Hil List 2016: Books

Lots of reading done this year. Yes, lots of time on my ass, but also lots of time doing something I love and getting paid for it so there. Here’s a small handful of highlights. Blurbs/links where possible.

 

Non-fiction

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing (Canongate)
“Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.”
Full Irish Independent review

I’m Not With The Band – Sylvia Patterson (Sphere)
“One would devour this bulky tome in a couple of days were there not so many intermissions needed to put the thing down and emit a bellylaugh for a few minutes before reading on. Patterson’s patter, assembled from those absurdist days tracing Bros and Kylie in Smash Hits, is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the very acts she was charged with covering. And every bit as entertaining too.”
Full Irish Independent review

Play All – Clive James (Yale University Press)
“If this is to be James’ swansong – and pray it is not – the only spoiler alert worth mentioning here is that Play All will be a reminder of what the world will be deprived of once the sword of respite falls from Ibrutinib’s tofu-like hand. This snug body of writings will enrich your appreciation of TV drama’s big hitters, and help elevate discussion on them to a level beyond the pub chat.”
Full Irish Independent review

The Battle – Paul O’Connell with Alan English (Penguin Ireland)
“The earthy but fiercely proud and determined Munster disposition is rife. He’s opened his soul to English, the obvious trust between the two perhaps an unexpected symptom of the added years the project kept taking on. What has come out the other side is a psychological profile that is almost shocking at times in what it reveals about the bloody single-mindedness of the competitive gene.”
Full Irish Independent review

 

Fiction

Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin (Riverrun)
“O’Loughlin doesn’t so much pan back as leap about, threading together an extraordinary tale that warps actual history into something conjoined, poetic and thrilling. At the epicentre of these interlocking narratives, these living and breathing jigsaw parts, is a McGuffin that sings with intrigue and a historical riddle that has never been solved.” Full Sunday Indo review

The Pier Falls – Marc Haddon (Jonathan Cape)
“This first foray into the medium by the 53-year-old is a nine-strong assembly of compassionate, engrossing, often hard-edged tales of isolation and hunger (for love, safety, food itself). A housebound obese man and a local tearaway forge a touching friendship without a hint of mawkishness. On a tiny island, ancient Greek mythology and the stark cruelty of nature combine as a woman is abandoned and left to fend for herself. Scenes are constantly scorched into your mind with Haddon’s dexterous linguistic branding iron.” Full Sunday Independent review

The Lonely Sea and Sky – Dermot Bolger (New Island)
“Whatever about the timely ways this extraordinary novel will speak to a nation currently undergoing a mature reassessment of its epoch-defining insurgency, this story of selflessness, duty and a young lad’s emergence into manhood via his actions is a universal hymn that will chime with anybody who understands that while good and evil are nebulous concepts, right and wrong are not. That it does this without sermonising is testament to the lofty skills of this national treasure.” Full Irish Independent review

 

Crime

Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland)
“It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting.”
Full Irish Independent review

Trouble is our Business: New Short Stories by Irish rime Writers – Edited by Declan Burke (New Island)
“Crime fiction lends itself especially well to the format, you feel, due to the breadth of styles and tones that it can employ. The 20 authors here were given free rein with the brief, and the variety of styles, backdrops and registers that duly winged its way back to Burke is this superb collection’s strongest card.”
Full Sunday Independent review

Woman Of The Dead – Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
“Woman of the Dead beats with an immediacy and tangibility that is frankly rare” Full Sunday Independent review

 

 

 

 

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Hil List 2016: Film

The top 10 films of the calendar year (according to yours truly), with blurbs from my Sunday Independent reviews.

  1. Spotlight66914


    “An irrefutable argument for longform journalism is made. Process, procedure and exposition define the narrative, but this Oscar hopeful is full of the quiet detail and thematic nuance that grant it “classic” status. There is no arch villain cackling in the shadows. No gory flashbacks and no all-American grandstanding. The cast is an impressive ensemble but
    Spotlight’s genius is in its calmly urgent take on historical events. In doing so, it makes them all the more sobering and gravid. Compulsory viewing.”

  2. Hell or High Water

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    “Always an actor of huge vitality, Ben Foster gives a career best while Chris Pine shows he’s far more than just a pretty face. The landscape belongs to Jeff Bridges, however. The veteran brings much sensitivity and nuance to such a trope character, and is mesmeric when quietly observed by David Mackenzie’s masterful lens.”

  3. Arrival

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    “Stealthy signals, unforgettable moments and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score coalesce magnificently as an iconic classic of sci-fi cinema, something to cherish for life, is created before your eyes.”

  4. Sing Street

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    “A glorious and irresistible teenage dreamscape opens up before our eyes. It’d be nothing if John Carney didn’t slow the rhythm and let the pulse of young love, and indeed brotherly love, shine through. Between this and the soundtrack – penned by Carney and Gary Clark – expect to be charmed to tears between the bellylaughs. A classic, and yet another durable blossom in Irish cinema’s current purple patch.”

  5. The Childhood of a Leader

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    “US actor Brady Corbet’s first outing behind the lens is an oddly chilling study of the conditions that can create a fascistic ego. Beneath peering camera direction, chiaroscuro cinematography and Scott Walker’s seismic score are ominous discussions on control and rebellion that are handled with a Haneke-like poise belying the 27-year-old’s lack of film-making experience. He secures superb performances from his cast (including Robert Pattinson), most impressively that of his smouldering young lead.”

  6. Paterson

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    “Lean back and let this graceful protracted tremor of a film slow you down to its speed. Paterson will be looked back on as something of a career high for Jim Jarmusch, and also as a signpost that in 2016 screen acting had uncovered something unique and supremely adaptable in Adam Driver.”

  7. Anomalisa

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    “There’s much to take from Anomalisa that belies its soft-eyed dolls and dry wit, not least its meticulous mix of the whacky with hard, uncompromising realism. Even David Thewlis’s bleating feels like “textbook Kaufman”, which is saying something. It’s great to have him back.”

  8. Room

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    Room feels like the culmination of Irish cinema, a sublime interplay of story, talent, vision, sound and feeling that pushes rare buttons. As for Lenny Abrahamson? Well, for many years I swore he was among Europe’s finest film makers. Make that the world’s.”

  9. El Club

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    “Pablo Larrain’s roving direction and cool framing, Carlos Cabezas’s strings and a roundly excellent cast combine to stunning effect in this magnetic and highly original critique of the Church. Rarely does a drama balance a range of colours – intrigue, repulsion, beauty, dread, humour – with such brazen confidence.”

  10. The Revenant

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    “Some men have all the luck. Others, like Leonardo DiCaprio, are preyed upon by man, beast, element and Alejandro González Iñárritu. In The Revenant, the Birdman director put DiCaprio, his co-stars and the crew through such endurance feats that there was talk of breakdowns and walk-outs on set. Iñárritu’s steel has paid off, however, because this mud ‘n’ blood survival-revenge epic is a genuine masterpiece of 2016 and deserves any further awards coming its way after its Golden Globes rout.”

So much sheer spirit

The Sunday Indo asked me to reflect on my meeting with late, great Irish broadcasting Goliath Terry Wogan back in 2011. This is what they published.

***

Mourning the genial broadcasting legend who seemed indomitable

Underneath the effortless charm lurked an intellectual, well versed and supremely generous of spirit, writes Hilary A White

THERE are pillars in all our rear-view mirrors. Things that make up the vista of our lives and provide cultural cornerstones when adult life shifts underfoot. When they’re suddenly not there, it’s felt, sometimes deeply. Look at David Bowie and how his death caused middle-aged men to weep for teenage years of escapism and the unpleasant idea that a formative totem was now gone from the existential diorama.

The nostalgic reeling returned last week with the loss of Terry Wogan, the Limerick-born broadcasting aristocrat who’d always seemed indelible and death-proof. It’d be disingenuous to say I was principally mourning the loss of a very nice man I’d once met, but that was part of it. It was more that a presence over my 35 years, ubiquitous if not always apparent, had extinguished. A minor fracture in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but a fracture none the less.

Growing up in the 80s meant two things in our house – Star Wars and Wogan. I arrived into the world and they were just there. Neither needed to be introduced, understood or contemplated. They were family, furniture and soundtrack, rolled into one. They just were. In hindsight, so much of that decade now seems disposable. Not, however, the recently revived space opera. And not the unforced, suave, irreverent Irishy-Englishy host with the toothy grin on TV every Saturday night.

When I got to interview him at his home on a cloudless July day in 2011, the then-73-year-old was exactly as I’d always imagined, if slightly less robust. He welcomed me into the Maidenhead pile he shared with wife Helen like an old friend. It was surprising, yet not. As we settled into chairs out in his sweeping back garden, I checked if he’d mind a photo when we were done. “Not at all,” he gasped before that trademark silken comic beat. “Mind you, there’s no such thing as a nice shot of me but there you are.”

Within five minutes, it had already become exactly the kind of experience that made me become a journalist in the first place. He was interesting and interested, candid, widely versed and supremely generous of spirit. There was no stopwatch, no “off-limits” preciousness and no PR person hovering in the background. The chat – and that was very much the cadence he sought – was that of a friendly, reflective man in the winter of his years who was grateful for a good chinwag.

“Hilarious” is the first word I find myself using when people ask what he was like. Wogan had a buoyant, breezy humour that was effortless but made me double over with laughter and lose my line of questioning a few times over those couple of hours. It was a twinkle in the eye, a flamboyant turn of language or some delightfully spry confection on one of his favourite sources of amusement – himself.

“God help us,” he quipped when I told him I’d read Mustn’t Grumble (his laugh-out-loud 2006 biography and one of many published books to his name). “I’m a tremendously lazy person,” he cheerily sighed. “I’ve never knocked on anybody’s door looking for a job. Anything that’s difficult for me, I just don’t do. It just shows you how deeply trivial a person I am that I only do stuff that comes easily to me! Except golf. I think I’m temperamentally wrong for golf.”

He didn’t want anybody, he chuckled, to call him “Sir Terry” but liked the idea of throwing any letters addressed to “Mr Terry Wogan” straight into the wastepaper basket. During a brief aside about his former BBC radio colleagues, he explained that he mostly only saw the back of Ken Bruce’s head in the adjacent studio. “The back of Ken Bruce’s head is much like the front of his head,” he then slipped in, parenthetically. I nearly spat coffee over my notebook.

What I quickly learned was Wogan only poked fun at people who he liked a lot, and this tonality was what ultimately saw him gain such vast purchase on UK public consciousness.

“I came over here [to England] and found there was far too much sycophancy going on,” he mock scowled. “People on the radio saying things like ‘we love your show’ etc. And I thought: ‘I can’t handle that because that’s not the way friends behave.’ Friends are more likely to tell you you’ve got a spot on your nose or you dress like the Pope’s mother or something like that. So that’s what I tried to generate, a kind of mutual badinage between us that was good natured.”

When he referred to Gay Byrne, his RTE mucker of yore, as a “poor old soul”, the mischief was edged with affection.

And yet Wogan would have been useless if were just some wisecracking loafer who was a conduit for kid-acting on the airwaves. Beneath the lightening wit, the massaging sing-song purr and the unreconstructed geniality lurked an intellectual. It fell all about him that afternoon in the recesses between punchlines, trinkets of wisdom and invention, literacy and an acute recall that are unquestionably part of the package. I still dwell on things he said.

Living overseas but in sight of his homeland, Wogan had a clarity of perspective on Ireland that I’m not sure I’ve heard since. The discussion turned to the landmark state visit of Queen Elizabeth just weeks previously. As a small insecure island nation, we patted ourselves on the back after the final exhale that came with her departure. Hadn’t we done well, we told ourselves. Wogan had a different take on it.

“Was I proud of Ireland?” he wondered. “Well I expected Ireland to rise to the occasion. I felt more proud of the Queen, really. She is a very nice woman. She’s a remarkable woman… And why wouldn’t the Irish behave well? Why don’t we expect ourselves to behave well? Why do we think we’re the only ones that history ever happened to? How would we feel if we were Poles or Jews? I mean, come on! Everybody has had a hard time from time to time.”

He was proud, though. You could see it still. He delighted in telling me he was “as Irish as the next man” and therefore got emotional “about all sorts of things”. It was clear he’d spent a lot of time considering the boom and bust, and had actively jumped in to defend his native land when onlookers in the UK asked “why didn’t the Irish realise this or that”. He called his fellow countrymen “resilient”, “intelligent”, “noble” and “probably a much better educated population than Britain”. “Corinthian” was how he described the respectful silences placekickers get from Irish rugby fans. “The principal of sportsmanship is stronger in Ireland than in England, in my opinion. Getting up and shaking hands with your opponent after a hard game – it’s true of nearly everything the Irish do.”

Sadly, it didn’t mean Ireland always afforded him quite the same regard. Before arriving back to Dublin in 2005 to receive a People of The Year Award, voices of idiocy questioned his Irishness on Liveline. “It’s nice to know the Irish haven’t forgotten me,” Wogan said during his acceptance speech. Did he really fear he’d been discarded in Ireland, I asked him.

“I thought about that because it was nice and an enormous surprise. I have the award on me mantelpiece. But why wouldn’t they have forgotten about me? I’m not there – forgotten but not gone!” he chortled, slightly evasively.

Looking back now, there is a sense that the accolades, lifetime honours and knighthoods sat uneasily with Terry Wogan. He laughed that day about how everyone reaches a certain point where people “confuse longevity with merit”. “If you cling to the refuge long enough, people will begin to think you must have some quality… No, it’s just that he’s not dead yet! It’s after you pass on that people tend to over-praise. Morecambe and Wise? They were great but really they weren’t always great.”

He had no real answer to the question of how he’d like to be remembered. All he could say was he hadn’t thought about it because he still hadn’t any “intimations of mortality”. He trotted out light-hearted analogies about speaking at so many friends’ funerals that he is now “Terry No-mates”, a joke he recycled in an interview last September with Ryan Tubridy. He’d probably roll his eyes at the countless tributes and hagiographies this week.

He’d been godless ever since losing first daughter Vanessa in 1966 weeks after her birth. This wasn’t public knowledge when we met but listening back to the interview, it explains why he found it “doubly worrying” when his grandchildren were ill. The atheism and the playfulness remained to the end, according to close friend Fr Brian D’Arcy. “You’d better say a few prayers if you have any influence up there, if there’s anyone up there,” he reportedly said to D’Arcy on their final meeting.

So much sheer spirit. It’s probably why we’ll continue to talk about him. That innate “sunny” disposition people have spoken of that granted him a passport to affections. That refusal to take himself too seriously when he easily could have. He was an optimist, he told me, but cautioned that an optimist was just someone who didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. “Nobody’s going to top that act,” Ruby Wax said during the week. She’s so right because it wasn’t an act.

“I mean I’ve just had the most extraordinary, pleasant life,” he gently laughed that day, almost in disbelief. “And now I’m, as it were, staggering towards the end of it but there you are. Make the most of it while I can.”

First published in the Sunday Independent