Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

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I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

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I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

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Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

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As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

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Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

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The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

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Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

Love Note – Eurovision

This Saturday sees the return of the Eurovision Song Contest and I could not be more excited. This year, I have excellent friend and historical Eurovision-watching comrade Annie coming to visit from Manchester, I am drawing up a Eurovision bingo game, making cultural food plans (pierogi, baguettes and olives amongst other foodstuffs), organising an office sweepstake at work, and have my Spotify playlist of past-Eurovision favourites on repeat. I am raring to go for the Grand Final in a couple of days’ time.

I have always loved Eurovision. It is funny whilst both trying to be and trying not to be; it is colourful and vibrant; appeals to the ridiculousness in us all; and offers the perfect excuse to have a bit of a party. It curiously manages to hold a number of different positions: it suspends reality, through its gaudy spectacle and earnest hilarity that feels so far removed from the grim and turbulent political times that we are currently living through (and have always lived through, to an extent). However, it also embodies the inclusivity and positivity absolutely required to make the world a more joyful and tolerant place. Seeing Europe come together on the same night to mutually revel in Europop music, dry ice, random pyrotechnics, Graham Norton’s sarcastic critiques and, in some cases, yodelling, warms the cockles of this soppy Remainer heart. I have often thought that it takes a certain amount of self-awareness or self-deprecation to watch and enjoy Eurovision: it’s a bit like laughing at yourself. Someone so stuck-in-the-mud and obsessed with control, power and image and all that, like Putin for example, probably doesn’t watch Eurovision. But you can imagine the world would probably be a better place if he did.

There are certain things about the show that are quintessentially Eurovision, but that some people find hard to understand and accept. Here, I want to help break these things down and offer a shift in perspective, introducing naysayers and cynics to Eurovision Logic. Here are some examples:

Normal logic: The show and, in particular, the round-the-houses voting system are time-consuming and extremely long. The show does run from 20:00 – 23:40 (a running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes) and it takes up all the prime-time coverage on BBC One. It’s a bit overkill.

Eurovision Logic: With the round-the-houses system, we get an insight into the humour, style and sensibilities of our European neighbours. When there is a time-lag, things get deliciously awkward, especially when the announcers in each country end up manically grinning or saying something wonderfully clichéd or just plain weird. I would also recommend watching all the performances, if you are able to, and working out which is your favourite, or getting involved with an office sweepstake. Actually being invested in at least one country makes the voting much more exciting and interesting. Multiple drinks will also help.

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Normal logic: Australia is not in Europe. Why is it in Eurovision? It doesn’t make sense and is stupid.

Eurovision Logic: Newsflash: Israel and Azerbaijan are not in Europe and have competed in Eurovision for very many years (and have both won). Even Morocco competed in Eurovision in 1980. Australia joined in 2015, to celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary and had such a good time that they’ve decided to come back every year. What is there not to love about that? Lighten up. I think it is also a good idea to let people dwell in paradox for a while: life is all about ambiguity and uncertainty, things are never clear-cut, and Australia in Eurovision is a perfect metaphor for that. On a very deep level, somewhere, it makes absolute sense that Australia participates in Eurovision. I would love them to win and see the absolute existential flap people will, inevitably, get into. Guys, it’s going to be OK.

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Normal logic: Eurovision songs are cheesy pap and are the dregs of music

Eurovision logic: Yes, there are certain levels of cheesiness and corniness to the Eurovision song repertoire. My first impulse is to just embrace it and laugh along with it. All those songs about being ‘heroes’ and ‘grabbing the moment’ (both things Bowie sang about) are absolutely harmless and catchy as heck. My second impulse is to point out that there have been some amazingly mature songs in the competition, especially in recent years. There was The Common Linnets’ song ‘Calm After The Storm’ that came second for The Netherlands in 2014, missing out to Conchita Wurst’s absolute belter ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’; Belgium’s Loïc Nottet’s ‘Rhythm Inside’ in 2015 sounded like Lorde had written it; and the gorgeous, inimitable ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ sung by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral  won in 2017 and still gives me warm fuzzies. All truly, excellent songs. My third impulse tends towards the sassy: in the enduring and poetic words of last year’s winner, Netta, I’d rather dance with my dolls to the mother-bucka beat, than get all sour about it.

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So here’s to Eurovision 2019! It is a bit bizarre, but when has the bizarre also not been life-affirming and a little bit good for us? When not drinking all the drinks, eating all the European food and jigging around to all the songs, I’ll see you all on Twitter for the hilarious commentaries. I’ve heard that the singers from Iceland are some kind of BDSM group… let the wonderful chaos unfold.

[1] I would like to add as a small footnote that I am aware that Israel holding the competition is obviously very contentious, and look forward to seeing if the competition is used to make any protests or points, particularly in light of military action in Gaza in the past few weeks.