(It’s Supposed To Be Fun) Turning 21

In Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator recollects his childhood experiences in aristocratic France, reflecting on the loss of Time and the lack of meaning in the world. Other than the narrator’s story, Proust explores the nature of human consciousness and our capacity to connect with other human beings. How an experience of one thing in the present time, like the taste of a piece of cake, can take us back to the memory of another moment in a time warp that makes nonsense of years, months, weeks and days. Everything seems like it was yesterday.

One of the most evocative lyrics from my teenage soundtrack was from a Sinéad O’Connor song, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In it, she crooned in her beautiful, truthful, and broken voice, ‘how could I possibly know what I want I when I was only twenty-one?’ Indeed, which one of us ever did? Except to imagine, as we crept into adulthood, that what lay ahead of us was a life full of Time, in which we would cleverly craft our future with rock anthems and Hollywood endings. But Lennon was so right. Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Now, in this noise of an age when everybody has an opinion about everything, her lyric, ‘there’s millions of people who offer advice and say how I should be,’ couldn’t be more apt. From information to misinformation to disinformation, you couldn’t be more lost in the quicksand of whatshouldIbelieve.

I. believe. In perennial ocean tides. In Rumi’s Garden. In infinite light.

You asked for the truth, and I told you

What happened

The 21st century turned 21. Not much of an adult, just a dejected kid. With teenage angst and arrested development. It was more confused than it was at the turn of the century when the world was meant to end because of an imaginary computer bug.

The year of our wishful re-emergence did not emerge. It gave us in its stead a world with a new binary: the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Our lives did not come back. January came, and we crossed over into purgatory, getting accustomed to the neither here nor there, learning the Greek alphabet, and predicting the can we or can’t we of our tomorrows like the weather forecast. You may need to take a test (or not). Mask up (or not). Travel (or not). Stay at home (or not). Have a pronoun (or not). Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, I’m all vaxxed up, but does it matter?

An Insurgence at the Capitol. A volcano erupted in DR Congo. A fitness instructor obliviously danced for TikTok as the military took over Myanmar’s government. The Judiciary saved Kenya’s constitution. Disturbance in Khartoum, again. Naomi Osaka and the Tokyo Olympics. Thousands lined up to flee Afghanistan. End of the Merkel era in Germany. Buhari banned Twitter in Nigeria. Ethiopia on the brink of genocide. Meghan and Harry talked to Oprah. George Floyd’s murderer was convicted. Climate conferences, forest fires and rain floods. Jacob Zuma was arrested, then released. Jeff Bezos flew a phallus into Space. A Tanzanian won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A 36-year-old progressive won an election in Chile. Lewis Hamilton received a knighthood but was denied his eighth F1 title. Black lives, black lives, black lives continued to matter. Mu, Nu, Xi, Omicron. Racism is still alive in every echelon.

What I’ve been reading

“Any event that surprises a man has already been experienced by other men before him.” writes David Diop in At Night All Blood is Black, a small book translated into English from the original French. I read this novel in one sitting, utterly moved by the protagonist’s narration. “The effects of all human possibilities have already been felt. Nothing that might happen to us here, as terrible or as felicitous as it might seem, is new. But what we experience is always new because every man is unique, the way every leaf and every tree is unique. Men share with each other the same lifeblood, but each feeds himself from it differently.”

The story is the poignant unravelling of a young Senegalese man drafted to fight for the French in World War I. You read as he descends into the darkness of his mind after the killing and mutilation he experiences on the battlefield. “The captain told them that the enemy was afraid of savage Negroes, cannibals, Zulus, and they laughed…The captain has told them they are great warriors, so they love to get themselves killed while singing, so their madness becomes a competition…Temporary madness in war is bravery’s sister.”

Another book that gripped me intensely this year was also a short novel, Caleb Anzumah Nelson’s Open Water. It is a plot that resonates and haunts at the same time, uncomfortably familiar, with prose that envelopes your consciousness as powerfully as a poem does. “Love made you Black, as in, you were most coloured when in her presence.” It is the story of two young black artists in London who fall in love but are unsure if they should have. It is told in an exuberance of blackness, of family and grief, of the stream of black musical genius that is quoted throughout the novel, and of breaking up. Of systemic oppression against people of colour, and violence. “You have always thought if you opened your mouth in open water you would drown,” he writes. “But if you didn’t open your mouth you would suffocate. So here you are, drowning.”

Many reviewers have said, correctly, that nothing happens in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North. They probably meant that the novel doesn’t have the twists and turns of adventure or the intrigues of a thriller. Instead, it is a book of memory and a reflection of the profound suffering in the aftermath of war. The book reads like a transcription of the thoughts of the book’s protagonist, Krishan, as he journeys north for the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s caretaker. His grandmother and Rani had lost their sons in Sri Lanka’s civil war. It alternates between Krishan’s memories as a young man studying for a PhD in Delhi, his processing of Rani’s death, and the complex facets of his Tamil identity amidst the larger backdrop of post-war Sri Lanka. “He couldn’t help thinking, as the train hurtled closer toward his destination, that he’d traversed not any physical distance that day but rather some vast psychic distance inside him, that he’d been advancing not from the island’s south to its north but from the south of his mind to its own distant northern reaches.”

  1. At Night All Blood is Black DAVID DIOP
  2. Open Water CALEB ANZUMAH NELSON
  3. China Room SUNJEEV SAHOTA
  4. Hell of a Book JASON MOTT
  5. A Passage North ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM
  6. Aftershocks NADIA OWUSU
  7. The Promise DAMON GALGUT
  8. Do Not Disturb: the Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad MICHELA WRONG
  9. Homeland Elegies AYAD AKHTAR
  10. Empireland: How Imperialism Shaped Modern Britain SATHNAM SANGHERA

What I’ve Been Listening To

Needing to release my feelings over so much continuing loss all around, I listened more to older music this year to wallow in the nostalgic tunes of a time when hugs and kisses were life-affirming and not life-threatening. Over the years, I have also been saying that I enjoy less and less of newer artists and very few more recent releases. I no longer feel convinced that there is enough good stuff (for me) to rank the year’s new music in my arbitrary list of end-year favourites. I enjoy some of it, but most of it takes great effort for me to listen to, and that isn’t the point of music, is it?

Like most people my age, I was very excited by the news of ABBA’s return. I would be lying, though, if I said that the whole of their Voyage album was a remarkable comeback. A couple of the songs on it were pleasurably old-school, retrograde ABBA. In fact, one of them makes my list. However, to put it mildly, and respectfully, the album wasn’t worth the 40-year waiting period.

I’m not sure what to say about Adele’s new record. It may still grow on me, but I doubt it.

If there’s a record that came close to perfect this year, it would be Leon Bridges’ Gold Diggers Sound, described by someone as an album of grown-up songs made for, and from, the soul. If you’ve liked his two previous albums (as I have), then this one is a much-welcomed addition to his reflective and soulful brilliance. If you’ve been longing for a strong soul and R n’ B record in this barren landscape of senseless digitised pop, then gift yourself with this one. It is a record for adults. As if it was made from a time when making music meant something. ‘We don’t stop, but the time do‘, he says in one of the songs.

Sam Fender‘s Seventeen Going Under is on the other side of the musical spectrum, a pop-rock record that interrogates his childhood, adolescence, politics, and relationships. This guitar bombast of an album that looks back at growing up and the world was probably the only other new album I’ve enjoyed listening to from beginning to end without skipping a single track. ‘That’s the thing with anger; it begs to stick around, so it can fleece you of your beauty and leave you spent with nowt to offer,’ he says in the album’s title track.  

What am I listening to as I write this? Lorde’s Solar Power, an album inspired by California and anti-celebrity. Perfect songs to listen to under coconut palms as the Indian Ocean breeze closes my circle and grounds me with the comfort of home. ‘My hot blood’s been burnin’ for so many summers now, it’s time to cool it down, wherever that leads’, Lorde sings.

Of course, there have been other albums and songs I’ve listened to. Like Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime, a psychedelic rock offering from Niger that’s caused a Hendrix-esque sandstorm. And Elton John dressing up his much-loved classics in new clothes. Kenyan artists Wanavokali’s fantastic Rhumba yielding to the carefree joys of partying with a one-night acquaintance, and The Weeknd’s Save Your Tears taking me back to the synth-pop tunes of the 80s. And, of course, Stromae’s return after an eight-year hiatus with an upbeat, drum and string toast to the everyday people we choose not to see.

But the songs that have resonated with me the most this year were the Brothers Osbourne’s country-rock hit, Younger Me, and Taylor Swift’s ten-minute rock ballad, All Too Well (first released in the 2012 album ‘Red’), a bitter remembrance of a relationship that went sour, ‘You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes, sipping coffee like you’re on a late-night show, but when he watched me watch the front door all night willing you to come, and he said, “it’s supposed to be fun turning 21

  • Gold Diggers Sound LEON BRIDGES (album)
  • Seventeen Going Under SAM FENDER (album)
  • Solar Power LORDE (album)
  • Afrique Victime MDOU MOCTAR (album)
  • Don’t Shut Me Down ABBA (song)
  • Rhumba WANAVOKALI (song)
  • Save Your Tears THE WEEKND feat ARINA GRANDE (song)
  • Cold Heart ELTON JOHN & DUA LIPA (song)
  • Santé STROMAE (song)
  • Younger Me BROTHERS OSBOURNE (song)
  • All Too Well (10 minute version) TAYLOR SWIFT (song)

And here’s a 12-minute video collage of what I’ve been listening to this year:

What I’ve Been Watching

To properly picture how confusing 2021 was, I, usually picky about what I consume, binged on Bridgerton. All of it. And loved most of all seeing people of colour playing bourgeois characters in a 19th century period drama about nothing that I can remember. What a laugh I had when someone called it historically inaccurate and cultural appropriation. Hmm. Looking back a century at how people of colour, our histories, and cultures and have been depicted on film and TV, where do we start on that one?

That was, just by the way, because Bridgerton was not in any way close to the best TV show I watched this year. That would probably be Maid, or The Serpent, or the second season of Lupin, all on Netflix.

The fourth instalment of my all-time favourite film franchise was received with lukewarm reviews. It will take me more time than one week (since I watched it) to fully digest The Matrix Resurrections and go on and on about it, as I sure am wont to.

I wasn’t impressed by the portrayal of Princess Diana as a mentally disturbed royal in Spencer, though I do think Kristen Stewart’s performance was quite good. An Oscar nomination could be in the pipeline. Equally, watching Joaquin Phoenix through the whole of C’mon C’mon was a bit laborious, though he does justice to the role as an agitated uncle looking after an inquisitive nephew. Those of us who have had to multi-task our everyday lives while also sheltering children from the realities of life while also managing their many quirks will resonate with his character.

The film I enjoyed the most in the last year has been Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a story set during the early years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, seen from the eyes of a 9-year-old. In beautiful (mostly) black and white cinematography, we see a working-class family grappling with ordinary love, health and money issues as the city around them is torn apart by violent sectarianism. And then there’s Van Morrison, himself a Belfast native, whose songs soundtrack the whole film, and which, in my opinion, was the best thing about the flick.

I had to watch The Power of the Dog twice to properly appreciate its subtle twist in the tale, the muscular meaning within the meaning, on where power pretends to be (the roughest, toughest leader in wolf-pack of cowboys), and the quiet places it truly lies. In King Richard, Will Smith plays a great Richard Williams in a sports drama based on the Williams’ sisters ascent to tennis superstardom. I would be surprised if he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination. I also quite enjoyed Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, which for some reason didn’t seem to get the credit that I think it deserved.

I guess my mind has been apt to wander more when both my eyes and ears were engaged (Belfast with the Van Morrison songs, above, is a case in point), so my heart stirs more when I think of the outstanding music documentaries that came out this year, such as Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground, and Questlove’s Summer of Soul (..or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). However, the icing on the cake was Peter Jackson’s three-part, The Beatles: Get Back, a docuseries that he put together from film footage and audio recordings on the making of their 1970 album, Let It Be. But more on this later.

Films

  1. Belfast
  2. The Power of the Dog
  3. King Richard
  4. Quo Vadis, Aida (Bosnia-Herzegovina)
  5. Dune, Part One
  6. Respect
  7. Drive My Car (Japan)
  8. About Endlessness
  9. Summer of Soul (..or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  10. Night of the Kings (Cote d’Ivoire)

TV

  1. The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
  2. Lupin (Season Two) (Netflix)
  3. Maid (Netflix)
  4. The Serpent (Netflix)
  5. It’s A Sin (BBC)
  6. Mare of Easttown (Showmax/HBO)
  7. The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)
  8. Midnight Mass (Netflix)
  9. Succession (Season Three) (Showmax/HBO)
  10. Clickbait (Netflix)

What It’s Been Like (or Get Back to Where You Once Belonged)

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives, nor the strongest, but the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

For me it’s been a year when Time seemed to have been elastic. Like in Proust’s book, it has been filled with involuntary memory of new beginnings and old cycles. Of connected acquaintances, déjà vu’s, and glitches in the matrix. Uncannily for that Beatles documentary, the best thing about the year for me was to go back to doing what I loved best and getting back to where I once belonged.

Talking of which, what an absolute great doccie that was. A real feast for Beatles fans, even those of us who may have thought there was nothing new left for us to learn about The Fab Four. The most magical screen time of the year for me was the part in the first episode when Paul McCartney strums his guitar and, out of nothing, the first chords of Get Back emerge. My hair stood on end, and I got off my chair, not believing that I had just witnessed that moment, fifty years ago, when Paul first mouthed, Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And then there was watching the magic of Billy Preston change the dynamics of the recording sessions, his addition to the album, the sheer fun they had with recording, planning the rooftop concert, and just being friends. Completely debunks the myth that the last days of The Beatles were acrimonious. The band was ending, you could see that. But five decades later, the story of that end now looks very different.

The last two years haven’t been easy on anyone, and writing these end-of-year blogs would probably be a lot easier if I just had to list the losses because, by G_d, they have been many. But Time, yes, Time, has taught me that our job is to carry on with the good stuff that comes our way. Take a sad song and make it better; Paul sings in Hey Jude. So we carry on, and we carry those we can, and what we have committed our lives to. At the end the year, as Stromae says in his song, et si on célébrait ceux qui ne célèbrent pas, pour une fois, j’aimerais lever mon verre à ceux qui n’en ont pas

‘How about we celebrate those who don’t celebrate? For once, I’d like to raise my glass to those who don’t have one? Santé!

One of the perks of ageing and surviving many catastrophes has been to appreciate the value of Time. You’re twenty-one one day and turning forty the next. And then you’re hurtling into middle age with reading glasses, hearing aids and memory loss. You still feel young, and then remember you were already a teenager when Mandela was still in prison. That you can remember Live Aid, Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, like it was yesterday. That 2021 was an apocalyptic age in the films of your youth. And some of the best people you have known came into your life before the internet.

There are no more leaders left to guide us, no prophets, and no messiahs to come. We must figure out for ourselves the things that are worth living for, the things of value, the things that take patience and time. Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon. The things you can’t buy on Amazon.

The world heals and resets itself. We tell stories to live other lives and to connect with others, to feel our tragedies, to explain our choices, to escape. We are always twenty-one going on to sixty, Time is what we make of it, and trying not to overthink about our sorrows. All things must pass, George Harrison said. So we make theatre to imitate life, and sing. Psi and Omega. Nothing lasts forever.

Anything worthwhile takes Time. Maybe that’s what Time is for: to give meaning to the things we do; to create a context in which we can linger in something until, finally, we have given it something invaluable, something that we can never get back: Time. And once we’ve invested the most precious commodity that we will ever have, it suddenly has meaning and importance. So maybe Time is just how we measure meaning. Maybe Time is how we best measure love.” Jason Mott, Hell of a Book (2021)

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