Books I read for the first time in 2021
Big, imposing, authoritative – the story of the welfare state in the UK, tracing it from its origins to the 21st Century. It is long, but that’s merely a function of its scope: for me, it was pitched perfectly in terms of its level of detail, well paced and not getting lost in the weeds.
A book about social integration – why it matters that we get to know and build deep relationships with people that are very different from us but share the same society, and what to do about the fact that such relationships seem to be on the decline. Compelling, ambitious, well-organised and argued, the book addresses an important social trend that we ought to do more to grapple with.
Another under-appreciated trend is the decline in birth rates, not just in rich countries, but around the world. Empty Planet explains what that means, written accessibly with an eye for a good vignette, as well as a laudable effort to draw out the global political and economic consequences.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Articles published in 2021
Why do most people hate modern architecture? In fact, why are aesthetic standards in a range of areas (modern art, poetry etc) less in tune with the ordinary person than those of previous centuries? The more you think about it, the more perverse it seems. Scott Alexander doesn’t quite get to the bottom of it, but canvasses some fascinating theories: changes in tastes and expectations of the wealthy, religious changes, the labour market, growth of mass culture and shifting conceptions of ‘taste’.
2021 was the year that inflation returned as a major economic concern. Duncan Weldon’s Value Added newsletter has been an excellent, accessible guide to recent trends within economics and his piece on competing views of inflation within the discipline was essential reading.
I love reading books, but I also want to read more than I ever will have time to and frequently forget what I read. So I found Karnofsky’s argument that we shouldn’t regularly read books all the way through once and never again (i.e. the way I consume most of my reading matter) persuasive yet also kind of sacrilegious.
Greatest Games has been going for a while, with a simple format: Jonathan Wilson and Marcus Speller sit down with a guest (often but not always a football journalist) to discuss a particularly significant game of football – either for the guest personally, or for the sport or wider society. A weekly insight into different times and places – from Northern Ireland playing at home for the first time during the troubles to the line of commentary that made Dave Farrar an unlikely hero in Slovenia.
It’s happening a little more slowly than other sports, but cricket is increasingly influenced by data analytics, and CricViz are among the foremost public exponents. So it is a treat, while we still can, to get their tactical previews and reviews of key games, from major Test series to the T20 World Cup.
3. BBC Analysis
Analysis might be the best regulator political show on the radio (not least because it is more focused on policy than politics per se), and there have been some excellent episodes this year, with Anand Menon’s efforts to work out what levelling up might mean for his hometown of Wakefield and Clare McNeil’s exploration of the baby bust particular highlights.
Released in the UK in 2021
1. Palm Springs
Enjoyable sci-fi romantic comedy that takes its Groundhog Day premise of two people forced to repeat the same day, attending the same wedding, apparently for eternity, seriously enough to follow it through to its conclusions. Dark in the right places, funny in the right places, sweet in the right places.
Fun animated caper combining a combining a coming-of-age story with killer sentient artificial intelligence.
3. Free Guy
Another film that was light and silly on the surface, but dealing with the potentially profound implications of AI – a film imagining what would happen if a non-playable video game character achieved self-consciousness, and pursued their own goals, ambitions and even romances.
Aired in the UK in 2021
Superstore has been running since 2015, and I’ve been aware of it for most of that time, but to my knowledge it only arrived in the UK this past year. A workplace sitcom in the mould of The Office or Parks & Recreations, focused on a team of supermarket workers, it belongs in that company for quality and consistency. Tonally, it is a bit more jaded and disenchanted, and rather more political, which reflects social and economic changes of the past decade. Sometimes it’s a bit heavy handed, but at its best can be genuinely moving.
2. It’s a Sin
A series following a group of friends in the 1980s as the AIDS virus blows through them would be harrowing enough at the best of times, but felt particularly poignant and relatable in the middle of our current pandemic. That makes it sound like hard work, but it has enough lightness and joy to be properly affecting rather then a dutiful watch.
There’s a genre of TV series that has emerged in the past few years. Focused on a lead character, playing a fictionalised version of themselves. They’re usually a millennial, usually a comedian, and the programme will look at the social issues and challenges our generation faces. There will be some playing with form and perspective, far removed from the routine of a traditional sitcom. Master of None, Atalanta, Nora is Awkwafina from Queens, all in different ways fit the template. It’s a good template, and Ramy does it for Ramy Youssef, an Egyptian-American in his 20s, trying to make sense of the conflicts of identity that entails.
Released in 2021
I’ve enjoyed Alex Lahey’s covers for some time, but this might be my favourite of her originals – from the soundtrack to Mitchells vs the Machines, and perfectly pitched for that: joyful, irrepressible and a great tune.
I don’t think my Laura Stevenson kick from a couple of years ago ever ended, and this is my favourite from her most recent album, warm, gentle and pretty.
Not quite like anything else I heard this year – a sparse, simple song propelled forward by a spare guitar part against an eerie cello backing. Got stuck in my head and never really left.
Goalkeepers scoring is usually fun – not least because it usually only happens in the most dramatic of circumstances. One example made my list in 2017. But this was something else – at the end of a season that had seen Liverpool’s most miserable run in years, with Champions’ League qualification appearing to slip out of reach, a final minute header. And not just any header, but an effort that would make most strikers proud. OK, so in the end it didn’t actually make a difference to the table – Chelsea and Leicester would go onto drop points anyway. But in the moment it felt vital.
I don’t follow tennis much these days, but I know enough to understand what a big deal it is for a qualifier to win a grand slam for the first time ever. And to do it in the first final between two unseeded players is pretty remarkable too. Winning a tournament without dropping a set is more common, but even that’s only happened five times in the last decade. Put it together and you have one of the all-time great underdog sporting triumphs.
An extraordinary final test and final day to end an incredible series of cricket. India were humiliated in the first test, bowled out for 36. Having levelled the series in the second, they clung on against the odds to avoid defeat in the third, but arrived for the final test with a makeshift team and a bowling line-up with minimal test experience. That final test was in Brisbane, a venue where Australia hadn’t lost in 32 years. For most of the final day, Australia were the ones pushing for victory and India merely in survival mode (exemplified by the courage of Cheteshwar Pujara, who took 11 blows to the body). And then in the final session, a thrilling counterattack against an exhausted Australian team led by Rishabh Pant, the most exciting player in modern cricket.
PLACES I ATE
Restaurants I tried for the first time in 2021
It’s been a while since we’ve lived near a good tapas restaurant, so was exciting to have this one on our new doorstep.
2. Gymkhana, London (via finish at home mealkit)
North Indian vegetarian feast, delivered to our door from a Michelin-starred restaurant. Nothing revolutionary in the menu – naan, dal makhani, paneer tikka – but all very tasty.
3. Dogs Nose, York
The food scene in York is pleasingly vegetarian-friendly, and this is the highlight a couple of months in- “The North’s First Plant Based Taco & Burrito Bar”, and up there with the best vegetarian burritos I’ve had.
THINGS I COOKED
Recipes I tried for the first time in 2021
My favourite recipes of 2021 come from my cooking challenge for the year: to make a dish for every Italian region.
I wouldn’t have expected my favourite dish of the year to be cabbage soup, but it makes a lot more sense when you realise that it’s mostly cheese – essentially a fondue dish drawn from the ski chalets of Northern Italy.
2. Orecchiete con cime di rape
Had to order turnip tips specially for this Puglian delicacy. Also my first time making pasta, which went well all things considered, even if they weren’t all recognisably ear shaped as intended.
Gnocchi is my favourite pasta, so I was pretty happy that I turned out to be able to make fairly tasty, pillowy potato dumplings of my own in a rich, cheese sauce for Piedmont.