Cultural Highlights of 2015

I know it’s a bit late, but here’s the best stuff I read/saw/etc in 2015.

BOOKS

Railsea by China MiƩville

By the same author as the superb The City And The City, Railsea is a post-apocalyptic riff on Moby-Dick. A young cabin boy joins a train crew rattling about on a vast dried sea-bed covered in criss-crossing railway tracks and inhabited by ferocious burrowing monsters, while the captain obsessively hunts her great yellow mole. Ripping stuff.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, mainstream economics has been dominated by the ideology of the free market, championed by the right wing as the driver of economic success. Meanwhile the left wing has either opposed it on moral grounds of fairness and compassion, or accepted it while trying to mitigate its worst effects. The basic economic argument has never been challenged in public debate: the free market creates a prosperous economy. However, in academic economics, this truism is widely known to be false, and the contradictions and failings of the free market are well understood. Ha-Joon Chang is one of the leading voices attempting to bust the free market myths of public consciousness, and this book is a perfect primer.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the hallmarks of a great book for me is how much is lingers in your consciousness after you’ve read it, and for weeks after finishing One Day In The LIfe Of Ivan Denisovich, I often found myself thinking, ridiculously, “this is just like in the Gulag.”

THEATRE

Dara at the National Theatre
Measure For Measure at the Young Vic

Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) was the enlightened, philosophical eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal). In 1658, his father was overthrown by Dara’s younger brother, the pious zealot Aurangzeb, and Dara was put on trial for apostasy and executed.

The play, by Pakistani dramatist Shahid Nadeem, tells the story of Dara’s life. Its climactic scene is the trial, in which Dara makes an eloquent, impassioned defence of religious tolerance and compassion, and against Aurangzeb’s hypocritical, dogmatic interpretation of religion. It’s a profound contribution to one of the great debates of our times, and Zubin Varla, playing Dara, was superb.

Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure is another enduring critique of religious hypocrisy and dogma. The Young Vic’s version, while it started out a bit post-modern and gimmicky (the opening scene involved all the actors, standing in a big glass box, humping sex dolls), grew on me as the play proper got going. Paul Ready’s sleazy, hand-wringing evangelist Angelo was frighteningly believable, while Zubin Varla (him again) resolved the text’s difficulties in the character of the Duke by playing him as wonderfully, hilariously demented.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
Timon of Athens at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

One of the signs of a great actor is their ability to become unrecognisably different people. That’s what Andrew Morton achieved at this year’s Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, where he played Falstaff in Merry Wives and Timon in the rarely-performed Timon of Athens. It wasn’t until I studied the programmes afterwards I realised they were the same actor. Also, the perennial difficulty with Shakespeare is the language, and the challenge for an actor is to make the lines clear and understandable for the audience. Morton did this better than most other actors I’ve seen doing Shakespeare – including the incomprehensible mumbling of the supposedly acclaimed Simon Russell Beale.

FILM

Going Clear

A fascinating documentary telling the story of the Church of Scientology, its history and operations. It’s especially interesting for its insights into the mind of David Miscavige, Scientology’s psychopathic leader and successor to L Ron Hubbard. There’s a pattern to the foundation of successful religions, and it’s not the charisma or profundity of its prophet: charismatic, pseudo-profound preachers are ten a penny. The critical differentiator between prophets is the ruthlessness and organisational capabilities of their successors. Jesus had St Paul, Muhammad had Ali, and Hubbard had Miscavige.

Hopefully the continued exposure of the abusive practices of Scientology, and reverse-Damascene conversions and denunciations by senior people, will eventually kill off this obscene organisation. The two people who come across worst in the whole film, after Miscavige, are its hold-out celebrity champions, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. They’re both clearly terrified of (sexual?) secrets the Church holds over them, but the callous dishonesty, cruelty and support for something they know is evil, that they’re going along with, does far more to discredit them than any sexual indiscretion could. Perhaps one day they’ll realise that.

Dear White People

A witty, insightful and hilarious examination of race relations in liberal America today. The film, ultimately, is actually more about the problem of defining one’s individual identity: the main character, based on the writer’s own experience of being a gay black man, isn’t entirely comfortable with either the macho culture of the black fraternity, or the mostly white gay cliques – especially when he becomes something of a racially-fetishised novelty for them.

Western societies like the US and UK are currently on a fulcrum, where civil rights and the progressive agenda have achieved a lot, there is clearly still a long way to go, but there is also a powerful reactionary movement which feels that it’s gone more than far enough already. Dear White People is a snapshot of one section of the current front line.

MUSIC

Sun Structures by Temples

The massive psychedelic riffs of Temples’ debut album are utterly addictive.

After by Lady Lamb

A serendipitous discovery on the browsing headphones in Rough Trade East. I’ve been described as a sucker for female vocalists, and Lady Lamb is my latest obsession.

The Race For Space by Public Service Broadcasting

Sampling news reports and recordings to tell the story of the great era of space exploration, PSB’s second full-length album is an absolute masterpiece. Live at Brixton Academy, they were incredible.

The Decemberists at Brixton Academy

The Decemberists’ tongue in cheek indie folk is perfect for live performance: fresh, fun and crowd-pleasing. Lead singer Colin Meloy’s humour and rapport with the audience made this one of the most entertaining live gigs I’ve been to for a long time.

TV

Miami Vice

We’re somewhat out of synch with the TV box set habits of the rest of the world; while everyone else has been obsessed with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, we’ve been working our way through ’80s classic glam-cop show Miami Vice. Lieutenant Martin Castillo is one of the greatest badass bosses of all time.

2015 Wipe

Charlie Brooker’s annual TV round up is always amusing, but his analysis and reaction to 2015, a year in which the world seemed to be sliding inexorably towards darkness, chaos and ignorance, was a masterpiece.

ART

Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

Sonia Delaunay’s vivid colours and innovative abstractions were a pleasure to see up close. An under-rated star of the early 20th century avant garde.

Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery

The impressionists have been exhaustively covered by over a century’s worth of exhibitions. To find a different angle, this one told the story of Paul Durand-Ruel, the visionary art dealer who was an early champion of the impressionists, buying and exhibiting their works privately when they were still outsiders. It worked very well (his strategy, and the exhibition). However, the paintings don’t need an excuse to be shown: their vibrancy and beauty can never be captured fully in reproductions and books; you have to stand in front of one to really see it. The room with six different versions of Monet’s Poplars, painted in different seasons and lights, was extraordinary.

Malevich at Tate Modern

Kazimir Malevich was one of the great pioneers of abstract art. His revolutionary Black Square, first exhibited in 1915, was kept locked away in an archive by the Soviet government, who suppressed abstraction, and remained legendary throughout the 20th century. I love Malevich’s abstract paintings for two reasons: firstly, the compositions are finely balanced and beautifully designed, undeniably aesthetic; secondly, the clear “fuck you” declaration to the whole history of art leading up to that moment.

Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Eric Ravilious was a British watercolourist of the early-to-mid 20th century, whose beautiful, shimmering pictures beautifully documented the dilapidated industrial landscape of Britain in the years leading up the Second World War. Like almost everyone who went to this exhibition, I’d never heard of him before it, but came away from it a devoted fan.

MISCELLANEOUS

Rome

I can’t believe I’ve never been to Rome before, and I wish I’d gone earlier. I fell in love with it immediately. Athens is just as ancient, but the history is dotted around a mostly modern city; London is similar. In Rome, everything is old: beyond the ancient ruins (which are extensive), people live in crumbling, 16th century apartment buildings. If only there were jobs in Italy…

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