I love the, always insightful and thoughtful, celebrity column each Saturday in the Times called ‘My Culture Fix’ and realise I will never be asked to write it (because I’m not a celebrity), so I thought I’d do it myself and then invite some friends to do their own.
So, this is #1 in an occasional series.
Here’s my starter. It took me ages.
(If you’d like to contribute please let me know and I’ll send you the form.)
My favourite author or book
Few authors have fault-free cannons of work. Favourites like Ian McEwan, John Irving and Margaret Atwood all suffer from weak spots, Donna Tartt, less so. But I’ll go for the two books that punched me in the chest most vividly in recent year, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both deal with aspects of systemic racism in America that makes you wonder why, in 2020, there should have still been a need for #BlackLivesMatter. But it seems racism is not just systemic but endemic too. Maybe books this brilliant can make a dent.
The book I’m reading
Barack Obama’s fine memoir, A Promised Land. Big and beautiful. (Like him). And the latest of my book club’s choices (it’s my work’s diversity and inclusion group so we only read books by authors of colour). The current read is a brilliant page-turner. The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.
The book I wish I had written
“How I won a million dollars” by Mark A Gorman.
The book I couldn’t finish
There’s plenty. I’m not too squeamish about that. But Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is some pile of drudging poopery.
The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
I’ve never really taken to ‘the classics’. My reading starts mid 1930’s (Lawrence, FSF, Camus, Kafka, Huxley) so I’m fairly ashamed that, when I describe writing as Dickensian, my experience of his work is from TV, the stage or through the eyes of writers like Michel Faber.
My favourite film
That changes. I recently re-watched what I thought was my favourite, Magnolia by PT Anderson, and the edge was off it. The Shining and Apocalypse Now often sit front of mind for this question, when asked, but actually I’m going to stick with Paul Thomas Anderson and say ‘his body of work’.
My favourite play
The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of Berthold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle
My favourite podcast
For about two years now podcasts have become my biggest indulgence in my own time, not all are cultural of course. In fact, they’re mainly political, news and history. But a few cultural gems have slipped in there. It’s hard to do well. But Homecoming (both series) is fantastic theatre of the mind, as is Passenger List but the most gruesome and funniest (even if unintentionally) is a New York take on Sweeney Todd called the Horrors of Dolores Roach. Delicious.
The box set I’m hooked on
Gomorrah is ridiculously callous in its brutality but gloriously so. The fact it’s in Italian masks what I’m pretty sure are at least two central performances of dubious merit. My wife and I were feeling decidedly guilty that we feel invested in the character Ciro, despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded murdering bastard.
My favourite TV series
You can’t beat getting your scoresheet out with University Challenge on the screen. Jools, when he doesn’t talk, has been a staple for many years, but the programme that got me hook, line and sinker during lockdown was Junior Bake Off with the wonderful Harry Hill presenting.
My favourite piece of music
Well, I definitely want Into My Arms by Nick Cave played at my funeral but the two records that I simply never tire of are Reproduction and Travelogue by The Human League. It’s pretty incredible to think how they knocked this up at the time they did. Extraordinary technique, tunes and oddly brilliant lyrics. The real deal.
My favourite dance performance
I was blown away by Peacock (choreographed by Yang Liping) in the 2019 Edinburgh Festival. But every time I see NDT I have a similar WTF reaction. Done really well, with great music, contemporary dance is my favourite artform. We are blessed in Edinburgh to see this sort of stuff for under £20 every year. Nowhere else on earth would you get that sort of value.
The Last film/music/book that made me cry
Gus Harrower recorded a version of Secret Love by Doris Day, my Mum’s favourite song, for her funeral recently and it was electrifying and hugely emotional for me. And then, just last night, we watched an Australian movie about a terminally ill teenager called Babyteeth. That hit the spot too.
The lyric I wish I’d written
From Grinderman (Nick Cave) from Palaces of Montezuma… “The spinal cord of JFK
Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee I give to you.”
The song that saved me
I’m glad to say that I don’t feel I’ve ever needed ‘saved’ but should I find myself in that situation it’s not hard to imagine that it would be Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World.
The instrument I play
Haha. Play? The ukulele and the drums, but over my life I have become able to get tunes out of the larynx, oboes, clarinets, synthesisers and guitars. None with distinction.
The instrument I wish I’d learned
Unquestionably, the piano.
If I could own one painting it would be
Three Oncologists, by Ken Currie, that hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It terrifies me but absorbs me. I never tire of it.
The music that cheers me up
I’d have to say, in general terms, soul music. From the early 70’s when the real masters were at their peak: Curtis, Stevie, Isaac, Marvin, Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, Aretha, Nina. For these legends, first names suffice.
The place I feel happiest
It’s a straight toss up between opening night at The Lyceum in Edinburgh, with my wife, and Glastonbury. But for the sheer awesomeness of it the big G gets my vote.
My guiltiest cultural pleasure
Reading on the bog. I have James Robertson’s 365 Stories on the go upstairs and a wonderful book about famous letters downstairs.
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors
Billy Connolly, Salvador Dali, David Byrne, Viv Albertine, Grace Jones (for the clothes and the fighting) and Donna Tartt.
And I’ll put on this music
Oh, Jazz. Things like GoGo Penguin, Moses Boyd, Kamasi Washington and some AfroBeat, led by Fela Kuti.