AKA: That was the year that was……
Perhaps best seen as The Year of Living Reclusively (anything but dangerously, with apologies to Christopher Koch, Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt – look it up), Part II, I’ve spent the most part of 2021 generally avoiding other people – continuing to refine my misanthropy, and deciding that it’s not the best of looks – wandering my neighbourhood and still finding things I didn’t know existed after 2 decades (a small wildlife reserve, for instance), and musing wistfully (not easy while perfecting misanthropy) on the prospects of civil existence and meandering medieval cities. Unlike 2020 I ventured out to a couple of events – conferences mainly – but like 2020 held off on jaunts to elsewhere (even Lisbon!) for scholarly outings. Yet through all of this it was a delight and privilege to continue working with the crew at Labour Behind the Label: you’d hard pressed to find an organisation that, through excellent networking and the quality of its staff, ‘punches above its weight’ to the extent that LBL does.
It turned out to be a year where it was hard to engage with the everyday world of politics (an oddity for me) although Johnson and his fascism facilitating coterie continued to pursue a pandemic-response strategy of herd immunity, although whereas last year it was all about letting us get sick and having a bunch die to build up virus resistance, this year it was the single strand strategy of vaccinations: in itself a dangerous public health strategy. Having one string to your bow is never a good approach to managing a complex social crisis. Globally those forces of reaction stayed in power – although with the heart warming and soul protecting difference that after some time in February our mental environments were no longer polluted by a seemingly daily output of Trumpian venom: the man wasn’t silenced but he was harder to hear involuntarily. It might be setting the bar low, but I’ll take that as a win. Unfortunately the effects of Trump and other like him still in power (in some cases less securely – think Johnson, Bolsanaro and perhaps Orbán) persist. Much to the cost of others mainly, most notably/severely women in Afghanistan.
Of course, it was the year of the continuing pandemic. I found myself reflecting, wryly, on a conversation with my GP in March 2020 about filling a prescription before heading off to the country. She gave me double the usual, so four months, hoped it’d be enough and we made arrangements for what to do if it wasn’t… Oh, how naïve we were thinking we’d have it sorted by mid-July. We’re now (end of December, 2021) looking at over 172,000 Covid deaths in the UK’s official figures, up to 5 million worldwide – and governments following a dangerously nationalist vaccination programme while using IP laws to prevent cheaper vaccine manufacture across much of the world where access is very limited, if almost non-existent. That means over half of us aged over 12 in the UK have had three vaccine shots, while around 5% of people in Africa have had any. The global Powers That Be don’t seem to realise that their vaunted globalisation works on multiple vectors.
But, staying home was both productive, and less productive than I’d hoped. The downside of ‘freelancing’ in a pandemic is far fewer want ‘lancing’, so income stayed well below the taxable level. Happily that changed towards the end of the year when I took a full time post managing and training research degree supervisors at University of Wales Trinity St David. It might not sound like a dream job but it’s an area I have been working in and around for 15 years or more, that I really enjoy and what’s more, it’s a new post in a new unit – so I get to shape it: I guess that’s pretty close to ideal. But starting a job in the middle of a pandemic, when we’re all working remotely, is kind of odd – so the major change (aside from the actual content of much of my day) has been the new laptop on my desk at home: I’m expecting to venture out to Carmarthen at best in late January or February. So that started at the beginning of November at very short notice (after a long lead in time before contracts were finalised) at just the same time as I took on some teaching for a friend who’d gone off on sick leave. To say the last two months were busy would be euphemistic.
Even so, I spent the year writing less than I’d hoped, editing about as much as I’d expected (and making good progress on an edited collection of essays on histories of netball, which is rather exciting), wrapping up and seeing in print in December the fifth in our series of essays on the philosophy of play (in this case, Play & Democracy, edited with Alice Kubová and Petr Urban from the Czech Academy of Sciences, and with Wendy Russell: it’s a fabulous collection with an excellent team of co-editors) – although given the price it’s unlikely to be a big seller. Not only that, earlier in the year the fourth in series, Play, Philosophy and Performance, also made it to print (having been wrapped up right at the end of 2020 – co-edited this time with Wendy & Emily Ryall). Unfortunately the pandemic has slowed down work in our now decade long Philosophy at Play project: hopefully we’ll get underway again in 2022. There were also two new book proposals developed which will no doubt need more work (one certainly does, perhaps significant rethinking – the downside of trying to be innovative, dammit!).
Despite begin Johnny-say-at-home, there were a few outings including ten days or so at Rupert & Hayley’s place near Hastings. The change of scenery was delightful, as was seeing them after a year, as I wandered the local farmland, meandered through Hastings and Rye for food gathering outings (and to sit on the beach) and enjoyed a rural-ish spring. There was a delightful weekend in Chester for a book launch, of essays honouring a former PhD student, Stuart Lester, who passed away suddenly in 2017, where we had the chance to celebrate a major thinker and doer in play studies and practice, a significant force in our philosophy project, and one of the smartest students and co-workers I have had – and dammit it was good to spend time with the play crew face-to-face. But travel otherwise meant the bus to Gloucester for teaching…. In the midst of it all, and much as I like the reach of our on-line seminars (including my own turn at the Institute of Historical Research) and conferencing, I really enjoyed two days of face-to-face sports history conferencing in August. I’m hoping 2022 includes more, including Gibraltar, Chicago, Porto and Oslo.
Of course, staying home meant books, music and bad TV.
It’s not been a year for much new music and I realised as I surveyed the high rotate it’s been powerfully women centric, and quite genre specific: perhaps I’ve been seeking the mellow. Sadly it was a live gig free year (not counting an outing to the fabulous, musically unpredictable spoken word event that is Tongue Fu), so it’s all recorded.
Not surprisingly it starts pandemically, and equally unsurprisingly with new work by Rhiannon Giddens with Francisco Turrisi. Their haunting They’re Calling Me Home draws on her black southern world, his southern Italian life and their Irish residence to blend the traditional and new into an album that truly deserves the label ‘world’ music but more importantly innovates and reflects on our times. The title track reaches inside and grabs the heart and soul, whereas their version of classic Waterbound seems to sum up the year.
It’s hard to rank the others, but for the most part they’re people I have been listening to for a while with a couple of newbies in the mix.
I’ve sung the praises of Joy Crookes before, although 2021 saw her first full album with the late in the year release of Skin featuring some of the previous EP tracks but mainly new work. She has a whispy, slightly breathy voice that she uses superbly in the title track but it’s hard to go past the power of Power with its oft quoted line: “You’re a man on a mission, but you seem to forget, you came here through a woman, show some fucking respect”. She’s the first of a bunch of Londoners who’ve been on high rotate.
Also in that group of women is Little Simz whose second album Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert marks a shift from the raw and stripped down sounds of 2019’s Grey Area with big productions that work, with choirs and string sections and raw, brutal cutting of the crap. Opening with the decidedly non-introverted Introvert sets the scene for a sonic and political tour de force.
For an entry by association I first encountered Eliza Shaddad when she supported Rhiannon Giddens at the Islington Town Hall several years ago. Now her second album The Woman You Want has provided a mellow, poppy, slightly swirly psychedelia with its wistful The Man That I Want and the FFS tone of Fine and Peachy, all woven through an unsettling intimacy.
Shifting back to the Londoners, Arlo Parks’ Collapsed in Sunbeams rather crept up on me after she kept appearing in the ‘if you liked’ lists by virtue of whatever algorithm was running that week – although I had encountered her work before. I love the pared down sound of Hurt, while in a year where (perplexingly) a Neil Diamond song became beloved of football crowds, this Caroline seems so much more of our times.
A little more electronic than my usual comfort zone I also found myself sucked into Griff’s world on her (first EP), One Foot in Front of the Other with its hypnotic Black Hole.
A few years ago Imelda May seemed to abandon her rockbilly style and now her new era second album 11 Past the Hour came with an added spoken word disc. She’s got much more diverse, including mellow ballads like Diamonds while Made to Love reminds me why I enjoy her gigs so much.
Although I’ve also noted this year how much I stream, including excessively the divine Canadian Dominique Fils-Aimé including her Three Little Words that opens with Grow Mama Grow but I adore Big Man Do Cry from a couple of years ago.
Moving back again to London, Ego Ella May is probably my wow discovery of the year with her gorgeous Honey for Wounds but it’s all about her Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys.
And finally from Brighton there is Isabelle Brown, who I really should have praise sung before and now there an album In Your Head with a foot stomping title track.
The quality of the list has kept some fabulous performers – Sampa the Great for instance – on the sideline, while other favoured artists older and newer have added to the sonosphere – here I mean Etta James, Jesca Hoop, the Highwomen (who never seem to go away), Paul Kelly, Kandace Springs, Emmylou Harris, Valerie June (whose new album is still on the to-get list), Larkin Poe (they’re due to play Bristol in a couple of months – pandemic permitting, the Mad As A Hatter remains a gut wrenching regular while I adore the hard edged blues of She’s a Self-Made Man), Pip Millet (oh, may there be an album soon) and Hurray for the Riff Raff (with a new album due early in 2022 – be still my beating heart).
Staying home also means reading, a lot – and I did, making it really hard to pare 120+ titles down to a top eleven (I couldn’t make it to ten). They’re a mixture of pointy-headed academia, lefty politics and sharp literature. There’s more at my Goodreads page.
Top of the list, the first of my mind altering titles for the year is a couple of years old now but at 630 or so pages it looked a little daunting in the to-read pile: looks were not deceiving. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History, Unlearning Imperialism is an astounding piece where she weaves together her training in photography and political science to disrupt the notion of the archive, to push the notion of silences to unravel and read gaps in the archive, and to argue that rather than exploring ‘alternative’ histories we can explore those gaps and silences to uncover the potential histories that already exist and in doing refuse the power claimed by orthodoxy. More than anything in the last few years this has challenged me to rethink the way I work and what I’m doing with it. (Fuller review here)
Sharing the podium with Azoulay’s work at the top of the pile is Minna Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone which makes a powerful case for a system of knowledge production grounded in the banalities of our everyday lives while denying Europatriarchal knowledge and the claims it makes to universality. It’s beautiful, evocative and richly political. Along with Françoise Vergés’ A Decolonial Feminism (below) and Sylvia Tamale’s less even Decolonization and Afro-feminism this is a marker of dynamics of thought and practice challenging WENA (Western Europe North America) thinking and practice, and sitting in a discussion with Minna Salami and Emma Dabiri at my local literature festival in October here they explored African-Feminist politics and practice was a highlight of the year. (Fuller review here)
As for the rest, simply in the order I read them….
Janice Forsyth’s Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport is both a history of an award recognising contributions to Canadian sport by Indigenous athletes and administrators, an account of the ways Longboat has been remembered and an analysis of the place of Indigenous peoples in Canadian sport policy. It’s a superb piece of work that quite properly won the North American Society for Sport History’s book prize for 2020 (and by way of full disclosure, I chaired that judging panel). (Fuller review here)
Dan Hicks, in The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution focuses in on one set of plundered artefacts, the Benin Bronzes, as a way to explore the ‘problematic’ basis of many British museum collections and some of the ways those institutions remain woven into the histories of British imperialism. (Fuller review here)
In some ways, the sleeper in the pile is Rachel Buchanan’s Ko Taranaki Te Maunga which powerfully explores her family background in and links to the colonisation of Taranaki in the mid-19th century and the sacking of the Māori community at Parihaka in 1881, focusing in part on her father and on the Crown’s penchant for apology. (Fuller review here)
Françoise Vergés’ outstanding A Decolonial Feminism both challenges the whiteness of much that goes on in feminist theory and practice, forcefully makes the case for ‘taking sides’ and calls to task what she calls ‘civilizational feminism’; it’s woven through with her French context but profoundly and richly internationalist with it. (Fuller review here)
I have found myself reading more climate related things of late, some of which have been really insightful and exciting, but the standout was Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective’s White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism exploring the place of the ‘hard right’ and newly invigorated fascist and quasi-fascist groups in climate denialism sustaining a capitalism grounded in fossil fuels and increasingly mainstreamed. Part of the reason for it making this list is the collectivist approach to writing (Malm was more an editor than lead author) and the internationalist perspective that resulted. (Fuller review here)
Carwyn Jones’ fantastic New Treaty, New Tradition: Reconciling New Zealand and Māori Law looks at the debates around Treaty settlements in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Crown’s professed goal of atonement and the failure to recognise the profound differences in legal systems (Māori and colonial) to argue that the goal of Māori self-determination is actively undermined by the process. It’s a powerful frame for analysis and a damning indictment. (Fuller review here)
Also in the field of Indigenous history, Susan M Hill’s The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River explores the experiences of the peoples who have come to occupy the Six Nations reserve, west of Lake Ontario, treaty making and breaking and struggles to defend their national integrity through Indigenous ways of looking at evidence used to tell colonisers’ histories and Indigenous evidence ignored or denigrated by those histories. It’s an empirically and methodologically challenging and invigorating piece of work. (Fuller review here)
And wrapping up with novels, Katherena Vermette’s The Break (which sat for far too long in the to-read pile) looks at a single moment of sexual violence and other assault through lenses proved by three generations of Indigenous women and parts of their wider social networks in Winnipeg – it’s tough, it’s demanding and it is superb. (Fuller review here)
Almost the last book of the year was my much anticipated Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden. I’ve been watching this develop for a few years through readings and assorted literary events so with a whetted appetite had high expectations for a book that adopts multiple voices and genre – prose, poetry, prose poetry – and tropes – humour, sadness, anger – to tell the story of Mrs Death and her human voice-giver. It’s hard to describe, and it’s utterly captivating and uplifting, reminding why Salena Godden is a treasure. (Fuller review here)
As to viewing, it’s been a year of trashy comfort viewing and with the exception of Shaka King’s impressive Judas and the Black Messiah about Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers and the FBI’s murderous war on them I’d be inclined to leave it under the rug.
But amid all this, I think I’m left at the end of the year slightly in awe of two young women, elite athletes who reminded us that amid all the razzmatazz of commercialised sport and sporting bodies, of movement as commodified entertainment for the rest of us, that there are more important things. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles’ simple, if really high profile, acts of saying no granted space to many to act to protect themselves – or at least made it easier for other to do so. Respect.
On not going out: TWTYTW 2020
About the years ago, as a kind of self-check I started doing a this was the year that was meander to wrap up the year that had just been – not with any kind of self-improvement, reflective practice kind of motive, just as a reminder. Over that decade it took on a kind of conventional form – a bit of a commentary on the big issues, some showing off about shit I had done, places I’d been, and ranking of the year’s cultural activities, with a here’s stuff you should read and listen to not-at-all-subtle sub-text. Much of it relied on getting out and about – and at the outset of 2020 it all looked kind of as expected, with planned outings to New Zealand, Chicago, Japan (mainly Hokkaidō) and some musings on the possibility of time in Central Europe…. And here I am 12 months later wondering what to do with this wrap up of a year marked by not going out (much).
What is there to say? We’ve had a year where the decisions taken by right wing heads of state have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of their citizens; we know from epidemiological modelling in the UK that Johnson’s populist decision to delay social controls by a week in March means that around 20,000 more people died in this pandemic than would have otherwise. We’ve seen Bolsonaro and Trump (as well as Johnson) act against medical advice, deny the significance of the virus, actively undermine their own public health advisors and advice, catch and survive the disease with therapies and treatments well beyond those available to most of their citizens and to an extent weaponise the pandemic in their own political interests. Is it any wonder that they are heads of state in the places with the highest death totals?
It’s easy to hold them up for the murderous scumbags they are, made worse in Johnson’s case by his celebration of the completion of trade talks with the UK’s biggest trading partner that set out to (and did) make worse the trading arrangement. At least in the USA they managed to vote out Trump – they may have to live with the ideology for quite a while but at least is sociopathic headman is out of power; the UK has to live with its marginalisation for the EU for decades. Now, I have no love for the EU as an economic project with its constitutional neo-liberalism, but the new arrangements look as if they’ll be way worse…. It’s not a good time to be in the UK searching for a more regular pay cheque.
While those are the big issues dominating the news cycle, the year has also been marked by a rising global movement for social justice, sparked surprisingly by the slow, sadistic roadside murder-by-police of a middle aged Black man in Minneapolis; George Floyd’s death, a few weeks after Breonna Taylor’s – an emergency room worker in Louisville shot by police when they raided the wrong house (hers), became the tipping point that sparked a worldwide movement for racial justice. Much as I saw this through the mediated eyes of the TV watcher, it also came home to me when several thousand of us in whiter-than-white Cheltenham rallied in a local park as part of these protests. The breadth and persistence of this movement, as well as the right wing backlash (in the UK we have Tory ministers and toadies invoking culture war rhetoric – possibly to build a new bogey-man for their policy failures not that they can’t blame the EU), has I suspect transformed or political landscape.
Closer to home, for me, was the work my co-workers in Labour Behind the Label (I generously include myself in that group, when I am at best a very active supporter) did exposing the rates and forms of worker exploitation in the UK textile industries. The focus has been principally on production for one label (Boohoo) in factories in Leicester, and there is no doubt that issues around Covid-19 exacerbated the issues and concern – but again I suspect there has been a marked change in consciousness and perhaps action, although the state’s response has been inadequate, inspection and control mechanisms remain appallingly underfunded, independent trade unions remain marginalised, although it appears one label might be shamed into some action, there’s still much further to go than we’ve come.
I sent most of the year in Cheltenham, avoiding people (and testing the limits of my introversion and misanthropy) – so much so that some-time in August I ventured north across a fairly busy main road about 200m (a straight line) from my house, and realised that aside from the rally in the park, it was the first time I had crossed Suffolk Rd and gone into the town centre since mid-May. I, as with many other people, spent most of the year in my neighbourhood – I wandered and explored in a vain effort to stave off a the effects of a sedentary existence (my jeans are notably tighter), but did discover places I’d not been to in the nearly 20 years I have lived here – parks, side streets, main streets, industrial areas and more, although the downside of wandering is that I probably have no real idea of how to find them again….
The 3km radius from home was not, thankfully, the whole year. Thanks to Melissa and Rupert I got out to New Zealand for a couple of weeks in January and February (if it had been a little longer I might have stayed!) that was almost entirely turned over to catching up with chums, eating indulgently and a few days archive rummaging for a paper I really do need to finish. Being there involved unexpected catch-ups with old lefty and trade union mates and others from an extended kin network who I’d not seen for over 20 years – but I opted against heading up country to see my eldest brother, Brian, foolishly as it turns out given that he didn’t make the end of the year: it’s a strange sense of one’s place in the world when it’s a sibling who passes away simply by virtue of having got old, and of the funeral playing out on a small screen in my spare room late one evening…. Vale old boy.
I’d also spent much of the first lockdown (March through May) with Rupert, Hayley, Rudy & Nell at their digs in the Sussex countryside (they’d fled London) – arriving just in time for everything to shut down. It was a strange and slightly unsettled experience in a hamlet of a few hundred in a farming area – so there was a sense that everyday working life was carrying on as usual, although the village pub was shut and grocery shopping was not as it normally would be. They’ve got a sizeable plot surrounded by farmland making for lots of good walking and adventures – Nell & I especially while Rudy was ‘in school’, although the walking distances were limited mainly by how far seemed reasonable for 3 year old legs: it may have been a couple of hours most days, but the distances not so great.
All this staying home stuff meant that it was a bad year for live music gigs – although it started really well with an outing to the Muttonbirds while in Wellington. I’d first seen Don McGlashan, who fronts that ensemble, in 1979 (in his Blam Blam Blam days), and the Muttonbirds had provided much of the soundtrack of my 1990s so the gig carried all sorts of memories and delights. Otherwise I’d got in early and made a bunch of jazz festival bookings – but its cancellation meant I missed gigs by Kandace Springs, Lizz Wright, Danielle Nicole, Ibibo Sound Machine, Bebel Gilberto, the Blind Boys of Alabama and more; even worse its cancellation means that a whole bunch of workers and musicians lost out on income.
Still I made up for this by listening to a whole bunch of things. Music has been, as with much of the rest of the year, in a comfort zone, but among the recent arrivals on the scene I haven taken by is The Highwomen, a shameless riff off the Johnny Cash et al Highwaymen of country supergroup fame right down their own re-writing of the eponymous song. Much as four women, assertively feminist, social justice oriented group sits disruptively with many of images of country music, they could still surprise. I watched some highlights of the CMA’s annual awards show where Maren Morris (of The Highwomen) picked up Best Female performer, which wasn’t all that surprising given her profile. It was her acceptance speech that wowed me. This wasn’t the rolling off the usual thanks: she listed an array of Black women country and Americana performers, contemporary and historical, proclaimed their presence in country music and asserted their role in its formation and growth – a direct critique, in the core of the industry, assertively recovering a history of the genre that has been actively written out of the mainstream. That’s using your power for good.
The Highwomen have also been at the top of my high rotate list for the year, which has been a mix of streaming services and (the now old fashioned) CD and exclusively women, in alphabetical order it has been:
Aldous Harding (her 2019 beauty Designer) for sparse, haunting tones
Danielle Nicole (of the foiled jazz festival outing) for a bit of raucous bluesiness
Emel (Mathlouthi) who made her name 10years ago as the voice of the Tunisian (Arab Spring) revolution, featured big in one of my fave ever movies No Land’s Song and towards the end of 2019 gave us the electronically influenced Everywhere We Looked Was Burning
Joy Crookes, from London, who I’ve been following for a couple of years, evoking hints of Sade and Eryka Badu
Larkin Poe (both their recent albums – Self Made Man and Venom & Faith) for even more raucous bluesiness
Our Native Daughters/Amythyst Kian/Rhiannon Giddens/Birds of Chicago/Leyla McCalla/Allison Russell – who all get rolled into one increasingly inseparable but individually distinct cluster with sharp, engaged, politically savvy Americana
Pip Millet, a Mancunian jazzy, soulful newcomer: I swoon
Taylor Swift (I know, I’m a late middle aged bloke) – while I have been wooed by individual songs in the past (shamelessly asserting 2009’s Love Story as one of the great pop songs), Folklore is a superb album
The Delines (from 2019, their come-back after a long break, The Imperial): they’re great story tellers enriched by Amy Boone’s voice
What this all means is that my Spotify algorithm has got really interesting, throwing up such wonders as Kylie Minogue, Hailey Whitter, IAMDDB, Alicia Keys, HAIM & PJ Harvey – it’s nothing if not eclectic.
Of course, the other thing about staying in is reading (I averaged about 10 books a month) with a couple of real standouts – most notably Hazel Carby’s outstanding Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands where she traces her biography as the daughter of a Jamaican father growing up in suburban south east London and village Devon in the 1940s and 1950s, and building a family history weaving together her father’s Jamaican lineage and her mother’s South Wales and West Country heritage that come together in working class Bristol and Bath. It’s a brilliant unpacking of complexly interwoven family pasts and debunking the notion of Empire as something out there. (Fuller review here)
The rest of my top ten (it was tough cutting out the other 111 titles), in the order I read them, are:
Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina – Catching Teller Crow is a multi-genre title by Indigenous Australian siblings weaving together a police procedural with the settler colonial world and Indigenous outlooks and ways of knowing. It shifts voice, varies between prose, blank verse and prose poetry and while dealing with harrowing topics, is a beautiful text. (Fuller review here)
Jessica Dunkin – Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1910 was not only a surprising read but rather surprised me when it finished up in my best ten. Much of the discussion of the place and use of the canoe in settler North America reads it a an instance of cultural appropriation, while Dunkin builds on the settler colonial (re)making of space adding layers to the appropriation argument to consider the ways organised canoeing asserted settler control at multiple levels. (Fuller review here)
Kathleen Bachynski – No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis is one of the best bits of historical writing, let alone sports history I have read in a long time (I’ll say the same about two others in the list) exploring the background to contemporary debates about head injury in American football to weave together public health and gender history into developments in American youth (so, amateur) football as influenced by discourses of man-making in sport; it’s a rich and superb piece of work. (Fuller review here)
Benjamin Sacks – Cricket, Kirikiti and Imperialism in Samoa, 1879-1939 is the second title I proclaim as one of the best pieces of sport history in quite some time. I confess here I had examined and sung the praises of the PhD thesis it is based on so come to the book with ‘form’. Cricket in Samoa is marked by the 11-a-side version we all know and, as with several Pacific Islands, an Indigenous form. Sacks elegantly weaves both of these into his work showing the integrity of both as grounded in colonial relations, themselves with multiple aspects. (Fuller review here)
Cherie Dimaline – The Marrow Thieves is the only other novel in my top ten (there was lots of comfort reading) and also by an Indigenous author. In this case we’re in a post-apocalyptic land we once called Canada where all but Indigenous peoples have lost the ability to dream – so the settler world is hunting down First Nations peoples to harvest their bone marrow to recover the ability to dream. It’s a tale of a teenager separated from his family who makes a kin group when drawn into rag tag bunch of people travelling North away from the hunters. (Fuller review here)
Robbie Shilliam – The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections is a brilliant analysis of the cultural and political links between anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the diaspora and the South Pacific, principally Aotearoa New Zealand. It is subtle, sharply insightful and something I should have read when it came out in 2016 – but I missed it…. (Fuller review here)
Marama Muru-Lanning – Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato River is a biography of the River and an ethnography of its people, focused on the relations and dynamics woven around claims to authority and negotiations towards the settlement of claims and joint governance with the settler state. It stood out for me in part because of the multi-disciplinary, decolonial approach, in part because I had heard her speak about aspects of the project at various conferences over the years, and in part because of the centrality of Waikato-Tainui and the River in Aotearoa New Zealand’s contemporary and historic cultural politics. (Fuller review here)
Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah (eds) – Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought also surprised me when I put it in the top ten, yet on reflection not so much. We’re continually told we’re into a post-feminist world, yet mainstreamed feminism is all about incorporation into an unequal social order. This collection of interviews with leading voices in an array of transformative feminist tendencies reminds us of the diversity of ways of doing anti-racism, decolonial, abolition feminism. (Fuller review here)
Shlomo Sand – Twilight of History is Sand’s reflections on the discipline. He has made his name in the English-speaking world as a critic of Zionist orthodoxy in histories of Israel. Here he uses his biography as an historian to explore tendencies on the discipline over the period from the late 1970s grappling with political and cultural histories, memory studies and the ‘reality’ of the past. It’s a demanding read but addressed to audiences beyond those of us who are practitioners in the field – which given the contested character of history in contemporary political and cultural life makes it all the more important. (Fuller review here)
Carly Adams (ed) – Sport and Recreation in Canadian History is my final ‘among the best bits of historical writing in years’ camp. I also have to confess that Carly is a good mate as are several of the authors in this collection that, by placing conflicts and tensions around settler colonial relations and related Power relations in key places, gives a much more complex sense of sport and recreation than the conventional approaches and challenges the rest of us to think and rethink our national histories and the analyses that underpin them. (Fuller review here)
All in all then it’s been a year of big ideas.
Being stuck in has also meant there’s been a bunch of film watching – most of it escapist reruns that I had forgotten an hour later, but there were several delights.
Again, in the order I watched them:
Where Hands Touch The marvellous Amandla Stenberg is the standout in this 2018 tale of mixed race teenager in Nazi Germany, the daughter of a colonial soldier in the German army, who falls for the son of a local fascist leader, and he for her. It’s an achingly wartime tale of great power and beauty, and deserves to sit alongside the wonderful 2012 film Lore as unpacking everyday life in a fascist world.
Top End Wedding Quite a different dynamic drives the entertaining tale of a now big city, successful Indigenous woman – Miranda Tapsell – who travels Home for her wedding and in doing s finds herself having to track down her estranged (from her and each other) parents. It’s a lovely tale of Country (and could have been an ad for the Northern Territory Tourist Board).
Made in Bangladesh has an almost entirely amateur cast telling the story of a young woman’s efforts to organise a union in her clothing factory, her struggles with the bosses and her husband, the loyalty of her friends and the bureaucratic barriers thrown up. It’s a sharply cast tale of the global dynamics of one of the world’s largest, most exploitative and destructive industries.
Gipsy Queen tells the story of young Roma woman boxer played by Alina Serban (herself Roma and the first in her family to graduate from high school and university) who works in construction, a second job in a bar, fights in the quasi legal bouts in the bar’s basement and raises her son. The film manages to strike a balance between the conventions of sports movies while resisting the heroic aspects of those conventions.
Binti is a lovely little Belgian movie about 7 year old Binti and her father, undocumented and running just ahead of the immigration authorities, who find a sense of precarious safety in a suburban neighbourhood through Binti’s friendship with Elias after she hides out in tree house. It’s a great tale of the human costs of the borders we maintain.
A Matter of Life and Death (from 1946) in one of Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger’s oddest (and that’s saying something given some of their work), where a bomber pilot (David Niven) cheats death (he is supposed to die over the channel but it is foggy and the ‘collector’ missed him), and must argue his case for continuing life before a court of appeal. It is delightfully internationalist, packed full of P&P sense of honour, allegory and justice – it is tightly scripted, wonderfully shot and inventive. A delight.
There was also lots of TV, some of it superb (Michaela Coel, anyone?) but the utter standout was Samuel L Jackson and Afua Hirsch’s Enslaved (I saw the BBC version – it’s different in other productions, mainly I think to localise cases) covering the Atlantic slave trade, its costs, dynamics and continuing presence in four hours through powerful commentary, excellent reportage and uncovered suppressed histories.
Yet all of this staying in came at the cost of human contact – it’s been a rough year for many and I know that even with pretty much a non-existent income I’m a bucket load better off than many. Many of us are grieving with this pandemic, and I’ve been lucky also that those we’ve lost have not been as close as many I know – but being better off than many in a crisis where (at the time of writing) the choices made by my government have resulted in the death of over 70,000 of my fellow citizens, and we’ve lived with mendaciousness, contempt and ineptitude of leadership where the costs has been borne by those least able to sustain that cost, whose work has put them in them in danger and cost many their lives.
So to wrap up this That Was The Year That Was, I’m drawn to Marx, who in an 1861 letter to Engels wrote: “May I wish you in advance every happiness for the New Year. If it’s anything like the old one, I, for my part, would sooner consign it to the devil.”
Some years go down as ones we’d have best avoided. Whereas it is quite easy to look around the world and agree that we’re globally better off than we have ever been before – better educated, with better health and the like – it should also be blindingly obvious that the conditions that allow that to be the case may not last. The forces of political reaction are growing in strength, overthrowing social democratic governments in South America, building increasingly oppressive states in India, Brazil, many parts of Europe (Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey – I know, I hear some of you scream ‘It’s not Europe!’) all the while mendacious, white supremacist, fantasists keep or gain power in Britain, the USA and Australia. It’s a world that actively promotes inequality and xenophobia – it’s hard not to despair.
Except of course these conditions are hotly contested by, amongst others, LGBTQI+ activists in Brazil who flip Bolsanaro the bird with a fantastic defiant Pride (note Pride corporatisers in the UK and elsewhere – there’s a hell of a fight to be fought), by school pupils and students worldwide staging climate strikes making a simple case to act on the scientific advice, by very many Indians of all classes and faiths who turn out to resist the BJP’s redefinition of citizenship, by voters in Istanbul who deny the reactionary AKP political power in its leader’s perceived home base, by global social justice campaigners who force the Bangladesh Govt to extend the regulation of textile factories that is the only thing that has improved working conditions in that industry in the last decade. There’s one hell of a fight to be fought, that starts by not giving in to despair.
Closer to home, it has been very much, to invoke a cliché, a year of two halves. It started as I wrapped up my 19 years at the University of Gloucestershire, as that institution’s on-going self-inflicted financial crisis resulted in a swathe of academic posts being disestablished (most not by compulsory redundancy as in the case of a small group of us – but I did walk away with a year’s take home pay). Not of course that those responsible carry any of that cost, as boss class hubris means that those who cause these crises convince themselves that they are the only ones who can fix the problems they have caused – but then such arrogance is the way of the bosses. Of course, in a tough employment setting finding a new regular income has proved to be a challenge – as that quest continues, I spent the first half of the year expecting something soon. I’ve spent so long working in and around labour markets that I expected things to get psychologically difficult after about 6 months, if I was still unemployed, but even knowing that and having a well-developed structural understanding of labour markets hasn’t made those thanks but no thanks letters any easier to deal with, but the gizza a job epistles have become much more polished even as I have found it difficult to do much other writing.
A few years ago I had a melanoma (which turned out to be the lowest possible risk) removed, which has made me alert to skin. A weird growth resulted in a minor bit of surgery in February – less than 10 minutes of cutting around an inner thigh about which I expected to be more squeamish but which I found fascinating to watch, leading to a new word for my vocab; hemagatoma, which is a harmless but aesthetically unpleasant (in this case) knot of capillaries. That, and a young friend’s much more serious cancer diagnosis, puts this regular income thing into perspective.
Even in these circumstances, I’ve not hung round at home (God, a year of Cheltenham without respite would drive me crazy!). There’s been a lot of travel, three outstanding gigs (the aforementioned travel prevent me getting to a couple of others), less writing (other than those gizza a job things) than I’d hoped for, and one of the finest movies I have ever seen….
Travel got underway in March with five days in Gibraltar doing some teaching, planning some projects (that have taken longer than we’d like to come to fruition) and scrambling about on the damned big rock. It was great to be there (tucking into fine meals at a lovely little vegetarian tapas bar), including an unexpected trip across the border to Spain to get back to the UK after high winds closed Gibraltar airport and we were loaded on a bus to Malaga.
The big trip came in April and May, with a six week jaunt to the USA and Canada. I had a conference at Easter in Pennsylvania and on in Boise (Idaho) in late May. Figuring I had no specific need to be in the UK – there are perks in not having an office where attendance is required – I decided there was no need to fly back and forth across the Atlantic when I could invite myself to visit chums, which I duly did. Kicking off with time in Philadelphia either side of Easter, it was great to hang out with Roger and Amy, meander museums and galleries and take in a city I have long enjoyed. During Easter I flitted up to State College for a South African themed conference (with thanks to Michelle Sykes and Mark Dyerson for arranging some financial support to get there). It was a fine gig (I’m still working on the paper from it), made more so by an excellent afternoon lurking on Jaime and Paul’s back porch with Zack, Dain, Michelle and a couple of others – there is nothing like a relaxing afternoon of good company – and by a catch up curry with Laura and Doug: damn academia can give us fine networks of buddies.
The next 4 weeks or so were back north of the border starting out with a week in Hamilton (Ontario) with Nancy & Pauline; a superb, extremely pleasant time with two of my dearest chums including an afternoon at ‘Disney’s Freaky Friday’ (not a show I ever expected to take in), an outing to Niagara Falls (astoundingly intimidating), a visit to a superb book store on the Six Nations Reservation specialising in Indigenous books (check out Good Minds, it’s awesome) and generally soaking up the world that is Hamilton. Then, into Toronto for a few days (big thanks to Mel & Elaine for the bed in the basement) to hang out with Russell, Carolyn & Alice, to eat well (including some superb Indonesian street food), indulge Toronto’s cultural activities, catch up with Janelle and spend too much time writing lists of books I’ll never get to read…
The adventure continued out on the west coast, with a weekend in Vancouver visiting the fabulous Museum of Anthropology at UBC, wandering through and around Stanley Park, an afternoon chewing the fat with Rob and generally enjoying one of my favourite cities. A short boat ride later, there I was in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, taking up space in Rob & Nic’s spare room, meandering the mid-Island area, talking PhD thesis with Rob and sitting in on a fascinating meeting at Vancouver Island Uni on the establishment of a Faculty of Indigenous Studies. I have to confess to deep envy of those who live in this part of the Island (or in my limited experience, most parts of the Island). The Canadian jaunt finished with a week or so in the greater Victoria area at Christine and Al’s – as the kids slowly worked out who this odd guy in the spare room was. There’s nothing like the relaxing good company of good chums to replenish and recharge, or the chance to engage with worlds that are not quite our own to be reminded of the multiple ways of seeing and making sense of what’s going on around us. It was also refreshing to get up to UVic and see the First Nations house right in the middle of campus, most excellent to spend the afternoon chewing the fat with Emma, take in an evening of football (I’m still grappling with the irony of the group of Indigenous women offering the middle aged white guy – me – the bottle of cinnamon flavoured whiskey, as colonialism bites back) and alarming to visit a worryingly retrograde museum.
From there it was off to Boise for my annual outing to the North American Society for Sports History conference. Boise was a pleasant surprise (my stereotypes of Idaho were slightly dented – but I note that university towns and capital cities tend to be a little more open). There’s great food (including a fab evening at Fork with Russell and Carly), a wonderful local bookshop, and a relaxed college town vibe about the city centre, and it is only an hour or so drive from the Rockies.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of the travel. There was a week in Prague at the end of June for the 5th Philosophy at Play conference (the first we’ve not organised in Cheltenham or Gloucester), this year themed around play & democracy. It was great to be in Prague with a posse including Wendy and Colin, and to join in a pro-democracy rally with several hundred thousand other people in Letna Park. Then, a few weeks later, it was off to Madrid for another sports history gig, where I took an apartment with Russell in a part of the city I really like and spent an awful lot of time on public transport getting to the venue well out of town, but it was worth it for the apartment location.
There endeth my travel adventures – nothing too exotic this year, and less time than I’d usually spend with Rupert & Hayley in London, with their house out of commission for six months while they added a floor and extended the ground floor, but I made up for the absence by getting up several times in November and December, including at Xmas when Melissa and Grace were also visiting: a fine end to the year in most excellent company.
Of course, as I’ve been ‘resting between engagements’ there was lots of time for a cultural life, with a big hole made in the to-read pile, but before that, some excellent gigs. I was disappointed to miss the local jazz festival this year (in Canada) and an appearance by the superb Kandace Springs. Three gigs really stood out, with visits to the world of Rhiannon Giddens in January (in Glasgow) and November (in London). The January gig, part of Celtic Connections, featured her solo with an orchestra backing, while the November gig was a trio of two multi instrumentalists and a bass player. In the middle, in March, I kept the former Carolina Chocolate Drops theme running with a great Leyla McCalla gig for her Capitalist Blues album – admittedly a bit of a banjo theme there.
As to the top books read, this was tough (plenty of time, lots read) and surprisingly not a lot of fiction although Rachel Siffert’s The Dark Room, three novellas of German experiences of WW2, including the one that gave us the superb movie Lore in 2012. That said, my two absolute outstanding book were forms of the fictional (one a novel in verse, one a collection of spoken word poetry).
- Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X is a superb YA novel in verse form about a young poet struggling to manage the demands of her everyday urban existence. (She’s a stunning poet, check her out.)
- Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan came to the public eye for many when she won the Roundhouse slam in 2017 with her fabulous ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’, the final piece in her collection Postcolonial Banter (it opens with her piece from the heats of that event, about audience vouyeurism and poets exposing themselves for our pleasure). This collection is outstanding, showing her to be both a fabulous poet and increasingly, to my mind, one of the UK’s most important public intellectuals (if one who speaks in verse).
These two stood out not only as fine books, as ones I’ll revisit, often. Then, in alphabetical order I managed to whittle well over two books a week down to eight more to praise sing over:
- Tithi Bhattacharya’s edited collection Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression demands that we rethink and rework the relationships between feminism, Marxism, oppression and ways of engaging critically with contemporary gender relations as systems of social reproduction. It’s far from an easy skip-through by the pool, but it is one of the most pressing critical texts I have read in long time.
- Will Bishop’s Pinstripe Nation: The New York Yankees in American Culture shows us what a melding of social and cultural histories of sport in/and popular culture can do: it is quite outstanding.
- Nick Estes’ Our History Is The Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance takes us into the struggle at Standing Rock that came to high profile in 2016 as case of Indigenous resistance to land loss and desecration, to the depredations of Big Oil and explores it as a case in the long struggles of the people of Oceti Sakowin, the people we call Sioux, against colonial occupation.
- David Featherstone, Christopher Gair, Christian Høgsbjerg and Andrew Smith’s edited Marxism, Colonialism, and Cricket: C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary takes papers from a conference exploring CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary – one of the key texts of sports history and postcolonialism to give us a major reassessment of a major text. It’s admittedly fairly specialist, but a profoundly important collection.
- bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, the oldest (and re-read) on this list is one of my basic texts about teaching. Every teacher, every academic should read it.
- Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh challenge us in On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analyses, Praxis to think and rethink pluriversality and the multiplicity of global stories, it is an excellent example of collegial, open scholarship that we need more of.
- Priyamvada Gopal rewrites the history of empire in Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. It is vital reading in contemporary Britain, and beyond.
- Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward is drawn from the text of her 2018 Massey lectures exploring Indigenous well-being; it is essential reading to get a handle on contemporary Indigenous lives.
Not exactly light and chirpy reading in 2019 I’m afraid.
While I was in Glasgow on January I took in a movie (and discovered the wonder that is the Glasgow Picture House) that utterly blew me away. On Her Shoulders is a biographical film about Nadia Murad Basee Taha (2018 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner) that tells the story of the genocide waged against the Yazidi people in Iraq through her story as a survivor of sex slavery – and it is potent, empathetic and at times harrowing. There is a moment in it where, in the course of an interview she gets a wistful look on her face and says “You know, I wish you’d known me because I was a great athlete; I wish you’d known me because I was a great farmer; I wish you’d known me because I was a great make-up artist.” – simply superb. Nothing I have seen in an awfully long time comes anywhere hear it as a film to praise sing about.
As I’m looking at these lists, it is very much a year where women writers, musicians and film makers have dominated my cultural world – and the highest rotate 10 albums are also all by women.
No-one should be surprised to know that Rhiannon Giddens tops my list. Much as I love her album There is No Other with Francesco Turrisi, the album that has totally wowed me is her collaboration with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell (formerly of Po’Girl) and Amythyst Kiah as Our Native Daughters, with the album Songs of Our Native Daughters
And the other eight in alphabetical order
- Patty Griffin Patty Griffin is packed full of the kind of thing we’ve come to adore her for – lyrical and powerful melodies, as seen in ‘Where I Come From’
- Kaia Kater’s Grenades draws on her father’s experiences as a refugee from the overthrow of the Grenadan revolution; the title track is a mournful, punchy RnB inflected ballad.
- I get grumpy when ‘world music’ means ‘something not in English’, so was delighted to discover that Angelique Kidjo’s global reach in late 2018 (I got this at the end of 2018) included a full cover of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Remain in Light is a spectacular album, unsettling because we know it so well, yet don’t – as in ‘Houses in Motion’
- If you’ve not encountered Little Simz, shame… she’s one of two spectacular young women doing great stuff out of London (the other is Ray Blk, who only releases on-line). Her album Grey Area fizzes. The collaboration with Michael Kiwanuka ‘Flowers’ is gorgeous, and delightfully inverts male rapper, woman singer dynamic of some much music.
- I’ve already praised Leyla McCalla, and Capitalist Blues is a great album, with a great title track.
- Angel Olsen’s third album (in my collection, anyway) All Mirrors sometimes makes me think Sharon van Etten and Dusty Springfield mind melded, at least in the title track. Elsewhere, as in ‘Lark’ there’s quite different vibe.
- It took quite a while to engage with Amanda Palmer’s There Will be No Intermission but when I did, I was pleased I had, including the musical intensity of ‘Drowning in the Sound’ to the politically unsettling, intense ‘Voicemail for Jill’.
- Since Rupert pushed it into my hand last week, I have listened to pretty much nothing but Sudan Archives –I’d seen her on the telly a few weeks ago with ‘Confessions’ and the entire album Athena is spectacular – she might make my top ten next year as well.
So, an all over the place year, but one that in the wake of the politics we’re living with and the alarming prospect for the UK in 2020, I find myself revisiting Percy Bysshe Shelley, 200 years ago, in ‘England in 1819’
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King
Princes the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, – mud from the muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel now know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless – a book sealed;
A Senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed –
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
We live in hope…..
Let’s kick some butt in 2020!
For the last few years I have done one of those irritating end-of-the-year meanders through stuff that happened; I’ve normally tried to get it out about New Year’s Day, but held off a few days this time to mark another end – but more of my working life below….. For me it has very definitely been a ‘year of two halves’ (accepting that those halves were not quite equal) which might intensify the sense I have living in a time of crisis, but then there seems to be a widespread view that we’re in a time of crisis so perhaps I’m just in sync with the rather battered world around me.
In last year’s meanderings I noted Antonio Gramsci’s observation on the 1930s that “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters” – and while the monsters still hold much power (and have won more – Bolsano in Brazil, for instance) they’ve also suffered some setbacks as the being born world scored some minor but notable victories. I suspect, though, that it is telling how fragile some of those victories seem when lefties like me get excited by a handful of US Congressional victories – although we should not underestimate the significance of Native American and Muslim women (one a headscarf wearer) in that institution, but the panic of the right at the political profile of one young woman from New York City shows just fragile their egos are.
More than the US though I have been taken by the weirdness that is British politics, as the Tories tear themselves apart over an unachievable goal, as Labour hangs on to the increasingly obvious fantasy that it can 1) force a general election and 2) be sure of winning it and as many in the political elite pretend to be able to redefine and reshape the constitutional configuration of the UK by undoing 40 years of work in half a dozen chats around a table in Brussels. At the same time, others in that elite seek to destroy whatever perilous, precarious security the UK’s dispossessed can hang on to by adopting what seems to be a ‘fuck ‘em’, we can rebuild the Empire as it never was and rule the world. Now, I’m no fan of the EU – it is a set of neoliberal institutions hanging on a defunct ideology and setting rules on the basis of some dystopian, misanthropic view of the world rather than considering a long term vision of social justice and wellbeing. That said, the kinds of leaving the EU options the UK is faced with are all worse than staying, but that doesn’t stop some on the left falling into form of the old ‘heighten the contradictions and build a movement for change out of misery’ argument. The whole thing has revealed the ineptitude of the British ruling class – with the one exception of the smoke and mirrors trick that makes it someone else’s fault.
All in all it comes down to the monsters still calling the shots – Trump’s megalomania depriving people of their livelihoods for the emperor’s new clothes on the Southern border, Bolsano’s reactionary class politics, misogyny, racism and homophobia, Modi’s not-quite fascism, Orban’s fascism but we’re not calling it that, Duterte’s regime based in state sponsored murder and terror, Putin’s fantasy of restored greater Russian Empire. No wonder we’re feeling bleak – except we’re surrounded by people doing great things to build local strength, power and connections. And I haven’t even mentioned climate change, or having a shower in Cape Town (remember the water restrictions).
It’s hard not to look beyond the language of Power and see forces resisting reaction. In some cases, paradoxically, these forces are part of the state – think of the US states that continue to work towards globally agreed emissions targets to limit climate change (they’re probably not enough, but when the Federal Government denies human causation, this resistance seems progressive) or recent decisions in London and Greater Manchester to, in effect, prevent fracking. I take hope from Syria’s Kurds, who despite the on-going relentless assault, continue to build an inclusive, democratic political entity (I daren’t call it a state), as well as from the 30 or so artists from around the world who donated works for a fund raising auction organised by the crew at Labour Behind the Label. I take even more hope from and have enormous respect for Kayla Morris, a cheerleader for the 49ers who ‘took the knee’ at a match in early November, although none of the media outlets I have seen could name her until the next day – which tells pretty much we need to know about why what she did matters so much.
So, we take our victories when we can – like the Guardian naming Khadija Shaw as its footballer of the year, perhaps a sign that some things definitely are changing for the better.
It’s also been a year of big change for me. My now former university finally fessed up to being in financial strife (they blame unexpectedly low enrolments linked to a slump in the number of 18 year olds over a 3-4 year period due to low birth rates in the late 1990s and early 200s – but I am not sure that not preparing for something we’ve known about for 18 years is a ringing endorsement of management and planning!) and imposed severe funding cuts over the next few years (again, those responsible for the problem seem to believe they can be trusted to fix it). That meant, in my School, six academic posts disappearing, including mine – so after 18 years I get shunted out the door with a sizeable go-away cheque. Watching what has happened, more to others than me, has taught me a lot about how not to manage change at both a systems and humane level (for instance, in my case 10 of those 18 years were in posts classified senior management, including quite close work with several members of the current university executive who made the final decisions about which posts would go: in the 5 months between being put ‘at risk’ and leaving the only comment any of those people have made to me about being made redundant is the one who has agreed to write references when I have asked if that’s OK. If they’re ashamed of the position they’ve put us in they should just suck it up and at least be humane; if they’re not ashamed it is clear that they’ve turned into sociopathic bosses of the worst order holding their staff in contempt – and yet some still have the audacity to refer to those staff as ‘colleagues’). OK, so I am angry at their ineptitude and callousness – but I’ve also got a year’s (take home) pay, a pretty strong CV and at least getting interviews in about ¼ of the applications I make; I’m a damn sight better off than many in my position. I’ll admit at times it got a bit overwhelming – in part the paradox of being told I was surplus to requirements while people across the institution came to me with the ‘oh, before you go will you just….’ requests – and I shut down on a couple of projects where I had commitments so have some relationship repair to do there – apologies to those for whom I missed obligations/expectations. Please know also that I have appreciated expressions of comradeship, solidarity and support from far and wide, those job ads I wouldn’t otherwise have seen and quite expressions of good will – I doff my (imaginary) cap in thanks.
Despite all that malarkey, I had some crackingly good adventures including a couple of superb gigs. The first was a late night turn at a lovely art deco restaurant (and former cinema) around the corner from home, where Cherise Adams-Burnett turned on a late night set of 50s and 60s jazz standards keeping me utterly captivated until well into the small hours: it was a great, politically savvy performance. Then a couple of days later I was across town for a brilliant, unexpected performance by a young Estonian pianist Kadri Voorand who was not just a great musician but a phenomenal performer, engaging, funny and given what seemed to be a penchant for extemporisation a challenge for her band. Then later on the same day I took in a big, blistering gig by Imelda May, rockabilly performer turned T Bone Burnett produced songstress.
If the Jazz festival gave me my best gigs, the local Literature Festival saw me soaking up some sharp cultural commentaries: I heard the impressive Elif Shafak and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche discussing their work, politics and making change. The festival began for me with a blistering poetry performance by Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird – reminding me of the wonder and power of the word.
There was, as always, some travel
- Starting in Gibraltar, for a trip I had intended to make in December for a session with PhD students at the University there as part of their research training programme. I was then back in Gibraltar in July to lead their PhD student summer school, developing discussions and ideas around research ethics and integrity (they seem to like me out there, and have just recruited me to the Research & Research Degrees Committee – but alas I attend virtually, as one of a small group on screen in the meeting room)
- February saw a two day outing to Crewe for a conference prompting lots of musing on my scholarly field.
- Then in April it was off to Olomouc for a teaching week (wonder if that’ll happen again?) and some R&R Prague the week before.
- May then saw my big outing for the year, to Winnipeg for a sports history conference which went well, as they usually do – but more importantly for a few days beforehand a small workshop exploring questions of the decolonisation of sports history and its potential in indigenous struggles. There were about 10 of us as authors with a couple of others attending – and it was one of the best academic events I have had the pleasure of being part of, in part because of the links to the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation, in part because of our location in the Indigenous Studies Centre and in large part because of the comradeship, collegiality and generousness of all participants. It’s the kind of thing scholarship should be about with a big up to Janice, Christine, Russell and Murray for organising and hosting.
- July took me to the NZ Studies Assn conference in Aviero, Portugal (where I delivered a keynote lecture) allowing me a short break in Porto, a town I have become smitten by, I suspect in part because of the fabulous Festival of St Joāo that happened the weekend I was there, as the whole central old town became a party zone, and a sidetrip to Nazare, of the giant waves. It was summer, there were no waves.
- July also took me another sports history conference in Műnster, along with a brief visit to Amsterdam along the way for dinner at the stunning Guts & Glory (thanks Russell for arranging the dining experience of the year).
- Then I was supposed to go to Ashley & Zach’s wedding at Lake Tahoe in August – but had been put ‘at risk’ of losing my job so figured spending about 30% of my known income, while delightful, was not entirely responsible or prudent – so eased a glass from afar, dammit.
- My last conference outing was the London for the British sports history annual conference.
Since then it’s all been stay home (aside from a day trip to Limerick for a job interview: it was pretty clear at about question 3 that we weren’t what each of us wanted – c’est la vie).
It’s not been a great year for movies for me (I mean, much as I appreciated it I couldn’t finish Black Panther) but there was a standout, admittedly from 2012 (I have a geological sense of timeshifting), in the form of Cate Shortland’s stunning Lore. This exceptional Australian/German co-production is set at the end of WW2. Hannelore’s parents, committed Nazi’s that they were, are taken into custody, and Lore is left with her four siblings to get from the Black Forest to their grandmother near Hamburg, mostly on foot along the way they are joined by a young Jewish refugee, Thomas, who helps them and keeps them alive – causing Lore to confront her hatred of Jews and desire for and appreciation of him. Along the way they deal with true believers, chancers, the terrified and those just getting by. It’s at one level a fine tale of survival against the odds, while also being a superb performance by Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, teetering on the brink of collapse and confronting the genocide – and the slow realisation that one of the soldiers in a concentration camp photo is her father, and what that means. An astounding, beautifully shot film based on Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room and with a stunning soundtrack. Watch it!
Which brings me to the ‘what I read and loved’ element, trying to pick a top ten.
At the top of the list is Allan Downey’s fabulous The Creator’s Game: Lacrosse, Identity, and Indigenous Nationhood exploring lacrosse, that quintessential marker of Canadianness, from an indigenous, largely Hodinöhsö:ni’ perspective. He is careful not to deal with ‘longhouse’ lacrosse but with the game as marked by settler society, and gives a book that enriches and challenges our understandings of sport in colonies of settlement, of the cultures of colonialism and ways of writing sports history. I can’t sing its praises enough.
Then in no order other than when I read them
- Patrick Wolfe’s Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race builds a comparative history of race and settler relations drawing on evidence from Australia, the USA, Brazil and histories of Jewish Europe as well as comparative colonial histories of the USA and Israel/Palestine, and it forced me to significantly reconceptualise my understandings of race and colonialism.
- Gurminder K Bhambra’s Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination is a demanding exploration of the bases of sociological theory in modernity; admittedly a specialist text but one that along with her Connected Sociologies as well as some others in this year’s list has produced on my part some serious theoretical reconsideration of many thing.
- Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix is a brilliant AfroFuturist novel that wowed me in a way science fiction hasn’t for a long, long time.
- Walter D. Mignolo’s The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options is a key piece in decolonial writing (and linked to Bhambra’s and Wolfe’s work above and several other books this year); again demanding but for my work at least a big hitter.
- Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial & Kerem Nişancioğlu (eds) Decolonising the University is a great collection of essays exploring ways that we might transform not only the curriculum but also learning and teaching in a spirit of social justice.
- Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City is one of the most harrowing things I have read in many years, unravelling the parlous circumstances of indigenous students at school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is an important reminder that awful as the residential schools were, the oppressions of colonialism were not back then but continuing.
- Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls continues the indigenous writers theme (I didn’t realise it was quite so big this year) with a fine novel set in the 1920s about an indigenous woman who sets out to recover her land from an unscrupulous timber magnate by taking a job as a servant in his house – and then it all goes haywire.
- Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life is a continuation of a line of analysis she has been developing for some time, building on her idea of a feminist killjoy. Here she explores the everydayness and limitation on and of struggle in a theoretically and practically rich text that will merit much revisiting.
- Felicity Barnes develops a decided postcolonial history of settlement and empire in New Zealand’s London: A Colony & Its Metropolis tracing multiple forms of settlement and vision of London as economically, culturally and socially constructed as a part of New Zealand through the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming is a sweeping tale of enslavement and ‘Africanness’ told through the descendants of Ghanaian half-sisters, one enslaved, one not. It is eloquent, elegant and thoroughly engaging – even though each character probably deserves a volume of their own.
Yet these barely scratch the surface of the ‘oh, so many great things’ this year, which brings me to music and what’s been on high rotate.
My listening has been dominated by two albums:
- Kandace Springs’ Indigo, her second album. When I saw her last year I wondered if I was getting as close as I ever would to a Roberta Flack gig; turned out it was. I cannot get enough of this.
- A close second, and only because it has only been out for a few weeks is Eliza Shaddad’s fabulous 1st album (there are 3 EPs): I saw her support Rhiannon Giddens a few years ago and was really impressed on a hot June evening in Islington Town Hall. The album is wonderfully swirly indie guitar pop. How could I not?
Then there have been a bunch of others that have shunted aside so much that I love.
- There is Arcade Fire’s Everything Now all full of big sounds and plenty of toe tapping!
- Along came the second Christine & The Queens album
- For those of us who like our reggae all rootsy, Hollie Cook’s Vessel of Love is the thing
- Elsewhere, in a list where women with guitars are a major force this year (as they often are) there’s Alela Diane’s gorgeous Cusp (although here with piano).
- Then First Aid Kit had a new album, so of course it’s been thrashed.
- Just when it looked all swirly girly, along came Ezra Furman – because every list needs angsty alt-boy.
- And for some widening of horizons the gramophone list took me to west Africa (via London) with Ibibo Sound Machine fronted by the fabulous Eno Williams, here including her mum as a backing singer.
- Staying in west Africa, I’ve been taken by Imarhan’s new album Azzaman for its beats and rhythms and sense that in places that this is what Tuareg grunge might sound like.
- And while in the region, perhaps 2018’s most delightfully postcolonial album – Angélique Kidjo covers Talking Heads on Remain in Light: it was just pipped for the top two by only coming out in November.
- I was pleased to discover Lake Street Dive, with an insistence on being a good kisser.
- Then there is Janelle Monáe, who is so far up my must-see-live list – and who said music can’t be politically savvy and fun, and flip the bird to the MAGA crowd.
- And then there are those artists whose work just keeps on giving – and I know it is several year’s old but I’ve been thrashing Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Power in the Blood, packed full of potent pieces
- While alphabetically the last only, I’d thought Tower of Power had gone the way of so many 70s bands – but it turns out they’re still around doing great stuff on the Soul Side of Town.
All the while and along the way there has been good cheer and company in the form of curry nights, pub sojourns, decadent brunches and hedonism. Edited along with good chums and fine scholars Wendy Russell and Emily Ryall, The Philosophy of Play as Life was published, and signed a contract for a fourth collection of essays due late in 2019.
Despite all the turmoil and repeated attacks on those disempowered by the world order, amid the xenophobia and in the contested power of those whose power relies on denigration we’ve also seen amazing acts of solidarity.
Keep kickin’ butt
What started out several years ago as a brief review of what and where, a kind of end of the year stocktake/note to self has rather turned into a bit of a monster….
In the buddy of this meander written at the end of 2015 I mused on the god-awfulness of the world and rather hoped things might get better. Well, on so many measures they did not: people continued to die by the hundreds crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety; bombs continued to explode and shootings continued in public squares, halls, churches and mosques, as barrel bombs rained down on east Aleppo and drones fired missiles into Sanaa wedding parties; as a global balance of power continues to shift in a way that seems more and more uncertain we’re confronted by a series of resurgent nationalisms many of which verge on the neo-fascist. It’s not that this tendency to virulent nationalism/communalism is all that new – think collapsing Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Rwandan genocide from the same era, the slow but steady growth in confidence of the hard right and neo-fascism in central and western Europe over the last 20 years, the election of the Modi government in India (on the back over 20 years reactionary activism from the BJP): all signs of the continuing closing of the minds of many to the Other. The emergence of powerful reactionary nationalisms in the UK and the US, with growing support elsewhere in Europe and East Asia is an extension of this trajectory, although with reactionary nationalism now in power in the US and Russia and powerful in the UK, Germany and France (the image of armed police making a woman take off clothing is one that I cannot get away from) my neighbourhood doesn’t feel so pleasant.
These are times when I return to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who encouraged us to adopt pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will: or expect the worst, and hope for the best. So, I continue to see the good around me – the Kurdish experiment an anarchist social structure in northern Syria and Iraq that continues despite the best efforts of the Turkish and Syrian régimes and the battlefield opponents of Da’esh (aka ISIS). I see it in the thousands of new activists encouraged by Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly powerful campaign for the Democrat’s presidential nomination (oh, how things might have been different), in the US campaigners who refuse to normalise the reactionary Trump régime, in the mass support for activists at Standing Rock resisting the petrochemical industry, defending their territory and providing a beacon for those of us who have a different vision of a good world order from that held those currently in or entering power. The challenge of the times will be seeing beyond our comfort zones, making alliances that weaken the purity of political vision, settling on areas of compromise and the terms of a shared vision, but while also shifting the limits of acceptable politics – meaning we on the left need to get better at strategy and tactics, long and medium term visions and being aware of the many options for paths to betterment. Optimism is a challenge here, of course – I am heartily sick of those discussions and debates (and book reviews) that spend most of their time telling us what’s wrong with what we’ve just heard or read, and then say – ‘but there is a lot here we can work with’: spell it out dammit! In the midst of all this I found myself joining the Labour Behind the Label Trust, supporting the campaigns for worker’s rights in the fashion and textile industries (and at my second meeting, counting the induction day as the first, becoming the chair). I’ve followed, supported, respected and used the LBL/Clean Clothes Campaign work for years and am delighted to be part of it.
But I digress into a pinko rant: no real surprise there I guess. Amid all this intellectual and political turmoil it has been a messy and unsettled year. A little over a year after I made clear to my powers that be that I wanted out of my management job in favour of one more focussed on teaching and research I finally got there at the beginning of the current academic year, although it was six months from appointment to taking up a new role across several schools in my Faculty. This change, however, did not stop me getting out and about, including several new countries and some serious adventures.
- I took a week long teaching trip to Olomouc in April after a few days leave in Prague. I continue to enjoy Prague very much and relish my time with good work and good friends in Olomouc. But this was the beginning of a frantic few months of flitting about the place.
- About three weeks later I was off on a work trip to Manila and Ho Chi Minh City, exploring possible new academic partnerships for the University (and taking in the first two of several new countries visited in 2016). Manila was the chaotic experience I expected with hours sitting in traffic but good meetings that unfortunately came to nothing; HCMC slightly less chaotic traffic-wise, more productive and we managed to add a weekend to the trip after the meetings/negotiations – I really warmed to the place, was moved by the War Remnants Museum looking in on what we call the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective.
- Then, later in May I was off to the US for a conference in Atlanta (where it was great to see Tracey Bradley) and a few days R&R in Savannah, good food, good times and lovely digs with Mo (Maureen Smith), Russell Field, Pauline Kajiura & Nancy Boshier. Being in Savannah was unsettling – at times I could barely see past the slave economy that allowed it to be created, but we had a superb dining experience at Local 11ten and enjoyed the Sandfly barbeque (and bought the t-shirt). Atlanta gave me the top gig of the year – Marlon Williams supporting Sam Beam & Jessca Hoop – with a big thanks to Tracey for arranging that, and the interweb for allowing Russell and Tracey to coordinate ticket buying and therefore adjacent seats for the gang.
- The end of June saw me heading off to another conference in Paris, and sharing a small but delightful apartment on the 5th with Russell Field and Carolyn Snider, with daughter Alice, as they began a year-long global adventure. We could have been closer to the venue (35 minutes on the RER), but the eastern suburbs were a bit sparse – we did well and the conference pretty good.
- July then saw me in new country #3 for the year with a 10 day teaching assignment in Sapporo, Japan in the Faculty of Education’s post-graduate summer school. It was a programme I got to share with two other excellent staff, one from Finland, one from Australia. Aside from the good company and teaching experiences (the students were from Japan, China, Thailand and Korea) I was delighted to get to spend some time visiting an Ainu community and to take part in a really good seminar exploring issues of worker’s rights in east Asia dealing with migrant workers in Japan, women workers in the Philippines and mobile athletes. I am delighted to have made contacts with Tomonori Ishioka, Mai Yoshida and Chiho Ogaya and hope that we’ll find ways to work on other projects. As fabulous as all this was, the highpoint of the two weeks in Japan was a day trip to Hiroshima – from Tokyo, just under 4 hours each way on the train but well worth it. I could write for days about the place, the experience of standing directly below the place where the bomb went off, the powerful ways that the Japanese people I spent time watching engaged with the memorial park, and the emotional need I felt the next day to visit a Studio Ghibli exhibition in steel and glass Tokyo.
- From there it was straight to a 3 week research trip to NZ. I had intended one week in the archives and two resting and recreating, but it turned into nearly three weeks of archive but great times with assorted kinfolks (consanguineal and fictive) and chums: Melissa, Grace and Mike – who as always were hosts of excellence, Iain and Kate, Neroli, Conal and Bronwyn, Jane, Linnae, Cybèle, Caroline, Emma, Heather and others. The research was not as productive as I’d hoped: that’s the downside of being dependent on what others leave to be archived….. but I did spend altogether too much at Unity books, and could have come back with two cartons instead of the one….
- The most indulgent trip of the year however was a two night visit to Prague to go to the sport and art exhibition I missed by a couple of weeks in April and was about to close – it was a long way to spend six hours at the always impressive modern art space The Dox, but totally worth it in terms of the works I saw, including a potent commentary on sport, spectatorship and idolisation:
- The final outing was a 5 day research trip to the IOC archives in Lausanne to start work in a project I’ve been discussing Francois Cleophas since our initial plans cooked up in Stellenbosch in November 2015. I have returned with a huge number of new documents. It’s all very exciting.
In addition, I have been beetling round the UK for breaks, meetings/conferences (including a few good days in Edinburgh) and to London to see Rupert, Hayley & Rudy.
It’s not all be travel. I’ve soaked up some excellent music. Top gig (as noted) was Marlon Williams, Sam Beam and Jessca Hoop in Atlanta in May, while the other stand out was Caravan Palace, a French electro-swing band paying in Birmingham (big up to Steve for arranging that). Most enjoyable and a rollicking good time though was Sleeping Beauty, the Christmas panto at the Hackney Empire, packed full of great songs, silly jokes and superb performances. Overall though, it has been a slow year for music for me. Highest rotate new album has been
- P J Harvey The Hope Six Demolition Project (continuing thematically from 2011’s Let England Shake) all full of memorialisation, sacrifice and hope
- Sam Beam & Jessca Hoop Love Letter for Fire all full of ethereal, mellow delights
- Marlon Williams’ lovely eponymous debut album
I’ve also been enjoying Patty Griffin’s Servant of Love – she just keeps producing wonderful material, Leyla McCalla’s gorgeous work with her cello, Americana and Haitian ‘folk’ on A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey, Sufjan Steven’s beautiful Carrie and Lowell and Beverly Knight’s return to classic soul in her covers album Soulsville and in the spoken word world I have been blown away by Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos (with thanks to Rupert for a copy of the book – now I can read along). I am looking forward to a whole bunch of great new releases in 2017 – Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff have new albums and tours… here’s hoping for sympathetic diaries on concert dates.
I’ve seen some superb films:
- Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing, excellent film of the novel of child soldiers in an unnamed African civil war – Liberia, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda all come to mind.
- Tits on a Bull is a delightful New Zealand short about a women’s rugby team, and I really liked the NZ short Rising Dust a hip hop ghost film about a young lad in the Hokianga.
- Stand out for the year for me was Songs My Brothers Taught Me filmed on the Pine Ridge Reservation about rodeo, the dreams of a 12 year old girl, played brilliantly by Jashaun St. John, and her desire to make something of herself, and her brother’s struggle with his sense of obligation in the wake of their father’s death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of reservation life, but has care, narrative and grammar that disrupts the fatalism this story so often evokes.
- Equally powerful was Sand Storm about a young woman in Bedouin village in the Naqab/Negev desert whose boyfriend does not fit the family vision, and her struggles to marry for love as the family disintegrates around her. Lamis Ammar, who plays Layla, the lead, is fabulous but for me the stand out was her little sister played by Khadija Al Akel and mother played superbly by Ruba Blal.
- It has been a year for fab movies – with the most beautiful being Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle and perhaps the most poignant being Children of Iron as two Japanese movies that grappled with time, loss, and family.
- And to top it off there was the Disney made sports movie The Queen of Katwe about Uganda’s only chess master and her emergence from the poverty stricken life she lived. It is full of everything we’d expect, but poignant and moving for it (and again with a fabulous young woman lead, Madina Nalwanga).
Of course, there were too many books – not that the pile has got any smaller despite the purchasing embargo (that is failing!)
Top book of the year was Hollie McNish Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood blending journal and poetry to unravel pregnancy and the first two or so years of her daughter’s being. Funny, poignant, punchy and utterly engaging.
It sits alongside my chum Cybèle Locke’s Workers in the Margins: Union Radicals in Post-War New Zealand as most valued reads; Cybèle gives us a trade union history focusing on those whose stories are often passed over – women, Maori and tangata Pasifika workers whose struggles have done so much to shape a socially oriented trade unionism.
In no particular order but that of being read, I enjoyed, relished or learned a lot from:
- Pascal Gielen Creativity and other Fundamentalisms as a series of short pieces exploring the difference between what Gielen calls ‘creativity’ as a subversive, disruptive practice and ‘creativism’ as an ideology of contemporary capitalism – be inventive, but not too inventive.
- Eleanor Catton The Luminaries (I know, the ‘in’ crowd read it before it won the Booker) is a multi-layered, inventive historical murder mystery set around the gold fields of New Zealand’s West Coast in the later 19th century. I didn’t care for (or really get) the astrological elements – but really enjoyed the book as a whole.
- Staying in the South Seas and with books I should have read years ago, Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes is a brilliant intellectual history of the idea of a southern land.
- A new Andrey Kurkov novel is always a treat, as he ventures into a slightly surreal, satirical post-Soviet Ukraine which in The Gardener of Ochakov includes time travel, Soviet era fish markets and a crumbling contemporary existence all wrapped into a tragic-comic tale.
- I managed to get through this so far without mentioning the Olympic Games (but have mentioned the IOC), but Jukes Boykoff’s Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics is a really good exploration of the modern games, linked to a notion of celebration capitalism he has been developing for a while. This was a really fast read on a week long deadline for a review in Red Pepper.
- The only novel by a friend to make this year’s best of list is Karen Brooks’ wonderful The Brewer’s Tale as a powerfully moral story of a woman in late medieval England making the best of her options to hold a household together in the wake of financial disaster and resentful power.
- Jaime Schultz’s Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football should probably be in my top flight list: I had her excellent Qualifying Times there last year. This is timely given the contemporary debates about football injuries in the USA, but more importantly unravels raced and classed ways of remembering and doing in popular culture (in this case, sport) and the ways the tragic is remembered.
- Angela McRobbie’s Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries is an accompaniment in this list to Gielen’s <i>Creativity</i> as she brings an uncompromising eye to work in and the politics of the creative industries in the UK. This is some of the best stuff I have read on the ‘new’ economy for years.
- Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall might just mark the beginning of a fabulous new career. Ganieva is Uzbek, and this novel satirises the politics of the Caucuses as a rumour emerges that Russia is building a wall to keep out the southern Muslim hordes, but no-one has seen the wall – so this becomes a tale of rumour, political shenanigans and a quest for hope.
- Noam Chayut’s The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust: A Memoir is an excellent example of the ‘occupation memoir’ written by former Israeli armed service personnel whose time in the army open their eyes to the realities of their occupation of the West Bank and is an excellent piece of anti-colonial writing.
- I was wowed and unsettled by Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish’s The Radical Imagination: Social movement research in the age of austerity as a research methods book, as a discussion of what it means to be an academic activist/activist academic and the ways that we engage with the people with whom we work.
- Clare Land’s Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles is in a similar area to Haiven and Kashnabish, but in this case she explores what it means as a ‘newcomer’ to support indigenous anti-colonial struggles. Her subtlety and nuance makes this vital reading for activists.
- Finally, J. C. H. King’s lood and Land: The Story of Native North America is a sweeping run across indigenous North America, covering history, politics, art, culture in a synthetic analysis of over 5 centuries of colonisation and many thousands of years more of existence. It was a delight.
Again, I have gone on for far too long. It has been a hell of a year – full of turmoil, excitement, old certainties under threat, new options emerging – and 2017 promises to as much of a bumpy ride, so we’d better hang onto our hats!
I end with the words of Stephen Jay Gould:
And a reminder:
TWTYTW – 2015
What happens when habits become habitual, when for some reason I feel that I can impose the last year one chums who may or may not care to pay attention to an indulgent review of the year that has been, prompted by a change like any other in the time on my clock and a change unlike any other of the final digit in the date – it has become 16 and for some reason we feel a collective need to look back at that that was 15?
It’s hard not to look back at the year that has been, at least from the big picture, and not see something that was pretty bloody awful. Several thousand people drowned in the Mediterranean before Easter, several hundred thousand fleeing war in Syria making sea crossings in tiny boats aiming for the relative safety of Europe, many of whom again did not survive that crossing and those who did finding a continent torn between sympathetic welcome and hatred with resurgent hard right and neo-fascist groups competing with welfare, support and welcomes. Elsewhere we see attacks designed to instil terror in Paris (twice), Charleston, Istanbul, San Bernadino and elsewhere making the news and thousands of others, hate crimes inflicted on people of colour in trains, on the street, on the web and elsewhere. When we put that alongside the violence of the state – in war, at pool parties in McKinney, Texas and countless other cities in the US and in violence by omission as ‘austerity’ policies mean cuts in the services that help bind our communities there are times when it is hard not to be despondent.
But there are moments that help keep that despondency at bay – moments of collective action that shift national political dynamics in Greece, Spain, Myanmar and Nigeria (but don’t get too excited about any of them) and individual acts that force change that collectives found hard to achieve (think Bree Newsome and climb up the flagpole). It is hard in the UK to get too excited about politics; it’s not that I wanted Labour to win the election in May, I just really, really wanted the Tories to noy win, and while Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party offers hope the forces aligned against him are so powerful that much of the struggle risks being focused on keeping him in office rather than building a better political force.
Equally, keeping the despondency at bay have been some of the year’s highlights, and delightfully there have been many of those, starting with summer much of which was spent on a fantastic five week Euro-holiday that just happened to take in a thoroughly memorable wedding. Thanks to a conference in Spilt a whole bunch of chums from all over gathered near the beach for a week or so. For me it started in Dubrovnik (think Game of Thrones film set) for a few days in a fab apartment in the heart of the old town with Russell, Carolyn and Jim where we walked the town walls, took the cable car to the top of Srđ to take in both the medieval fort and get a sense of the experience of the siege during the last war (as I now know to call the end-of-Yugoslavia conflict), bobbed in the sea below medieval town walls and ate some of the most exception food I have had in years (with pride of place going to Restaurant Gverovic-Orsan for seafood of exceptional quality) but it is hard to pass up on the delightful Ćevapi at the Taj Mahal – rather more touristic, but delightful.
Dubrovnik also came with a hell of a storm (as a result of which I renounce any claims to weather-forecasting) leading to an afternoon in a superb wine bar (the aptly named D’vino if you’re in town) with a tasting menu and list to die for including one of the finest deep red wines I have ever had – that I forget the name of, which is annoying because they do mail order….. Being in Dubrovnik and driving to Split meant I get to add Bosnia-Hercegovina to my list of places visited (but for about 12km of coastline only – it hardly counts!). The Croatian experience also took in a week in Split, in the high season – it was stupidly busy but delightful. Again, good food, great wine, good company for socialising with Jim, Russell, Carolyn (briefly) and other gathered for the conference (Mo, Ellen, Francois, Annette and others).
If that wasn’t enough, it was direct to the Dordogne from Split where the whanau had gathered for Rupert’s wedding (deciding not to host us all in London was inspired). We gathered – some in yurts, some in tents, some in houses – for Rupert & Hayley to say their ‘I dos’, for Rudy to make a fair crack at stealing the show with his charmingness and the cheese tower that replaced the cake to be ooed and ahed over.
I can’t speak for others, but I was impressed by Hazel’s speech that seemed to be composed almost entirely of Smiths’ lyrics (and I barely have a nice word to say for The Smiths). It was, all in all, a fine week with the whanaunga topped off by a couple of days in Paris 10, some gallery visiting, city wandering and a superb stand up-to-eat-in-a-broom-cupboard-sized eaterie at L’Avant Comptoir (in Carrefour de l’Odéon – and big thanks to Mike for that one).
Other jaunts away included:
- Amsterdam for a mental health weekend in February, and dinner at Daadler near Westermarkt (thanks for that tip Russell)
- A week teaching in Olomouc and a bit of R&R in Prague
- Miami for a conference (and no desire to revisit despite an excellent night on the town with Pauline, Nancy & Rita)
- Dublin, for a gig (see below)
- Harare (for work)
- Cape Town – well Stellenbosch – cos I was nearby and wanted to catch up with my chum Francois to plan some work.
Work-wise there was the Miami conference, which was pretty good, a sports history gathering in Crewe (didn’t present, just soaked up ideas), the Sport, Politics and Protest gig at the British Library which was fab and Philosophy at Play 3 which we hosted again and I loved. On top of that, the collection of papers for P@P2 finally came out, about which we are really excited.
There have been some good exhibitions: some ethereal and surreal paintings by Kim Novak at the Strahov Picture Gallery in Prague, and while in Prague a fabulous set of photos from New Guinea dealing with cosmology and space travel at the Dox (still one of my favourite contemporary art spaces anywhere) as well as surreal work (some great magnetic sculptures) by Dalibor Chatraý at the Stone Bell House. Making it, finally, to the District Six Museum in Cape Town was a treat, as was the excellent ‘How Near, How Far’ at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. There wasn’t much otherwise: I enjoyed the Pop Art show at the Tate Modern (a fleeting visit while on granddad duty one day) and will head back to the incredibly problematic but worth seeing Artists and Empire at the Tate Britain – a fitting show given the source of the Tate money. But the most haunting image of all was in a photo exhibition in Dubrovnik, of the 1984 Olympic Stadium being used as a cemetery during the siege of Sarajevo.
Live music was dominated for me by Rhiannon Giddens, who I saw twice (during the same tour), once at Islington Town Hall where she was supported by Eliza Shaddad, and once in Dublin where she performed the haunting Factory Girl, rewritten for the post Rana Plaza world – we’re just behind the guy with glasses and whose hands are resting on the monitors at the front of the stage; utterly delightful shows. The other fabulous concert was in Olomouc where the local symphony orchestra (I try to go whenever I am in town) performed with a jazz quartet, Byelorussian accordionist and the woman who sang Piaf in the Prague version of the stage show: utterly unexpected and superb.
While I’m on music, without a doubt my album of the year is Rhiannon Giddens‘ Tomorrow is My Turn, her take on the American song book – all covers but one. It’s an album of great songs, and of them all I think I most like her cover of Dolly Parton’s Trouble Your Mind. That she also appeared on The New Basement Tapes: Lost on the River and Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewellyn Davis’ has also introduced me to a whole bunch of other new music of in a range of styles I’m really enjoying. I’m also wowed by her response to the massacre and the Emanuel AME church in Charleston.
Otherwise and in no particular order the high rotate list has included:
- Frazey Ford: Indian Ocean (as well as her Obadiah) – all mournful slightly jazzy Amerciana (and, yes, I know she’s Canadian)
- Jim White vs. The Packaway Handle Band: Take It Like a Man which is pretty unclassifiable but has bits of bluegrass, alt-country and rockabilly
- Temples: Sun Structures as this year’s psychedelia(ish) entry
- The Delines: Colfax taking us back to alt-something – country, mournfully roots-influenced
- Souad Maasi: El Mutakallimûn (Masters of the Word) for a change in tone, an album of reinterpreted traditional Arabic songs
- The Unthanks: Mount the Air as Northumbrian folk at its finest
- Sharon van Etten: Are We There just cos she is, well, awesome and this year’s Brooklyn-esque entry – I’m not sure if that’s where she’s from but she has the Brooklyn-cool about her
- Eliza Shaddad: Waters/January-March as my Islington Town Hall discovery, two EPs of alt-folkish beauty.
- Ibeyi: Ibeyi for Franco-Cuban soul, which every year needs just a little more of
- Honeyblood: Honeyblood as a bit teenage, Edinburgh girly-guitar pop
- Hollie Poetry: Versus as a bit of spoken word because Hollie McNish’s poetry is superb (see Mathematics and the bloody brilliant Embarrassed – and watch out for the film of Embarrassed Rupert’s crew made late last year.
- Sleater Kinney: No Cities to Love as a return to recording from the finest of the awesome post-riot-grrl sounds (top birthday present Iain).
As with any year I read, a lot, partly helped by long flights, travel and many, many hours on trains and buses. The book list has been hard to cull, especially as there were three absolute standouts – all scholarly books about women – in my list of books I really liked (not necessarily the best I read – there is, or will be, more about each of these at my Goodreads page). Those three, in the order read, are:
Jaime Schultz Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport (now I have to note here that Jaime is a good friend, and I merit an acknowledgement in this). This is a fabulous history of women’s sport with a strong North American focus, told through seven ‘turning points’: the tennis dress (or rather suitable clothing for tennis), the development and acceptability of the tampon, debates over the appropriate forms of or balance between competition or mass participation in women’s sport, sex testing, discourses of a beauty ideal emerging as a backlash against increases in women’s sports participation, the emergence and development of the sports bra and competitive cheerleading. In this Jaime challenges us to rethink models and periodisation in women’s sport.
Ashley Mears Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Mears, a sociologist in Boston, had modelled through school but by the time she got to graduate school had given up. She returned to it for her PhD thesis (the basis of this book) that explores in a critical a nuanced way issues including the precarity of labour, body projects, labour process, cultural value, making gender, the significance of cultural gatekeepers and the functioning of cultural economies.
Emma Tarlo Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith. This is an outstanding ethnography of women whose style of dressing is visibly Muslim providing both the view from within and explanations in terms both of those women and the anthropologist outsider through biographies of dress of the well-known and not so known, through exploration of the politics of the hijab and business and commerce as well as Muslim influences in and on fashion. It is superb.
And in order that I read them
- Richard Wagamese Indian Horse is a chilling tale of being Aboriginal in Canada, of sport, of schooling and of the violence – personal, psychological, social and economic – endured by contemporary First Nations peoples, but with that beautifully told with hope.
- Caroline Knowles Flip Flop: A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads is an exploration of globalisation by tracing the life cycle of a flip flop, from oil fields in Kuwait to processing plants in Korea to manufacture in China and sale and disposal in Ethiopia.
- Bruno Jasieṅski I Burn Paris was originally published in 1928 in Polish and recently translated into English, this is very loosely based in the 1870 Paris commune but a surrealist novel of the 1920s where the smallest thing, a romantic rejection, sparks a revolution.
- Guy Standing A Precariat Charter builds on his previous work to outline a political programme to challenge the current changes in the labour market. Like all good charters it is wonderfully utopian and thoroughly achievable.
- Elif Shafak Honour which is probably my novel of the year (even if it is five years old) about an ‘honour’ killing told from within a Turkish-Kurdish family in London, it manages to be concurrently uncompromising and empathetic. Far from easy, but wonderful.
- Nicholas Mirzoeff How to See the World is a great introduction to visual culture exploring both how we see and how we work and think visually. Mirzoeff has an impressive academic list, but this is directed to a general audience and shows his ability to do big ideas in an accessible manner.
- Snježana Mulić Return explores the effects of the Bosnian war, not by being in it (as Steven Galloway’s Cellist of Sarajevo does) but through the stories of five people of different communities and experience who return to their former homes. Beautiful and as far as I know available only in a small edition from Sarajevo.
- Greil Marcus The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is an atypical rock history that avoids the great man model to explore the networks and threads of styles, motifs, personalities and music associations that weave their way through rock and roll.
- Priya Kuriyan, Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht & Nicole Marie Burton (eds) Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back is a product of the resurgent Indian feminist activism that is the result of appalling sexual violence that has been finally spoken of in public in recent years. Here we have 14 young women graphic artists, some working in narrative styles for the first time, producing impressive stories of micro- and macro-aggression (again, in the interests of transparency, I should point out that I chipped into the Kickstarter campaign for this but am pretty sure that has not influenced my reading).
And finally and in response to continuing ‘market demand’, films. I’ve not watched many I care for this year (which might be a sign of my cantankerousness) and have only two current films to shout about: this might be as a result of the general wonderfulness of the two however. The only thing they have in common is their language – Farsi. The film of the year, perhaps of the decade, is the superb documentary No Land’s Song about an effort in 2011 to stage a concert of women singers in Tehran: there is a shorter version of it under the name Bird of Dawn, but the full thing is worth checking out if you can find it.
The other is the downright and wonderfully odd A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night where Taft & Bakersfield California stand in for an Iranian ghost town, Bad City, home to junkies, prostitutes, pimps and criminals as well as the downtrodden and outcast, and one lonely vampire this becomes a vampire movie, a love story and is packed full of noir and western references – as can be seen in this trailer. During the year I also rewatched Salt of the Earth about a Mexican miner’s strike in the 1950s and The Exiles a haunting movie set in a Native American community in Los Angeles in the early 1960s – both examples of exceptional socially aware film making. And while in the visual media world – I didn’t need anything else on the TV except the 3rd series of The Bridge.
All in all, then, I give you a wrap up of things that in hindsight still matter and that help me understand why some of 2014’s publication deadlines are still to be met. Here’s to 2016/1437/5776, depending on your calendar.
That was 2014
So this review of the year thing has become a habit, with this its fifth iteration – and what a year 2014 turned out to be. The political context became more and more alarming, and more often than not soul-sapping, as governments of every persuasion hacked and slashed at social services and support for the most vulnerable while protecting the obscenely rich, the margins of Europe teetered on the brink of war as linguistic ethnicity trumped sanity in Ukraine while it seems from the outside that the USA scraped away its very thin veneer of racial inclusion, as all the while polar ice caps and glaciers recede and Big Oil sets out to destroy the geological bases of the places we live in with mining techniques that cause earthquakes in Cheshire and create lunar landscapes in Alberta. It’s not all bleak though: the drama and high profile of activist politics of the last couple of years may have abated, but the awe inspiring Idle No More movement across North America took impressive action that raised the profile of issues that have been ignored for too long and it looks as if we might soon have a proper anti-austerity government in Europe if the Greek elections in January go the way polls currently suggest.
Much closer to home, the year also saw me promoted by a generation as Rudy James Stenson Reynolds-MacLean joined Rupert & Hayley’s household in April (and, no, not on the 1st – but only by a whisker) so I’ve been hanging out doing Pops-like things: it’s been a long time since I’ve dealt with crappy nappies, but that’s grandparenthood for you. I also got to introduce an intellectual hero of mine (Gerald Early, a fabulous American Studies scholar) at a conference: please allow me a small moment of academic fandom. A collection of essays Russell Field and I have been editing for about two years finally hit the shelves (in the form of an issue of the journal National Identities) and Wendy Russell, Emily Ryall and I are well on the way to wrapping up another philosophy of play collection of papers. I’m trying also to find my way through Twitter (@malcolmmaxx). Otherwise, there has been a hell of a lot of travel: I probably need to plant a forest (and a really big one at that). These outings took me to:
- Zimbabwe (this was for work),
- Czech Republic (for some teaching and a holiday lolling in a Nove Mêsto (Prague) apartment),
- Colorado (for a conference, and pledge to never fly United again!),
- Paris (for a holiday – all train that one and a great apartment in the 5th),
- Kazakhstan (for work, of course – to Astana waiting for flights, and Aksai, an oil town in the north west near the Russian border: the Business Class upgrade was most welcome on the way home),
- Doha (for a conference and to stay with Mereana and Ben…. who promptly headed off to New Zealand – not that I’m taking it personally), which included an excellent day trip out not a desert full of eerie landforms and
- Florence (for a holiday) and some fantastic, rustic food.
On top of that, there was more time on the north of England than I think I’ve spent in any one year –
- conferences in Liverpool and Leeds (is that North?),
- a work week in Manchester and
- a superb holiday in the Lake District with the whanau (Rupert, Hayley, Melissa, Grace, Roger, Amy) including a fantastic birthday event for Melissa – about which I could rave for days, but will indulgently go for the ear splitting moment of the Tornado (the fighter jet, not the atmospheric event) going past me about 500m away at eye over Ullswater, side on so I could see into the cockpit for the nano-second it was there: breath-taking but not good for the tinnitus.
On top of that, I managed to spend a few days at home……
There have been some great cultural outings – Florence gets to count as one all on its own, but three great live gigs:
- Hurray for the Riff Raff in a basement bar in Hoxton in May, for a wonderful night out (sorry you missed it John)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops in Bristol in September (thanks for the ride Neil)
- Unexpectedly finding a Plastic People of the Universe concert starting as I was standing in the Kampa (in Prague) and even more unexpectedly bumping in a chum from Verona at the same gig
I accept, two resolutely old school-ish Americana, but I am making serious efforts to extend my listening repertoire, complete with D’Angelo as I write this. PPU, of course, being unreconstructed early ‘70s psychedelia can’t really count as Americana.
There has been a bunch of music on high rotate on my (metaphorical) turn-table. Way out front has to be Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes which is getting short listed all over the American media as one of the best of 2014, as is Leyla McCalla’s Vari-colored Songs which I had in my 2013 list (and still have here, because its general release didn’t come until 2014 – so I’m relisting!). Also on really high rotate is First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold (which will come as no surprise) and Valerie June’s (brilliant) Pushin’ Against Stone. I’ve also very much enjoyed Marques Tolliver’s Land of CanAan, Linda Ortega’s Tin Star (as my alt-country entry) and I know it is now several years old but Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is just fantastic; while we’re on the been around a while Amelia Curran’s Hunter Hunter (from 2009) just keeps leaping into the player.
In addition to live gigs, there have been some wonderful exhibitions, including 20th century political posters at the always-worth-it DOX in Prague but more unexpectedly in the same week a series of photos of Czech RAF air crews during World War 2 (at the Strahov Monastery – Strahovský klášter) in Mala Strana. Florence was absolutely captivating, with a great collection of work by women fashion designers and figures at the Palazzo Pitti, finally getting to see Artemsia Gentelischi’s Judith and Holofernes in all its brutal glory and her Mary Magdalene (at the Pitti – and damned hard to get a good look at), but the city itself (and Siena for a day trip) count as an exhibition.
It’d not be a year of mine without lots of reading, and with all that travel there was an awful lot this year, making it hard to cull a list to the ones I really liked (not necessarily the best I read). There were two standout books for me in 2014, both kinds of biography (there is more about each of these at my Goodreads page)
Rachel Holmes Eleanor Marx: A Life is without a doubt my book of the year. Eleanor (Tussy), the youngest of the Marx sisters, has for too long been by-passed and this marvellous biography does an awful lot to put her back into her central role in the late 19th century British socialism, as well as providing us with an excellent history of the socialist and workers’ movements of the era.
Mike Marqusee The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer is a less obvious kind of biography. This collection of essays Marqusee has written since his diagnosis in 2007 with multiple myeloma both about living with cancer, as much as a set of cultural assumptions and expectations as medical issues, but also about the NHS, a working public health system that needs a constant struggle on our part to defend. This is no typical cancer memoir, but is a spirited set of politically charged essays.
Then in the order I read them my best of list is:
Charlotte Macdonald Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960 is a marvellous history of gender, physical activity, nation and health during the mid-20th century. I like its comparative sense, its highlighting of diversity (the issues concerning Maori and First Nations in New Zealand and Canada) and the subtle way common threads are unpicked in nationally distinctive ways.
Gil Adamson The Outlander is one of only two novels in this year’s best of (and they are both Canadian and not 2014 publications). This moving novel deals with a woman escaping an abusive relationship in southern Manitoba in the early 20th century, tracing her flight across the prairies and into the Rockies; its treatment of the frontier, of gender and of what appears to me to be mental health is nuanced and engaging, and what’s more, it is a damn fine adventure story.
Jules Boykoff Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games deals with the political economy of the Olympic Games (and I accept is not for everyone). He explores the Games as a factor in late capitalist, neo-liberal politics and in doing so demands that we reconsider mega events.
Gillian Poulter Becoming Native in a Foreign Land: Sport, Visual Culture and Identity in Montreal, 1840-85 which again is not a 2014 title but I came to it very late. She is an art historian by training who has used her art history skills to explore the political and visual cultures of mod-19th century Canada’s appropriation of Native physical culture – snow shoeing, tobogganing, lacrosse and so forth – to allow settlers to claim Canadianness. It is a superb piece of historical scholarship that should probably have been in my best of headlines.
Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray The Decadent Sportsman is a brilliant parody of sports history and athleticism, and far too complex to try to sum up here (so see my review here)
Phil Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics; I know, another Olympics book, and this one quite different to Boykoff’s; this a wonderful exploration of the Olympics in London (2012) that turns around the stories London tells about itself and about its East, and then looks at how those stories link to the range of stories that emerge from those games, not just the festival in summer of 2012, but the years of development and building and that aftermath. Quite academic, I accept, but one of my favourite Olympics books.
Joseph Boyden Three Day Road is my other novel, also not from 2014 and also Canadian. This is the story of a First Nations disabled veteran of WW1 travelling up river and home, weaving together the reconnection with the land and the place with his experiences at the Flanders frontline, it is harrowing and engaging and rich and beautiful.
Philip Mirowski Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown deals with one of the great paradoxes of recent events; neoliberal approaches were directly responsible for the great financial meltdown of 2008, yet 5 years later it seems stronger than ever. Mirowski, an economic and intellectual historian, explores neoliberalism not as an only ideology but as a political movement.
Tony Collins Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History does exactly what it says on the tin, considers sport as a product of and producing contemporary capitalism. It is a superb treatment of sports history since the mid-19th century and while confrontational in its approach to the field (historians are, after all, practitioners of incremental knowledge development) challenges many of the takens-for-granted of my patch’s professional work, and what’s more is both fairly short and thoroughly accessible.
Kristin Lawler The American Surfer: Radical Culture and Capitalism deals with one of the most romanticised of all physical cultural practices, surfing to deal with the paradox of its appropriation by corporate culture and its continuing resistance of that appropriation.
Brett Hutchins & David Rowe (eds) Digital Media Sport: Technology, Power and Culture in the Network Society is without a doubt the most academic title in this year’s best of…. This is a fantastic collection of essays exploring sport, media and digital cultures, and is fantastic!
Naomi Klein This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change I finished almost at the end of the year. This is just the thing for the worn out lefty in me – aware that climate change (and with it our survival) is the most important thing we have to deal with, but more than just a little overwhelmed by it all. Not only does she clearly lay out the issues, but focusses on those campaigns big and small that are developing successful responses.
I’m sorry that there are not more novels on the list – I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Buket Uzuner’s The Long White Cloud <-> Gallipoli, Zoran Ferić’s The Death of the Little Match Girl, Amulya Malladi’s The Sound of Language and Wajdi Al-Ahdal’s A Land Without Jasmine but had to draw the line somewhere.
As to films… it hasn’t been a great year for film watching for me, but I enjoyed The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a very silly French adventure outing, loved Kick-Ass (finally), Destination Gobi from 1953 starring Richard Widmark and have to ‘fess up to having Frozen on that list… as I said, not much of a film year.
So, a partial summary, a wrap up of things that in hindsight still matter and a helpful reminder of why it is I feel so bloody tired and have seriously missed some publication deadlines. Here’s to a cracking 2015 (or 1436 or 5775 or whatever your calendar says it is).
I write this musing that an effect of a decision by a Pope quite some time ago that meant that November became October leads to me taking some time out to reflect on the change in the last digit in the date…..2013 is over according to the calendar I follow, 2014 is here not that the tick of the clock at midnight means anything other than another period of time we’ve agreed equals a second has gone by, but the year ends, another begins and I seem to have developed a habit of saying some things about what I did, read, saw, listened to and other stuff.
So, 2013 was the year I ventured into the blogipeligo on a vaguely regular basis, ventured to the Atlantic seaside in Canada, the Adriatic seaside in Croatia and for a first, had a conference presentation postponed because of the weather (a typhoon in Taiwan), loved the French ‘zombie’ series ‘The Returned’, had a very-pleased-with edited with good chums Wendy Russell and Emily Ryall book of essays about the philosophy of play come out and Rupert and Hayley set out to change my generational status. The politics of the year, I have to confess, have rather overwhelmed me as crisis and carnage seems relentless and the hopes we clung to with Occupy, something that resembled progressive change in North Africa and the glorious occupations of space in Spain and Greece turned to the long slow slog of building political change while the powers that be revert to business as usual while never letting a good crisis go to waste. But amid all that political bleakness there has been big progress in campaigns to improve working conditions in the clothing industry, although it did take the deaths of at least 1129 people in a building collapse for many of the big clothing chains to the shamed into action.
On, then, to a list of notables….
- Best day out: a meander down the Nova Scotia coast with Russell, taking in Peggy’s Cove, Chester and an outstanding scallop and bacon Po’ Boy in a café overlooking the harbour at Lunenberg – it is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world that merits a return
- Best restaurant discovery: The Wooden Monkey, in downtown Halifax – local food, well prepared with clean flavours in a laid back setting; I was in town for ten days, ate there three times….. what more can I say?
- Best single food item: Brachia olive oil, from Brać, one of Croatia’s many islands off the Dalmatian coast – it has a mind blowing peppery flavour and one of many fine reasons to revisit the area
- Favourite new town: this has to be Stari Grad on Hvar (the island next to Brać) where there has been a settlement for about 2400 years and the field around are world heritage listed, but the town itself is all small streets, stone buildings and utter gorgeousness
- There was an excellent week teaching research methods (I know, not a statement many would make) in a forest retreat in the Czech Republic, working with Geoff Kohe and Jim Parry in a full week immersion course packed full of learning by game playing and the presentation of a research project that showed that academics and smurfs respond to stress in a similar manner
- Prague’s marvellous Dox gallery has once again given me one of the art moments of the year, in a fabulous show of work by Krzystof Wodiczko about being on the margins (I forget the title of the show) that included a chilling piece where the faces of Roma youth from Šluknov Spur – a town that has been the site of considerable anti-Roma violence – talking about the experience of living with the constant fear of attack were projected onto the busts of 7 of the iconic figures of Czech nationalism: Karel Havelček Borovský, Eliška Krásnohorská, Bedřich Smetana, T. G. Masaryk, Josef Jungmann, Frantisek Palacký and Božena Němcová (so it probably helped to know a little Czech history, but even not having a full understanding of what these young Roma were saying the piece packed a real punch – and I have been coming back to it in recent weeks as complaints have begun to grow about the large number of Slovakian Roma living in Sheffield). I’d not seen Wodiczko’s work before; much of it is performance and film based but worth checking out.
- The other eye opener of an exhibition was the George Bellows show at the Royal Academy – I knew his work only for his boxing paintings (which are brilliant) but the oeuvre is brilliant, expressive and rich, as the did-I-really-pay-that-much-for-a-catalogue catalogue attests.
- As to gigs, there was a blast from the 1970s past outing to see Rodriguez with Rupert and a fine evening with Jane and Tara ever so slightly in awe of Patty Griffin.
Amid all of this I have read, listened and watched, and have a few cultural and intellectual highlights (apologies to those of you who hate lists). So, starting with some books only in the order in which I read them – there is more at my Goodreads page – http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5860800:
Hans Keilson – Comedy in a Minor Key: from my local charity shop, this brilliant little novel finds a way to take us inside this inconceivable event by telling the story of a suburban Dutch couple who hide a Jew in their house (a refreshingly common event in occupied Holland). Keilson has a sparse writing style that effectively maintains tension and suggests the mundanity of the threat; this is a treat of a book.
Joseph Boyden – Through Black Spruce: this arrived unannounced in my mail tray at work one day, and I remain grateful to Russell Field for the introduction. This is an unflinching look at contemporary First Nations life in northern Ontario where we as readers are confronted with the problem of how to see any of the mediation and management of cultural antagonisms as successful. Boyden does not shy away from the profound problems and perilous predicament of First Nations communities – the alcohol, the poverty, the violence and drug (ab)use. It does not excuse those problems, but contextualises them, especially the drug (ab)use. Quite brilliant.
Cecelia Widenheim, Lisa Rosendahl, Michele Mansucci, Annika Enqvist and Joantan Habib Engvist (eds) – Work, Work, Work: A Reader on Art and Labour: this is likely to have a narrower appeal than the novels – it is a collection of essays and presentations about contemporary cultural work and work in the cultural industries. It matters to me because artists are, in many ways, the archetype of the contemporary knowledge economy, and this is becoming more important in my academic work.
Gregory Scholette – Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture: in a similar vein to Work, Work, Work Greg Sholette demands that we look at immaterial labour in more sophisticated ways. The issues he explores are essential for better understandings of changing character of labour in the contemporary neo-liberal world and its pervasive enterprise culture; all the more so as immaterial labour grows in profile and become increasingly important policy makers at local, regional, national and supra-national levels.
Lawrence Hill – The Book of Negroes: My friend Pauline has been singing the praises of this novel about a woman stolen into slavery, caught up in the American Revolution and becoming an anti-slavery activist in England for several years: I thank her for that and the yard sale in Halifax (NS) – part of the novel is set in Nova Scotia, it seemed fitting – where I picked this up. Beautiful, elegantly composed and thoroughly engaging. I read some great fiction this year; this marvellous novel makes the already strong list even more impressive.
Jiři Weil – Life With a Star: Weil is better known for his brilliant but in the end bleak Mendelssohn on the Roof but this novel of Jewish life in occupied Prague, a novel of mundane oppression is full of hope of survival, of resistance, of defeating ‘them’. It is human and humane and I am now frustrated that I have read both of Weil’s novels to have been translated into English.
Paul Connerton – How Modernity Forgets: this is quite brilliant, arguing that we live on a world where there is a political economic force to forgetfulness and a cultural drive towards memory; I don’t think there is single ’new’ idea here, but there is a rich set of juxtapositions drawn from sociology, psychology, geography, political economy and elsewhere that resulted a near continuous set of ‘a-ha’ moments making much of the book a ‘new’ idea.
Anne Elizabeth Moore – Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh and New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia: these are perhaps my books of the year and the first two of four planned about Moore’s time spent living and working in hostel for young women university students in Phnom Penh during which she encourages them to self-publish ‘zines and in doing so find voices, find their past and perhaps claim new futures. Feminist activism never seemed like such fun and so important.
Andrew McGettigan – The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education: I expect this will have limited appeal, but it is the clearest and sharpest analysis of current higher education policy in the UK I have read. It draws together policy, practice and broader economic discursive developments to show in the most lucid way I have yet seen what is going on, what the likely futures are, how a good public education system has been eviscerated in the last ten years and why it might just be a good idea to be thinking seriously about being elsewhere.
Will Simpson & Malcolm MacMahon – Freedom Through Football: The Story of the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls: some time in 1993 a bunch of punks and hippies in central Bristol decided they needed to play football, scaled a fence to play in a local school and become one of the country’s most interesting sports clubs whose idea of going ‘on tour’ is to visit other punk-ish clubs in Germany and Belgium, Mexico’s Zapatistas, villages in Palestine or play cricket in Compton (that is, Los Angeles). This is a superb insider story of a sports club that does really good politics – my only sports book to make this year’s best list, and streaks ahead of nearly everything I have read about sport in the last few years.
Andy Merrifield – Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination: a vision for a revitalised Marxism drawing on Guy Debord, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henri Lefebvre and the The Invisible Committee. Much to be inspired by and about as much to disagree with, but a great read with it.
So, turning to music, last year’s list was almost devoid of chaps; that is not quite the case this year but my musical tastes remain gynocentric. This time last year I said to watch out for New Orleans based Leyla McCalla’s solo album; I first encountered her playing cello with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (no new album from them this year, so they’re not on this list); McCalla’s ‘Vari-Coloured Songs: a tribute to Langston Hughes’ mixes traditional Haitian songs with poems by Hughes with music by McCalla (and in one case, Kurt Weill). It is hauntingly beautiful.
I’ve found it really hard to limit others in my love ‘em best of list but three other albums bought this year are on really high rotate: Amelia Curran’s ‘Hunter Hunter’ (which I accept is from 2009 – but a product of being a Halifax record store and asking for ‘interesting local stuff’, as well as a recommendation from my chum Russell, again, a cultural advisor of note). She is witty (check out ‘The Mistress’) as well as barbed (check out ‘Bye Bye Montreal’) while playing with the conventions of country-folk. On-line discovery with a voice to remember, Valerie June’s ‘Pushing Against a Stone’ is a bluesy, soulful marvel with more than a hint of bluegrass and traditional Appalachian sounds (not unexpected from a Memphis native) – ‘Working Women’s Blues’ is stunning, and I have just scored a solo live recording of it that puts most everything else I have heard this year to shame. Finally, before moving on to the bloody good but also rans…. Also from New Orleans is Hurray for the Riff Raff’s ‘Look Out Mama’ dedicated to Alynda Lee Segara’s former Marine (Vietnam) father; their swampy blues sound, all banjo, fiddle, string bass and steel guitar continues to keep this gang in my continuous play list although slightly better is ‘My Dearest Darkest Neighbour’, Segara’s collection of covers – my copy was an early release but it has been cleaned up a bit and is now more widely available with the addition of their superb cover of ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Making the there but not quite list, in alphabetical order is
Arcade Fire: ‘Reflector’ – big sweeping sounds from another Canadian contribution to this year’s lists.
Billy Bragg: ‘Tooth and Nail’ – now I went off BB a bit when he went down the whole urban folk Wilco path, good stuff, but it just didn’t work for me, but he’s back on form.
Figli di Madre Ignota: ‘Fez Club’ – not released last year but bought on spec, it turns out to be a bunch of Hungarians taking a wild outing into Balkan not-very-tradition(ish) sounds who just happen to do a great line in fez wearing.
Patti Griffin: ‘Silver Bell’ – this is the release (at last) of an album that has been lost in archives for many years
Patti Griffin: ‘American Kid’ – is the album she intended to release this year, Silver Bell is an additional treat. American Kid is for the most part about her father, and features the wonderful ‘Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida’.
Rokia Traoré: ‘Beautiful Africa’ – I can’t sing her praises enough, a Paris-based Malian singer who has turned electric on this album and while she keeps much of the gentle singer songwriter sound there is more than a little desert blues in the sound of this outing.
As to movies, I’ve not watched many this year. Grace leant me a bunch of anime films and series that kept me entertained in the first couple of months of the year and Film 4 has been showing a Studio Ghibli series so the year has been framed by lots of Japanese animation. In the middle there wasn’t much that stood out though.
The Iceman was a sound hitman tale that didn’t wow me but was solid, engaging and for all its gore and violence well underplayed. There was good use of what looked like old film stock to give it 70s grain, texture and palette.
Fast Girls surprised me. It is a fairly standard melodramatic ‘girl’-rivalry film, where the street-wise girl from the wrong side of the tracks fronts up to well-to-do rival but there is more to it than that. In this case the story is taken in athletics; 200m rivals, relay team members and as a narrative not much more going for it. But it is distinctive that although the women rely on coaches – men and women – there is a considerable sense of self-organisation amongst them, the reconciliation sequence is not forced and neither does it feel very deus ex machina and the sport and sporting bodies seem realistic. I think it is the bodies that are the most significant element of the film; unlike some other women’s sports films the athlete’s bodies are fairly unproblematic, perhaps because it is athletics, where women have an established presence; perhaps because they are sprinters and the training we see is track based, not gym based and so the opportunities for eroticisation is lessened; perhaps because the director (Regan Hall) has a background in commercials and fashion filming so his way of ‘doing’ bodies is more nuanced and subtle. Whatever, this film seems to take women’s athletic bodies for granted, not as odd or unusual; for that reason alone it is worth it. Despite it formulaic genre dependency, it is a fine little sports film. Sorry – wandered off into work mode there.
The Sapphires What an absolute delight to see four such impressive indigenous women in lead role – for sheer power this is almost up there with Radiance (but not making it to Rabbit Proof Fence) – for indigenous performing power, that is. I see why this film about a Supremes-like Koori girl-group entertaining troops in Vietnam was the Australian hit it was, but also see why its critics repeatedly pointed out that it underplayed the extent of racism in 1960s Australia – to be clear, it doesn’t deny the racism, just underplays it. As always, Deborah Mailman is simply superb, Jessica Mauboy an acting discovery (we knew she could sing, and she belts them out, but she acts well also) and Chris O’Dowd (of The IT Crowd) works well in a dramatic (light, to be sure, but still dramatic) role. I saw this on a plane – and think I want to see it in a better format.
My other really-enjoyed-it movie as Monsters vs Aliens – an animated OTT outing poking fun at the genre, at a whole array of science fiction and alien movies.
Again, I have rambled and meandered much more than intended in an indulgent piece of procrastination (there is a 80% written article that I should have been working on). I’m hoping this year is as entertaining and engaging.
I have noted before that I don’t really care for the rituals of New Year, so while standing in circles singing Auld Lang Syne does little for me and New Year’s Eve is just another night (other calendars start the new year at different times, after all), the end of December does provide an excuse to indulgently review the year. It has, globally, been fairly glum, what with talk of triple dip recessions and all, but it has also been a time of outings and adventures. The most gobsmacking experience – three days in Yosemite that reminded me that ‘awesome’ is about being overwhelmed, more than a little intimidated and teetering on the brink of ontological fear, so a huge shout out to Mo, Nancy, Pauline, Susan, Laura & Ellen for including me in your Sierra Nevada posse. I’d grown up with the Ansel Adams photos but nothing quite prepared me for feeling the space. It was followed by a week in Vancouver and out on the island, which would have been gobsmacking had it not been for the week in Yosemite (so sorry Rob, Nicole & Christine…..).
It was a year when my two biggest news stories were about otherwise unknown South Asian women. The first an as yet un-named 23 year old physiotherapy student whose rape and murder in New Delhi might just shake India out of its misogyny although the patriarchal protectionist tone of many of the protests do not give me much hope for a progressive response; the second the humbling Malala Yousafzai (and although I am not used to referencing Wikipedia, this article is pretty good), a 15 year old Pakistani campaigner for the right of women and girls to education who refuses to allow being shot in the head stop her activism. There is a campaign abroad to get her nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – after the absurdity of awards to the EU and warmongering US government, this campaign’s success might just restore some meaning to that award.
Other finest moments include:
- Another good week teaching in the Czech Republic, this time with my good chum Emily Ryall, and a fabulous evening including dinner with our mutual good friend Ivo Jirasek.
- Top day out was a winery jaunt up the Napa Valley with Mo, Annette, Patricia and Eilan – a hot, dry day just perfect for the crisp samples we got to taste and the fine picnic.
- Top meal was with Russell, Christine and Sarah at ‘Chez Panisse’ in Berkeley, although the night spent people-watching at Glowbal in Vancouver brought fine food: the downside of travelling alone is that fine food is improved by good company – people watching helps.
- Top night out has to be Rupert’s 30th, where I got to play Dad at the barbie.
- Most exotic visit, two days in Almaty (Kazahkstan) on a work trip; a classic Soviet city with blocky buildings, wide boulevards, a gorgeous cathedral, and with a temperature that was never above zero (but it was December).
- Two of the best exhibitions I have ever been to (on the same day) at the Dox, a fabulous contemporary art gallery in Prague which is always interesting. There was a show about the assassination of Heinrich Heydrich (architect of the Nazi genocide), the destruction of two Bohemian villages in response and a stunning British propaganda movie (‘The Silent Village’) about the events made in a Welsh mining village (a movie I’d love a copy of but cannot find for the life of me); at the same time there was the superb Middle East Europe by a group of East European, Palestinian and Israeli artists exploring issues around Palestine/Israel and links to East Europe, featuring the brilliant short film ‘If I Weren’t a Muslim’ by a Bosniak performer. It turned out to be a fabulous Prague weekend, including a full size cartoon (as in working drawings) by Picasso for his Guernica in a show about bull fighting, totally unexpected and breath-taking. Now all I need to do is make sure I get to the Prado for the real thing.
Amid all of this I have tried to sort out my cultural and intellectual highlights (apologies to those of you who hate lists). So, starting with some books only in the order in which I read them – there is more at my Goodreads page.
Erik Olin Wright ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’ I have dabbled in Olin Wright’s work for the last 30 years or so, although for the most part his structural Marxism is not really to my taste (the structural part, not the Marxist part) but I have been intrigued by his ‘real utopias’ project for the last decade or so in part because of the seeming oxymoron in the title but more because of the Left’s struggle with articulating what we are trying to achieve (I am intrigued, for similar reasons, with Žižek et al’s idea of communism debates). This is an exciting but ultimately uneven and flawed book. At the heart of the argument is an important attempt to move beyond statist (or state-centred) political alternatives and strategies. Despite all its flaws, I think it is one of the most important books I have read in a long time because it challenges us to consider the place of the alternatives that shape our social relations in the here-and-now and the way they build a better world in the time-to-come; that is, the essential role of our attempts to build real utopias now in the longer term struggles for a better world.
Pascal Gielen & Paul de Bruyne (eds) ‘Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm: Realism versus Cynicism’. Last year I got really excited about Gielen’s ‘The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude’ and this collection of essays extends some of the ideas in that book and gives us a rich and useful set of ideas because amid the shared concern and approach to cultural pedagogy, there is a greater diversity of analyses and applications in a wider set of contexts. Most importantly for me it gave me a whole set of invigorating ideas about ways to challenge the “well-calculated mediocrity” (their term, not mine) that is contemporary higher education.
Tim O’Brien ‘The Things They Carried’ I think this has to be one of the great Vietnam war ‘novels’ – a term I use cautiously because it is as much a set of closely interlinked short stories. It is a grunt’s-eye view of war – the fear, the boredom, the horror, the moral distress, the comradeship, the fragility of relationships, the fragility of the post-war experience.
Andrey Kurkov ‘The Good Angel of Death’ This is a brilliant absurd piece from a fabulous writer whose tightly crafted, multi-layered fiction carries satire that flays its social and political targets. In this case, the targets are both the corrupt Ukrainian state and the ultra- and puritanical-nationalism that emerged as its principle opponent. I worried that with ‘The President’s Last Love’ he’d strayed too far into the surreal, but here he is back on brilliant satirical form.
Andrew Ross ‘Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labour’ Andrew Ross is one of those scholars we need more of, whose academic work is ground-breaking and whose ‘cross-over’ texts display the potential of left wing public intellectuals, in this case through a fabulous critical exploration of changes in global labour markets, in global labour processes and the conditions of work. Eight years after it was published it retains its power, relevance and importance.
Rachael Miyung Joo ‘Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea’ I heard Rachael Joo deliver a fantastic conference paper in 2005 about Korean engagements with the 2002 men’s football World Cup based on her field work in Seoul and Los Angeles, so was excited when I saw this book was published. It is a superb analysis of sporting nationalisms, all the better for being from beyond the usual suspects, for exploring transnational identities and for its ethnographic basis. I am also delighted that she has agreed to produce a paper for a journal issue Russell Field and I are editing in 2013.
Brett Hutchins & David Rowe ‘Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport’There is a worrying sense of sameness about much of the academic work about sport and the media, a sameness that fails to recognise the limits and possibilities of changes in forms of engagement and audience shapes resulting from new media developments. Part of the problem is that these media develop so quickly that things are almost out of date as they are published. The authors (and I have to confess that both are good mates, in the Australian idiom we all share) are aware of this and have still managed to produce a vital piece of scholarly work about contemporary sport-media developments. It is a shame it is only available as an £80 hardback.
Sita Venkatewar and Emma Hughes (eds) ‘The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism’ One of the major changes in global politics in the last 30 years has been the rise and power of indigenous politics. This superb collection of essays explores these developments, and what is more in a wonderfully open way where each essay includes critical commentary from others involved in the wider project and debate.
Andrea Fumagalli and Sandro Mezzadra (eds) ‘Crisis in the Global Economy: Financial Markets, Social Struggles and New Political Scenarios’ The global crisis of capitalism, where a swathe of dodgy house mortgages in the USA has thrown the global economy into crisis, has exposed many of the analytical shortcomings of contemporary economic and social theory. While there is much I disagree within these essays, they are an insightful attempt from the Left to make sense of not only what happened and is happening but ways to respond. This is a worthwhile collection of essays brimming over with good ideas – but a pretty demanding collection.
Marc Perelman ‘Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague’The best anti-sport book I have read in years, it deserves the be widely read, unpacking the culture and politics of sport, and the cultural and political uses of sport brilliantly. It is guaranteed to annoy almost everyone.
Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith ‘Full-Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World’ I just loved this flawed history of a girl’s basketball team from an Indian School in Montana during the first decade of the 20th century. Peavy & Smith have excellent skills as storytellers, and have a fantastic tale to tell.
Neil Gaiman ‘American Gods’ After years of singing the praises of Amanda Palmer (see below) I have finally ventured into the fictional world of her hubby (having really enjoyed ‘The Sandman’) to find surreal, sharp novel that is part road trip, part small town Americana with an obsession with roadside attractions, part redemption novel but all a journey into the American soul, a country with such a short attention span that it is not a good place for gods. For some Neil Gaiman in action, ther’s his commencement speech in Philadelphia.
Audrea Lim (ed) ‘The Case for Sanctions Against Israel’ The emergence of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement has, in the context of on-going assaults on Palestine, provided new impetus to anti-Zionist activism. This collection of essays explores the debates about how to develop the BDS movement, why we should and how to focus on the Israeli state rather than individual Israelis. It is an important activist tool.
Tove Jansson ‘Fair Play’ The most gorgeous collection of short stories, or perhaps vignettes, or perhaps novel I have read all year, it centres of the long relationship between two women artists and explores love, creativity and collaboration. It is on my regularly-give-as-a-gift list.
So, turning to music, one of the things about sorting thing (even list making) is that themes and patterns start to emerge – and the thing I didn’t expect here is that the only chaps on my high rotate list of music new in 2012 are part of either a group or a duet. Stand-out albums are Sharon van Etten’s ‘Tramp’ a set of sparse and stripped down songs and the Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ ‘Leaving Eden’ where their loving engagement with a range of traditional musical styles is extended elegantly. (My live show of the year was also the CCD in Camden in March – and watch out in 2013 for the solo album by their cellist and singer of fine Haitian songs, Leyla McCalla. Mind you, I think I would have enjoyed Elvis Costello a whole lot more if I hadn’t broken my toe on the way to gig.) Then, in alphabetical order we have
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra ‘Theatre is Evil’ is her first studio album in several years, and a classic of the Brechtian punk cabaret that has grown from the Dresden Dolls.
‘Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under’ OK, so having AP in the list twice is a little excessive, but this live album is witty, sharp and a rare concert collection that works.
Cat Power ‘Sun’ where she continues the move from the pared down rockiness to the soulful sound that came with ‘The Greatest’; loving it and hard to separate from my top two.
First Aid Kit ‘The Lion’s Roar’ is my first of two Swedish groups in this year’s high rotate, and gorgeous, most especially the standout track, Emmylou.
Iris DeMent ‘Sing the Delta’. Iris DeMent has been away from the studio for far too long, and it seems she has been hanging out in Southern black churches leading to this wonderful, gospel inflected collection.
Karima Nayt ‘Quoi d’Autre’ I don’t know much about Nayt, except that she is Algerian but seems to be based in Sweden (OK, so three Swedish artists in this list) and she sings in Arabic, French and English with a mournful North African ambience and at times a hint of Piaf’s timbre.
Rodrigo & Gabriela and C.U.B.A. ‘Area 52’ is a late addition to the list, only because it was bought late in the year. Here the Mexcian guitar virtuosos team up with Collective Universal Band Association (a fab Cuban orchestra) and a bunch of guests for a wonderful Latin album (and the sitar solo by Anoushka Shankar is breathtaking, as is its segue into a frenetic acoustic guitar outburst – nylon strings have seldom been so impressive)
Spinning Jennies ‘Det våras fűr Werther’ is my final Swedish ensemble for the year, and quite bizarre it is too – a Swedish language bluegrass band; I have no idea the songs are about but it is some of the hottest bluegrass I have heard in years. It is an album that makes me grateful for listening posts, in this case in a store in Malmö).
But by itself, from quite some time ago and on high rotate has been Eliza Gilkyson’s fabulous ‘Beauty Way’.
I didn’t really get out to the movies much this year, and living as I do in the provinces where I seem to have a profound inability to find out how to work the local cinema listings I have relied mainly on DVD so few of these are new – but my fine films have been:
‘The Artist’ – Light, frivolous and a whole heap of fun.
‘Incendies’ – This is a stunning Canadian movie from 2010 set against the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, as two children set out from Montreal, sent by their mother’s will to find their father and brother. It is not easy watching but it perhaps the finest film I have seen in several years.
‘Playing Away’ – A oldie from the UK, made in 1986 this gentle and beguiling Caryl Phillips scripted comedy about a Brixton-based cricket team travelling to a gentrifying, stultifying Suffolk village for a ‘friendly’ to mark the end of the village’s ‘Third World Week’. A gorgeous and delightful sports film.
‘A Cat in Paris/ Une vie de chat’ (with thanks to Grace for insisting we watch this), there is compelling animation, good story, good characters; hard to fault.
‘Hotel Rwanda’ – based on the story of Paul Rusesabagina who sheltered 1260 Tutsi and Hutu refugees in the hotel he managed in Kigali during the genocide, this film presses just enough emotional buttons to be commercially and critically successful while managing to successfully walk the narrow line between what was legally possible given the war crimes trials and what needed to be said.
‘Persepolis’ is the film of the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, about travelling the Vienna as a teenager to go to school, and about going home – and not feeling at home in any of these places. Beautifully animated, delightfully tragically, evocatively told. Superb.
‘Dogma’ – is my silly good film of the year, and is a re-watch of a thoroughly Catholic movie that is as much about the absurdities of Catholic dogma as anything else in which we fond out that God wears Lacroix, it is a reaffirmation of a form of Christian faith with fart and shit jokes along with a plenitude of mayhem.
OK, so I have gone on for a little longer than I planned (at nearly 3000 words), but it was the year when my Interweb at home became fickle in the extreme so I read, watched and listened without the distractions of Perez Hilton and other contemporary intellectuals.
Reading and listening and looking in 2011
Much as I do not care for the rituals of New Year – Auld Lang Syne and all that does little for me, the end of December does provide an excuse to indulgently review the year, and what a year it was. Notable events include the $420 3½ hour taxi ride (two of us split the cost from Dallas to Austin via Waco to avoid the storms), my first overnight in hospital since before I can remember compliments of a popped artery (leading to three weeks of foot up at home and a chilling realisation of the terrors of day-time TV), two excellent weeks in Amsterdam – one with Jim McKay and the other with Russell Field & Carolyn Snider (with the delightful Alice making up the quartet), a week teaching in the Czech Republic with my good chum Sam Farooq, and several superb eating out experiences including at my much adored Bugher’s patio in Amsterdam (several times), a superb place in Cologne that I forget the name of (but if you’re there it is on the corner of Rathenauplatz and Heisenbergstraße, near the main synagogue), and Ruby’s BBQ in North Austin (TX). Amid all of this there has been the distress of living in Tory-land – but if we measure it only on votes cast, that’s not my fault!
Amid all of this I have tried to sort out my cultural and intellectual highlights (apologies to those of you who hate lists). So, starting with some books and in no specific order (other than that in which I read them – there is more at my Goodreads page)
Raewyn Connell Southern Knowledge: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science. Connell is best known as a theorist of gender but in this case she is making case that sociology’s dominant grand narratives stem from the specific conditions of the North Atlantic. So, she says, we need to continue to challenge the metropolitan dominance and build networks between ourselves to develop Southern Theory and therefore the liberatory potential of social science research. One of the most intellectually liberating books I have read in years.
James Green Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements Green is a US-based labour historian who, in this collection, explores doing history in critical support of the movement. The case made is inspiring and uplifting, and a useful criticism of both the history-for-history’s sake empiricists and the reflexivity of much of the ‘cultural turn’ which means that they’ve lost the drive of the early practitioners of cultural histories. A must read.
Kristin Ross Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture explores France in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her focus on the complexities of colonialism and modernity/modernisation. The book has been highly praised in academic circles as it should have been, but should also be readily accessible to broader audiences; anyone who can use Jacques Tati to illustrate a dense theoretical point from Marx has to be worth checking out. Simply superb: the kind of book that should give cultural studies a good name!
Z Z Packer Drinking Coffee Elsewhere This sat on my bookshelf for years and I really should have read it sooner: all that is then is regret at not having had the delight and pleasure of these stories before now.
David Harvey The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism Every now and then I read something that helps make sense of the really big picture; this is one of those books – in part it updated Marx’s Capital for the era of finance capitalism, and reminds us that if we don’t try to make a change, nothing going to get better.
Scarlett Thomas Our Tragic Universe I’ll not try to explain it, even at her worst Thomas is a wonder – and here we have a book about writing, about reading and a reminder that delayed gratification might just have something going for it (I waited several months from time of purchase to time of reading).
Pascal Gielen The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude: Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism This is the first of three new, head expanding books for me this year in that it is a challenging and sharp set of essay about working in the cultural industries – Gielen is a sociologist of art – that has helped me make a lot of sense of an emerging research interest about paid work in sport-related industries.
Luc Boltanski & Eve Chaipello The New Spirit of Capitalism This is perhaps my big ideas book of the year: much of the material I read is often little more than a restatement of previously made arguments into slightly new settings (academia is much more about reapplication than new ideas) but this is a rare book that amounts to a major analytical shift and points to new frames and modes of analysis. It deserves to be a classic. I expect that I will have to revisit several times, and that each time I will find new things, new ideas and new ways of shaping both questions and answers that deal with work, social life and struggles, and contemporary politics.
Jiří Weil Mendelssohn is on the Roof This is a brilliant tale weaving together stories of the tragedy that was the Nazi occupation of Moravia and Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic), its absurdities and horrors, and its small and not so small acts of resistance. A modern classic.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick Planned Obsolesence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy This is my third big ideas pointy headed book for the year exploring the current state and conditions of academic writing and work more generally. It is a powerful case for new ideas about scholarship, authorship and what it means to ‘make knowledge’.
Moving on to music that has engaged me this year……
Standing out, head and shoulder above everything I have heard in the last several years is P J Harvey’s Let England Shake, an album of war songs – not anti-war songs abut songs about war, the experience of fighting, of surviving and all that goes with it. She has struck chords all over the place with this, winning the Mercury Prize for 2011, being added to the list of potential official war artists by the Imperial War Museum (the first musician to be on the list), and quite simply knocking the socks of everything else.
So, trailing along behind PJ I have, an alphabetical order
Emmy the Great ‘Virtue’ – a lovely little wry album, not quite up there with her 2009 debut but still a cracker (alas without her Royal Wedding song – but see it at http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/apr/17/royal-wedding-emmy-the-great – streaks away the best thing about that day in April.
Fleet Foxes ‘Helplessness Blues’ – quite simply the best use of three part harmony anywhere since their last album
Flogging Molly ‘Speed of Darkness’ – OK, so jumping from the Fleet Foxes to a band more at home in Kerrang! may seem downright weird – Flogging Molly is certainly more at the thrashy end of my tastes and here they are much ‘folkier’ than some of their earlier outings and more politically sharp than most other things I’ve heard this year (PJ excepted).
Headless Heroes ‘The Silence of Love’ – admittedly not out in 2011 but discovered in 2011, thanks to an excellent music shop (they still exist!) in Brussels, this is a great collection of cover versions from an ensemble fronted by Alela Diane
Jolie Holland and the Grand Chandeliers ‘Pint of Blood’ – even when not her best Holland’s languid style remains among my favourites (and her ‘Sweet Palmyra’ from her previous album is in my top four songs of all time: play it at my funeral)
Hurray for the Riff Raff ‘Hurray for the Riff Raff’ – My chance discovery of the year, bought on impulse, is a blend of alt-country, Louisiana swamp music
Sarah Jarosz ‘Follow me Down’ – is a much more conventional countryish with a bunch of blues and jazz influences album with banjos galore, lovely harmonies and really strong melodies – possibly the most mainstream of this year’s faves.
Sevda Alekperzadeh ‘Gül Açdi’ – an artist I discovered last year when I bought her second album thinking she was someone else so when I found her first album in an awesome Amsterdam record shop I couldn’t pass it up: this is Azerbaijani jazz blended with maudlin almost bluesy sounding central Asian instruments and rhythms. It is hard to explain.
Tabadoul Orchestra ‘World Wide Wahab’ – based in Cologne but fronted by a woman who is quite a big name in Egyptian popular music this is a tribute album for Mohammed Abdul Wahab – a really big name in 20th century Arabian popular music. Bought at the same Amsterdam record shop as Sevda and Hurray for the Riff Raff, it was quite an expensive outing.
The Unthanks ‘The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons’ – the Unthanks are simply marvellous and regularly make my best of the year lists, and in this case they’re at Islington’s fabulous Union Chapel in a concert of covers; simply stunning Northumbriam folk (at http://www.the-unthanks.com/)
As for the live gigs, there weren’t many this year but the absolute stand out was when I wondered into Antone’s in Austin (Texas) – see the $420 taxi ride from Dallas – with a couple of Australian chums (Daryl) to discover the awesome Shannon Whitworth on stage only to be followed by great performance by Raul Malo (formerly of Los Lobos) for $20 on a Tuesday night: not only was it a simply awesome concert but it was utterly unexpected.
And I didn’t get out to much cinema, but simply the best film was:
Submarine – directed by Richard Ayoade and starring Carig Roberts, Yasmine Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine. This is a tale of geek love in South Wales that is a slightly quirky teenage tale with great characters, engaging and entertaining story, pathos and humour. What more can we ask for?
But then it was also the year I discovered The Killing…… and saw the Russian Icons exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam and discovered, also in Amsterdam, The Museum of Handbags and Purses – what more can a boy ask for?
Despite the Tories, despite the cuts, despite the turmoil, not a bad year culturally.
That was that year that was, 2010
So this is an indulgent review of my cultural highlights of the year (apologies if this kind of thing annoys you). It started with five weeks in New Zealand and Australia, mainly at the beach, from which I never quite recovered, and was punctuated in the middle by 10 lovely days in France, including several in Grenoble during which Russell and I came up with several scholarly schemes now on paths to fruition. And it ended with a fine Xmas few days with Rupe & Hayley – good food, good humour, good company, and some emerging urban myths…..
So I confess there is not a lot here that is new this year, and very little fiction: it has been a year for big ideas. In no particular order, my 11 books of the year are:
Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett – The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone: what do issues such as rates of teenage pregnancy, imprisonment, mental health problems, homicide rates, obesity, social mobility, life expectancy, trust, drug use, recycling rates, the status of women, and foreign aid spending have in common? They all correlate to the extent of social inequality in their particular societies.
Sherman Alexie – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Alexie is one of the great voices in contemporary American literature and this is simply superb.
Jodi Dean – Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics: a trenchant critique of the failures of the political Left – in its activist, academic, and typing forms – to develop a coherent politics grounded in values that resist the neoliberal ideological onslaught. Anyone who can get Nicole Ritchie and Jurgens Habermas to be the examples that mutually illustrate a political point has to be worth it. There is also an excellent discussion of the ways on-line activism (click here to register your protest) is likely to weaken political opposition and struggle.
Pavel Brycz – I, City: I wonder if it is a book of short stories, a single novel of chapters connected only by their setting, a prose poem or poems – or maybe it is all and more. Whatever its formal characteristics, it is as if I have read a novel that enacts the fabulous essay in de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life where the inhabitants of the city live their lives, walk their city, and leave close to independent trails that mark lives that seldom connect.
Patrik Ouřednik – Europeana: juxtaposes related but normally unconnected events and things, and in doing so urges us to see the great events, tragedies mainly, of the 20th century as linked, related, and part of a bigger pattern the book itself is a marvel of historical insight and thinking that takes at times the odd and seeming trivial to weave together a humanistic view of the century we’re now leaving behind.
Ben Goldacre – Bad Science: Goldacre is the author of a regular column in The Guardian where he takes on bogus medical claims but more importantly he takes on bogus and dodgy science reporting. This book draws together these themes to not only show what evidence-based medicine is but also to show how media reporting of the UK-medical issues are the product of a combination of scientific illiteracy and a drive to produce media profits.
Marta Harnecker – Rebuilding the Left: crafts a model for political organisation/party that is Left, non-dogmatic, and inclusive. She has a vision of a protagonistic politics that aims to make the impossible possible: it is, I think, a major contribution to contemporary political and organisational theory that all on the Left should read and take from it the ideas relevant to our local places and spaces to build new transformational politics.
Karel Čapek – The Absolute at Large: an energy source that burns any material, breaks down its essential form, and destroys all to leave no residue: the ideal green energy also releases a potent spiritual force contained in all matter leading to mass outbreaks of fundamentalist-like actions and practice, and eventually global war and close to absolute destruction. Simply marvellous.
Alain Badiou – The Communist Hypothesis: critiques late capitalist cynicism to demand that we have, defend and strive for a collective idea. It is an optimistic book: communism is not what we see or saw in the ‘socialist’ states but is an idea that we need to engage with in our local struggles and day-to-day resistance, because it is from those day-to-day activities that the path to a better world emerges. You don’t need to agree, but it is an important book for those of us on the left.
John R. Chávez – Beyond Nations: Evolving Homelands in the North Atlantic world, 1400-2000: weaves together history, sociology and politics he has presented us with a comparative history of homelands (only some of which are or became nation-states) spanning the North Atlantic and covering a 600 year period. This is a major contribution to studies of nations, nationalism, and global history. And what’s more, I bought it on spec: now there’s luck.
Andrew Ross – Real Love: in pursuit of cultural justice: Once again I am left in awe of Andrew Ross’s range and versatility, and see in his work my kind of vision for what cultural studies should be: oriented to activism and meeting just a few of academia’s obligations to struggles for justice. Marvellous, and weakened only slightly by the passage of time.
A baker’s dozen of recorded (and alphabetical) albums
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs just bloody great
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Gig I just love these people, brilliant southern black string band music
First Aid Kit – The Black and the Blue in which the Swedish teenagers turn out a fine fokie pop album of sweet harmonies
Hindi Zahra – Handmade is hard to pin down – she’s Moroccan, sings in Arabic, French and English, and deserves a bigger profile
Joanna Newsome – Have One on Me is much less spacey but just as sharp as her previous work
The Jolly Boys – Great Expectation a Jamaican mento band who have been round for decades, and have this stunning album of covers – ‘Rehab’ is stunning, ‘Perfect Day’ awesome.
Razia – Zebu Nation an album bought indulgently (I probably need to be more frugal) at the Les Halles fnac because I had nothing by artists from Madagascar and thought they might be interesting – this is an utterly gorgeous.
Sevda Alekperzadeh – Sevdali Dunya (Worlds of Love) I bought this on the same fnac shopping outing mistaking her for Sevara Nazarkhan (an Uzbek singer) – it turns out Alekperzadeh is a big star in Azerbaijan and she does fabulous songs blending a range of central Asian styles with lovely jazzy rhythms.
Souad Massi – Ô Houria (Liberty) she blends flamenco with North African rock and hints of rai into multi-lingual (French, Arabic & English) songs of love, dispossession, exile and feminism, but the album is over-produced in places.
The National – High Violet which I had resisted having seen them on the TV mumbling their way through incomprehensible songs: I was unimpressed – turns out they’re pretty damned fine so thanks Rupe.
The Unthanks – Here’s the Tender Coming a pair of sisters from Northumberland who do beautiful north-east England tradition inspired songs.
Tok Tok Tok – From Soul to Soul a fabulously cool German jazz duo.
Joanna Newsome – Paramount Theatre, Wellington, February
Imelda May – Gloucester Guildhall, June (a fabulous Dublin-based rockabilly singer whose album just didn’t quite make the high-rotate cut).
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Union Chapel, Islington, November
It has been a year dominated by the discovery of Joris Ivens’ films, most noted for the very good Spanish Earth (1937) about the siege of Madrid. While I appreciated that film, it was not my standout from the 20 or so Ivens movies I watch this year. The utter star of my Ivens films and my film of the year was:
La Seine a rencontré Paris. a poetic vision of the city giving us a glimpse of late 1950s Paris via a trip along the river – we see the industry, the history, the everyday presence, and the new cultural life. It is utterly beautiful, and one of the great urban films, and winner of the short film award at Cannes. (France, 1957, 31 minutes).
Phillips Radio traces the production process at a Phillips manufacturing plant to give us an almost erotic view of production, technology, and science. (1931, Netherlands, 36 minutes)
My other two stand-outs are Asian (broadly defined) and several years old
Birthday Boy dir Sejong Park. Utterly beautiful short animation about a Korean boy in 1951 who play at soldier in his ruined village and receives what he thinks is a present – dogtags, an ID card and boots. Aching. (Korea/Australia 2004, 10 minutes).
At Five in the Afternoon (Panjéasr) –dir: Samira Makhmalbaf. The first feature made in Afghanistan after the invasion, this is Samira Makhmalbaf’s fourth film. It is a beautiful, poetic, in places almost surreal, evocation of a young woman’s frustrated dreams and hopes. Makhmalbaf has an assured eye. Simply marvelous, but quite depressing. (Iran/France, 2003)
None of this makes up for being ruled by Tory scum, though! here’s to 2011.