Afternoon walk: the Thames at Cliveden.

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It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted. Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous.

Victor Klemperer, diary, 1st January 1942.

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The best (and worst) of 2016

north-by-northwestI’ve already posted my favourite folk/world music and jazz albums of the year, so here are my  other cultural highs and lows.

Best gigs.

Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre, Jan. I’ve always found her studio recordings too icily perfect, but her personality came through loud and clear in front of a basement full of musical theatre fanatics.

Charlie Hunter, Ronnie Scotts, Nov. A perfect balance of blues and seat-of-the-pants improv from the American guitarist.

North By Northwest Live, Coliseum, Dec. Hitchcock, Cary Grant and the ENO Orchestra: a perfect cocktail.

Natalie Douglas, Crazy Coqs, Feb.  A fabulous singer paid homage to Stevie Wonder, Joe Williams, Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Proms, Aug. Exploring the music of Duke Ellington and Iain Ballamy. The finest late-night Prom in years.

Youn Sun Nah, Union Chapel, Sept. Sometimes she sounds like an avant-garde jazz singer, sometimes she can be a non-histrionic version of Ute Lemper.

Dillie Keane, Oxford Playhouse, March. Out on her own without Fascinating Aïda, reflecting on love and death and sex.

Steve Gadd, Ronnie Scott’s, Oct. A less-is-more drumming masterclass.

Bill Burr, Colston Hall, Bristol. Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and one of the world’s great stand-up comedians.

Worst gigs

Kamasi Washington, Proms, Aug. Jazz’s visionary new saxophonist? I was hoping I’d see the light at last, but this bloated, meandering concert left me even more baffled.

Baaba Maal, Festival Hall, Jan. Not for the first time, the Malian superstar seemed to be lost in a bland no-man’s land.

Pet Shop Boys, Royal Opera House. Bland tunes, ludicrous choreography and easily the most pretentious programme note of the year.

pet shop boys programme gesamtkunstwerk

Best open-air venue. A strip of beach in the Indian Ocean that served as home to the Sakifo festival. Getting to Réunion involved a long, long flight, but it was worth it.

Best films. It seemed a stronger year than normal, or maybe I was just lucky. “Captain Fantastic”, a story about idealism gone wrong, reminded me of Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”. Jeff Bridges was memorably grumpy, wizened and cynical in “Hell Or High Water”. Two men who had next to nothing in common made memorable small talk in “Nixon & Elvis”, while the low-budget drama “Race” deserved more praise than it actually got for its unfussy re-telling of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “My Nazi Legacy” was a sobering documentary about war crimes, conscience and selective amnesia.

Best theatre.  I can’t  remember the last time I enjoyed a play as much as “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour”. When I managed to get a ticket for a mid-week performance, I went along assuming that the raves I’d read were just another case of well-meaning theatre critics getting carried away. Wrong, wrong, wrong. After wincing my way through the revival of August Wilson’s creaky but much-praised “Fences” a couple of years ago, I wondered whether “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would be as exciting as it seemed when it first came to the National decades ago. Well, it definitely was, regardless of that slightly melodramatic final scenes. Two comedians shone too: Nina Conti proved that ventriloquism is alive and well; David Baddiel presented a gloriously irreverent tribute to his later mother in “My Family.

Best song.

The one I haven’t been able to stop listening to.

Best books. “Motown: The Sound of Young America” brought a glorious era back to life, author and fan Adam White giving the company the glossy coffee table book treatment. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Alan Light’s biography of Nina Simone made for exceptionally painful reading at times, but it didn’t skirt awkward facts in the way that the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name did. (Here’s my take in The Times.) Muhammad Ali’s complex, shifting relationship with Malcolm X was brilliantly dissected in “Blood Brothers”. (Here’s my Times review.)

Biggest disappointments. “The Martian” was formulaic and infantile beyond belief. Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis was a ludicrous, would-be tough guy roaming the mean streets of New York in “Miles Ahead”. Good music though. I still can’t quite figure out how a novel as over-cooked and one-dimensional as “The Sellout” won the Man Booker. “The Underground Railroad” was almost as over-hyped (my Times reviews of the books are here and here). And “The Maisky Diaries”, acclaimed just about everywhere, turned out to be very dry stuff. Lots of intriguing tit-bits for students of diplomatic history, perhaps, but one of those books that will spend more time looking impressive on the shelves than actually being read.

And, as usual, I re-read Patrick Hamilton’s “Hangover Square”.

Best cartoon. From Paul Noth in The New Yorker. Published in the summer, when a Trump victory still seemed an impossibly long way off.


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Leipzig dominated the conversation at the Steinitzes yesterday. A married sister of the wife lives there. When the warning came, the couple ran down to the cellar, the bombs started exploding, and most of their house collapsed. They were rescued, both without clothes, even underwear, quite stripped and naked. They were given 500DM for the time being. Frau Steinitz also talked about a huge cold storage plant, which was hit. A river of thousands upon thousands of smashed eggs flowed out, likewise a river of melted butter and margarine. Russian prisoners, deployed to fight the fires, had stuffed the fat into their mouths with their hands until they were sick. Soldiers had fallen upon stores of wine, knocked the necks off bottles against the nearest wall, and gulped down the contents… Whole streets are said to have been flattened. The number of dead, once recently given as 28,000, once as 18,000, was now reduced to “only” 1,200. Frau Steinitz talked with unutterable fear of the possibility or even likelihood of an attack on Dresden.

Victor Klemperer, diary, 27th December 1943

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Morning fog, Cookham Bridge

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All lit up

Out of step in the Virginia boondocks, a Christmas lights snob learns how to enjoy being gaudy:

After the first Christmas, when I didn’t put up any decorations outside our house, the lady next door—a sweet, Christian Secret Service agent—presented me with a shiny, four-foot-tall aluminum Snoopy, ringed by blinking lights. I tried to demur, but she insisted not only on giving it to me but helping me set it up, too. I was both touched and horrified. When she moved away, blinking Snoopy went up into the attic, and we went back to having no Christmas decorations. I thought this was perfectly normal. My neighbours did not.

Rich asked me about it a couple years ago. “Is there something wrong?” he asked—in a sympathetic, not sarcastic—tone. “Do you just not like Christmas?” Rich lives in the pipe-stem next to us and is such an enthusiastic Christmas decorator that he spends the weekend before Thanksgiving every year crawling around the roof of his house to trim the entire structure in dangling icicle lights.But that’s just the start. As I write this, I’m gazing out at Rich’s front lawn. There are 10 reindeer, 5 snowmen, 3 peacocks, an Eiffel Tower, and much, much more. Rich’s lawn menagerie has grown over the years so that it eventually spilled over into his next-door neighbor Michelle’s property. This year, he outgrew her yard, too. Over the summer, a nice Muslim family from Afghanistan moved into the house on the other side of Michelle. Their front yard is now home to the overflow of Rich’s overflow decorations.

And so, shamed by Rich’s example and my Muslim neighbors’ good cheer and forbearance, this year I bought a Christmas decoration for the outside of the house… It’s tacky. It’s terrible. And I loved it so much that five minutes after setting it up, I ordered a second one.

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They take their Nativity play very seriously

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There was one day, unforgettable, when I did go back to Hoxton… I was thirteen or fourteen and had been at Christ’s Hospital for two or three years. Suddenly, after the years of Hoxton’s emptiness, I once more had a lot of former schoolmates who were living there. One Saturday in the West End I bumped into one of them, and we arranged that I should come to Hoxton the following Saturday afternoon, when most of them did not have to work, and meet some of the others. He would fix it up, he said. I arrived at the meeting place full of excitement, and there they were, a wonderful collection of the old faces. We all started talking at once. As I was greeting them, there were new ones still arriving behind me, chattering as they came in, so I was conscious of people and voices behind me as well as in front. So when those in front burst into a laughing, jovial chorus of “Blimey, ‘ark at ‘im!” and “Don’ ‘e talk posh!” and “Cor, listen to ‘im, talkin’ all lad-di-da!” I looked round to see who the new arrival was they they were greeting with this friendly derision, my ears pricking up for the voice they were describing. There was nobody there, the new arrivals having melted in. I turned back and saw that they were laughing at me… The chorus went on, and people were nudging one another, winking, laughing incredulously as if they could scarcely believe their ears. Then one of them said: “It’s no good you talking like that to us, you know. We know where you come from.”

Bryan Magee, “Growing Up In a War”.

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Homeless, Oxford 

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The man, not the legend

Another biography of Elvis Presley, another opportunity to wonder what went wrong. And to imagine what might have happened if The King had said yes to La Streisand. From my review in The Times:

Two years before his death, when he creatively is in the doldrums, Barbra Streisand arrives in his Vegas dressing room and offers him the joint lead in her remake of A Star Is Born. Who knows what effect that sort of challenge could have had on his failing career? Sadly, a combination of a lack of self-confidence and the avaricious contractual demands of his infamous, all-controlling manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, put an end to that deal.

It is part of Presley’s tragedy that, although he adored the movies, it was Hollywood that did so much to undermine his talent. Parker, always eager to chase an easy payout, took the earliest opportunity to harness his client to a treadmill of inferior film roles that became Presley’s principal conduit to his audience during what should have been his peak years…Desperate for ready cash to sustain his lavish spending — he gave cars to hangers-on in the same way that mere mortals hand out sweets — Presley locked himself in to a process that made him a laughing stock among a new generation raised on the Beatles. It was small comfort that the Fab Four were his fans too, and made a point of making a pilgrimage to see him at Graceland.

After Presley’s death, as Connolly points out, the films faded from the public consciousness. The music was once again the centre of attention, and pop critics who once poured scorn on the man in the gaudy, rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit began to reassess his legacy. Strip away the kitsch trappings, forget Paradise, Hawaiian Style and other cinematic duds, and you rediscover the voice and charisma of an unworldly performer who had the rare ability to synthesise blues, gospel and country music. It was a mysterious, instinctive talent, and one that seemed unfathomable even to the man who possessed it.

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