Pick of the year

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Our writers’ cultural and literary highlights of 2018

Eve R Stone Light

There was an evening during the hot sunny summer and Beyonce and Jay-Z were on stage in East London. Every time I think of it, I smile.

My favourite book of the year turned out to be the first book I read, Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. It is quite simply a masterpiece. I am hoping to find Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered under the Christmas tree.

The V&A’s Frida Kahlo exhibition was criticised as over curated but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Video footage of her and Trotksy in her garden was a highlight. Her recently published You Are Always With Me, Letters to Mama would make a lovely present.

For smaller Frida fans the Mudpuppy range of Little Feminist board books are brilliant! The range includes a lockable diary — the dream of young feminists everywhere I am told.

For older kids, Jess Butterworth’s novels (her latest is When the Mountains Roared) are engaging and thought provoking.

Reading Andy Mulligan’s Trash led my kids to start an anti-plastic campaign at school making their school milk company use more sustainable packaging. Books that inspire action, my kind of books


Martin Empson

Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm is a short but important defence of the Marxist approach to understanding environmental crisis in the face of recent attacks from within the left. Controversially Charlie Clutterbuck’s Bittersweet Brexit begins by arguing that Brexit offers an opportunity to rebuild Britain’s agriculture and food system to benefit farmers, workers, consumers and the environment. Highly recommended.

Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity looks at the question of identity politics from a Marxist viewpoint — it’s got a lot of useful ideas in a short space, and is a very important contribution to debates among those fighting oppression.

Emily Winterburn’s The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel is a wonderful autobiography that celebrates Herschel’s contribution to science, in the context of a slowly changing scientific 18th century world, still stifled by sexism and tradition. Herschel became Britain’s first female paid scientist, who continues to inspire today.

Stopping fascism today means understanding its history, and Julia Boyd gives an interesting perspective through stories visitors to 1930s Germany in Travellers in the Third Reich. Finally Shaun Jeffery’s Village in Revolt is a new account of the Burston School strike, the “longest in history” in the context of rural discontent and trade unionism.


Rebecca Townesend

The Piece Hall in Halifax is a unique and spectacular building. Built in 1779 for cloth trading, the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution meant it was no longer in that use by 1867. Following conservation it reopened last year, including a museum explaining its post cloth trading history along with spaces for art and performance.

I saw “The List” as part of the Liverpool Biennial. Banu Cenneto lu has facilitated up-to-date and translated versions of “The List” since 2007, detailing the 34,000 deaths of refugees and migrants who have died in or on the border of Europe since 1993. “The List” in Liverpool was twice torn down and after the second occasion it was decided not to repair it. It was extraordinarily moving in its projection of solidarity and its damaged state also starkly demonstrated the rising tide of racism.

The intimate and tender Over The Moon by Imtiaz Dharker was a poetry highlight. Described by her publisher Bloodaxe Books, she “was born in Pakistan, grew up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow, was adopted by India and married into Wales”. I will be exploring her other collections in 2019.


Noel Halifax

The rise of racism across the world has provoked a response in the art scene. It is typical that all this year’s finalists for the Turner Prize have political works. Artists old and new have dealt with issues around refugees and politics. For example, Yoko Ono has a new album, Warzone, and even some of the now old Young British Artists of the 1980s (known for embracing neoliberalism) have embraced the Zeitgeist.

But for me the greatest art was not new. Egon Schiele’s work is part of an exhibition (along with Gustav Klimt) at the Royal Academy until 3 February 2019. I found it overwhelming. How can Schiele have found a new way of drawing the one type of art that has been done over and over since the 13th century, the nude? There are times when words cannot describe the power of an artwork and for me this is one. Oozing raw sex they are a revelation.

Also great was the prints of Otto Dix on show at the Tate Britain in the spring. The third piece of art of 2018 was “The Clock” at the Tate Modern, a 24 hour film by Christian Marclay that is completely engrossing. A final mention must go to the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern this autumn.


Rena Niamh Smith

For me, Killing Eve far surpassed the Bodyguard for killer drama of the year. It was a zingy shot of tonic to a genre heavy on male casting and stereotyped plotlines. Instead, Killing Eve was original in twists, laugh-out-loud funny, and costumes were full of intriguing meaning and part of the fun of this stylish series, notably that pink Molly Goddard dress with biker boots worn defiantly spread over the psychiatrist’s couch.

Steve McQueen’s Widows similarly put women front and centre. Mixing realism, McQueen works every element from casting to storyboarding to pack this heist movie with socio-political insights.

RAY BLK, who grew up in Lewisham, has spoken out about underinvestment in underprivileged communities. Her single Run Run explores the everyday violence faced by the youth, and her album Empress is brilliant.

Blaxploitation by Noname mixes spoken word and syncopated rhythms to comment on racial frustrations in 2018. The album Room 25 has been described as cosmic jazz and neo-soul, an internal monologue that’s romantic and sharp.

But repeat play of the summer had to be Chromeo’s Head Over Heels. The French Canadian duo’s synth heavy blend of electro funk is as irreverent as it is sexy.


Brian Richardson

In 2018 we were treated to previously unreleased material by two musical giants. Both Directions at Once was recorded by saxophone legend John Coltrane in 1963. Twenty years later Prince sketched out the material which has been packaged as Piano & A Microphone.

The stand out track from this wonderful recording, the maestro’s version of “Mary Don’t You Weep”, features in Spike Lee’s film BlacKKKlansman. Though far from flawless, particularly in its portrayal of the police, this is a fine film. In its final scene we are transported from the 1970s to 2017 and the sickening murder of Heather Hayer in Charlottesville. It is a powerful and poignant comment on the “green light” that “Agent Orange”, as Lee calls Trump, has given to racists.

Janelle Monae’s album Dirty Computer and Christine & the Queens album Chris are thoughtful and challenging but also funky and fun.

Looking forward to 2019, I’m eager to hear how Stormzy follows up his phenomenally successful 2017 debut Gang Signs & Prayer. Meanwhile, lead single “Like Sugar” is a tantalising glimpse of what is to come from R&B superstar and erstwhile drummer Chaka Khan in 2019. I also plan to check out the new season at London’s Young Vic theatre, now under the stewardship of Kwame Kwei-Armah.

I loved Jonathan Coe’s early novels particularly What A Carve Up! and The Rotters Club, so wonder what his new one, Middle England, will tell us about Brexit Britain.


Ken Olende

The gloriously silly Irish TV sitcom The Young Offenders never ducks serious issues but keeps a light touch. I thoroughly enjoyed the film Black Panther — a standard Marvel blockbuster but with an almost entirely black cast and marvellous Afro-futurist look. The Arkestra (the late jazz legend Sun Ra’s band) reminded us that they pretty much invented Afro-futurism when they played at the Union Chapel.

The biographical drama The Young Karl Marx directed by Raoul Peck is outstanding and though it was actually produced a couple of years back has only had very limited release this year. I was impressed by the powerful play The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson workshopped with Calais refugees, at London’s Playhouse theatre.

Of the current range of new books on black British identity, I’d particularly recommend journalist Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which is partly about being mixed heritage in leafy Wimbledon, but also talks of working class Tottenham and Ghana.


Judith Orr

How to Survive a Plague, by David France is a sucker punch of a book. It chronicles the impact of Aids and the activists who took on the search for a cause and a cure in the face of the homophobia of the political and medical establishment. France celebrates the struggles of all those who forced society to take notice of the deaths of thousands of, mainly, young gay men that decimated a generation. Follow @theaidsmemorial on Twitter to read tributes to hundreds of individuals, worldwide, who didn’t survive this plague.

Armistead Maupin’s Logical Family: A Memoir, touches on some of the same themes. As you would expect from the author of the Tales of the City this is beautifully written and it’s much more than a simple autobiography. It’s a story of a transformation both in Maupin’s own life as he escapes from his conservative background, but also about how repression in society was challenged by all those who refused to stay locked in the closet.

Finally I lifted a long published title off the shelf, and became utterly absorbed in this US family saga with a difference, the clue is in the title. If you haven’t read the novel, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, give yourself a treat.


Kevin Devine

The recent Irish folk music awards on RTE Radio 1 (the main Irish radio station) showed a scene in fine fettle, in which political expression and resistance to oppression is prominent. A highlight was the induction of John Reilly, the great singer — and Irish Traveller — into the Hall of Fame. This was a tribute to how Travellers kept the music alive during periods when it had a much smaller audience than currently. It also registered Travellers’ positive contribution to Irish culture and society in the wake of racist comments about them from Peter Casey, a candidate in Ireland’s recent presidential election.

As for those making the music today, if you still thought it was all old men with beards, you’d be wrong. Women and younger musicians and singers were to the fore, appropriately at a time when women are regaining long-lost rights. Lankum, the outfit that deservedly won best group and included the best singer (a woman — Radie Peat) recently signed to independent record label Rough Trade.

One of the comparatively older recipients was Andy Irvine, who accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award. Andy followed his acceptance speech with a performance of his tribute to Woody Guthrie, which includes the rousing chorus from Guthrie’s “All You Fascists (Are Bound to Lose)”. I’m glad to say it went down a storm with the audience. If you like music with heart and soul, the awards are still available via podcast. They’re a great introduction to a living tradition.


Kevin McCaighy

My cultural highlights of 2018 are a mixture of past and present. Constructive as well as critical, Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left by John Newsinger was the most important political book I read all year. Similarly, K Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher is a revelation, displaying just how politically acute creative journalism can truly be, and how great a loss Mark Fisher is.

Treasures such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Brechtian star vehicle Tout Va Bien and his adventures in collaborative cinema with the Dziga Vertov Group were finally reissued, as was the first ten years of Derek Jarman’s fiery poetic cinema in a lavish blu ray set from the BFI.

A torrent of amazing music has flowed through this year, some of my favourites are Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers, Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington, Jassbusters by Connan Mockasin, Freedom’s Goblin by Ty Segall, On Dark Horses by Emma Ruth Rundle, Our Raw Heart by YOB, Beastland by Author and Punisher, and Feel Great by Wrong.

Nicola Field

Yvonne Kapp’s vast 1976 political biography of Eleanor Marx kept me enthralled through autumn into winter — a fascinating portrait of Karl Marx’s daughter “Tussy”, a genius of political strategy and theory in her own right. Unlike 1880s bourgeois feminists who saw “equality” as a competition with men for money, power and status, Eleanor Marx demonstrated through industrial struggle that working class people can only win equality through unity. Many lessons for today. Eleanor was a confident activist made unhappy by a reprehensible man, also a socialist. In the same decade, Henry James wrote searching women characters inspired by social transformation but run into the ground by manipulators on the make. BBC Radio broadcast some superb James dramatisations. The Portrait of Lady, with its chilling depiction of the abusive Gilbert Osmond, was actually frightening to listen to. Thinking about relationships, I was inspired by Alexandra Kollontai’s biographer Cathy Porter to delve into that Russian revolutionary’s complex, dialectical fictions about women in transition between old ways and new expectations.

In the summer I stumbled across an exhibition in Charing Cross Road library on the revolutionary socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, curated by Alfio Bernabei. I really hope this amazing display of newspaper reports, minutes of meetings, photographs and letters will be seen by a bigger audience next year.


Hassan Mahamdallie

Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries and Black Panthers by Elaine Mokhtefi is a fascinating chronicle of the 1960s radical milieu that gravitated to newly independent Algeria — arriving in its capital in a state of voluntary or forced exile. Seen through the eyes of the author, a young politicised New Yorker, an array of figures move in an out of focus — from Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael to Frantz Fanon and Miriam Makaba.

The searing Windrush era play Leave Taking was recently revived at London’s Bush theatre. Written by Winsome Pinnock in 1987, this neglected masterpiece, a bitter lyrical commentary on the dashed dreams of a generation, is due to tour the UK next year.

I thought Phillipe Sands’ BBC podcast The Ratline made for brilliant radio. Human rights lawyer Sands and his team follow the still-warm trail of Nazi SS butcher Otto Wächter, who like many other high-ranking Nazis at the end of the Second World War, escaped justice through “the ratline” set up by powerful local sympathisers and Allied secret services.

Australian academic Yassir Morsi’s book Radical Skin, Moderate Masks gave me much food for thought. Published around about the same time as Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and written in a similar vein, Morsi’s book combines his personal journey with the politics of Frantz Fanon and other thinkers, to take down Islamophobia and challenge the pernicious liberal invention of the pacified “moderate Muslim”.


Liz Wheatley

I look forward to the Proms every summer and this year didn’t disappoint. Highlights included Marin Alsop (one of a handful of female conductors) with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing symphonies by Shostakovich and Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Youssou N’Dour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar and a night where Havana Meets Kingston. If you’ve never been to a Prom, keep an eye out in April for the schedule, it’s worth a punt.

An album worth getting this year is Prince’s Piano and a Microphone. This is a previously unreleased single take recording of a studio session in 1983. Some of the tracks appeared on later albums and have a listen to “Mary Don’t You Weep”.

Kamasi Washington released another superb album this year, Heaven and Earth. It’s a 5-record masterpiece, and look out for him performing in 2019, some gig dates have been announced.

I recently went to Stormzy’s launch of the first book for #Merky. I can’t comment on the book as I’m only just starting it, but the evening was excellent, particularly the spoken word performance by Bridget Minamore, and I’m looking forward to Stormzy’s new album coming out next year. Shame it’s too late to get Glastonbury tickets.


Simon Guy

Breaking Bad is the best series ever. There I said it, and I look forward to the letters. I have really enjoyed spin-off Better Call Saul, of which the fourth season continued the slow-boil dramatic beginnings of some characters. And yes it’s a bit getting the band back together but I don’t care. And it is slow but so what? A bit of tension is good for you, and rather much like real life. The moral decline of Walter White into a world inhabited by these sorts of people was fascinating but what was their story? Here you go.

It’s too late to start House of Cards from the beginning but I’m glad the latest season continued without you-know-who because Robin Wright is fantastic and although at first this instalment felt a little like the supporting acts have taken over she steps up and commands.

I was treated to a wonderful performance of the play Orphans by Dennis Kelly, put on by New Venture Theatre in Brighton. An incredibly talented cast of three danced along the fine line between hilarity and tragedy. It delivered some real questions about the family, poverty, racism and came packaged with tears and drool.


Sally Campbell

Two films have really made an impact on me this year. The first was Sebastian Lelio’s wonderful A Fantastic Woman, telling the story of a grieving woman, who because she is trans is rejected by her late partner’s family. The main performance and the fantastical elements of the filmmaking made it a powerful and memorable watch. Yours in Sisterhood, which showed at the London Film Festival, is a documentary with such a simple yet effective device. It takes unpublished letters sent to the mainstream US feminist magazine Ms in the 1970s and asks women in the same towns to read them out and respond to them. It conveys a huge amount about what has and hasn’t changed for women over the past five decades, as well as raising all sorts of questions about divisions and debates among those fighting for women’s liberation. Re-reading Chris Harman’s The Fire Last Time reminded me what a huge loss his untimely death was, and helped reground me again in the period which still shapes radical politics in all sorts of ways. But I have to say my cultural highlight of the year was the Bookmarks solidarity event, a week after far-right idiots attacked the shop in August. Dozens of authors and activists contributed to the day, but my personal favourite was Ann Mitchell reading Bernard Kops’ beautiful poem, “Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East”.