Cultural end-of-year lists are so fucking smug. They’ve already started appearing, and I’m having to avoid the Sunday papers where cultural hacks declare which books, films and albums were the most essential. What a lot of great shit I’ve missed (as usual).
There’s nothing wrong in theory with writers looking back at their personal highlights, but in practice looking over these lists always makes me feel lazy, un-cultural and basically skint. I’m usually lucky if I’ve heard a couple of the year’s “best albums” or seen many of the films. The year’s best music gig? I was probably busking outside.
It’s all very well for Mark Kermode to appraise the hundred or so films he’s seen in the year and boil them down the ten best; he doesn’t have to shell out a penny. Cinema tickets are nudging ten quid these days, and that’s before you’ve made it past the popcorn and Ben and Jerry’s without hemmoraging another fiver. I don’t need to be reminded of all the arthouse classics I can’t talk about.
The best-of-year book lists give me a similar feeling of cultural failure. If only I had the time and application to keep abreast of the latest literary sensations. I’m a slow reader and the lack of anything I recognise on the lists just makes me feel distinctly low-brow. If I didn’t get around to them when they were the ‘hot new read’ I probably never will.
But these lists are not just there to make us feel like philistines; they also have a commercial function. A decent ranking in the end-of-year lists can turn an overlooked book or album into a must-buy christmas gift.
Let’s face it, though nominally independent, arts journalists are as much a part of the marketing machine as the billboard poster. Critics, who get sent pre-release albums and concert tickets, are just the unofficial wing of the advertising campaign.
Often it doesn’t matter if reviews are positive, all the industry cares about is pushing the product into the public conciousness. However, writing favourably about an author, singer and actor means that agents are more likely to grant a journalist inteviews with said star. Meanwhile, with their end of year lists, critics get to bolster their position as cultural connoisseurs, compiling the canons of our times.
The arts pages that specialise in this vanity are really for a small section of metropolitan luvvies with the means to hoover up whatever cultural product they fancy, whether it’s HBO box sets or tickets for the royal opera house. For those of us in the zero-hours trap or the boho bum category, there is much more adventure. Old stuff. Second-hand stuff.
My year’s cultural highlights included reading Herman Hesse’s Siddharta (1922), as well as downloads of BB King’s Live at The Regal (1964) and Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993).
The arts press has nothing to say about the pleasures of exploring a second hand bookshop or dancing to your mate’s band in a sweaty basement. My idea of a cultural life isn’t just being a recipient for the never-ending stream of over-hyped new content being funnelled at us.
Despite this, I have managed to think of a few things that came out this year that I liked, so I can flag them up and feel like an arts journalist.
Album of the Year: Kurt Vile – Walkin on a Pretty Daze*
The American songwriter dashes off a folk-rock classic with his trademark stoned nonchalance. It’s got the attitude of Lou Reed and the sensitivity of Neil Young.
Book of The Year: Sylvain Tesson – Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in The Middle Taiga
The journal of a Frenchman who retreated to the Siberian forest for six months to read and contemplate the wilderness. Full of philosophy and love for nature.
Film of the year: Pride
Based on a true story, a group of gay Londoners raise money for striking miners in 1984, go to visit their Northern pit village and forge an unlikely bond. Flawlessly done, feel-good, moving and inspiring.
Gig of the year: Me, doing poetry at a night called the Secret Cabaret in Liverpool. I performed “Checkout Girl” and “Careless Wispa”, and according to someone who was there, I absolutely smashed it. I agree.
TV moment of the year: Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s interview with Richard Ayoade on Channel 4 News. A hilarious five minutes as he deconstructs the arts interview.
Theatre event of the year: I didn’t go to see any plays, sorry.
*ok, I’ve just found out this was actually released in 2013, but that’s still pretty current for me!