Over the last two years we have found ourselves with more free time than many appreciated. The love of books, film and music saved many. What our writers watched, listened to and read during the year to maintain their sanity
READING: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” A vivid memory of waiting for a rapid-test result in mid-July (I’d brought a book along for the wait), opening The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and being unaccountably moved by that opening line, which seemed to capture the sadness of the past year so flatly and inexorably. The book itself, written in 1915, is the best kind of masterpiece, the kind whose genius becomes most apparent after you finish it. Elsewhere, lots of non-fiction (I’ve never read so many medical research papers in my life), occasional dips into Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and trying to pluck up courage to tackle the 1,100 pages of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Another masterpiece, apparently – but who has time?
LISTENING: “Mummy, Daddy, look at me. / I went to school and I got a degree,” sings a blank, unemphatic female voice – and ‘Chaise Longue’ by jangly Brit duo Wet Leg is currently in my best of all possible worlds, recently discovered on critics’ best-of-the-year lists but not yet over-exposed, as it surely will be (I expect to hear it in talking-animal cartoons eventually). Those critics’ lists also confirmed how out of the loop I am re: pop music – still unable to make that middle-aged leap to jazz and classical, for some reason – but Nick Cave’s White Elephant was a trip and a half, while Moustache Mike by The Phobophobes fed my taste for British cheese with a touch of the music hall. Lyrically, though, ‘El Paso’ by The Vaccines – a song I don’t especially love – was 2021 in a nutshell: “How can you say / That we’re OK, baby? / Who wants to live like this?”.
WATCHING: Transfixed by L’Enfant Secret (1979), a near-abstract thing of moods and glances. Loving the music from Dark of the Sun (1968), surprisingly violent 60s pulp about mercenaries in Africa. Revisiting Fellini’s 8½ (1963) after 25 years. Charmed by the flustered teenage girls in Short Vacation (2020), a kind of Korean Stand By Me. Chilled by the dystopian near-future in brutal Mexican shocker New Order (2020). Relishing – for obvious reasons – an obscure lab-leak disaster movie called Virus (1980). Sitting upstairs at the Pantheon (the big screen is back, sort of!) watching a woman having sex with a car in Titane (2021). Grooving with It Happened Tomorrow (1944), a manic comedy about a guy who’s magically able to see the next day’s newspaper… I’m coming up to 10,000 movies seen in my life (yes, I keep track), but the medium isn’t done with me yet.
READING: Brexit put paid to my amazon.co.uk orders this year. But since Kindle is about as fulfilling as a scoop of sorbet when you were promised Death By Chocolate, in 2021 I shopped from my own shelves – returning to my best-loved classics. First up was Frank Herbert’s Dune. Read for what may well be the 20th time, it didn’t disappoint. And the central messages (plan now for an uncertain future; don’t let fear rule your life; good governance relies on the personal qualities of those who govern) proved more apt than ever in a year of constant Covid!
I also reread all of Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. Plunging into his galaxy-wide, utopian future is always a pleasant diversion from current woes; I thoroughly recommend The Player of Games as a thought-provoking commentary on meritocracy versus liberalism.
There was one new purchase, however. The House on the Cerulean Sea – much touted as a ‘Tik Tok-made-me-buy-it’ tale – was surprisingly satisfactory. In premise, it’s a novel about kindness overcoming prejudice. But it’s set in a wondrous world of sprites, gnomes, and wyverns, where we’re challenged to consider what makes us ‘people’.
LISTENING: I can’t name you a single recent release. Nor am I fan of podcasts or audiobooks (too slow for my taste). But what I do like is easy listening – music that doesn’t challenge an already addled brain! As pandemic fatigue intensified (Too Much Information and Not Enough Freedom) YouTube’s Calmed By Nature became a staple: gentle jazz over images of cosy coffee shops; comforting background music for a frazzled mind and body!
Apps became another auditory go to. Having tried almost every meditation app on the market, I can thoroughly recommend Medito – a simple mindfulness app that strips a complex process to its bare bones and brings a little peace to even the wildest of monkey minds! One Deep Breath (launched in September 2021) became another life saver. Simple, clear and informative, this app’s science-backed techniques include breathing patterns for Anxiety, Panic, Focus, and Calm.
WATCHING: Dean Robert and additional cats were my YouTube staple in 2021. Canterbury Cathedral’s favourite son (though well into his 80s) proved a hit with viewers all over the world as he delivered his hopeful half-hour homilies every morning. As the pandemic intensified, his soothing presence and eclectic knowledge (plus assorted animals, including pigs, chickens, robins, and three-legged cats!) were a shot of much-needed joy. On screen, Foundation was my most eagerly anticipated series. Having grown up on a literary diet of Asimov, I couldn’t wait. But what was a clever premise in print became a schlocky space opera on screen; a fail, I feel! Fortunately, Villeneuve’s Dune redressed the balance – a mesmerising film that stayed true to the author’s intention.
WATCHING: Contrary to the old saying, the past year has proven that time does, in fact, also fly when you are not having fun. Every media choice I made was to counteract the dullness and loneliness of my reality with something bigger, weirder, worse.
I delved into film with the monstrous feminine at the centre and protagonists tormented by their inner demons, like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Feeling confined amid lockdowns and restrictions, I also loved long, introspective roadtrips like Chloe Zhang’s Nomadland and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también.
This summer, I watched the incredible documentary Summer of Soul, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival – which many have called black Woodstock – and was reminded of the joy of being alive and experiencing this joy with others!
READING: This was the first time in my life where I couldn’t seem to finish a book, but the ones I did manage had a deep existential quality (see a pattern here?). After finishing Carson McCullers’ The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, a portrait of loneliness in a small Southern town, I picked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, my first foray into magical realism, and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, where imperialism meets the dangers and allure of the Sahara.
I recently started Keith Richards’ Life, and his tales of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll are seeing me through to 2022! I also read some memorable articles – about a real-life Indiana Jones, a mysterious London mansion, and a feud between two writers – with stories too extraordinary to be true.
LISTENING: According to Spotify, my most listened-to artist this year was the Rolling Stones, and I hold Keith Richards personally responsible as his book rekindled my love for the band. Aside from those old men, some new releases were on heavy rotation, like Sloppy Jane’s Madison and Comfort to Me by Amyl and the Sniffers.
As this was the year I finished the Sopranos, I started listening to Talking Sopranos, a podcast made by two main cast members where they talk about the show one episode at a time. I also revisited one of my most problematic favourites through Lolita Podcast, which takes on the novel and the phenomenon, and enjoyed Son of a Hitman, a wild journalistic investigation of whether Woody Harrellson’s dad, a professional hitman, was involved in JFK’s assassination.
WATCHING: Stuck inside again during 2021 meant the opportunity to catch up with films and TV series I haven’t previously had the time to enjoy. I must admit, almost nothing was new, bar some shows on Netflix, mostly Scandinavian and mostly dark and wonderfully depressing. Back in February, while mindlessly scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled across a 2018 documentary called Hooked by the name, I watched the preview and decided to give it a go. It turned out to be one of the best 90 minutes of the entire year. It tells the moving and sometimes sad story of a set of identical triplet brothers adopted as infants by separate families and their eventual discovery their adoption had been part of an undisclosed scientific nature versus nurture experiment.
Other honourable mentions include Trapped” dark, mysterious Icelandic noir, and Cooked, a docu-series that explores food past and present through the four elemental categories – fire, water, air and earth. Perfect for those nights dreaming of a world without Covid, in which we can travel and assemble freely around a table.
READING: Perhaps the idea – and the impossibility – of travelling was the main element behind most my entertainment choices this year. My top book for 2021, in fact, was Nothing to Envy, a superb and chilling non-fiction work based on interviews with North Korean refugees from the industrial city of Chongjin. I’ve always wanted to visit North Korea and Barbara Demick’s book is closest thing to a ticket to Pyongyang.
Not a book, but I also recommend checking out Avaunt magazine, a real hidden gem among the noisy plethora of travel publications. Complex and insightful, it aims to document the extraordinary through stories of adventure, exploration, innovation and culture.
LISTENING: I often think of music as the instrument to measure my mood. Hard rock means focus and determination, jazz stands for relaxing time, classical music accompanies me through my most reflective times. What was then my genre of the year? To my surprise, it turned out to be indie folk with a nod to country music. I’m still not sure why but while listening to Down in the Valley, Furr and Wagon Wheel, by The Head and the Heart, Blitzen Trapper and Old Crow Medicine Show respectively I felt like I was on a train heading for the Deep South, longing to explore the unknown and to finally be able to wander the world.
LISTENING: This year I realised George Carlin was not completely right when he said the planet is fine, but the people will pay the price for environmental destruction. I always thought there was hope for a fresh start (perhaps without humans) and listening to Greek rap song Mia Nihta Meta tin Teleftea Mera by Rationalistas (Aka Orthologistes) gave me hope. The writer’s version of justice, and what would happen a day after the end of the world paradoxically calmed my anger.
After turning the milestone of 25 in the midst of a global pandemic, conspiracy theories, and all of their consequences, I couldn’t help but identify with the new song by The Pretty Reckless which described how I felt the glass of my intentions turning into sand.
WATCHING: I listened as the February 13 protest against corruption and covid measures inspired Nama Dama to create the short film Ode to A Naked King. The woman suffered a permanent eye injury from a police water canon during the controversial demonstration decided to take closure in her own hands. The video exposes the abuse of police power and the brainwashing of the mainstream media. Talk about making lemonade!
It was not just movies that returned this year; more plays were staged following the relaxation of Covid measures. It was a nuisance having to wear a mask in indoor and outdoor theatres but most of the times it was worth it. Although I enjoyed Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche and Duke’s Radioshow, the strongest impression was left by the Cypriot rendition of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. I can’t think of a better allegory for the endless negotiations for a solution to the Cyprus problem than two friends waiting for someone who never arrives.
READING: In terms of books, this year was quite queer for me. I was surprised to find out people still believe one is considered gay only if they are the recipient of the homoerotic sexual act. Are You This? Or Are You This? by Madian Al Jazerah and Ellen Georgiou opened my eyes to a serious of political issues as it plainly told the story of a gay Palestinian refugee. The memoir reads like a journal of a man still trying to make sense of his internalised shame.
Moving to another first publication, 25-year-old local author Milto Elia’s Sex Insanity Time, sold only on Amazon, is marketed as distinguished short texts but the personal confession of heartbreak can also be seen as one larger story. The book effortlessly describes how time is manipulated when you are in love and how a lover experiences time. The scandalous illustrations of raw physical love are not to be missed.