S’marvellous

Occasionally people seem surprised at my enthusiasm, my geeky love, for the world of Marvel on the big and small screen. I read Proust, I love enigmatic French arthouse movies where nothing happens, very stylishly, for hours on end. I have argued elsewhere that one can love Proust AND Stephen King, and I see no reason why one cannot also love Alain Resnais or Michael Hanecke’s Caché, AND Thor, or Captain America. Who would want to be limited to just one brow?

In any case, it’s an open secret that I’m a Buffy obsessive and a Whovian, so no one should really have to reach for the smelling salts when I get giddy about heading off to Cineworld to see Avengers Age of Ultron in 3D.

It seems to me that there’s a direct line from a lot of what I read during my bookworm childhood to these more recent passions.   As soon as I could make the squiggles on the page into words in my head, I read everything I could reach. I read children’s classics (Nesbit, Lewis, Tolkien, Alcott, Burnett), grown-up classics (Dickens, Malory, Bronte, Shakespeare), newer children’s writers (Garner, Sutcliffe, Garfield, Treece). And in many of these I found ways into other worlds.

Tolkien and Garner both drew on Norse and Celtic mythology, one to create his own world, the other to imbue ours with magic. Lewis led his child protagonists through mundane portals into his alternative world where they became heroes and battled with evil.   Malory, Sutcliffe and Garner gave me different takes on the ultimate British hero, the once and future King, a medieval knight or a celtic warlord, or a sleeper under Alderley Edge waiting for our hour of need to awake. And in Roger Lancelyn Green’s vivid retellings I got to know the tales of Greek heroes.

The notion that our everyday world can slip its mask and reveal another reality, darker or brighter, bigger and badder, invading and intervening as the gods of old always have done, is often terrifying, always compelling. That’s why my greatest fondness is for those narratives which start with the world we already know. Think of how a certain episode of Doctor Who has rendered statuary decidedly uncanny – the familiar become strange and scary.   Think of how Buffy subverted the teen high school movie, so that being grounded really was potentially the end of the world. Think of how Stephen King’s It showed the adult world oblivious to the terrors that the children had to face unprotected.

age of ultron

Marvel movies are bigger and noisier than the above. They’re sillier, perhaps. But they’re tapping into those old, deep stories, and reinventing, representing them in bright and shiny ways, with (particularly where Joss Whedon has a hand in the script) wit and humour. They’re not scary, but they’re exciting, exhilarating. In the Avengers ensemble movies, in one glorious superhero binge, we have elements drawn from an eclectic range of sources – from myth and legend, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley, even an American King Arthur, woken from sleep to defend the world in its hour of need.

weirdstone cap frozen

I’m not arguing for the Marvel movies as the most profound examinations of moral questions, or of the human psyche. But neither are they devoid of interest on those planes. They are never quite as simplistic as one might expect, with all the exploding and the fighting. The very daftness of the idea of these very disparate characters coming together is part of its charm. The humour, and sometimes poignancy too, often comes from their disparity, whether it is the cynicism of Iron Man playing against the moral uprightness of Captain America, or the straightforward warrior sensibility of Thor against the conflicted, tortured Banner/Hulk.

Thor: The gates of Hel are filled with the screams of his victims!

[Natasha glares at him while Bruce groans and puts his head in his hands]

Thor: But not the screams of the dead, of course. No, no… wounded screams… mainly whimpering, a great deal of complaining and tales of sprained deltoids and… gout.

And once one has suspended one’s disbelief and accepted the premise, that humour and poignancy makes you care about the outcome, root for the good guys, not just for their victory but for their wellbeing. Their superhumanity comes from different sources – technology, programming, divinity – but there’s always humanity there too. And it’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:

Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.

Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.

These stories, these new/old stories may not change the world. But stories are vital. Stories are the way we’ve always tried to make sense of the inexplicable and the unbearable, and to infuse the everyday with magical possibilities. Marvel’s gloriously epic and gloriously daft stories give us moments of startling beauty and poignancy (we are Groot), massive explosions and battles, deadpan humour and heroes we can root for. Pretty damn marvellous.

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24 Hour Inspire, 16-17 April 2015 – Programme

cathannabel:

monifa

If anyone had told me a few years back that I’d be organising anything like the 24 Hour Inspire, I’d have thought they were delusional.  But we’re about to hold the third such event – 24 hours of non-stop lectures on all sorts of topics – and it’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my professional life.  It’s not just the funds we raise, though I’m delighted to be part of raising money for charities like the ones we’re supporting this year, who provide end of life care for cancer patients or support young people with cancer.  It’s the way that the event makes connections across and beyond the University which is my alma mater (twice) and my workplace, the community in which I feel so much at home.  It’s the way that it taps into such a deep seam of goodwill, that people respond with such enthusiasm and generosity to our requests for help, often offering more than we ask for.  It’s the way in which not only the task group who have been meeting for the last few months to plan and organise the event, but a much wider group of people want it to work, and do whatever it takes to make it work.

I get slightly nervous, of course.  There are so many things that potentially could go wrong with an event on this scale.  But that nervousness is always offset by the recollection that every time something has threatened to unravel, someone has sorted it out.  A speaker drops out at the last minute – a quick tweet to say that we need a replacement, and half an hour later we have one.  It’s a collective effort, and that’s why it’s such a joy.

It emerged of course out of great grief and loss.  But in those 24 hours I believe we’re doing something special, we’re living intensely and revelling in learning, in making connections, in broadening our horizons, and in collaborating.  Twelve sleeps to go now.  I can’t wait.

Come along if you can, for some or all of it.  If you can’t, but wish you could, you can still tweet about it using the hashtag #24HrInspire, and you can donate here:  https://mydonate.bt.com/events/24hourinspire2015

Originally posted on Inspiration for Life:

Catherine Annabel Inspiration for Life Introduction and welcome
17:00:00 Professor John Flint Town & Regional Planning Victoria Henshaw – a tribute
17:30:00 Dr Nate Adams Molecular Biology & Biotechnology Throwing spanners at nanobots
18:00:00 Dr Victoria Williamson Music Music for wellbeing: possibilities and promise
18:30:00 Professor Paul White Geography Global population growth – the good news and the bad news
19:00:00 Professor Rowland Atkinson Town & Regional Planning Ecology of sound: the sonic order of urban space
19:30:00 Morag Rose Town & Regional Planning Loitering with intent: psychogeography the Mancunian Way
20:00:00 Professor Claire McGourlay Law Legal aid – what legal aid?
20:30:00 Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson French Post-traumatic landscapes
21:00:00 Professor Davide Costanzo Physics & Astronomy Anatomy of the ATLAS particle detector
21:30:00 Dr Tim Shephard Music Machiavellian sounds: how to rule a Renaissance state with music
22:00:00 Dr Catherine Fletcher History The insider’s guide to Wolf Hall
22:30:00

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Hillsborough – the simple truth

On 14 April 2012, marking the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, I wrote this:

…the awful truth is that no matter how many of those fans were drunk and how many were there without tickets, if there had been stewards in front of the entrances to the Leppings Lane pens, directing fans away from the already crowded central pen, then no one would have died.  No one.  It’s horrifically, tragically, simple.

Earlier this week, at the inquests in Warrington, David Duckenfield who was the police commander in charge on the day of the match, acknowledged, at last, at long last, that ‘his failure to close a tunnel that led to the overcrowded Leppings Lane terrace pens directly caused the deaths of 96 people.’

The truth about the tragedy was always known.  It was always that simple.  But the lies that were spun and spread were so effective that it’s taken us 26 years to have that truth stated so starkly, in public.  So to the tragedy of 96 lives lost, and so many more injured and traumatised, so many families devastated by grief, was added the bitterness of the contempt that the dead and their families received, the scandalous lies, the fabrication of blame.

It is unforgiveable.

And yet I find myself pitying Duckenfield. Forgiveness isn’t for me to offer, and whether, if I were a family member I could ever have the courage and the grace to forgive I don’t know.   I do not, cannot, sympathise, let alone empathise with him.  I can imagine myself, briefly and inadequately, on those terraces, or in the homes where people waited and hoped and then despaired.   I cannot, however, imagine covering up catastrophic failure and living, for 26 years, with the knowledge of what my failure had done not just to 96 people but to all the others who loved them.  That is beyond my comprehension.

It’s not that I find it so impossible to imagine finding myself out of my depth, being expected to make huge decisions and realising that I haven’t got the knowledge to do so, freezing like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, lying on the spur of the moment to try and cover up a catastrophically wrong decision.  There but for the grace of God, as they say.

But faced with that aftermath, not just the bodies, the grieving families but the tabloids full of lies, to remain silent? As Taylor and Stuart Smith inquired and scrutinised, through the private prosecutions and the Independent Panel, he remained silent, acknowledging only what he had no choice but to acknowledge, that he had lied about the opening of the gate.  I can’t understand, I can’t sympathise let alone empathise, and it is not for me to forgive.

But I felt pity for him this week, for the first time in 26 years.  That he suffered from depression and PTSD in the aftermath of the disaster is hardly surprising.  That he, as a middle-aged Yorkshire bloke, was ashamed of that diagnosis, saw it as weakness, and attempted to hide it, is not unexpected.  Locked in his own shame and misery, he could not see, he says he did not see until so recently, what his failure to acknowledge what he did to the 96 was doing to the survivors and the families of the 96.

I’m not letting him off the hook – not at all.  From his blunder and the knee-jerk attempt to blame someone, anyone, for the unfolding disaster rather than to take responsibility for it, flowed everything else that happened that day.  And from his failure to speak out in the days, weeks, years that followed, flowed the persistent stream of misinformation, the inevitable rejoinders to every article or statement supporting the families.  The S*n would not (or so they say) have published that most scurrilous and vicious of reports had they not heard the allegations from the apparently impeccable source of a Tory MP and a police commander.  And inevitably what he says now causes yet more pain.  For the families to hear of his PTSD after their years of agony, to hear him say that failing to foresee the consequences of opening exit gates at the ground was “arguably one of the biggest regrets” of his life – arguably?  ‘one of’?? – must have been extraordinarily difficult, and little wonder that some had to leave the courtroom.

But he’s said it now, and it stands there, that crucial admission, after all these years of denials and lies.  Too late, of course, but it cannot be unsaid.  And I cannot help but pity a man who has carried so much guilt, the responsibility for 96 deaths and for prolonging and intensifying the misery of the families, who has had that weight to carry all these years.  I cannot help but pity a man who has known all along what was right, and been unable to do it.  I do not say that I hope he finds peace now.  Peace is what is owed to the families and the survivors – it’s not for him.  I do, however, hope that he finds some way to channel the guilt and shame that has festered in him for 26 years into doing something good now, something right.

RIP the 96.  Massive respect to the families.   You’ll never walk alone.

Image result for hillsborough disaster

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Night will fall – Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

Grainy, blurry black and white footage, shot by soldiers newly equipped with cameras and told to record everything they see.  Long, panning shots, taking in the corpses, barely recognisable as human, in the ditch, and the dignitaries on the bank, impassive.   Negative footage from Dachau turning the unimaginable into something even further beyond our reach.   All of this went into the documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, made by Sidney Bernstein in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the camps by Allied troops (and using some of the footage from Russian units at Majdanek and Auschwitz).  The title tells us a great deal about why this film was made, its purpose to give us irrefutable evidence of what happened, anticipating both the denials of the German population, including the camps’ near neighbours, and the denials of subsequent generations.

Night will Fall is a film about this film.   Sections of the original are interspersed with interviews with those who made it – Bernstein, Hitchcock, some of the soldiers – and with survivors who found their own faces amongst the images of the gaunt, desperate yet joyous throng.   The survivors speak more easily than the soldiers of the scenes that were recorded there.  Their experience of horror was complete, the moment of filming for them was a moment of almost unbelievable hope, of life when all that they had expected was death.  As for the soldiers, their experience of war did not prepare them, not in the least.  These men try to tell their story, but again and again, words fail.  Sorry, sorry, they say, I just can’t…

The original film has languished in the archives since it was completed. The mood changed so quickly – if Bernstein had completed his work just a little earlier, then maybe it would have had the audiences it was intended for, and deserved.  But by the time this huge task was done the need to confront the German people with the actions of their leaders, the need to tell the world what could happen when a civilised nation abandoned civilisation, were seen not only as less pressing, but as potentially counter-productive.   Not only did we need the Germans as our allies against the strength of the Soviet Union, but we did not want public sympathy for the Jews to force our hand in terms of giving sanctuary to large numbers of refugees.

Bernstein and his collaborators wanted to take a stand against those who would deny or minimise the genocide.  What they had recorded was almost impossible to comprehend, and so easy to disbelieve.   There had been reports of the process of extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe, as early as 1942. Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Karski and others risked so much to tell the Allies what was happening.  But somehow, even when published in the Daily Telegraph (25 June 1942), people seemed not to grasp it.

Telegraph

Was this failure to respond down to prejudice, or simply that the facts were unbelievable and so people chose not to believe?  To look away and hope that when they looked back, the nightmare vision would have vanished?  At the end of the war, again, the news from the Russian troops who were liberating the extermination camps in the East was treated with scepticism, until the Allied troops entered the German concentration camps themselves and knew.

If it was only human to baulk at that reality, to not want to accept that other humans could do this, not just a handful of monsters but many, many people, the revisionists who came later were of a different stripe, and unperturbed by personal testimony, documentary footage or other evidence.   Somehow they manage to say both that Hitler did not plan and order genocide of the Jews and that the Jews deserved their treatment, brought it, indeed, upon themselves.  They both immerse themselves in technical details to ‘prove’ that what was described and shown could not have happened, and dismiss or treat as mendacious all evidence that it did.  Bernstein’s film would probably not have changed the minds of any of those – nothing else has.

The documentary, a unique record not only of the scenes from hell that the liberating troops encountered, but of the efforts thereafter to help and to heal, will only ever be seen by small numbers.  The Imperial War Museum believes that its images, without the contextual commentary and interviews provided by Night will Fall, are too stark in their portrayal of the dehumanised state not only of the dead but of the (barely) living.  This baffles me, particularly because the film does also show the liberated prisoners talking animatedly to their saviours, being treated for disease, trying on clothes and shoes.  It shows them, in other words, taking on their humanity again.  As if it had never been stolen from them entirely, merely put to one side as hindrance rather than help in that brutal world.  And of course, it is not as if we cannot see, if we choose, such images on YouTube or in other documentaries, often using this very footage.

As Jean Cayrol wrote, in the script used by Alain Resnais for his film Night and Fog:

There are those reluctant to believe

Or believing from time to time.

There are those who look at these ruins today

As though the monster were dead and buried beneath them.

Those who take hope again as the image fades

As though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps.

Those who pretend all this happened only once,

At a certain time and in a certain place.

Those who refuse to look around them,

Deaf to the endless cry.

Bernstein’s documentary ends with the words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” We haven’t.  And night has fallen for so many.   It’s to be hoped that the film will have the wider audience it deserved and still deserves today.  The lesson still needs to be taught and we have to hope it’s not too late to learn.

Jean Cayrol, Nuit et brouillard (Mille et une nuit, 1997)

http://variety.com/2014/film/global/holocaust-doc-night-will-fall-gets-global-broadcast-1201362494/

http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/jan/27/daily-telegraphs-holocaust-article-in-1942-that-went-unheralded?CMP=share_btn_fb

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/09/holocaust-film-too-shocking-to-show-night-will-fall-alfred-hitchcock

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The Heaviest Weight of All – Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

The heaviest weight of all: to see
that no one needs me,
to know, to think,
I’ll fade into nothingness like smoke

The young woman who wrote these words was seventeen. So it would be easy to read their intensity as being a teenage thing, a bit over dramatic. But this was December 1941, in Czernowitz, now in the Ukraine.   Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was writing for her boyfriend, Leiser Fichman, who had been taken to a forced labour camp. Three months after she wrote this poem, she was interned with her parents in the ghetto and then deported to Transnistria and forced on an exhausting march to the Michailowka labour camp, where Selma died of typhus on 16 December 1942.   Leiser kept the poems with him, and then sent them to Selma’s friend Else in 1944. He died when the clandestine immigrant vessel he had boarded, heading for Israel, sank in the Black Sea – he never knew that Selma had died.

Selma

Those words – to fade into nothingness like smoke – take on a terrible symbolism in the post-Auschwitz world. And of course, they describe very well the intent. Not enough to drive the undesirables from your territory, not enough to render them powerless and penniless. The last traces of them have to be eradicated, it has to become as if they never were.

As the last survivors of the Nazi holocaust leave us, the need to keep their memory alive becomes ever more pressing, and the difficulty of doing so ever greater.   The machine that devoured so many left such chaos behind that there are those whose fate will never be definitively known, and where whole families perished there was perhaps no one to remember. Whilst there was a flurry of survivor memoirs immediately after the end of the war, there was then a reaction against it, born from the overwhelming desire to forget, to say, ‘that was a nightmare, but we’ve woken up now and everything is back to normal’, but also from fear. For many who survived, there was a strong instinct, reinforced in some cases by advice by Jewish organisations, to keep a low profile, to do nothing to reawaken the hatred. And the trauma of what they had seen and experienced left many unable to speak, ever, or for many years.

But, as Walter Benjamin said, to live means to leave traces. Selma’s poems, Hélène Berr’s journal, Gideon Klein’s chamber music, the children’s paintings from Terezin – all of these speak to us down the decades, and deny the Nazis their ultimate goal. And more and more, those ordinary people, who kept no journals, who composed no sonatas, who wrote no poetry, are being given back their names.

helene

Serge Klarsfeld has painstakingly documented the child occupants of the trains that left France for destinations in the East. Not all of them can be identified with certainty – some, separated from their parents and too young to give their names and addresses, remain nameless. Some have photographs, capturing them in solemn family portraits or holiday snapshots:

klarsfeld children

These three sisters were all deported from Paris in August 1942. The oldest sister, Esther Adamowicz, was born in Poland, her younger sisters, Myriam and Sarah-Cécile, in Paris. They lived at 46 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth in Paris (3rd arr.).They were 12, 6 and 4 respectively when they were killed.

The Jewish Traces project, Plus qu’un nom dans une liste, tells us of Marianne Epstein, a little younger than Selma, whose family fled Germany after Kristallnacht, initially for the Netherlands and then for France.

Famille-Epstein0001-285x300

After the fall of France they headed south, and settled in St Léonard de Noblat in the Haute Vienne department, until they were rounded up with thousands of other foreign Jews in August 1942. They were taken to Nexon, then to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz.

The Solpersteine project (literally, ‘stumbling stones’), is commemorating Holocaust victims with the installation of a brass plaque in the pavement, in front of their last home.   Artist Gunter Demnig has now placed such stones in over 610 locations in Germany, and in many other countries occupied by the Nazis.  He quotes the Talmud: “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” and so the stones each tell us of one name, one person, beginning with ‘Here lived…’.

solpersteine

These projects are not just about saying ‘Never again’. They are about keeping the memories alive. We may not have known Selma, or Marianne, Anna, Helene or Esther. We know their names, where they lived, and so we can piece together something of their story. We may know what they looked like, we may hear their voices through their words, treasured by friends or family and shared with the world.

This matters, it really does. When serial killers strike, we remember their names, but the names of those whose lives they took soon fade – we can’t remember all of them, the teenagers shot down at Utøya, the children of Dunblane. When thousands, or millions are killed we can only grasp the enormity through the detail. The horror is not in the total numbers, it is in these entries in the logs for Convoy 23 and 26, August 1942:

(UN ENFANT) BEAUNE Sans identité n° 122 –
(UN ENFANT) BEAUNE Sans identité n° 146
(Petit Garçon) 01.01.39 CAMPS-LOIRET
(Petite Fille) CAMPS-LOIRET Portant plaque n° 237 –
(Petite Fille) CAMPS-LOIRET Portant plaque n° 36 –

Just ponder on this for a moment. These small children had already known fear and abandonment. And on their last journey they had no one with them who knew their name. We can hope there was someone to hold their hand, to cuddle them, to sing to them. But they had no one who knew their name.

Ponder on this too. Human beings, like us, took them from their homes, separated them from their parents and older siblings, pushed them into the railway trucks. And then, perhaps, went home to their own children, bathed them and told them a story, tucked them into bed, kissed them on the forehead and said goodnight.

Genocide doesn’t start with killing. It starts by taking away the things that make you who you are, and reducing you to Jew, Tutsi, Moslem, Igbo. It tells everyone you lived next door to, went to school with, worked for or with, that Jew/Tutsi/Moslem/Igbo is less than they are, not just inferior but dangerous. And when you’re isolated, displaced and friendless, then you can be eradicated, no trace left behind.

It’s up to us to find the traces. To remember the people we never knew, to ensure that they do not ‘fade into nothingness like smoke’.

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/spots_of_light

http://ghettospuren.de/aktuelles/

http://www.holocaust-history.org/klarsfeld/French Children

http://jewishtraces.org/plus-quun-nom-dans-une-liste

http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/

http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/people/

Berr, Hélène, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008)

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2014 – some of the best bits

Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre.   However, I did manage a few outings…

  • Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight.  I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed.  The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals  – see also Poppeia).
  • Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme,  and The Coronation of Poppeia.  And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location. 

poppeia la boheme

  • Tramlines!
  • Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’),  Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
  • Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture.  Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes.  We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015.  Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Lifegoes from strength to strength.
  • I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager.  That was a great game.  We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated.   If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around.  I hope he can.  I really, really, hope he can.

Top TV of 2014

No attempt at ranking.  How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy?  So, what do all of these shows have in common?  First, excellent writing, and great performances.  Essential to have both.  So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks.  Second, great female characters.  All of these programmes  basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park.   It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to.  So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.

orphan line of duty happy valley mollyhomeland scott & baileycarol community shield

  1. Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
  2. Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it.  They did,  and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it.  Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes.  But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising.   The rest of the cast was superb too.
  3. Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year.  This valley was pretty damned grim.  But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
  4. Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4.  The three central women (count them!  three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
  5. The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time.   It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations.   Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout.  There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
  6. Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right.  It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well.  And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
  7. Community made me laugh more than anything else this year.   Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
  8. Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere.  I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
  9. Homeland redeemed itself.   Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
  10. Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year.  Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved.   And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others….  Cracking plot too.

Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic  reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon.   I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order.  Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front.   Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).

guardians 2 cap america x men lego dallas white ribbon mr turner  slavedragonaurielcornelia

Women of the year:

  Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty

Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science

kate Kate Bush – for doing it her way, as always

fahma Fahma Mohamed – for telling men three times her age what they needed to be told about FGM and how to protect young women in the UK

malala Malala Yousafzai – it’s all been said really.  A young woman of remarkable maturity and dignity, as well as courage.

adedevoh Dr Ameyo Adadevoh – helped to curb the spread of Ebola by quarantining a patient in the face of pressure from his government, but succumbed to the disease herself

 

laura bates Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.

In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, footballW G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who.  I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!

Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion.  This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance.  A fascinating project, beautifully documented.

To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you.   I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!

 

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Books of the Year 2014

Inexplicably, the quality press has not yet invited me to name my top reads over the last twelve months, but no matter, I’ll do it anyway.

There is no attempt to rank or compare, or to identify one top title – just to share some of this year’s reading pleasure.

First, Taiye Selasi’s gorgeous Ghana Must Go. Drawn to it at first just for the title, I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.

.ghana must gostonercomber heshel staincliffe letters    diamond star halo moral compasspierced heartnorthup

 

 

 

John Williams’ Stoner had massive word of mouth before I got round to reading it. I was not disappointed – of course the academic milieu that it describes is very familiar to me and that helped to draw me in. But the emotional punch it pulled was unexpected and I rather regretted reading it in public.

I’ve written elsewhere about the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, from John Harvey. I read a lot of detective novels – it was a year of long train journeys – and discovered new writers, notably Ann Cleeves, Laura Lippman, Louise Doughty, Belinda Bauer and Anne Holt, as well as enjoying new stuff from existing favourite Cath Staincliffe. Her Letters to my Daughter’s Killer is powerful stuff.

Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo rocked my world, and Sugar Hall chilled my spine. I read the whole Game of Thrones series, and am eager for more. Other favourites from writers new to me were John Lanchester’s Capital, Patrick McGuiness’s The Last Hundred Days, and Sue Eckstein’s Interpreters. I will seek out more by all of them, though very sadly, Sue Eckstein’s early death means that there is only one more from her to look forward to.

Danny Rhodes’ Fan inspired me to reminisce and ruminate about my relationship with the game of football, and with Nottingham Forest in particular, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl both made me laugh uproariously, and moved me to tears. It prompted a blog too.

As well as discovering new writers, I had the delight of reading more by some great favourites. Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, Stevie Davies’ Into Suez, Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, all very different, and all on top form.

Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary mystery, The Pierced Heart, played beautifully with the Dracula myth, and the set up – a young man travels into the heart of Europe, an older, darker Europe, is welcomed by a mysterious Baron in a castle full of alchemical texts and other, more troubling collections – not only echoes Bram Stoker but reminded me of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape, about which I hope to write something in due course.   And oddly there were echoes of other aspects of The Pierced Heart in Stephen King’s excellent Revival, despite the very different setting. My most recent Doctor Who blog touched on these themes.

I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.

Other non-fiction that had an impact on me included Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which I read before I saw Steve McQueen’s harrowing and viscerally powerful film, and Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, to which I was led by W G Sebald (in the final pages of Austerlitz).  There was also Philippa Comber’s fascinating memoir of her friendship with Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, another future blog, I hope.

 

 

Belinda Bauer – Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers

Ann Cleeves – Dead Water, Red Bones, Silent Voices, Burial of Ghosts

Philippa Comber – Ariadne’s Thread

Stevie Davies – Into Suez

Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard

Sue Eckstein – Interpreters

Lesley Glaister – Little Egypt

John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness

Anne Holt – Blessed are Those who Thirst

Dan Jacobson – Heshel’s Kingdom

Liz Jensen – The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Stephen King – Revival

John Lanchester – Capital

Laura Lippmann – The Innocents, Life Sentences, Don’t Look Back

Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days

Kenan Malik – The Quest for a Moral Compass

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall

Solomon Northrop – Twelve Years a Slave

Danny Rhodes – Fan

Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart

Cath Staincliffe – Letters to my Daughter’s Killer

John Williams – Stoner

 

 

 

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