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End of year round-up 2010

2010 end of year round-up

The Barbarians at the Gate (or the door of 10 Downing Street, to be more precise)

What a year 2010 has been, considering it also seemed to fly by. I arrived in Bath today – as I did last year – to stay at the typically Georgian hotel my sister and her partner run. They may not be in Bath next year so I shall miss this traditional Christmas jolly if they are not here next year. What has become more of a tradition, however, is my end of year literary round-up. It’s funny to look back to January and how the year has been bookended by the UK wide carpeting of snow and how many services that we depend upon come to a standstill – or, as others would have it, simply a more civilised pace of life.

2010 got off to a good start when Colm Toibin’s sparsely and perfectly-prosed novel,’Brooklyn’, was awarded the recognition it deserved when it won the Costa novel award. A poignant tale of a young girl having to leave Ireland for America, as so many millions of others have had to do before and since, it was a tale of personal responsibility and sticking to the choices that one makes within those choices made for us by others. Irish emigration has stemmed a great deal since the Celtic Tiger, yet this year has been a bad one for Ireland with the scrapping of the minimum wage and a legion of other public sector cuts, which could see the resurrection of the emigration motif.

This was also the year that American writer and commentator Barbara Ehrenreich came onto my horizon with her books critiquing the never-ending pressure to ‘think positively’. This is particularly pertinent to us in the UK this year with the recent stories of Cameron’s plans to conduct a ‘happiness audit’, which will no doubt feed into his plans for the ‘Big Society’. It is, it would seem, a Big Society that so easily spews the word ‘society’ and yet eschews it at the same time – much like Thatcher did in the 1980s when she declared that there was no such thing as society. The pressure to ‘think happy, happy, happy’ goes against the intellectual adage – pessimism of the intellect – optimism of the will.

This wasn’t the case in the screen adaptation for Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, directed by John Hillcoat. It was not a great way to start the year’s films. A friend and I found ‘The Road’ mightily disappointing for not being dystopic enough, ending as it did on a bright note in the way in which Disney would do dystopia!

There were so many books that I wanted to read this year but, in the end, could only choose a few. One book that never left my ‘to read’ pile was EL Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.

I spent a few days working in Paris in January – as I shall be repeating in a few weeks – which enabled me to visit the Musee d’Orsay and to take in plenty of van Gogh. I repeated the van Gogh fest when the Royal Academy exhibited his works and focussed on his letters, which I found so moving. The exhibition was a huge hit, proving that van Gogh touches something in a great deal of people – is it the tragedy of him dying before being ‘discovered’? Or is it the knowledge of the battles he fought during his lifetime, of which there were aplenty – depression, poverty and lovelorn. And then getting one’s ear chopped off by Gaugin, which van Gogh then shouldered to save his friend from blame?

January delivered another crap film by way of Denzel Washington in the Book of Eli – a trite film in which we were expected to believe that Denzel had been blind all along; an orgy of Christian propaganda.

The first good film of the year came from George Clooney’s ‘Up in the Air’, in which he played an ever-flying exec intent on air miles!

The TS Eliot Prize for poetry was awarded, rightly in my opinion, to Philip Gross for his collection ‘The Water Table’.

More art, this time in Brussels, which I visited for the first time in order to research the part of my book-in-progress (Still in progress!) in which Friedrich Engels and Mary Burns live there for a year with other communists. I also visited the Musee de Beaux Art (I didn’t do too bad for art for January!), and fell in love with proper Belgian chocolate.

Another great film came along with ‘The Prophet’, which, whilst a tad long, was just brilliant.

The ‘first’ literary discovery of the year came in the form of a letter found by Robert Burns wife, Jean. It was found in a New York bookshop – by a Burns scholar!

Christopher Reid won the Costa for his moving collection written about his wife’s death from cancer, ‘The Scattering’.

I reviewed Joan of Arc, an enlightening book by Larissa Juliet Taylor, which I reviewed for Tribune magazine.

The end of January saw the death of the great reclusive author, JD Salinger.

February saw the delivery of some of WG Sebald’s novels – ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘Austerlitz’, both of which have remained on my ‘to read’ pile.

I also reviewed ‘The Last Great War’ by Adrian Gregory for Tribune.

February also gave rise – in the pages of the LRB – to a ‘devastating’ critique by Toril Moi on the new translation of de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, a critique that has been echoed by others throughout the year.

Canada made moves to neutralise its national anthem, ‘O Canada’ in 2010 – a move both applauded and scorned in equal measure. I was more surprised to learn that Ireland and Wales’s anthems are both gender neutral.

Philip Pullman caused the inevitably controversy when he published his book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. Pullman’s response to those who deemed it offensive was that no-one has the right to live without being shocked. Well said that man.

April saw my review, again for Tribune, of Lyndall Gordon’s excellent book on Emily Dickinson ‘Lives like Loaded Guns’, which found a way into Dickinson’s life via her brother’s affair.

I discovered the inimitable Lapham’s Quarterly this year – the one thing that the Internet has been great for is the dissemination of such great titles such as LQ, which I may not have discovered otherwise.

The year was not without its literary intrigues – Orlando Figes created an almighty one with his scathing pseudononymous reviews of his rivals’ books. It wasn’t long before he was uncovered, which he tried to pass off as being the work of his wife! He later retracted that and pleaded depression or something, and then proceeded to take sick leave.

April saw the death of Alan Sillitoe, one of the original ‘angry young men’. Sillitoe was known predominantly for his book, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, held up as ‘the’ working-class novel.

In May Martha C Nussbaum took to the TLS to lay out the dangers of cutting funding to the humanities, which would have a direct impact on democracy itself. Paul Myerscough followed this up with a piece in the LRB on cuts to teaching humanities specifically in the post92 universities. Overall, since the ConDem coalition took office the picture each week, each month, has become progressively worse with 80% of teaching funding cut and university fees tripling, which has moved thousands to the streets to protest on the barbarity of a government who can make such swingeing cuts to society and yet take relatively little action on tax evaders. There has also been recent news that the Government is selling off all state owned forests, which I find just too upsetting to contemplate. The selling off of our forests poses a huge danger to the very landscape that we are entitled to enjoy after working harder for less, paying more for gas, electricity, transport, food, mortgages and rents, but it seems that the common man and woman are being pushed into a bleak and desolate wasteland where every trace of solace from the daily alienating grind – education, leisure, libraries, museums, nature even, is being obliterated. Even the voice of protest is being silenced as each protest has become increasingly attacked and constrained by the police, and often misrepresented by the media. The police who themselves are going to find their ranks cut. As of writing, the Book Trust, which does such a commendable job of encouraging the love of reading within families, has been informed that it is to have its funding cut, bringing to an end its drive to garner the love of reading.

In May we saw the closure of the world-renowned philosophy department at Middlesex University, despite the department being the university’s highest ranking. It was not long, however, before the Centre for the study of Modern European Philosophy finding a home at my own place of study, Kingston University.

2010 also saw the appointment of the first ever female Poet Laureate. Carol Duffy wasted no time and has been busy since taking up the esteemed post. Her latest poem of the year ‘Snow’, is here.

This year I learnt more about Iran through Homa Katouzian’s brilliant ‘The Persians – A History’. I would like to visit Iran one day, so enamoured I am with its incredibly rich heritage.

This year also saw a few literary debates – the first one I was aware of was one taken up by the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins, who asked whether it was acceptable to fictionalise historical figures. It is, of course, pertinent to my own work-in-progress. Niall Ferguson claimed it was not acceptable.

Christopher Hitchens’s memoir came out, Hitch 22, and was promptly taken apart by Terry Eagleton. I, however, have warmed to ‘the Hitch’ this year, particularly reading about how he has coped since being diagnosed with cancer.

June was the month in which I managed to read one of the few novels I finished this year – Joseph O’Connor’s ‘Ghost Light’, which was the fictionalisation of the actual romance of Dublin actress Maire Allgood and playwright J.M. Synge. It was first class and written beautifully with a great structure, incorporating ballads and newspaper clippings, so I was surprised that it didn’t achieve more recognition.

If the year has been short in so much, it hasn’t been short of books on capitalism and its failures. In July I reviewed a history of capitalism for Tribune by Joyce Appleby, which, like capitalism itself, felt a bit confused.

A friend, Jimmy Mulville, this year appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which he gave a moving account of his journey thus far.

It doesn’t take much for the literary sections to draw up a list of great reads, and once we were into summer, many gave their lists of must-read summer books. One of the better ones was that provided by The Independent, which was sufficiently varied.

Come August I wrote a piece for Tribune, lamenting the loss of Labour’s working-class heritage which they have freely acknowledged since we were lumbered with the ConDems.

The BBC launched its brilliant archives of writers interviews, covering everyone from Woolf to Woodhouse.

Summer was also the season in which cultural icon, Frank Kermode, died, followed by trade unionist, orator and university rector, Jimmy Reid. He was an inspirational figure to many, by reminding us of such things as:

A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.

This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you're a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.

One of the other novels I picked up this year was Hilary Mantel’s much lauded, Booker winning ‘Wolf Hall’; I got a good way through it – but it was very rich and needed unfettered focus and so put it to one side. I did, however, pick up another Booker listee, Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glassroom’, which was beautifully told, yet disturbing too as it charted the rise to power and aftermath of the Nazi regime.

Having heard so many sing the praises of Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ I succumbed and was in awe of the pacing and gentle revelations at the heart of this book.

I also bought Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’, which I enjoyed parts of, particularly the titular poem, but I’m afraid I failed to see, in its whole, the same as other critics who lauded it.

2010 was the year in which Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain, and proceeded to admonish the increasing secularism. I contributed to the surrounding fors/against by writing a piece for New Humanist on the Catholic tat industry, as well as reviewing David Yallop’s book on the covering up of the endemic abuse within the Catholic church.

Come September I bought Franzen’s much awaited follow up to ‘The Corrections’, ‘Freedom’, which was reviewed just about everywhere. It was indeed a good book – a family saga, although I bemoaned the glaring absence of a story for the Berglund’s daughter, Jessica. I came to the conclusion that this pushing to one side the bright, literary young woman, was a manifestation of the anxiety these male literary heavyweights feel to the next generation of women writers, and which can also be seen in those such as Roth and McEwan.

A new poem emerged from the archives of the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. The poem charts the few days leading up to the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath.

The year also saw the discovery of a previously unseen poem by Philip Larkin, ‘Dear Jake’, found by producers of a programme charting his relationship with his secretary, Betty.

Seamus Heaney won the Forward Prize for poetry for his outstanding collection ‘The Human Chain’, of which I bought about seven copies this year for xmas presents!

Emma Thompson lamented the use of slang later in the year whilst visiting her old school, Camden School for Girls. She was joined by a chorus of disapproval by that standard bearer of the English language, Kathy Lette, and Hamstead & High rent-a-quote, Tom Conti. I was sufficiently angered to write a piece for Guardian’s CiF rebuking this questionable disgust.

October saw the highlight of my cultural year with a visit to the National Theatre to watch Rory Kinnear play Hamlet. A triumph. This was followed, in the same week, with a visit to the Royal Opera House to watch Goehr’s adaptation of King Lear, Promised End, another triumph that wouldn’t have been possible without the late Frank Kermode.

Howard Jacobson finally stopped being the Booker bridesmaid and become the Bride when he was named the winner for his work ‘The Finkler Question’.

Northern poet Simon Armitage won the Keats-Shelly prize for his poem ‘The Present’, inspired by a search for icicles as a present for his young daughter.

There would be too many cultural institutions to name as victims of the ConDem cuts – however, one which is threatened is the DH Lawrence visitor centre in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, which also charts a history of local mining. Another vital resource that will be affected by the cuts is the People’s History Museum, in Manchester, which I wrote on for The Guardian’s CiF.

For Christmas my sister bought me an essay collection on The Smiths, covering Catholicism, Manchester, music, and Thatcherism! A must read!


Sam Willetts – New Light for the Old Dark

Robin Robertson – The Wrecking Light

Seamus Heaney – The Human Chain


Joseph O’Connor – The Ghost Light

Simon Mawer – The Glass Room (der Glasraum)

Jonathan Franzen – Freedom

Lorrie Moore – A Gate at the Stairs


EL Doctorow - Homer & Langley

Andrew Graham-Dixon – Caravaggio – a life sacred and profane

Nigel Smith – Andrew Marvell – biography

HL Mencken – Prejudices

Edmund de Waal – The Hare with the Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance – a favourite with many literary editors


The Rochefoucauld Grail, a 14th century Arthurian manuscript sold through Sotheby's for £2.4 million


Orlando Figes


Alex Macdonald – Dog Binary (Beautiful Books)

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