What a year…

I hope everyone is safe and well – or as safe and well as one might reasonably hope to be – and that 2020 hasn’t been too gruelling. Despite everything, I’m really grateful to have had a busy year. 

I reviewed two books about birds and man’s relationship to the natural world for New Humanist: Helen Macdonald’s luminous collection of essays Vesper Flights (a follow-up, of sorts, to H is for Hawk and possibly my book of the year); and Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds, a brilliantly original view of human history and civilisation from the birds’ point of view. 

Chris Gosden’s History of Magic, which I wrote about for Literary Review, also explores what it means to be human, in profound and sometimes moving ways – even if it didn’t quite live up to its title. It’s a book that’s really stayed with me though, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the realities of pain and grief in our lives.

Relatedly, I also reviewed Seb Falk’s The Light Ages – a dazzling journey through the world of medieval astronomy, at once suffused with immanence and yoked to the rituals and rhythms of everyday life – for Prospect magazine. 

I reviewed three music-related books for The Quietus over the year. I was expecting to dislike David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue, his new novel about a fictional folk-rock band at the fag-end of the sixties, but it was so ingenuously heartfelt, and he wrote so beautifully about art and creativity, that I totally fell in love with it.

Mike Barnes’ history of British prog rock, A New Day Yesterday is as good a book on that genre of music as we are likely to get. It sent me back to listening to things I hadn’t heard in decades. (It also introduced me, much to my surprise, to perhaps my favourite song of the year.)

A month or two ago, I also wrote about Joe Banks’ Hawkwind: Radical Escapism in the Age of Paranoia for The Quietus. I don’t think my 14-year-old self would have forgiven me if I didn’t, and I’m glad I did! (The book is everything I would have wanted to say, if I’d had the talent to say it.)

I reviewed Jeanne Nuechterlein’s Hans Holbein: The Artist in a Changing World (how resonant that title has become!) for History Today, sort of as a companion piece to my review of Elizabeth Goldring’s Hilliard biography last year. Nuechterlein has fascinating and original things to say about Holbein’s life and work and I learned a lot from her book – especially about his early career.

Finally, I also reviewed Dead FamousGreg Jenner’s barnstorming yet erudite history of celebrity, for the Financial Times, and Stephen Taylor’s Sons of the Waves, the vivid and compelling story of the men who crewed the ships of the British Navy in the age of sail, for Literary Review.

I was delighted to be asked to take over the Months Past column in History Today earlier in the year, for which I write two brief pieces each month. There are too many to link to here – I’ve written 20 so far – but my favourite was probably this one about the remote Hebridean island of St Kilda, now abandoned. There are links to all the articles on the History Today site here, although most are also on the website here.

Poetry-wise, I’ve had pieces published by Ink, Sweat and TearsThe Lake (you’ll have to scroll down a bit), Dust and Dawn Treader. The latter isn’t available online, so I’ve posted that one on my blog here. I’ve also had a couple of prompted pieces picked up this year: flash fiction for Visual Verse (the rule is, one image, one hour of writing – older pieces are here) and a poem for the now sadly defunct Nine Muses.

Back in April I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the arts-under-lockdown video project A Bit Lit  My piece was about the experience of isolation and the solace of cultural memory and touches on TS Eliot and Julian of Norwich, among others. You can either watch it here (with a brief, bonus tour of my flat!) or read it here

I also contributed a fun piece to Spectator Life for the 70th anniversary of Guys and Dolls about the real-life inspirations for some of Damon Runyon’s characters. 

I’m a bit behind on scheduling things for 2021, but there are some exciting plans and possibilities too, so fingers crossed… 

Anyway, here’s to the end of a dismal year and brighter things somewhere over the horizon.

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