We asked our writers to help round up the year by skipping any commentary about its general rubbishness (or not as the case may be – that feeling is by no means universal) and cut to a reminiscence about their favourite artistic or cultural endeavour of the year. We asked for any recommendations large and small, anything they’d seen or done that was worth a second look. They gave us books, theatre, dance, festivals, sporting events or in the case of our first writer, a five star film and comedy that both merited mention…
Taika Waititi’s distinctly Kiwi odd-couple comedy, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is an expert blend of pathos and comedy. Sam Neill, finally in a lead role once more, forms an A-grade partnership with young Julian Dennison as they evade police, social services and the press in the formidable New Zealand bush. A film with its heart on its sleeve, but that never forgets to be funny first. Consistently hilarious from start to finish, this has endless rewatch potential. It’s also being released on Blu-Ray and DVD in January 2017, so there is now every opportunity to see it and love it.
There were any number of shows at the Fringe dealing with trauma and mental illness, but none did it with such a level of emotional evisceration as Richard Gadd. Lauded for his stunt-comedy opus Waiting for Gadot last year, he deservedly took the top comedy award in 2016. A physically demanding hour spent almost entirely on a treadmill, Gadd hurls himself against toxic masculinity and what happens when events occur that threaten the equilibrium of male identity. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, Gadd is part comedian and part performance artist. There was nothing else to touch him this year.
My favourite thing from 2016, other my action-packed Edinburgh Festival, seeing over 60 shows, has to be Ballet Rambert’s Ghost Dances in November. I might have had to wait 27 years to see a live performance, since first studying it at University, watching it on video as part of a dance subsidiary, but it was worth the wait. Inspired by Joan Jara’s book that describes the horrors endured by the people of Chile during Pinochet’s reign of terror, the distinctive, rhythmic movement performed to haunting South American tunes left me pensive yet grateful to witness such a masterpiece. I just hope I don’t have to wait another 27 years to see it again.
This novel is set in late-1960s California, a time of social upheaval when the counterculture promised much, but never delivered, and which gave us the Summer of Love and the gruesome Manson cult which provides the book’s backdrop. Cline’s story is of a woman almost corrupted by her teenage brush with fate. This Catcher in the Rye for girls is full of startling and painful insights that feel fresh and utterly revealing. Cline describes conspiracy theories as ‘the idiot syntax of the righteous’. ‘The world fattens up’ the vulnerable, suggestible, undermined girls of the book ‘on the promise of love. How badly they need it and how little most of them will ever get’. Today, when we are zonked on social media – ‘the obliging way [of] tending to your loneliness’ writes Cline of smartphone addiction – the idea of an alternative lifestyle where people exist off-grid seems more ludicrous than ever. And, with the alt.right in the ascendancy, if ever there was an era that needed a counterculture it’s now.
(The Girls will be published in paperback in 2017.)
In 2013 I went to Poznan, Poland to witness the Homeless World Cup for the first time. In 2015, I went to Amsterdam for finals weekend and this year I was invited to be Street Soccer Scotland’s official features writer. It is this which I have chosen as my pick of 2016. The Homeless World Cup is a ‘social movement which uses football to inspire homeless people to change their own lives.’ Sport is a powerful tool for change and it is not only the players at the event who are inspired. It is easy to take for granted all that we have and, especially at this time of year, the Homeless World Cup is a timely reminder to appreciate all that we have.
Without doubt, my cultural highlight this year was NessBookFest in Inverness. Not only was I involved in getting it off the ground as a committee member, I also took part as a writer, and so I experienced many of the highs and lows behind the scenes first-hand. It was a bit of a ride: we formed a committee in September. By early November, we were running a two-and a half day festival with 27 events; big names like James Robertson and Denzil Meyrick sat alongside almost unknown local writers equally. And all free to attend. Can’t wait for the next one!
2016 was a great year for literature festivals, with the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow being a standout. The programme was vast and exciting and the events were not restricted to traditional author talks and readings. The programme embraced spoken word with book launches from performance poets Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest and Edinburgh Fringe favourite Luke Wright. Graphics novels and comic books were well catered for, with the Aye Con strand bringing creators such as Metaphrog and Frank Quitely together to talk about their creative processes. Here’s hoping that the 2017 festival carries on the success of 2016.
Birds of Paradise confirmed their place as a force for change in Scottish theatre. Purposeless Movements was an incisive piece of dance theatre about the assumptions and prejudices with which audiences meet artists with disabilities. These five guys with cerebral palsy repeatedly tell us they are professional performers, and their skill in charming and manipulating their audience asserts to be true. This is important work to have in Glasgow, asking difficult questions about the subtleties of ableism. Much like Birds of Paradise, this work deserves as wide an audience as possible.
David Bowie’s Blackstar was revealing itself to be a phenomenal piece of work even before his death. No doubt it’s reputation has grown posthumously in some quarters, but it’s not just out of respect for the dead it can be labelled an album for the ages. But on Scotland’s stage, the work that has stuck with me most is The Money Fish. It was a simple, one-man autobiographical show by John Cox about life on an Alaskan trawler, playing in the dank depths of Paradise in the Vault during the Fringe. No idea if anyone else picked up on it (I told everyone about it!) but I personally found it a fascinating and visceral piece about a life and setting of which I know little. If it didn’t sound like damning with faint praise, I’d say it was an Ice Road Truckers for the sea, without the fake drama, and with a heap of added passion.