Socialist Review contributors pick their literary and cultural highlights of 2016.
My theatrical highlight of 2016 was the National Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera — which I saw live and then via live feed at the gorgeous East Dulwich Picturehouse — starring the brilliant Rory Kinnear. Biting socialist politics on the bourgeois stage: I cried both times.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople was at my local cinema, Peckhamplex, in October: an abandoned child, sudden death, the amazing New Zealand bush, foster care fundamentalism, intergenerational love, hair-raising haikus and a nailbiting car chase to outstrip Thelma and Louise. Recommended for over-12s.
I’m a big radio drama enthusiast and listened spellbound and motionless to a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Harold Pinter’s screenplay based on the masterpiece The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, about the depths the agents of the British state are prepared to sink to.
Finally, sticking to my chosen subject, Queer: A Graphic History made me cheer aloud. This clever guide to queer thought over the past century provides an accessible overview of a tradition which pursues sexual revolution while standing clear of class struggle. A must for any revolutionary socialist who wants to win queer activists to our cause.
Anyone who loves football and despises both racism and Margaret Thatcher should read 61 Minutes in Munich, former Liverpool footballer Howard Gayle’s autobiography. Gayle was Liverpool’s first black player, paving the way for John Barnes. Gayle’s account of the issues he faced is politically tough and gripping.
Every socialist’s film of the year will be I, Daniel Blake, but, in a year when the populist right has moved centre stage in the US, The Free State of Jones is a marvellous account of unity between black and white Americans during and after the Civil War. The film includes a searing account of radical reconstruction.
My TV highlights of the year included Charlie Brooker’s inventive and intelligent third series of Black Mirror. Some episodes are simply the best TV you will see. Blue Eyes, Trapped and Follow the Money are three brilliant Nordic Noir series to air in the UK in 2016.
My final cultural highlight is provided by Katumba, Liverpool’s largest and probably loudest drum ensemble. Katumba’s fusion of Brazilian and modern beats is regularly heard on Liverpool labour movement and anti-racist events. This infectious 70-strong group led the Slavery commemoration and the Liverpool Women’s Hospital march — live music and performance at its best.
At the end of 2016, HBO have released Westworld, a gripping big budget TV series with robots and cowboys and a simulated world in which millionaires pay to live out their fantasies. The paying guests do this through their interactions with the prostitute and bandit androids, robots possessing a real-like, but ultimately passive, role. Yet this world is not as stable as the makers, the investors or the paying guests have assumed. “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel,” says Dolores, our robot protagonist, a pretty woman who has possibly discovered her entire life is an elaborately constructed lie to satisfy other male desires. Westworld is about a creation which is sold to its buying guests as a world without limits, but in reality there are only certain options and everyone is constrained by enforced narratives; the world sells us a false version of freedom. Among it all we watch as different forms of consciousness develop which have the potential to challenge the system. Or do they? We’re not sure yet.
Other highlights include the film Embrace of the Serpent on colonialism, power and dreams, the latest Mogwai album, Atomic, providing certainty to an uncertain year, and finally Satnam Virdee’s book, Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider, uncovering a contested history of racism and anti-racism within the British working class.
My movie of the year was Charlie Kaufman’s sublime Anomalisa. Original in every way imaginable, a jeremiad against the beige conformity of corporate America and a grown-up intelligent movie for intelligent grown-ups despite the fact it was all played by puppets.
My best British TV of the year was all about Olivia Colman — brilliant in The Night Manager, brilliant in Flowers and brillianter still in Fleabag. Soon we may even be able to forgive her for Broadchurch 2. My best TV episode of the year is Game of Thrones’ “The Battle of the Bastards”. How sweet was it when Ramsay was finally done up like a dog’s dinner? And Kurosawa would have been proud of that battle sequence. The fifth series of Veep helped make some sense of the moronic goatfuck that is the US presidential election, showing us how cynical, self-serving and stupid US politics is — which just about sums up both Trump and Clinton.
The Night Of picked up the torch from The Wire to shine a light on how sadistic the US judicial system is. The second series of Better Call Saul showed us how even a man who wants to do good has his values twisted in bankers’ America. And there was Broad City — not the America of the Clintons and Trumps, but the America of minimum wage and mind-numbing gig jobs, of damp apartments and thrift shops. But in Abbi and Illana it’s also a world of unbendable exuberance, instinctive anti-racism, sisterhood and community, a world that knows how to have a laugh. And a show that made me laugh out loud time and again. This year I’m voting for Abbi and Illana.
This has been a good year for radical economics. Anwar Shaikh’s Capitalism is a difficult but rewarding study of how the system functions and malfunctions. Michael Roberts’s The Long Depression, as well as being more accessible, is a more explicitly Marxist take on the crisis. Lucia Pradella’s Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy, a study of the international dimension of Marx’s thinking first published last year, appeared in paperback this autumn. Haymarket’s paperback edition of Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1864-1865, which form Marx’s final draft for what became Capital, is due out in December.
My theatrical highlight was the play Travesties. It’s hard to go wrong with a Tom Stoppard script bringing together James Joyce, Dada artist Tristan Tzara and Lenin in Zurich on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Like many other Radio 4 listeners I was gripped by The Archers storyline involving the coercive control exercised by Rob Titchener over Helen Archer and the court case in which she was acquitted after stabbing him. On a lighter note, I was in the audience for the recording of an episode of My Teenage Diary with Michael Rosen as the guest. Rosen had us in stitches as he recounted stories from his 1960s Jewish Communist childhood.
It was good to see some more music with a message released this year — Beyonce’s Lemonade album and Superbowl performance and Solange Knowles’s trippy neo-soul A Seat At The Table album — but one of my favourite releases was A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. This was recorded before the untimely death of Phife Dawg. “We The People” is a good track to start with.
Seeing Stevie Wonder perform Songs In The Key Of Life live with an orchestra was a definite highlight of the year for me, and if you didn’t see him at least make sure you have the album as he’s unlikely to do it live again and it’s easily his best work.
For once, this year I managed to get tickets to a number of Proms performances. The best I saw included Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 26, and a night with Quincy Jones. But best of all was seeing the sublime Kamasi Washington Prom, where his band was accompanied by a gospel choir and orchestra string section. Make sure you see him next time he’s over and listen to The Epic in the meantime. His phenomenal bass player, Miles Mosley, is due to release an album, Uprising, next year and I’m hoping it will be a highlight of 2017.
2016 was a bittersweet year. I still can’t quite believe that we have lost Prince. Fortunately there was some great art to ease the pain. The Proms were a gift that kept giving. Kamasi Washington’s set with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a truly life affirming highlight. Check out the 2017 programme.
Grime is currently British music’s most energetic and exciting genre. I was pleased therefore to see Skepta’s Konnichiwa win the Mercury Prize. Michael Kiwanuka’s soulful Love & Hate was equally compelling. How artists address Brexit and Trump’s presidency will be among the challenges of 2017. Chicago rapper Common has set the bar high with his album Black America Again. Hopefully the rumours of an imminent TLC album even without the late lamented Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes are true.
Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy and John Preston’s A Very English Scandal are factual books that are poignant, pacy and pulsating. Novel-wise, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railway and Paul Beatty’s irreverent The Sellout were riveting reads.
The release of John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary next spring should be interesting and I’ll be intrigued to see how Suzan-Lori Parks develops her Father Comes Home From the War plays.
Andrea Butcher and Wendy Spurry, Bookmarks Bookshop
One of the great things about working at Bookmarks Bookshop is that we don’t only operate out of our shop in Central London, but also travel around the country to set up bookstalls at trade union and movement events and conferences. Two of the biggest that we went to in 2016 were the Marxism Festival and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, both in July.
This year, among the hundreds of meetings at the Marxism Festival in London, there were 11 book launches including Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae & Revolution with Brian Richardson, Schools Out: The Hidden History of Britain’s School Students Strikes with Michael Lavalette and 1966 And Not All That on the politics of the World Cup with Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football.
Just a few days later we loaded up a van and headed off to Tolpuddle in Dorset. Setting up a marquee in a field for four days (one of us even slept in it at night), we held book events on Autism Equality in the Workplace with Janine Booth and Food Worth Fighting For with Josh Sutton. We certainly noticed a bit of a Corbyn effect this year, with books, badges, mugs, tee shirts and the Corbyn Colouring Book selling out on the Sunday when he spoke to the thousands of trade unionists in attendance.
Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum was both inspiring and depressing. The “rocket clubs” and the visionaries of early 20th century Russia looked to space travel as a way of finding new — and better — worlds, and during the revolution space acted as a metaphor for the transformation taking place. Under Stalin this vision was captured for the purposes of imperialist competition with the West.
In film, Room was a moving story of a captive young woman and her child. Embrace of the Serpent, a dreamlike exploration of colonialism in the Amazon, was one of the best films I’ve seen in years.
Mental distress has been a prominent theme in TV — Channel 4’s Flowers and the BBC’s Fleabag dealt powerfully with depression and grief. EastEnders has avoided its usual quick pay-offs to show Lee Carter’s ongoing struggle with depression. Atlanta, a US sitcom starring and written by Donald Glover from Community, is a sharp and sometimes surreal examination of a young black man struggling to get by without losing himself.
My radio highlight of the year has to be Radio 4’s The Briefing Room on “Trotsky, Trotskyism and Trotskyites”, which in a summer of bile spewing from the Labour right, provided a refreshingly honest appreciation of the great revolutionary and his legacy.
And in books, 1917: Russia’s Red Year, the graphic novel by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger, was well worth the two and a half years it took in development.
My biggest discovery of 2016 was the work of Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Volodya: Selected Works and the biography Mayakovsky by Bengt Jangfeldt were excellent introductions to a creative giant’s immense legacy.
The box set Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC both revived a neglected talent and put almost all current television into the shade — excepting the brilliant Cold War drama Deutschland 83. DVD reissues like Miklos Jancso’s revolutionary pageant, Electra, My Love, and Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera provided a thrilling contrast to the paucity of contemporary cinema, although Ashish Ghadiah’s documentary, The Confession: Living the War on Terror, was essential viewing.
Elsewhere the musical void left by David Bowie’s death was filled by challenging new releases — Blood Bitch by Jenny Hval, Extinction by Common Eider King Eider, Bottomless Pit by Death Grips, 25 25 by Factory Floor and Scott Walker’s chilling soundtrack to the film, The Childhood of a Leader.
Finally, 1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall and Stone Male: Requiem for the Living Picture by Joe Carducci were two of the year’s outstanding new books.
Two books I’ve found particularly enjoyable both take up the theme of humans, their environment and class struggle, but in completely different ways. First is Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene, which looks at the science and politics of the Anthropocene, a new geological era where human activity is the key driver of environmental change. Angus brilliantly links the science to a wider Marxist discussion of the nature of capitalism and its inherent ecological destruction. It’s a book designed to provoke wide discussion.
Secondly, James Hunter’s Set Adrift upon the World tells the story of the brutal Highland clearances that took place on the Sutherland estate in the early part of the 19th century. The farmers of the Scottish Highlands shaped the land that they lived in, but in turn, the class struggle between the propertied and their tenants transformed a thriving landscape into treeless sheep runs and deer parks. Thousands of people were forced from their homes, many ending up abroad or living in poverty. The story has frequently been told, but Hunter argues that the clearances were not an inevitable consequence of progress, but the result of a brutal class struggle. His retelling of the anti-eviction protests, courtroom struggles and physical confrontations is both inspiring and saddening. It reminds us that to survive the Anthropocene, people will have to fight against those who look at the land and see only profits.
On TV, I really enjoyed The Get Down for Mylene’s voice and Zeke’s rhymes amid the broken promises of 1970s America. Luke Cage, black and bulletproof, gives a gritty exposition of life in Harlem. Such a strong character who wears a hoody instead of hot pants and a cape felt fitting in today’s world of police racism. Stranger Things had outstanding performances, 1980s synths, and a riveting storyline. Season four of House of Cards was very timely given the US election circus. Kevin Spacey said that after filming he wondered if they went too far but after getting home and turning on the TV he thought they didn’t go far enough. Spacey’s documentary series Race for the White House, looking at past US elections and how far the winners went to win, is also worth a watch.
Radiohead’s new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, has melancholy riffs, soothing beats and lyrics such as: “We call upon the people/ People have this power/ The numbers don’t decide/ Your system is a lie/ The river running dry/ The wings of a butterfly/ And you may pour us away like soup/ Like we’re pretty broken flowers/ We’ll take back what is ours/ Take back what is ours” and “You know what I mean/ Different types of love/ Are possible.”
If you read one book over the Christmas break, make it 2016 ManBooker winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty. He has produced a rollercoaster ride that once you’re on there’s no getting off, even when it gets uncomfortable. Dickens, a poor neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles has literally been wiped off the map. Fuelled by despair, the narrator sets out to right this wrong. The Sellout is laugh out loud satire but scathing in its description of the abandonment of black urban communities in the US today. America may (still, just) have a black president but for the majority of the population social and economic conditions have continued to decline. The narrator fights back against this state of affairs (and the state) in a stunningly controversial way.
Augustown by Kei Miller is a magical, poetic, hard-hitting and haunting novel. Taking its title from the true story of August Town, Jamaica, where in 1920 the messianic preacher Alexander Bedward, instructed followers to give away all of their worldly goods and “fly away home” to ascend to heaven, Miller’s fictional tale moves between this time and the repression of Rastafarians in the 1980s. Augustown pulls no punches when describing the poverty and class divisions in Jamaican society. What would happen if you lifted the weight of oppression placed upon your head — why it’s so heavy you may well fly? A beautifully written book.
Eve R Stone Light
Some excellent new books for young kids have come out this year. Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst (5+) has double-page excitingly illustrated spreads full of inspiring facts about some of the women who’ve changed our world — Anne Frank, Sagagawea and Rosa Parks among them. This is a must for any young person’s bookshelf.
The little Life Portraits range of books are beautiful and make lovely presents — the Frida Kahlo one by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford is the best — bright and engaging for kids 6+. Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark’s new Three Little Monkeys is a fun, irreverent book with excellent pictures. It has just come out so is a good bet for Christmas.
Bob the Artist by Marion Dechurs is a brightly illustrated book about the power of art and confidence that parents won’t mind reading again and again (3+). The wonderful Andrea Beaty has a new book out, Ada Twist, Scientist. As soon as Ada (named in honour of the often overlooked computer scientist Ada Lovelace) learns to speak she starts asking questions and trying to solve the problems she sees around her. Fun and inspirational with brilliant illustration by David Roberts (check out Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect too).
Finally, Oliver Jeffers has a new book out with Sam Winston, A Child of Books. “I am a Child of Books. I come from a world of stories, And upon my imagination, I float.” Simply beautiful.