Before we settle too cosily into 2013 I am going to recycle the format I stole from Becca’s Blog last year and look back at my cultural year.
Top 3 books
My greatest joy has been in reading P.G. Wodehouse, with three Jeeves and Wooster books late in the year reminding me what an unutterably funny writer he is. Sadly I only have about 90 of his books left to read. But if I’m going to choose individual titles, I shall go for Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, the wit and imagination of which was an unexpected delight, Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a sparkling and cheeky variation on the Cinderella story, and Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Completed in 1848, it’s not Dickens’ greatest novel, but it shows the stirrings of a greater ambition that would be realised in the masterpieces he wrote in the following twenty years, and in the likes of Captain Cuttle, Solomon Gills, Walter Gay, Toots and Florence Dombey it contains some of his sweetest and most lovable characters.
Top 3 CDs (classical)
Late in 2011 I heard this Radio 4 documentary which contained some beautiful guitar arrangements of French piano music. I contacted the producer, who kindly informed me that the CD used was Rêverie by the Groningen Guitar Duo. I have enjoyed getting acquainted with it this year. An article in Gramophone alerted me to a 1999 disc of French Airs de Cour performed by Catherine King, Charles Daniels and Jacob Heringman, which is superb and contains much unfamiliar and charming repertoire. I haven’t bought a great many CDs released this year, but the disc of choral music by Howells sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under Stephen Layton is one that stands out. The programme is inspired, beginning with the Hymn for St Cecilia and ending with ‘All my hope on God is founded’. The recent discs of Howells from Hereford and St John’s, Cambridge have missed a trick in not including any of Howells’ hymn tunes. I could have done with one or two more on the Trinity CD.
Top 3 CDs (other)
I have been recommending Todd Rundgren’s 1972 double album Something/Anything? to all and sundry this year, and have given it to people as presents. It’s enormously sugary and 90% of it is seventh chords, but I love it. I have also been spending a lot of time with Para One’s soundtrack to Céline Sciamma’s film Naissance des Pieuvres. I saw the film two or three years ago. It’s a coming-of-age drama centred around a swimming pool, a fine piece of work, but I think the music stands on its own. It’s sumptuously atmospheric, and very watery. And I was lucky to find a cheap copy of this William Sheller anthology. It’s been lovely discovering songs of his I didn’t know before.
Top 3 films
I’ve already written about my favourite new films of last year, but what of those I came across on the TV? I watched quite a lot of them. Omitting those I’d seen before (though I would like to give an honourable mention to Basil Dearden’s Victim, which came across as a bold minor masterpiece that I hadn’t acknowledged before), I have narrowed the list down to three, two of which are very recent films anyway. Firstly The Arbor, Clio Barnard’s audacious drama-documentary about the life of Andrea Dunbar, which marries documentary footage with new interviews lip-synched by actors. At times it takes the breath away. Then Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo), a gentle, illuminating drama about a family convening to mark the anniversary of a son’s death. It has been compared by some to the films of Ozu, which is not unwarranted praise. And thirdly, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s remarkable religious melodrama Ordet, which packs an astonishing emotional punch at its climax.
Top 3 live music
I love instrumental and chamber music, but my favourite concerts in 2012 were on a larger scale. I don’t always like the Royal Albert Hall as a venue, but I find it’s better if a) there are a lot of performers to fill the space; and b) you’re not too far away from them. I was lucky to be in the side stalls for two excellent Proms – Les Troyens in July, and Bernstein’s Mass in August. Both were thrilling. Smaller but no less exhilarating was English Touring Opera’s production of Britten’s Albert Herring at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge. I hadn’t realised how fun and how funny it is; I’d certainly never laughed at an opera before. I hope to see plenty more Britten on stage in his centenary year.
Top 3 theatre
I’m including musicals again. One of my choices last year was the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd, then about to transfer to London. I went to see it three more times after the transfer, and I’m choosing it again. I suppose this is about as close as I get to being a fanboy. I marvel at Sondheim’s genius, and vow to get to know more of his work this year. Company is on at the ADC in a month, so that can be the first step. Then, the revival of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road at the National Theatre, a haunting and upsetting musical based on verbatim transcripts of interviews with the residents of London Road in Ipswich, in the aftermath of the 2006 prostitute murders. It sounds unpleasantly sensationalist; in fact it’s just sensational, and grows in stature with the passage of time. And lastly, the all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, which I went to twice, firstly at the Globe and then at the Apollo Theatre. The play’s a masterpiece, of course, but this production is a dream. The grace and sweep and composure of Mark Rylance’s performance as Olivia defy description. He is the finest actor I have ever had the privilege to watch, and I am going to see his Richard III soon. You still have time to catch them before they close next month.
On the subject of theatre, I feel bound also to credit Gatz, the unabridged theatrical adaptation of The Great Gatsby staged by Elevator Repair Service at the Noel Coward Theatre, Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon’s captivating musical of Swallows and Amazons that I caught at Cambridge’s Arts Theatre, and a number of comedy gigs (Sheeps, Jonny Sweet, Tom Basden, Tim Key, the excellent Staple/face). There is one more event I would like to mention that doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories above: Alex Preston’s discussion with Richard Holloway at the Cambridge Union as part of Cambridge Wordfest in April. It felt a great privilege to see Holloway in person, a wry, humane, sympathetic and wise man. I’m sure I will read his acclaimed memoir, Leaving Alexandria, this year. Let’s all of us have a good one!