Our writers’ cultural and literary highlights of 2019
The five-part mini-series Chernobyl tells the dramatic story of the cataclysmic explosion and aftermath at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine in April 1986. Beyond lucidly explaining the science of the explosion, which it does without talking down to the audience, it exposes how the catastrophic events that unfolded were the outcome of the bureaucratic and repressive Soviet regime. A long outstanding test was fatally delayed because reducing the power threatened the end of month targets in the factories that it supplied. This was compounded by the fact that the political class ignored and suppressed repeated safety warnings from Soviet scientists. What follows is first disbelief and then a series of cover ups and secrecy by the bureaucracy. As a drama it is utterly compelling. You are transported back to 1980s Ukraine by the forensic detail paid to the physical details of the set (buildings, construction and clothes) filmed in a stark evocative style. The narration is largely through the well-scripted relationship between scientist Valery Legasov, charged with dealing with the accident, and Boris Scherbina, initially a sceptical career politician. The horror of slow death through radiation poisoning is told through the fate of one of the first firemen on the scene. The extraordinary soundscape by Hildur Guðnadóttir is captured from an actual power plant, including pumps, reactors and turbines. A series not to be missed.
The newly renovated Milton Keynes Gallery put itself on the national map with a fabulous Paula Rego retrospective, Obedience and Defiance. It was particularly special to see paintings from the series of images she produced showing the impact of dangerous and illegal abortions which played a role in the referendum which eventually legalised abortion in Portugal in 2007. Part of the ongoing Eulogy Project, the Eulogy Exhibition in Leeds movingly celebrated and explored the lives and legacy of Leeds’s first generation Jamaicans. Two poetry collections stood out for me this year. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan was published in July. I really enjoyed its exploration of sexuality, family, acceptance and rejection. I was haunted by Danez Smith’s 2017 collection Don’t Call Us Dead. Their sad, beautiful and hopeful poetry addressed themes such as their experience of being HIV positive, state violence against black people in America and spoke to resistance, resilience and a better world.
Rena Niamh Smith
The book I simply couldn’t put down was The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. Incredibly, the lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper had never yet been examined. The fact that they are simply written into history as prostitutes, yet were not only so much more than that, but not all even sold sex, speaks volumes of the lasting power of Victorian tabloid morality today. In fact, circumstance and social protocol were set in stone against them. It reminds us of working class, homeless and immigrant women’s place at the edge both then and now. Janelle Monae’s London date on her Dirty Computer tour was alt-pop at its brilliant best - upbeat, a little filthy, and women of colour together on stage giving a middle finger to the heteronormative sexism in power right now. Meanwhile, Welsh-Greek indie pop singer MARINA, who I saw at Latitude Festival, gives a fabulous, emotive performance in Love + Fear, her album released in April, and acoustic version released in September. I’m looking forward to watching Texan trio Khurangbin at the Brixton Academy in December. Their album blending soul, dub and psychedelia Hasta El Cielo is a dreamscape with interesting flourishes and global influences.
The 200th anniversary of Peterloo brought two new books that retell the story and unearth neglected aspects of that infamous day. Jacquline Ridings Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre is excellent, though Robert Poole’s Peterloo: The English Uprising is likely to be the definitive account. Kim Wagner’s Amritsar 1919 also looks at an anniversary of a massacre by the British government - this time in India. Talat Ahmed’s biography, Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience discusses resistance to British rule in India through a critical examination of Gandhi’s strategy. An important debate as mass non-violent civil disobedience is again on the agenda.
T M Devine’s The Scottish Clearances is a heartbreaking look at how capitalism in Scotland transformed the landscape and peoples of both the Lowlands and Highlands. Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities is a shocking but crucial read. Capitalism creates climate disaster and its cities make the perfect conditions for mass tragedy - bringing together class, poverty and racism in the face of floodwaters. Finally a personal indulgence, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s massive Thomas Cromwell: A Life has its flaws, but it’s a definitive account of Cromwell’s life and times. One to read while waiting for Hilary Mantel’s final volume.
Three exhibitions have stood out for me. Hew Locke at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was an exhibition where the more you looked and thought about it, the more it revealed. His work has layers of meaning and his works on migration and post-colonial history particularly resonated after the Windrush scandal, which continues today. I was also overwhelmed by the work of Faith Ringgold, which I had not come across before. Her show at the Serpentine Gallery in London over the summer was a revelation. She blends black American history and struggle with great art. But my favourite of the year is the current exhibition at Tate Modern of work by Nam June Paik. His art dates from the 1960s onwards; he died in 2006. He was influential on most post-60s art movements. His work is playful, subversive and funny. He foresaw the developments of video and internet art decades before it came to be. It is art that transcends the barriers; it is visual art and music and dance and performance. It is insightful, playful and fun. I love it.
This year was the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the design school that emerged after the 1919 revolution in Germany. I was fortunate to attend some of the exhibitions in Germany marking the centenary.
The exhibition at the Berlinische Gallery (until 27 January 2020) includes work by Bauhaus students during their six-month introductory courses on the principles of design, showing how the Bauhaus changed the way that art and design were taught – integrating art, craft and design. The links with the Arts and Crafts movement are explored in a small but interesting exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in London, until 26 January 2020. Bauhaus women were celebrated in a small exhibition at the temporary Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. The highlight was a visit to Dessau where the Bauhaus school was based from 1925-1932. Many of the Bauhaus buildings are still in working use while others have been restored as museum pieces. The new dedicated Bauhaus Museum has fascinating and varied exhibits, including excerpts from the press illustrating just how contested the movement was. Beware though, when it opened in September the museum only allowed visitors one hour for the whole exhibition. I was fortuitously in the toilet when the call to leave was announced so was unaware that I was extending my visit beyond the allocated time. If you make it to Dessau, you could try the same strategy.
Todd Phillips’s Marvel Comics spin-off Joker will, I suspect, come to be considered a classic of American cinema. It casts the title character, not as an inexplicably maniacal “supervillain”, but as Arthur Fleck, a desperately low waged, mentally unwell street clown and wannabe comedian, whose condition is compounded terribly by welfare cuts. The film portrays a modern American society wracked by austerity. When, in the face of boorish assaults on his dignity, Fleck cracks and carries out an act of violence that looks like vengeance against the rich, he becomes a hero to those protesting in the streets. Joaquin Phoenix gives an unforgettable central performance that is, simultaneously, heartbreakingly empathetic and explosively frightening. Robert De Niro plays a cynical talk show host who seizes on a video of Arthur bombing in a comedy club as an opportunity to get cheap laughs at the expense of an already broken man. Even without De Niro, the movie would deserve its comparisons with Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Some liberal commentators have argued that the film is politically reactionary. It is, in fact, a powerful indictment of social neglect and egregious inequality in the richest nation on Earth.
Small Island by Andrea Levy is my favourite novel this year. It made me laugh while bringing the lives of the Windrush generation to life: the forgotten role of colonial soldiers in the Second World War; the clash with racism in the “Mother” country. The high hopes of a Jamaican teacher coming to the UK, her experiences of racial disdain at the hand of the authorities and ordinary people, are all the more poignant when seen against the background of today’s Tory hostile environment. Levy had an outstanding ear for daily speech that she uses to great effect to portray people, human relationships and the contradictory responses of the working class in the UK. Swallows and Armenians by Karen Babayan is an eyeopener, particularly for anyone familiar with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Babayan, a British Iranian of Armenian descent, investigates the children behind Ransome’s story, a family of Anglo-Armenians, brought up in Aleppo in Syria. Their mother, Dora Collingwoood, an old friend of Ransome, married an Armenian surgeon. The whole family returned to Coniston once a year where they teamed up with Ransome and his wife. Those seemingly pure white quintessentially middle class English children were anything but.
Britain’s burgeoning jazz scene is continuing to produce some fantastic music. It is a particular joy watching and listening to young artists collaborating and pushing each other onto new heights. This autumn has seen the release of a succession of excellent albums including Binker Golding’s Abstractions of Reality Past and Incredible Feathers and Ashley Henry’s Beautiful Vinyl Hunter. Meanwhile we should never forget those who laid the foundations. If you haven’t seen Amazing Grace, the wonderful film of Aretha Franklin’s triumphant 1972 Los Angeles gospel concerts, then do yourself a favour and buy a copy of the recently released DVD. In the world of literature, The Nickel Boys is a worthy follow up to Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad. Set in the era of the Civil Rights Movement it follows the story of two boys trapped in a hellish juvenile reformatory in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. Finally, 2019 witnessed the passing of Toni Morrison, one of the true giants of Black literature. Mouth Full of Blood, her final book published in February, is a collection of “essays, speeches and meditations”. It is well worth reading alongside her masterpieces such as Beloved and Song of Solomon.
The best TV of this year is surely Chernobyl, a series with no clear heroes and long discussions on the science of a nuclear power plant, yet remarkably able to draw us into this exploration on disaster and the state. At a much faster pace is Money Heist, a great Spanish series with the largest non-English audience on Netflix. Anxiously described as a “dangerous symbol of rebellion”, this is a heist that draws from the indignados movement in Madrid, the people against the banks, and with an anti-fascist soundtrack of Bella Ciao. In contrast, HBO’s Succession is a window into the rich and powerful of America and all of the characters are awful in their own special way, dripping with greed and insecurity. I considered stopping after episode two as everyone was so unlikeable, but luckily I continued as this is devastatingly sharp TV with fantastic performances. Marx’s famous description of the capitalist class as a “band of warring brothers” is hilariously brought to life through a family tied together yet viciously competing as they scavenge over their father’s corporate corpse. Finally, as winter begins, His Dark Materials on the BBC is off to a promising start with big magical sets that stretch the imagination and might finally do justice to Pullman’s books.
Daniel Snowman’s The Gilded Stage is a book that has stood the test of time. Originally published in 2009, it is a comprehensive tour of the world of opera. From its origins in the courts of northern Italy, to its internationally recognised position in modern culture, Snowman explores the social history of opera houses and impresarios, composers and partrons, artists and audiences. The rubber barons of the Amazon flaunted their “parvenu” wealth by erecting an opera house in Manaus. Opera has truly acquired a global reach in our times. More opera is performed, financed, seen, heard, filmed and broadcast than ever before, and the world’s leading performers are worshipped and paid like pop stars. Yet the art form is widely dismissed as “elitist”. Snowman describes how the world of opera has always known crisis and uncertainty — and the resulting struggles have often proved every bit as dramatic as those portrayed onstage. The book also charts Verdi’s part in Italy’s self-definition, and Wagner’s role in German nationalism. Snowman also describes how the early Soviet period witnessed an artistic flowering with Bolshevism determined to bring culture to the masses. Russia’s “virgin audiences” found themselves treated to radical new productions of tried and tested classics. Marxists may not agree with every description in the book but readers will be greatly encouraged to discover or deepen their appreciation of opera.
Top Boy season 3 on Netflix has to be my pick of the year. It highlights the difficulties that young working class people face today. It tackles the issues of drugs and how people fall into gangs. Moreover, it is reflective of the society we live in, with one particular scene set in Kent highlighting some of the racist attitudes that have developed there. Even though it is not as sharp as the earlier seasons and has a tendency to glorify some of the violent aspects, it is still a gritty look at life in London.
At the risk of sounding uncultured, I would rarely put a Shakespeare production on my list of highlights. However, in August I had the honour of watching a young actor make his debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, London. Jermaine Freeman is a young man I have known since his early teens. He only started acting 18 months ago having joined The Big House, a north east London based theatre which works with young care-leavers. He was gobsmacked when he got the part of Flute in Nicholas Hytner’s production, alongside Gwendoline Christie as Titania/Hippolyta, Hammed Animashaun as a fantastic Bottom and David Moorst as an acrobatic and witty Puck. The performance was a mix of circus thrills and comedy set in an enchanted forest — a dream world of flying fairies, mysterious fogs and moonlight revels. Audience members with immersive tickets could literally follow the story on foot. The show was genuinely spectacular with gender fluid roles and a full rendition of Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”. The finale was like a party, with massive furry baubles being bounced between cast and audience. Having opted for a standard seat, I wished I had gone for the whole immersive effect so that I would have been at the party instead of watching it. I will definitely be returning to the Bridge Theatre for future productions if they are half as enthralling as this one.
Rhiannon Giddens at the Royal Festival Hall was a revelation. She educates and inspires, taking you on a journey through American roots music and its connections to slavery and black history, via Italy, Brazil, Cuba, Ireland and the Middle East. She’s also a fantastic singer and multi-instrumentalist. Cindy Sherman’s portraits are by turns funny, clever and disturbing. They play with ideas of representation, women’s bodies in a sexist world, and the inherent fakery involved in image-making. The major retrospective of her work at the National Portrait Gallery this year was a fantastic opportunity to survey her whole career. The themes remain similar over four decades, but feel fresh in today’s world of Instagram and selfies. Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe, with its speeches about England and forced exile, was powerful in the shadow of the Windrush Scandal. The production was entirely made up of black women, and as soon as they stepped onto the stage, dressed in fabulous costumes and singing, my spine tingled. This summer EastEnders skilfully wove together several storylines to produce an outstanding Pride episode, which showed how far we’ve come but also how much there is still to fight for. Another espisode saw old favourite Dr Legg return. On his death bed he recounted meeting his future wife at the Battle of Cable Street. Interwoven with real footage of the protests, the scenes were poignant and uplifting. But I must admit the TV highlight that I’ve returned to once or twice on YouTube is the episode of spoof daytime TV show This Time with Alan Partridge when his doppelganger starts singing Irish rebel song “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans” on the sofa. Classic.
The best new book I read this year was the outstanding biography of Eric Hobsbawm by Richard Evans, a leading historian of 20th century Germany. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History draws heavily on the great Marxist historian’s personal papers. We learn about his rather sad childhood (both his parents died young), his political baptism as a teenage Communist in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, and his long career as a historian and increasingly prominent public intellectual. Evans reconstructs the twists and turns of Hobsbawm’s interior thinking and tells us maybe more about his sex life than we would like to know. But although Evans shows a sympathetic understanding of Hobsbawm’s refusal ever to apologise for his Communism, his liberalism means he cannot give a serious assessment of the strengths and limitations of Hobsbawm’s Marxism. This leaves a gaping hole at the centre of the book.