John Cheever at work - short stories not to be missed...I had long periods at the start of 2012 where I found it difficult to get to grips with reading – I seemed to be distracted by all kinds of things, and as a result I dipped into a lot of poetry and short stories. Favourites among those were short stories by John Cheever. I read about a dozen of them in January. I also hugely enjoyed These Are My Rivers, a collection of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti – a kind of greatest hits that contains my favourites of his: 'I Am Waiting' and 'Autobiography'.
I did find time for The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – utterly gorgeous and very moving. My favourite living Irish author. Staying with Irish literature, I also loved George’s Ghosts, Brenda Maddox’s enjoyable biography of WB Yeats.
Latterly, I’ve enjoyed Trampled Under Foot, Barney Hoskyns’ racy romp through the history of Led Zeppelin, and Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff, writings on rock, or more particularly, on the self-destructive side of rock’n’roll. Impossible to put down.
I also bought Chris Ware’s monumental Building Stories. It’s an amazing object: a box about the size of a bulky board game, which contains a multitude of stories in the form of pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and posters, all of them telling stories about the occupants of a single brownstone building. It’s a towering achievement, and one that kind of re-defines what we think of as a book. I’m saving it for the Christmas break. But I need to be careful – too much Chris Ware can sink you into despair.
I travelled to Andalucia with Andrea (left) and her mother Julia at Easter, so I re-read Laurie Lee’s delightful A Rose for Winter, which contains some beautiful writing on the region. I also raced through A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Which delighted me in the moment, but hasn’t actually stayed with me, I’m afraid to say.
During the summer I read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and Something Happened by Joseph Heller, both of which kind of opened the door on the restlessness and unhappiness at the centre of contemporary life and relationships, and sapped my strength a bit as a result.
I came back from Canada in the summer and promptly read Richard Ford’s new novel called... Canada. I adored it – he’s still a unique and incredibly truthful writer. Others I loved this year – A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and On Writing by Stephen King.
Musically, I’ve revisited a lot of Led Zeppelin after reading the Barney Hoskyns. Some of it (mostly Physical Graffiti, to be honest) stands the test of time, while others (Presence) don’t. I keep going back to the same clutch of classics – Custard Pie, Black Dog, When the Levee Breaks, Kashmir...
I also LOVED Gregory Porter’s beautiful jazz/soul album Be Good – a measured and ravishing performance from all concerned. And I revisited lots of mid-period Miles Davis, too – Milestones and Someday My Prince Will Come. I went through a Glenn Gould period, too – mostly listening to his Goldberg Variations, but also some Brahms.
Alabama Shakes’ album Boys & Girls was a constant on our stereo at home and in the car, as was Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself, which contains some of his strongest works. I also loved Bob Dylan’s Tempest – uneven, but hitting lots of high points. It was also good to pick up the remastered Hats by The Blue Nile, with bonus material. My old friend Davy Rankin once described Hats as being ‘an album to be listened to while walking through a deserted city on a winter night’ and I haven’t heard a better description.
My album of the year is one I picked up only a week ago, but which came out back in February – Young Man In America by Anais Mitchell. I just cannot get enough of this atmospheric, personal-meets-mythical vision of America, seen through the eyes of relationships and rooted in the land. It elates me enormously and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Click HERE for a superb video for Coming Down, to give you a sample of this amazing artist.
What else...? Andrea and I saw a few plays this year and hardly any movies, but time was much tighter for me in terms of work and evening commitments, so I have a smaller number of treats to choose from. The one that stands out was Straight to Video – the production for the Mac’s first season by comedy dance troupe Ponydance. I laughed out loud and marvelled at this from start to finish: a hilarious collection of sketches and routines that was inventive, clever and filled with heart.
Some lovely things came into my life this year – a beautiful antique rolltop desk that dominates a corner of my room and provides me with a wonderful working surface. I’ve always wanted an old rolltop desk, and when we spotted it in an antique shop at a good price, I realised it was too good to miss and I gathered up whatever money I could and bought it. I now work on a big beautiful surface, surrounded by oak and all kinds of drawers. It’s a bit like being at the bridge of an old ship.
I also indulged my taste for old typewriters – you can pick them up here and there for very little money if you keep your eyes open. I found a late 50s Remington Rand No 5 (pictured in the graphic at the top of this page) in its original case down in Greyabbey and made it mine for £30. A few days later after a rub down and a new ribbon, it became a favourite for writing letters and working on song lyric ideas.
Another delight to come into my life this year was a Squier Telecaster, a beautiful electric guitar that didn’t cost a lot of money but which has become one of my favourite things to fondle.
And I also love this adorable picture of my grandmother on my mother’s side, taken some time in the late 40s on the mountain between Coleraine and Limavady, feeding the chickens at the side of the house on the Murder Hole Road.
There has been so much to be grateful for in 2012. There have been lots of challenges in terms of health (my own and my parents) and the juggling of work and creative commitments. But by the end of the year there should be a new collection of songs to show for it, and I step towards 2013 with high hopes and rugged footwear.