Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Adios 2008

This year has certainly been memorable, plenty of light, even more shade, but here is a purely cultural evaluation:

TV - Outnumbered, Little Dorrit, Merlin were live highlights for me, and on DVD, Mad Men, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm have been wonderful. Can't wait to see more of Wallender as well, in which Branagh was marvellous and also provided a little touch of Tom Hiddleston, definitely an actor to watch (see below...). But my complete favourite was Devil's Whore with the amazing Andrea Riseborough, Dominic West, Michael Fassbender and Harry Lloyd as a memorably slimy cameo of Prince Rupert. I can't wait to see what Riseborough does next.

Books - Travels with Herodotus is the book I will definitely re-read from this year, along with Jude Morgan's An Accomplished Woman, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books. This has been a great year for history books and children's fiction, but apart from Morgan and the delightful Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, good new romance has been thin on the ground. Am also being very careful not to gollop up CS Sansom's Shardlake books - I loved the first two.

Music - Well, Vampire Weekend obviously, as well as Fleet Foxes and The Killers, but the other pleasure has been discovering David Daniels, especially the opera Rinaldo with beautiful performances from him and Cecilia Bartoli, just utterly lovely. Minion No 1 went to his first rock concert, VW at Botanique here in Brussels, and we also took both boys to their first proper classical concert, a special children's concert with some Rimsky Korsakov, Weber and Stravinsky's Firebird with accompanying narration.

Theatre - the year started with the highlight of Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre with Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale as Beatrice and Benedick, and another highlight was Maria Aitken's The 39 Steps, which is wonderfully funny. Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline was excellent, pacy, weird and introducing Tom Hiddleston who is going to be big big big. He's one of those actors who just catch your eye and can't quite release you once you start watching him. Elegant, neat and precise with his verse. But of course, the big big big highlight was Tennant's Hamlet. Not just Tennant, but Greg Doran's wonderful ensemble cast, with an extra special mention to Penny Downie's Gertrude, who lingers with me.

Art - Renaissance Portraits at the National Gallery and seeing the Queen's collection of Flemish Masters here in Brussels have been major highlights. I took friends to see Rubens' house in Antwerp, always a delight to see. Taking the boys to Chatsworth was enjoyable - Minion No 1's egalitarian instincts were somewhat offended by the wealth of fine art snaffled by the Dukes of Devonshire on their numerous Grand Tours and then displayed so finely in deepest Derbyshire, but he was impressed.

Cinematically speaking, the stuff we saw was on DVD, but my main impression remains admiration for George Clooney for steadily producing a stream of interesting, complex films appealing to adults - this year, The Good German and Michael Clayton joined Goodnight and Good Luck and Syriana as films I will happily watch again. No, you know, I really don't fancy him. We finally caught up with Lives of Others, which was just as marvellous as everyone said, and with Sophie Scholl, which was terribly sad and beautiful. And I am going to stand up for Mamma Mia! which received very dodgy reviews from male reviewers but was and will be the ultimately feelgood film for dark times, one to watch and rewatch when the winter glums are a little too pressing.

So culturally, at least, a rich and varied banquet. No dance - so maybe 2009 is the year to introduce the boys to ballet...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madoff, Merdle and Money

Isn't money just weird...My first job was as a graduate trainee in a government organisation that was intended to regulate the City, the body that eventually transmuted into today's FSA. I ran away - two things in particular drove me. First of all, I felt physically sick commuting even the seven stops from Kentish Town to Bank, walking in a strange rhythm with thousands of fellow-lemmings from the Tube to the office, and second, once I was there, learning about the futures markets, I recoiled in some sort of allergic reaction to the idea of essentially betting millions and millions of pounds, dollars or yen. My limited understanding of most financial transactions of a more sophisticated variety was that they were very fancy ways of gambling, a past-time which has never held much appeal for me. I used occasionally to take on room-mates at school or university for stakes of Smarties or matchsticks, but real money has always been rather too rare for me to take any chances when it came into my possession.

The thing was, as a reader, I knew about families who lost everything. I knew about Little Dorrit, I'd read The Way We Live Now, and Middlemarch, I'd heard of the South Sea Bubble. Those of us who love literature and study history are well aware that once we humans have lost our understanding of money as a tangible, we teeter on a precipice which leads to darker places, like the Marshalsea, or Turkish baths where we may slit our throats rather than face the music. Merdle in Little Dorrit, as BBC audiences will have seen this last week, nabbed his step-son's pearl-handled knife so he could do away with himself in his local hammam, but Madoff (and what serendipity led a man with a name like Madoff to make off with so many people's moolah!) must face the music in court.

So here we are, those banks who seemed to be slipping through the credit crunch somewhat less scathed than others - HSBC, Santander, BNP Paribas, they turn out to be mugs facing potentially billions in losses for bunging the odd quid in Madoff's direction. It's all very well being a brilliant scientist/mathematician/economist/analyst, but once again, we have a prime example of how the financial world depends not on common sense or science, but on a herd instinct focused purely on false expectations. The Greeks, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and of course Dickens and Trollope (both of whom had direct personal experience of the fall-out of financial shenanigans) have all warned us against the pitfalls of handing over our hard-earned to the first plausible smooth-talker. Having watched with interest scams of one sort or another from Ernest Saunders' games with Guinness up to Madoff's appearance in court yesterday, I keep wondering how theoretically intelligent people (eg. Nicola Horlick and all the rest of them who thought Madoff's operations were safe) can fall for the scam. But of course, the other lesson that literature and history teach is that round the next corner, there is always another sucker.

Few fraudsters are remorseful, like Bulstrode, George Eliot's banker whose shameful dealings are exposed when he is at his height in terms of power and influence. Bulstrode has the bulwark of a faithful wife, willing to stand by him through his shame as she enjoyed his erstwhile glory. Ruth Madoff has posted bail to keep Madoff temporarily out of choky. This time, the bad guy will take the fall. But of course, it's still caveat emptor out there. Getting tangled up with money seems to me like getting tangled up with one of those men that country and western gals sing about, the types who leave a girl high and dry, or weeping into their whiskies, lipstick on his collar, a twinkle in his eye, and a permanent label that only shrewd women can read which says, "I will mess you around, you'll be walking after midnight, crazy for me."

Saturday, December 6, 2008


An evil cold caught up with me so badly that I reread two of my favourite Georgette Heyers, Sylvester and Frederica, and they fulfilled their comfort function admirably, but as I logged them into the reading spreadsheet (yes, I am pitiful and with no life, I do keep records of what I've read), I realised that they were the first two Heyers I've read this year. Or at least, the first two I've logged, because I'm pretty sure I revisited Venetia in the summer.

Nor have I read this year my other favourite comfort writers, Eva Ibbotson and Jennifer Crusie. Playing - as you can - with my spreadsheet I see that this is a year where I've re-read a few of the books on my list, but those were professional reads, in other words, the books I have been teaching. Otherwise, this has been a year where I've read mainly new stuff, much less romance than usual, more history and biography, and the most satisfying reads have been children's fiction and classics, notably my buried treasure, which would be EM Forster's A Passage to India.

I studied APTI at university, but didn't rate it compared with Room with a View and Howard's End in particular. This time round, I have really fallen in love with the book, and that's a lovely and rare feeling, although it hasn't helped me particularly in trying to transmit its delights to a gang of somewhat baffled and overstretched seventeen year olds for whom English is a second language. Still, this time round, the symbolism, the richness of characterisation, the vividness of description, the explorations of spirit and nature have engaged me much more than the more contemporary fiction I've been reading. It's a juicy book, lush and plump, fascinating, with some lovely jokes and much carefully channeled anger. Forster excoriates his fellow Englishmen and women, deservedly so, but his eye for their follies and conceits is incredibly sharp.

Then there was Treasure Island, which really is a terrifically exciting book, very neat and delightful. My image of Long John Silver has been so frequently adjusted and warped by stage and film versions of the book that I had forgotten what a fascinating character he is and I want to see a decent remake of the film with Tom Goodman-Hill in the role, because after watching the amazing, wonderful and compulsive Devil's Whore, I would be happy to see any of the cast, but he did bring considerable comic relief to the down and dirty third episode.

Having meandered round the houses, I'm just going to end by saying that the Killers are just getting better and better. Day & Age is fabulous. This has been a good year for great discoveries - Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes are wonderful, but the Killers have come into their own, and while 2008 has been a tough year, at least it has had a terrific soundtrack.