As the year comes to a close our writers look back at how it passed in terms of light entertainment
BOOKS: Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence
Like a swallow to Capistrano, this year I returned to Greenspan’s self-penned memoir – published in 2007, two days after Lehman went belly-up (the irony being that this man oversaw the Great Moderation); why I did it, I’m not sure. Maybe it was a desperate effort to reaffirm what the conservative ethos is really about in the era of stupidity, inflated egos and xenophobia – a.k.a. Trump. Greenspan is a staunch conservative, but not today’s brash, shallow and mean type. He is a refined, educated, kind and funny man, but above all preposterously smart and eloquent. He makes solid arguments only to demolish them in the next paragraph, going off on digressions but returning to his original point for the conclusion, often leaning on philosophy or morality. People like Greenspan are the answer to “I have the best words”.
MUSIC: ‘Apples and Bananas’ – The Learning Station
I would never have thought that silly kids’ songs could also be pure genius. I mean, getting toddlers’ attention can be an infuriatingly daunting task (the best I’ve done so far is chocolate or crisps or some other deliciousness I feel guilty bribing my one-and-a-half year-old son with), let alone teaching them things along the way. Toddlers, it turns out, come with no ‘off’ button, and, worse, walking away from a looping argument with one and slamming the door behind you is apparently bad parenting (talk about unfair: the appropriate response to ‘Pick up your toys’ should not be blowing a raspberry, giggling and throwing your dad’s mobile phone at him as you run away, but, alas, the world is far from perfect). The answer? This glorious ‘oopples and boonoonoos’ anthem-slash-vowel lesson. The dance it triggers – invariably something that would be at home in a Ministry of Silly Dances sketch – is just a bonus. Fair warning: the song is designed to immediately get stuck in kids’ heads on endless loop, but adults are not immune.
FILMS/TV: The Wizard of Lies
It really looked like it was all over for Robert De Niro. It wasn’t so much the nauseating Analyse These and the incessant Meeting the Parents, it was the later – and lower – stuff. Grudge Match, Last Vegas and that insufferably clean, aw-shucks grandpa character in The Intern – come on man, really? I thought he had finally made peace with cashing a stellar career in. But no, in The Wizard of Lies he returns to humanise the notorious Bernie Madoff as he comes to terms with the finality of the fall. Granted, the story is very interesting itself, but De Niro’s acting chops depict a flawed man, humbled by his own monstrosity, who gradually comes to realise that – Gordon Gekko be damned – greed is bad and that there’s no undoing a wrong. There’s just life.
BOOKS: The Course of Love is Alain de Botton’s 2016 novel on the titular subject. Whereas most novels finish after a couple falls in love, his book goes on to describe what happens over the course of a lifetime, how they inevitably become disenchanted after the headiness of falling in love, and how complex relationships are.
Stoner, the story of the life of an academic, became a bestseller 50 years after author John Williams wrote it in 1965. It reflects on life in academia, but also shows how a fictitious character copes stoically with what life throws at him, and tries to make the best of it. What’s intriguing is not only the subject, but also the way the author portrays the protagonist, a quiet, shy man who sees the brilliance in literature and sometimes succeeds in sharing it with others. An ordinary life? A sad, or happy one? It’s up to the reader to decide.
MUSIC: I have given up on listening to the radio, as months can pass before music which I like is being played. That means, when it does happen, I am bound to miss it.
There is one new song which has caught my attention: ‘Something Just Like This’ by Coldplay & the Chainsmokers, which I like for its catchy melody, Chris Martin’s voice and the lyrics.
FILMS/TV: Films, for me, are at their best when I can get a glimpse into worlds that are rarely discussed but definitely out there.
Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids is a rare documentary, as it required photographer and director Zana Briski to live in the red-light district for years. She handed out cameras to the prostitutes’ children and allowed them to record the district with their images, the ultimate goal being to improve the children’s lives by getting them accepted at boarding schools – no easy task.
Daughter of the Lake, a Peruvian documentary, portrays a small community in the Andes suffering severe water scarcity because a gold mine is extracting the town’s water supply together with the precious metal. It highlights the waste and contamination which results from the presence of one company. The film doesn’t offer solutions: a residents’ protest seems successful – but the film also demonstrates how powerful the corporation behind the gold mine is, implying that success is likely to be temporary.
BOOKS: The towns and cities of modern Britain; once the dynamic hub of commerce and manufacture, now a dystopian morass where those within have abandoned hope and faith, but survive on larceny and welfare; or so claim the authors of the books I read – to lift the spirits – while recovering from a slight cardiac glitch.
Henry Mayhew, Jack London and George Orwell, writing on the condition of the poor, would not believe the scenes described by Ben Judah in This is London. Judah joins Transylvanian villagers – transported by slavers from their homeland – sleeping in the underpasses of Park Lane, forced to beg on the streets around Mayfair. In Peckham, now home to England’s largest African community, he engages the services of one of the many ‘witch-doctors’ advertising their skill in the local press. Few readers that have lived or worked in ‘The Great Wen’ will believe the statistics: but every example is taken from a government source.
In the same vein, Nick Danziger’s Journey to the Edge records his travels to the disintegrating societies he finds in Britain’s rust belt. Towns where youth unemployment exceeds 60 per cent; where a family will attend prayers at the mosque, and return to discover thieves have stolen the roof (a used slate is worth 20 pence). Also in the same vein: Theodore Dalrymple, columnist with The Spectator and former prison psychiatrist, has a very jaundiced view of mankind, stating England has created a society incapable of accepting moral responsibility for its actions. Victimology flows from the pages of his record of prison life, The Knife Went In; his opinion of lawyers is well worth the price of the book.
To raise the spirits, following this brush with Moloch, I took London Triumphant from the shelf, containing pencil sketches and anecdotes of the city’s most treasured buildings by the author Sydney Jones; the perfect antidote.
MUSIC: Music in my family is guided by my Serbian friends Bojana and Nenad, my wife, and my talented granddaughters: Daphne, percussionist with the NYO, and Charlotte, the jazz singer. First time I have heard Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.
FILMS/TV: Nenad gave me a very unusual gift: a visual record of some of the most ferocious boxing matches ever witnessed. Ali v. Frazier in Manila; Duran v. Leonard, first encounter; and so on. Memorable detail: we all know about the rise and fall of Tyson, but one of the figures prominent in the arbitration between fighter, manager and promoter – trusted by all, even the egregious Don King – was none other than the current occupant of the Oval Office, would you believe!
Two films: American Made, starring Tom Cruise as jovial, naive Barry Seal, drafted into the service of the CIA while delivering the goods for drug lords, dropping weapons for Ollie North, paying off Noriega and maintaining a reputation as the ‘man who delivers’. Finally, Dunkirk: a film to lift the hearts of the children of Britannia. No stars, just excellent filming.
BOOKS: You can’t read my favourite book of 2017. You have to solve it! Imagine a Mensa test, a mind-boggling crossword and a fiendish Sudoku all rolled into one – now, link it up to the internet and you’ve got Journal 29. Created by Dimitris Chassapakis, this is the Masquerade of the new millennium; buy at your own risk, it’s bound to be the utterly addictive forerunner of a new online/print crossover genre. Another one for the techie crowd, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is already in production: the film is due out next year. Set in a dystopian 2044, it’s a light-hearted romp of a read for everyone who remembers the ZX Spectrum. On the other end of the sci-fi scale, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is a technical masterpiece. Heavy on the science, the premise is superb, the plot racy, and the research inimitable. And, although the title gives the game away, it’s definitely my winner of the Most Haunting Book of the Year award.
MUSIC: Other than Classic FM, I haven’t really been listening to much music this year. Okay, I was subjected to more than my fair share of RnB on road trips to Protaras, but certainly not by choice: I’m definitely becoming my mother! Everything on popular radio is an assault to the ears: Beethoven and Bach are always going to be my top choices for easy listening, along with anything by modern maestro Karl Jenkins (‘Allegretto from Palladio’ is a perennial favourite; so are the Adiemus albums).
FILMS/TV: This year I discovered Netflix. It’s all been downhill from there. Dynasty, The Good Place and Orange is the New Black have all become part of my serial routine, as has the second series of The Crown (which fills the Downton Abbey gap nicely!). Game of Thrones was of course compulsory viewing, even though, now it’s well off-book, I feel it’s lacking its previous depth – despite the Ice Dragon. In terms of film, I caught up with Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (staggeringly good) and have re-watched Hidden Figures several times, because who doesn’t love a fact-based underdog plot?! And while the latest in the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi, almost made it to the top spot on my list, it’s Pitch Perfect 3 that’s my ultimate winner of 2017; I may have turned 40 this year, but I’m still a teenage geek at heart!
BOOKS: Big shout-out to Eric Ambler, one of two authors I know (the other is PG Wodehouse) who spent long careers willingly confined to one genre – Ambler’s being the spy novel – cultivating a style so natural and limpid, the words seem to float off the page. I’m halfway through Ambler’s The Levanter at the moment, one of his later books (1972), and it’s nice to read about Middle Eastern tensions from 45 years ago (the more things change…) but the real attraction is how smoothly the sentences flow. Also enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’ style in Middlesex – another of the shockingly few books I read in 2017 – though the plot dragged a little. Sincere resolution: read more books and stay off the internet (as much as humanly possible) in 2018.
MUSIC: In the age of playlists and iPods, I still love the radio for the surprises it brings – I heard Hugh Laurie (aka Dr. House) playing blues piano a few days ago; he’s very good – though my least pleasant surprise was the abrupt departure, after less than two years, of U Radio, the best (and only) alternative-rock station I’ve found in Cyprus. Why someone would buy a successful radio station only to change its name and playlist (it’s now some drippy MOR thing called N-Joy) is a mystery; I assume they just wanted the frequency.
Speaking of playlists, heartfelt thanks to my friend Harry whose monthly mixes on Spotify were a constant source of new-music gems (check them out; his nick is ‘manumad999’) and a useful guide through the mad over-abundance of the digital age: “Every song that I’ve ever heard / Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd!” as Arcade Fire sang in ‘Everything Now’. ‘Sugar for the Pill’ by Slowdive and ‘Deadly Valentine’ by Charlotte Gainsbourg – shoegaze and dream-pop, respectively – were probably the two songs I listened to most times this year. Runners-up: ‘Cease Fire’, Thurston Moore; ‘Wait for Signal’, Tricky; ‘Brush with the Wild’, Granddaddy; ‘Mask Off’, Future. So many others…
FILMS/TV: Watching Mother! at a midnight screening in Thessaloniki, and the girl sitting behind me who calmly enquired, as the final credits rolled: “What. Psychopath. Wrote that?”. Watching The Last Jedi on opening night, more for the audience excitement than the film per se. Above all, taking a chance on relatively obscure oldies and being rewarded, again and again: Scandal Sheet (1952), Get Crazy (1983) and Westward the Women (1951) outdid almost all the new films I saw this year. Oh, and newfound appreciation for The Beguiled (1971), which totally wiped the floor with The Beguiled (2017).