the Pyrenees, for professional and personal reasons. I’ve particularly enjoyed Mark Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, which looked at the impact of the Civil War on slavery. Richard Slotkin’s meticulous reconstruction of the battle of Antietam, The Road to Antietam, is an astonishing combination of military and political history.
I read two terrific biographies of Cervantes, Donald McCrory’s No Ordinary Man and Jean Canavaggio’s Cervantes. Rosemary Bailey’s Love and War in the Pyrenees and Josep Calvet’s Las Montañas de Libertad opened up a largely unknown history of the Pyrenees during the Second World War. I also enjoyed Robert McFarlane’s The Mountains of the Mind and Karen Connolly’s searing Burmese prison novel The Lizard Cage.
My favourite albums have been Dark River — a brilliant collection of reworked Civil War songs by contemporary musicians. I’ve also listened a lot to Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads; Dengue Fever’s jaunty The Deepest Lake; Bill Fay’s Who is the Sender; Ghost Poet’s Shedding Skin; and the late Alain Touissant’s The Bright Mississippi.
Two of my favourite movies this year have been documentaries: Cartel Land and Virunga. Other standouts include When We Were Young; the deliciously crazed Argentinian revenge flick Wild Tales; and the magnificent Ida — a haunting cinematic masterpiece and easily the best film I saw in 2015.
It’s been a fantastic year for films with female leads, not least Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Max takes a back seat to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa — a Katniss Everdeen for grown-ups bored of dialogue. Teen horror It Follows is still haunting me with its disturbing themes of sexual uncertainty and abuse in a decaying backdrop of Detroit. David Lean’s reissued 1945 classic, Brief Encounter, works as a parable of women’s post-war eviction from the world of work and some kind of sexual freedom and back into the bosom of the family.
In TV my highlight has been the long-awaited final two seasons of Nurse Jackie. She’s the female Don Draper — manipulative, an addict and a liar who damages the people who love her — but also quite brilliant at what she does and impossible to dislike for long.
In books, as well as Judith Orr’s Marxism and Women’s Liberation, a trio of revolutionary women from a century ago: Siobhan Brown’s A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx, Kate Evans’s wonderful graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Red Rosa, and the new collection of Clara Zetkin’s Letters and Writings, with lots of newly translated material.