My exhibition of the year was Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Billed as one of the most significant exhibitions for years, it didn’t disappoint. Two things struck me while bustling through the halls of the mock-villa. Firstly, we are incredibly lucky that Vesuvius preserved so much of the Pompeian culture – the Pompeians weren’t so lucky, of course. Secondly, the sheer bawdiness of the Pompeian art and household paraphernalia is almost embarrassing. We like to think that we live in an era of unprecedented sexual liberation but it’s nothing of the sort.
I also enjoyed Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at the Tate. I bought the calendar, so I’ll be enjoying Lowry’s bleak depictions of urban life throughout the coming year.
I didn’t go to the cinema this year. The most memorable film I watched on DVD was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s not fair to compare the film with the book… but… well… read the book.
I don’t watch much TV – I’d happily live without one. I actually think I’d be happy without catch-up services, too. I do catch things on iPlayer from time to time but there’s very little I would actually miss. Doctor Who continues to be a great series, though: the format is absolute genius for a TV show, allowing for any kind of story set in any kind of place with any kind of characters – and your lead cast changes completely every few years. Moreover, the “rules” by which it operates can continually be bent and broken, and as the 50th anniversary programme demonstrated its own history can be rewritten. It can be almost anything it wants to be from one week to the next: for that reason alone, it will endure in one form or another for a very long time indeed.
Unexpectedly, my album of the year was Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend. It’s the album I’ve listened to most times. I’m not bored of it yet.
I recently saw Handel’s Messiah in concert – something I really should have done much sooner. The atmosphere adds to the occasion, but the power of Handel’s storytelling would captivate in almost any setting.
The only sport I follow is Formula One. All the talk this year was about how it was becoming all about the tyres. Which meant that it became all about talking about tyres. What was fascinating was how the narrative shifted towards the end of the season, from “oh no! Sebastian Vettel keeps winning and it’s getting boring” to “ooh! Sebastian Vettel will break more records if he keeps winning!” Apparently boring becomes interesting when trivia is at stake. I’m very tempted to watch the whole 2014 season with the commentary muted, only David Coulthard’s voice is so very nice to listen to. Does he narrate audio books?
I like close racing, but I also like to watch utter domination. If it’s masterful, it’s not going to bore me. And Vettel has been masterful this year.
One of the perks of my job is exposure to some of the best (and, admittedly, the worst) of literature for children and young people. The stand-out highlight this year has been The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. It is a modern ghost story, deeply evocative of the Victorian golden age of the genre. The first in a new series, it establishes Lockwood & Co. as the Psychic Investigation Agency that will take on the trickiest cases. It’s excellent.
I finally got round to reading The Lord of the Rings this year. I tried to read them at least a decade ago and got stuck with Tom Bombadil, who seemed to bumble on endlessly about nothing of note for page after page. It was quite a different experience this time. If nothing much else has changed in the last ten or so years, at least my tolerance for reading has substantially increased. Nothing dragged this time. In fact, Tolkein’s world is so comprehensive that The Lord of the Rings seems almost like a highlights package. I wish there was more of it.
I also read Holes by Louis Sachar. Everyone is right: it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before. In a good way.
The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the first book I’ve read in a long while were I struggled to understand everything. It’s a great book, but I have far too many gaps in my knowledge to appreciate it fully.
Don Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is the most important Christian book I’ve read this year. If Christians value the authority of the Bible as the word of God, they should treat it with consistent integrity. Too many sleights of hand and fallacies slip their way into books and sermons; it’s concerning for those who don’t realise they’re doing it and highly irresponsible for those who do. Christians need to be much clearer about what we don’t know, what we do know, and why. This book is more of a manifesto than a comprehensive guide, but it’s essential reading all the same.
My little box of surprises for the year was Penguin Underground Lines, twelve books celebrating the London Underground’s 150th anniversary. Each book takes a Tube line as its theme, some as fiction and others as non-fiction. It’s an eclectic mix of drawing, biography, stream-of-consciousness, demography, and some more between. It’s a pot luck of styles and subjects that only mis-fires a couple of times. They are quintessentially London: not just because of the Tube theme, these books couldn’t have emerged from any other city on Earth.