9 · From Hell
While books about Australia dwell on questions of national identity, books about Britain, judging by the ones I’ve read this year, dwell on questions of class and Englishness.
9 · The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
Six months ago, figuring I was unlikely to be getting an iPod for a while, I picked up a cheap key-drive MP3 player to listen to on the bus. Before long I was trying to get more out of its pitiful capacity by filling it with low-bitrate recordings of The Goon Show, and listening to more of Spike, Secombe and Sellers than at any time since the age of twelve.
So I was well-primed for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, the biopic which picked up his story at the height of his radio success. Everyone knows his movies—the Pink Panther series, Dr Strangelove, The Party, Being There—but his private life is less well-known. You might not want to know it, either, because seeing what a spoilt, egocentric maniac the man was takes some of the shine off the happy memories of his work. The more successful he got, the more hollow he became, as the “real” Sellers disappeared into a cacophony of funny voices; until, perhaps, just before the end.
9 · Luxembourg
Who says Britpop is dead? Pretty much everybody, I guess, although nobody seems to have told the bands: Oasis are gearing up for another monster tour; Graham Coxon is reliving mid-’90s Blur on Happiness in Magazines; and a host of others are still making music, even if we’ve lost some of the best along the way (RIP Pulp and Suede). A few are even making better albums today than they were ten years ago—like these guys.
10 · A Short History of Nearly Everything
Last year I wrote about a slew of non-fiction books on the great figures of the 19th century who Changed Everything, but there were a few gaps. I mentioned Simon Garfield’s Mauve, but only read it this year: a perfectly encapsulated story of a forgotten figure who invented much of the world we see around us. Then there was Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, which brings to life the time when people couldn’t bring themselves the believe that anything bigger than a rhinoceros ever wandered around Britain. (It inspired those dinosaur limericks.)
But the best pop science book I’ve read this year has to be Bill Bryson’s guided tour of modern science, A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s a natural successor to his earlier books on the English language, and a lot wittier than most of the competition, if not always as accurate.
10 · Shrek 2
I like a good dose of CGI as much as the next geek, and you can’t get much more computer-generated or imag(in)ery than this. If I’d had a chance to see The Incredibles before starting this countdown it might have pipped the jolly green ogre at the post, but that doesn’t mean Shrek 2 is no good: a sharp script made it as much fun as the first one, and the sight of Puss in Boots coughing up a hairball had me laughing harder than anything else at the movies this year.
10 · Has Been
If I were to list my top ten albums of the year there would be only three or four artists on the list. So to make things more interesting, I’m going to clump similar works together (for books and movies, too) and choose the best or most representative in each group—which is how William Shatner’s extraordinary second album squeaks into the list ahead of almost everything by, say, the Divine Comedy.
The previous entry was the ninetieth at Speedysnail this year, which doesn’t seem like much; that’s what happens when I try to put a full page’s worth of value into each and every one. (Still, it’s one every four days; 500-2000 word essays, most of ’em. And you got over 223 links in the feed, as well.)
After reading Atonement I compulsively bought most of Ian McEwan’s books—and then left most of them on the shelves. (To mature, like a fine wine.) When I saw the trailer for the movie version of Enduring Love a couple of weeks ago, I realised I’d better pull my finger out if I was going to read the book first.
My brother and sister-in-law lived in London’s docklands for most of their time in the UK, which meant I ended up spending a fair bit of time in the area. He was back there briefly a week or two ago, so I popped down for 24 hours to see him. Luckily it was a clear autumn day, perfect for walking around his old haunts—and for supplementing previous photos of the area’s crumbling past and gleaming present.
Moors and Moore
When I wrote about the complete works of Giles Milton and Tim Moore a few months ago, I hadn’t read their latest books yet. Now I have, and both of them easily match their previous work. They’re even vaguely connected.
Demand in east European countries for cheap cuts of pork has led to a shortage of meat suitable for rendering into lard. ... Somerfield said it had already been forced to limit the number of tubs of lard on sale at each of its stores. It is advising customers to check their local stores to see if another delivery has arrived.
Very Thick Books
Everybody—by which I mean everybody who spends too long online—seems to be a Neal Stephenson fan these days. I can’t claim priority: I tried him out only after Snow Crash topped a best-of poll on rec.books.sf in the ’90s. Even then it took me a couple of years to get around to reading what was, after all, a very thick book. I’d given up my very-thick-book habit in the mid-’80s after being burned by volumes two and three of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (the First Chronicles and The Wounded Land were great—how can you not like a fantasy series where the bad guy is called Lord Foul?—but by White Gold Wielder I reckoned the Land had become the Land of Suck). After that I found it more satisfying to read shorter works of 200-300 pages, which ruled out most fantasy and science fiction for a while.
An autumn stroll in Edinburgh, 7/11/2004.
4 November 2004
The Hope Opera
All first novels may not be disguised autobiographies, but sooner or later all weblogs are, whether you want them to be or not. Even a succession of one-line links to other people’s pages reveals its author over time. What goes unsaid becomes as significant as what’s said, even if you were just busy with something else.
This has certainly been the year of the unsaid here at Snail Manor. Just how different my blogging, or occasional essaying, or whatever the hell this is had become was brought home when a friend told me she’d read over my first year of entries, prompting me to do the same. So much experimentation that year, in writing and in life; so much hope. It wasn’t a good time to be reminded of it, back in April.