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 The Hearsay blog » Counting backwards: odd things from 2009, for what it's worth

 0 Comments- Add comment | Back to Blog Written on 06-Feb-2010 by neil_p

Last night I caught myself reading a book called Churchill's Wizards while en route to see the nail-biting bomb-disposal saga The Hurt Locker at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Ten years ago, I would have been reading something by Carol Shields en route to an Eric Rohmer film. I hope I'm not becoming a version of Mark Corrigan ('Mark Borrigan', say). But perhaps it's more about looking for insight and diversion from a broader range of sources than before. Since I stopped trying to keep up with everything, it's often surprising where truly unexpected delights can be found. Thinking back over this year, for instance, I surprised myself into a conclusion that the tribute to Rodgers & Hart at Cadogan Hall in the summer was possibly one of the most exquisite concerts I've ever attended. You don't need too many new songs when some of the most playful, ingenious and urgent ones (My Romance, It Never Entered My Mind, He Was Too Good to Me, I Could Write a Book, and, especially, the almost other-worldly Where or When) were written in the 1920s, and these were immaculately arranged, and lovingly contextualised. I, and the audience of David Jacobs-alikes, were charmed from the off and I haven't enjoyed live music so much in years. Have I lost everyone, or shall I plough on?

Other things enjoyed (as always, not a best-of list, merely an inventory of delights):

Exhibitions
The Russian Linesman/Mark Wallinger - Hayward Gallery
Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite - Royal Academy (the 18 year old in me would have loved this; I was pleased to find I enjoyed it much the same at twice that age)

Music
Astrid Williamson - Here Come the Vikings (flamboyant, complex return to form)
God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl (calculatedly sweet)
Various - Dark Was the Night (heady, arcane)
Various - Cohen: The Scandinavian Report (staggeringly good Cohen covers by many of our Swedish heroes and heroines help us fall in love with old friends all over again)
Emmy the Great - Emmy the Great (manic pixie dream girl makes delightful sounds)

Films
Adventureland (pitch-perfect; loveable; this and the endearing Bandslam make me glad that it's not all Skins lifestyles for Skins viewers; then again, no one actually went to either of these films so perhaps their market is exclusively nostalgic adults)
Broken Embraces (a complex tease - better if you know nothing about it before it starts)
An Education (seductively composed, lovingly cast; and celluloid evidence that a cup of tea and three Custard Creams solve everything for most English people)
The Hurt Locker (astonishingly confident film-making. The strength of this film lies entirely in plunging the viewer, with absolute conviction and mastery, into the mind and body of someone, somewhere, we would never expect to be. Ironically, it was directed by the predictably incredible Kathryn Bigelow, whose ex-husband, James Cameron, has just cleaned up with bloated, hokey 70s sci-fi rubbish based on a premise involving inhabiting others' bodies.) 

TV
That five-part misanthropic Torchwood extravaganza was surprisingly entertaining and provocative. Usually Torchwood has the rare feat of being even more embarrassing, overwrought and clunky than Doctor Who (and, let's face it, chasing aliens in Cardiff isn't necessarily any cooler or more inherently dramatic than delivering milk in Basingstoke). But it was fun to see 70s-style moral complexity and misanthropy seeping into prime-time television. There was so much other great stuff on TV this year, I'll never remember it all. Intelligent programming like Horizon, Storyville and True Stories clamour for my attention regularly, to the extent that I almost feel obliged to watch them irrespective of subject matter. And I now feel about BBC Four the way I used to feel about GLR - that it alone justifies the licence fee. Micro Men and Desperate Romantics both caught the tone of hyper-real, irreverent biography; the many series of programmes (Electric Dreams, Games Britannia etc) offered schedules stuffed with treats. Special mention to that episode of Timewatch Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry - heart-warming one moment, heart-mangling the next.  Wonderland is an almost-worthy successor to the 1990s Modern Times, and the episode I Won University Challenge was sweetly fraternal. The poetry season produced many touching moments, including the moving My Life in Poetry by Robert Webb and Sheila Hancock, both of which reminded me of the hothouse earnestness of English A-level classes. Elsewhere, Charlie Brooker is spreading himself too thinly, but continues to perform an essential function in society. Finally, although most TV programmes are far too long these days (to pack out the infinite schedules), the repeated Arena interview with Orson Welles managed to be far too short at three hours and was probably the best thing on TV throughout the Christmas season.

Books
I haven't read the books I meant to read this year, but having waited fifteen years for a new Lorrie Moore novel, I can wait a few more months till The Gate at the Stairs appears in paperback. Among the random proof copies I picked up, would say Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers was my number 1 book of the year (and numbers 3, 7, 11 and 13). And the targets of Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher might have been obvious but were decorously picked off. Francine Prose's Goldengrove had one of the loveliest final chapters of any book I've read in the last decade and is the first book I've ever read on the tube which has caused a fellow passenger to grab me to discuss it with me, excitedly. 

Theatre
Enron offered everything I expect from theatre and so rarely get - complex issues presented in the form almost of an hallucinatory altered state, to reach a kind of understanding straight fiction and documentary alike can only skirt. In its own way, Red, a series of fictionalised spirited debates between Rothko and his studio assistant, did the same thing - setting up argument and  letting it run, unresolved, as if the flames in the crucible are their own reward.

Games
I'm not much of a gamer, but Assassin's Creed II was just beautiful.

Websites
Ultra Culture offers the perfect response to the kind of films emerging right now, and in a manner the internet demands. I am very happy that it is produced by someone who has only just finished his A levels. The antithesis of the Ultra Culture mode of criticism is epitomised by the venerable Roger Ebert, whose reviews I still always enjoy and still nearly always disagree with. But since he lost the power of speech, his blog has become a constantly provocative and engaging source of wisdom and debate - fiery and frank, the broader range enables him to speak louder than ever.

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