Saturday, 15 December 2018

Folkestone Warren sloe gin

Fight your way through tangles of brambles, nettles and blackthorn bushes, and keep your footing on the narrow, uneven paths that lead down to Folkestone’s Warren, and you’re rewarded with access to the town’s most attractive beach.

The Warren is a bay at the foot of the white cliffs, looking across to the low-lying coast of France on a clear day. Despite being geographically close, it feels a world away from the Folkestone’s most popular beach, Sunny Sands, where the raw bodied and raw faced holiday people observed in Ted Hughes’ poem Work and Play

Are laid out like wounded
Flat as in ovens
Roasting and basting
With faces of torment as space burns them blue.

Although out of town, the Warren is well worth the trip. As part of an exposed coastal landscape that has been remade by landslips over the years, the cliffs are shored up by a wide concrete apron constructed after the Second World War. When the tide is right, regular rows of concrete groynes create the impression of a series of private beaches, both separated from the promenade above and cut off by gently lapping waves to the side. At low tide, the concrete is coated in a springy carpet of vivid green moss that’s treacherous under foot. At high tide, fishermen cast their rods out to sea and concrete steps provide the perfect entry point for swimming in the English Channel, which turns a Mediterranean turquoise under the summer sun. In winter, when stormy grey waves slap unpredictably against the edge, it’s wise to keep your distance.
Although the Warren is home to a small campsite – and the occasional illicit camper and hermit residing in shacks built into the cliffs – it’s mercifully free of crowds. It’s overlooked only by a couple of Martello Towers, a lone clifftop café at Capel-le-Ferne and a clifftop artwork, Siren, by Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od, inspired by the improbable early twentieth-century wartime technology of concrete listening ears, and installed as part of the 2017 Folkestone Triennial.

It wasn’t always this way. The Warren, which had a reputation as Folkestone’s ‘Little Switzerland’, was once a destination for daytrippers and pleasure seekers, served by its own train station.

The Warren is separated from touristy Sunny Sands by an expanse of rocks, popular with fossil hunters. Sifting idly through the beach’s mixture of sand and pebbles reveals its own treasures, though: pebbles made from brick in various shades of red and yellow, worn smooth over the years, and translucent, gem-like ‘sea glass’, delicately frosted ovals of white, green, brown and blue glass created from decades of discarded bottles being thrown around and ground down by the tide.

Follow the cliffs in the other direction, past Abbot’s Cliff nudist beach, and eventually you’ll reach the port of Dover. The Folkestone to Dover trainline, too, takes this route, through the cliffs and past the Warren. Though short, it’s a dramatic ride, as the train emerges suddenly alongside the sea. Although spectacular, the route has its perils. In December 2015, storm damage closed the trainline for a full nine months, a reminder that the conceit of man’s control over our island coastline is illusory at best, and that its shape, form and the nature of our relationship with it is something we should never take for granted.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Fanzines! A guest lecture at Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 5 December

My next lecture in Bradford School of Art's Random Lecture series will take place on Wednesday 5 December at 12 noon in the Dye House Gallery; all welcome.

I will be giving a personal perspective on fanzines, drawing on material from my own collection of 'zines and printed ephemera, and my experiences of publishing the Shrieking Violet. I will discuss the different forms fanzines have taken, in terms of style and content, and their ongoing evolution, from small, often rough-and-ready self-published magazines aimed at special interest communities such as football supporters, music fans, vegans and anarchists, to hyperlocal examinations of cities and neighbourhoods, and city critiques, to showcases for the work of artists, photographers and poets, to sleek, well-designed objects, often holding much in common with artists' books, to their 'mainstreaming' and the co-option and collecting of fanzines by institutions such as universities and art galleries. I will conclude by looking at the 'zine in the age of the internet, and the ways in which the internet supports 'zine-making by creating communities and increased opportunities for their distribution and consumption. 

Monday, 15 October 2018

Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 October - Woman's Outlook: A Surprisingly Modern Magazine?

I'll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 October to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon in the Dye House Gallery; all welcome.

I'll be talking about my research into the twentieth-century co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook, published by the Co-operative Press from Manchester between 1919 and 1967, which combined political campaigning and information with domestic tips and knowledge.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Listening to the city: Mapping Manchester’s Quiet Spaces on International Dawn Chorus Day

After a long winter, the first sign I noticed that the seasons were changing was the regularity with which I was awoken at unsociable hours by the dawn chorus in the trees outside my window, loud enough to break through my sleep and punctuate my dreams, before finally waking me fully.

The rhythm and routine of bird call as part of city life, and the way in which it might coexist with or be altered by birds’ close proximity to humans in urban environments, is something that interests artist Rae Story. She has spent nearly a year working with Manchester arts group St Luke’s on a participatory project mapping the quiet spaces of the city; one of her long-held ambitions has been to bring people together to listen to a dawn chorus in a publicly accessible green space.
An appropriate park or garden in which to gather participants safely and discreetly in the depths of night eluded her – until she was introduced to the Parrs Wood Environmental Centre, a hidden green space on the edges of Didsbury. Situated on the southern outskirts of Manchester, where the city meets the River Mersey on the boundary of Cheshire, the site could easily be missed. Although it forms part of a ‘green corridor’ of woodland and riverside paths that provide a pleasant off-road walking and cycling route between Stockport and south Manchester’s suburbs, the entrance is sandwiched between the nondescript architecture of a chain hotel and a huge multi-use leisure complex of the type that often characterise busy arterial routes.
Parrs Wood Environmental Centre has a long history as an educational outdoor space for the city’s children. Founded in the years immediately following the Second World War, and run for many years by the city council, school classes were given their own plots to tend. The site also provided adult education through the Workers’ Educational Association.
Initially part of a country estate, with the former stables, walled kitchen garden and gardener’s cottage still in evidence, the centre is now part of Parrs Wood High School, but continues to offer adults and children environmental education under the guidance of volunteers.
On International Dawn Chorus Day, fifteen of us meet shortly before 4am under a bright lopsided, yellow-tinged moon, sitting low in the sky. Although it’s been a balmy day the grass is sodden with due; my summer plimsolls are quickly soaked through.
We’re led through an overgrown path in the woods to a clearing encircled by overturned logs which double as benches, and invited to forget everything else for the next forty minutes in order to focus fully on what we hear in the air surrounding us.
As the birds call from all sides, under a densely curtained canopy of leaves, it feels like we’re experiencing theatre in the round, in some kind of natural performance tent, the performers unseen. As time goes by, birds enter and leave, and come back; the low-toned call of the wood pigeon is a late entry against a patter of higher pitched trills. Although, we hear the occasional car on the road outside and the rumble of a lone night train, this is the birds’ space and time. Two sirens go past, shifting in and out of the chorus, which continues regardless.
I’m listening intently, in a way I’m not used to. My sense of smell becomes more acute, too; there’s a definite aroma of the warm, earthy smell of horses and, later, the sweet scent of crabapple blossom. It slowly grows lighter; perhaps our senses are adjusting, too.

What I feel most acutely, though, is my own illiteracy when it comes to knowledge of birds or the natural world. I can’t even find the words to describe the calls I’ve heard, in order to ask which birds they might belong to.
Mapping Manchester’s Quiet Spaces is a project by the artist Rae Story with St Luke’s Arts Project. A celebration event, with presentations from the workshops, will be held at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House on Tuesday 26 June at 3pm and 6pm. For more information about this and other events visit www.mappingmanchestersquietspaces.org.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Transmitting the outskirts: LoneLady's Scrub Transmissions

It's often too easy to conflate place with music, and vice versa. It's tempting to view a city through a lens of its cultural production, to hold on to a static image of past achievements and overlook the ways in which places, and their culture, continue to evolve. It's also easy to reduce an artist to their urban identity, to limit them to an artistic lineage that is geographically - and therefore to some extent always arbitrarily - defined.

There is a sense of LoneLady trying to break out of these boxes, to get away from a very particular - and often male - Mancunian identity. Yet at the same time, her music is undeniably shaped by Manchester. It's the place where she grew up, on the eastern fringes of the city. It's also where her two albums to date were written, rehearsed and recorded, in largely self-built rehearsal and studio spaces in former industrial units in isolated areas outside of the city centre. Until recent acquisitions by developers capitalising on Manchester's property boom, apparently redundant buildings such as these, surrounded by half-demolished buildings, light industrial activity or red light districts, were available and affordable to artists due to their relative geographical and cultural remoteness. Despite their uncertainty of tenure, artists became used to coexisting with damp, cold, mice and indifferent landlords, fashioning and reinventing these spaces to fit their needs and finding the space and freedom for invention and experimentation amidst physical decrepitude. These were the places where most of Manchester's real creative work was done.

LoneLady both acknowledges this geographical specificity in her work and attempts to break away from it; most recently, she's stretched her wings with a long-term residency at Somerset House in London. As a Mancunian woman, she sees herself not just as struggling for visibility within the mainstream music world, but also as an outsider to the city itself. She situates herself both physically and metaphorically on the edges of Manchester, and outside of the myths manufactured by those who wish to shape our perceptions of it.

LoneLady wants us to share and understand the mundane places and subtle experiences which influence her sensations of the city day-to-day, and her place within it, as a place that is lived in, worked in and travelled through, and as a city that - far from the promotional spiel of business, tourism, redevelopment and economic growth - continues to be uncertain, often difficult and sometimes unwelcoming for those who exist outside of its dominant uses and narratives.

Far from the shininess and spectacle of city centre redevelopment, LoneLady tries to tell us different stories and show us other cultural landmarks. In 2012, she invited us to plug our headphones in and experience her music in the context of 1960s elevated motorway the Mancunian Way, through her temporary installation The Utilitarian Poetic, which embedded a previously unreleased track beneath a flyover on the outskirts of the city centre. TUP drew our attention to a structure that is a permanent presence in the city, yet which is almost always experienced in transit, and a place where few stop to linger. Removing fast-flowing traffic from the city's roads, the Mancunian Way flyover distances motorists from the city at ground level, yet it also creates a constant background hum for those who live and work in the estates and buildings alongside it.
Six years later, LoneLady again asks us to turn our back on the city centre and to venture east to the inner-city neighbourhood of Miles Platting, an area that borders Clayton on one side and Ancoats on the other, on the banks of the Ashton Canal. East Manchester, a former industrial and mining district, where Clayton is situated, remains one of the poorest areas of Manchester, despite the new sporting facilities built for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. By contrast, Ancoats, which borders the hip Northern Quarter area of Manchester city centre, has, in just a few years, become unrecognisable. As derelict former factories and mills have been converted, alongside infill apartment blocks, a previously under-visited area of the city has been filled with bars, shops and restaurants catering to young professionals, and is regularly featured in local and national media as a 'foodie destination'. 

New-build flats are gradually encroaching further into east Manchester, following the improved access to the city brought by the building of the East Manchester tram line. However, in spite of its proximity to Ancoats and Manchester city centre, Miles Platting feels like a different world entirely. Here, we see and hear different uses for the city, which don't fit comfortably elsewhere: families gather in special dress in small sections of industrial units repurposed as places of worship; graffiti artists find ample space to exhibit their work. There's also evidence of others left behind by the city's redevelopment, including rough sleeping and heroin use, on wasteland exposed by the demolition of former industrial buildings.
There's also a atmosphere of openness and space here, lacking in a city centre that is increasingly embracing height and density - of a place that is yet to be rediscovered and rebuilt. Into this left-behind landscape, embedded in a tower of rubble, LoneLady has inserted 'Little Fugue', an unreleased track from 2014. Behind you are the skeletal outlines of abandoned gas towers. In front and to the side are patched up industrial buildings, some missing windows, and subdivided for a variety of commercial and creative uses. In the background, plodding indie rock competes across the canal with band practice emanating from a facing building. Through the headphones, LoneLady's guitar chimes gothically over a synthy, dancey track that both suggests something of her city's heritage, but shows it is possible to do something new and different with it.
Then we hear a voiceover, a story about what this area has meant to her. It concludes by urging us to: "Hear the voices of the landscape, before they're scrubbed out."

Scrub Transmissions went live on Sunday 18 February and continues until the battery runs out (duration dependent on weather conditions!). For map and further information, visit http://lonelady.co.uk/blog/scrub-transmissions-miles-platting

An accompanying 'zine by LoneLady is available from the Peer Hat and Piccadilly Records in the Northern Quarter.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

'Woman's Outlook' book chapter in 'Women's Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period'

I'm really delighted to have a chapter about the twentieth century co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook in the new collection Women's Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period, published by Edinburgh University Press (I'm also really pleased that the book features an image of Woman's Outlook on its cover!).
This blog is one of the places where I have explored my interest in Woman's Outlook, a magazine for the campaigning women of the co-operative movement, which was published by the Co-operative Press in Manchester between 1919 and 1967 and combined information about political and social issues with domestic tips and advice. The chapter is based on research into the magazine in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, which holds a complete set of the publication.

To find out more about the book and other contributors, visit https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-women-039-s-periodicals-and-print-culture-in-britain-1918-1939.html.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January - Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

I'll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 January to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon; all welcome.

Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley 

Born in 1925, the artist and industrial designer William Mitchell’s work can be seen in towns and cities around the world. However, it does not hang on the wall of art galleries, but is an integral part of the buildings in which it is found. These range from everyday places such as schools, libraries, pubs, subway underpasses and the foyers of post-war towerblocks, to flagship buildings like Harrods and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The talk will give an overview of Mitchell’s work and career, focusing in particular on three artworks by William Mitchell in the Bradford area which demonstrate his post-war work in municipal and civic contexts as well as for corporate and commercial clients. Using innovative techniques and working in media such as moulded concrete and fibreglass, all three murals are distinctively of Mitchell’s style, yet take different stylistic approaches, from abstracted pattern-making to incorporating elements of the history of the area in which they are located.

It will explore a series of concrete murals in Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market, and carried out by Mitchell or one of his associates; thirteen fibreglass panels, commissioned for the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society headquarters in Bingley in the early 1970s and depicting the architectural and engineering landmarks of the area; and a large mural for the Ilkley Wool Secretariat, completed in 1968, which explores the history of wool manufacture locally.

These case studies will be used to highlight wider changes in attitudes towards post-war architecture, and the ways in which these types of artworks are regarded: whilst a new home has been sought in recent years for the Bingley murals, which were removed as the highly unpopular building in which they were situated was demolished, Mitchell’s Ilkley relief has been widely feted and was celebrated with Grade II listing by Historic England in 2015.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

'He's Leaving Home' cookbook now available online via Cracking Good Food

Are you looking for new recipe ideas for 'veganuary', but lacking inspiration or feeling intimidated by vegan cooking and ingredients?

I'm delighted that my cookery book, 'He's Leaving Home: The Shrieking Violet Guide to Hearty Vegetarian Cooking on a Budget', is now available online via Manchester-based social enterprise Cracking Good Food, who offer a range of cookery courses around Manchester to brush up on your culinary skills and learn new ideas and techniques.

'He's Leaving Home' offers a vegan twist on hearty everyday classics, aiming to use affordable, accessible ingredients.

Now in its third print run, feedback includes:

The cookbook is great! Cheap, vegetarian and and all simple/practical. I was surprised how many recipes you included also." James, Berlin

"Brilliant present, thanks!" Ed, Kent

"Just used your recipe for roast potatoes, was delicious - used the rosemary we found last night on a bike ride near Salford Quays. Can't wait to try the baked beans pie! Could I order one of your recipe books for my friend please? she's vegan too and is moving back to Canada soon so would make a great leaving present to remind her of English food!" Rae, Salford

Buy online for £5 (copies are also available in the bookshop at Home in Manchester) at: www.crackinggoodfood.org/product/the-shrieking-violet-guide-to-hearty-vegetarian-cooking-on-a-budget

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Best of 2017

2017 has been largely dominated by turning thirty, which I celebrated by bringing together a large number of my favourite people, some of whom had never been in the same room together before, at beautiful Sacred Trinity Church in Salford for an evening of dancing, music from Manchester School of Samba and feasting, potluck-style. It couldn't have been a lovelier occasion. Other things I enjoyed in 2017 included:

Art

An early highlight of the year was the Jerwood Drawing Prize, the inaugural show at the reopened Turnpike Gallery in Leigh. This exhibition was dedicated to drawing in all its forms, from burn marks, to books, text and language, to film, textiles and photograms, showing the ways in which mark-making can be used to map, navigate, measure and help us perceive the world. ‘Singularity’, a film by Solveig Settemsdal was a worthy winner, suspending white ink in gelatine. Mesmerising and beautiful, yet also somehow grotesque, the ink became tangible and took on human and animal qualities, appearing to come alive and suggesting the movements of a jellyfish or a living, beating heart.
Also at the Turnpike, but spilling over onto the streets of Leigh and Wigan, I enjoyed What I want more than anything else, a collaboration between the artist Mark Titchner and local young people which displayed large posters of young people’s intimate desires prominently on the streets. I found these insights into young people's aspirations and hopes for the future quite poignant (and often revealing). At a time when the nature and form of work and employment, and our expectations of education, careers and security are changing, ‘I want a good job when I am older because … ‘ struck a particular chord.

At Home, La Movida was an exhibition inspired by the Spanish cultural movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The highlights were three films: Clara Casian’s ‘House on the Borderland’, focused on Michael Butterworth of Savoy Books, which explored memory and the way in which personal stories are recounted and intertwined with much bigger histories; ‘Aliens’, Luis López Carrasco's film about mental health, punk, drugs and sexuality; and ‘Folklore 1’ by Patricia Esquivias, which challenged notions around outsiders, stereotypes and traditions.

It was a strong year for the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art: I particularly enjoyed Michael Wolf’s photographs of Hong Kong back alleys. Elsewhere in Manchester, I enjoyed the Galt toys exhibition at Manchester Central Library, which charted the growth and expansion of the Cheshire-based toy manufacturer through colourful toys, games, catalogues and packaging, placing it in post-war culture. I also loved the large, colourful retro textiles of Barbara Brown at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

One of the highlights of Manchester International Festival was Music for a Busy City, which invited the audience to take ten minutes out of their day to stop and listen in interstitial spaces such as the pedestrian walkway between Selfridges and M&S. As passengers went up and down in the lifts, staring blankly down, a few people stopped, checked their watches and looked up, wondering where the normal pop music of the shops stopped and the piece began, mingling with the clipped, polite tones of customer service announcements.
Another MIF highlight was ToGather by the German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Taking inspiration from the materiality and visuality of the street, Hefuna worked with text, light and shadow to negotiate meaning and obscurity. Working with tracing paper and raw ink, she created iterations and drafts of drawings, layered with meaning and suggesting the grid–like patterns of the city seen from above and by night. Elsewhere at MIF, Karl Hyde’s Homeless Street Poem, which brought together stories of local homeless people with new musical work, was a hugely effective approach to exploring one of the city's most visible and pressing issues.

Lindsey Bull’s collaboration with Plastique Fantastique was a standout in a good year of exhibitions at Castlefield Gallery. Bull’s ethereal paintings were juxtaposed with a flamboyant, extended performance by Plastique Fantastique, featuring lots of glitter, a hanging man and an electronic, Fall-esque cover of 'Traitor' by Motorhead, bringing new life to the experience of viewing Bull’s paintings in ways that were both bizarre and brilliant. The final show of the year, Peter Hodgson, was a great close to 2017, showing the work of the Cumbrian artist and craftsman alongside contemporary artists such as Laure Prouvost. The results were both humorous and showed great attention to design and detail.

‘What’s In Store’ at Salford Art Gallery celebrated fifty years of the University of Salford Art Collection, balancing historic development with its current-day collection policies, showing why it’s so important to collect digital art, art from the north and Chinese art.

At the Turner Contemporary in Margate I enjoyed the paintings of Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage, which brought together contemporary and classical references and political, cultural and social themes using densely worked paint and luminous colours on lubago bark fabric. I also loved Phyllida Barlow’s monumental, stacked structures, shown alongside Armitage’s paintings, which resonated with the seaside architecture of the area such as fortifications, sea walls and defences, and suggested a surrealist artistic lineage.
At the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury, the surrealist photographs of Claude Cahun played with identity, anthropomorphism and ageing, incorporating natural forms such as rocks, trees, sea and the coast.
The Idea Home Show at Mima in Middlesbrough brought together a series of interconnected exhibitions about housing, showing how the gallery aims to ask local questions with global resonances. Highlights included a workshop by Assemble, giving practical demonstrations of useful craft skills which can be used to make something beautiful, Stephen Willats’ politicised housing commentary, wallpaper by CommonRoom for rooms in standard new build houses, artworks in portable, foldable form produced by the Artist Tea Towel company, and curtains designed by the artist Katie Schwab for the museum shop.

Lubaina Himid was a worthy winner of the Turner Prize and there were plenty of opportunities to see her work in 2017. A highlight was her show at FirstSite in Colchester, where the cut out, collaged figures of 'Naming the Money' were decorated with patterns and magazine photos, and soundtracked with stories returning their names, memories and histories.

The Living Art Museum in Reykjavik, which has a collection gifted by artists, presented work from the archive of conceptual artist Olafur Llarsson, documenting performative actions that ranged from counting fingers and toes to inhabiting corners to walking lines to wearing paint; viewers were also encouraged to encounter the work in creative ways.

Talks

In the week that Article 50 was triggered, John Akomfrah positioned himself both as a landscape artist in a romantic tradition and used his recent film installation, Vertigo Sea, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, to discuss themes of precariousness, immigration and the value of labour, and the types of welcome we give new arrivals.
The launch of the new series ‘What We Talk About’ at Mima in Middlesbrough featured four inspiring speakers from Casco in Utrecht, Mima in Middlesbrough, and Islington Mill in Salford exploring alternative ways of imagining and running institutions.  The highlight was artist Maurice Carlin, who discussed the ways in which he has used his Temporary Custodians project to both challenge conventional perceptions of art ownership and create a new community.

At Manchester Art Gallery, Gavin Wade, Director of Birmingham’s Eastside Projects, offered a thoughtful exploration of the role of art and artists in the city, suggesting that artists can be brought together to perform a role akin to a think tank in developing and implementing cultural policy. He asked questions about who funds public art, and who has responsibility for shaping and creating it, positioning the exhibition as fundamental human activity and art as an integral part of life alongside housing, education, care etc. He discussed the ways in which artists shape and change the gallery at Eastside Projects, and the organisation’s ongoing work with Cherwell Council to create an artist’s house in Banbury as part of a public art project.

Film

Films have been getting longer in recent years, but despite its three-hour run-time modern-day morality tale Toni Erdman didn’t outstay its welcome and was the film I enjoyed most in 2017. Focused on a morally bankrupt, vacuous daughter on the edge of a nervous breakdown, her father at first seems excruciatingly inappropriate and is the butt of the film's humour, yet for me he ended up being the hero of the story. The film explores love and family bonds, and questions empty friendships. It asks what it means to be successful and explores the nature of fulfilment, at the time as being extremely funny.

Another darkly funny film was The Other Side of Hope, which was full of hope and small acts of kindness and connection. Set in a Helsinki that was both retro and modern, it felt more human and positively gregarious compared to Kaurismäki’s other films.

The other stand-out film of the year was The Florida Project, with its exploration of freedom, friendship and vulnerability, conveyed by astonishingly energetic performances from the child actors.

The year was bookended by Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, two very different coming of age tales of nascent sexuality, but both of which I loved for their cinematography and use of music.

I appreciated the brevity of Sally Potter’s The Party, which at 71 minutes was short but fast-paced, stylish and hilarious – I wasn’t the only one in the cinema to laugh out loud – and concluded with a surprise twist at the end which reinforces the message that people and relationships are complex. Despite the familiarity of the characters, it never descended into cliché, featuring a stand-out performance from Kristin Scott Thomas.

I also enjoyed the quiet everydayness of Certain Women, particularly the loneliness and alienation of the first story, which actor Lily Gladstone made touching, identifiable and relatable. By contrast, I also enjoyed the staged theatricality of FencesThe Red Turtle was a wordless but rapturous and immersive story about life. Its animation felt true to life, its big, overcast skies punctuated with moments of terror and upheaval.

The Salesman was an underlooked story about forgiveness and redemption, moral judgements and relativism. Another Middle Eastern film, In Between, was a powerful portrayal of female friendship and cultural expectations.

Two British films I enjoyed this year, which both presented a countryside that’s poor, cold, grim and often lonely, were The Levelling and God’s Own Country. God’s Own Country in particular used the landscape of the north as an effective setting to grapple with identity, education and aspiration, loyalty, duty, family ties, love and masculinity.

Andrew Kötting's Edith Walks, in which a cast of experts and eccentrics walk the English countryside from Waltham Abbey to St Leonard’s-on-Sea, was a silly but effective follow-up to Swandown. One of the highlights is the soundtrack, featuring the voice of Claudia Barton and Jem Finer’s homemade soundbox, along with archive footage of schoolchildren re-enacting the Battle of Hastings in 1966.

Set in the same part of the world, the best documentary I saw in 2017 was the impossibly moving The Ballad of Shirley Collins, which tells the heartbreaking story of how the cult British folk singer lost her voice – and then found it again. Collins, who worked as a charwoman and then in a Jobcentre in the years leading up to her retirement, came across as totally genuine, and the film was mercifully free of celebrity cameos other than an interview with Stewart Lee, a fan, and David Tibet on their longstanding friendship. The film presented a cross-cultural exchange of working-class song between England and America, juxtaposing song with images of the landscape and working the land, and grounded this culture in labour and communist politics. Starting and ending with the magic and menace of bonfire night in Lewes, and visiting other traditions such as the green man in Hastings, the film showed Britain at its strangest and was rooted in the ancient towns and landscapes of East Sussex. The film was extremely poignant both for the absence of Collins’ sister, Dolly, and in the way it dealt with a woman looking back at her youth, with a sense of approaching the end of her own life.

I Am Not Your Negro used historical montage as well as contemporary footage to great effect. It told the story of the great American intellectual James Baldwin and his contemporaries at the same time as telling the story of America – and it’s not a pretty one. Critiquing not just individual action but society, culture and systems, it felt an important film for the age of Trump, presenting a divided nation.

Another film that made great use of archival footage was Beuys, a portrait of the artist and provocateur Joseph Beuys, famous for his saying that ‘everyone is an artist’. Framed by his ongoing Documenta intervention '7,000 Oak Trees', it explored the relation of art to life, asking what role artists should have in society and highlighting his involvement in politics through the German Green Party alongside his art world antics. Despite its historical focus, much of it felt familiar from the public art of today.

Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow was a portrayal of the refugee crisis on an epic scale, flitting around the globe and presenting stunning aerial views in order not just to show the scale of the problem, but to highlight the myriad reasons for large-scale population displacement.

On a more lighthearted note, Kedi told the story of Istanbul through its resident cat population, offering a cat’s eye view of the city that foregrounded both their personalities and intelligence. The film shows the function that cats fulfil in the city, from hunting and pest control to providing affection. Although no-one really owns them, they coexist with the human population in life, work and leisure, and those who do care enough take it on themselves to provide antibiotic eyedrops and kitten milk. Although an apparently apolitical film, discreet 'Erdo-gone' stencils were visible in the background, and implicit was a critique of globalisation and westernisation – the market where many of the cats lived was under threat of clearance for a new road, and high-rises were springing up where orchards once stood.

Travel and walks
I visited Iceland in May as commiseration for turning thirty. The sun barely came out, aside from brief windows of blue – the skies are ever-changeable and the clouds are permanently low-hung – but by way of compensation the sun barely sets in the summer months. As a result, Iceland’s buildings are set up to maximise whatever light there is, with big windows and balconies. The Harpa concert hall, with its thick glass windows, is a place to watch the changing colours of the sky and look out of the city: all roads seem to lead to the harbour, with its views over the mountains. Outside of downtown Reykjjavik, where colourful houses hide behind each other on different levels, the city’s architecture is largely utilitarian, with grey pebbledash houses and estates of modernist villas, punctuated with outlandish churches, built at skewed angles.
The lack of colour in Reykjavik is more than made up for by the street art and creativity of the city, with its quirky design shops. Despite the climate, the culture is surprisingly outdoors-focused. In May, there were lots of tulips and clusters of mushrooms, and a surprisingly large number of cyclists.
Another place with an extreme climate was Bangor, which seemed to be the windiest place on earth – and again, its townscape is split between pebbledash houses and large villas. Huddled at the end of Bangor pier, deserted out of season, I overheard a young woman explaining to her friend the song that would be the first to be played at her wedding. As she recounted the early days of a long-distance relationship, and the travel it had involved, it became apparent that she song she was struggling to put a name to was 'Drive' by the Cars – I was able to help her out. Other highlights included a trip to look over the Menai Strait, a brief curator’s tour of the University of Bangor Art Collection, a trip to Bangor cathedral (where the vicar was so friendly he practically offered to drive me to the Menai Strait himself), and ‘fish and chips’ at a great vegan restaurant. The train to Bangor along the coast was also one of the best journeys of the year.

In Lancashire, I got up close to moorland for the first time on a walk from Littleborough to Walsden via Blackstone Edge, on a squelchy and muddy walk through a surprisingly varied and diverse landscape. The brooding moors retain a rare sense of wildness and quietness.

Nob End, on the fringes of Salford, Bolton and Bury, is a place that despite its name is surprisingly beautiful. A country park on former industrial land affords views of hills, trees and horses, as well as mills and chimneys, through which flows the river Irwell and a now defunct canal, filled with reeds, over which artist Liam Curtin has made a bridge out of giant Meccano, with matching benches and picnic furniture. In summer baby moorhens were present, as well as tiny, just-hatched cygnets.
I continued my Essex explorations with a ferry ride to East Mersea, an island where oysters wash up on the collapsing coastline, into which pillboxes are slowly crumbling, and sea lavender grows alongside strange succulents. Across the bay is Point Clear, largely composed of a village of holiday chalets and a Martello Tower backing onto Brightingsea creek, looking out over the enticingly named Cindery Island – and a Thames Barge picking up scrap. Further inland, the walk from Thorrington creek and mill to Alresford Creek affords muddy, sheep-filled views over the winding creek, through tall grass and corridors of blackthorn, and past a distant church, suddenly opening out to boats, a jetty and abandoned quarry winches. One of the best places for viewing Essex is Walton-on-the-Naze tower, which gives views across the marshes and several counties.
North Yorkshire’s not a part of the world I was previously familiar with, but Staithes – a picturesque fishing village of cobbled streets, cut in two by a river, and overhung by moors and huge cliffs with allotments trailing down the side – was an ideal base to explore the clifftop Cleveland Way, where the mud makes you slip and slide and feel wary on your feet. Between Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscar, the moors loom over small farm buildings in fields of sheep and cows running down to the cliffs. At the bottom, there’s an endless variety of rocks, cut through with stratifications and fossils, at the muddy beach at Boggle Hole. I saw one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen: despite a grey, damp, gloomy day, the soft light blurred the edges of everything and the sky was made pinker by the redbrick of the houses and orange roofs of the area.
Whitby was a much bigger and livelier town than I expected, with an amazing array of buildings presided over by the dramatic abbey. Less gentrified than southern seaside towns, it retains a great variety of independent shops, including an old-fashioned hardware emporium, two wholefood shops, butchers, bakers and a grocers’ selling rainbow chard, quince and fresh turmeric. As expected – especially on our visit the day of Hallowe’en – goths abound; we saw a goth wedding under a whalebone arch, and even the charity shops are full of secondhand goth wear. The cliff-top church was somewhat po-faced, however, in its signage pointing out that Dracula is not real, and asking visitors not to use the graveyard for photo opportunities. We also spotted a seal from the pier. Saltburn was another genteel resort. Although full of independent shops and upmarket bars and bistros, it was also amply served by tabletop sales and fleamarkets full of bargains.
Middlesbrough places the spectacular – such as the transformer bridge which carries cars over the Tees and an outscale Anish Kapoor structure – next to derelict boats, desolate emptiness and post-modern PFI architecture. Mima, in the centre of town, has a fancy café and shop and roof terrace, but it also makes an effort to work with the local community; the foyer was busy with women weaving and families. It also has a really interesting archive of ‘Arte Útil’ projects, both local and international.
Hull felt similar to other twentieth century town centres I’ve visited over the past few years, like Harlow and Coventry, old-fashioned with run-down 1950s buildings. Aside from the iconic Alan Boyson mural on the former Hull Co-op store, which is even more imposing in real life than in the photographs, a real highlight was William Mitchell’s luminous work on Frederick Gibberd’s Hull College, with its uncharacteristically glowing colours gleaming in the late-autumn sunshine.
Oxford’s not like any other city I've ever visited. With huge university meadows and parks everywhere it really feels like the countryside is right in the city. Wandering along the Thames, I saw a deer, as well as lots of apples and unripe sloes and blackberries. It's a very pleasant city to walk around, and very cycle friendly. There is loads to look at everywhere – and there are great markets. But at the same time it’s also extremely beery and laddy and lairy – overrun by posh students shouting at the tops of their voices in the street – and full of homeless people.
Shandy Hall is an altered vicarage where Laurence Sterne wrote the last volume of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, with an extensive garden. The Laurence Sterne Trust keeps alive the spirit of Sterne, housing different editions of Tristram Shandy as well as a library of books by experimental authors and artists, and inviting contemporary artists and writers respond to his work, such as a series of artists' editions inspired by the black pages in Tristram Shandy. For me, the highlight was artist Anne Vibeke Mou's etched glass window panes resembling book marbling.

I also finally made it to Bramall Hall, a beautifully restored Tudor home deep in leafy, suburban Stockport, surrounded by green parkland.
Swims
Reykjavik’s one of the best cities I have ever visited as a swimming fan. It’s well-served by outdoor pools and hot tubs in densely-populated urban areas, which are one of the most affordable activities in a notoriously expensive city. The art deco indoor pool Sundhöllin, with its rooftop hot tubs overlooking the city, lights up when the sun comes out. It may have been touristy, but the warm, misty, relaxation of the Blue Lagoon was a great place to spend hours floating surrounded by otherworldly lava fields after getting off the plane into the cold Icelandic drizzle.
Two of my best outdoor swims of the year were in the Oxford area: at suburban and well-used Hinksey pool, and at Woodstock lido, hidden away in an unassuming estate on the outskirts of a twee market town.

Indoors, Beverley Road Baths in Hull was both grand and luxurious in its Edwardian detailing – and surprisingly quiet.

Bike rides
Lancaster to Sunderland Point was a gentle ride along the Lune bikepath and quiet country roads. The marshy, tidal Lune leaves mudbanks for exploration by long-beaked curlews and crossing the causeway feels like cycling into the sea, with waves lapping at your feet. Sunderland Point’s few dwellings are grand, terraced houses with big windows. They contrast with an austere mission church, where services are held only on alternate Sundays. The grave of Samboo, one of the slaves on whom the area’s former wealth was built, is tucked away down a narrow, overgrown path, featuring a memorial now embellished with hand-made beads and painted stones.
In contrast, Tame Lane was an appropriate name for the flat landscape of Romney Marsh, where I took back roads from Hythe to Dymchurch.
After years of familiarity with the Trafford and Cheshire stretches of the Bridgewater Canal, I took the Salford branch from Stretford to the mill town of Leigh near Wigan, past architectural landmarks like the lighthouse folly at Monton, where the canal is orange, and dramatic Barton aqueduct. It’s striking how green the canal becomes on the outskirts of Salford, in Worsley, where the city meets the countryside and fields of horses. The landscape changes again as you pass through the former mining towns and villages between Salford and Wigan, with old pit apparatus overhanging the canal at Astley, and scrubby greenery on either side.

The toughest (hilliest) bike ride I’ve ever been on was from Burnley to Pendle Hill – through Nelson, Barrow Ford, Barley and Roughlee, and unbelievably picturesque Pennine scenery. Pendle itself was abuzz with people enjoying panoramic views over Lancashire and the peaks of Yorkshire.

Radio

Two of my favourite singers got a double bill when Jarvis Cocker (whose band, Pulp, introduced me to Scott Walker when he guest produced their final album, We Love Life) interviewed Scott Walker on Six Music ahead of his BBC Proms performance. It could have been a hagiography on Cocker’s part, but instead the interview was illuminating and engaging, with Walker coming across as articulate, thoughtful and down-to-earth, and genuinely surprised by the interest shown in his songs by a new generation.

Television

Once I got over the off-putting haunted asylum graphics, I really enjoyed the documentary Leonora Carrington: The Lost Surrealist, which told the poignant story of the British artist and her exile to Mexico, reinstating her place in the Surrealist movement after being sidelined in a group of male-dominated artists.

A third of the way in, the new Twin Peaks is proving to be as characteristically scary, funny and strange as the original.

Records

I loved the smooth yet off-kilter pop song '¿Dónde Estás María?' by Meridien Brothers, combining falsetto vocals and a quirky organ sound with a thumping, time-keeping drumbeat and a raw, rising violin riff.

Other favourites included Terry’s twangy, bassy, poppy punk song 'Eight Girls' and Sacred Paws’ 'Ride', which features their distinctive stripped-down pop sound. I loved the grungy scuzzy guitar sound on Flatworms’s 'Pearl', and the grungy pop song 'Analysis Paralysis' by Jen Cloher.
'Never, Never' by Phobophobes is a rousing pop song featuring eighties-style organ and I enjoyed the funny, slightly stalkerish lyrics of Wesley Gonzalez’s 'I Am A Telescope'. Cory Hanson’s hushed, beautiful 'Garden of Delight' was made all the better for its gorgeous string arrangements and Aldous Harding’s extraordinary voice was used to great effect on the moody and sultry 'Imagining My Man'. Julia Jacklin’s 'Cold Caller' is woozy country meets shoegaze, Hope Sandoval-style. Two of the catchiest and best-named pop songs, meanwhile, were 'I Only Bought It For the Bottle' and 'Let Your Dogtooth Grow' by Halifax newcomers the Orielles, which I couldn’t help but love for its smooth female vocals and swirling guitar. Similarly, I really enjoyed the retro, jangly guitar and languid vocals of Chastity Belt’s 'Caught in a Lie'.

I was pleasantly surprised by new records by old favourites this year. 'Gone, Gone, Gone' was a welcome return from classic New Jersey band the Feelies, featuring their characteristic haunting guitar sound. I know Peter Perrett best as the singer with the Only Ones, and for his work on So Alone by Jonny Thunders, one of my favourite ever albums. 'Sweet Endeavour' is a brilliant pop song featuring his unmistakeable voice whilst also giving a nod to Lou Reed.

Tree Trunks (an indie supergroup of sorts featuring Rozi Plain and former members of Planet Earth and Francois and the Atlas Moutains) provided the perfect summer listening with the dreamy, electronic dance-pop of their Big Rush EP, from the whispered vocals of ‘Big Rush’ and the delicate ‘Days’ to the upbeat disco of ‘You Say’.

I enjoyed the novelty and catchiness of Deep Throat Choir’s album Be Okay, composed entirely of sweet female voices in harmony.

Gigs

The year started with the kind of gig I like best, instrumental guitar by Jon Collin and DBH, and the atmosphere songs of Irma Vep, in the living room of a flat in a decaying old mansion in Toxteth, Liverpool, accompanied by a crackling fire.
It continued with Sacred Paws at Soup Kitchen in Manchester, a gig that was twice as busy as the last time they played there. Sacred Paws’ two-piece band was expanded for the occasion, but they retained their sparse, distinctive sound.

The Handsome Family at the Quarterhouse in Folkestone were surprisingly jolly for a couple who sing dour country songs. On a more energetic note, I had the best fun of the year skanking with my family – and ageing Fred Perry aficionados – at the Selecter and the Beat gig at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex.

At London Palladium the Zombies played a gig of two halves. The first set featured harder, simpler songs from their early years and solo careers. The second celebrated the anniversary of their classic album Odessey and Oracle, accompanied by psychedelic visuals and reminiscences from the band; it was touching to hear how much it meant to them. Every single note was painstakingly recreated with perfect sound: the Zombies even imported a keyboardist from the Brian Wilson Band in America to help them capture the minute details.

Books

Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys offered an interesting addition to the genre of landscape writing, documenting an attempt to walk along the route of HS2.

Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths was an effective subversion of the memoir form, incorporating historical, psychological and sociological takes on lying and truth-telling at the same time as offering an intimate portrait of her dysfunctional family.
I loved 67, 100, Sometimes 10, a collection of tragic, comic and true-to-life poems by Manchester-based writers Richard and Sally Barrett, inspired by buses, people and life.
Richard Brook’s Manchester Modern was both a labour of love and a beautiful object, taking design inspiration from esoteric urban details such as the concrete patterning on the Mancunian Way, and providing an in-depth guide to the city’s twentieth century architectural history.
Corridor8’s Ripe productively brought together writing on art, erotica and food production, offering new perspectives on each of them.