No exhibition grabbed my attention this year as much as a single painting in the National Gallery. I must have walked past it many times before without a second glance, but early in the year I looked up at just the right moment and allowed it to grab my attention.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is an extraordinary painting by Diego Velázquez. It depicts a maid hard at work in the kitchen, with an elderly woman pointing her attention towards a scene on the back wall in which Jesus is seen speaking with the sisters Martha and Mary. In the biblical story, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him while Martha faffed about with the household chores. Martha complains that Mary isn’t pulling her weight, but Jesus replies that Mary has chosen what is better.
The painting is brilliant because it’s unclear whether the scene in the background is a painting, so that a contemporary maid is being chastised for her begrudging labour, or a hatch to an adjacent room, so that the maid could be Martha herself. The first understanding is the more natural one. It’s pleasing to think that a Baroque painter went to the effort of showing, through the example of a biblical story, that work for its own sake is never more important than honouring Christ. I’m glad I noticed it.
The only film I saw in the cinema this year was The Fault in Our Stars. The tone of voice in John Green’s first-person narrative is the outstanding feature of the book, but sadly doesn’t make the transition to screen well. In its place is an emotional intensity on an even greater scale than the book, which, while I was never going to appreciate it, really did seem overcooked.
On DVD, I saw the Lego Movie. I was sort of enjoying it until it got all post-modern in the real-life sequences. I rapidly changed my opinion of it at that point.
Having sat through Frozen, I want 102 minutes of my life back. With compensation.
The only other film I recall watching this year was Troy, the 2004 ‘adaptation’ of the Iliad starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris, among others. One reviewer called the acting ‘as wooden as the horse’ and I found that to be a generous understatement.
Clearly I need to watch better films next year.
Generally, I only watch TV with online catch-up, and I don’t catch up on much. For comedy, the outstanding programme of the year was Inside No. 9 by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. It was was seriously dark and often very strange, but it made for compelling viewing.
There have been a few good music documentaries on BBC4. (In fact, these are just about the only things BBC4 seems to produce nowadays.) The history of rock is a well-worn path for these programmes, so it was good to see a divergence from the big-picture overview (The Joy of the Guitar Riff) to more niche themes (Play it Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp).
I didn’t pick up on any stand-out albums this year. But then again, I didn’t listen to any of the top-selling or most critically-acclaimed new releases. Nobody to blame but myself.
I went to a couple of concerts, however. The absolute highlight for me was hearing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 (known as the ‘Emperor,’ apparently, because one of Napoleon’s officers heard it and remarked that it was an emperor of a concerto). Quite right, too. I also enjoyed Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, which I had never fully appreciated for its outstanding quality in every movement. Bach’s Magnificat recently got me in the mood for Christmas but, if I’m honest, I was underwhelmed by it. I might stick to symphonies for a while.
I followed the Formula 1 season again this year. It takes a sizeable chunk of time out of a weekend, but at least it enforces a few hours’ down-time every couple of weeks. Everything changed this year: where the talk recently had been all about the tyres, this time it was all about the power units. They’re not called engines any more, apparently.
The finances are stacked firmly in favour of the bigger and more established teams, meaning that the two smallest and slowest teams went bust. Others could go the same way. I think all this is a terrible shame because the drivers further down the field tend to be less predictable and therefore add more spice to the races. But business is business and, hand on heart, if I was looking to invest somewhere it wouldn’t be one of the little F1 teams. All this aside, the racing was more exciting than it has been for the few years I’ve watched F1.
Jules Bianchi nearly died after colliding with a crane that was recovering another car, reminding everyone that throwing yourself around a race track at 240 miles per hour carries with it inherent dangers.
I have read more books this year than any other previously. I’ve aimed for a mix of classics and contemporary across genres. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I expected to find heavy-going but really enjoyed. I finally read Albert Camus’ The Outsider (or The Stranger; L’Étranger). It’s an effecting story that I expect I’ll want to revisit often.
The most challenging thing I read this year was A Clockwork Orange. Challenging because Burgess uses an invented slang throughout and it requires a good deal of decoding, and challenging also because of the nasty stuff that the delinquent protagonist does. It’s a brave treatment of the theological tug-of-war between the Pelagian and Augustinian positions on free will and original sin. I was worried that it might change forever how I hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but it hasn’t. A forceful book, no question, and not for the faint-hearted, but an excellent one nonetheless.
I enjoyed the wit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, even though they are so sparsely plotted. Of more recent fiction, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall gripped me completely.
I have very recently read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. Henry Marsh is a consultant neurosurgeon and this is his memoir (of sorts) telling the stories of some of his memorable cases. He is oddly likeable: pompously self-important but totally aware of it; grouchy but for all the right reasons. Beneath the arrogance you get a sense of a man who rides the waves of successes and failures with a genuine respect for his patients and their brains. The format works brilliantly.
Of the Christian books I’ve read this year, the most helpful was Equipped to Serve by Richard Bewes. He wants everyone to think about how they can serve the church and to encourage them in that work. He does it with great warmth and enthusiasm, drawing on a lifetime’s experience of ordinary people stepping up and stepping out. It’s a real gem.
See also: 2013 in review