From megaliths to mountain temples, photography to psychopathy, decluttering to drum n bass, here are some of our cultural highlights of the year.
Four books have really stayed with me this year. Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka (Phoenix) is about a serial killer on death row and the story of how he got there. It’s a forensic and nuanced depiction of the development of criminal psychopathy.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy (Faber & Faber) is a stunning, painfully moving, but often very funny, novel about new motherhood.
I always look forward to the next Robert Galbraith novel and The Running Grave (Sphere) didn’t disappoint, as Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott take down a dangerous cult.
Speaking of which, Hannah Barnes’ Time to Think (Swift Press) is a meticulous and pacey account of the collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children, where a culture of obeisance to ideology overrode good clinical practice and basic safeguarding.
I enjoyed To Kill A Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel. It was brilliantly acted – Matthew Modine as Atticus and Cecilia Noble as Calpurnia stole the show.
I’m obsessed with any books or programmes about psychopaths, cults, murder and fraud. I absolutely binged Happy Valley, coming to it late, but managing to pick it up in time for the series finale. The Sixth Commandment about the awful abuse and murder of Peter Farquhar and Ann Moore-Martin by Ben Field was also compelling watching. The Dropout, about Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent biotech company, Theranos, starring Amanda Seyfried, was a real insight into the excessive devotion awarded to some start-up founders and the consequent failure of oversight. And I just watched the latest series of the BBC documentary, The Met, following London’s Metropolitan Police as they deal with some horrific cases. Essential watching if you have the stomach for it.
I enjoyed The Witch Trials of JK Rowling, a documentary podcast by former Westboro Baptist Church member, Megan Phelps-Roper, which included candid interviews with JK Rowling, her supporters and critics. I also listened to Chasing Cosby, about how Bill Cosby got away with decades of sexual offences against more than 60 women and how he was finally brought to justice. It’s alarming how many people are willing to look away rather than confront uncomfortable truths about a beloved figure.
I had such a fantastic time at Filia, the largest annual grassroot feminist conference in Europe. This year it took place in Glasgow and I went to a range of talks and panels on various issues affecting women globally.
My favourite fiction read of the year was Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (Tinder Press), in which we are taken to a remote villa in the depths of winter in rural Ferrara, Italy, in 1561. The cold seeps into your bones in this bleak, gripping yet richly woven psychological drama of a very young woman dealing with her erratic and ruthless husband who means to kill her.
I have been following Weird Walk for several years. As a huge folklore and megalith fan, I was looking forward to their eye-catching book which was published in October this year by Watkins. It didn’t disappoint. Beautifully designed and produced it rather compellingly takes a deep dive into a carefully curated selection of the country’s ‘weirdest’ – and some of my favourite – places.
2023 marked the 50th anniversary of cult ‘folk horror’ ‘musical’ The Wicker Man. There have been many screenings and events to celebrate throughout the year. Although I’d already watched it many times, one boiling hot summer’s evening I went to the Rio Cinema in Dalston for a screening organised by Weird Walk and TSPTR. Seeing it for the first time on the big screen was an exhilarating experience. “Sumer is a-cumen in…”
Boomtown 2023! Drum n bass is having a moment (if indeed it ever went away). My son, Nick (aka Gray) is a producer and DJ. He hauled me back stage for his sunset set on the vast main ‘Origin’ stage on the Friday night. To be up there, watching some 30,000+ ravers go crazy was a sight to behold. It was loud, it was energetic, it took me back. I loved every minute.
I spent some time in rainy Brittany where you can’t move for Neolithic and Bronze Age megaliths. They’re out in corn fields, in farmyards, in people’s gardens, on petrol station forecourts. The Alignments of Carnac is the biggest concentration of standing stones in the world – an extraordinary and powerful place. What on earth were our ancestors up to? I barely scratched the surface of this magical landscape, there is so much to see, and can’t wait to return.
First up is The Old Songs Podcast. I love folk music and am fascinated by the history of folk song collecting. Each episode the host Jon Wilks invites a guest to discuss a particular song, the story behind it, how it came to be, its various iterations and so on. You’re played different versions and can gradually begin to put together the pieces of the elaborate folk song puzzle.
I’ve also mainlined The Evolution of Horror Podcast. It takes a thorough, multi-episode look at each of the many sub-genres of horror movies. Listening to Mike Muncer’s friendly and informed banter with top notch guests about horrifying movies and knowing you don’t have to watch them if they sound too scary is a real pleasure. And while there are some I am genuinely still too terrified to watch (or at least watch alone) there are others I’ve been inspired to brave.
I was gifted A Year Unfolding by Angela Harding for my birthday and I have opened its pages time and time again this year, journeying through the year through beautiful illustrations that celebrate the seasons, the natural world and have at their centre a pure love of nature.
In children’s books this year we have started The Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. Fun to read and great illustrations to pore over. The best kind of books to enjoy together.
In June I had the honour of being invited to Kris Hallenga’s FUNeral, her living funeral which took place in beautiful Truro Cathedral and was supported by Legacy of Lives. It was hands down the most amazing event I attended all year. I really didn’t know what to expect as I entered through those huge cathedral doors (except glitter, I knew there’d be glitter) but in my wildest dreams I wasn’t expecting Dawn French reprising her role as Geraldine Granger opening the service. The whole experience was life-changing, life-affirming and full of love and celebration for our dear friend Kris who partied the night away in her silver, sequined catsuit. The day was all-consuming in the best possible way and as I stepped into the night after the silent disco had ended and the last piece of glittery confetti had landed on the floor I felt the full force of what we’d all just been through.
My favourite TV show of the year was Shrinking (Apple TV), the therapy-based sitcom from Ted Lasso’s creators. So funny, exactly my kind of humour, joyful, touching and brilliantly performed. I think I fell in love with every single character and the whole show was therapeutic to watch. There are rumours that season 2 has been commissioned for 2024! I will be binge watching.
I’ve got into Feng Shui in a big way this year and have loved listening to The Feng Shui Flow Podcast by Kimberley Gallagher. My home has seen improved sleep, clearer minds and a major decluttering project undertaken all as a result of Kimberley’s calm and clear explorations through Feng Shui. I look forward to listening to her every Friday.
And at this time of year I love Beth Kempton’s The Calm Christmas Podcast. When the build up to Christmas can feel overwhelming at times, Beth’s podcast is therapeutic, gentle and grounding, reminding you to find moments of stillness and reflection as we near the end of the year.
Les Rencontres d’Arles. I spent a very happy few days in July with a great friend soaking up the sunshine, wine and photographic talent in the charming old town of Arles, for the 2023 edition of the photography festival. The exhibitions are staged all over town in interesting places ranging from chapels to the ultra-modern Luma building. If I could I would go every year!
Transatlantic (Netflix). I was completely absorbed and moved to tears by this brilliantly-directed series set in Marseille during WWII. An international, eccentric band of characters work to save as many refugees fleeing from the Nazis as they can, including many renowned Jewish artists and writers. Incredible joie de vivre and bravery are confronted by the very worst sides of humanity.
A stay at Souji-in temple, Mt Koya. I’ve grown up travelling to Japan most years, but this May I stayed overnight in pilgrim lodgings at a temple for the first time. The temple grounds were of course beautiful and peaceful, and the multi-course vegan food for breakfast and dinner was delicious. I didn’t expect to still be craving the utter relaxation that the place induced – having a 9pm curfew and nothing to do after dinner other than a hot bath and reading was the best antidote to busy London life.