George Square, Glasgow, 11 December 2004.
Who Killed Round Robin?
From the year I left home until a few years ago, I sent a letter to all my friends every Christmas telling them what I’d been up to (and, once Jane was on the scene, what we’d both been up to)—my “form letter”, as I jokingly called it. I couldn’t face hand-writing the same news out again and again, and top-and-tailing it on a word processor seemed less honest than acknowledging its photocopied origins. Which was fine, until we moved to Britain and ran up against:
- Seasonal Affective Disorder, and
- Institutionalized mockery of “round robins”, as they’re called here, in the British press.
- Print out.
- Delete where applicable.
- Rush around shops during three remaining days until Christmas.
- Purchase fine DVDs, CDs, hardcovers and paperbacks.
- Wrap. Relax.
- Leave small offering of port and cashew nuts for Santa Rore, patron saint of obsessive end-of-year list-makers.
1 · Stasiland
It may seem an anti-climax to end on a one-paragraph post, but I’ve already written enough about my number one book of 2004, and as I’ve read nothing else like it all year there’s not much else to add. Anna Funder’s Stasiland is the key to the cupboard under the stairs of twentieth century history.
1 · Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
I’m not sure how I went the length of the ’90s without seeing a single movie by Richard Linklater. I knew about Slacker, of course—one of those titles that attached itself to Generation X like, well, “Generation X”. But it didn’t seem like something I desperately had to see.
Like many, though, I was intrigued by Waking Life’s existential musings set to different animation styles, and I also wanted to reassure myself that my favourite Philip K. Dick novel was in safe hands; so when his movies started hitting Edinburgh screens with increasing regularity this year, I was there. First there was the matinee screening of Dazed and Confused, a ’90s film about the ’70s in the same way that American Graffiti was a ’70s film about the ’50s; like Graffiti, it also seems to have inspired a sitcom (That ’70s Show, Happy Days). Then there was the thoroughly enjoyable School of Rock. Finally, at the beginning of August, came the matinee double of Slacker (at last) and Before Sunrise, in preparation for the latter’s new sequel.
1 · Riot on an Empty Street
And so we approach the end of this marathon. In the words of Bill Shatner, “Why did I bother?” I guess because I like being able to look back at what I’ve enjoyed, and why; and because I’m aware of how much my own tastes have been shaped by the recommendations of others, and am hoping to repay them, in a karmic sense at least, by passing on a few of my own. Appropriately, my favourite album of 2004 was itself the result of a recommendation.
2 · Spanish Steps
Regular readers will have seen this one coming, at least. Is Tim Moore the funniest travel writer around today? Funny enough for me, anyway. Choosing a favourite out of his books is hard: for a long while Frost on My Moustache looked like the front-runner, but I think it has to be his newest, Spanish Steps, for being the story of more than Moore alone. I guess it’s the fitting choice in a “best of 2004” list.
Speaking of Spain, if you’re heading that way I highly recommend the Time Out guide to Andalucía.
2 · Kill Bill Vol. 2
I thought long and hard about where this movie would sit in my top ten, bumping it up rung after rung every time I did. It’s a combined ranking, really, for Vols. 1 & 2, which together make up Tarantino’s finest hour.
I’ve seen plenty of people disagree; people who liked his earlier movies, even, but couldn’t stomach the violence in Volume One, or the dialogue in Volume Two, and couldn’t see the point in either. There’s enough film-student analysis of Tarantino and Kill Bill floating around the web for me not to want to add to it; but what intrigues me is why I was able to stomach this—not only stomach it, but be left impressed by it.
2 · Final Straw
Rock. Dad Rock. One is cool; one is sad. What was once Rock can become Dad Rock—the Who, for example, or U2—while some Dad Rock springs whole from the earth, ejected from the volcano of fashion by the seismic shifts of youth culture. The age of the performers has nothing to do with it: if you appeal to thirty-something men, you’re Dad Rock. Bad luck, kid.
If you are a thirty-something man, you might bristle at this label, especially if you’ve been known to pick Dad Rock classics as your albums of the year. Well, screw it. I like Coldplay, and Travis. I know they’re derivative; so what. Who isn’t?
3 · Life of Pi
Judging by the end-of-year round-ups in newspapers, you’d think that to be well-read you not only have to read more books than any other person you know, they also have to be the very latest up-to-the-minute volumes of Encyclopedia Zeitgeistica. I manage a few timely reads every year, but between those and catching up on neglected classics and the older stuff that’s caught my eye, the zeitgeist backlog grows ever larger. Fortunately, the zeitgeist is a moving target, so if I neglect its Essential Books for long enough they’ll just become Old Stuff I Haven’t Read Yet, which is much less guilt-inducing. In fact, it can feel like time saved: I kept Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians around for years because it was a zeitgeisty book on politics which Every Australian Should Read, until it became clear that not only was I likely to disagree with it (not a problem as such), I’d be disagreeing with stale zeitgeist. So I’ve traded it in for a fresh new copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which should do for a quick sorbet of non-fiction between heavy courses of Stephenson (360 pages in, by the way, but I’m hoping to finish volume one over Christmas).
Fictional zeitgeist keeps a bit better than non-fiction, but there’s still that sense of wanting to keep up with what everyone’s reading, or at least what they’re pretending to read. In recent years I’ve found that the occasional Booker-winning or -short-listed novel does the trick; this year, I’ve actually read two, although I’m still a year or two behind the curve.
3 · Lost in Translation
Even revealing the title of my third-favourite film of the year has probably pissed off some readers (or at least random visitors arriving via Google), because along with the widespread adulation and almost-as-widespread expressions of indifference (okay, so it’s slow-paced; this ain’t Grand Theft Auto) were a few expressions of indignation. Lost in Translation was nothing more than an extended slur on the Japanese, some said—like that scene where Bill Murray didn’t realise that he was being told to “rip” a woman’s stocking, which was obviously mocking how the Japanese use the same sound for r and l. Outrageous.
3 · Five Leaves Left
This was the year I discovered Nick Drake, after a comment in a post by Kaf inspired me to borrow the Fruit Tree boxed set from the library. My “discovery” isn’t really worthy of the name, I know: it’s not like Columbus discovering America, or even Columbus “discovering” America—more like discovering what everyone’s been talking about behind your back.
4 · White Gold
Giles Milton is another author well-covered here already. His books are all so excellent that it’s hard to choose the best; I particularly liked Big Chief Elizabeth. But my pick of the year has to go to his newest, for being a story I didn’t know the first thing about.
4 · The Motorcycle Diaries
A few days after writing about its music I’m back onto South America, which exercises a growing pull on my imagination these days. Two of my favourite movies of last year, City of God and Touching the Void, were set there. Learning Spanish had something to do with it too, I guess; as has seeing some friends’ photos from a nine-day hike through the glaciers of southern Argentina.
Perhaps that’s why The Motorcycle Diaries has lingered in my mind longer than its straightforward road-movie storyline would seem to warrant. It was well-acted and plotted, but the tale of a pre-“Che” Ernesto Guevara isn’t as obvious a choice for big-screen treatment as his later life as a revolutionary. There’s enough incident here to keep the viewer engaged—life-threatening asthma attacks, daring swims across the Amazon—but the real interest is in seeing the length and breadth of South America’s landscapes and people represented on screen in a way that few mainstream movies have done before. The Motorcycle Diaries helps explain why this beautiful, varied, and difficult place inspired such fierce passions in Guevara, his friend Alberto, and others like them; and unlike Dwayne and Clare’s holiday photos, its amazing images are available to everyone.
4 · A Secret History
The lead-up to Christmas is when the Best Ofs reign supreme at all the big music stores, but Most Of ’em are pretty ordinary albums as such. The only best-of I remember with real fondness is Queen’s Greatest Hits—the Oz version—and probably for reasons unrelated to its musical content. (Not that I’ll hear a word against “Killer Queen”.)
5 · The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading was a close contender for this top ten. A thoughtful reflection on various classics of children’s literature and how they affected Spufford’s development and adult outlook, it was enjoyable not only for the influences we had in common—Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin and science fiction in general—but for those we didn’t, like C.S. Lewis and The Little House on the Prairie. Reading it took me back to Huonville library and the thrill of exploring the books on its shelves, and to all those hours spent inculcating the reading habits of a lifetime.
Kids are spoilt for choice for good books at the moment, and it’s been fun to bob for the apples at the top of the barrel of popular awareness. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time made a lot of top tens in the newspapers last year, so when it came out in paperback I read it pretty much straight away. Its Asperger’s Syndrome narrator has one of the most striking voices of recent fiction—a more prickly and analytical Adrian Mole—and the book’s central mystery unfolds in the best detective story tradition. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s a book that can be enjoyed by adults without having to make any allowances for its genre, provided you don’t give a toss about people looking down at you for reading children’s books—or for following the herd and reading the fashionable children’s books that have been noticed by the newspapers. How else are you supposed to hear about them? The Huonville library is a long way away.
5 · Shaun of the Dead
There’s nothing like a good comedy movie. And Starsky and Hutch was nothing like a... oh, all right, it was okay; I remember enjoying it well enough, right up until that awful cameo appearance by David Soul and Whatsisname at the end. But as Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson double-act movies go, this was about the least interesting.
5 · Bebel Gilberto
When I was a kid, my musical landscape wasn’t vast: an Abba tape; Peter and the Wolf; a synthesized cover of Star Wars (Patrick Gleeson, where are you now?). Most of the surrounding geography was mapped out by my parents: continents of classical music dotted with oases of easy listening—Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, Roger Whittaker, Cleo Laine. Cleo was one of my Dad’s favourites—Britain’s first lady of jazz, in those days.
When I drew up my own musical maps I left the jazz hemisphere blank: not quite “Here Be Monsters”, just a territory I had no interest in exploring. Rock and classical and everything in-between, sure, but anything involving “stylings” wasn’t my style.
6 · Not on the Label
It isn’t often you can say “This book changed my life,” but Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label did. Since reviewing it here in July, I’ve been to Tesco no more than half a dozen times: we’re getting a veg box delivered to our door by a local organic producer instead. So our diet has changed, at least: more cabbage, more carrots, more scrubbing away dirt; and I’m reading more new recipes than I had been for quite a while. The other night I even donned rubber gloves to peel and grate four fresh beetroots to make a garish red risotto. Try doing that with a jar of Baxter’s finest.
6 · Super Size Me
It’s been a year for movies with a message. The biggest in every sense was enviro-disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which tried with special effects to do what scores of scientists couldn’t: convince the doubters that pumping the remains of the Carboniferous Period into the atmosphere might make our climate behave a tad erratically.
6 · Talkie Walkie
“We are electronic performers” went the opening track of Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend—a perfect performance for testing consumer electronics, as I found when trying out new stereo components. They followed their own instructions (“Don’t Be Light”) on the heavy second album, but on Talkie Walkie the lightness is back. It’s a sunny melange of French accents, acoustic guitar sounds, synthesized flutes and the usual electronic noises, taking the best features of Moon Safari and its sequel and running with them. The result was my soundtrack for January, and “Mike Mills” one of my favourite tracks of the year.
7 · Being a Man... in the Lousy Modern World
Another entry where I can coast for a bit. I’ve done the Robert Twigger round-up, and reckon all four of his books are worth your time. As for a favourite, I’ll go with the one I’d most like to re-read, even at this early stage: Being a Man... in the Lousy Modern World. (In a similar vein to some of Twigger’s work, and just as entertaining, was Nigel Barley’s Not a Hazardous Sport, although it’s out-of-print and hard to track down—took me years to find a copy.)
7 · Some Kind of Monster
One of my favourite segments of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes featured Iggy Pop and Tom Waits meeting up at a diner and tiptoeing around each other’s feelings, neither wanting to admit that they actually care about all of that rock-star stuff. I still find it entertaining to peer behind the rock-and-roll facade and get a glimpse of the ordinary Joes underneath; guess ten years of reading Rolling Stone hasn’t quite worn off.
You don’t get a better glimpse behind the facade than Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. With everyone calling it a real-life Spinal Tap I was expecting embarrassing bickering and self-important posturing, and there was plenty of that, but it turned out to be much more interesting: Some Kind of Monster shows what would have happened if Spinal Tap had actually got their shit together in the final act.
7 · Lifeblood
Pomp rock: you know you love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than a big puffed-up rock band belting out anthems with a right-on message. Unless, of course, you prefer anthems with a right-wing message, in which case I can’t help you. But if you’re right into right-on, you’ve come to the right place.
8 · Where Did It All Go Right?
Unless you’re some kind of celebrity or had a terrible childhood, good luck getting your autobiography published. Andrew Collins must have good luck, then, because Where Did It All Go Right? is the intentional opposite of the terrible-childhood memoir: a “blissful middle-England childhood” memoir. Granted, he might count as a minor celebrity—BBC radio presenter, ex-editor of Q—although I’d never heard of him. I’d heard of a surprising number of the things he grew up with, though: all those elements of UK pop culture that made their way out to the other side of the world, like The Goodies, IPC comics, and the New Romantics. It helped that Collins is only a couple of years older than me, but Jane grew up with none of that stuff and yet also enjoyed this.
8 · Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Strange movies are hard to pull off. One that succeeded spectacularly was 2001’s Donnie Darko, so I was sorry to see that the Director’s Cut didn’t. In fact, it may be my least favourite director’s cut of all. Richard Kelly basically took all of the DVD extras and shoehorned them back into the movie, extending its length by 20 minutes. What was perfectly paced became ponderous; what was mysterious has been over-explained. The beauty of the original was that you weren’t always sure whether you were watching a tale of madness, of parallel worlds, or what; now it’s just a straight science fiction movie. Worse, the teen-movie aspect has been overshadowed by some completely gratuitous computer-graphics linking segments, which add nothing but already look dated. This is one case where the constraints imposed by the studio worked to the movie’s benefit.
8 · Everyone is Here
I’ve already written about the Finn Brothers’ live show, so I’ll keep my powder dry for other instalments of this countdown by just noting that Everyone is Here was every bit as wonderful.