Each year, for the past few years, I have posted my ‘Festive Five’ in December; listing my top five music tracks of the year. It’s an idea I stole from my friend John, who no doubt stole it from John Peel’s Festive 50.
This year I thought I would challenge myself to write about music here more regularly and I also intend to include books and films. At the end of each month I plan to write a mini-review of the book, music and film that I found most memorable or enjoyable that month. And so to it...
The book - ‘The World of Yesterday’ by Stefan Zweig
Of the four books I finished in January, this is the one that stayed in my thoughts the longest. I read it as a follow-up to Zweig’s tiny novella ‘Chess Story’ that I read last year and enjoyed enormously. At one time Stefan Zweig was one of the most translated authors in the world and this book is effectively his autobiography, finished shortly before he committed suicide in Brazil.
The World of Yesterday proved to be a challenging book — a history of Europe from the late 19th century through the events of the author’s life, including the first world war and the rise of Nazism. One of the reviewers on the fly leaf calls it a “celebration of the brotherhood of peoples”, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say brotherhood of intellectuals. Zweig seems to have a particular determination to cultivate friendships and acquaintances with the great and the good, meeting many of the great intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even his own wife barely rates a mention, appearing suddenly around page 300 without introduction. I always remember Denis Healey writing in his biography that when politicians use phrases such as “the Germans” they mean German politicians rather than the people. In his writing, Zweig falls in this trap too —I feel his writing here is aimed at other poets, playwrights, authors and artists. The brotherhood of peoples is a brotherhood of intellectuals.
Ultimately I enjoyed the book but not the author, although I did enjoy the short section where he wrote about the craft of writing:
“If I have mastered any kind of art, it is the art of leaving things out. I do not mind throwing eight hundred of a thousand written pages into the wastepaper basket, leaving me with only two hundred to convey what I have sifted out as the essence of the work.”
It was this precisely this writing style that grabbed my attention with ‘Chess Story’. In my own way I try to adopt this approach whenever I write or edit photographs —think about what's the message you want to put across and then cut down to the absolute minimum needed to achieve that.
The film - Frasier
It’s not exactly a film, but this month my wife and I have been re-watching the sitcom ‘Frasier’ starring Kelsey Grammar. The show gently mocks the pretensions of Frasier, played by Grammar and his brother Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce, while also requiring a high standard from the audience. Episodes are littered with jokes that only work if you know the Russian royal family suffered from haemophilia, appreciate the homophones “sea kelp” and “seek help” or can decode “the man who floats like a Lepidoptera and stings like a Hymenoptera.”
It’s not simply a clever show; it’s a true ensemble series where each cast member complements the others. Grammar can’t do physical comedy very well, but Hyde Pierce picks up the slack and John Mahoney brings real emotional depth to the part of Martin.
For me, this is classic comedy that has stood the test of time.
The music - Automatic for the People
Not much doubt in my mind for what album has dominated this month. While Nils Frahm has a new album out that I’m really enjoying, REM’s Automatic for the People has been in my music library for years and was re-released for its 25th anniversary and is a classic album from the days when people still listened to albums.
Every song on this album is familiar but they haven’t dated like a pop song might. I recently listened to an episode of the Song Exploder podcast where Michael Stipe explained the origins to the song ‘Try Not to Breathe’ and that only helped me appreciate this particular song even more.
I have really enjoyed listening to this album again, particularly from the perspective of now being a middle-aged man with 25 years more experience from when I first heard it.