Four writers look back on the year in terms of the books they read, the songs that stood out and what they saw on the big and small screens
Angelos Anastasiou, reporter
Book of the Year: Six Presidential Portraits
Unfortunately available in Greek only – though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of it being translated to any number of languages, if word gets out. This book – an account of media mogul Costis Hadjicostis’ various one-on-one encounters with all of Cyprus’ presidents – is a book where the writer freely admits to having mobilised the media under his control to demonise and eventually kill the Annan Plan in the 2004 referendum. Because he didn’t like it. Before it was even finalised. Let me repeat: the man employed his army of news outlets to deliberately manipulate, not objectively inform, public opinion, and 12 years later said so in public (and not a single eyelid was batted, but this is neither the time nor the place). It is also the book in which the elderly Hadjicostis, who liberally boasts of having pioneered independent journalism in Cyprus, starts the preface with: “I know some things are in quotation marks but for the most part I didn’t keep notes, so don’t quote me on them”. It is also the book in which self-serving bias runs amok so transparently it’s embarrassing. One or two brief tête-a-têtes with some of the presidents-to-be prove enough for the sage writer to foresee the shortcomings of his interlocutor’s future presidency through extrapolation from some obscure character trait or anecdotal and unverifiable evidence.
I could go on – suffice to say that, as I was reading it, I instinctively kept notes of the over-the-top stuff I encountered. I was not intending to critique the book, mind you. It all just seemed so increasingly strange to me that I felt compelled to scribble a short summary of each weird anecdote, opinion, or rationale I came across. Several pages were filled.
Song of the Year: Rockabye by Clean Bandit
I suppose diversity is the first thing to go out the window when an industry gets big enough to give rise to cookie-cutter mass-production, but today’s pop-music scene is just ridiculous. It’s as if every song aims to incite as much twerking as possible. Not so with this one: an anthemic pledge of allegiance for single mothers everywhere, told simply and beautifully through the third-person narrative of Jane Everysinglemum. You just know the song’s central tenet (“I’m gonna do what I’ve got to do”) is easier said than done, but then that’s what anthems are for – inspiring the troops to carry on in the face of adversity. To come back either with your shield or on it, as the ancient Greek historian Plutarch deciphered the Spartan fighting ethos. Or, to quote his modern-day equivalent, to get rich or die tryin’.
Movie of the Year: The Big Short
It’s always fun when you’ve read a book and the movie version comes out – especially when the writing is at times a meandering mess, leaving you clueless as to how anyone could ever translate the inherently boring story of how the 2007 US housing bubble really burst into a coherent motion picture. I admit I went into it with limited expectations – but I needn’t have worried: Adam McKay, the legend who gave us the legend of Ron Burgundy, caught writer Michael Lewis’ quirky cynicism perfectly and created an amusing (if quirkily cynical) account of the most monumental chain of events in the history of financial markets. As far as movie directing goes, ‘it’s a boring subject and you know how it ends but you watch it anyway’ should be the measure of cool.
Alexander McCowan, restaurant reviewer
Books: An enforced hospital stay gave me an opportunity, denied to many, of reading during every waking hour. My efforts were so concentrated that it gave rise to concern among my fellow sufferers who, on encountering my visitors, would quietly – as though conveying bad news – inform them that I was always reading.
And so I was. The Meaning of Things by AC Grayling is a series of essays by one of Britain’s leading philosophers – many will remember his Last Word column in the Guardian – on topics such as the inflated role of religion in our societies, sin, perjury, and many other philosophic subjects that will engage the layman.
A squalid account of life during the Kennedy regime, The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh – the Pulitzer Prize winner, who exposed the My Lai massacre – provided an interesting and revealing view of that severely dysfunctional dynasty. Another book that gave great pleasure was The Great Siege by Ernle Bradford, a beautifully-written account of the failed attack on Malta in 1565 by Suleiman the Magnificent, evoking the incredible resilience of the Knights and their Grand Master, Jean de la Valette, who had been a Turkish galley slave for four years yet survived to conduct the siege in his mid-sixties. Also in historical vein, my friend David Hardacre delivered The Victorian Underworld, full of tales of Dodgers, Cutpurses, and the Swell Mob.
In between the many books were gifts of The London Review of Books from my friend Mark Johnson, and a chance to read half a dozen copies of Granta, set aside for this opportunity. Finally, a book I recommend to all those of an enquiring mind is Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. It has set historians atremble with its claim that the Chinese were there first. Menzies, a former naval officer and an expert on charts and maps, writes with the authority of a man of action who has produced this amazing tome after 15 years of research: a minor triumph.
Music: On the music front, I am now blessed not only with my granddaughter the world-travelling jazz singer, but I also have another who is a percussionist with the National Youth Orchestra. My friends Bojana and Nenad continue to provide us with updates on all that is current in the classical world. Last week we received The Dowland Project, a CD produced by Manfred Eicher and featuring the medievalists put together by the tenor John Potter. Perfect for Christmas. Oh, and of course the demise of the great Lenny Cohen ensured he got many plays.
Films/TV: Of the visuals, little to be offered apart from Snowden (a must for all conspirators) and Sully, a portrait of the modest man as hero. From television, which is brought to my screen by the egregious Primetel, I was delighted to discover in what is laughingly called BBC Entertainment two series not previously encountered. The first, the hugely funny Bargain Hunt, presented by the slick Tim Wannacot, and the other – one of the best written and acted English detective series – Scott & Bailey, set in gritty Manchester and as accurate a portrayal of modern policing (where women dominate) as could be imagined.
Alix Norman, features writer
Books: I saw a piece the other day on Amazon’s top ten best-sellers of 2016; I hadn’t read any of them. Which actually didn’t worry me too much, because I’m an ardent re-reader: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, anything Iain M Banks – my year has been spent not so much in literary escapism as in falling back into familiar fictional fantasy. However, of the few new books I did pick up over the last 12 months, there were a couple that stood out. I found The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – which did the rounds of the Mail this summer – a thrillingly intricate jaunt, while The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – a spontaneous purchase at St Paul’s bookshop – proved to be a triumph of irreverent humour and joyful complexity.
Music: This summer I hit 40: no problem where music is concerned because I don’t enjoy this modern nonsense (yes, I’m becoming my mother) and firmly believe anyone involved in R ’n B should be shot – which I gather they frequently are. My tastes have always run more to Beethoven, Bach and Jenkins – a penchant which has been much facilitated this year by my discovery of the Classic FM app. That said, a few remixes of more popular songs did make my cut: the Dolly Parton/Pentatonix Jolene collaboration was hauntingly beautiful, and the Jonas Blue rejig of Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car became my off-to-the-beach-with-the-top-down summer anthem.
Film: My viewing – both small and large screen – is generally book-related: JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (interesting to see that Titty has inevitably undergone a pc name change to the, um, less titillating Tatty) and Game of Thrones all being, originally, literature. My stand-out screen moment of 2016 was, however, Westworld – an HBO series based on a film (not a book, as I’d first assumed) penned by author Michael Crichton – which has held me entranced since its October launch. I’m even willing to risk hate mail by saying I prefer it to GoT: it’s subtler, more strategic and plays to the intelligence. In seasonal news, my spring was spent enjoying Silicon Valley and Veep, summer was all about the Rio Olympics, and autumn brought Black Mirror and Strictly Come Dancing. Winter, I think, will be dedicated to the new Netflix series The OA.
Preston Wilder, film reviewer
Books: Ah, books! Boon companions of my youth, mentors who revealed the secret alchemy of words – and now so forgotten, so neglected! I feel like I read all the time, but the things I actually read tend to be outraged think-pieces and shocking news stories encountered on Reddit. The number of books I read cover-to-cover in 2016 can be counted on the fingers of one hand – but at least they include Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, a Jamaican crime novel read mostly on planes and consistently enjoyable, despite some purple patches. James’ tour de force, much of it written in ghetto patois, won the Booker Prize in 2015, an unusual achievement for such a violent novel (Quentin Tarantino gets name-checked on the cover); it’s a bit overstuffed, but always readable – making it even more frustrating that I don’t really read anymore. Bombocloth, as they (apparently) say in Jamaica.
Music: This was, notoriously, a bad year for departing musical icons – though at least David Bowie and Leonard Cohen got to explore their mortality in song before actually making an exit. Listening to Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ – the year’s most haunting song, with his local synagogue choir in the background and his gravelly voice making spiritual fatigue entirely explicit (“I’m ready, my Lord”) – just a few days before news of his death broke was the kind of musical downer only 2016 could offer.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, my song of the year (with honourable mentions including Lambchop’s ‘NIV’, The Savages’ ‘Adore’, Beck’s ‘Wow’ and Cate Le Bon’s ‘Crab Day’) is something I’ve never even dared recommend to anyone, so embarrassed am I by its 80s-synth-pop bounciness – yet every joyous, ridiculous second of ‘Dusseldorf’ by a band called Teleman makes me weep with happiness. With 2016 now over, I feel I can finally come out about this musical lapse. Be kind.
Films/TV: Films are work, of course, though it sounds ungrateful to say so (CUT TO: the recent Rogue One commenter who called me “the luckiest person with a job on this planet”). TV is a medium I mostly avoid, though I wish I had a euro for every time I heard some variation on ‘You have to watch [Show X], it’s incredible!’. All that said, I loved a lot of new films this year – but I’ll focus more on the old films, like the weekend in March when I decided to revisit the year 1951 and treated myself to an exhilarating triple bill of The Lavender Hill Mob, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Thing from Another World, plus a first viewing of The Steel Helmet (and a third viewing of Ace in the Hole, which disappointed me slightly). I’m not talking nostalgia here, or ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to’ – just relaying what that weekend taught me, namely that Art survives, and can thrill and offer succour even in the midst of uncertainty and confusion 65 years later. You just have to be open to it.