Back in the first lockdown in Scotland in April last year I asked a whole bunch of my pals to send me the ONE SONG that filled them with joy whenever they were feeling down.
Now that we are facing the short days and dark nights of January it seems only right to share this with a wider audience and make it collaborative. (That means anyone can add songs to it, so please do.)
So, if you have Spotify you can help me build this further, or just relax and enjoy it.
It’s deliberately eclectic. No-one’s joy is universal, but there should be something in here for everyone.
A great way to kick of 2021 was to watch one of Mark Kermode’s top 10 of 2020 on Netflix
This lovely American Indie movie, Saint Frances, written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan. Nope, me neither.
It’s the story of a 30 something ‘girl’ who’s pretty much failed in life so far, who simultaneously gets a new boyfriend who gets her pregnant but is happy with her undertaking a quick abortion (and go halfers on the fee), and lands a summer job as a nanny for a six year old kid who has mixed race lesbian parents.
The kid’s a brat and is running through nannies.
So you know how this all gonna pan out right?
Well, not really. What we embark on is a fairly, but not overly, emotional study in female empowerment (and actually entitlement because one of the moms is a pretty high achieving ball buster), loneliness, self-worth and social value.
The one guy in the movie isn’t cast asunder as unimportant but he plays a side role. He’s a good guy actually.
The four-way Mom, mom, nanny, kid (and a new baby which makes suppressed Mom, depressed Mom) dynamic is complicated and rarely sees the main protagonist played by O’Sullivan in a position of strength. Meanwhile her abortion has some fairly gross out complications although none that derail the narrative.
It’s actually a bit of a comedy but it’s a lot more than that. It’s certainly bittersweet, but sweet enough.
Hugely thought provoking with several powerful central performances, a strong exploration of issues that face women today (one critic said it was too woke for its own good but I disagree) and a few really good laughs along the way.
“One might say that the publication of a novel takes a village” says Curtis Sittenfeld in the acknowledgements of her sixth novel, Rodham. But in the case of Rodham one could easily expand this acknowledgement way beyond a village, to a nation and perhaps more accurately; a gender.
Because this is a book that every American woman should read and feel that, whether persecuted or empowered, this novel was written for them.
And then every American man should be made to read it as punishment. As a warning that what we have taken for granted (first dibs at opportunity) might not , should not, last forever.
In a year where Black Rights have dominated the non-Covid news this is a book about women’s rights and it seems appropriate that this, and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys were, by a long chalk, the most compelling ones I’ve read.
This novel doesn’t just ooze restrained moral authority, it takes those that flaunt sexual democracy by the bollocks and kicks shit out of them.
This is the feminist book that makes feminism real, for all.
It’s an unbelievable achievement in writing.
And yet it’s so, so damn prosaic. It’s so, so kind of uneventful.
Despite its monumental subject matter and the giddy heights to which it aspires, and attains, the fact it’s written as a kind of diary, where the author never tires of listing the most banal aspects of a setting, again and again, without ever boring the reader, makes it firstly seem real and secondly incontrovertible. Hillary Clinton would never tell us about the time her aide wiped a snotter from her nose before she went on stage for a speech unless it was real/true. Right?
In roller coaster terms it reaches the zenith but then never drops, suspending you above reality in a construct so simply but brilliantly inconceivable that it seems it must be true.
It’s difficult to explain, without telling you the story, how brilliant Sittenfeld is at taking a fantasy, making it a reality and then laughing to herself as you try to unravel the one from the other.
Time and again I found myself stopping to marvel that this was, you know, all made up.
But let’s pause in this gushorama.
Let’s start from the beginning.
The pitch is this. “Rodham. What happened after Hillary didn’t marry Bill Clinton.”
And that’s it.
Except it’s not. Sittenfeld could have gone loopy on us, could have stretched her political imagination beyond any horizons we have to adhere to in reality.
Instead she writes Hillary Rodham’s autobiography, in the first tense, including, you know, that time she had Bill bring her off on a freeway, while he was driving. That time he… (I’ll save it for you to find out the other often quite sordid, eyebrow raising details).
So far, so titillating. But, titter ye not.
This a work of absolute seriousness. The autobiography (except it’s not) of the famous wife of a famous philanderer, but the most popular, and let’s face it, most handsome philander on the planet. A philanderer she married and stood by through thick and thin.
Except, not here. Because she didn’t marry him. Not here.
I ain’t tellin’.
One third of the novel takes us up through her girlhood up to the point of her not marrying Bill Clinton. The next two thirds follow the consequences.
Would either go on to political success?
Would they remain in contact?
Would their parting of the ways influence American politics?
Would Donald Trump rise to the heights that he did (the one spoiler I will give you is that Trump makes several cameo appearances to great humorous effect)?
Would there, in fact, even BE any consequences? After all, in this history it was simply an imagined (but real) relationship between two law students. One extremely handsome. One extremely clever.
Even though the entire novel is a fiction it is teasingly stitched together with truths. Real things that did happen but, in the words of Eric Morecambe, “just not necessarily all in the right order”.
It really is a breathtaking literary achievement with deft touches like (How Marvellous!) – a diary entry of an impressionable teen – but it’s not a diary entry, (how disappointing!) it’s the autobiography of one of the most famous women in the world. But it’s not.
Twice Sittenfeld evokes the vision of a cerulean sky. In a novel of plain speaking it is a word that stood out to me, that sent me scurrying to Google dictionary. It’s use was allowable.
It’s also prescient. She was published in early 2020, but there’s an important reference in it to Kamala Harris, Kamala was only appointed Biden’s Vice Presidential candidate in August 2020. There were 5 or 6 women in the running for that role, most notably Katherine Warren, But Sittenfeld doesn’t write her in. She writes in Harris. And Harris wasn’t even the only black woman in the running. So it’s not sleight of hand. I repeat, it’s prescience.
You’ll need some basic knowledge of American politics to get the most out of this. I have a little more than average for a non-American and that helped me, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the point if your knowledge only stretches to the big names we all know.
I don’t know Sittenfeld. I don’t know her work. But I’ll certainly be looking out her back catalogue after this.
Absolutely 10 out of 10 and thank you Helen Howden for spotting this and lending me it to read.
The thing that marks out this spectacularly honest documentary is Aretha Franklin’s melancholia.
It’s as if she’s been transported there by another being. Her God? She is so in the moment. So devoid of ego, unlike her entourage, as to make it a truly ‘religious’ experience, not just for her but for the viewer too.
The melancholia manifests itself as a lost look. Separated from the action, the film making onluy there for one reason. To sing.
And there is zero theatrics. Zero showmanship. Zero bullshit.
just an honest to goodness outpouring of singing as best as she can muster and her best will just have to be good enough. Cos that’s all she’s got.
I’ve never seen a music documentary so compellingly believable about the motivations of its maker, that motivation appears to be the love of her God and her fellow humankind.
I’m not even going to mention the obvious subject as it’s affected us all in different ways, other than to say my list of theatre and cinema highlights is extremely short and has been replaced by TV and podcasts.
One of the highlights was moving from self employed to employed status after 15 years.
Things were looking uncertain until an unlikely opportunity arose with Whitespace, a company I have been involved with, one way or another since its inception 25 or so years ago as a subsidiary of 1576. Finally I can wholly lay claim to the title of being a ‘Whitespacer’ as a Strategy Director. It’s been immense having worked on not one, but two, global cosmetics brands, a global pitch for a motor company and a series of successful pitches and client engagements including a huge Oil and Gas start up, a home builder, the new www.netzeronation.scot website, Business Gateway, the Port of Leith Housing Association rebrand, a University, an online learning business, a charity and a lovely tech start up in pharma. Stimulating, all of them.
Sadly my time with Front Page came to an end after a long and happy relationship, it still is. And I’ve worked throughout with another long term client in the wonderful Nexus 24.
The experiment with The Marketing Centre proved to be unsatisfying in the end but I gave it my best shot and they are good guys.
I’m grateful to them all for their support, friendship and income.
Two more relationships came to an end, after 10 years I stood down as Chair of FCT and simultaneously my nine years as Chair of Creative Edinburgh came to a happy conclusion. Both were my choice and I wish both of them well in the future.
But my role as Scottish Chair of NABS remained deeply satisfying and we ran a tremendous National Music Quiz and Art Auction plus the 15th Scottish music quiz, all going online for the first time, and resulting in a record year of income for NABS. A great result driven by an amazing voluntary team in Scotland. Special thanks has to go to Anna Kormos and to Marian in Manchester for their huge contributions.
My Mum’s dementia (Alzheimer’s) has worsened steadily and in August we took the inevitable decision to put her into a care home. It’s been a great decision because the staff at Northcare Suites (100 Telford Road) have been superb. It’s the lap of luxury and although she remains terribly confused, and visits have been strictly limited, she has settled in well and is in good overall health otherwise.
Amy continues to amaze us with her tenacity, creativity, drive and ambition and she started not one, but two, new businesses this year. One in Health and Nutrition (https://www.amygormanhealthnutrition.co.uk) which has seen her build a solid portfolio of clients and a part time role at The Foundry in London, the other as a freelance fundraiser where she has enjoyed great success with at least four clients this year. All the more incredible because she left CAFOD to go it alone in February just as the unmentionable struck. She is awesome.
Ria and Tom both worked at Amazon over the summer. The job from hell. But Tom, in particular, immersed himself in it so hard (60 hour night shift weeks) that he saved enough to escape the UK and move to Whistler in Canada for the next two years. It was brilliant having them and Keir with us all summer and we miss them terribly.
Of course Ria skooshed her first year in Dentistry at Dundee and is back there, living with Keir in Perth where he has an interesting job at a whisky auctioneers. She’s working like a trojan and filling us with pride. All three of them are.
This gave Jeana the opportunity to reignite her homemaking career which she revelled in (but I’ve/we’ve missed our steady procession of AirBnB guests, her second career, that we grew to love so much). Next year maybe.
She started a new career and excelled, as a baker! Brilliant lockdown sourdough and maybe even better fruit bread. Both to die for, and if we eat too much of either, or both, that’s exactly what we’ll do. Dangerous!
Of course, having finally succeeded (after five failed attempts) in the Glastonbury lottery it was cancelled, as was Primavera (who still haven’t refunded me by the way). That was a big blow and I missed the chance of escapades with the boys in Barca and Alan in Somerset. Next year? Hmmm, dunno.
No holidays at all, not even Perthshire in November. I desperately missed our annual pilgrimage to Italy in particular. Next Year? Hmmm, dunno, maybe.
The most exciting and preoccupying thing, for me, of the year was seeing the 45th President of The United States of American undone. He’s scum, and election night found me beside myself as it looked at one point as if he’d gone and done the impossible, but the good people of America proved they DO have a conscience and 80 million of them at least have a brain.
It puts the achievement and humanity of Obama onto an even greater pedestal and the man has become a beacon of brilliance for the world to see, if he wasn’t already.
Biden and Harris (the 46th and 47th Presidents) were not perhaps the most dynamic offering for the American electorate, but decency is back and soon I expect to see a woman in the White House Oval Office. She will be great once Biden passes the baton. He did what he had to do – carefully, graciously and in a dignified manner that befits the office. He’ll no doubt have to buy his own lightbulbs on movers day, but the fact that he knows his way around will not obligate the outgoing filth to show him round.
Sadly we, in the UK, are stuck with filth for now. The disgrace that has held office in Downing Street is there for all to see and no further comment is necessary.
Turning to the best bit.
My best of’s.
It wasn’t a vintage music year but I enjoyed, very much, the following:
Michael Kiwanuka rightly won the Mercury, although I backed Moses Boyd.
I also greatly enjoyed Songs for our Daughter by Laura Marling (even though she doesn’t have one) and she would also have been a deserved winner.
Taylor Swift’s two albums were excellent folksy releases.
I listened to a lot of Dub Reggae, mainly from the 70’s.
Sudan Archives’ Athena was excellent.
Big Thief and Dirty Projectors both brought smiles to my face.
Janelle Monae’s sole single release, Turntables, is awesome.
And I loved Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising (although I think that was a 2019 release).
What I can’t understand is the adulation Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters garnered. I tried, believe me.
Here’s a link to my Best of 2020 tunes on Spotify. (Too much old stuff on it for my liking.)
In cinema there was little to thrall about so Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series almost picks up the ‘best of’ gong by virtue of its feature length running times (particularly Lover’s Rock).
But the prize goes to another Adam Sandler masterpiece. The quite ridiculous Uncut Gems. Wow!
Parasite was a big disappointment to me, as was Fincher’s Mank.
True History of the Kelly Gang (pre you know what) was epic and wonderful.
I also saw and really liked Little Women before the shutdown and 1917 which is outstanding and a contender for my movie of the year.
I liked the Go Go’s documentary.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was great Sorkin fare and gets there on merit, but hardly a classic.
The Borat sequel only makes it onto the list because of the lack of competition and the brilliant expose of Giulliani.
And so to TV. The year of TV.
It kicked off with something I thought wouldn’t be bettered, Normal People, but it just got better and better.
I Will Not Destroy You.
We Are Who We Are.
The aforementioned Small Axe.
Unorthodox (a little gem).
The Queen’s Gambit.
Song Exploder. (A Podcast conversion to Netflix)
Homecoming (another podcast convert – especially Season 2 with Janelle Monae)
The Plot Against America.
Educating Greater Manchester.
Dracula (on BBC).
Quiz (it was a good year for ITV drama).
The Third Day on C4.
Industry (a late contender for series of the year. Please bring it back. Filthy and brilliantly performed).
And another was the excellent Criminal. A franchise that extended across Europe using the same police interview room (with different casts for different countries) to create unusual very cleverly plotted procedurals that were anything but procedures.
But, at the end of it all I’m going to give it to The Comey Rule for the remarkable performance of Jeff Daniels.
In podcasts, my new found love, there was so much it was ridiculous:
Shout outs for Adam Buxton and Louis Theroux.
Steve Richard and Matt Forde made politics lovable.
5:38, Hacks on Tap, Left Right and Centre and Pod Save America enthralled me through the American election.
In drama podcasts, Tunnel 42 was magic, as were both seasons of The Horror of Dolores Roach.
Slow Burn is brilliant but Season Four (David Duke) wasn’t its best. For that you need to listen to the Clinton and Watergate series’.
Hunting Ghislaine was also brilliantly horrifying and it was great to hear yesterday that the bitch is not being bailed.
In music Soul Music (BBC Radio 4) and Song Exploder were both joys to behold. As was The Clash Story.
But my Podcast of the Year is a toss up between 13 Minutes to the Moon (Season Two about Apollo 13), Transmissions (the story of Joe Division and New Order) and Wind of Change, the conspiracy story about the CIA writing The Scorpions’ classic song of the same name.
And then there’s Desert Island Discs of course.
Turkey of the year was Phoebe Reads a Mystery. Appalling schmuck.
I had a terrific reading year too, finally joining a Book Club:
Feck Perfunction by James Victoire is a great business read.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
One Two Three Four about the Beatles by Craig Brown is superb. And Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany was another great musical read. A musical trilogy was made up with The Eavis’ Glastonbury 50. An event I never made. Naeb’dy did.
Pine by Francis Toon is a good Scottish book. Not as good as Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (but I still don’t think it should have won the Booker – far better were last year’s TWO winners Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evagelisto and The Testaments by the incomparable Margaret Atwood – not her best but still fantastic).
I really enjoyed Ian McEwan’s rewriting of history in Machines Like Us, a real return to form.
I read two McEwan’s this year. Solar was the other, but it was shit.
The Testament of Gideon Mack is a great wee Scottish story by James Robertson and I’m also enjoying his 365 Stories as my bog book this year.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney wasn’t as good as Normal People (the TV series).
Worth Dying For – The Power and politics of flags was good fun.
I finally read Small Island and loved it. As I did in reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Hilarious.
Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica is a tremendous, undiscovered, Brazilian novel about post apocalyptic times where humans are grown as food.
But my two books of the year were epic masterpieces, each of them. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both dealt with American discrimination, the former of women, the latter of Black lives. Both are beyond excellent.
My walk of the year was Glen Etive, with Ria, all 26 miles of it.
The first part of Steve McQueens ‘quintology’ of race related British films was the excellent Mangrove, about life amid (police) racism in 1971’s West London and concerned the trial of the Mangrove Nine. A group of Carribean immigrants who largely chose to defend themselves in the face of cooked up (no pun intended) charges. It’s a fine courtroom drama and is highly recommended.
Part two, in my view, is even better.
Lover’s Rock is built on a simple premise.
Init starts with the preparations for a ‘Blues Party’ in somewhere like Notting Hill in 1980’s London before easing gently into the party itself.
It holds little real narrative thread but, instead, somehow manages to convey a feeling of actually being at the party, scripted in Jamaican vernacular that’s often hard to follow (for me a white Jock) but it doesn’t really matter because, between the combined talents of McQueen and his astounding cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Chris Dickens, we are drawn into an atmosphere that is truly immersive.
You know all those shit dance floor scenes you’ve seen in a million low budget productions? Well, this has none of them despite the fact that maybe 50% of the action takes place in the wooden-floored front room of a London detached house, with a Sound System crumbling its faded grandeur.
It’s monumental, as is the epic (largely) dub reggae soundtrack that suffuses it from the start.
The highlight is the central action around two songs, Janet Kaye’s Silly Games and one I confess I don’t know that brought the males on the dance floor to a Babylonian moshpit of sorts. (So good they play it twice).
Special mention must also be made for the Carl Douglas’, Kung Fu Fighting sequence.
All of this is epic because of the way McQueen’s direction oozes through the cramped flesh of the highly tactile dancefloor, sweating out ganja and suffocating in its smoke throughout.
It’s a breathtaking and wondrous achievement that will bear repeat viewing.
It kind of pains me to review this, the latest, Booker Prize-winning novel, and only the second by a Scot.
No Muriel Spark (three times shortlisted), no Robin Jenkins, no Michel Faber (OK, an honorary Scot) no Alasdair Gray, no Ali Smith (four times shortlisted), no Graeme Macrae Burnett (shortlisted) have been deemed worthy of the title “Booker Prize winner”.
Only James Kelman has previously scooped this great honour for Scotland. And next to the Pulitzer, (and The National Book Prize, actually) it’s my favourite literary prize because, on the whole, it awards interesting, readable writing of quality and substance.
Is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel interesting, readable writing of quality and substance? Indeed yes, but the reason I’m not overwhelmingly endorsing a lauded opus from my homeland is the one that may be the most important of the four, quality.
So let’s get that off my chest and out of the way before I move on to why it’s a quality book, just not a “Booker” book.
It suffers, terribly in my view, from unchallenging editing.
The story is wonderful (although slight for its girth – a secondary problem with the editing role) and deeply moving at times. But I’m not sure Staurt knows what it is.
Is it Shuggie Bain’s coming out narrative, the reason he is gay?
Or is it really “Agnes Bain by Douglas Stuart”, the story of a hopeless alcoholic mother struggling with her addiction and her traumatic relationship with a certain kind of emotionless Scottish male persona, again and again and again. A struggle that, sure, begats a homosexual son, in a community, and at a time, where homosexuality was neither tolerated nor understood?
I feel it is the latter, with Shuggie a Greek chorist, not the eponymous protagonist.
Where Stuart has been led down by his editor is in a lack of criticism; simply rolling with it, encouraging catharsis by the retelling of the deep psychological trauma this autobiographical (or is it biographical) retelling has had upon its author.
It’s main problem is that it’s suffocated by metaphor. (They are similes. Ed.).
Every descriptive passage of the story has three, four, maybe five times too many of them. Less, we all know, is more and in this case so much more would emerge from a dramatic culling of Stuart’s flourishes.
Don’t get me wrong, he pens a good metaphor/simile, but three per para? Please. No.
It ground my teeth. To the point that I was whimpering internally every time the dreaded ‘like’ word made an appearance, again and again and again.
And it’s such a spoiler, because with judicious wielding of the red pen this would truly have deserved the moniker “Booker Winner”. Because, apart from that, it’s all there.
His grasp of modern Scots’ working class vernacular is outrageously good, wickedly funny and sparingly used. Where Irvine Welsh uses the patois to shock, Stuart uses it to colour, vividly and brilliantly. And brilliantly funnily.
(Note: I also wish “smirr” had been used once and put to bed.)
The central tale of his poor mammy’s awful life is beautifully told and the reader is wholly absorbed in the futility of her helpless and unsupported battle against the demon drink, so pathetically wound up in Carlsberg Special Brew.
He paints good character portraits of Shuggy’s brother Leek, his bastard dad, Shug, and his mother’s almost white knight, but ultimately dark destroyer, Eugene.
And despite the dreaded ‘likes’, that cause many a stumble, the vast bulk of this, too long, read this is a page turner with manifold moment of emotional heartbreak, occasionally leavened by gallows humour and a smattering of pure emotional joy that makes this a tremendous debut. Just not a “Booker Winning” debut, for me anyway.
My favourite Booker winners (That I’ve read anyway)
Margaret Atwood The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo Girl Woman Other (both 2019)
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep South (2014)
Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending: not perfect but great (2011)
Yann Martel Life of Pi (2002)
Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)
Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin (2000)
Ian McEWan Amsterdam: although not his best book by a long chalk (1998)
The fact that Sweeney, best known for his work on the BBC’s Panorama and Newsnight, felt the need to include his name in the title of this tells you something.
He’s a man on a mission and, until the last episode, it felt that mission was being delivered with a cool disdain that nevertheless erred on the side of balance. He wraps the production with a rather more pointed conclusion that undoes a little of the, earlier, brilliant work.
But that’s a minor gripe, because this is a beast of a production in so many ways.
Firstly the music chills you to the core, right from the off.
Secondly, Sweeney himself is a class act. A formidable presenter with an intellect to match.
And thirdly, the content and its protagonist(s), are, indeed, beasts. And not the cuddly sort.
By the closing credits Sweeney has annihilated Maxwell and, jury aside (we’ll have to wait till July for that decision), he has good reason, if not proof.
She’s a piece of work is Ghislaine Maxwell.
Brought up by a monster and in a long term relationship with another (both dead, maybe both by suicide) she inherited an attitude of princessly, entitlement from her, probably sociopathic, criminal of a father, whom Sweeney further paints as a narcissistic sadist.
She’s a daddy’s girl extraordinaire, spoilt but not spared the lash (which Sweeney conjects she may have developed a taste for) she treats others around her as expendable trash on her rise to the top.
But the top of what? The top of nothing, frankly. OK, the top of a society invitation list, maybe. But this woman has not contributed an iota of ANYTHING to the furtherment of any aspect of the human race.
Her lover, Jeffery Epstein, needs no introduction, and although we nevertheless get plenty of that from Sweeney it’s really her role as his handmaiden and chief pimp that constitutes this story.
And the story is brilliantly, quite lasciviously told, in tones of barely concealed glee as Sweeney hacks her legacy to pieces and feeds it to the listener in bite sized pieces.
She is devoid of goodness.
She’s a coward (running away into hiding the second Epstein’s protective layer peeled away).
And she’s a rapist. So entwined with Epstein’s actions, sometimes joining in after hunting down and luring his prey that she can only be seen as conjoined with the filth that his (stolen) money facilitated him.
It’s gripping, frightening and disgusting.
It’s no wonder Sweeney seems so emotionally involved.
He’s a man on a mission and I , for one, sincerely hope his target rots in a jail cell for the rest of her entitled days.
Not so much a podcast, as a sharing of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week by Barack Obama, narrated by the great man himself.
In interviews, Obama can be a bit ponderous but narrating his life story he rattles along without hesitation and takes your breath away with the quality of his written word and his beautiful almost soporific rendition.
It’s a thriller of monumental proportions picking off, in turn, his Primaries for President, the first election, The credit crunch, the ACA, Michelle’s visit with The Queen and, most grippingly of all, the killing of Bin Laden.
It’s two and a half hours of majesty that I devoured in one (long) walk and wanted more, much more.
And I’m wondering if the audio book, given this, would be a better bet than the written version; although I’d want the spine to grace my bookshelves to prove that I am an advocate for the man that will go down in history as one of greatest presidents (human beings) of all time.
Drama on the radio is not easy. On headphones, more so because every mis-step is amplified to the max, so the BBC is to be largely applauded for this mainly succesful four and a half hours of sci-fi/thriller output in a retelling/updating of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn retelling with a decent contribution from its young cast and a lead role from Tamsin Outhwaite as the Police DC and mother who is caught between family ties and police duty.
As the mother of a mysteriously missing girl in a South Coast town where strange things are happening to the energy supply and daily countdown announcements from a dissociated voice (accompanied by eerie music provided by Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes) we are drawn into an in-depth tale of how the missing girl’s sister and cousin react to her abduction by the mysterious Piper.
The tale itself is given enough room to breathe to allow for pretty detailed character development between Ali, the copper and mum, who goes rogue to protect her family and her extended family. Particular shout out has to go to the deaf child, Poppy, (Rosalina McDonagh) who commands the headset every time she is on and Ivy (Charlee Lou Borthwick) who is excellent throughout.
It’s a bit far fetched at times and it’s very earnest, demanding a huge amount from its cast that largely pull it off. But it’s a struggle at times to forgive it its more overwrought emotional spider’s web of dramatic outpouring. Nevertheless, it’s superbly produced and directed (directed by Kate Rowland and produced by Russell Finch) throughout, and although I found it a chore at times to keep following it (and the thinly veiled premise of the old Pied Piper idea is never actually revealed fully) I stuck with it and give it a solid 4/5 for quality and largely believable dialogue by writers Vickie Donoghue and Natalie Mitchell.
Even though I adore the director, David Fincher’s, work.
I mean; Zodiac, Se7en, The Social Network, Fight Club. What more needs said than that?
But Mank is a different matter.
For a start it comes at the process of movie-making from a completely different perspective.
And therein lies my biggest problem. Who was Fincher making this movie for? Who was his audience? Himself? The Academy? A small band of Cineasts? The critics?
I’m sure all of the above love it and I’d place myself on the edge of the latter, but to love Mank you first have to love Citizen Kane, and there’s the rub. Do people love Citizen Kane or do they revere it?
The entire premise of Mank is that you have a love, liking, fascination or even at the base point, knowledge, of what many (critics) consider to be the greatest achievement in cinematic history.
And that could make for a monumental homage. But I’m not sure it does.
It has a number of things going for it though, that help. The cinematography is immense, in beautifully crafted monochrome. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross craft another fine score grounded in the incidental music of Kane’s era.
The costumes are great and there are some good performances. Gary Oldman is winning great plaudits for his portrayal of the drunk titular character, Herman Mankiewicz. But, shoot me, it’s not THAT great and the central scene in Randolph Hearst’s mansion, in which he turns up drunk to a fancy dress dinner party and makes a long speech to all assembled, occasionally slips into Billy Connolly drunk territory.
The movie is long and it’s wordy. It’s shot full of flashbacks that tell the back story, sort of, as does Citizen Kane. And there are numerous in-jokes for those familiar enough with the source material to get them.
But, as Mark Kermode points out, there is a certain lie to the piece. It’s ostensibly about the ‘theft’ of Mank’s script by Orson Welles, yet Mank and Welles shared the Oscar for best screenplay for Citizen Kane (the movie’s only Oscar) so it’s built on something of an untruth.
It held me, don’t get me wrong, throughout, but it never gripped me and I found myself having to tell myself how great it was, rather than believing in its greatness.
Roma, another monochrome Netflix Original, suffered from the same sense of entitlement. I’m great amn’t I rather than stealing up on us and winning us over by just, you know, being great.
That’s why The Actor and Cold War, even The Lighthouse, are all superior recent monochrome movies to these over-worthy, Academy-aimed personal projects.
Another in BBC Radio 4’s excellent Intrigue series, to sit alongside the superb Tunnel 42.
This time a nine-part series follows the search for the truth behind the death of WWII Nazi officer, Otto Wachter, who is alleged to have been responsible for mass murders of Jews in Poland between 1942 and 1945.
The Grandson of one of the deceased (murdered) Jewish victims (his entire family was wiped out in the Grand Action) Phillipe Sands is determined to expose the murderer for what he is and sets out on his trail by meeting Otto Wachter’s own son, now in his 70’s, who lives in a castle in Austria.
What follows is a complex tale of espionage, counter surveilance, cold war intrigue and the role of the Vatican in an unGodly cover up and escape from retribution of a whole succession of senior Nazis who seemed to be more palatable than communists to the Italian illuminati in the Cold War era.
For those familiar with the heart breaking tale of the Underground Railroad, so beautifully brought to life by Colson Whitehead in the book of the same name, The Ratline is effectively the rather less palatable Nazi version of it, in which mass murderers of the Third Reich were ‘Persil Cleaned’ and set on their way to anonymity and freedom (or a bit of Commy bashing) by the Italians.
Writer and narrator Phillipe Sands is to be congratulated for his composure in telling the sordid tale without completely losing it as his grandfather’s despicable killer is followed through a jigsaw of clues back through his footsteps in the lee of the war, showing not a morsel of humility or reconciliation.
Wachter’s poor, deluded grandson believes him to a good man at heart, and offers up a lot of evidence of his activities to Sands, his friend, (strange and unexplained but the key to the door) but it’s pretty compellingly set out that he was a murdering bastard and got all that was ultimately coming to him.
It’s a grand, if complex, reconstruction of history that rewards careful listening.
The author is a mixed race, heterosexual woman and respected teacher of writing, having garnered an MBE for her work, before scooping the Booker last year, in the same year as Margaret Atwood for her The Testaments novel.
The 12 female (well 11 female and one binary) central protagonists in her novel are mainly black, often gay and never dull.
Her mini-epic sets out to create a spider’s web of connection between them, without resorting to the convention of storytelling, although each extended chapter in the novel is a story of its own.
It’s rippled with humour throughout and I found myself, as a middle aged white heterosexual male, wondering whether some, if not a lot, of the time she was almost having a dig at the almost tropist characters she creates whilst, simultaneously, revering their personalities and individual identities.
It’s kinda weird, because she seems to have her tongue firmly in her cheek much of the time, whilst quite clearly creating a platform for the expression of the views of women who rarely have a voice. Or, if they do, one they can only usually express on political platforms. And whilst some of these characters are most certainly political (especially the angry feminist gay, black playwright Ama – largely autobiographical), others, like the 93 year old Jamaican Scottish borders farmer(ess), are anything but.
It predominantly works, and each ‘chapter’ gains momentum with every page, introducing, like a David Mitchell trick, characters from previous life stories that almost went unnoticed in another’s.
More than once I found myself stopping to ask, “haven’t I met this person before” and being rewarded, after a bit of reverse speed reading, with a little treasure trove as I realised that indeed I had and that the skill of Evaristo was in hiding them under the radar, yet making them a critical part of her web structure.
It’s a triumph in places and overall scored highly for me, but not unreservedly, partly because the ending is a bit of a mixed bag.
The novel demonstrates much skilled, almost poetic, wring in a variety of styles that makes its fairly large bulk perfectly digestible.
More than good, maybe great, but not a classic, for me.
What do Cabbage Patch dolls, Metrosexuality, Unicorn poo, Jennifer Aniston’s depression, the Jane Fonda Workout, The Mullet and The Karen have in common?
They’re all the subject of episodes of Decoder Ring, the great monthly podcast by Willa Paskin from Slate.
As eclectic as they are REAL, each episode pretty thoroughly researches a cultural phenomenon tracing it back to its origins and explaining the impact it has had on society and culture as its influence grew.
Sure Unicorn Poo may be less life changing than having a mullet, but trust me: these are THINGS.
These are things that matter.
And, with her tongue firmly embedded in her cheek Haskin treats each with reverence and respect.
She could be exploring the rise of Marxism in Tsarist Russia (if that’s even a thing). But she’s not, she’s wondering why a doll with eyes too closely set created monsters out of suburban housewives.
It’s that good.
Honestly, it’s like a little dollop of nectar has been spat into your ear by a hummingbird each time a new episode drops.
I was late getting to this and only took it on as part of my work’s diversity group, book club. But I’m very glad that I did. It’s a terrific read that deserves the awards that it won.
The book tells the story of the arrival of the Windrush Generation of Jamaicans (the small island of the title, but in truth the small minded island they emigrate to) to London in 1948 (although much of the story is also set ‘before’ in the war years, where two of the male protagonists have served Air Force duty for Britain, one Jamaican, one English.
It’s plotted around the POV of a central cast of Hortense and Gilbert (a sort of Jamaican marriage of convenience that allows Hortense to move to London where Gilbert has found himself after his war duties – one of the many thousands of Jamaican airmen) and Queenie and Bernard (a loveless English couple and owners of the boarding house Gilbert and Hortense find themselves in). Several other characters are beautifully described as supporting characters, most notably WWI veteran and father of Bernard (Arthur).
This device is not uncommon and she underpins it with vernacular shifts between each section which I initially found difficult to get into, perhaps because I was reading it whilst tired. But as the story progresses it becomes increasingly compelling and sympathetic.
The novel could be a celebration of the contribution this wonderful generation of expatriate Jamaicans brought to our country, and our war winning efforts. But, instead, it captures reality, and what we have become accustomed to over the following half century and more, as the gestation of racial hatred sets in, partly fomented by the Jim Crow era supporting American GIs, stationed in Britain, who have no love for their own black compatriots or Britain’s imported reinforcements that find themselves stationed here. It’s not certain that they are the reason for Britain’s explosion of racism, but it can’t have helped. A central scene in a cinema, where segregation has been imposed, certainly supports this hypothesis.
Levy is not afraid to pepper her dialogue with the words that remained common in my playground of the the 60’s and 70’s and, incredibly, were tolerated, even celebrated, on our TV screens right up until the 80’s (wog, sambo, darkie and coon being four that feature heavily in the novel).
Whilst there are truly hilarious moments in the book (Levy refuses to wallow in persecution) and moments off great poignancy and love between the Jamaican incomers and the post-war English society-builders, it’s drowned out by the despicable intolerance of a fledgling community of people that put their lives on the line in defence of the realm only to be stigmatised and prejudiced to the point that many (including Gilbert) are so cowed and confused by the experience that they inevitably subjugate themselves under the overwhelming pressure they face.
Levy crafts a potboiler of a tale that pulls together the confusion of a nation (many of whom have been traumatised by war) with an inability to see that this new, more cosmopolitan, community that has sprung up is anything other than a threat.
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’
The long paragraph above, from Martin Luther King’s essay “Loving your enemies” is surely his response to biblical scripture in which the main tenet of Christianity to “love thy neighbour as thyself” is stress-tested to extremes in the civil rights movement’s strongest card: that Black (then called Negro, and much worse) Americans should rise above the injustice that was being meted out upon them.
Jim Crow American ‘culture’ (pah!) and ‘politics’ (more accurate) was so obscenely in violation of basic human rights as to make the “land of the free” as much a work of fiction as the gospels. But King’s advocation of noncooperation with evil, the absolute root cause and ultimately the ace card of the civil rights movement, was what made it, and him, irresistible – good will eventually triumph over evil and if good transcends (through violence and hatred) into a mirror image of its perpetrators’ behaviour then stalemate, or worse, will result.
Taking the moral high ground may well have been the ace to play. But it needed played with dignity, clarity, consistency and conviction. The hallmarks of King.
Today we live in an America where its President would luxuriate in the heady glow of Jim Crow time, where his racial hatred would be given an outlet in which he could fully exploit his white supremacy. He could read his nazi doctrine to the nation free from the shackles of wokeness. His wall would have long been complete.
So, the irony of his marriage to an immigrant. The irony that Germany is possibly the high water mark, as a nation, in humanitarian treatment of minority peoples, people without a land to call their own cannot be overlooked. The war against oppression is no longer the war against hitler. And America can no longer wipe its hands of Jim Crow.
The fact that a fascist is in power, despite all that Colson Whitehead tells us of in the pages of the Nickel Boys, is America’s shame. And having hosted many ‘Democratic’ Americans in our home, as Air BnB hosts, my wife and I are very aware of the shame that they carry around the globe on their hunched, apologetic shoulders.
The criminal that is the current POTUS is an ugly stain upon the integrity of what was (largely but by no means exclusively) a great nation until 2016, and will be again I’m sure.
Well, it will be a great nation when, once and for all, it rids itself of its institutionalised racism. Not in every corner, but in enough of them for it to still matter, to still manifest itself through police brutality and murder of innocent victims: murdered black children, women and men who were the consequences of shoot first, ask later.
This has to stop and anyone who has any shred of belief in my view will find it cemented further by reading The Nickel Boys.
It’s a short novel and a fictitious account of the life of one man (two in truth) whose very existence is entirely defined by racism. Elwood, the main protagonist, is a black American, brought up in Tallahassee, Georgia.
We meet him, aged around 10, in 1962. His maternal grandmother has just bought him the greatest gift of his life, a record of the speeches of Martin Luther King, featuring extracts from his Loving Your Enemies Essay.
Little could the bright, ambitious and bookish young Elwood know that cruel fate and prejudice would thrust him centre stage into that essay.
For spoiler reasons I won’t tell you how teenage Elwood ends up, not in college, but in the young offenders institution called Nickel. Nearly sixty years later an unmarked burial ground of battered and scarred young black men’s bodies has been found by property developers.
Not battered, no. Tortured.
It triggers a return to the haunting ground.
What marks out Whitehead’s writing as equal only, in my view, to Cormac McCarthy’s is his ability to storytell about extreme subjects without resorting to, in any way, flag-waving politico.
Although this book is, cover to cover, about the injustice of racial prejudice it’s not even remotely tub-thumping. At no point does the reader think ‘if only he’d drop the politics for a bit’ and yet every single page is suffused with them.
How he does this, apart from being a peerless craftsman, is to side-eye his observations. Although this book is about life in a torture chamber of racial oppression its narrative does not dwell on this. Hitchcock’s 15 minutes of tension is worth a minute of shock is equally applied by Whitehead, except his tension is more of a contextualisation of racism where the reader sees it italicised in their peripheral vision, not up front in caps.
Hardly any of this book describes torture. Hardly any of it lists the daily criminality of the regime or the sheer burden of difficulty their lives endure. For that you’ll need to read the ice cold litany of terror that Jonathan Littel describes so shockingly through the eyes of a WWII nazi officer in the brutal “The Kindly Ones”.
No, this book riffs off, time and again, King’s essay as the oppressed inmates of Nickel strive to overcome evil. By doing good. By keeping clean. By being undetected. By righting their passage.
It’s a work of staggering genius.
Not a sentence in this novel goes to waste. Many you have to read two, three times because Whitehead may have decided 200 pages was sufficient to tell his story (in places rip-roaringly so) but no way was he going to make it easy for us.
He lays traps everywhere. He writes half sentences that pack more storytelling punch than any writer I know. You have to work it out. Sometimes you complete a paragraph and realise that buried in it were two or three words that so upend its meaning, and the book’s direction, as to entirely discombobulate you. This means you have to navigate this novel as if in a minefield. Gently, softly, guddling the trout. One false move and you’re back a chapter.
And what chapters. What vision. In one he tells, as a complete side story, but as a keystone, about the annual boxing tournament at Nickel. The competition that has been won for the last 15 years by the black kids. Yet, at no point in this hideous exemplar of racial torture are you able to double-guess the chapter’s outcome. That’s partly down to his masterful storytelling, but it’s also down to that knack he has of simply not overdoing the message despite, as I said earlier, suffusing the book with the message.
As it nears its conclusion Whitehead throws in a plot device that is so explosive, so monumental, that it made my heart skip a beat and reappraise the entire novel. It’s unprecedented in my experience and it’s what cemented this into its outcome as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.
I mean, I really don’t think that if you have The Underground Railroad (and its Pultizer Prize) on your CV you can really expect to step up any further.
Barnes’ 2011 short novel won the Booker Prize., usually a good enough reason to try out a new author (although fear has compelled my to assiduously avoid John Banville’s, The Sea). So it surprised me that I’d missed this from my fairly complete collection of winners.
It’s blackened page ends lends the novel a touch of mystery and that mystery does not disappear as its pages unfold.
It’s a novel about reflection as an elderly man (Tony Webster) reflects on his life and how his pursuit of mediocrity – a failed marriage that bled no acrimony and an unspectacular fatherhood – has made his virginal fling in student life with the well heeled and worldly Veronica came to be the highlight of his life.
The fact that Veronica, always his superior, moved on to his best friend and made a showy rebuke of our boring author’s desires only serves to rub the salt in.
A letter from he to her is so vitriolic as to take the breath away and so begins a decades long exile.
But the death of Veronica’s mother yields an unexpected bequeath to Tony that reopens his relationship with Veronica and a considerable amount of reflection on a past that was and a present that might have been.
It’s a short novel, and a slight story, but dense in meaning and psychological/philosophical forensics. Indeed it becomes so dense that it’s ultimately quite an unforgiving and arduous read.
I found it dense to the point of almost impenetrability and, if I’m honest, was glad to close the covers and move onto something else.
That’s not to say it’s not a great book. I think it probably is, but if it didn’t defeat me it certainly took me to penalties after extra time on a heavily watered and rain sodden pitch.
And the killer is quietly spoken ‘Criminal’ presenter Phoebe Judge.
Now, before you see this as a character assassination (like the fate that befalls Bram Stoker’s eponymous literary legend in this truly appalling exposition of a masterpiece) I have to state that I am a big fan of Judge’s long-running ‘Criminal’ podcast in which she brings us oddball stories of crime that do not fit the usual stereotypes of the True Crime genre.
‘Criminal’ is epic.
Her rendering of Dracula is anything but.
In fact, it’s possibly the worst storytelling experience in history.
She’s a great presenter, unquestionably, but a reader?
Every sentence. Of this classic. Book. Is delivered. In breathy snatches. Like this. It drives you. Actually. Fucking nuts.
Overwraught. Overdramatic. Appalingly badly. Rendered. As if she is. Teaching herself to. Read. As you cringe. Into your headphones. And wish a giant bat. Would swoop down. From. The Skies. And eat her. Up.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a white supremacist became an American political phenomenon. David Duke’s rise to power and prominence—his election to the Louisiana Legislature, and then his campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the governorship—was an existential crisis for the state and the nation.
That’s how Slate sells the fourth in their outstanding Podcast series (The Watergate Scandal 10/10, The Clinton Scandal 9/10 Tupac – didn’t enjoy that, and now Duke.)
Heavy stuff with heft.
Slow Burn really is an outstanding editorial platform with a great track record and this adds further weight to Slate’s enviable reputation with a gripping tale, riddled with back stories and sidebars that add colour and context to the rise of a fascist to a position of influence, but no power.
Who could ever imagine a fascist in power in the USA?
Until 2016-2020. When it became a reality.
The difference between Duke and Trump is that Duke, ex Grand Wizard of the KKK was an acknowledged Nazi who tried to cover up his past, whereas Trump is only waves the flag of fascism (No brown short and swastika) albeit with the ability to create an authoritarian police state in the world’s third largest country.
Duke sought a Nazi state, for sure, but under the auspices of The GOP, The Republican Party.
Just like today.
And, yes, the GOP was embarrassed to shit by Duke, as those that will admit it are of his fascist successor.
Where Duke failed was through his ostentatious official past. His espousal of anti-semitic, anti black politicking stated for what it was. The cross burning couldn’t be airbrushed from Duke’s history, whereas Trump gets the police to enact his enmity and racism with only a powder puff hairs and an orange fake tan that says;
“Me, a Nazi, looking like this? Oh come on.”
It’s wonderfully narrated with relish, and a degree of awe (fear really) by Josh Levin. His anguish is palpable as he tells the tale of what could have been…
The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is an unbelievable tale of ambition and fame gone terribly wrong.
So say ABC Studios in promoting the podcast of Elizabeth Holmes’ outrageous fooling of too many people that shouldn’t have been fooled.
Theranos was her college idea (for which she dropped out hence the title) a machine that analysed single droplets of blood to diagnose up to 100’s of health conditions like diabetes in a single drop with no need to draw blood via syringe.
A life changer for the planet. And Chiat Day’s ads fell nothing short of that claim.
Except every single analysis ever done by Theranos required a syringe draw. Because they weren’t analysed on Theranos machines.
She fooled Walgreens into signing an exclusive distribution deal.
She copied Steve Jobs by wearing all black turtlenecks.
She adopted a deep baritone voice that was 100% fake, to give her an air of authority.
She suckered US Secretary of State for Defence George Schultz, but not his grandson.
Henry fucking Kissinger sat on her board.
Bill Gates invested millions, so did Rupert Murdoch ($125m to be precise).
And at one time it was valued at $9billion.
All on a bare faced lie. A hoax of grand proportions. Gargantuan in fact.
You have to feel sorry for the small investors, more so for the poor people that were given incorrect diagnoses, but the big boys were simply suckered, and failed in their due diligence.
It’s a brilliant story, brilliantly researched and brilliantly narrated by Rebecca Jarvis.
Now this is glorious-if you can forgive the drama-documentary approach that makes it sound a little like ‘All ‘Allo until you zone that out.
It’s often a problem with a new podcast; you need to snuggle in and ignore the itchy sheets until you’re comfortably numb.
It’s the true story of, as described by the BBC who produced it (so no ads), “The rise and fall of Anna Delvey, who conned New York high society into believing that she was a multi-millionaire heiress.”
And, oh my, how wonderful the story is.
In America she’s hailed as something of an anti-hero because people like how she ‘beat the system’ but the simple truth she’s a lying, thieving scumbag, maggot that fooled a lot of rich wannabe suckers – although not quite as many as the story might want you to think.
Because, for a New York socialite she was struggling pretty hard to scrape together enough freeloading liggers to her bashes to make them even seem like bashes in the first place. (The one she leaves after pretending to need the bathroom as the night drew in and without paying the bill is particularly amusing.)
We are regaled with tales of how she melted a few high end hotels just by sheer gallousness, checking in to 5 star boutique joints by pretending to know the manager and so not have to leave a credit card imprint then running up thousands of dollars of bills on champagne and caviar.
She took banks to the cleaners, camped it up to put plans down for landmark statement buildings in which to house her Anna Delvey Art Foundation and generally just made a nuisance of herself.
It’s a rip roaring tale in which pretty much everyone involved is some form of a tosser, which makes it a delight for those of a Schadenfreudy nature, like me.
And it’s coming to a TV screen soon, not just in one form but two (Netflix and HBO both having different characters’ rights, although not hers).
Do not read this book unless you are; in descending order of relevance:
A lifelong Kraftwerk fan (like me).
A serious Krautrock aficionado (like me).
An electronica fanboy (like me).
A general music enthusiast with a taste for the obscure (like me).
A music geek (like me).
A techno/hip hop/detroit house fan looking into that genre’s roots.
(Or all of the above.)
It’s a love affair with Kraftwerk by a true beleiver and a forensic researcher who has thoroughly investigated all of Kraftwerk’s music in chronological order with neat insights into the inspiration for each record (and tour) and the influence they had.
But more than that, it’s a psychological analysis of the minds of Florian Schneider (RIP) and Ralf Hütter – the main creative driving forces of the band from the late 60’s until now.
It argues very strongly that Kraftwerk are by no means simply a pop (or even music) group, they are an art form that started in industrialle Volksmusik before creating their own zeitgeist or Gesamtkunsterwerk.
In places it’s heavy on the cod philosophy and would be a mighty slog were it not for the 14 point type that makes pages easily consumable.
It’s light on humour, indeed it’s light on most stuff other than information and philosophy, and a heavy dose of ‘Man Machine’ talk but I, for one, found it a right riveting read.
Oh man, this podcast is “quite frankly” such a con.
“Quite frankly”, avoid!
It’s “quite frankly” so shouty that in the trailer for it I thought it was a spoof, but it turns out to be serious.
“Quite frankly” our, ahem, hero, former Scotland Yard detective Peter Bleksley, famed for his appearances on Channel 4’s Hunted, takes a year out of his life, funded by the BBC, to carry out an independent Manhunt for an alleged ‘killer’ on the run for 14 years; the 6’6″ softly spoken Scouser, Kevin Parle.
It’s a deadly dangerous assignment as his friend and psychologist, a nauseatingly whiny Scot, full of self importance, keeps telling him.
Keven Parle ranges, in Bleksley’s view, from one of Britain’s most wanted killers to one of the WORLD’S most wanted men, all shouted in his “quite frankly’ loud baritone: like a sale of the Century voiceover-man pissing his pants over a 2 berth caravan.
It’s “quite frankly” ludicrous.
And it goes literally nowhere. There are more dead ends here than Pacman.
And it’s “quite frankly” so repetitive that I could scream.
Episode 9, for example, replayed some clips from 7 and 8, IN THEIR ENTIRETY that were there for no reason other than to pad out an episode that brought you “quite frankly” FUCK ALL.
So, the obvious question is why did I keep listening?
I really do not know.
After a shit opening episode, Eps 2 – 5 showed some interesting insight into the background of Parle’s case and that brought me in. (Bleksley featured very little in these episodes.)
Then it takes us on a road trip to Spain that suggests progress is imminent in the case that, “quite frankly” does not deliver, so that “quite frankly” by 9, (where 7 and 8 are essentially repeated) I was screaming at Bleksley to “quite frankly” shut the fuck up.
It took two further episodes to tell us that coronavirus was not getting in the way of the manhunt until, at the end of a preposterous Ep 12, Coronavirus “quite frankly” got in the way of the manhunt and the series has been parked.
This, the Sweeney Todd of Washington Heights, is delicious, if you get my drift.
Daphne Rubin-Vega originally wrote it as a one woman show and it’s been picked up by the excellent Gimlet and Bobby Cannavale added to the cast for both star quality and real quality. Both are superb actors.
It was written by Aaron Mark and it’s clear that he’s relished the challenge of firstly updating Sweeney Todd, placing it in a Puerto Rican context, and then driving full blown into cannibalism and full-frontal sex. Even if it’s all aural.
It’s bloody brilliant.
The story is ostensibly Sweeney but gathers momentum and ghoulishness as Mark realises his canvas is only as limited as his imagination. So it’s a big canvas.
In season two the Sweeney story is left behind and we move into new and expanded territory that keeps, just enough of this side of preposterous to let the listener go with it and revel in it’s dark humour (and boy, there’s plenty of that).
It took an episode for me to get into it as the first-person narrative threatened to stifle its potential, but once into its stride, with its cast of lowlife’s, ‘trannies’, drug dealers, murderers and ne’er-do-wells it relished its ability to transgress convention and get really quite icky.
Apparently it has been picked up for TV and that will make for interesting viewing.
I loved it. Alongside Homecoming the best fiction podcast I’ve listened to.
It’s not the greatest list, is it? And why isn’t Nadine Shah on it? Crazy.
Anna Meredith – Fibs
She’s amazing but the album is too patchy. I love her, and I’d love her to win, but her contemporary masterpiece has not, as yet been recorded.
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
I have little to say about this. Not a fan. A surprising nomination in my view.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
This reviewed well but I am too old. No, sorry.
Georgia – Seeking Thrills
She’s the guy from Leftfeild’s daughter. That’s where the greatness ends. Absolutely not the winner.
Kano – Hoodies All Summer
Grime. I don’t listen to Grime.
I mean, I saw Dizzee Rascal at Glastonbury, but he’s pish. No thanks.
Lanterns On The Lake – Spook The Herd
I don’t know this at all so I can’t comment.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Her fourth nomination, and rightly so. Laura Marling is a queen of UK indy folk and this one, whilst not immediately her best, is a grower. A certain contender in my view.
Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
His third nomination (already?)
He may be too ‘popular’ now to be the favourite but this is a very good record indeed. A soul classic steeped in 70’s funky ooze. It’s a lovely joyous record with much in common with Marvin Gaye at his best.
A contender in my view.
Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
The token Jazz record. He’s a drummer and his album is decent, extremely decent, as was Sons of Kemet’s last year and I put my fiver on them. Misguidedly as it turned out. However jazz records never win. Even in this new age of jazz.
(He’ll win then.)
Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Too bad a name to consider. But my pals like her.
Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
I liked the singles from this but they are highly derivative. They couldn’t lace IDLES shoes.
Stormzy – Heavy Is The Head
Heavy is the Head is a truly wonderful song but I didn’t really like his Glastonbury set and this genre is winning too much, so it’s a no from me.
So, that means it’s a shoot out between Moses Boyd, Laura Marling and Michael Kiwanuka.
I initially predicted Marling would win, but having listened to Moses Boyd a lot now I’m coming round to that.
Despite its weaknesses this is a really rather lovely book.
It’s a poor man’s Bill Bryson meets Ranulph Fiennes, and when I say poor man, I mean poverty stricken.
Actually Raynor is a woman and the story is the odyssey she and her terminally ill husband took upon hearing within a few days that a) they were to be evicted from their family home after a long and deeply unfair court battle and b) of his unfavourable short-medium term prognosis over a neurological disease that would eventually reduce him to a vegetative state.
Not the best way to embark upon a 600+ mile walk of a coastal path (the Salt Path of the title) from Somerset, through North Devon, Cornwall, South Devon and finishing up in Poole.
It’s not an assault on the North Pole but neither were they fit, well or equipped. Furthermore, they were literally penniless.
My struggle with the tale is Winn’s obvious desire to live up to quality expectations that a Penguin-writer must face and a desire to tell a simple tale about her experiences; so that for large sections of the book, particularly in the first half, substance battles with style and the sometimes lack of the latter gets in the way of the former.
But she works it out and the modest heroism of the couple, combined with the subtle self-deprecating humour that she underpins the story with, gradually reels you in.
In the end it’s a story of the triumph of human spirit that’s engaging and beautiful.
The husband, Moth, is a saint of sorts – on more than one occasion acts of random kindness from him to others, in what he considered at the time, to be in even more challenged circumstances than their own are quite remarkable. This is a man with a heart of gold.
It’s also a great love story, because clearly Raynor loves Moth with her entire being and this radiates from the pages at times.
It’s not a classic, but it is a very rewarding read and spoilers aside it leaves you with a deep regard for a couple that truly grace the human species with their very fact of living and sharing this simple but heartfelt tale.
They’ve taken Gimlet Media’s astounding podcast and adapted not one, but two, TV series from it.
In the first, Julia Roberts not only allegedly bought the rights but assumes the title role of Heidi Bergman, a case worker at a mysterious ‘facility’ in which homecoming American war veterans are treated for PTSD. Why? You’ll have to watch to find out.
I’m no Roberts fan and although her performance is good I’d like to have seen Catherine Keener take her aural role on-screen. Likewise, I think both Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer might have made better jobs of their roles than the TV replacements.
But that’s actually a quibble, because what we get is an excellent rendering of the story with outstanding direction, music and camerawork.
It’s an oddity, especially at its 20 minute length (echoing the podcast).
What the TV does, that adds value, is add the aforementioned production values to the already high quality that Gimlet achieved. The design, overall, is stunning; with a touch of the Kubricks.
But I’m left thinking, good as it is, a little was lost in the translation.
The same cannot be said of Season 2.
It’s now a significant diversion from the podcast.
We meet a new lead in Janelle Monae who plays Jackie (or is it Alex?) an employee of Geist (or is she), the company that administered (shadily) the ‘Homecoming’ initiative in Season 1.
She is almost literally lost at sea as the series opens. We have no idea who she is or how she got there, what’s more, neither does she.
This is a big ask for Monae who takes on her first lead role, to my knowledge, and has to rise to the challenge of carrying the series. I felt she was on the brink of failing the task at a few points, after all she’s a singer not an actor, but at each tipping point she just gets over the bar so that by the end I believe we enjoy a fine performance.
Steven James raises his game as Walter Cruz and his character gets much more rounded, but the real ‘find’ is Chris Cooper as Leonard Geist, the mill owner gone rogue, feeling overwhelmed by his own bastard creation.
Show-stealing, on an epic scale, is the filthy performance of Joan Cusack as (Officer) Bunda.
Season 2 shifts a gear. It’s even darker, it’s less familiar to us ‘Poddies’ and it’s found its TV voice. It just gets better and better.
The circular plot device means that nothing is clear until the very end of the final episode and that’s one of the reasons, the excellent Monae aside, that it makes such gripping viewing.
This was billed as Australia’s greatest ever podcast.
Presented by The Australian newspaper it tells the story of a septuagenarian who goes missing from an outback town in deepest central Oz.
It features a ‘cast’ of 11 characters – all residents of the ‘town’, an old railway outpost that has fallen into virtually a ghost town, and the local police officer.
The central, missing, figure is Paddy Moriarty, a mysterious oddball resident with a mildly dodgy past who simply ‘disappeared’ overnight with his dog, never to be seen again.
A writer, the presenter and journalist from The Australian, Kylie Stevenson, and her friend Caroline Graham, visit the town (Kylie had previously discovered it on a writing retreat) to try to piece together the mystery through a series of interviews with the residents who make up such a dysfunctional society as to resemble a war torn republic that is verging on anarchy.
The cast is oddball in the extreme. All ageing, all with their own grudges and vendettas, and all contributing to a story that is as weird as it is almost compelling.
I confess I didn’t really get enthralled by the story because it feels slight and a bit overstated, but I gradually grew into it and made it to the end.
It’s not a favourite and I have to say that if this is Australia’s ‘best’ I’d not like to endure its worst. But it becomes engaging to a point.
Would I recommend it? Not wholeheartedly, but it passes the time and its enthusiasm somewhat overcomes its lack of overall substance.