The Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 exhibition was my favourite of the year. (I went in early January, so it counts as a 2016 visit.) The photos were amazing, as you would expect, and made even more stunning by the way they were backlit in a darkened exhibition space. Sadly for the organisers, this meant that the souvenir reproductions in the gift shop looked dull by comparison. I’ll be going back next year.
Another slow years for cinema trips. My highlight was Finding Dory, which was fairly entertaining even if it didn’t add much to general vibe of Finding Nemo. My lowlight was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which wasn’t very entertaining. I think those were my only trips to the cinema. Which says more about me than it does about the films I saw.
There are only a handful of things that I keep up with on TV, a fact which I feel impoverishes me in many ways. For instance, I didn’t watch the highly-rated Planet Earth II so I’ll have to wait for the DVD.
Of the things I did catch, by far the most arresting was Fleabag. It was billed as a comedy, but if it is then it’s of the bleakest-outer-darkness kind. It’s not for the faint-hearted, partly because it’s devoid of hope, and partly because it’s self-consciously depraved. Yet in the mire, it’s a passionate and poignant depiction of the emptiness of life. It’s one of the bravest, most innovative things I’ve seen in years.
On a similar vein, I watched Barracuda last week. It’s a slow-burner to begin with, but really packs a punch by the end of the final episode. This is the sports anti-hero story: the story of all the promising sportspeople of the future whose careers stall and are forced to come to terms with normal life. Danny, our ‘hero’ is relentlessly self-obsessed. He expects heaven and earth to move around him. And yet he, like everyone else, ends up a failure. There are consequences. It’s tragic. But it makes you feel things.
On a sunnier note, children’s TV is having something of a renaissance. I have really enjoyed the second season of So Awkward. It’s like Some Girls for 10-year-olds. It’s a classic kid’s TV depiction of school: the headteacher is completely mad, the form tutor is completely desperate, and the kids are two-dimensional. Martha is nerdish and meticulous about everything. Lilly is slightly less clever and easily embarrassed. Jas is clumsy. They are supported by Olly, a sort of boy-version of Martha whose cast notes may as well have said “young Stephen Fry,” and Matt, who has a will-they-won’t-they relationship with Lily. Matt is the only one to have undergone any kind of character development, from sportsman-who’s-stupid-but-far-too-good-looking-to-care-about-that to sportsman-who’s-stupid-but-willing-to-learn-and-surprisingly-sensitive-and-also-good-looking. A real catch, then. Oh to fathom the mysteries of the mind of a tweenage girl. Anyway, it’s really well done for what it is and I can’t help but keep watching.
My guilty pleasure this year was Canadian teen-trash reality-drama series Lost & Found Music Studios. Don’t judge me. It’s the perfect blend of predictable storylines, irritating characters and tween marketability. The only reason to watch this is to consider why it works when it so obviously shouldn’t. Why can’t I help coming back for more? It’s formulaic, the characters are all brats, and their songs don’t even sound good. I think its brilliance is in the editing, the constant cut-aways to the characters explaining the events of the narrative through straight-to-camera monologues shouldn’t work but they do. I hate myself for saying it, but I really love this programme.
This autumn, I discovered the solo work of Brandon Flowers. I have a very selective list of albums I can listen to all the way through again and again without getting bored, and The Desired Effect is the only one to make the list this year. In its best places, if feels like Flowers has found Bruce Springsteen and moved him forwards by three decades.
Not new to me this year, but worth a mention is my rekindling of affection for Paul Simon’s Graceland. I’ve been listening to it a lot recently, and it’s still growing on me. Simon reckons that Graceland (the song) is the best thing he ever wrote, and I am beginning to agree.
Because it’s Christmas time, honourable mention must go to Paul Baloche for his bizarre-yet-brilliant mashups between well-known Christmas carols and worship songs. It shouldn’t work but it sort of does.
I tried to watch the first race of the Formula 1 season this year, but the adverts on Channel 4 drove me mad and I gave up. I watched a few minutes of the Olympics here and there, but nothing more than that. The only consistent sporting occasion I tuned in for was the Tour de France, which was excellent fun. Chris Froome’s unexpected attack on the final descent of Stage 8 was a brilliant moment.
The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift was, at times, difficult to read. But it was worth the effort for a tightly told story about power and manipulation. It’s only short, but has more to say than most books of five times the length. I had the pleasure of hearing the author speak about the book, its inspirations, and possible meanings. This is exactly the sort of thing that Peirene Press excels at: publishing things that need to be read by those who don’t happen to speak languages other than English.
More downmarket but also translated from a European language was The Circle by Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren. I’m not a connoisseur of Swedish teen fiction or stories about witches so I can’t make relative judgments about it. On its own terms, though, it’s a lively depiction of high school and all the social complexities of that time of life. And there are witches.
My life changed forever when I read To Hell and Back, Meat Loaf’s autobiography. It’s the most extraordinary story, told with such wit and warmth that you almost forget the tragic sadness behind it all. I never knew biography could be written so well.
Mark Forsyth has filled a gap in the market brilliantly with The Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the perfect english phrase. He runs through 39 ‘tricks’ of good writing, explaining why they work and why alternatives don’t work. His use of examples is broad, from the obvious (the Bible and Shakespeare) to the surprising (Katy Perry and Dolly Parton). I’m setting myself the challenge of upping my game with memorable phrases this coming year.
By far and away the best Christian book I’ve read this year was Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus by L Michael Morales. I saw more clearly, and had new light shed on, more things from the Pentateuch than I could mention. More importantly, it excited me with the Bible’s vision of where creation has come from and where it is going, and what God is doing in the world to take us from the one to the other. It sent me into scripture, into praise and into prayer more than anything I’ve read in the past few years.