Best of 2018

December 31st, 2018 No comments

This has been a wonderful year for me in every way – and here are some of my best things from it:

Music

 My favourite album didn’t make any of  Top 50 lists in the magazines – Bennett Wilson Poole’s eponymous debut was a fabulous slice of Americana with Byrds style guitars – all the more unusual for being produced by three old geezers from Oxford (including Danny Wilson from Danny and the Champions) – great songs and they know how to play live as well, as we saw them at Kings Place in London.  Also loved Spiritualized’s new offering And Nothing Hurt (anything Jason Pearce does is always worth a listen, and they are another band who play a blinder live). Talking of live performances, I enjoyed David Byrne’s renaissance, and although there are some filler tracks on his new album, ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ is certainly single of the year.

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Film

‘Emma Get Your Gun’ – The Favourite

The best film of the year only just makes it in time – The Favourite deserves all the accolades currently being showered on it, as it’s funny, inventive, raucous, rude and witty: all the qualities I like in a movie. While Roma was also superb.

Best documentary in another strong year for my favourite genre was the extraordinary Three Identical Strangers, a labour of love and one of the few that had the legs – well three pairs of them – to go to the full feature length. And both The Rider and American Animals blurred the line between documentary and fiction to great effect.

Books

I have personal reasons for liking If Not Critical by the late great Eric Griffiths – see an earlier post – and Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God by Tony Hoagland who also died this year and was to my mind the most wonderful American poet.

But mostly I’ve been reading old classics, from Ian Fleming’s muscular Moonraker – so much better than the piss poor film – to Graham Greene’s Quiet American and Robert Pinsky’s tremendous translation of Dante’s Inferno, the best of the considerable pack.

And the very best wishes for 2019 to all my discerning readers.

‘Roma’: Mexico City in the 1970s

December 10th, 2018 2 comments

 

I like a director with a truly visual imagination – which surprisingly few have – and Alfonso Cuarón qualifies in every way.  I loved Gravity for the formality of its visual approach – almost the entire film was shot on the same focal length of lens, apart from the ‘dream sequence’ which was shot on a slightly wider one so the audience was disconcerted without quite knowing why.

But I was still not quite prepared for quite how good his new movie Roma is. Cuarón was his own director of photography, and his black-and-white camerawork is luminous and inspired.

I also have a strong affinity for the place and time – Mexico City in the 1970s where I lived for a while and wrote Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico. Although of course I remember it in colour.

 

What impresses me so much is the control and confidence with which Cuarón wields his camera. The film genuinely inhabits the space: mainly a suburban house in Mexico City but also some diverse landscapes and startling juxtapositions.

When I lived in Mexico City the arthouse cinemas showed a lot of Fellini and this reminded me of them – particularly when we visit the wasteland outside Mexico City where, as a human cannonball is shot into a safety net, we follow the film’s heroine in search of the father of her child.

This is not some softshoe indie shuffle, but a film with heart and purpose. At its heart is the Mixteca maid Cleo (played by non-professional newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who  has a quiet and moving resignation in the face of some of the humiliations and tragedies life throws at her. I defy anybody to watch the penultimate scene when the children are swimming in a dangerous ocean and she wades into the waves to try to save them without a lump to the throat.

It’s a shame that Gabriel García Márquez never allowed anybody to film One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Cuarón would be the perfect director for the project, perhaps as a longer box set.

Once In A Lifetime: Eric Griffiths (1953 –2018)

November 9th, 2018 3 comments

I was one of Eric Griffiths’ first students at Trinity, back in 1980. I remember the excitement at the prospect of a very young new English fellow arriving. He was known to be brilliant and a protégé of Christopher Ricks, with a slightly dark reputation for having a wild side.

He certainly enjoyed being a Cambridge maverick. But he did also prove an extraordinary brilliant teacher and this of course is his true legacy.

A sometimes partial one – he could be unfair to those he excluded from his circle and I will always remember the shocked tones with which he once told me a student was doing a thesis on Tolkien – but if he engaged with you, it was a life transforming experience.

For Eric, the study of English literature mattered: in a heuristic way, in a way that constantly questioned one’s own responses and assumptions, in a way that affirmed what it is to be alive and to process mute swirls of consciousness into words on the page. Read more…

Return To Havana

October 16th, 2018 No comments

Habaneros using a free wifi spot in the city

Fascinating to be back in the Cuban capital after 20 years. There are still a startling amount of dilapidated buildings along the Malecon; the same old American cars still just about holding together after 60 years of embargo (one taxi driver tells me how hard it is to get the parts); and a few hustlers saying cigars out of doorways – ‘tengo Cohiba!’

But change is slowly coming. Near the free Wi-Fi spots in the city – which are few and far between – you will see groups of Cubans huddled down in the street with the light from tablets, smartphones and laptops reflected back on their faces. Because the Internet has finally arrived.

Read more…

Chicago! Chicago! So good they named it twice…

July 3rd, 2018 No comments

I have been to many American cities, but never before to Chicago. And I came here for the most agreeable of reasons – to launch a new book, Travelling With Cortes, a handsomely illustrated catalogue of artwork from the Stuart Handler collection which Yale University Press are distributing; I wrote the essays for it.

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So as my duties are light – a launch dinner at Gibson’s, the Chicago institution where my friends in the city tell me you’d be stupid not to have the steak – there is plenty of time to absorb some unexpected architectural delights: the wild owls and scrollwork on the roof of the central Chicago library; the grill on what is now a Target department store; a US mailbox in silver; a light fitting out of a Terry Gilliam film. The pleasures are endless – compounded by more obvious attractions like one of Alexander Calder’s finest sculptures, a public auditorium by Frank Gehry and the Lakeside Drive. Read more…

Letter from Lahore

March 26th, 2018 1 comment

 

the only person in Lahore wearing a pork pie hat

It’s not every literary festival where you have to check out the foreign office security warnings before you attend.  It certainly doesn’t apply to Cheltenham.  But then the literary festival which has just taken place in  Lahore was no ordinary one.

For a start, there were guards with machine guns at every entrance.  Lahore remains a city where foreign nationals have sometimes needed to exercise caution, as have the Pakistani locals.

I’ve been before and thought I knew my way around.  So I felt particularly stupid – and alarmed – when I realised the taxi taking me from the airport to the hotel on my arrival was heading in the wrong direction.  Moreover the driver only spoke Urdu and brushed aside my questions.  Then he pulled into a lay-by and another younger and meaner-looking driver replaced him.

Read more…

At the Jaipur Literary Festival

February 5th, 2018 1 comment

The Jaipur Literary Festival is an extraordinary occasion. Nothing I had heard about it had quite prepared me for the reality. The numbers are staggering. 350,000 people attend over the five days, so roughly twice the attendance of Glastonbury. Not only are there 400 writers, but there are 400 volunteers just to look after them – which is more than most British literary festivals in small market towns get as an audience.

The energy and intensity is a lot of fun. There is a much younger profile than British literary festivals with plenty of sidebar marquees to dance in.  And of course a fair amount of partying.  The Ajmer Fort is lit up for a spectacular evening of music at night. While the Writers Ball at the end sees a great deal of glitter and splendour.  Can’t believe how much Talisker and Scotch the Indian writers put away.

But  the talks were the main events and gathered big audiences. A fascinating one about Bruce Chatwin with William Dalrymple, one of the presiding spirits of the festival, Nicholas Shakespeare as Chatwin’s biographer and Redmond O’Hanlon as Chatwin’s friend.

I was asked to do no less than five sessions over the festival, which is going some by my usual standards and really enjoyed every one.

Here I am talking about my Nanda Devi book which, for reasons I explain has only just been able to be published in India – 30mins to 40 mins into programme, just after William Dalrymple.

And this was a really enjoyable session on the current vogue for nature writing with Adam Nicolson and Alexandra Harris, during which all of us in different ways claimed not to be nature writers anyway, but this didn’t stop us having a very lively discussion.

Inca Land

August 14th, 2017 No comments

Like everybody else I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Harari- and I was brought up short by one excellent point Harari makes when talking about the first agricultural revolution, the one when we stopped being hunter gatherers:

“Until the late modern era, more than 90% of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in rural Peru, where you can still see hand ploughs used and where the maize is about to be planted. The Sacred Valley, despite the fact that it is so close to both Cusco and Machu Picchu, remains a place made up of smallholdings:  campesinos left with tiny plots of less than a hectare since the rather more recent agricultural revolution experienced in Peru in the 1970s when the big Hacienda estates were broken up by a left-wing military government. Read more…

Publication of One Man And Mule, Hugh’s new book from Penguin Random House

June 23rd, 2017 1 comment

Today sees the publication of One Man And Mule, Hugh’s new book from Penguin Random House.

Here’s a clip of Hugh being interviewed about One Man and a Mule by BBC radio:

 

And to celebrate publication, the first person correctly to answer the following four simple questions can win a free copy: Read more…

The Lost City of Z:   How to Make Enemies in the Jungle

April 16th, 2017 1 comment

This is a longer version of articles written for both the London Evening Standard and the Washington Post when The Lost City of Z was released . 

“Writer and explorer Hugh Thomson argues that new movie The Lost City of Z gives a totally false impression of its real-life hero.”

With many a jungle drum, this week sees the release and promotion of The Lost City Of Z.  Based on the bestselling book of the same name by David Grann, the film proudly proclaims that it is ‘based on an incredible true story’ in which heroic British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) ‘journeys to the Amazon and discovers the traces of an ancient, advanced civilization’. And yet it is a quite bizarre distortion of the truth.  

The exploration of the Amazon has been one of the epic undertakings of the last few centuries and is still ongoing: uncontacted tribes are still being found in the jungle.  It has seen many heroic figures. But Fawcett was not one of them.

see the full expanded article