Notes From the Margins…

2018: What I Read and What I Watched

  • January 01, 2019
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In dark times, books and films bring more than consolation or escape.  In a world gone stale and out of kilter they can provide oxygen that helps you to breathe.  They help you understand what is going on and remind you of what could be going on.

I read a lot of great books last year.  My stand out novel is Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing – an epic and mournful depiction of the apocalyptic collapse of East Prussia at the end of World War 2 seen through the eyes of a landed Prussian family.   This was closely followed by Paul French’s sizzling portrait of the Shanghai criminal underbelly between the wars City of Devils.

I also enjoyed Adam Zamoyski’s Phantom Terror – an eye-opening and extraordinarily well-researched portrait of the doomed attempts by Metternich and the reactionary Holy Alliance to push the European political calendar back to 1788 in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

Zamoyski shows how Metternich and his absolutist cohorts sought an explanation for the revolutionary movements percolating through Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, in a non-existent revolutionary conspiracy supposedly directed by the Illuminati, Freemasons, Jacobins and a pan-European comité directeur – a paranoid projection that authoritarian governments have often engaged in since.

Few people write about landscape and nature more poetically or eloquently than Barry Lopez, and I read his magisterial Arctic Dreams as preparation for a potential book project on the Arctic.

I also read Patrick Brantlinger’s Dark Vanishings – a haunting meditation on the racist ‘extinction discourse’ that accompanied the genocide or disappearance of indigenous peoples in the nineteenth century.  I’m a great admirer of Roberto Saviano, and his Zero Zero Zero is a powerful and almost hallucinatory journey into the international cocaine market, which could almost be subtitled ‘cocaine as metaphor.’

How Democracies Die: What History Tells us About Our Future was filled with insightful observations on historical precedents for the collapse of democratic governance with an obvious focus on the United States.  Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich was a telling and eye-opening reminder that the descent into the political abyss can seem entirely normal and unproblematic to those who are living through it – no matter how freakish and incomprehensible such periods may seem afterwards.

I spoke alongside Brian Catlos at the Bradford Literary Festival, and his Kingdoms of Faith is the best overall account of the rise and fall of Moorish Spain that I have read.

In terms of films 2018 was a year in which you were spoiled for choice, and constantly reminded of the power and beauty of cinema.  Standout for me must be Pawel Pawlikowski’s  epic meditation on love, music, exile and history Cold War.  But then there was the equally epic The Guardians – a beautifully-filmed study of female resilience during World War 1 which told a story that has rarely been told or told so well.

I loved Spike Lee’s passionate and angry exploration of American racism Black Klansman, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Chloé Zhao’s audacious and intimate portrait of wounded masculinity The Rider.  I closed the year with Leave No Trace – a beautifully understated portrait of mental illness, obsession and damaged America from Debra Granik, the director of Winter’s Bone.

On television, my standouts were mostly digital.  I tried The Bodyguard, but found it slick and gimmicky and gave it up.  Netflix’s study of the rise and fall of the Bhagwan Rajneesh movement Wild Wild Country was a startling, funny and constantly jawdropping documentary with a cast of characters that any novelist would struggle to emulate.

Though I have reservations about Ken Burns, I was impressed by the range and depth of his Vietnam War history and moved by the many stories it told.

Italian crime series continue to knock most of their British counterparts into the sea.  I binge-watched the second and third series of Gomorrah and also took in Suburra Blood on Rome and Mafia Detective – a revisiting of pre-Falcone Sicily that deserves a second outing.  Montelbano, this definitely ain’t.  Channel 4’s Farang is pretty tense and gripping stuff – Scandi-noir in Thailand from Walter Presents.

For fun, I loved Upstart Crow.  

Satire was more or less pointless.  Why bother, when all you had to do was switch on the news pretty much any day of the week, all through the year?







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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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