Our writers' cultural and literary highlights of 2017
I am a big fan of Irish writer Sebastian Barry; his work is inventive, evocative and flows like poetry. His latest novel, Days Without End, follows one of the McNulty family, Thomas, on his emigration from Ireland to escape the Famine. The American Civil War is the backdrop to this rich and powerful tale that explores the violence of war and love and sexuality as Thomas falls in love with fellow soldier John Cole and they fight to survive.
The multimedia shows of deep house DJ, DJ Sprinkles and his alternative persona Terre Thaemlitz are never predictable. They are part musical performance, part political polemic. I was lucky enough to catch one of Thaemlitz’s this year, it unfolded as a musical and philosophical take on the experience being trans, gender politics and the family. The evening included a showing of the Bugs Bunny cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? Thaemlitz gave a simultaneous critique of its portrayal of gender that had the audience in stitches, but also made a serious point.
Thaemlititz is very protective about keeping work offline so if you get the chance for a thought provoking live performance take it!
Finally I devoured Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex; it is popular science at its best. Crammed with evidence written with a deceptively light touch, it destroys multiple myths on gender and masculinity.
The anniversary of the Russian Revolution has triggered an awful lot of rubbish but among the chaff there have been some notable seeds. Tate Modern has a current exhibition from the Dave King collection of posters, Red Star over Russia (on till 18 February 2018) alongside an exhibition of modern conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future. The musical highlight was an amazing performance of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony by the BBC symphony orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov at the Barbican.
The exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey in the summer, Dreamers Awake, claimed to show the continuing attraction of surrealism to women artists. It had some powerful and provoking works by Louise Bourgeois, Rosemarie Trockel, Kiki Smith, Paloma Varga Weisz, Mona Hatoum, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, among others. I could not see much connection to surrealism but the works by Tracey Emin (whose politics are appalling but whose art continues to intrigue) and Louise Bourgeois’s work was particularly powerful.
Finally, I read David Toop’s Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, an amazing work analysing the politics, history and story of radical musical developments up to 1970.
Art Fund Museum of the Year The Hepworth Wakefield is a joy for fans of sculpture and well worth visiting. It is an exciting building, a fine tribute to the significant sculptor Barbara Hepworth and a site of fun and innovation for visitors. Highlights this year included JW Anderson’s Disobedient Bodies, which explored links between fashion and art and challenged gender norms, and the first Hepworth Prize for Sculpture.
I have taken time to enjoy and celebrate the poetry of Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott following his death in March. Musician and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s reading of Walcott’s classic “Love After Love” on Newsnight in memory of him was stunning.
Picasso and the Masters of Print at The Higgins Bedford explored the art of printing by drawing from their fantastic collection. The Higgins remains one of my favourite regional galleries.
Henry Moore’s public sculpture “Old Flo” returned to east London having spent many years in Yorkshire after the housing estate she was gifted to in Stepney was demolished. She has been re-sited in the financial district of Canary Wharf; not what Moore had in mind and her return to a working class residential area will be a future highlight!
Three doughty old stalwarts, Courtney Pine, Robert Plant and Benjamin Zephaniah have all released excellent albums this autumn. I’m hoping to catch them in action in 2018. Unquestionably my album of 2017 though was Stormzy’s brilliant debut Gang Signs & Prayers. It will be interesting to see how he follows it up.
One of my live performance highlights of this year was Nicola Benedetti’s beautiful rendition of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 at the Proms. Benedetti is clearly fulfilling her early promise and is an infectious and generous artist who lifts those around her.
My holiday reading includes Roddy Doyle’s latest novel Smile, a poignant tale of institutional abuse, and Roger Steffens’s So Much Things To Say, an oral history of Bob Marley.
I plan to watch Ken Burns and Geoffrey C Ward’s ten-part series, The Vietnam War on BBC iplayer, during the break. Elsewhere, Dee Rees’s film Mudbound set in Mississippi during the Second World War and showing simultaneously in cinemas and Netflix is a hot Oscar tip. Holidays are a good time to binge on boxsets. I’m a season behind on Orange is the New Black and really like The Affair. Snowfall is also worth checking out on iplayer.
Much of my favourite viewing this year dealt in fresh ways with women’s oppression, trauma and abuse. The Handmaid’s Tale obviously caught the mood of America today, while the Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an E, interpreted the beloved red-headed orphan’s wild imagination and incessant chatter as coping mechanisms. It also brought in topics not discussed in the 1908 novel — such as Anne getting her first period. Lady Macbeth, the story of a young bride who refuses to be contained, was an exceptional first feature by director William Oldroyd.
But the most remarkable thing I’ve seen this year has to be the return of Twin Peaks. More than 25 years on, David Lynch refused to give us what we might have thought we wanted — a reunion of our favourite characters in the Double R Diner — and instead produced a series of challenging and indelible images. It was slow and sometimes gruelling viewing, but you also got rewarded with pay-offs that had me in tears of joy and sadness.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy this year released Best Troubadour, an album of Merle Haggard covers, which has grown on me. Haggard was a hugely influential country music artist, and here Bonnie Prince Billy takes his less well known songs and brings something different to them — for one thing, some of Haggard’s swagger is gone.
I’ll start with Judith Orr’s superb book Abortion Wars. Powerful and deeply moving, it is extraordinarily relevant and everyone should read it. In the aftermath of Grenfell, this is also true of Glyn Robbins new book There’s No Place, a comparison between public housing in the US and UK. The stories of resistance to the neoliberal machine in the two countries are inspiring, and we are left with little doubt as to the future of housing if we do not fight.
I enjoyed Katrina Navickas’s historical and geographic study, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 — a fascinating look at how that era’s struggles played out in British urban areas. Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg’s book Toussaint Louverture looks at the Haitian revolutionary’s life in a similar period and is unmissable for anyone wanting to understand the Haitian Revolution.
Ian Angus’s A Redder Shade of Green is a crucial study of the links between Marxism and science — something for anyone trying to develop a radical understanding of capitalism’s ecological crisis. Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism is a challenging read, but its detailed study of how Marx developed the ecological core to his ideas repays study.
It has been a good year for theatre goers and I was very glad to have caught Glenda Jackson in her return to the stage in King Lear. In a very clean, stripped down production Jackson ruled the stage. Bertolt Brecht made a comeback with the excellent Young Vic production of Galileo, Brecht’s brilliant examination of science, the infinite and the price an honest person has to pay.
I was lucky to get hold of the long out of print The Novel and The People by Ralf Fox. The author demonstrates the power of clear, simple, Marxist writing. Despite being written during the popular front period the book is a great example of clear dialectical thinking on culture.
I also read two inspiring books on photography. John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph in which he applies his method of looking at art to the medium and the collection of Susan Sontag’s essays On Photography which had a major impact in showing that photography could be a real art.
2017 has been a year where ideas from the past have been reborn. So I’ve enjoyed returning to a nostalgia filled Stranger Things, a fast paced delve into a horrifying upside world with a backdrop of 1980s America that doesn’t seem any less terrifying. The stultifying feelings of family life, Cold War paranoia, punks and the Goonies all bring series two to life.
One for the Northern Lights generation, Philip Pullman takes us back to the enchanted world of Lyra’s Oxford in the first of this three part prequel, The Book of Dust. With daemons, aletheometers and that elusive “dust”, I found myself being drawn back into a world that evoked all the feelings of curiosity I had reading His Dark Materials as a child.
Staying in different worlds, Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless nights is a podcast that has seen me through many hellish commutes on privatised rail, offering sounds and stories beneath the surface of what could appear as just one more ordinary night on planet earth.
Finally, filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki brings us abruptly into a harsh yet human present. The Other Side of Hope connects a Finnish older man and a younger Syrian asylum seeker who has just arrived in Helsinki. Beautifully interweaving themes of melancholy and surrealism, it tells the story of friendship between outsiders.
I’ve returned to my Eng.Lit. anti-family roots this year. Hampstead Theatre’s superb stage adaptation of The Slaves of Solitude, set in a boarding house in Henley in 1943, reconnected me to novelist Patrick Hamilton, who rooted through the aspirations and terrors of women, black people and gays in the chaos of the Second World War, rather like ransacking a tidy sock drawer for something dirty hidden within. Sticking to novels of this era, I loved Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women again and an Elizabeth Taylor I hadn’t read: A Wreath of Roses. Both ache with resignation, warning of relationships that look good but conceal horrible dangers.
The 1967 Sexual Offences Act commemorations put my beloved 1961 film Victim on at the BFI. I sobbed and shuddered at its heartrending nuances, but my New Zealander companion sat unmoved; afterwards she said that posh British “stageiness” is hated back home. 1967/17 also prompted a screening at south London’s Cinema Museum — an industrial cave of flickering lights, plus cake — of The L-Shaped Room (1962), again set in a boarding house but here the multicultural outcast residents learn to cherish one another in a London that’s groping towards the cataclysmic social upheavals about to come.
A century on from the Russian Revolution ordinary people’s willingness to fight back and confront tyranny is vividly captured in Other Russias, Victoria Lomasko’s extraordinary work of graphic reportage from contemporary Russia. Covering everything from the Pussy Riot trial to impromptu truck driver strikes, it is a gripping feat of journalism. The COUM Transmissions show at the Humber Street Gallery in Hull and Boom For Real, the Jean Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican in London were the most powerful and provocative art exhibitions I saw this year.
My favourite albums of 2017 are Terminal by Circle, Drunk by Thundercat, What Passes for Survival by Pyrrhon, Hiss Spun by Chelsea Wolfe, Sacred by The Obsessed and MASSEDUCTION by St Vincent. Arrow Film’s reissue of both the short films and animation by legendary Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s long — lost TV drama Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day put most of current television to shame.
These unflinching, excoriating works were only matched in the present day by the shattering TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and the compelling political thriller Guerrilla.
The darkly comic satire Get Out was the standout Hollywood film, playing with expectations of race and racism in the US.
An excellent new collection of writings African American Anti-Colonial Thought 1917-1937 edited by Cathy Bergin, makes a good reminder of the impact the October Revolution had on black activists. The immense excitement of black activists trying to set up a class based resistance to racism is well worth remembering.
It’s a good time for science fiction and the fantastic on TV with the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale, the heart-warming Stranger Things, the political intrigue mixed with wonder in The Expanse, much time passing in Twin Peaks, the psychedelic, surreal and unsettling Legion and the relentless conclusion of The Leftovers.
Be Magnificent at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, celebrated Walthamstow School of Art when Peter Blake was a lecturer and Ian Dury a student in the 1950s and 1960s. When all things were possible and artists didn’t have to be rich.
My favourite band, Orchestra Baobab from Senegal, released a tight and danceable new album, Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng, and toured proving that the death of their singer and retirement of their guitarist would not halt them.
Eve R Stone Light
The past few years have finally seen an upsurge in imaginative books for young kids.
The Little People, Big Dreams series is inspiring. Each beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a woman who achieved great things — Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Emmeline Pankhurst and Marie Curie. The stories begin with a little girl with a dream — true inspiration. They are aimed at ages five to eight but are a great present for kids of all ages.
The second version of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has just been released in the US — huge sigh of relief from me having read from the first book every night this year. The new version has the stories of 100 more mighty women — expect Audrey Hepburn, Nefertiti and Beyoncé. Kate Pankhurst has just launched a very good (and reasonably priced) Activity Book to accompany her Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World — a brilliant present for 6 to 12 year olds.
Finally two to look out for in 2018. Daniel Gray-Barnett’s debut, Grandma Z is out in spring and is both beautifully illustrated and a cracking story — it’s for younger kids. March will see publication of Michael Morpurgo’s retelling of Robin Hood, illustrated by the stunningly talented Michael Foreman. Finally, have a look at Pax by Sara Pennypacker, my young person’s book of the year.
One of the saddest aspects of 2017 was the passing of John Berger, aged 90. Nevertheless his engagement with the world, in the form of writing, TV and sometimes painting, made for a great legacy. As so often when someone like him dies, only then do we return to works created many years earlier. This is what I did with A Seventh Man, a collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, first published in 1975.
In it Berger considers the life of migrant workers in Europe. Its strengths are many. One of these is the photos, which do much more than just stand as a counterpoint to the text. It has weaknesses too, particularly a pessimism about the potential for European trade unions to organise migrants together with “native” workers. This is something that in Britain has been overcome in many but by no means all areas.
But at its heart is a feeling for the lived experience of the author’s fellow human beings under an inhumane economic system. This was central to Berger’s Marxism — the understanding that we are shaped inside and out by our encounters with the world, and that apprehending the impact of these forces on individuals is a vital way of understanding this society and one day replacing it with something better.
The best book I have read this year is Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins. Hamilton was deeply involved in the 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak in Egypt, and this is his fictionalised account of that intoxicating moment. It is easily the best novel that I have ever read about what it means to live through a revolution — the explosion of light and sound with epic consequences and no room for ego or doubt.
However, Hamilton’s book has been widely criticised on the left because it is written in an unusual style. For me the syncopated prose style itself helps capture the heat, the adrenalin, the sheer visceral excitement of revolution. The second tired criticism is that it is too depressing because it tells the story of a revolution that was betrayed and ultimately defeated. Well that’s history for you. The fact is that those of us on the left mainly have to learn our political lessons from defeats. As Hamilton says, “the memory of possibility is all we have”.
Except it’s not quite all we have. The Russian Revolution remains that one single burning example of possibility becoming reality, and this is beautifully captured in China Miéville’s October. This wildly inventive book melds the objectivity and scholarship of good history with the artistry and dramatic control of a good novel. And unlike The City Always Wins, it has a happy finish. Miéville writes of “a new moment of history, a new kind of first day…making a new kind of city, the capital of a workers’ state”. For once we conquered the city. Read them together.
The bloody birth of the American state has inspired a wealth of fiction and three that I have read this year really made their mark on me. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is a lyrically poignant story of an Irish migrant Thomas McNulty, fleeing the famine in the 1850s and embarking on the life of a soldier fighting against the Native Americans and subsequently in the Civil War. It centres on the gay love affair between McNulty and a fellow soldier, John Cole, who adopt a Native American daughter, Winona. The exploration of sexual fluidity against a background of poverty and violence is one of those rare books that can reduce the reader to tears, laughter and amazement in equal measure. Barry dedicates it to his son Toby who had come out as gay.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation who seizes the opportunity to escape. It manages to be brutal, deeply emotional and has a real political depth as well as being a nail-biting adventure story.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is an epic account of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the final days of the Old West led by two retired Texas rangers, Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call.
It is interesting that all three books deal with harsh and violent times which were subsequently idealised into the enduring myth of the birth of the country. Reading the history of the period can puncture the myths, but fiction of this quality can bring to life human experiences, feelings and relationships that remind us that it is men and women who actually make history, but in times that are not of their own choosing.