In the 2006 novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a father and son spend their days walking through a harrowing post-apocalyptic landscape foraging for any edible remnants left over from an untold disaster that went before. A lucky day for them would be when they come across a tin of preserved food in a long-abandoned ruin of a house. Discoveries like these would be their supplies for one more day of bare survival. 2018, to me, felt like that sometimes. Only unlike in McCarthy’s novel where the apocalypse has already happened, I feel like we are still on the verge of some cataclysmic turn in the world order that will change civilisation as we know it.
Sounds a bit sombre, I know, but sometimes it does feel like we are just numbing ourselves from what is a particularly low moment in time. Nothing would illustrate it better than Childish Gambino’s video, This is America – possibly this year’s finest art form, packaging everything that can be said about being black in America, and also what it is like being the rest of us in the world, in about four minutes. Take a picture here. Take a souvenir.
There were short periods this year in which the wave of the art world hit its highest amplitude, and then this was followed by a long wavelength when it was in its trough – in some dank, gloomy tunnel with not so much to offer. It would have been a year of political tragicomedies that could be swiped to the right of the phone screen (thank you, next), except that it also felt like 1932 again. In so many ways, in so many places, and for so many people. In the words of a Depeche Mode song from last year, we have lost our soul / the course has been set….we’re going backwards armed with new technology/ going backwards to a caveman mentality.
So like the man and his son in The Road, I too found myself foraging for a good film or a good song, and devoured anything I could find ravenously. It was a better year for both fiction and non-fiction I reckon, than it was for film or music. I must admit though I had much less opportunity to read or watch films this year than I would have wished, having had to take a long hiatus from most things towards the end of the year. Still, I found myself spending most of the last twelve months often going body deep into the past, looking for familiar faces, for comfortable places, and for names I wanted to remember. Foraging. For a tin of preserved emotions, a sturdy ball of good memories, supplies for one more year of life.
There is an old poem by Lorna Goodison called I Am Becoming My Mother that I have always liked. Long before it would resonate so closely to my present reality. Because I now talk like my parents, I complain like them, and right now, just like my late father, I can say that I have no idea where the whole year has gone. Like him, I seem to suffer amnesia for the most part of the immediate past. What happened in March? Or April? What was I doing in July? Oh wait, I must always remember July, its May or June that’s forgettable. Years and years go. They just… go. I have been making these pretty useless lists for twelve years now. And I have wondered who they are for. Possibly for no one in particular. I realise now though they must be a note to my future 83-year-old alzheimic self. So when I ask myself what happened in 2009, or 2018, I would have these notes and lists to remember the three things that matter. Music, books and films.
I have said this almost every year before this – it’s just so hard to listen to new albums these days because there are hardly any being made for people my age. Most of what is being released is quite intolerable. However, there does comes along that artist who sits down and decides to express a viewpoint that is both expansive and bold, with the poignant insight that speaks to every yearning, every desire, every disappointment, every heartbreak. The kind of emotional haemorrhage that draws me in. Absolutely love it. Sing your pain, turn it into music.
Dave Matthews Band, one of the best bands I have ever seen perform live, churned yet another great record that was both an ode to love, and to parenthood. The day you came, naked, afraid, he sings in Samurai Cop, let’s not forget these early days, remember we begin the same…oh joy begin. It is certainly an album only an old fan would celebrate because DMB have hardly changed how they make music since their first album, Under the Table and Dreaming, in 1994. Theirs is rock, soul and jazz mashed into one holy music-making jam. Brandi Carlile and Kacey Musgraves were both welcome country gifts in a year of many lulls. Both women sing about their mixed-up emotions, their imperfections and fears. I’m the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous when I’m having the time of my life, Kacey Musgraves says in one of her songs, is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight? Happy and sad at the same time. Their love songs are inquiries into the soul, which make the two albums feel a lot more powerful than their modesty may suggest. I’ve never met a coward I didn’t like, sings Bradi Carlile. Neither have I.
Like Dave Matthews, she also explores parenthood, past hurts she still wants to explore, and old scores to at least consider settling, as her album’s title would suggest. Sir Paul MacCartney made the first good full length album since 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt, and I must say I didn’t expect he ever would again. Leon Bridges is a velvet soul voice that we first heard a couple of years ago, boldly retro, warmly nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. His song, Beyond, is my favourite track of the year and I would bet against anyone who wouldn’t be swept away by it. That song fought hard to be my number one song of the year against Bradi Carlile’s The Joke, but at the camera finish, the love song had to win. Love always triumphs.
Talking of my ten best songs, they are a lot less eclectic this year than in previous years. The Beach House song Pay No Mind is the most alternative of the list with mesmerising guitar chords, ambient and atmospheric. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, (who are going to win all the Grammys and all the Oscars next year), brought me a twisted and haunting lyric that I have written down and read back to myself many times over.
In all the good times I find myself longing for change/ And in the bad times I fear myself.
In a year where I have walked wounded with a dad-shaped hole in my soul, serendipity would serve father-son offerings to me in every form, and none as perfect as Andrea Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli‘s Fall on Me. I close my eyes/ and I’m seeing you everywhere/ I step outside it’s like I’m breathing you in the air/ I can feel you’re there.
- Come Tomorrow DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
- By The Way, I Forgive You BRADI CARLILE
- Egypt Station PAUL McCARTNEY
- Good Thing LEON BRIDGES
- Golden Hour KACEY MUSGRAVES
- Beyond LEON BRIDGES
- The Joke BRANDI CARLILE
- Pay No Mind BEACH HOUSE
- Fall on Me ANDREA BOCELLI & MATTEO BOCELLI
- Shallow LADY GAGA & BRADLEY COOPER
- Short and Sweet SAUTI SOL feat NYASHINKI
- That Girl is You DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
- Girls Like You MAROON 5
- Make Me Feel JANELLE MONÁE
- Shotgun GEORGE EZRA
You can watch a short video of the songs below:
For the first time since 1998, I have not (yet) read this year’s Man Booker Prize winning novel. Something about the lustre of that (once) prestigious prize seems to have left me. I long for it though. Long for that feeling when I knew that the Booker shortlist was going to be the best thing I was going to read that year. It doesn’t happen anymore, or doesn’t happen as often as I would like it to.
Sally Rooney’s book, Normal People is likely to leave you with tears of recognition, reminding you of the complicated nostalgia of your own early romantic experiences. The story’s characters, like many lovers, are adept in interpersonal miscommunication, sending each other all the wrong painful ambiguities of young love – wanting, not wanting, loving and pretending not to love – the prickliness of teenage vulnerability. “Some people are even saying that he tried to add her on Facebook, which he didn’t and would never do.” The book follows Connell and Marianne from their brief affair during their schooldays where he, a popular footballer, is too ashamed to be seen with her, the ‘weirdest’ girl in school, to their time at Trinity College Dublin, where Marianne, always wealthy, now beautiful and popular too, has the social upper hand. Normal People is a love story in the truest sense, by which I mean a novel intimately concerned with the things two people can do to each other, and how much we each might want to hurt, or be hurt.
There There is a relentlessly paced story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of the Native American nations. Tommy Orange writes of the plight of the urban Native American in today’s America in a novel that grapples with the people’s complex and painful history. It tackles the inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, that has been plagued with addiction, abuse, and suicide. “We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”
The first sentence of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight puts the situation this way: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Like his other novels, this one too you won’t put down till it’s finished. The narrator, Nathaniel, is 14 when his parents leave him and his 16-year-old sister in London to be looked after by a stealth-like music lover they nickname The Moth, and a former boxer known as The Darter. When the children find that their mother’s trunk, packed for a year-long trip to Singapore, is still in the basement, the discovery sets Nathaniel on a lifelong quest to solve the mystery of her past. “The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out.”
Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is one of the best novels I read this year. If there are already so many books, songs and films out there exploring what it means to be black in America, this book explores what it is like being female and poor, and the injustices of the justice system for those who can’t afford to wing it. Romy, the narrator of the book, has been sentenced to two life terms for murdering a man who stalked her at the San Francisco strip club where she used to work. Kushner spotlights every detail of prison life and demonstrates how the system is designed to smother individuality in its scale, “the sight of thousands all dressed alike is really striking the first time you see it.” Like all great fiction, The Mars Room is by native instinct a carnival of human complexity, emphasising the vast unknowability of human lives against systems and ideologies that would reduce them to manageable binaries: good and evil, right and wrong, guilty and innocent. The book gives depth to the prison wardens and the inmates, makes them humans, and lays bare the reality of female vulnerability in poor America, both in and outside prison. And then there is Romy’s rejection of regret, “The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here.”
This is a book you will never forget. Yes, it’s one of those.
- The Mars Room RACHEL KUSHNER
- Warlight MICHAEL ONDAATJE
- Feel Free: Essays ZADIE SMITH
- There There TOMMY ORANGE
- Normal People SALLY ROONEY
- Becoming MICHELLE OBAMA
- Educated TARA WESTOVER
- So You Want to Talk About Race IJEOMA OLUO
- How to Rig an Election NIC CHEESEMAN
- Washington Black ESI EDUGYAN
In her 2017 speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep reminded us that an actor’s only job was to enter into the lives that were different from ours and makes us experience what that feels like. We use films in ways that aren’t always easy to define. We don’t just watch them, we share and debate them. We analyse them, looking for something deeper. We then carry them within us for months and years after viewing. There is always that something more in them, something we know, that life that looks back us from the screen that could easily have been ours.
I did not quite get the Black Panther hype that went on for most of the year, which is not unusual being that I am off-gradient on most things. I did see it eventually, and good god, hype really works. In my opinion, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman is a way better trenchant commentary on current events, but it doesn’t have the world’s best looking stars in the most amazing (tight leather) costumes, which I think explains the Black Panther hullaballoo more than people are willing to admit. Anyhow, without that distraction, BlackKklansman is one of Lee’s hardest hitting work in decades.
You all probably know that A Star is Born is a remake of a remake of a remake, and like all the other remakes that went before, this one too will probably scoop as many Oscars as it can. To be fair though, both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga were great in this fourth remake, both as actors and singers (refer to Shallow above). Cooper’s direction is surprisingly inventive for a first-timer, and he is very good as a clammy, collapsing partner whose love is as toxic as it is genuinely felt. The songs are solid country, giving Lady Gaga the cross-over validation she seeks and possibly deserves. I am not sure whether they should win awards, but I reckon they almost certainly will.
Alfonso Cuarón on the other hand captures a year in the life of a middle-class 1970s family in Mexico City in the film Roma which is supposedly based on his own childhood. The plot focuses not on the kids of the family but on the live-in maid who cares for them, following her from domestic chores to her dates with a guy whose idea of bedroom foreplay is nude martial arts (yes, good luck if you have one of those). Cuarón’s directing is stunning. His attention to detail leaves you nostalgic for 70s memorabilia, ergonomic furniture, vinyl records and classic cars. Every scene is perfected, from open fields to crushing ocean waves, including a jaw dropping re-creation of the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971. In luminous black and white images, every frame worthy of framing, Roma is a breathtakingly beautiful film. Everyone else seems to like it though, which makes it an overdog whose artistic value is going to be lost in the hyperbole.
There is a lot about Bohemian Rhapsody that is historically inaccurate but most people don’t seem to care, because it tells the story of Queen as we want it to be told. And a large part of it is right anyway, so mama mia, let it go. I loved it, more so because I saw it with two very very special friends, which is really what the story of the band is supposed to be about. Melodramatic friendships, creative arts, an unexplainable love for cats, and waving your banner all over the place. (And even if that’s the only Queen song you know, and possibly one other, you should still go see this great biopic if you haven’t already. The Live Aid at Wembley scene is just made in heaven). I hope Remi Malek gets the Best Actor Oscar because he was outstanding, overbite and all.
Same goes for Timothée Chalamet who once again gives another great performance in Beautiful Boy, a tale about the ravages of drug addiction. At the centre of this story is a father’s committed resolve to end his son’s suffering and how the bastions of privilege and stability can be rendered inert by the blunt-force power of substance abuse, even when one has all the right opportunities, and blessed with all the smarts. It’s a gruelling story about what can go wrong in a young life, and the tests of what parenting truly means. It’s about how far we can go to save what is ours.
I am easily tugged by father-son films these days, perhaps because I am a parent myself now, or because I miss my own father so much. So this film was like another missive from heaven.
David Sheff: Do you know how much I love you? If you could take all the words in the language, it still wouldn’t describe how much I love you. I love you more than everything.
Young Nic Sheff: Everything?
David Sheff: Everything. Everything.
- Roma (Mexico)
- Beautiful Boy
- Shoplifters (Japan)
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- The Leisure Seeker
- Green Book
- The Wife
- The Cakemaker (Israel)
- A Star is Born
I still have quite a bit to catch up on this year and almost missed out making this note to self. Then I thought how, in 2058, the only thing I might remember about 2018 would be Black Panther and England losing in the World Cup again. I knew I had to write something because there really was a lot that was so much better, even in a bad year when things may not have been that great. There was a blue wave, a push back, a love song, and hope.
The space for freedom may seem like its closing all around us but in Hollywood, on Netflix and on Spotify, the good guys are winning everything. As Bradi Carlile says in her song, I’ve been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends, and the joke’s on them. We are the champions, my friends.
My father’s house was full of books and I grew up believing he knew everything about everything. My father loved music and if I close my eyes I can still see him sitting in the balcony smoking a cigarette, as Demis Roussos and Marvin Gaye were crooning through the record player. And he loved movies. One of my earliest memories of the King is him holding my hand as we were entering a cinema hall in Mombasa to watch the first Star Wars. I had to watch that film again as an adult to decide that I loved it, mostly because he had taken me to see it. Right up to his last year, he would ask, what are you reading now? I miss that. I may not remember what happened in May or April 2018, but I remember everything about him.
Throughout McCarthy’s The Road, the father and the son were on the lookout for ‘the good guys’ but never seemed to find them until the end. That was also when the father dies sadly, leaving the son to keep going in the hands of humanity. ‘He cried for a long time. I’ll talk to you every day he whispered. And I won’t forget. No matter what. Then he rose and turned and walked back to the road.’