Whenever I put together these occasional end-of-year posts I always seem to find myself writing 'I've not actually read that much this year'. I think I must conclude that I'm just not much of a reader as, once again - guys - I've not actually read that much this year.
Of those books I did read, the one I enjoyed the most was A Passion for Poison by Carol Ann Lee. Originally a biographer of Anne Frank and her family, Lee shifted into true crime with One of Your Own, her mesmerising 2010 biography of Myra Hindley which I've written about before and has approached a number of other subjects with the same care, detail, research and control. While not quite as bracing as that book, A Passion for Poison, which concerns Graham Young, the Teacup Poisoner, does a great job of bringing into sharp relief what an incredible and terrible story his life contained. At the moment the book has gone unreviewed in any of the usual places - a faintly absurd situation. Lee is such a fantastic writer I'm surprised her reputation hasn't exploded beyond the true crime genre.
I also very much enjoyed Sam Mills' Fragments of My Father, her memoir-essay about being her dad's carer. It surprised me to think how scant caring features in literature - this is a wonderful examination of the topic, all of which is centred around Mills's own experiences of her father's catatonic schizophrenia. This memoir actually came out last year. Since then Mills has produced two a subsequent books, an essay titled Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo, and The Castle, a horror novella published under Dead Ink's Eden Book Society project (with which I was also involved). As all of this no doubt suggests, Mills is an author who brings a signature intelligence to diligent and varied output. I've not yet read those two subsequent books but plan to in the new year. I also really like This Must Be Earth, a short story published in a standalone chapbook by the great Nightjar Press - I've only encountered a scant handful of stories by its author, Melissa Wan, but each has haunted me long after I've finished reading, and this was no different.
However my personal reading experience of the year was a short story called 'The Chicken' by RZ Baschir, a writer I'd never heard of until this story was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize. This is an award which I tend to follow quite closely as it produces a great shortlist each year. When I first read this year's shortlist, I thought each of the stories was very good, but 'The Chicken' immediately stood out to me as the natural winner and I very much hoped that would be born out. Because it's an excellent story, but also because, previously, winners of The White Review have found their victory has given them a leg-up into fruitful careers - Sophie Mackintosh, Nicole Flattery, Julia Armfield. It would be a shame, I thought, for the author of this mysterious and disgusting story not to have the same opportunity as these White Review forebears. Thankfully it was the winner. You can read the story here - and I wholly recommend keeping tabs on Baschir, whoever she is.
I think 2021 has been a very good year for music.I've certainly listened to more music than most other recent years, and a wider variety.
If I had to choose an all-out top album, it's Low's HEY WHAT. I've loved Low for nearly 20 years now and with the release of this, their 13th album - both the record and its reception - feels like a culmination of their distinct creativity. As with the past couple of Low albums, the sound feels as though it's on the outer edge of what its possible to do with music, as though it couldn't possibly be pushed any further, but there's a fascination knowing that that's not actually the case and there will - or at least one hopes - be more Low albums. There's some links to some of the other music I've enjoyed this year.
2021 has also been a year in which I listened to Public Image Ltd a great deal, something which was a hangover from 2020 when I frankly listened to little else. All of this led me to my year's most surreal moment - sitting in my car very early in 2021, so my kids wouldn't interrupt me, shivering with the cold while I phoned John Lydon at his home in LA as part of my research for a piece on the 40th anniversary of The Flowers of Romance. Despite all the terrible attention-seeking of late, I can't help but be fascinated by Lydon, both as a performer and a persona, if those two things can be unknotted, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing this piece. And despite listening to Flowers more than is healthy I still enjoy the album.
However, the artist I found I listened to most - in fact my Spotify Wrapped stats show in lurid detail how epically they dwarf all other artists - this year is no less than Simply Red. Yes, that's right - Simply Red, the sophisti-pop embarrassment from the 80's and 90's. I started listening to them earlier this year as 2021 saw the 30th anniversary of Stars, their gargantuan third album which conquered the charts and swamped the pop consciousness. I had an idea of something I wanted to write - an anniversary-piece-cum-memoir which would take in the album, its background, composition and contents. But it would be more than that. It would also be more broadly about the 1990s, about my own time as a child and adolescent in the Lancashire suburbs during that time, about the chintz and the analogue technology, the inertia and the security, the loneliness and the claustrophobia. It would have consisted of snapshot memories - being driven by my dad to the bus stop in the morning, sitting in the Food Giant car park with my mum after pick-up in the afternoon, watching The National Lottery with a takeaway in the evening - through which the songs from Stars would be playing in the background. It would have been about how, although those days are now gone - the family house lost, the parents divorced, the character of each of the players warped by the torrent of time, the all-out humdrumness of those days tilted by the crackling disaster that no-one could have known was lying in wait for us in the future: Covid Covid Covid. It would have acknowledged how this is all somehow so sad - sad that it happened and sad that it was taken away -and yet it would also have been about how my mind can't accept this, how it still feels as though that life is only a train-ride away, a train ride which would result in the past being bridged, order restored and this overwhelming sadness being rectified. That house, that family, that life. And how Stars acts as a kind of beacon held aloft in the past and shimmering with promise - songs of joy and love and hope, all broadcast from a past which seems more authentic in its hopefulness than our present day.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the people I pitched to were interested in this baroque piece which went unwritten. Indeed, the 30th anniversary of Stars went largely un-commemorated, beyond my own personal tribute in the form of a year of listening. Which is a shame. For most people, Simply Red remain the embodiment of naffness but they are keenly due a reappraisal. Yes, their music is smooth pop, the ultimate cringe, but at its strongest Simply Red's songs are powered by an edge of desperate energy. A good example is the title track from Picture Book.
2021 was a lean publication year for me. As well as writing the PiL piece, I also published a single short story - 'Oblio' which I was commissioned to write for Out of the Darkness, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror fiction loosely themed around mental health. I also brought out a new book. Writing the Uncanny is co-edited by myself and Dan Coxon and contains essays on writing uncanny fiction from the likes of Jeremy Dyson, Robert Shearman, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and loads more.
Here's some other music I liked...