20 December 2012
2012? A few
We asked a cross-section of SR contributors to choose their favourite book, film, exhibition, theatrical experience or sports event
I seldom read books hot off the press. I leave them marinading in reviews, sometimes forever. No marinading with Hilary Mantel's 'Bring up the Bodies'. After 'Wolf Hall', I was hottering. 'Bodies' was my book of the year, and I'll be amongst the first to pre-order 'The Mirror and the Light'. Mantel has written the trilogy of the decade – no surprise to anybody who read 'A Place of Greater Safety' (1993).
Failure to embrace the 2012 Edinburgh Festival (journey home insupportable – drunks, vomit, queue for taxis) didn't preclude musical highlights. Top billing, Ninne Stemme in a concert performance of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde', first and second acts divided by six weeks (third act, with Petra Maria Schnitzer, in April). Close second was pianist Maria Joao Pires, also at Glasgow's City Halls. Crikey, are Glaswegians spoilt.
Sport? Frankel, unbeaten in 14 races. At his final outing, on heavy ground, he 'fell out of the stalls half-asleep'. He soon woke up and that, for the other horses, was that. I cried.
Do opening lines of a novel carry more memorable significance than concluding sentences? I boldly go for the opening scenario: if the reader is jaded after the first paragraph there is no way they will make it through the muddle in the middle to reach the closure. Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' has a terrific opening: 'They're out there', with its intense brevity, pregnant with so much drama and the whiff of political terror. Openings are first impressions created boldly, offering more, needing courage and startling creativity from a genuine talent.
That is why I have chosen the opening ceremony of the London Olympics as my favourite sporting and theatre performance of the year. Danny Boyle brilliantly combined a theatre of neo-Roman sporting exuberance underpinned by a profound understanding of the historical/political context (save for his mis-reading of the role of Prospero.) From his portrayal of the forging of the industrial revolution through to Britain's finest 20th achievement – the NHS – plus his celebration of a new plural Britain, all linked (with some wit) in an eclectic magic-mix of staged wonder, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics gets my gold medal.
Book of 2012: No year is complete without an Ian Rankin book and 'Standing in Another Man's Grave' is another triumph.
Film of 2012: My travels have kept my cinematic experiences firmly in the category of blockbuster this year. Of those, I enjoyed 'The Dark Knight Rises' but found the plot holes too great to consider it my film of the year. My vote would go to 'Skyfall', particularly for its use of Glencoe for the movie's climax, even if a few Bond-tourists might find themselves rather lost searching for it on the A9.
Theatre 2012: Graham Linehan's 'The Ladykillers' was mostly very good, particularly thanks to the turn of Peter 'Malcolm Tucker' Capaldi.
Exhibition 2012: I enjoyed Roderick Buchanan's 'Legacy' exhibit at the newly refurbished National Gallery, not least because of the highly informed company with whom I shared the visit.
Sporting event 2012: As a Hearts fan it's hard to see past the Scottish Cup final, even if times have been rather less happy since.
The blonde did it for Bill
Having spent much of the year in a dentist's chair, it seemed perverse that I should opt for 'Sweet Tooth' as bed-time reading. Or might it have been the alluring cover photo of a pretty blonde girl?
I bought the book on the rebound from J K Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy'. A weak plot, shallow characters and a limp prose style left me disappointed and without motivation to keep reading after page 30.
Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' triumphs in those areas where 'The Casual Vacancy' was so poor. Serena Frome, beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, is recruited into the intelligence service and finds herself part of an operation, reminiscent of CIA support for Encounter magazine, to fund promising non-Left, Marxist authors – a project codenamed 'Sweet Tooth'. It is set in the 1970s and period evocation is spot on.
The book crackles with atmosphere. Character and situation are drawn with acute detail and sensitivity. The writing is luminous and the plot flows from compelling characterisation. For a book so rich in the coloratura of place and character, it has a pace and momentum that had me turning the pages with reluctance – I just did not want this writing to stop. McEwan, who researched this work well, is a superb story-teller and this book was my favourite this year by a mile.
Theatre: A night in London in September provided the opportunity for a rare visit to the theatre. We went to see the magnificent Simon Russell Beale in 'Timon of Athens' at the National. It was an audacious, modern-dress production which drew parallels between ancient Athens and modern Greece, with the rich gorging themselves at groaning tables while Occupy members rioted in the background. With ticket prices half those of the West End, the National Theatre delivered astonishing value for money and an experience to remember and cherish.
Film: Forget 'Skyfall', 'The Dark Knight Rises' and 'Rust and Bone', fine films as they certainly are. My film of the year is 'Argo'. Before the Iranians besieged the American embassy in Teheran in 1979, six members of staff escaped and took refuge in the Canadian embassy. The CIA conceived a rescue plan which involved the pretence that they are part of a production team making a blockbuster movie.
To say more would be to give too much away, but the mixture of nail-biting suspense and eye-watering hilarity is irresistible. I wish I could sign off with its gloriously inventive insult (not unrelated to the film's title) but there might be children reading.
The Scottish cabinet
'The Hunger Games' was notable for being one of those rare films that are superior to the book on which they are based. It boasted enjoyably eccentric performances from Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks while Jennifer Lawrence built on her memorable debut in the grim 'Winter's Bone' – she is crafting an assured CV.
'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' stands as one of the more surprising films of the year. At times it flirted with pretentiousness but it managed to rise above this and let its charm and poignancy win an unexpected convert. Emma Watson flourished in a preppy role which included a number of risqué scenes that were the career equivalent of waving a magic wand to try and make the audience forget all about Hermione Granger.
The most memorable film of 2012, however, was Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight Rises'. It has been some time since I've anticipated a film quite like I anticipated the concluding instalment in his acclaimed Batman trilogy and, in truly cinematic fashion, it didn't disappoint. Tom Hardy's Bane lacked the iconic qualities of Heath Ledger's Joker but overall it might be judged to have retained the epic feel and intelligence of 'The Dark Knight'.
Is this the real Axl Rose?
Scotland and the US have many superficial similarities. We broadly speak the same language and our cultural ecosystems have plenty of overlap, so there is the vague sense that your typical American is somehow familiar, like a distant relative. If you want a bracing counterpoint read 'Pulphead', a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Sullivan is an essayist in the mold of David Foster Wallace who is adept at turning over the rocks of American society to reveal its diversity and plain weirdness. From Christian rock festivals to the hunt for the real Axl Rose, to post-Katrina community spirit, this is a diverse and affecting trawl through a strange land. There's no meta theme here as it's a collection of magazine pieces. Instead, its unity comes from Sullivan's ability to be objective without making snide and patronising judgements.
He's an outsider but an empathetic one who sees reflections of himself in even the most bizarre situations. Even as an adopted American I started many of these pieces thinking I had no point of reference, but finished them with thoughts and images that lingered for days afterwards. An excellent bedside book if you want to spend your nights dreaming of a different America than the one you might think you know.
It's coming to us all
My favourite film of 2012 was a French-language film entitled 'Amour', written and directed by Michael Haneke. The title may encourage the wrong expectations for the 'amour' involved is that of an elderly husband for his wife who has a stroke. The operation to clear an artery does not go well and the husband, Georges, promises his wife, Anne, that she will not be returned to hospital but will be cared for by him at home. Things do not go well.
A nurse is brought in, but is dismissed for callous behaviour. The well-meaning daughter suggests a return to institutional care but is over-ruled by Georges. In the end he soothes Anne by telling a story, and then smothers her with a pillow. The film has the ambiguity of great art. It can be seen as love devoted to the end; even the smothering saves further indignity. Equally it can be seen as a misguided attempt to go it alone instead of seeking professional help. Or it can be a reminder to those who want to die at home that they may be putting intolerable burdens on their families. We must all face these issues.
He seems happy enough here
My favourite exhibition of 2012 was Jesus Laughing, which I organised in Portobello, its 28th showing. It's now in Australia. The concept first came to me in an Edinburgh Chinese restaurant when a kindly Australian leant across the disgusting all-you-can-eat meal and muttered to the effect: 'Have you ever noticed that in most of the pictures of Jesus he is wearing a nightie, has green skin and crying. I reckon if he walked around like that on Mallaig pier and asked the fishermen to leave their boats and follow him they would chuck him in'. I said I hadn't.
He then asked if I might be interested in commissioning artists to do pictures of Jesus Laughing, and being a non-practising atheist I ungratefully replied to the effect that I would rather spend my days sucking the contents of Leith harbour through an old sock. But he persuaded me and I have never been enriched by a job more. When I waved goodbye to the exhibition last year I felt a new affection for both the gospel story and the congregations of the Kirk. We should rejoice in them both.
This man blethers for Scotland
Tom Hubbard declaimed from his new book of poems, entitled 'The Nyaff' (dedicated to the memory of Duncan Glen and published by Windfall books in Kelty) at a regular coffee-morning poetry session at Henderson's restaurant in Edinburgh recently. Afterwards I told him he should offer an event when folk would simply gather to hear him blether, because his asides and explanations are so intriguing.
Tom published a book on Hugh MacDiarmid, Baudelaire and Rilke in 1997 entitled 'The Integrative Vision'. He mentions in his introduction the concept he had, in the old days of the Scottish Poetry Library, of poetry as 'a base-camp, a starting-point rather than a destination' and he refers to an Eskimo word meaning both to make poetry and to breathe.
Another recent constellation of his poems is translations of Pino Mereu in 'The Anzio Pipe Band'. This was in reference to Hamish Henderson with whom Pino's father had fought during the war and the poems are published in 'At Hame wi Freedom', a book of essays on Hamish Henderson published this November for the Carrying Stream Festival by Grace Note Publications.
Dr Tom Hubbard has been welcomed over the last 20 years as a visiting professor spreading the integrative vision on the arts and literature across Europe, America and Ireland. Now he is back in the Kingdom of Fife concentrating on a second novel and further poems and translations.
Many will have heard Michael Sandel give the 2009 Reith Lectures or at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival. His famous course on justice is available online (www.JusticeHarvard.org) and his book, 'What Money Can't Buy: the moral limits of markets', is my choice for read of 2012.
My generation has watched in horror as more of what we have held most dear and believe are best provided for society by society have been marketised, and young people have grown up in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The dominance of the idea that ethics and morals have no place in economics has led us to where we are today, with increasing and now gross inequality, small enterprise strangled by the power of big business, on a path reminiscent of the collapse of the Roman empire.
Sandel asks the question, what should not be purchasable by money? He then shows how markets crowd out morals. An example: should a doctor give preferential treatment to a patient who can afford to pay? As a wealthy person you might regard it as your right to purchase health care. As a doctor you might find the concept unethical. Or another: should you pay to educate your children?
It's in the hole
In this year of sporting excellence and excitement, Europe's victory in the Ryder Cup at Medinah dazzled because Olazabal's European team fought back tenaciously and eventually exuberantly from a position that had, at the start of the final day, seemed irrecoverable: the score was US 10, Europe 6, with 12 singles matches to go.
The US team fielded a formidable range of winners of majors, but the most illustrious of these failed to triumph. Tiger Woods halved with Francesco Molinari, and Phil Mickelson accepted defeat by Justin Rose with immense grace. Jim Furyk's uncomprehending despair in losing to Sergio Garcia was evocative of the magnitude of this sporting upset, orchestrated by a uniquely unbeaten and gritty Ian Poulter and inspired by the memory of Seve Ballesteros, the team's talisman. In some ways the best bit about the slow burn drama of the final day was that for Scots it was win-win: the European team, including a Scot, won; our British compatriots, the English and Northern Irish players, had starring roles of various kinds; and our own Paul Lawrie felled Brandt Snedeker five and three. As a Scot who is also a Brit and a European, I could not have felt more proud.
Seventy years after the end of the Spanish civil war, conflict still rages about the causes and the conduct of the war. Paul Preston has, since the 1960s, sought to bring evidence into these highly ideologically-charged debates. His most recent study 'The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain', engages with the use of terror as a weapon of war.
He acknowledges that acts of terror were committed by both sides but firmly rebuts the anodyne platitude that one side was as bad as the other. Through thorough and painstaking analysis of records from all over Spain he shows that while some terror was perpetrated by supporters of the Republican government in the first six months of the war, Franco and his rebels used terror as a systematic practice and continued to do so for years after the war had ended. Franco still gets a better press than Hitler but Preston argues that the attempts of the Franco regime to exterminate their opponents and their families were so pervasive and ideologically driven as to deserve to be described as a holocaust. The detail is sickening but it was a story that needed to be told.
Enlightened thinker of our time
Other than Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw's 'The Strange Death of Labour Scotland', little of what I read in the first 10 months of 2012 had any force or power. In November, however, Carol Craig's 'The Great Takeover' arrived, a book to cherish and to applaud.
While less centred on Scotland than her past work, her nuanced critique of contemporary society's shallowness is touching, profound and entirely relevant to modern Scotland. She perceives an emptiness at the heart of a society dominated by a trivia-focused media, commercialism, the pursuit of status, frenetic consumerism and insidious market forces. Her search for human resilience and well-being and authentic ways of relating to our fellows leads her to a blistering critique of modern communications and of politics which have shed any sense of genuinely different moral choices.
She is particularly effective in her condemnation of the wholesale adoption of the market paradigm, especially in such contexts as public services and education. Although her conclusions are diffuse, the analysis is superb. If you value ethical and linguistic clarity and a commitment to a relationships-based culture, read 'The Great Takeover', proof that incisive, enlightened thinking remains alive in Scotland.
My book of the year is by Scotland's least well-known and most under-rated major writer. Ronald Frame is the author of some 15 books – novels and collections of short stories – as well as numerous radio and television plays. Born in Glasgow in 1953, he studied in Glasgow University's English literature department, and still lives and writes in the city. However, his literary work has little or nothing in common with that of such Glasgow contemporaries as Gray, Kelman, McIlvanney, Lochhead, Leonard, or Morgan. This is no doubt why, despite winning the Saltire Society Book of the Year prize for the excellent 'The Lantern Bearers' in 2000, his literary profile remains relatively low.
Frame's 2012 novel, published by Faber & Faber, is entitled 'Havisham'. It recreates in meticulous detail the entire life of Dickens's famously frustrated character with virtuosic and vivid imaginative power. In a series of beautifully controlled, snapshot dramatic scenes, Satis House and its adjoining brewery, and Miss Havisham's strange and tormented life there, are described and explored to compelling effect. Here is a Glasgow novelist who can take on this most 'English' of possible subjects and carry it off wonderfully well. Ronald Frame's talent is unique in its Scottish context.
Best film of 2012: 'Le Havre' directed by Aki Kaurismäki. In the eponymous French coastal town, Marcel, a middle-aged man, encounters a young African illegal immigrant, who is on the run from the police. Marcel helps him, but Inspector Monet is determined to find him. But there is nothing predictable about this film with its moody focus, lingering camera shots, and oddly archaic setting, suggesting the 1950s, decrepit cars, small apartments with basic furniture. It is humorous, deeply serious, astonishingly authentic, with its subtle nuances of expression, the meandering and tangential nature of encounters, the stark surroundings of the harbour, the down-at-heel streets.
Inspector Monet is suspicious and disdainful. Being French, he is elegantly dressed in black-belted raincoat, gloves and hat. This well-groomed policeman enters a cafe, and all conversation stops. He sits down at a table and places a pineapple beside him. It is absurd, yet it could tip over into tragedy. The characters' preoccupations are familiar – routines, hopes, fears, small gains and no surging ambitions. The shift in Inspector Monet's attitude is so subtle that it's impossible to pinpoint it. But to say any more would spoil the ending. Perhaps the secret lies in the positioning of the pineapple on the cafe table.
There was no shortage of fine novels in 2012. My shortlist would include Ray Mouton's 'In God's House' and C J Sansom's 'Dominion' (for their narrative power), Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' (for a clever exploration of the nature of 'fiction') and Jennie Erdal's 'The Missing Shade of Blue' (for its subtle philosophical insights into the human condition).
But my strongest recommendation is for John Lanchester's 'Capital', an ambitious novel which captures the materialistic preoccupations of our times. It centres on a single street in south London, Pepys Road, where the properties have been transformed from modest homes for the Victorian lower middle class into fashionable residences for the wealthy. The people who live and work there reflect the changing nature of metropolitan society: they include a city trader, a conceptual (con) artist, a football star from Africa, a skilled Polish tradesman and an Asian family suspected of terrorist sympathies. A dying old lady who was born in the street has observed the changes and finds it hard to comprehend how they have come about and what they mean. When residents begin to receive cards with the message 'We want what you have' the scene is set for disturbing developments.
I'm flattered SR thinks I read a book or watched a film that came out in 2012. But I don't soak up intellectual plonk and prefer what was laid down long ago. At least you don't demand a 2012 stage première, which permits me fond remembrance of Scottish Opera's latest revival of the 'Tosca' production that sets Napoleon's Marengo campaign in the age of Mussolini. I always enjoy Puccini's flow of melody up to the final trampoline jump, but this time I was struck by what the stage can contrive even in the age of the screen – for example in the silent mockery of the poor little king of Italy and the ambiguity of fascism's affair with the Roman Church.
Sporting events? I enjoyed the Olympics more than I expected and not just for medals' sake. But, after bleak times for British rugby, I revelled even more in the stylish thumping of the All-Blacks, even if England's decisive moves were of Samoan and Rhodesian descent. Obviously I hope England lose their next Twickenham match but, defying both political and 80 or 90-minute nationalists, I hold to an old-fashioned British Isles patriotism which backs any home country against all-comers, even the better sort of ex-colonials.
R D Kernohan