Love Note Year in Review: 2020

Arundhati Roy, in her signature wisdom, wrote in April that ‘the pandemic is a portal’: this year, it is impossible to deny, Covid-19 drew us across a collective threshold, and there is no going back. In a year that the veils were lifted, where our stories and systems, both personal and cultural, were laid bare under a bright, unforgiving light, we were given the gift of 20:20 vision: society cannot function without people who are normally paid the least and are given the least amount of respect; underfunding public services, including healthcare, is a short-sighted, political decision that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands; we continue to fester in the sickness of white supremacy and racism that brutally terrorises and kills; we are approaching a number of one-way doors that will result in climate catastrophe. This pandemic was an apocalypse: a word that comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning ‘an uncovering’, a revelation. In spite of the death, chaos and suffering it has unleashed, I am convinced that we needed it. Death, chaos and suffering were mightily at work beforehand, we just didn’t realise it.

Almost as soon as the pandemic put a stop to our hectic, exhausted lives, it became clear, like all moments of change, great and small, that we have a choice: to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the pandemic; to desperately cling to the familiar shores of neoliberalism, white supremacy and exploitation; or to take the plunge into these unknown waters and to live more consciously, meaningfully and compassionately. Joseph Campbell wrote that ‘the neurotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight’ and whilst at times I caved to cynicism and despair, particularly later on in the year, I have tried to choose acceptance, curiosity and joy over and over again. As Roy attests, this pandemic is an opportunity to shift, reset and revive, and we would be fools to not pay attention to that.

As such, here are some of the things that have expanded my world this year: that gave me hope, helped me to re-frame my biases and reflect upon my own experiences and contributions to the world, and that gave me joy.

‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ with the assistance of Alex Haley

This was by far the most powerful book I read all year, and came courtesy of the amazing ‘Let’s Talk Racism’ book chain on Instagram. X was nothing short of a lightning bolt of a man. His autobiography is incredibly immersive, giving a huge insight into his many turbulent and shifting lives and iterations. There is no doubt that X was one of the most quick-witted, sharpest and, often, humorous critics of white supremacy, re-framing and wiping the floor with his accusers at every turn. He was unfiltered, incendiary and uncompromising, an unrelenting champion of and for Black people. I found the chapter of X describing his days in prison re-teaching himself to read and write particularly moving, as were his trip to perform Hajj in Mecca and subsequent travels across the Middle East and Africa. He was ever-evolving, ever-driven for justice and whilst scathing of many of his contemporaries, he showed capacity for compassion and his own personal evolution. A truly extraordinary man.

Through ‘Let’s Talk Racism’, I also borrowed copies of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Emma Dabiri and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ by Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, both of which massively expanded my awareness of the insidious workings of white supremacy around women, beauty, the university and pedagogy. I am so grateful for the chain: it has been a key part of the work I have pursued this year to reckon with my own white privilege and racism, whilst introducing me for the first time to Pan-African productions and modes of knowledge, expression, spirituality and culture. In spite of the hard work, I have encountered so much that is truly joyful.

My subscription to British Vogue

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters and has been notoriously crap at dealing with the problem. The industry has been so caught up in producing, over-producing, tens of collections every year and conducting the flying circus of fashion weeks around the world, that it has become caught up on its own proverbial hamster wheel. There is, naturally, a human cost to this overproduction and consumption: people in Bangladesh, India and other countries continue to work in horrendous conditions for next to nothing, whilst their rivers and forests are polluted and destroyed (if you haven’t seen documentary ‘The True Cost’, I cannot recommend it enough). Furthermore, designers and creatives have experienced sustained burnout under the unrelenting pressure of an industry and culture that demands more, instantly, and all the time, as memorably recorded by Suzy Menkes in 2015. However, things are beginning to change: Edward Enninful, the Editor-in-Chief at British Vogue has written so beautifully and powerfully this year about the need for reset and change in the industry:

‘But a truth has been exposed by the tumultuous events of 2020: there is no normal to return to. Like many of you who I’ve spoken to or corresponded with over these past months, I share a sense that, actually, ‘normal’ is what got us here in the first place. If we are going to evolve, to a place of greater fairness and safety for our planet and its people, our future cannot look exactly like our past. We are going to need a genuine rethink about our lives. Our attitudes, our priorities, our compassion. What and how we consume. What we stand for and how we voice it […] let’s be honest: normal wasn’t working’. (British Vogue, August 2020).

Along with his excellent advocacy for decolonising fashion and art, Enninful demonstrates keen awareness of the change being demanded of fashion environmentally. Indeed, all of these issues and contexts constantly intersect. It is so incredibly refreshing to hear a fashion editor speak honestly and in no uncertain terms about the hard work and change that is required to live in a more just and less exploitative way. Of course, we want the pandemic to end as quickly as possible, but we cannot return to life before the pandemic. Enninful is aware that this moment is our opportunity to make big decisions about the direction we want to go in, what kind of people want to be, how we want to leave the world for future generations. For an industry that constantly chases the ephemeral newness of capitalist modernity, this is nothing short of revolutionary. It is so incredibly exciting, and comforting, to have such a man in in such a position of influence and authority. With his recent promotion within Condé Nast, he is set to have increasing influence over the role of fashion in the world. Accompanied with his invigorated focus on sustainability, this is extremely hopeful and promising. I have loved getting to know him and his vision of fashion over the year and, given fashion’s huge economic and cultural reach and influence, I am looking forward to him exacting some truly impactful change.

Hay Festival Digital

This was a completely divine couple of weeks of talks, readings and lectures all brought to us online. I am still quite stunned by how smooth-running the festival was considering they had next to no time to get online; equally, I am stunned that I haven’t been to the festival before now. Books? Wales? How had I managed to miss it? Regardless, the Hay Festival brought me so much happiness. I curled up in bed listening to Stephen Fry tell stories of Troy; attended talks on the Welsh language (which I began learning during Lockdown); had my questions answered by Simon Schama and James Shapiro; attended the Schools Programme featuring Onjali Q Rauf and Laura Bates; and immensely enjoyed Rutger Bergman and Michael Wood’s respective talks. One of the best moments of the festival was virtually attending Gloria Steinem’s talk with friends and family, all texting one another in excitement as this feminist queen imparted wisdom about activism and the fuel of being pissed off. I really hope that they continue running the festival online in some capacity going forward: there was such a magic to enjoying talks about books whilst knowing that people were logging in from all over the world. A true gift and moment of solidarity this year.

Online theatre

As a child, going to the theatre was pretty much the highlight of my year. I still think going to see ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ in Stratford-upon-Avon when I was seven years old was one of the best days of my entire life. However, since becoming a worker bee, I have found opportunities for going to the theatre, and requisite non-subsidised ticket prices, become quite a barrier to going. In 2020, I more than made up for years of missed theatre. At one point, myself and a couple of dear friends were virtually going to the theatre together every week, courtesy of the National Theatre. We watched ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Small Island’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, sometimes dressing up to suit the occasion, building in our own ice cream breaks and having post-show chats. It was such a rich experience: I still can’t quite believe the access we were all given. I donated to the fund as and when I could and it was a genuine pleasure to do so.

Similarly, I watched more ballet than I ever could afford to see in one year: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ featuring Matthew Ball as, perhaps, the best incarnation of Romeo ever (sorry Leo); ‘The Winter’s Tale’ featuring Edward Watson as a truly devastating King Leontes and Lauren Cuthbertson who makes me weep; ‘The Cellist’ featuring the divine Marcelino Sambé; ‘Anastasia’ with Natalia Osipova, someone who embodies negative capability; ‘Sleeping Beauty’ featuring Fumi Kaneko who has the most graceful arms ever and, my personal favourite, ‘Woolf Works’, a ballet triptych inspired by the life and works of Virginia Woolf. The ‘Orlando’ section in particular was truly astonishing, especially the partnership of the aforementioned Edward Watson and Francesca Hayward. The music, choreography, costuming and staging here created a piece of art that was electric. I quite forgot that they were performing in a grandiose old building, so futuristic and transporting was this section. It was everything that is truly brilliant and exciting about contemporary ballet. I remember watching ‘Danse à Grande Vitesse’ years ago and being enthralled by the limits of ballet and dance that were being pushed here: the same can equally be said for ‘Woolf Works’. Yes, tutus and Tchaikovsky are fun, but these new frontiers of dance and expression are so important and so invigorating. I cannot wait for more.     

Dusk is for fireflies

Dusk is for

fireflies and

lime liminality:

night cushions

and enraptures,

no mock stars.

I gasp

then fold in

and in.

The plunge

is breathful and

receptive.

I lay there,

my back finally

unwrinkled,

and I didn’t

wince or yearn

from myself.

Bathed in breath

I listened:

I heard

a whale song,

a lament.

Mournful, sighing

for children

who have lost their way;

who supped on milk,

and forgot how

to dance in starlight

and kiss the Earth

with grubby, curious hands.

Dreamers, with indigo souls

as deep as the

murmurs of night,

distracted by

false light

absorbed and obsessed

with their own

shadows.

The owls are coming,

their eyes bright,

with wings

ready to

shift and glide

over the currents

of torment.

Clear-seeing,

rich is silence

cutting through

the chaos, illusion

and deceit,

to gentler

enigmatic shores.

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

Crudo 2

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

StellaDonnelly_BewareOfTheDogs

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

The Politician

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

Dressed.jpg

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.

DIDs

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

Joseph Campbell

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.