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Books of the year 2017, part one: chosen by Andrew Marr, George Osborne, Rose Tremain and others

The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.

Elif Shafak

One of the year’s most exciting discoveries was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins) by Gail Honeyman. The enormous distance between the modern world and the inner world of the central character, Eleanor, is beautifully and vividly told. Honeyman’s voice is funny but heartbreaking, intelligent but compassionate, sharp and sweet. Only a very talented and courageous author could reach out to readers across the world by writing about a seemingly ordinary woman’s loneliness. Honeyman is that writer and I salute her.

Another marvel was East West Street by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), published in paperback this year. In an age in which the truth has become more elusive than ever, this is a brave, passionate book that makes its readers witnesses of a search for it. While the book focuses on a family’s trajectory through history, the questions it raises regarding memory, human rights and justice are universal and timely. One of the best examples of analytical thinking and research combined with fine storytelling.

Robert Macfarlane

Two remarkable books by two extraordinary North American writers appeared in the past few months. Anne Michaels, the author of one of the most important modern novels, Fugitive Pieces (1996), published her first volume of non-fiction, Infinite Gradation (House Sparrow Press). It is a meditation on death, love and the limits of utterance that extends Michaels’s lifelong preoccupation with the ethics of art.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions (Granta) is a brilliantly sharp-edged, quick-tongued set of essays about feminism and the conspiracies of silence that enable harassment and abuse, which has proved eerily premonitory of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and all the other scandals). Solnit is both a stylist and a fighter, distinguished by her rare combination of grit and grace.

Rose Tremain

Not enough attention was paid this year to Neel Mukherjee’s harsh and vibrant third novel, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus). Mukherjee’s deep knowledge of India and the West, allied to his never-failing curiosity about the ties that both bind us and separate us, makes him an outstanding chronicler of Bengali life, seen from within and without. His evocation of the world of servants, trapped in slave-like submission to the whims of the rich, is particularly moving. Nothing here – not even the heartbreaking struggles of a dancing bear and his destitute master – feels contrived or strained. In an age when so many fiction writers flimflam around in a cloud of unknowing, Mukherjee has an eagle’s eye for the truth.

John Gray

I’ve been gripped by a topical book of 20th-century history. Fresh, vivid and revealing, Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Revolution: A New History (Profile Books) records how Rasputin, hearing that Russian troops were being mobilised to enter the First World War, telegraphed the tsar warning that it meant “the end of Russia and yourselves”. What followed – the Red Terror and White atrocities, large-scale peasant rebellions and the Volga famine – cost the lives of 25 million people, 18 times as many as Russian casualties in the world war. In the two months following an assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, the Bolshevik secret police executed nearly 15,000 people, more than twice the total number of prisoners of all kinds executed during the last century of tsarist rule. As McMeekin shows, an ignorant peasant-mystic proved a better guide to events than anyone – Marxist or liberal – mesmerised by grand theories of history.

I’ve also enjoyed the thrillers of the Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, republished by Pushkin Press, especially The Judge and His Hangman, in which a dying detective defies conventional ideas of proof, responsibility and justice.

David Hare

Women born in the mid-20th century are now producing fascinating accounts of how the rise of feminism affected their lives. In the past couple of years, there were great memoirs by Carly Simon and Tracy Tynan. This year, in A Life of My Own (Viking), Claire Tomalin writes as feelingly about herself as she has always written about every­one else. Beautiful.

For pure fun, I recommend Dent’s Modern Tribes (John Murray) by Susie Dent, a lexicography of groups and professions. I loved surfers’ slang best, especially their word for colleagues who hang out in shallow water. I’ve known a few paddle-pusses myself.

Andrew Marr

For me, it’s been a year of poetry immersion because I chaired the Forward Prizes. Maria Apichella didn’t win, but her Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) is a collection I’ve been rereading with increasing delight. These are poems set in Wales about the relationship between an atheist ex-soldier and a Christian girl, and they feel both timeless and bang up to the minute: they read with the page-turning urgency of a thriller.

I can’t not mention Sinéad Morrissey, who did win with On Balance (Carcanet) – a wide-ranging, capacious, brilliant and entirely satisfying collection of poems that will be read many decades hence. For prose, try Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life (Faber & Faber) on the wilder shores and darker characters of the internet. It’s funny, neatly written and deeply thought-provoking.

Kathleen Jamie

The most extraordinary human being I encountered in print this year was the naturalist Sooyong Park, who has devoted his life to the Siberian tiger. He spends six months of the year living in a coffin-like hide, observing tigers and seeing the disasters caused by poaching and the wastage of their habitat. Perhaps because Park is not European, his attitude is different to what we are accustomed to. Science combines with the near-shamanic knowledge of the hunter-gatherer. The Great Soul of Siberia (William Collins), in Jamie Chang’s deft translation, is a book of intensity, grief and wonder. Observation and intensity also mark Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape). It’s a good title for what she does best: make us aware. Oswald manages to make fully formed, cool but passionate poems from the micro-moments that the rest of us either ignore or don’t know what to do with – the reflections of a cloud in a puddle, for example. With work free-formed, seductive and strange, Oswald is a terrific poet.

William Boyd

Matthew Francis’s brilliant reworking of The Mabinogi (Faber & Faber), the Welsh national epic, made scales fall from my eyes. Ted Hughes meets Game of Thrones meets Gerard Manley Hopkins – you get my drift. It has a wonderful precision of language that has made me seek out Francis’s other volumes. I found Megan Marshall’s new biography Elizabeth Bishop (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) fascinating as well as astute, and deeply understanding of Bishop’s highly complex persona. We cannot learn too much about this wonderful poet.

William Dalrymple

My favourite novel was Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) by Mohsin Hamid. A profoundly contemporary story about civil wars, unstable countries and refugees pouring to the cities of the West, it is also beautifully written, with the ghost of Camus hovering at the edge of the frame, as he did in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Two books on south Asia also gave me great pleasure. Both are by talented journalists who have done long stints in the region. Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland) is a funny, moving portrait of Pakistan, one of the most complex of countries, but here rendered in bright chiaroscuro and with obvious affection. River of Life, River of Death (Oxford University Press), Victor Mallet’s book on the pollution apocalypse of the Ganges, here turned into a metaphor for modern India, is also a wonderful achievement but more political, analytical and serious in tone.

Roy Hattersley

Though anchored in the world of espionage, A Legacy of Spies (Viking) is – like all of John le Carré’s MI5 novels – far more than a conventional story of deception, defection and death. It is ingeniously constructed around a departmental inquiry into the perceived failures of the operation that formed the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The necessary violence is described in retrospect and the casual heroism of the agents stands out in contrast to the formality of the civil servants who judge them. The result is an examination of basic emotions – love, fear, loyalty and despair. All that and the pleasure of a reunion with George Smiley.

Claire Tomalin

Two biographies have delighted me this autumn. In Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear (Faber & Faber), the shy writer of nonsense verse and hard-working painter, befriended by the powerful yet unfulfilled in love, living among vividly described expatriate British communities, is brought to life with exquisite sympathy in what must be the most handsomely produced book of the year.

Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell (Hamish Hamilton) also offers an often surprising and always brilliant picture of English upper-middle-class intellectual life in the mid-20th century: drunkards, journalists, musicians, aristocrats, hangers-on and the odd genius. I couldn’t put it down.

Craig Raine

It isn’t that I don’t read anything. I read all the time. I have the bedsores to prove it. But when it comes to books of the year, it feels as if I’ve spent the year OD-ing on box sets. I have to ask my friends. They can’t remember turning a page either. The Giacometti show at Tate Modern was disastrously laid out but the catalogue, edited by Lena Fritsch and Frances Morris (Tate Publishing), is a Giacometti A-Z under many headings by many hands: Matisse, Henri; Politics; Kiki de Montparnasse, and so on. A great innovation. Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time 1898-1940 (Yale University Press) is a mine of detail. Calder’s pliers were by William Bernard, who sold his design to the William Schollhorn Company in New Haven, Connecticut. I never knew that.

Tom Stoppard

One of my books of the year is Laurent Binet’s novel The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker), a kind of hoot about French lit crit. I’m also in the middle of a very nice edition of Keats’s Selected Letters, edited by John Barnard (Penguin Classics), who is a wonderful guide through the correspondence.

Neel Mukherjee

The American poet Brian Blanchfield’s first collection of essays, Proxies (Picador), filled me with wonder, admiration and elation. Subtitled “A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts”, this outrageously intelligent book, written in a style that fuses head and heart alchemically, advances the game on both the life-writing and the essay fronts.

Chief Engineer, Erica Wagner’s biography of Washington Roebling – the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the iconic constructions that define the most iconic of cities – is a masterful work of research, revelation and gripping narrative. It brings to pulsating life 19th-century New York and New Jersey and manages to be moving, too. 

Jason Cowley

Two books about grief moved me greatly. First, the Man Booker Prize judges got it right in choosing George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) as their winner. It’s a wondrous novel set on the night a grieving Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, visits his dead 11-year-old son Willie in his crypt in Georgetown. The novel, which in form resembles a play or a script, is a polyphonic masterpiece, by turns hilarious and deeply poignant.

Richard Beard’s memoir, The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), tells the story of a tragedy – the drowning of the author’s nine-year-old brother Nicky while on a family holiday in Cornwall in the 1970s – and of how the family reacted to its loss by behaving as if Nicky had never lived. Until, that is, the now middle-aged Beard reawakened long-repressed traumatic memories.

Deborah Levy

No doubt about it, I will read the genius poet Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber), for many years to come. She begins with a Freud quotation: “The loss of a mother must be something very strange.” Her subject is indeed the death of a mother. These poems continue this conversation with Freud, forging a strange, tough language to give value to the absurdity and chaos of grief. She manages to be witty, too: “Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zero Books). Edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix, this anthology of essays, interviews and personal recollections reflects on the ways in which punk was lived and experienced at the time. Gallix flips his finger at those who see nostalgia as an affliction and rightly attempts to promote the fragmented and contested legend of punk to “a summation of all the avant-garde movements of the 20th century… a revolution for everyday life”.

George Osborne

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, I reread Mikhail Sholokhov’s wonderful, unsparing epic And Quiet Flows the Don, reissued by Penguin Classics. It starts as an elegy to the hard, sometimes suffocating communal life of a Cossack village on the banks of the River Don in Russia and turns into a work of brutal realism as the community is denuded by the First World War, then destroyed by civil war and revolution. As a teenager, I saw only a grand tale of soldiers and revolutionaries; now I read an intimate human story of loss and love. Any book that won both the Stalin Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature has to be worth a look.

If you want a complete antidote, read Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), the party-by-party, cover-by-cover story of how a Brit conquered New York publishing. As a novice editor, I can tell you it is packed with priceless advice from one of the greatest of them all.

Antonia Fraser

Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (Hamish Hamilton) is a remarkable match between subject and biographer. (Spurling knew Powell over many years, an advantage she uses with admirable delicacy.) The result is an exciting story, from its unhappy beginnings to its triumphant ending with Powell as a leading 20th-century novelist. You can’t read this without your fingers itching to get at his Dance novels, whether for the first or the 15th time.

The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press), which I had never read despite a long and ardent admiration of Zweig, includes Burning Secret, about a boy and childish passion, which wrings the heart.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit