It seems to me that most people saw 2009 as an annus horribilis. Collapsing banks, more of our lads dying in a war no one wanted, greedy MPs taking the piss, tumbling house prices ... there isn't a lot that can be said in 2009's favour. But there were some nuggets of interest that caught my notice in the year gone by and I did meet some fascinating people. So here we go, my slightly obscure and deeply personal review of 2009. Prepare yourself. There will be whingeing.
To start us off on a lighter note, the year began with the publication of some of the oddest police sketches ever. Here are a couple:
You can see more here. I took a particular interest in this as 2009 saw the retirement of my good friend Jan 'Boris' Szymczuk as the Metropolitan Police's longest-serving police sketch artist. He did this one of me a few years ago. And these of Stephen Fry and Alan Davies for an article I wrote for the 2009 QI Annual. Sadly, the feature was dropped due to space restrictions but you can see them (and read the aborted feature) here. January also saw the announcement that Matt Smith, at 26, would be the new, and youngest ever, Doctor Who. The first Doctor, William Hartnell, was 55 when he took on the role (He looked older as he wore a long white wig which he hated). If it's taken 47 years to get from Hartnell to Smith then the Doctor has lost, on average, seven months per year. Which means that when Matt Smith is 55, the actor playing the Doctor will be around nine years old. Just a thought.*
I just watched the trailer for Matt Smith's first series here on the BBC website. Nice to see the Daleks, the statues from Blink and River Song making a reappearance. But is it just me or do the younger cast members make the show look worryingly Harry Potter-ish? Ah well, I shall watch in April and make judgement then. I already hate the new logo.
February saw the UK (or the South East anyway) blanketed in snow. Looking back on it now, it seemed like a big deal but it wasn't even a quarter of what we've just had this December. It was also the start of the celebrations for Charles Darwin's bicentenary. It gave us a wealth of excellent TV shows and bolstered the knowledge of us beleagured atheists and rationalists. And good thing too as I ended up having to destroy a couple of rampant Creationists this year.
March saw a new low in the history of tabloid journalism when the Scottish Sunday Express ran a non-story about the kids who survived the Dunblane massacre in 1996 and how they were now allegedly alcohol-fuelled yobs who;d squandered their 'second chance'. The only evidence for this arse-gravy of a feature was the kids' Facebook photo galleries, all of which showed exactly the kind of party shots that any teen on Facebook would post. The whole event was an absolute disgrace made all the worse for the fact that the story's author, Paula Murray, had the same kind of photos on her own Facebook page. This story, plus reading Tom Hodgkinson's excellent dissection of the whole social media phenomenon, We want everyone, made me decide to leave Facebook. Except you can't can you? They won't let you. All you can do is make your account dormant. So I'm sorry if you've tried to get me via this route this past year. I will not be part of any social network that was founded by members of the American right wing who believe that diversity is wrong and who were famously outed by Stephen Fry because they didn't want gay people on their network. Also, please do bear in mind that, once posted, you lose the copyright on your photos. Which means that - heaven forbid - if anything newsworthy happens to you, the press will immediately search Facebook for a nice controversial photo to publish and you can't do a damned thing about it. It's happened a couple of times this year when kids have been killed in tragic accidents. The first photo to appear in the papers is never sanctioned by the family and always, sadly, seems to involve an alcoholic beverage. But the best Facebook faux pas of the year must surely go to Lady Shelley Sawers who posted some lovely photos and personal information about her family, including her husband, Sir John ... who just happened to be the new head of MI6. Oops.
That said, social networking has a place in our society if used properly. Even that most ancient of social networking systems - the telephone - can still be used for abuse. For me, the social networking hero this year was Twitter. I was introduced to it last December by chief elf Justin Pollard at the launch for the 2009 QI Annual. In the twelve months since, it's introduced me to a wealth of new friends - many of whom I've gone on to meet in the flesh - and it has changed my life in ways I never expected. I've taken part in on-line campaigns, vicariously followed rebel voters during the outrageously unethical Iranian elections and have swapped gags and opinions with any number of celebs. It doesn't invade my personal life, doesn't demand anything from me but allows me to communicate with people I'd normally never meet. That's what social networks are for surely? By the end of 2010, Twitter may well be dead and buried but I'd like to believe that it's taken the evolution of social networking one stage further. Certainly, Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan agrees and recently wrote the best piece on Twitter I've read yet. It's here.
Jade Goody symbolised everything that I hated about reality TV and the way that our society seems to be going. Don't get me wrong; I had nothing against Jade herself. If anything, I rather admired the woman. She came from the most appalling background living on a foul sink estate with drug-dealing parents and had a dreadful education. Despite that, she was, essentially, a good, if occasionally misguided, person whose heart was in the right place. After her appearance on Big Brother she went on to create a lucrative business empire. Her spat with Shilpa Shetty onCelebrity Big Brother was ill-advised and ignorant but no worse than anything you'll hear in some pubs, but she seemed genuinely upset that she'd caused hurt. And she had the guts to appear on the Indian version of the show and make amends. And, to her eternal credit, she faced her death with dignity and has done much to raise young women's awareness of cervical cancer. As I say, I have nothing really bad to say about Jade Goody herself. I have plenty to say about the quality of TV programming, the turncoat slimeball press and the dreadful voyeurism of her death.
Television seems to me to be tumbling down a turd-greased slope of tired ideas into a brown and stinking pond of cruelty, cheapness and lowest-common-denominator shite. By far the most popular section of most reality TV shows is the auditions where the never-will-be-wannabes and the mentally ill are wheeled out like freaks to be pointed and laughed at. We've already had one suicide as the result - Paula Goodspeed killed herself outside Paula Abdul's house last year (read this) - how many more will it take before this drivel is off the air? Big Brother is dead so that's a good start. But it's not enough. The recent campaign to get Rage against the Machine to the Christmas Number One spot is indicative of the depth of feeling out here in the real world. While it wasn't an appropriate Christmas song, it was performed by real musicians with real passion, not some TV product singing a wet recycled Miley Cyrus song. We want quality TV and quality music. No, we demand it.
If an MP broke the rules or, worse, broke the law, I would expect to see them punished and publicly admonished. But if they really did act within the rules ... were they wrong? It's an interesting moral question. How many of us, if told that our boss would let us have money for nothing, wouldn't take it? The difference, I suppose, is that the 'boss' in the MP's case was us, the taxpayers, and we had no say in whether a duck house or moat-cleaning was appropriate use of our money.
May and the winner of this year's Diagram Bookseller prize for the oddest title was awarded to the excellent The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais.Wonderful. Previous year's winners include People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (2005), The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003), Living with Crazy Buttocks (2002), Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996), Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality(1986), The Joy of Chickens (1980) and Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978). There's a great book that celebrates the award called How to avoid huge ships. I implore you to read it. While hunting around for a suitable submission for the 2009 prize I came across a very real book called Sexual skills for the Christian husband and entered into a spirited discussion with the author here. This led me on to one of the most bizarre websites I've ever seen. The author(s) of Sex in Christ somehow manage to square every sexual practice imaginable with Christian belief. It's quite extraordinary and you can visit it here. Be warned, it is as candid as it is bonkers.
May also saw filming of QI series G begin and I was delighted to reacquaint myself with Stephen Fry, Sean Lock, Alan Davies, Bill Bailey and the usual suspects as well as other invited guests like Neil Gaiman and Derren Brown. I also discovered the wonderful Awkward Family Photos website and it has brought me constant joy ever since. Here's a very disturbing example (look closely):
We also said goodbye to Michael Jackson in somewhat mysterious circumstances. However, the most mysterious thing about his death was that Sky TV actually commissioned a seance to talk with him in September. Derek Acorah and several obviously damaged fanatics (that is what 'fan' is short for) groped the King of Pop's hat and utterly failed to ask any significant questions about Jackson's curious death, the allegations against him involving child abuse or why he chose to mutilate his good looks with extreme surgery. What? You didn't see the seance? There are chunks of it here on YouTube and it marks yet another mangy nadir in the history of television.
It was a good Summer this year with lots of very hot days and lots of very wet days. July saw me enjoying Anthony Gormley's One and Other installation on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. I do a lot of walking around in central London as I hate the Tube and would often modify my route to see who was on the plinth and what peculiar exhibitionist madness they were indulging in. We had artists and strippers, dancers and people who just sat and watched the crowd. We had pleas on behalf of various charities and a bewildering range of mad costumes. It was the British public at their eccentric best and it was quite, quite brilliant. I wish it had been made permanent and that everyone in the UK could have the chance of being up there and their 60 minutes of exposure. So much more representative of the UK than any kind of reality show.
August now and, once again, Facebook and its less-successful social networking cousins were thrown into the spotlight. Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, told the Telegraph newspaper that 'Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships. They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they're desolate. It's an all or nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity; a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it's right.' While I agreed with some of the points he made, I did take umbrage with others. For a start, UK suicide rates have been dropping for years (according to both official statistics and charities such as The Samaritans and Mind). Secondly, the internet has enabled a lot of people who are isolated by such things as geography, health or even shyness to meet others. Just recently, someone on Twitter wrote 'Why is it that I've met more of the kind of people I like on Twitter than in real life?' The point, I believe, is that we shouldn't invest too much in the technology; it should never replace real physical friendships. I've made it a point to meet as many of my fellow Tweeters and Bloggers in the flesh as possible and, almost without exception, they've been a joy (see here). That's what social networking should be for; establishing contact with like-minded individuals. As soon as there is a hint of cyber-bullying or misuse, accounts should be suspended or deleted.
September's low-point was Jan Moir's hugely insulting and unjust Daily Mail column about the untimely death of Stephen Gately. 'Something is terribly wrong with the way this incident has been shaped and spun into nothing more than an unfortunate mishap on a holiday weekend, like a broken teacup in the rented cottage', she wrote. 'Consider the way it has been largely reported, as if Gately had gently keeled over at the age of 90 in the grounds of the Bide-a-Wee rest home while hoeing the sweet pea patch. The sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again. Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one.' She then went on to suggest, without any evidence, that it was Gately's 'sleazy' lifestyle that killed him and ended with the homophobic conclusion that Gately's death 'strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships. Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael. Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened. For once again, under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see.' Moir's feature led to more than 22,000 complaints and a huge public demand for an apology, much of it led by Twitter. Charlie Brooker wrote a splendid piece dissecting her nonsense here and I'd implore you to read it. Just as we deserve better TV and better music, we deserve better press coverage than this kind of gutter journalism. Moir, of course, was unrepentant despite the internet campaign and the fact that companies removed their adverts from her on-line page to avoid what they saw as 'contamination'. But Moir shouldn't be pilloried alone. What about the sub-editors and editors who allowed the feature to run?
September was also the month in which a paperback book came out called Joined-Up Thinking ... right, shameless plug over.
In October I withdrew from the world to do 23 illustrations for this year's QI Annual but I did get time to visit Anish Kapoor's exhibition at the Royal Academy. A giant sliding loaf of red wax being constantly reshaped by a series of arched doorways? A tower of shiny balls? Lumps of wax being fired from a cannon? Who could resist? I couldn't. I love Kapoor's work and it was wonderful to experience. However, nothing as yet beats his Marsya at Tate Modern a couple of years ago. That was magnificent and awe-inspiring and it looked like this (and this photo shows no more than a third of the overall sculpture) :
In November I got invited to two very different but wonderful events. The first was the 30th anniversary party for Viz magazine where I got to see a lot of original artwork and spoke to all of the artists and writers. It all culminated in me getting my copy of Chris Donald's Rude Kids: The Story of Viz signed and scribbled in by all and sundry. What a great keepsake. Here's the link to my write-up of the event. Then, a few days later, I went to an exhibition of art by Hipgnosis, the creators of most of the iconic LP covers of the 1970s including Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Paul McCartney and Wings' Band on the Run and Led Zep's Houses of the Holy. Great to meet the guys having been a fan of their work since my teens. I even got my copy of their bookWalk Away Renee, which I bought in 1979, signed. Here's the write-up.
And now, finally, December and the first white Christmas in decades. certainly the first I've ever experienced and, hopefully, the last. What a nightmare. Here on the Chiltern Hills we took the brunt of the south-east snowfall with around 6-7 inches of the stuff lying on our criminally ungritted streets and pavements. I was twice forced to walk several miles home up a very long and very steep set of hills, had to abandon my car miles away at least once and utterly failed to get into London for my final two days of work for 2009. It was, as always in the UK, utter chaos. But it's easy to complain about lack of investment and preparation isn't it? The weather is so unpredictable and always has been. I can guarantee that there would have been a surfeit of purple-faced Daily Mail readers huffing and puffing if the local council had spent thousands gritting the roads and investing in snowploughs and no snow had come. My grandchildren enjoyed it though:
And I offer the same challenge to our current affairs media people. Just report what's going on in the world. Even the BBC news, that last great bastion of sensibility, seems to have fallen prey to tabloid sensationalism this year. Just look at their coverage of the Swine Flue pandemic. It's been shamefully over-dramatised and scare-mongerish. As I sit here typing this, I've just lived through a bout of this debilitating illness and it is genuinely unpleasant. But, for goodness sake, many many more people die on the roads every year. Why doesn't that get the same treatment?
As I said at the start of this rant, 2009 has been pretty crap and I apologise if this final blogpost reads like an extended whinge. It is my fervent hope that things can only get better. I'll finish as I began with something light-hearted; the best headline I've seen all year:
Happy New Year!
* For the sake of completeness, Pat Troughton was 46, Jon Pertwee was 51, Tom Baker 40, Peter Davison 31, Colin Baker 41, Sylvester McCoy 44, Paul McGann 35, Chris Ecclestone 41 and David Tennant 34.