Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

THEATRE

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes at the Park Theatre

After two years living in Finsbury Park, we still hadn’t been to the local Park Theatre, despite rave recommendations. The trouble was, most of the plays it seemed to put on were hard-hitting “issues” plays. After a long day at work, what we wanted was something light and enjoyable. Not two hours of being forced to think about abortion or genocide. (Over this period, the theatre’s most acclaimed play was An Audience With Jimmy Saville, with Alastair McGowan in an apparently terrifyingly uncanny performance – I’m sure it was brilliant, but we never quite felt in the mood to go and watch it.)

Just before we left London, we finally went there to watch Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, which didn’t tackle any difficult issues at all, apart from culture, religion, the environment and Chomskyan linguistic theory. The play is based on the memoirs of Daniel Everett, a missionary and linguist, who spent 20 years studying a remote Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã. Their language and way of understanding the world was so unusual, it challenged established orthodoxies about linguistics and grammar, and also led Everett to renounce his faith. It was extremely thought-provoking – in a fun way.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by the RSC at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre

I didn’t have a formal Shakespeare resolution for 2016 as I had in previous years, but I did read and see four more plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shit-Faced Shakespeare, Leicester Square Theatre), The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe), Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC, Manchester Opera House) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC, Liverpool Everyman Theatre).

Two Gentlemen is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and not one of his best. But the RSC’s production was very well done, and I especially enjoyed the setting, which reimagined it in the 1960s. The three worlds of Verona, Milan and the wild forest were transposed into a drab provincial town, swinging London, and a hippy festival, with sumptuous wardrobes and sets to suit. Also, it was my first visit to the Liverpool Everyman, which was lovely – I’ll definitely be going back.

MUSIC

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Wembley Arena

One of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Nothing more needs to be said.

TELEVISION

The West Wing

As western democracy descended into demagoguery and nastiness, one route of escape was into the liberal fantasy-land of The West Wing. Intellectual and liberal, but also tough, decisive and morally grounded, President Bartlet is the dream Leader of the Free World. The grand story arc, in which his presidency proves the virtue of liberal and compassionate politics, and raises the level of public debate in the US so that the contest for his successor is between two brilliant candidates, a moderate California Republican and a ground-breaking Latino Democrat, was especially poignant given the opposite trend in the real world.

ART

MC Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

I’ve always loved Escher: as a child, we had a book of his drawings in our house, and I found them endlessly fascinating. Incredibly, this was Escher’s first exhibition in the UK. It was wonderful to see old favourites up close, and others I’d never seen before at all.

GAMES

Tammany Hall

Top of the list of games which needed to be played more in 2016 was Tammany Hall, an obscure but highly rated Euro about late 19th century New York politics. Thinking the theme sounded a little daunting, and presuming it was heavy and complicated, I’d not found a suitable group to play it with, and as a result I’d owned it unplayed for over a year.

I finally got round to playing it for the first time in April. It turns out it’s really not that complicated at all. In fact, it’s the ideal combination: deep strategy arising from simple rules. The mechanics and theme complement each other perfectly: you agonise over electoral strategy, whether to spread your resources wide or concentrate them in key wards, and you really feel like you’re being drawn deeper into a web of corruption, becoming ever more dependent on the partisan support of your favoured ethnic groups, as you’re forced to lavish more and more favours on them to retain their loyalty.

Villa Paletti

Villa Paletti is one of the highest rated dexterity games around. But when I got it a couple of years ago, our first attempt was based on a badly translated set of rules, and was a bit confusing and disappointing. It had been relegated to the shelf ever since, so it was another high priority for revisiting. A quick check on the boardgamegeek forums turned up the critical missing rule. Newly rehabilitated, Villa Paletti became the big hit of the Christmas and New Year period.

It’s a brilliant twist on Jenga: you remove your coloured columns from the bottom and place them on the top, building the tower up through successively smaller and more finely balanced levels. It involves all kinds of interesting considerations about physics (balance, centre of mass, whether columns are load-bearing or not), tactics (placing columns and floors to free your own pieces, or trap opponents’), technique (removing columns with painstaking care, or whipping them away as quickly as possible) and gamesmanship (whether it’s better to take a risk and make the tower more precarious, or play safe and wait for someone else to make a mistake).

The Spanish Road megagame

I was invited by some friends to take part in a “megagame” – a giant part-board part-roleplaying game played by dozens of people in teams, across several different maps and rooms. These are organised by volunteer enthusiasts, and there are as many scenarios and rulesets as people have time to invent. The one we played was a new one, The Spanish Road, a game of European politics between 1565 and 1585: a period of religious turmoil, colonisation and rebellion, aristocratic alliances and scheming politicians.

We played as Genoa, a small Italian city state with little military power, but a key role in financing the wars of the great powers going on elsewhere. Our team objective was to quash a rebellion in Corsica, establish peace with the other Italian states, then make as much money as possible stoking and bankrolling wars wars between the other nations. We also had individual objectives, which mainly revolved around being elected by our teammates to the two-year office of Doge of Genoa.

Gianotto Lomellini, financial wizard of Genoa, cuts another deal

To get into character, I visited the costume hire department of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. I explained that I was going to be playing the late 16th century Doge of Genoa, and asked if they had anything suitable. They replied, “We have a 16th century Doge of Venice costume, will that work?” Er, yes, I should think so.

It was an enormous success. Team Genoa’s unashamed perfidy and greed resulted in several ingenious schemes. With a hawkish Pope intent on leading a Holy League in a war against the Ottomans, Genoa was the only Italian state which remained neutral, which meant our colony in Chios was left untouched by the Turk, and we grew rich lending money to both sides. When the Pope put on more pressure to join the Holy League, we agreed to declare war on the Ottomans only on payment of a large fee – then accepted another bung from the Ottomans for not actually attacking them. A couple of years later, the belligerent Pope was assassinated, and his replacement (who was, coincidentally, Genoese) sued for peace. The war ended, and Genoa had never even raised an army – although a number of grand mansions had popped up along the city’s waterfront. Meanwhile, our semi-rogue admiral Andrea Doria had been waging a low-level campaign of piracy against our allies’ shipping. Eventually this annoyed them enough to make a complaint, but we were quick to buy them off with compensation – although much less, it should be noted, than the amount we’d made from the raids.

It was great fun, although running about between different rooms, making deals and collecting debts, got a little bit hot in full 16th century kit.

OTHER

Westminster Cathedral

Famously mistaken for a mosque by UKIP, Westminster Cathedral (not Westminster Abbey) is the mother church of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. It’s a gorgeous neo-Byzantine building near Victoria, and althought it was very close to the office I worked in for two years, I’d never been inside. Just before I left London, I paid it a visit. It’s absolutely stunning, a vast space decorated almost entirely in mosaics. The tower, which you can go up for a small fee, gives one of the best publicly-accessible views over southwest central London.

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