2022 has been a bit of a dog.
Alright let me pour this little cognac and break it down for you1 I just discovered that this is in fact a 2021 joint, but you remove it from my significant 2022 listening over my dead body
My conclusion at the end of the year is that I’ve been suffering from a form of anhedonia and chronic, mild/medium, depression. Drink took up more of a role than it should have, I think to tackle the anhedonia, which led to considerable fatigue and ofc probably made the if-that’s-what-it-is anhedonia worse. My social manner was careless, sometimes borderline deplorable, and discouraging to forming new acquaintance, my already middling intellect very weak2 its natural state is C-, it can reach fairly high on occasion, but this year dragged relentlessly at a skiving, bedridden U. It was something of a relief to realise, 2/3rds of the way through that this seems to be a mode i go into from time to time, much of my teenage years for instance, which the natural intellectual ebullience of teenage years mitigated. but as i get older it feels more existential, more a symptom of decay rather than personality, emotions wan to the point of expiry, still protecting a battered and beleaguered heart by rolling up in a ball, cutting cords that should not be cut. Viva Las Vegas.
This all needs to be corrected or at least worked on to the extent it can be. They who strive upwards the angels can save, as the Goethe epigram to Under the Volcano goes. Resplendency in 2023. Let’s do it. And in the interests of identifying what I’ve enjoyed so that I may enjoy more, and better, in 2023, Here Is An End of Year List…
Oh before I do that, an interview with Svetlana Alexievich I read earlier this year, where she said something that captured an important criteria for the things I like. It’s the central paragraph, but I’ll quote the whole thing because it’s so forceful:
In Chornobyl Prayer, there is this story from the wife of a dying liquidator about how he’s dying horribly. When she wants to approach him at the hospital, they don’t let her. They tell her, “Forget that it’s a human being you love; it’s matter that needs to be deactivated.” I was struck by her words—her texts—and captured them. It was on the level of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.
The things that people said were unique. These were texts from some new life of another world that is approaching very fast now. We have Chornobyl, coronavirus, the revolution, war. We are approaching a new reality for which we are not prepared. But Chornobyl is beyond all that because of the cosmic scale of the catastrophe, cosmic in the sense that it’s a shock to our understanding, our worldview. It’s something entirely new.
Why is this theme so important to me? Because when people can’t understand what’s really happening with their mind, you have to listen to the language of their bodies, how they speak about it themselves, how they try to translate their feelings into words. The body is also a text, so I tried to combine two texts: culture, which didn’t really help me much in this situation, with the text of the body.
These were texts from some new life of another world that is approaching very fast now. Svetlana Alexievich’s work operates beyond and at the margin of the new reality, as does Diego Garcia (see books: below), so does, for instance Alex Ward’s music, particularly last year’s Gated, dealing with moods and emotions that are unfamiliar only because they are not yet hackneyed, using modes and methods designed to framebreak, violently if necessary, inherited models. This is art enables us to retune our antennae to pick up the ‘odds and ends of messages coming out of nowhere’ (Kipling, Wireless) from the future.
Ok, The List:
Helen DeWitt – The English Understand Wool
It’s a very short book, barely even a novella. I read it sitting on a bench in Cádiz’s Plaza Mina to the sound of fountains and children playing football.
It forms a loop, beginning and ending at the same point. Its manner is as its narrator: precise, fastidious about the right terminology, fastidious about the differences between one thing and another, and how a thing should be done, how one should approach a thing. The sentence cadences are succinct and didactic, the effect in such a brief piece is lapidary. Within its short chapters lie gins, traps, nets, so that you reach the end, sit back, consider some of the book’s aspects, and rapidly find yourself considering the transmission of culture, the nature of understanding, the acquisition of knowledge, and the moral framework which these entail, before going back again to read the text once more and find where, exactly, these considerations might lie in its deft, light, and poised prose (HDW is an exceptional prose stylist – Swift is a good comparison, they both relish the interplay of sly meanings). It is so short that, like a pop song, you can play, rewind, and play, finding the ‘best bits, and delight in the detail and the phrasing.
The concepts with which Helen DeWitt plays cover a wide ground of thought, across literature, language, coding, heuristics, probability, business, getting things done, and anthropology, to name a handful. These are not all the standard inputs to literary work, and they provide tensions, rules, systems, motivations and structure to the behaviour of her protagonists and to the world they perceive and their management of it. It’s all very lightly done, with anything superfluous removed. Although an insight from reading the more clearly satirical Lightning Rods, the comparison that springs to mind is still Jonathan Swift, in eg A Tale of a Tub, where he is managing multiple implications, references and sometimes contradictory meanings in single sentences. That tension in concision is present also in DeWitt’s writing, and also provides the springs of the humour of her writing. These areas of knowledge bring freshness to the prose and thinking.
To take one example, I was pleased I had read Ernest Goffman’s Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behaviour before reading TEUW. Goffman subjects the notion of ‘face’ (as in ‘saving face’) to minute scrutiny and analysis, and it seems to appear very lightly a couple of times in the book, and perhaps contributes partly to the crucial motif of mauvais ton, literally ‘bad tone’ but a better translation would be ‘bad form’. As that translation will indicate, its an expression of class snobbery, though a largely benevolent one – behaving meanly to the people who serve you in some way would be mauvais ton for instance. The motif sits at the centre of some of the dynamics in the book: class v cash, the notion of terroir as a form of cultural knowledge, transmission of knowledge and the optimal syllabus for this.
Helen DeWitt is interested, and her books are interested, in the methods and manner of doing things well, and the tools that relate to that. I won’t land the dreadful word Important on her, but this brings a fresh joy to the writing, and a sense that someone is engaged in the current world and our theoretical and practical understanding of it, combined with a strong artistic sense (across the arts), and most importantly with writing that makes you look up from the page and sit back in sheer pleasure.
Gerald Murnane – Last Letter to a Reader
I picked this up in a very rainy Sydney, along with the 2019 edition of his never-properly-published novel A Season on Earth. As far as I can tell, it’s only fairly recently that you’ve been able to buy Murnane easily outside of Australia, so I use my intermittent visits to pick up the Giramondo editions. The ontology of imaginative and real places in fiction and memory is both process and subject for Murnane. In Last Letter to a Reader he re-reads his books and writes about what he remembers of his feelings during their composition, what he thinks he meant, what strikes him now, what he discovers in writing down the nature of the experience of re-reading his books. That may sound painfully refined, but it’s not; it’s a very good, colloquial, easy-to-read introduction to his writing, thoughtful about finding meaning in the act of writing.
Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams – Diego Garcia
A very good, perhaps surprisingly good book. The narrator is a ‘we’, proxies you assume for the actual authors, a couple drifting in Edinburgh, in a sort of precarious post-student life I remember very well, suffering from a form of hypersensitised post-GFC and creative anomie. Periodically the narrative will bifurcate into a double-columned page, when they are apart from each other. The subject of the book, addressed both obliquely and directly, is the forced expulsion of the Chagos Islanders in 1965 as part of the creation of a US Air Force base on the Mauritian island of Diego Garcia, among others, and the last British colony, The British Indian Ocean Territory.
The yoking together of these two worlds shouldn’t work. at all. As described it looks morally wildly self-indulgent for one thing – connecting two people living in London and Edinburgh. But it does work. it’s very well written for a start, with a strong sense of material surroundings and cultural artefacts, with a fluid prose style to convey this well-selected contemporary bricolage of post-GFC culture.
But the overall reason is the book’s purpose: to describe a connexion between brutal colonial displacement, migration, the places people will go, the experiences there, the people you will meet and with whom you’ll interact, and overall an experience of ‘emergencies happening at different speeds’ (to take a line describing a visit to A&E).
One half of the we is Mauritian, which provides one simple part of the equation. But in general, the notion of sagren – Sagren, to the Chagos refugees, a mix of nostalgia, desperation and overwhelming sorrow – a sickness for home so intense it can be deadly – is connected to anger. These feelings are applied to the sense of being dislocated in a time of ‘Emergency’, to the creative and financial state of the two narrators, and the life-story of Chagossian they meet for a short while on the streets of Edinburgh, all coming together to present a sense of the current state of things, whose axis is the Walter Benjamin quote silently injected in the text here:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
It’s adventurous, daring writing with a sense of what it wants to do with that formal sense of adventure, and it’s well-written so that it carries it off without feeling like… to use a critic’s phrase ‘a partially successful experiment’. I was hesitant about using that phrase, but it’s useful because it allows me to describe the book correctly: it’s a wholly successful experiment, which covers terrain that will surely become increasingly relevant: how countries manage more widespread migration, both economic and that of refugees of some sort or another.
Currently we would rather see migrants die, immiserate them to the point of suicide, or force them via restricted routes to death purely because we do not choose to have the moral capacity to help. (Hey, Suella, what’s your KPI on suicides in detention? Deaths in the channel? Presumably 0 is not an optimal discouragement index score for you?)
More generally, Stephen Bush put it well earlier in the year:
Refugee policies are easier. We can say with extreme confidence that anyone in Ukraine has a compelling case for wanting to leave it, so governments can streamline the process by allowing anyone with a valid passport to treat that document as a visa. And we know what refugees need to make a better life for themselves in a new country: support for their mental and physical health needs, free and easy access to the labour market and help integrating into a new country, usually but not exclusively in the form of language lessons and somewhere to live.
Your country’s ability to do these things is a pretty good test of how effectively governed it is. If your planning and housing system doesn’t have enough flexibility and spare capacity to accommodate some refugees, you almost certainly have a sclerotic planning and housing system. If your community colleges can’t provide them with good enough language skills — people who were already working and living perfectly happily in another country — to enter your labour market, you almost certainly have a very bad adult education system. And if your political class doesn’t have the wit to allow anyone with a valid Ukrainian passport visa-free access to your country, then you almost certainly have a low-wattage political class.
If your country cannot do any of these things, congratulations! You are almost certainly the UK and you are almost certainly heading for a second successive lost decade.https://www.ft.com/content/8e941a78-4d4f-4bdf-9e3a-2f290ab342ac
Flux Gourmet (dir. Peter Strickland)
Flux Gourmet is a film that takes the relationship between food and sound partly explored in Berberian Sound Studio much much further. In doing so Strickland creates conceptual spaces for exploration that might otherwise be unmappable. It is also an amusing ‘what if’ whimsy where ‘sonic catering’ is an artistic space with many artistic collectives vying for bursaries, funding and attention, as well as creating a slightly satiric kink out of the modern socialised fetish seen on food programmes for capturing the sound and sizzle of cooking as something sensuous, extending that into the mundanity of the bourgeois in the supermarket via a series of mime scenarios.
That is the space the film creates and in which it operates, but the main dynamics are where and how this mixture of sensualities are digested and absorbed, and what if you are incapable of digesting them, getting acidic flux (comparable to the sonic flux which is a source of artistic and dramatic contention in the film) and flatulence. The mode of the writer and recorder is meticulously captured in a brilliant performance, again, v delicate and underdelivered, from Makis Papadimitriou. Strickland reverses the vulnerable Englishman in the Italian setting of BBS, with Makis suffering social discomfort in an absurd English mixture of rigid dinner party performance (after dinner speeches are given by each of the collective, each of them excellent), and avant-garde resistance and fetishistic subliminal reaction to those social rules.
The other ruleset in this space is performance and ‘backstage’, where audiences show their gratification in post-performance orgies. What intimacies are available in which spaces, where do we… where are we able to… reveal ourselves, our intestinal and gustatory beings, our sexual fetish – what is the interplay in these spaces, what freedom created, what constraints at play. What role does the private performance of writing and recording have? What is the internal, what the external? Stones (played by Makis, and no Strickland is not frightened of the grotesque or heavy handed joke), sits, a slightly malevolent shadowy outline in the glass panelled toilet, undergoing who knows what malevolent transformation under pressure of these culinary, artistic and social dynamics.
The sound, as you might expect, is extraordinary, spacious, dense, discrete – the writer and recorder’s flatulence is barely registered, the speech of the actors is beautifully captured – that speech in itself nuanced, from Asa Butterfield’s slightly dreary and shy wealthy dropout London, to Gwendoline Christie’s poised, over-rich, and melodramatic depth, and ofc Fatma Mohamed’s crisp, autocratic, ironic voice (god, she and her voice are beautiful). Birdsong and field recordings fill the night and the ‘thinking walks’ the collective go on. The sonic performance and malevolent background miasma of recorded food is also exhilarating and appropriately vicsceral. So yes, the sonic space is, as ever, as rich as the pictorial, dramatic and scripted matter.
The overall effect is to create an unusual mood, a space for new emotions and interactions to be at play, allowing the discovery of something new and unfamiliar.
Sprints – A Modern Job EP
I don’t know, this is hardly the best or most interesting music released this year, but something about its full-throated, youthful, dublin exuberance hit the spot. It is perhaps a form of nostalgia, but it felt fresh enough to bypass feelings of ‘why are people still doing the exact same thing 30 years on?’ feeling I get from most indie music These Days.
I should have listened to more Alewya, who as far as I can tell released several flawless EPs this year. I’ll rectify that over the festive period.3I didn’t, but did get some tickets for her later in the year
It’s a long time since I’ve listened to music as obsessively as I once did, my listening better classed as skimming these days, but here is a playlist of tracks that have in some way stuck with me, no particular order though Calm Down was a clear favourite of the year, and SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY close behind it.
My god so much indie here. What’s going on.
Oh, and in an otherwise ok I suppose album, The Voltarol Years, Half Man Half Biscuit recorded one of their best ever songs, Oblong of Dreams, a love letter to the Wirral, with the characteristic mix of the mundane, the pastoral, death and the available sublime just at the end of a local field path, all coming together to provide that peculiarly uplifting compassion that for me is their hallmark (more than their ‘humour’).
Albums not represented here, among others.
(Get well soon, James)
This was nearly universally bad, from what I saw. Incredibly conservative4MES sums it up very well in the track Systematic Abuse: ‘it is the same’. However, the prison scenes in Andor were very strong, perhaps because they had their origins in the ’70s film THX1138. So that’s my 2022 vote.
Otherwise, watching the original BBC Edge of Darkness from 1985 was my television highlight. As someone on Twitter said, it does not let up, and is dense with meaning and thought, with substantial direction and the acting, especially Bob Peck of course.
It felt like being a goddam prince visiting a distant land eating at Nandine. The quality in detail was exceptional, from mezze to baclava. I exited the building transformed, almost exuberant, such is the power of a good meal.
40 Maltby Street
Transformative in a different way – does what a restaurant should do: restore you, but not just in terms of nourishment. Eating three well-constructed, lightly imaginative dishes and taking their recommendation on wine leaves you feeling spiritually and mentally restored too.
My Friends Don’t Like Me, They Don’t Like the Way I Do
I struggled to maintain social relationships this year – my response to my mental state is to withdraw.
But thanks to those who were in some way a part of it: Dave, Alex, thomp, chuck arrowsmith, gyac & darragh (for Dublin inter alia), tracer hand, ronan, sean, tim, cis, mark s (and the wider ilxor slack cru) carmen, hew, jules, matt, aliya, colleen, calum, jack, james, jem and ofc the infinitely patient comrade alphabet.
as always the people who insist on sticking around for some reason, despite the intermittent communication and erratic manner, are the best part of me.
Bring on 2023.