We made it! Welcome to 2021, the year of hope after whatever the hell that shitshow we’ve just endured was. All is reset, we can begin again as if nothing had happened, secure in the knowledge that the world is now a better, brighter place…
Yeah, alright, maybe not. Nevertheless, here we are at the arbitrary start of a new unit of time measurement. Let’s at least start with a positive outlook, yeah?
We’ll have reports from our film, literature, food and music desks who all have a nod for their favourite thing of the year, as well as some more of the random nonsense you’ve come to tolerate over the last months. Shall we begin?
Now be the time. Here be the place. This are The Cut.
This first link may arrive too late for our international Readership, but we’ll give the heads-up anyway. Author, raconteur and all-round fiction-master Robin Sloan embarks on his annual live read of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight today from 6pm GMT (other time zones are available). It’s an enticing, creepy and mesmerizing start to proceedings and one we cannot recommend strongly enough.
For the British contingent, no event summed up the year more than failed comic book villain Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle in a blatant flauting of lockdown rules. This timeline of the event and its repercussions gives perspective to a defining moment which sparked no end of memes, satire and even a beer!
We approve very strongly of positive listicles. 2020 was not, despite all evidence to the contrary, unrelenting gloom and doom for everyone. Again from Vice, here are stories from people who made it through the year with a smile on their face.
One last look back at the big success story of 2020–the race for a Covid-19 vaccine. The front-runner, based on dogged research into mRNA by Katalin Karikó, shows how important it is to stick to your guns in the face of almost overwhelming odds.
Transdiffusion are great at archive broadcast geekery of all sorts, from TV idents to old Radio Times schedules. On Christmas Day they dropped this wonderful true story of young amateur radio buffs who took to the airwaves with piratical glee…
The Film Desk frames it up…
We were very lucky a couple of years ago to attend the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival and catch the premiere of Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, a twisty tale of sporting corruption which went on to win him an Oscar. His new film, The Dissident, on the killing of journalist Jamal Khasoggi, should have been a lock for worldwide distributors. Bryan found, however, that some of the big names were more interested in their audience figures than the truth…
It’s been a strange, strange year for film, with cinemas closing and many big-ticket titles shunting back into 2021. The tent pole movies that did make it out—Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984—suffered from lackluster reviews and an audience which wasn’t really there. At least one big studio plans day-and-date drops of all their major releases on streaming services. Disney+ is leading the charge with the Christmas Day reveal of Pixar’s transcendent Soul. Where this leaves cinema is anyone’s guess. We suspect the smaller indies will do better, offering boutique luxury services as a way to draw punters in. The days of the sticky-floored, popcorn-reeking multiplexes could be numbered.
With such a stuttery release schedule, we struggled with our Film Of The Year pick. The aforementioned Soul is a real treat, and we also loved David Fincher’s Mank and the harrowing The Painted Bird. But nothing else matches up to the film which signalled the end of our movie-going experience for the year. Still a perfect puzzle-box of a film with the twist of the year at its heart, we are calling Parasite our Film Of 2020.
The Music Desk sounds off…
We forget how quickly some of the most iconic bands in music history appeared, bloomed and flared out. Sure, legends like the Stones just keep on rollin’, but the Beatles were done and dusted in six years. Nirvana only released three studio albums. As for the Sex Pistols, the band who fired the starting gun on punk, they were formed, signed, dropped, re-signed, released a single album and split in two and a half years. Their final UK gig sums up the amped-up surreality of the Pistol’s rise and fall—playing a gig supporting striking miners that was literally for the kids…
The TV variety shows of the late sixties and seventies, particularly those hosted by a musical artist who brought their own likes to the table, were often home to some delightful surprises. Jimi Hendrix’s brilliant blast of Sunshine Of Your Love took place, for example, on Lulu’s self-titled programme. Sure, there was plenty of cheese on offer, but sometimes we got a serving of the good stuff. Take this shot in the arm from The Tom Jones Show in 1969, where he traded whoops and soul hollers with none other than Janis Joplin on Raise Your Hands. The sheer joy on display from two remarkable vocalists as they bounce off each other is something to witness. This one’ll clear out the cobwebs…
The disappearance of live performance was a killer for many musician’s incomes in 2020, and led to a lot of pointed questions about revenue from streaming services and lack of support from the UK government of one of our most profitable industries. Brexit and the change to customs and border control aren’t helping that either. It wasn’t just musicians affected, of course. We were deeply saddened just in The Cut’s home town Reading to see the cancellation of festivals like Are You Listening? , Down At The Abbey and Readipop, and the closure of brilliant venues like South Street, The Rising Sun and our personal favourite, Sub89. We hope and pray that everyone involved comes back stronger and brighter in 2021. Zoom gigs just aren’t the same.
Lockdown has, however, had an astonishing effect on creativity over the past twelve months, with home bound artists venting their feelings on remarkable new music. We found comfort and pleasure in Taylor Swift’s two albums, cathartic rage in Bob Mould’s surging, furious Blue Hearts and sheer joy in Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You. But our Album Of The Year nod goes to the artist who chose to lockdown before the rest of us, rampaged around her house making music on whatever she could find and summed up the year with one quote. Shout out to Fiona Apple and ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters.’
We are not strong at sports journalism here at The Cut—our interests lie elsewhere, and our Sports Desk has been gathering dust and tumbleweeds over in the dark bit of the office. We couldn’t resist this lovely portrait of Dundee United’s irascible, passionate and uncompromising manager Jim McLean, though. A beautifully observed character piece.
The Food Desk sets the table…
I think we can all agree the hospitality sector has been hit hard time and again this year. The lines have been redrawn over and over, and every time pubs and restaurants have been forced to pivot, changing business models often with next to no warning. At The Cut we believe hospitality has been unfairly targeted. Our favourite places have made Herculean efforts to keep their customers safe with little to no help.
All of which sounds like there’s no hope and we’re going to lose a huge chunk of our favourite pubs and eating places. Perhaps that’s true. But there is hope amidst the fear and uncertainty. Looking locally again, we celebrate the Reading businesses that have changed their focus, like Geo Cafe, Caversham’s new indie grocer. We are also cheered by the places who have been able to expand—the Grumpy Goat found new premises in the centre of town and Vegivores doubled its floor space in time for Christmas. This is enormously positive and we wholeheartedly support these and the other local independent joints across the country who are punching back against 2020.
The big success story in Reading has to be Clay’s Hyderabadi. With no outdoor seating and a tiny footprint, it seemed doomed to fail despite the brilliance of the food and warmth of welcome. Instead, the team began providing cook-from-chilled kits which earned rave reviews from big foodie names like Jay Rayner and orders went through the roof. Nandana, who runs Clay’s with her husband Sharat, sums up the year on the Clay’s blog. She gives shouts to the other brilliant businesses which are helping to make Reading such a great place to eat and drink. We hope and pray that we can get out and see everyone again soon.
The Book Desk Turns The Page…
We took a lot of pleasure in an interview with 90s pop star Tony Mortimer of East 17, who discovered the joy of books and reading in his 50s. His sheer joy and wonder at the way his world has opened is utterly infectious. We wish nothing more than that feeling for every one of you.
Language is a virus, the old saying goes. It’s infectious, it mutates, it is part of all we are, but the changes kind of sneak up on us. When did it become the done thing to start every statement with the word ‘so’? It’s difficult to say, but someone started it, and the habit began to spread. Linguistics is a source of constant fascination for us as the ways in which we talk to each other changes, particularly in 2020 when we found older methods of communication became more restricted. This Irish Times interview with writer Manchán Magan is insightful on how language is a slippery beast to keep hold of.
Sex is notoriously hard to write. OK, the word itself is pretty straightforward, three letters, one vowel. But the act—hoo boy, there are traps a plenty awaiting the unwary. The Bad Sex Awards celebrated the best of the worst every year, clunky, ugly, or plain surreal moments from writers with plaudits and awards up the wazoo. Sadly 2020 put the event on pause. Instead, Electric Literature chose to create their own Awards, reaching out to authors and inviting them to submit their own horny offerings. The results are as hilarious and uncomfortable and unsexy as you could hope for.
Yes, we know we’ve already featured one best comics list of the year already. But Séamus O’Reilly’s overviews are always worth your time. The big story for him is the untimely end of Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell and Matias Bergara’s run on John Constantine-Hellblazer (which hit the top spot on many year-end lists for very good reason) but there’s plenty more to enjoy in his overview of a busy year for the Ninth Art.
Our pick for Comic Of The Year should not come as a surprise to anyone that’s followed our unabashed fanboying of John Allison’s work over the past couple of years, from the Scary-Go-Round mysteries to a whole new universe of adventure and laffs. He threw out a load of free-to-view serial webcomics including the Cornish-set religious sitcom Steeple and a new instalment of his time-travel romp Destroy History featuring a certain Fab Four. For us, though, the return of teen detective Charlotte Grote was real cause for celebration, and her trials and tribulations in Wicked Things absolutely did not disappoint. The scripts are fantastic, snappy and tight. But artist Max Sarin pulls as much weight, making an effortless job from pages and character work which is clear, rich and hilarious. It’s seriously good comics work which carries the weight of experience and craft at its core very lightly. You don’t see that very often.
Which leads us onto our Book Of The Year. Again, the last twelve months brought us a stuffed bookcase with a ton of really great storytelling. 2020 was the year we discovered the bleak world of Mick Herron’s Slough House novels (as ever, we are slow to the pass but we get there in the end), got carried along in the tide of taut noir shorts that made up Don Winslow’s Broken and revelled in the wild skeletal Gothic madness of Tamsin Muir’s Harrow The Ninth. We’d like to give a special shout to Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire which brought us an extraordinary, richly imagined universe and a thrilling murder mystery to boot.
But there was only ever really going to be one choice. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is a novel for its time—a quiet and very English apocalypse, spooky and surreal and atmospheric. As the mire begins to silently rise to close over our heads, this is the book which will come to be seen as the document of a very peculiar time in our history, without needing to explicitly address it at all. Winner of the Goldsmith Prize, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again cements Harrison in a position he’s held for us on the Book Desk for a long time—a genre-independent writer of extraordinary control and power.
All of which brings us to our hails and farewells. As ever, if you’ve read and enjoyed our foolishness over 2020, thank you. We started this mostly for ourselves to keep a low level of sanity simmering away, so it’s great to hear from members of the Readership who have connected with the weekly output. Nice to know you’re not just imaginary. Work continues into the New Year. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, please drop us a line. We do love not howling into a void.
Our Exit Music comes from Ben Watt. His gentle way with a tune has often been a balm to our troubled souls, and this track seems to suit the time nicely. Not a party banger, but who’s doing that right now anyway? Let’s allow 2021 to take us gently by the hand and lead us into whatever’s coming next.
See you in seven, newborns.