2020 is a year many of us would gladly forget. A year of upheaval, confusion and loss. People have lost their livelihood, their education, way of life, and far too many have lost their lives. I, like countless others, feel tempted to scrub this from my memory and start afresh in 2021. The pessimist in me needs little encouragement, and he’s had a wealth of stuff to feed on this year, but I’ve left him watching the BBC News Channel so that I can focus on the things that reminded me of who I was and why I do what I do. In short, this post is about the things that made me smile in 2020.
Getting stuff out there. I had three stories published this year. My mediocre average is around two a year, and I have another due out in January next year! Having said that, writing has been difficult under Covid. I’ve been working a lot from home – that’s the work I have to do to pay the bills, not the work I want to do, writing – and using the same space to do both has been difficult. But I’m lucky, many writers have nowhere to write.
One of my biggest pleasures of 2020 was discovering Junoire and playing their Une Deux Trois LP to death. It’s such a gorgeous album full of infectious choruses, subtle hooks, sublime vocals, cool French style and a clever nod to the pop of the 60’s – the great stuff, not the shite. Live music took a hell of a hammering this year, but when it’s safe to do so, I’ll be off to see these guys.
Galileo 7’s Decayed LP was a joyous surprise. I have some of their stuff which I enjoyed, but not to the extent that I’d rant on to others about how great it was – it was okay, and I liked it. That all changed with this album. An album of covers.
Covering other people’s work can be hit and miss. For every All Along the Watchtower, there’s a hundred reality TV morons and manufactured pop stars murdering Leonard Cohen etc. This was different. Very different. Their version of X-Ray Specs’ The Day the World Turned Dayglow aside, every track is an energetic revelation of how much you can cram your soul with joy using only guitars, drums and keyboards. The only reason I’ve excluded Dayglow from that is that it sounds so much like the original, but, between you and me, I prefer it. If you buy one album recommended by someone you don’t really know then it should be this one if only for their version of Julian Cope’s Reynard The Fox which is an invigorating crash of energy and conviction that surpasses the original.
Kevin Barry’s That Old Country Music was a delight to read. Barry is one of the writers that I hugely admire, and this collection sees him at the top of his game. His use of language, form and his ability to tell a tale is unsurpassed. I attended the online book launch for this, and Mr Barry is just as rich and giving in real life. I’m not going to review the book – I think I’ve done that elsewhere – just buy the bloody thing.
Kevin Barry’s The Night Boat to Tangiers. I’m not sure when this was published but I read it this year and loved it from the first page till the last. For all the reasons above, you need to buy this too.
Digging a pond. Yep, iron bar, spade, buckets, skip and lots of sweat – from me, not to fill it. We’d talked about having a pond for the wildlife it attracts and when there was nothing else to do there were no other reasons not to. This was hard physical work, something I’ve not done since working briefly with my dad as a builder, but immensely satisfying. The pond is well established now. I spent the summer watching frogs go bonkers in the heat while reading Lisa Blower’s Pond Weed which was a pleasurable coincidence.
Wendy Erskine was a new voice to me, and I can’t remember who recommended her, but her short story collection, Sweet Home, is a real treasure. Why is it that most of my favourite writers are Irish?
Creating a podcast was something I fell into by mistake. My short story, Raven, was selected for the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Birmingham anthology, but due to Covid, we were unable to physically launch it. Emails went back and forth regarding what we could do and before I knew it, I was producing a series of seven podcasts to promote the book. This was slightly daunting and very exciting. Everything was recorded remotely then edited together by me – I even wrote a short piece of music for the introduction and end. Talking to the other writers about their stories and methods was enlightening and inspiring, and I’m always up for acquiring new skills.
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but this is another one that stands out. Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky is science fiction/fantasy and takes place at the end of the world. Tchaikovsky’s world-building is second to none. The world he creates is compelling and completely immersive. The level of detail coupled with his succinct descriptions creates a believable and gripping setting that his finely drawn characters must traverse. The writing throughout is very literary and not at all trashy. At 602 pages this isn’t a quick read, but I was reluctant to finish it as I didn’t want it to end. You either like genre stuff or you don’t. I do, and if you do too…
Gigs of the live variety were rarer than rocking-horse dung this year. There were a plethora of acts doing special online events. I only attended two. The first was an intimate performance from Billy Bragg’s lounge and the second the huge world-wide, live-stream, bonanza that was the Gorillaz Song Book tour, two very different events.
Bragg’s gig was very much like the man, honest, low-key and positive. It was him against a blank wall in his house playing to an iPhone and I loved it. The Gorillaz’s gig couldn’t have been more different. A scary Robert Smith in the flesh, holograms, Peter Hook with his knee-cap bass and an animated Elton John along with a kick-ass band and retina-burning light show. Between the gaps in songs, you could faintly hear the crew cheering like the ghosts of gigs past. I enjoyed both of these, but both left me hankering to be there for real – although I’m in no rush to get Covid.
Sticking with music I need to mention the massive grin that was on my face the first time I heard Valleys by Working Men’s Club – the best New Order song I’ve heard in years.
2020 has ended with me hosting meetings on Skype, running training from Teams, catching up with friends on Zoom and delivering lessons on Blackboard, things I wouldn’t have had a clue about this time last year.
Friends have been really important throughout this. I’m not the most touchy-feely of people. Maybe that’s because I’m a working-class male or just the way I am, but it’s something I need to work on. An old friend of mine died this year from a heroin overdose. He was a year younger than me, a funny, cheeky bastard, an amazing bass player, and a father. I think the last thing I said to him was how ridiculous contemplating buying a six-string bass was – they’re for wankers. I wish it had been something positive. A friend who lives in the States told me about his death and said that it had brought home the fact we need to tell people that we love them before it’s too late and signed off by saying I love you, man. Due to Covid we never got to say goodbye to Daryl, I’m not even sure if his family did, but I love you man – keep slapping that bass.
My son bought me an LP for Christmas and it wasn’t shit! My kids are bonkers and have helped keep me sane through all of this madness. I was genuinely surprised when my son handed me an LP-sized gift. 7 by Beach House is rather wonderful especially as it was so unexpected.
And if you haven’t heard Must I Evolve? from Jarvis Cocker’s Jarvis is…Beyond the Pale, you really should. You won’t hear a finer summing up of Darwin’s theory in under four minutes with such an infectious refrain.
Obviously, 2020 was a lot more than just these snapshots, but these are the moments I want to remember. It could’ve been a hell of a lot better, but here in the UK, we decided to vote in the worst government in living memory and play Russian roulette with people’s lives. Stay healthy, stay positive and never vote Tory. Here’s to a better one in 2021