Being ill over the festive period has a sort of inevitability about it: there’s always one family member sneezing in a dressing gown, and this year it was my turn. I managed to swerve Christmas itself, only succumbing between Boxing Day and New Year, but the quiet deadness of that fallow period felt even stranger than usual as I lay upstairs in bed, feverish and exhausted, as flat and wrung-out as the tail end of the year itself.
For a day or two I watched a slightly hallucinatory selection of films – All About Eve, and When Harry Met Sally, followed by the terrorist-attack blockbuster London Has Fallen, which despite being preposterous, was full of those kind of scenes I sneakily love, where Westminster Abbey is blown up and Chelsea Bridge collapses into the river.
Ben and I spent New Year’s Eve watching Goodfellas, and as 2018 exploded into life, I spluttered my way through midnight, sipping at a medicinal Calvados, which only made my headache worse. When I crept back to bed, I lay awake, listening to the last scattered rockets bursting overhead, relaxing a little each time a car slowed to a halt, depositing one of the kids safely home.
Next day I started a fresh page for the new year of my reading diary. This was last year’s resolution, so that I have a record of all the books I read, along with notes and quotes. Some get a full page, others just a word of approval or otherwise. It’s a great reminder of everything I read in 2017.
Books such as Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts and Anita Brookner’s Look At Me, from which I noted down this line: “I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe.” Keggie Carew’s Dadland and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, with its brilliant quote about white people singing in “their brave and sexless little voices”. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, and Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat, a memoir that is precise in its observations about the 1980s New York world of art, drugs and fashion.
I loved Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, although its entry gushes at me like a billboard outside a theatre – “amazing! gripping! heartbreaking!”. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land opened my eyes to the realities of modern life in the modern countryside, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair had me scribbling down quotable lines like this one: “‘I mean he’s far from contemptible,’ Hughie said, ‘obviously’ – though contempt, now he’d mentioned it, seemed to steal into the room, like the draught from the window.”
Then there was Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile and two from Susie Boyt – Love & Fame (“Auden would have written well about the internet”) and My Judy Garland Life (“the insomniac portions of the night when the tips of one’s dilemmas always seem enormously sharp”).
As for audiobooks, my favourite was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, read by a cast of characters, like the play it almost was.
And I ended the year reading Chris Heath’s Reveal, an enthralling study of Robbie Williams, covering the years from 2006 to the present. Heath has an eye for the anecdote that shines a light on his subject’s predicament, and as I lay in my sickbed, I thought about what fame really means to those who win it. I’ll leave you with this scene, which captures the life of the pop star in all its improbable glory:
“Rob walks round the grounds of the country hotel, the Schloss Lerbach near Cologne, with some of the band. There’s a general conversation about how nice it is here.
‘Drugs would make it better,’ Rob says, wistfully.
‘You could say that about anything,’ one of the band counters.
‘Yeah,’ Rob says, and thinks this through to its logical conclusion. ‘Drugs,’ he decides, ‘would make DRUGS better.’
That night a woman will be spotted trying to climb a ladder into Rob’s room. Unsuccessfully. He sleeps through the commotion.”
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief