Cultural Highlights of 2014

Here’s some of my favourite stuff from 2014.

BOOKS

Robert Louis StevensonTreasure Island

This year, I got around to reading a few classics I’d missed. Treasure Island was one of them. It’s a children’s book, but if you didn’t read it as a child, you should now. It’s an absolute corker of a story.

Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe Disaster Artist

Some might say this is only for hardcore fans of The Room, but I’d dispute that. Of course, it’d be worth at least watching the film before you read this memoir of the making of it, from its unwilling executive producer, co-lead and all-round dogsbody. But it’s brilliantly written, and simultaneously a terrifying character study and hilarious insight into the twisted mind of Tommy Wiseau – one of the most inexplicable people ever to exist.

Richard MorganMarket Forces

Someone lent this to me, and although I was sceptical at first, I was quickly hooked. It has a gimmicky premise: in the near future, business executives fight for promotion in to-the-death road duels. It’s obviously a metaphor for the psychopathic tendencies of investment bankers, but it was still a bit too cheesy to suspend my disbelief for. Aside from that though, it’s scarily believable: from the vision of a future Britain where income inequality is so extreme that the proles live in fenced-off ghettos while bankers commit crimes with impunity, to the moral degradation and self-justifications of a man climbing his way to the top.

Womack, Jones and Roos – The Machine That Changed The World

For an academic study of industrial management philosophies, this was a surprisingly gripping read. If you still think we live in the age of mass production, where the best way to be competitive is to produce more of the same thing in bulk and cut costs, you need to learn about lean production now, and this book is the best place to start.

It also inspired this blog post about the parallels between lean production and military doctrine.

Joe Dunthorne – Submarine

Submarine is one of my favourite films of all time. It turns out the book is simultaneously quite different and very similar to the film. Minor aspects of the plot and characters are changed, but not in ways that really matter. The weird bit is that all of my favourite, funniest lines from the film aren’t in the book. And all of my favourite, funniest bits from the book aren’t in the film. And yet the perfect, sublime sense of humour which I loved in the film is there in the book, totally unchanged. Truly wonderful.

James Rickards – The Death of Money

A deeply thought-provoking contrarian analysis of our current economic situation, our failure to solve the problems of instability and criticality in banking and finance which caused our last crisis, and the inevitability and imminence of our next one.

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird

Another from my classics catch-up list. Its status is well deserved.

Adam Jacot de Boinod – The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo

Two wonderful books about words from other languages which have no English equivalents, and other interesting translation trivia.

THEATRE

Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe

My favourite of the six Shakespeare plays I saw as part of my 2014 challenge. The atmosphere at the Globe was amazing. It’s not only genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but also packs a surprising emotional intensity.

Porgy and Bess at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

I’ve wanted to see the Gershwins’ jazz/folk/blues opera for a long time. This production was fantastic, very moving and in a wonderful setting.

Knightmare Live at The Lowry, Salford Quays

The stage adapation of classic children’s TV programme Knightmare was utterly, utterly brilliant and hilarious. Side step left! Spellcasting!

Welcome to Night Vale live podcast at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

The glorious Welcome to Night Vale podcast came to the UK on its worldwide live tour. For more on the podcast itself, see below. The live show was fabulous.

ART

Malevich at Tate Modern

Suprematist Composition (1916), Kazimir Malevich

I’m a huge fan of Dada and early European modern art, but I was much less aware of what was happening simultaneously in Russian art. Kazimir Malevich was in many ways even more revolutionary than his western counterparts. The anti-modern-art brigade will scoff but I really do find Malevich’s abstract works both beautiful and incredibly powerful, especially the audacious two-finger-salute which is the Black Square.

The Tate’s exhibition was very moving as well, as it showed Malevich’s progression from earlier modern styles, through his bold leap into pure abstraction, and then into his later years working under Stalinist regime which regarded his innovations as bourgeois and oppressed them.

MUSIC
 
Anna Calvi at Albert Hall, Manchester

One of my favourite artists of recent years, and at a venue which was perfect for her – spooky, atmospheric, intimate, intense.

Blackbeard’s Tea Party at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention

Blackbeard’s Tea Party were the big hit of Cropredy 2014, with their rocked up sea shanties, and especially the insanely catchy Chicken on a Raft (complete with dance moves).

The Jesus and Mary Chain playing Psychocandy at the Troxy

The Troxy is an amazing venue: a gorgeous pastel-shade art deco cinema, now converted into a concert venue. The Jesus and Mary Chain used it to unleash a relentless onslaught of noise pop.

William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor?

One of Piccadilly Records‘ picks of 2013, I only discovered it earlier this year. William Onyeabor self-published eight albums of funk rock in Nigeria between 1978 and 1985, then disappeared. Luaka Bop rediscovered his work and released this compilation album. It is awesome.
 
FILMS 

We Are The Best!

One of my favourite films of all time is Together, written and directed by Lukas Moodysson, but his next film, Lilya 4-ever, was a bit too bleak and depressing even for my tastes. He returns to form with We Are The Best!, a story of three misfit teenage girls who decide to form a punk band, despite having no musical talent. It’s hilarious, heart-warming and full of soul. The best film of 2014.

The Devils

In June, the Cornerhouse in Manchester screened Ken Russell‘s near-legendary 1971 film about religious power, hypocrisy and sexual repression, with an introductory talk from a film studies academic discussing its place in the controversies over film and censorship of the 1970s and ’80s. It’s a terrific film, and I’d urge you to see it, but you might find that difficult: it’s still notoriously difficult to find a decent copy of it.

Pulp: a film about Life, Death & Supermarkets

This documentary wasn’t really about life, death or supermarkets. It was a bit about Pulp, but it was mostly a beautiful portrait of Sheffield and the people who live there (and who love Pulp).

Interstellar

Interstellar wasn’t perfect. It was too long, and the ending was highly contrived. It was clearly an homage to classic 70s sci-fi films, but if it had been made in the 70s itself, and didn’t need to slavishly pander to test audiences, it could have lost an hour of unnecessary contrivance, and been a much bleaker but tighter and better film. Nevertheless, it was one of the best films I saw this year: it was intelligent and gripping, with a strong plot, great characters, hard science, beautiful imagery, and plenty of Crowning Moments of Awesome.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson‘s most Wes-Anderson-esque – and best – film to date.

TELEVISION
 
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (series 3)

Stewart Lee is the best stand-up comedian there is, and he continues to prove it in the third series of Comedy Vehicle. I saw some of the material being worked up in his Much A-Stew About Nothing tour earlier in the year, as well as enjoying the series on TV and DVD.

His current tour, A Room With A Stew, is totally sold out, and every time he puts new dates on, they instantly sell out too. It’s great that he’s finally enjoying the recognition and success he’s long deserved. It’s kind of annoying not to be able to get any tickets though.

The Alternative Comedy Experience

“Alternative comedy” used to be defined in opposition to mainstream club comics and their traditional racist, misogynist humour. Now that older form of comedy is extinct, and comedians with surreal or intellectual styles like Ross Noble and Ricky Gervais enjoy mainstream success, it’s not clear what exactly alternative comedy is, or should be.

Stewart Lee has been one of the driving forces in defining a new alternative comedy. In his 2009 show, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian…, he identified today’s mainstream comedy as taking one of two forms: unchallenging observational comedy (Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay) and “ironically” offensive taboo-breaking (Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle). As well as developing his own style as a distinct alternative to those paradigms, Lee has been instrumental in inspiring and supporting other comedians to do the same.

The Alternative Comedy Experience is a Comedy Central programme in which Lee showcases a number stand-ups working in the new alternative mode, including Tony Law, Simon Munnery, Paul Foot, Henning Wehn, Josie Long and Isy Suttie. It’s excellent.

Miami Vice

People go on about Breaking Bad and House of Cards, but for my box set indulgence, I’m working through the original TV series of Miami Vice. Drug smugglers, shoot outs and extended car chase sequences with Ferraris and ’80s soundtracks. What’s not to love?
 
RADIO
 
Cabin Pressure

Cabin Pressure is the best and most underrated sitcom of recent years, an absolute gem which has gone unnoticed by most people, mainly because it’s a radio series. No other contemporary comedy writing has come close to perfection like this. The long-awaited final episode aired over Christmas 2014, so you can now go and buy the full series on CD – and you should.

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

The genius behind Cabin Pressure is John Finnemore, who both writes it and stars as the dim-witted Arthur, proving the old adage that you have to be very clever to write stupid well. Finnemore is a supremely talented comedy writer and performer, and his Souvenir Programme, also a BBC Radio 4 series, is a brilliant and inventive sketch show.
 
PODCASTS

The big thing in the podcastverse in 2014 was Serial, although I’m a bit behind the curve and spent the year getting into longer-running podcasts, including Futility Closet, The Fogelnest Files and the Savage Lovecast. However, the best were:

Welcome to Night Vale

You must have heard of this. It’s a community radio show, set in a fictional small desert town in the southwestern United States, where bizarre and terrifying events occur every day, and are reported on with casual objectivity. It’s a Lovecraftian delight.

Pappy’s Flatshare Slamdown

Underrated comic trio Pappy’s make this podcast, which takes the form of an anarchic competition featuring different guest comedians each episode. It’s also the source of the Twelve Days Singalong Quiz that I subjected several groups of people to over Christmas.

You Are Not So Smart

Each episode, journalist and neuro-geek David McRaney discusses a mind-blowing piece of psychology or neuroscience, interviews a researcher, and then reviews a reader-submitted cookie recipe. This is the sort of science which rips the side block out of your mental Jenga. If you still believe in childish fallacies like accurate perception and memory, the ability to make rational decisions, and the self, this is essential listening.
 
OTHER
 
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Open House London

Open House London is a weekend in September when lots of buildings and houses around the capital are open to visitors. I only had time to visit one, so I went to the FCO, and saw its marvellous George Gilbert Scott-designed premises. The Durbar Court is especially stunning.

The Agora, Athens

On our second visit to Athens, I was determined to visit the Agora, which we’d previously missed. However, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as incredible as it was. I thought it was just the market place, but it’s actually the entire public area of the ancient city, with government, administrative, religious, military and commercial buildings developed over centuries. The ruins are extensive and well excavated, and the whole site inspires a deep sense of awe at the achievements of the ancient Athenians and their influence on human culture. After the Acropolis, it should be the second thing on the itinerary of any visitor to Athens.

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