Wednesday, 29 March 2017

An earlier waveform

Readers and film fans be advised. This is another post about therapy that follows on from this. Happiness and contentment are to be found elsewhere. Hopefully in the pages of a good book. Or better still, on the streets, on a good demo.

As before I post it in the hope it might help someone else and because, somehow, it helps.

   Recently, after a particularly painful therapy session, I tipped into something close to depression. I still manage to go to work and function. I still manage smiles and jokes with the girls at school but really, if at all possible, I would choose to hide in my room for an extended period of time. I'm exhausted. A little prosaic you might think - there must be better places to hide. On a beach in Spain. Somewhere on the Amazon. A Nepalese mountain. In an Instanbul market. A Texan brothel. Uluru. A cocktail bar in Moscow. Somewhere awful, dangerous, exciting, seedy, stimulating. But no.

    Wanting to hide in my room was a bit of a clue. And watching Game of Thrones from the start was another. It seems the broken, lonely 45 year old is tussling with the broken, lonely teenager that has been struggling to find a satisfactory way to live these last 35 years. How dull. And nor is it an entirely satisfactory explanation - it forgets Helen, being a nurse, being an activist, being a volunteer, trying to put myself out there and in to the world. It forgets a good fifteen years perhaps although, without doubt, some of same coping strategies were in place through those years too.

It's like a flash bulb has gone off and, startled, I've reverted to an earlier waveform. Or I'm like a cyborg suddenly aware that he might not be human after all. Or one of those old fashioned PIs who realises his old wherewithal is no defence against the wider, colossal forces laughing at him.

I'm trying on genre tropes - it's like an episode of Mr Benn.

At one point last week I got home, and my very kind house mate asked what was wrong. I replied that I was feeling the futility and joylessness of existence and went to bed. If part of me can see, a few days later, the humour in this - I can't stop myself picturing Harry Enfield's Kevin - another part recognises that the depression is real, and that it is functional and purposive. I can't be like this anymore. I can't keep on living for such thin gruel. This is it - there is nowhere else to hide. Or rather, all my hiding places no longer offer the distractions and consolatory abstractions they once did.

This teenager is moody, angry, frustrated, sad and so, ridiculously sensitive. He's watching himself all those years ago create and finesse ways to survive: distractions and abstractions yes, but also empathy and adaptability, angles and facades. You can hide a lot of yourself and your needs in trying to care for others, or worse, trying to save them. To live, as my father repeated like a mantra, day to day. To be careful and watchful, ardent too. But all this is to be trapped in an eternal present, with elements of an inescapable past.

I discovered this recently:

"Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all."

It's from Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

What shines out at me from that most of all is the bit about enthusiasm of the moment? Can one be persistent in holding on to enthusiasms of the moment, for dear life? Fuck me, this, this sums up everything. And speaks to this, about the teleology of depression:

"Life is teleology par excellence; it is the intrinsic striving towards a goal, and the living organism is a system of directed aims which seek to fulfill themselves." Or not.

The surgeon.

(The unreleased horror episode). How did Cronenberg never make a film about a surgeon trying to scoop out bits out of himself with his hands? All that queasiness and dissatisfaction. All those techniques and strategies, all that expertise that just isn't fit for purpose. All that tiredness.

The astronaut

My survival suit was made in the 1970s and 80s and I need a new model. It's worn out with all the trying and with all the floating about. It has given up the ghost. Many ghosts actually. Am I full of ghosts or full of nothing?

It's a fairly traditional space suit - white, or maybe orange, with a clear front bubble to see through. If I looked in a mirror there'd be nothing inside. Just the hollow shell, sustaining the conditions for life but otherwise lacking agency and utterly fucking pointless. 

Make me something shiny and new. Something old and comfortable. I don't mind what the fuck it looks like. 

Who am I kidding? Of course I care what it looks like. Something stylish please, something cool. My survival suit: an essay on superficiality.

The magician.

In a cage of his own construction.
All that practise, all those careful escape plans. And now, seemingly, none.
Trapped in a performance of myself and for myself.

The dancer

Dancing to the tunes in his head: slave to the rhythm.
Waiting to be chosen.

The PI (again) (and the environmentalist, the activist, the socialist, the lover)

Damn this investigation.
It's going all wrong. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman

  The first time I read The Power I read it quickly and I enjoyed it. I decided it would make an ideal group read for the 6th formers introducing them to issues around feminism and oppression – a discursive text that would raise issues I suspected they wouldn’t have thought through extensively. Beyond that I felt a mild dissatisfaction. I felt betwixt and between – a novel of ideas that didn’t feel at all strange or disorientating mashed up with a fast plot-driven text of broad brush strokes whose characters, because they felt more like caricatures, I didn’t care about. The reread this week was in the hope of finding the layers that have made it an important text for readers and critics I admire, and a way of firing up my, sadly underused, critical faculties. I’ve found that there are elements that I like and admire about the text but if anything the reread has crystallized doubts I already had. I will assume you’ve read the book – what follows contains spoilers.

First I find myself somewhat suspicious of the framing device that bookends the novel: who is writing? we ask – Neil a figure from the future created by Naomi Alderman. So what is it that Alderman is telling us about Neil and his view of the past. For Neil this a historical novel, a project of reimagining and of using the sources, theories and ideologies at his disposal to document what went before. What subtleties are in the text to help the reader decode Neil’s bias, his aporias, his theories? How do I separate out Neil’s ideological inconsistencies from Alderman’s? This should be fascinating: such a device could be formally mischievous and ask difficult and interesting questions of the reader but in The Power it felt too easy, too cheap a way to add a layer of ambiguity without giving the reader the tools or the clues to manage these crucial distinctions. There is a strong possibility that this is THE set of questions that will determine your reading of the novel. If you can explain the problems in the text as Neil’s problems and misunderstandings, then you might appreciate the novel more than me. But I don’t think you can.

   There are narrative choices that worry at me a great deal: Saudi Arabia as the choice for the first great riots; and then later a visit to India; Moldova as the sight of much of the action; organized crime as a lever for much of the action; rape, abuse and trafficking as the main emotive levers that drive the plot. All these choices flirt with cliché but more importantly they divert us away from complexity and from the intersections of power that that make that complexity so difficult to rationalise and comprehend. None of these narrative decisions help to destabilise troubling binaries – the US as sophisticated barbarity vs the coarse barbarity that thrives on the periphery; the even the greater complexity of the West vs the greater simplicity of the East. Take the idea that Saudi Arabia would be the first place to ignite or that it is the correct choice for this text to focus on. It becomes a lazy shorthand for OPPRESSION rather than giving a sense of how women’s oppression intersects with profound religious belief, with class tensions and the privileges of wealth. It’s easy to hate the Saudi Arabian state for all kinds of reasons, and I do, but its use here doesn’t help me to understand the world’s complexities in any depth whatsoever.

Moreover, there is no sense in the book of how class tensions would play out more generally. How would conservative and Conservative women behave in the West? How would progressives – a left liberal alliance perhaps, combat the tensions and violence? How might men and women unite? How would the institutions of capitalism respond?  In a book that is a huge What if?, and a heady provocation, there are far too many ideas that go unexplored.

However, I’d go further - the text doesn’t know how to answer them or doesn’t judge them to be important enough. Late in the book Neil inserts some more portentous philosophizing in to his account, echoing the religious and scriptural tone of other parts of the text. Roxy and Tunde are wondering how humans could behave SO badly:

“One of them says, ‘Because they could’

That is the only answer there ever is” (287)

And then at the start of the next chapter:

“These things are happening all at once. These things are the one thing. They are the inevitable result of all that went before. The power seeks its outlet. These things have happened before, they will happen again. These things are always happening…..For the earth is filled with violence, and every living thing has lost its way.”

   Neil injects into his narrative the sense of history as circular and a religious understanding of the world that is moral and inevitable combining reactionary ideas about original sin and human nature. There is the sense in the book of course that the primacy of religious understanding in our world would mean that massive changes or catastrophes will be understood by large numbers of people in religious terms and manipulated and used by others. Good, that’s one of the things I like about the text. But there is nothing in the text that even begins to suggest that agency and organisation might combat these forces and ideas. Fine, on one reading this could be part of Alderman’s vision of the future - that Neil cannot imagine human agency, organisation or resistance. But I don’t think that’s a wholly satisfactory conclusion. In the final exchanges Neil can question what is natural, he is sensibly cautious about the merits of evolutionary psychology, he can hypothesize about gender and argue over history: “the way we think our past informs what we think is possible today” (334). I think the unresolved contradictions and gaps are Alderman’s.

   The book’s epigram is from Samuel: “The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.” But ‘the people’ do not take on Samuel’s warnings. Late in the novel we learn that the voice in Allie’s head may have been that of Samuel – in this I admire Alderman’s construction of Neil’s cleverness: what a fabulous conceit. Samuel lays it all out for Allie in her great moment of crisis (318-320) and the bottom line is this: everything is really complicated and ‘the people’ always want to defer to powerful leaders. A reader could easily accuse the text at this stage of being somewhat trite but I won’t go that far – there is an element of humour in the passage that unburdens it somewhat and I like the way some of Samuel’s language here mirrors part of the Book of Eve (330). No, the main problem is that nowhere does the text try to answer why ‘the people’ will always defer to the powerful, if indeed they do. The reader might be reminded of a Churchill quote “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For politicians, and despairing liberals, the problem, and the solution, always comes back to the poor judgement of ‘the people’ rather than the institutions and structures that impoverish, alienate and deter wide sections of our communities.

   Neil’s account provides us with some evidence of course, you see the slick operations of US capital as Margot climbs the slippery pole to the top and increasingly becomes embroiled with the military industrial complex; you see the inanity of the media; you get insights into the influence of religious ideology – this is especially well done since his account returns again and again to those segments of religious language: “The end of all flesh is near, because the Earth is filled with violence. Therefore, build an ark.” (325) ; you get to see the opportunism involved with Imperialism, on various sides. But it really is all incredibly superficial. There is also the mystery of power. It’s a while since I read Foucault but I remember being annoyed by the notions of diffuse and omnipresent power that cropped up again and again in critical theory when postmodernism and post structuralism were the dominant discourses back in the day. The text infers a similar entity but it’s one I don’t accept; complexity – yes, of course, but something that is infinite, scattered and inexplicable, no.

   It seems to me that The Power might be one of those texts that has already been outdone by our mad, perverse and apocalyptic days. It’s not just that climate change overshadows everything, though it does, but that the crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism, accelerating technological change and many other factors are creating the conditions for new expressions of older phenomenon. I’ve realised, reading the Clarke books this year, that I want texts that help me understand what is emerging. And I’ve realised, more than ever before, that this is probably a really stupid expectation. Authors face the same contradictory ideologies, they have the same desires and hopes, they are open to the illusions of liberalism, the prospect of despair, the bias of the media. I hate Brexit and the racism it has unleashed but I recognise that Europe is no answer either. You only have to think about the bodies amassing in the Mediterranean and the way Greece was crushed to understand that it is a bosses Europe that has no great interest in the wellbeing of the majority of its citizens. I hate Trump but despise Clinton and all she stands for too. You want your USA back? Seriously? That’s the USA of war and racism, of police brutality and guns. I could go on and on and on but the reality is this: business as usual means we are utterly screwed. Climate change will accelerate and exacerbate tensions over refugees and war, over food security and energy provision, over nationalism and borders, over every part of lives. And it is accelerating faster than most of us can dare to admit. Can we fight back the current crisis so that new democracies will be able to make sensible decisions over the environment? Is that the question? Whatever your answer I suspect the victory of Trump and Brexit, the possibility of Le Pen, means that Alderman’s narrative choices are even more questionable than I would have otherwise considered.

So what am I trying to say? I suspect that writing SF is a harder job and more unforgiving than ever. And for me that means going through a process of finding anew what I think is valuable and resisting the idea that there will be many texts offering me the answers and ideas that I crave or perturbing me in affecting ways. Reading Mike Harrison leaves me bereft, troubled, shattered, prised apart. Reading Ali Smith or Penelope Fitzgerald leaves me happy, hopeful, measured, joyful. They do so with techniques, precision and understandings I struggle with. They are profound and exciting.

I don’t expect all texts to achieve those dizzy heights. Nor do I forget the limits of bourgeois art. We live in confused and conservative times – I don’t expect a bubbling up of revolutionary ideas or techniques – how could I? Nor do I forget the omnipresence of commercial pressure, new books pushed on us by a calendar of hype and promotion, shortlists and prizes. So what then becomes compensation enough if you don’t find full satisfaction with the ideas expressed in a text? Fine writing? Formal experimentation? Political engagement? The weird and the uncanny? Emotion? Empathy? All of these actually, though I don’t pretend to understand the alchemy involved in separating out the great from the good. And I think that this is a question that intersects with notions of taste. A lifetime of reading and watching films makes me feel, for the most part, that I can trust my taste and my impressions. Yet I can still occasionally be seduced by grandeur and (false) gravitas. I can be seduced by art I don’t understand and sometimes it will be far less profound on closer inspection. I can be swayed too be shitty arguments, especially when they are reinforced by a constant media blitz. Perhaps most of all there is the problem of limited knowledge, restricted horizons and so on. Mystery and uncertainty can be tempting and bewitching but sometimes you just come up against the limits of your own knowledge.

So apologies for focusing on the negatives. I’ll repeat: The Power a good novel, well worth your time: It’s already on a number of longlists. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it – I have pages of notes - and I’m looking forward to those discussions with the 6th formers when the paperback comes out. Do any of them really believe that women would do a better job of ruling than men? Do they appreciate the power and divisiveness of simple choices (of say, a referendum)? Where do they think power lies? And so on. Really good, important questions. There are subtleties that I really enjoyed too, especially the passages early in the book when the evocative smells of the emerging Power blend into passages of religious prose. I like the ironies and reversals in the final exchange between Naomi and Neil. But for me the text doesn’t encompass or explore the complexity that Samuel asserts and there are not enough pleasures or discomforts in the text to win me over or inflame my curiosity.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Clarke Award and THE Shadow.

If you haven't been paying attention (!!!) the Clarke Submission list is here.
All the Shadow Clarke info can be found here. I recommend reading all the individual posts, shortlists AND the comments!
All the Shadow Clarke shortlists have now been submitted.
With nine jurors choosing six books each we could have had a maximum of 54 novels. In the end we have 27 – not a bad spread! They are:
The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking) 3
Songshifting — Chris Bell (wordsSHIFTminds)
Good Morning, Midnight — Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) 2
The Destructives — Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot) 2
Zero K — Don DeLillo (Picador)
The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen (Bloomsbury) 3
Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Graft — Matt Hill (Angry Robot)
Europe in Winter — Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit) 2
A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun) 4
The Man Who Spoke Snakish — Andrus Kivirähk (Grove Press UK), translated by Christopher Moseley
Death’s End — Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books) 2
Empire V — Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)
The Gradual — Christopher Priest (Gollancz) 3
The Trees — Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)
The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press UK) 4
Hunters & Collectors — M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape)
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz) 2
Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz) 2
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing) 4
Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet) 5
The Arrival of the Missives — Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) 2
Azanian Bridges — Nick Wood (NewCon Press) 2
The Lost Time Accidents — John Wray (Canongate)
Notable books that have missed out on Sharke discussion? Maybe these:
All the Birds in the Sky — Charlie Jane Anders (Titan)
Daughter of Eden — Chris Beckett (Daughter of Eden)
The Wolf Road — Beth Lewis (Borough)
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence — Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
Into Everywhere — Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
This Census-Taker — China Miéville (Picador)
After Atlas — Emma Newman (Roc)
The Sudden Appearance of Hope — Claire North (Orbit)
Revenger — Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
Underground Airlines — Ben Winters (Century)
 Feel free to analyse away to your hearts content!
   Of the 37 books here I’ve read 16 so add in a few extras for various reasons and that leaves me about 25 to read before May 3rd when the shortlist is announced. I won’t read that many as I have too far too much else to read and do so I’ll have to prioritise.
   How many? Will I do it? Will I stop caring? I’m not sure.
   I’ve read quite a few of these books over the last 2 weeks and my sense so far is that I’ve read some good books – thete are lots of good things about the Sinisalo and the Kavenna is excellent - but nothing as remarkable as those I read last year – like Whitehead, Tidhar and Whiteley. [I’d add Swainston to those three but I haven’t got to Fair Rebel yet]

   Part of the problem perhaps is that I have been reading other remarkable novels in 2017: older classics from Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Alan Garner plus contemporary stuff from Han Kang and Dana Spiotta. These novels manage to be uncanny, weird, complex and profound in ways that leave those others severely wanting I’m afraid. That is vaguely disappointing perhaps, but it’s the process - of making me think through more closely than ever why I’m reading, what I value, and a variety of issues surrounding genre fiction – that is proving to be key.
   I’m really looking forward to all the posts and discussions from the Shadow Clarke jurors.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Clarke Award 2017

It’s that time again. The Clarke submissions list is out. The BSfA shortlist will, presumably, be out any day and at some point we will hear the plans for The Kitschies this year.

I started my reading year with other priorities – lots more non-fiction to enable me to engage more with the world, reading along with the Backlisted podcast titles and more rereading too.

BUT, the announcement of the Clarke Shadow jury means I’m just gonna have to find more time!

I think most of the shadow jury have posted some kind of introductory comments on their blogs but if you haven’t heard about this then the easiest place to start is on Nina Allan’s blog here and/or Maureen Kincaid Speller’s here. You’ll find a list of their fellow jurors and an idea of why it is such an exciting project.

Why does it make such a difference to me?

First of all, there’s an awful lot of intelligence, wisdom and experience amongst this group of people. Engaging with their ideas and debates means that I’ll be able to expand my critical toolbox and gain all manner of insights. And hell, even if most of it is all in my own head, I’ll be able to have arguments and disagreements and question my own ideas and [coughs] prejudices.

So yeah, I’m in.

86 titles then. I’ve read a few and my current feeling goes something like this…

The Underground Railway and Central Station were two of my favourite books of last year. I don’t doubt myself whatsoever when it comes to these two. I’m already looking forward to reading them again and engaging more deeply.


Next, well I loved The Fifth Season, even if I had issues with it, but I’m reluctant to read it again until the third volume comes out so I can read them all at once. Maybe I’ll have to get over myself because I suspect I’ll want it on my shortlist.

Then there is Steph Swainston. My first book of the year was The Year of Our War, prompted by a Niall Harrison tweet about Fair Rebel. I’ve now read No Present Like Time too. These are books that are overflowing with ideas and energy and all manner of things that I’m still only just starting to get my head around: I love their ambition. It’s hard for me to imagine that, unless Swainston has had some kind of remarkable dip, I won’t want Fair Rebel in my 6.

That leaves me with Alderman, Anders, De Abaitua, DeLillo, Geen, Ha Lee, Hill, Hutchinson, Kavenna, Lewis, Liu, MacInnes, MacLeod, McAuley, Mieville, North, Priest, Reynolds, Sinisalo, Suddain, Sullivan, Whiteley, Winters and Wood. That’s 23. I could be convinced of the need to read Beckett, Bennett, Brown, Newman, Robertson and Valente. Of course beyond that I’m open to arguments for any of the others.

I’ve read Alderman, Hutchinson and North. I enjoyed them all but for various reasons but I’m discounting them for my shortlist. I’ll elaborate on why in a later post.  I loved Priest, Sinisalo and Whitley and appreciated (and admired) Mieville – I’d be happy to read them all again too.

So where on earth does that leave me? Honestly? Excited – I’ve heard good things about quite a few of those other books and I’m looking forward to the critical debates in the months ahead.

Happy SF reading everyone.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Best books of 2016

I read around 100 books in 2016. Considering that I managed only 3 or 4 books in July, September, October and November combined I'm reasonably content. There will be little here to surprise readers of this blog or those who keep up with the book world, but, that said, it's been a great year for books. I get most of my ideas from the Guardian, Strange Horizons and from the writers and critics I've learned to trust. 

I would urge any book lover to try some of these if you haven't already.

My favourite fiction of 2016:

Barkskins - Annie Proulx

Days Without End - Sebastian Barry 
The Underground Railway - Colson Whitehead
Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi
The Sellout - Paul Beatty
The Vegetarian - Han Kang
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
Central Station - Lavie Tidhar
What is Not Yours is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi
The Arrival of Missives - Aliya Whiteley
The Shore - Sara Taylor
Speak Gigantular - Irenosen Okojie

Francis Spufford - Golden Hill
Jenni Fagan - The Sunlight Pilgrims
Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

Special mentions:

I see a number of people are putting The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts on their lists and I'm happy to repeat myself and do the same. It came out right at the end of 2015 and I read it immediately. This novel and his previous one Bete, deserve to be read widely. They are brilliant. Please keep pushing the envelope.
I despair that more people haven't talked about Alexis Wright's The Swan Book. 

Finally Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins - like the Roberts, I read on the cusp of the New Year and loved.

Passions (new and ongoing): Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Taylor, W. G. Sebald and Jane Gardam.

Finally read and loved: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul (thanks Lavie Tidhar!)


This is VERY predictable but it doesn't matter. If you haven't read Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, Olivia Laing's The Lonely City and Lara Pawson's This is The Place to Be then you need to get on and read them asap. They all made me cry and gasp and re-evaluate my life and my ways of thinking. They'll all get reread in 2017.
Late in the year I loved Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States. They are fantastic companions to many of those fiction texts above.


The outstanding discoveries of the year are Alex Wheatle's Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights and Robin Stevens' Murder Most UnLadylike series. Other great books are Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder, Gary D Schulz's Orbiting Jupiter, Sarah Pinborough's The Death House and Alexia Casale's The Bone Dragon. I've also discovered Emma Carroll, Melinda Sainsbury and Edward Carey.  

New Year

I have so much to catch up on you wouldn't believe. Hopefully, at some point soon, I'll start writing again. 

This year I want to read more non-fiction. When I was an activist probably 80% of my reading was non-fiction but this year I'd be happy with something approaching a 50/50 split. 

Thanks to all the writers and critics who have inspired me in what was easily one of the most difficult years of my life. 

Finally book lovers, if you don't listen to the Backlisted podcast you really should. Their enthusiasm and love of books is infectious.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Best films of 2016

I haven't kept a record but it's the first year I can remember when I might have seen less than a 100 films. I'm not sure. I've seen about 45 of the Guardian's Top 50, plus most of the blockbusters, etc. However I've hardly watched any old favourites and nor have I discovered any old greats. Worse perhaps, I haven't had the time to rewatch most of the films I mention below so I'm trusting to instinct and experience much more than usual.

Thus this year I've done a Top 10 with an additional highly recommended extra 6. 

These are the films I can't let go of: images, ideas, performances that seem imprinted on my mind.

The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
Son of Saul (László Nemes)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Tamika Waititi)
13th (Ava DuVernay)
Our little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Divines (Houda Benyamina)

I'm happy to say it's all about the women. 4 female directors; brilliant performances by young actresses - Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch, Sasha Lane in American Honey and almost all the young women and girls in Mustang, Our Little Sister and Divines; plus fascinating, mature and enigmatic roles for Qi Shu in The Assassin and Narges Rashidi in Under the Shadow.  

The Assassin is perhaps the hardest sell: intellectualism meets sublime aestheticism; puzzling and oblique; painterly. In 2017 I'm gonna search out all Hou Hsiao Hsien's films. I love it.

Son of Saul had the same kind of impact that Come and See had on me. It is a great, great, movie and I commend it to everyone. Watching it for the first time was also the moment I decided that I wasn't going to look away ever again - on climate change, Syria, refugees, the growth of nationalism and fascism - and that I would try to face the realities of our world head on. A bit melodramatic perhaps, but that's me.

I didn't see Ava Duvernay's 13th until the Christmas holiday but it feels like it's the film we should be showing and sharing everywhere. It's about the history of racism and inequality in the USA and you couldn't hope to see a more relevant film. What a shame it didn't get a cinema distribution - sort it out Netflix.

The Witch and Under the Shadow are feminist horror films. They are perfectly formed things of small wonder: disturbing, beguiling, political and creepy in all the right ways.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was the most joyous movie experience of 2016. Like Our Little Sister and Mustang it is about friendship and solidarity. Divines is almost a companion piece to last year's Girlhood only with shades of Scorsese and De Palma: I was wowed by its ambition and energy.

And then there is Andrea Arnold's American Honey, a film that manages to be painful, discursive, hypnotic, melancholy and exuberant all at the same time.

And another 6....

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
Things to Come (Mia Hansen Løve)
Arabian Nights (1-3) (Miguel Gomes)
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)
Notes on Blindness (Pete Middleton)

These, like The Assassin, might be too slow or abstruse for some tastes. But they deserve an audience for their politics, daring and subtlety. Mia Hansen Löve's Things to Come, which I really wanted to squeeze into my Top 10, will be far too bourgeois for some but you'd be wrong. She just gets better and better and Isabelle Huppert's performance is so good you'll just want to watch the movie again immediately.

Best moment

Moana should probably be in that Top 16 but without doubt the best part of any film this year was the Mad Max/Kakamora sequence. Genius.

And so....Family films

It's been the best year for children's films and family films that I can remember: Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, Queen of Katwe, Zootropolis, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the lovely Sing Street. The best popular films? I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and I quite enjoyed Star Trek Beyond. I wasted my money on all the big films - I don't seem to be able to help myself - but I can't remember anything remotely memorable. And that includes Doctor Strange. 

US Indie gems

Paterson, Little Men, The Witch, American Honey, Hell or High Water and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa. The latter is The Guardian's film of the year and it's certainly a singular achievement. The animation and various formal and structural features make it really interesting. Ultimately though it's not a film I'm looking forward to watching again. Even David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as amazing as they are, can't imbue the main characters with enough humanity for me. Thewlis' character is so vile and Leigh' so timid that I found it hard to find any sympathy with anything the film was trying to do.


Widely praised, I found Love and Friendship, Nocturnal Animals and Hail Caesar empty with extra wide open pockets of emptiness. I could see the artistry at certain points, and the humour, but I have no desire to watch any of them again.

The elephant in the room

I liked the gloomier second half of I, Daniel Blake a lot but overall...some of the acting was terrible and I hated how all the working class folks are seemingly immune to racism, sexism and unkindness. This is NOT the UK in 2016. As a socialist I do, of course, recommend it anyway - it's an excellent piece of socialist propaganda that tells truths about the UK that many people won't know about. It has a big heart that yearns for us all to empathise and unite. Moreover it infuriated Tories and the mainstream press - always a fantastic achievement. But is it a great film? Nah.


I enjoyed Rogue One and Arrival quite a lot but my suspicion is that both will prove to be fairly forgettable on second viewing. Hopefully not. The Girl with all the Gifts and High Rise were minor gems however.

Oscar bait

I always find it difficult to put the big Oscar contenders into my best of year lists. January seems SO long ago, plus all these films benefited from huge amounts of publicity. Yet Spotlight, Room, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant were a good crop. Do watch.

Foreign movies

Distributors are finding it more difficult to sell foreign films so it felt even more difficult than ever to see the variety I normally cherish at the cinema.  Except for Mustang, A Bigger Splash and Julieta I saw these on the small screen: Things to Come, Tale of Tales, Dheepan, Arabian Nights (1-3), Our Little Sister, Victoria, The Club, Cemetery of Splendour.


Not a bad year though, determined not to buy so many DVDs, I've not seen that many.  My favourites however were Dangal, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Kapoor and Sons and Dear Zindagi. Hopefully I'll catch up in the next month and put up a separate post.

Guilty pleasures

I may as well own up: Sorrentino's Youth, Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven and then (not so guiltily) Ryan Coogler's Creed and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy. No excuses - I am a BAD human being.

To see

Couple in a Hole, The Neon Demon, The Childhood of a Leader, My Feral Heart, The Survivalist,  

Desperate to see

Your Name, The Wailing, Train to Busan.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The (Un) examined Life - 5 things that I love.

I read Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos last week (for school) and it begins with the main character filling in a "5 things I love" assignment for her teacher. It felt like a good way to start reconnecting with a variety of things.

Science Fiction

   In my teens I would discover and seek out the great political films of 1970s but I started going to the cinema at that point where Hollywood was changing and blockbusters were becoming dominant. Some of my first memories are of going to see Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the Coalville Rex in 1977. I was 6. I can remember the excitement and the wonder: the destruction of Alderaan and the detention centre shootout; Richard Dreyfuss building his mashed potato mountain.
   A few months later I started watching Blake's 7 (it aired in January 1978) - I think we all watched it, me, my mum and my dad, which was unusual. It remains one of my favourite things in the world - brilliant characters and dialogue plus redemption and revolution. What's not to love? I also have vivid memories of the 1975/1976 season of Doctor Who especially Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion. SF is in my DNA. Other early memories include Star Trek on TV and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and and the Special Edition of Close Encounters in 1980. I can remember many other snippets of TV of course - great stuff like Space 1999 and curiosities like The Fantastic Journey - and more importantly, films like The Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. It seems to me now that though I remember fun and contentment in all of this there was also a large measure of melancholy and seriousness that I was attracted to as well.  My brother had the The War of the Worlds album and I remember Justin Hayward's Forever Autumn being played on Radio 2 continually in 1978 and loving its haunting, sombre tone.

   I grew up in a small mining village. Though we were poor my surroundings were enviable. Our house backed onto a hay field and around 500 metres away (maybe less - I was little!) was a large shed. This was, as far as I can remember, at the edge of the world. We - my friend Jason from two doors away, and Dawn from next door - had to be careful entering the field for fear of the grumpy farmer. Nor were we particularly brave I'm afraid - I was particularly obedient and timid. So was it a dream or maybe a late night looking up at the stars and seeing or hearing something unusual? But for a while I was scared of that barn because I thought aliens had landed and were hiding there. I remembered this much later when Helen and I fell in love with Farscape together. Watch the episode I, E.T. and you'll see why.

  My dad, who had been raised as a baptist, in a big family that was central to their chapel, was too troubled and questioning to accept religion. This hurt him a great deal but it also opened up his fascination for the world. He loved Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night (we didn't know about his appalling political beliefs back then!) and so we had books, binoculars and briefly, a small telescope. Throughout those years I can remember him trying to find meaning in ideas and things both sublime and wretched. The collection of pottery, which I'm sure the family couldn't afford, was a low point but astronomy was a great gift.

   I LOVED The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - the TV series in 1981. I got the novel for my birthday too. It was around this point I also discovered 2000AD. And I loved V in 1983 and '84. So much so that it is one of the only things I can remember with a degree of lucidity from those years. It was the mixture of revolution and Jane Badler. Politics, resistance and hormones. It probably filled in the gap left by Blakes 7. 

  From around '82 to '86 I can't remember much about anything. My mum left in 1982 and then most things are a blank - friends, teachers, experiences - I can't even remember what my school looked like. I've spent most of my life uninterested in my first twenty years - I just thought of it as a write-off. My memory feels like a piece of ancient alien technology - something I can barely get started and unreliable when I try to make it work. Since I started therapy little bits are starting to come back in dreams and I can recall some of the earlier moments with pleasure.

  But I don't know when I first saw Blade Runner or Alien, even if I suspect it was around then. 
   There are times when I feel pangs of envy and regret about this. This is the point when my favourite writers were discovering Tarkovsky and Le Guin, Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Algis Budrys and the Strugatsky brothers. I was watching Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and working my way through every single Agatha Christie. That does sound bitter doesn't it? Now that I'm trying to remember and understand my past I'm trying to acknowledge those feelings but I can't stand the idea of feeling sorry for myself. And anyway, I've discovered so much in the last 20 years.

   I think it was the summer of '83 when I went to stay with my favourite aunt and uncle whilst my dad went to hospital.  It's my only sustained memory of those years, perhaps because I was so happy. My (older) cousins were kind and I got to spend days doing what I wanted in a completely different sort of atmosphere. For about a week I watched Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon every day. Rebellion and hormones again! But this time with Queen and Ornella Muti. What a brilliant, crazy, perfect film it is.

Helen loved science fiction too.


I was 9 or 10 when I had to have a minor operation. On the way back from the hospital we got caught in a terrific snow storm. Our house was set back slightly with a drive that led to a small row of our houses - 6 or 7 semi-detached. We travelled home safely but it was impossible to get up the drive. I remember various people coming out to dig the snow whilst I waited in the car. Did my dad carry me in the end or did we get the car up to our house? All I remember is a sense of drama and the sky full of beautiful snow. 

    I lay on the settee for a number of days recovering. My uncle bought me a Blake's 7 annual. Maybe this was also the point I fell in love with winter sports - David Vine on Ski Sunday. I rediscovered this love with Helen and it became even more important when she became ill and we needed easy ways to spend our time. We began to watch Cross Country Skiing and, especially, Biathlon on Eurosport. We fell for Ole Einar Bjørndalen and the German women's team.

   Most children got the Beano or the Dandy but I loved The Beezer. It was an A3 size - double the size of other comics - and felt just a little more sophisticated because of it. Pretentiousness and cultural snobbery from an early age - that's me. But what I remember, especially about the winter editions and the annuals, is the snow. It felt, perhaps, like it was part of an anticipation - of a white Christmas, days off from school, snowmen and so on. But even then I can remember being on my own in the snow far more than being with others. And the thrill of watching the snow fall through a window. Part of me thinks it's awful that I was already full of a kind of nostalgia and false thinking. But perhaps that's being a little too hard on myself.

   The year after Helen died I hired a car and went to the Lake District. I stayed in Keswick. It was SO cold. Frost lingered throughout the day. I made it almost to the the top of Skidaw and then found myself in a blizzard. I carried on to the top even though I couldn't see anything. I passed a couple of men and a dog though they seemed like ghosts. But seeing them made me feel safer. The next day I walked the Dale Head horseshoe. The mist and cloud were terrific but then suddenly the clouds lifted and I was able to see everything. Just a couple of weeks ago I was reminded of ghosts again when I rewatched Edge of Darkness. I love how Bob Peck is able to see and talk to Joanne Whalley. 

I can't deny that there is a hint of romanticism to this snow malarkey. It's connected to a longing for family, for hunkering down in the winter and for Christmas happiness. I was bought up on that heady, nostalgic mixture of Christmas songs, Christmas movies, singing carols and the importance and excitement of Christmas at chapel.
I remember loving Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys on TV and feeling the ache of loss as the Christmas holiday drew to a close and I was I unable to watch the last episodes on morning TV. And then the joy of two snow days because of freezing temperatures and frozen pipes at school. I can remember both the feeling of melancholy and a kind of sombre happiness.

Why can I remember walking through Coalville on a frosty December night listening to Erasure's The Circus on my Sony Walkman in 1987? I have no idea. I was lonely, definitely, but maybe just beginning to find a small measure of existential pleasure in that alone-ness. A budding flaneur perhaps. I think I felt a sense of possibility, even if it was really a dead end or an illusion. I suspect it was simply about adjusting - learning to find a way of living that provided a good defence against the sadness and the anger and that provided a modicum of pleasure.  Of course it wasn't really possible to be a flaneur in Coalville anyway. Fucking awful place.

I can remember our back garden and the field behind it on Christmas Day. A snowy picture post card. I can remember playing football with Jason on the front in the snow too - there was an area of grass, with a rose bed in the centre, that lay parallel with the drive. That's where we played football until we were old enough to go to the park. He was Arsenal, I was Nottingham Forest. We loved Ron Atkinson's West Brom too with Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. Even Match of the Day was better with snow.

2 snowy walks with my dad: first to the Video shop in Thringstone and another to the fish and chip shop in Whitwick, walking back and eating our chips on the way. Salt, then vinegar and a shake to wash the some of the salt down the bag, then more salt. Undoubtedly high blood pressure will be my undoing. But that video shop, and the videos we bought home, was one of my great pleasures. Django, Harry Tracey and many more. I've written about it before. There's a film I've been trying to remember for decades - snow, an apocalypse perhaps. I thought I'd discovered it when I found Altman's Quintet but it doesn't match up with my memories. I wish I knew what it was.

Helen and I went to Saltzburg the weekend before Christmas. It snowed most of the weekend starting on the Saturday afternoon when we visited the castle. In the morning we had been up to the top of the Untersberg mountain in the cable car. The blizzard at the top was a bit like the one I would encounter on Skidaw years later. We only spent a minute or two outside because it was so cold. I look at the photos of that holiday and remember how happy and content we were. We were happy and content pretty much all of the time. 

   This love goes all the way down.  
In movies: Fargo, The Grey, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Empire Strikes Back, Gorky Park, Groundhog Day, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), Where Eagles Dare, It's a Wonderful Life, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Sweet Hereafter, Let the Right One In, Marketa Lazarova, My Winnipeg, A Simple Plan, Little Women, (the Winona Ryder version), Winter Sleep, Winter Light, Breakheart Pass, Harry Tracey, Desperado, The Great Silence. 
And books: The Shining, Misery, The Left Hand of Darkness, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. 
And TV: Frozen Planet, Northern Exposure, a favourite episode of Blakes 7 and even winter episodes of ER. And now the snowy bits of Game of Thrones. 
I could go on.

   And at what point did I fall for Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago? This is another early memory so I assume I was 6 or 7. It's a an incredibly flawed movie of course but when I first saw it I was just floored by the heavenliness of Christie and the melancholy and romance of the snow. Those scenes in the abandoned dacha! Perhaps this is emblematic of my fascination - it's such an idealised depiction of Russia. Romanticism and sadness. Beauty and the blues.

   Helen and I spent most of our Christmas's together alone. A real tree, new decorations each year, opening presents together, movies, Doctor Who, cooking, Cava. It's no wonder I find it hard to adjust.

   Now, snow seems like a miraculous dream and a dreadful nightmare. I've never known so many homeless people on our streets, or such poverty - in one of the richest countries in the world - so a cold winter means that many people will die. And yet, as climate change accelerates and the dangers grow, the snow feels like the greatest blessing. A symbol of hope. The task for 2017? To see with clarity but not give in to despair - to find the strength to do some good in the face of all the horror. 

Music (and Dance)

I'm kind of superficial. No, really. Because I love Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, classical music, jazz, world music and much more, people assume a certain sophistication in my tastes. But really I just love a good tune. I love pop music. In fact I'd go as far as saying there's nothing as good as a great pop tune - but for me that often means any old shite. It's also untrue. I could start the sentence 'There's nothing as good as....' in a awful lot of different ways. Does that me fickle or full of joy for all the great things in life? Trust me, it's both.

Fickle AND superficial.

I find it amazing that that I can put songs on playlists because I like the tune but at a later date find myself smiling or crying because of the words. It's like I've suddenly tuned in - sometimes just a line, sometimes a chorus, sometimes a whole song - and realised what my subconscious was trying to say all along. Perhaps I'm overplaying this a little - pop songs are often incredibly superficial - universal, inane, cliched, imprecise - and so can easily fit any mood or feeling. But listen to Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. When I put it as the first track on a playlist my friend told me how brave I was. I had no idea what she was talking about  - it was 2 or 3 years since Helen had died - so I went away to listen. Holy fuck. It's how I felt all the time. And this happens A LOT. For someone who thought he possessed a reasonable amount of self-knowledge it seems I am a mystery to myself much more often than not.

With music comes dancing. Not for everyone I realise, but definitely for me. In a different life I would have been a dancer. Expressing myself via the magic of dance. I love the sensuality of dancing. I love the goosebumps you get. I love being transported to a different place. I'm a reasonable dancer, but, for whatever reason, it has never translated into successfully meeting women at clubs - I've been approached by more men than women on the dance floor. Moreover I think I must look uninterested in others when I dance - apart from the odd smile when I look up - I'm too caught up in living and feeling the music. 

   There was a radio in every room all tuned to Radio 2. My dad had a huge collection of records too. I still love songs from the fifties, sixties and seventies. And not the 'cool' stuff either! My brother played Queen, Genesis and and various shades of 70s soft rock. Those album covers. Most uncool too right? But he was also a drummer and used to sneak out to play in a punk band. 

   My dad loved Glen Campbell and Neil Diamond. I can sing all their songs. 

   At Helen's funeral we started off with the overture from Fidelio playing really loud. Next we had Otis Redding's version of A Change is Gonna Come and then a section of Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. To finish we played Elbow's One Day Like This. 

    Two of the best nights of my life. Fidelio at the Vienna Opera House in 2006 and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells in 2008. We saw the Swan Lake when Helen was getting better and we were cautiously optimistic.

   No one that I knew listened to classical music so I don't know how I discovered it. I think it was because I found Ode to Joy and loved Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in Out of Africa. So in my mid teens I started to buy tapes - Beethoven's Ninth, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Elgar's Cello Concerto - things I'd probably heard in films or on TV.  Somehow during my late teens I discovered Brahms too. Yet I didn't go to a concert until we came back to Birmingham in 2004. I can't remember what we saw at Symphony Hall that first time but I've been hooked ever since. Helen often came with me and came to love it too. It's the closest I get to ecstasy I think. It can often be overwhelming - crying so hard that I feel everyone around me must be seeing or sensing the emotion. Helen would hold my hand as I shook.

   Musicals were the other big thing in our house. I must have watched most of the old musicals in my formative years and we regularly went to see local amateur productions too. In those lost years - 1982 to 1986 - I would have discovered - via Radio 2 and my dad- the original cast recordings of Chess and Les Miserables and played them constantly. When I listened to them this week I reconnected - for the first time I think - with how I felt back then. How can I Dreamed a Dream and Nobody's Side be a 13-year-olds favourite songs?

   There's still nothing quite like a good singsong to a playlist of songs from the musicals. And I wonder why people think I'm gay!

   I loved The Kids from Fame. I bought the albums, played the songs daily. When Fame (1980) and later Flashdance (1983) were released with 15 certificates and I was thus unable to see them at the cinema, I was angry, exasperated and forlorn.

We danced on the night we met. We danced in London most weekends.


Sorry this is a bit Thomas Hardy isn't it? But my ten years with Helen were my happiest by a country mile. By many, many miles. By light years. 

My heart would race when I was journeying home after a day at work or college in anticipation of seeing her. This happened week in, week out over our ten years.

Perhaps you'll think I'm looking back with rose-coloured glasses. So many of my memories are imperfect or hazy - partially constructed. But I'm not trying to convince you of anything. This is for me. I know how lucky I was.

   I'm envious of those people who know how to be happy single. I know lots of ways to spend time on my own. And I'm good at it - I certainly enjoy all kinds of pleasures and satisfactions but now I'm starting to wonder if I've been happy at all since Helen died. It's the push and pull of loneliness that I find hardest to understand. Desperate for connection but doubtful and slow to accept it when others reach out to me. Proud, stubborn and scared of the unknown?

   I'm an atheist and always will be but for the first two years, every night when I got into bed I would ask her to come and take me. Actually most of those nights I would wail and plead.

   For all kinds of reasons Helen's death is now incredibly raw. 2015 and 2016 were tough. It's fair to say that world events and the hopelessness of the left have compounded my personal difficulties. I feel a despair that I've never felt before. Everything is NOT going to be alright Mark Kermode. It may be that I've never come to terms with her death. I felt her strength for years - the fact of our time together and our love for each other filled me up with belief and confidence. I think I need to find a way to mourn her properly. Our friend Louise was the only person still in my life that knew Helen well and talked about her - not that we did it very often - it's almost like I didn't have a vocabulary for it. And I'm sure she sensed my discomfort - of raw emotion a heartbeat away.

It's finally time for me to grieve and remember.

Fifth and final.

The last one is hard - not because I don't love lots of things - Bollywood, mountains, rivers, the sea, Birmingham, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, wine, and a hundred other things - I do. And that I've included films and books into everything above testifies to their importance. The trouble is......that if you don't get to share all the brilliant things in life with other people you become in danger of missing their grace, detail and lustre. And that's where I'm at. So my final thing that I love - and by no means the least - has been meeting all the amazing girls at school. They've made me laugh and smile, asked me difficult questions, wound me up, challenged me, given me hope. Without them these last 6 years would have been unbearable.

2016 has been pretty awful for many of us. And as August slid into September, for the first time ever, I fell apart a little - for all kinds of reasons.  I suddenly started having very vivid flashbacks to Helen's death and I found it very difficult to see a future - either for myself or for humanity. I've started going to therapy and I've realised that I'm going to have to come to terms with my past if I want to go forward.

I should say too, that I've done some brilliant things in 2016 - it hasn't been a complete disaster. I met some amazing people in Greece. Holly made me laugh a lot. I went to see Grimes, Rihanna and Beyoncé in the space of a fortnight. I was given the great gift of becoming a trainee zookeeper for half a day. I read some fantastic books. And Liz has provided me with space and companionship when I threatened to sink. I DO count my blessings all the time.

I don't know whether this is all too personal to be a help to anybody else. Hopefully not.

Here's to 2017. Let's hope we find the strength, solidarity and a way of seeing and analysing that helps us fight back