My 4th annual list of things I enjoyed over the course of the year. Here are some of my favourite things that I experienced for the first time in 2019. You might want to read this alongside my previous posts for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Books I read for the first time in 2019
A book on an intriguing and important topic – all the things we don’t and often can’t know. It argues we should be more conscious of errors, outliers and anomalies without falling into utter despair or scepticism the limits of our knowledge.
A fascinating, accessible economic history of the second half of the 20th Century. The book suggests that the 1973 oil crisis was a turning point. Prior to that, much of the world experienced a period of unprecedented economic progress and confidence. After, almost overnight, underlying productivity growth fell and never really returned. Levinson argues that the ructions of the 1970s and 1980s all stem from this economic decline, and that prosperity has never really returned.
A portrait of modern Delhi, drawing on interviews from all strata, rich and poor, painting a picture of a society obsessed with status and losing sight of morality. It does a great job of tracing how the socialist egalitarianism that India tried to create in the immediate years following independence gave way to insecure materialism.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Articles published in 2019
A rich, informative, thought-provoking and troubling first person account of sex work and the moral and political issues that surround it. I think the most striking contribution of the piece is the way it demonstrates the complexity of choice and consent. Picking the least bad option may or may not feel like empowerment. Taking that option away may or may not leave a person better off.
In recent years, one of the biggest debates in political economy is between those who think that automation is in the process of upending our labour markets, creating mass unemployment, and those who believe fear of the job-killing robots is as wrongheaded and overblown as it always has been in the past. Ryan Avent contributes something new to the debate, plotting a middle course between the two sides. In a thoughtful piece, he lays out the reasons why automation might cause problems that need managing, even without the cataclysmic scenarios envisaged by the greatest pessimists.
An article arguing that Premier League football has fundamentally changed in the past decade, to a more complex game where systems matter more than individuals. Not only does Early highlight the poverty of most media analysis in failing to keep up with these trends, but with examples, he illustrates how much better tactical analysis could be.
Consistently fascinating in-depth features, highlighting culturally distinctive phenomena from around the world. Highlights this year included an episode on race and language in French, the role of McDonald’s as an symbol of inclusivity in multicultural France and the resonance of the social norms in Jane Austen’s work to modern Pakistani women.
Relaxed, accessible, and regularly interesting podcast on language and linguistics – where words come from, how their usage varies, and the differences between different languages.
Australian podcast that rounds up and analyses major happenings in the world of cricket. Great to listen to not only because it is hosted by knowledgeable and insightful cricket writers, supplemented with great regular guests, but because it is imbued with an infectious joy and love of the game.
Released in the UK in 2019
1. Knives Out
Ingenious whodunnit, with an all-star cast having the time of the lives playing an array of picaresque characters. The sort of film that you spend hours afterwards picking over little details that you missed on the first viewing. But on top of that, the film works as a damning allegory for immigration politics in America (without being too blunt or preachy)
I don’t think it lived up to the hype, but Marriage Story had some wonderful performances and beautiful sequences – most notably the opening scene in which the protagonists who will spend the rest of the film acrimoniously divorcing one another explain why they first fell in love.
I don’t know whose idea it was to produce a film noir detective parody starring pokémon, but I’m glad they did. A surreal, allusive and frequently hilarious nostalgia trip for those like me who grew up with the series.
Aired in the UK in 2019
I’ve loved Nathan For You for a few years now, and its final season, which aired this year, was pretty hit and miss. However, its very final episode was the most extraordinary 90 minutes of TV I saw this year. Prank shows typically have a streak of cruelty, ridiculing the rubes in the public. Nathan for You turned that on its had, by making Nathan the butt of the joke, and went out of its way to be warm, humane and sympathetic. The finale took this emotional heart to new levels – an astonishingly ambitious story of lost love, a tender portrait of a lonely and slightly odd old man, the whole time playing with deep themes of artifice, reality and honesty.
From White Teeth to 100 Years of Solitude, I’m a sucker for a multi-generational epics, documenting how characters and the society around them change over the decades. So I was naturally sympathetic to the premise of Years and Years, which follows a Manchester family from 2019 into the darkest timeline. The political analysis was often silly, and the futurism naff, but the characters and relationships more subtly drawn and it was compelling to see them grapple with adversity unimaginable at the start of the series.
Still as funny, sad, silly and thoughtful as ever, even as it winds down towards the end of its final run.
Released in 2019
A song about self-harm (compulsive skin picking, to be precise), Dermatillomania starts as close and claustrophobic as that sounds, on an album dominated by downbear acoustic songs. But in this case, Stevenson’s sweet voice leads us through a faster, spikier, percussive middle section towards a “blissed-out instrumental” ending that ultimately feels hopeful.
Teenage love song injected with pop-punk energy. Reminds me a bit of Buzzcocks.
Laconic, alt-country jangle with smart, cynical lyrics about living in our current political fug.
So obviously I’m biased, but I couldn’t put anything else number one, could I? Against some stiff competition, I think this was the greatest night in the history of Liverpool Football Club. Without Salah and Firmino, facing the steepest of mountains, roared on by Anfield at its wildest and most raucous. And sealed with a moment of comical audacity.
There’s a Bollywood epic called Lagaan, which culminates in a long, dramatic cricket match. Off the final ball, the hero smashes the ball in the air and in dramatic slow motion we follow its flight into the hands of the villain who celebrates, before realising he has stepped over the boundary and given away a six. That actually happened. In the literal World Cup final. And it was barely the start. There was the craziness of an accidental overthrow six. Not one, but two ties. Bizarre boundary countback rules nobody knew existed. For once, sport was actually more dramatic than anything that could have been scripted. The greatest game in cricket history.
Just weeks after grabbing the World Cup by the scruff of the neck and leading England to victory, Ben Stokes did it again in the Ashes. Headingley 2019 will have a place as deep in the fokelore of English cricket as Headingley 1981. Another improbable comeback, another nail biting finish, more farce (this time with Australia and video reviews) in an extraordinary year for cricket.
Honourable mentions (2019 has been absurdly dramatic): i) Tottenham’s extraordinary Champions’ League comeback – heck, Spurs’ improbable Champions’ League run, where they teetered on the brink of exit on at least five separate occasions just to get to the semi-final. ii) Kusal Perera’s 153 not out against South Africa: Stokes before Stokes, every bit as improbable and heroic a comeback.
PLACES I ATE
Delicious Xi’an food. I really enjoyed the thick, doughy handmade biangbiang noodles. But the tomato and egg sauce, which sounds odd on paper, is downright alchemical: a gorgeous rich, savoury flavour unlike anything I have ever tasted before.
Canterbury, where I live, doesn’t have the most exciting food scene. But Outlaw, which opened this year is my favourite restaurant in the city by some distance. It does excellent Asian inspired dishes, including lovely cauliflower bao and delicious seitan ‘wings’ as good as any meat substitutes I’ve had before.
Vouched for by a Korean friend, does the best bibimbap I’ve ever had before – sizzling hot with a nice crust and tasty chilli sauce.
THINGS I COOKED
1. Squash Kibbeh
Kibbeh are rugby ball shaped croquettes, with a shell of bulgar wheat stuffed typically with mince – however, a vegetarian alternative is to fill the kibbeh with punpkin or squash, which I did this year and it was delicious.
2. Vegetarian ‘Banh Mi’
I don’t expect my version was especially authentic. For starters, I only had French rather than Vietnamese style baguettes. Moreover, I didn’t use meat, but instead based the sandwich around crispy baked tofu, with lettuce, carrots, pickles and a chilli-vinegar dressing (According to wikipedia, vegetarian banh mi is more common in Buddhist temples than on the streets). But it was very nice, nonetheless.
3. Egg biryani (from Pratibha Karan’s Biryani)
A Tamil rice dish, with hard boiled eggs fried in spices and served with a spiced tomato rice.