My 2013 Critical Miscellany

Adam Somerset looks back over the previous year with his selection of critical high-and-low-lights.


The New Year starts with a right old piece of curatorial waffle. Spartacus Chetwynd is performing Odd Man Out for the Turner Prize.

‘Confuses the boundary between performer and spectator’ asserts the blurb. I was hauled on stage once by Paul Daniels and what Chetwynd does is identical.

I like Odd Man Out but not because of its ‘effortless overlapping of intellectual and popular sources’. It is fun. But no curatorial career is built on offering enjoyment. No, Odd Man Out has to tackle ‘social responsibility and the consequences of decision.’

Of course this critical drivel comes minus name or signature – (see Mark Kermode, November).



Ace film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not have a good February.

The drama is leaden; the dialogue is cliches; the sound quality is often terrible and the acting is frankly not going to be troubling the decision-makers at Bafta. It is as if key performers have had their coffee secretly spiked with a lethal cocktail of Temazepam and Mogadon.

It gets worse the next week:

No movie this week leaves a yuckier taste in the mouth than this fantastically crass and fatuous serial-killer movie by [director redacted] which resurrects a lot of stale cliches and finishes off with the most insultingly awful twist ending in living memory.

Fellow critic Stuart Heritage hardly has a better time.

A tedious, misjudged marriage of Olympic opening ceremony, Eurovision half-time show and most recorded nightmares, [title redacted] is set in a mysterious land of make-believe … time itself begins to stretch out infinitely and you become convinced that you’ll die of old age and disappointment in front of this poxy film.



The first programme in television’s Great Welsh Writers receives less a critical kicking in Wales Arts Review than a hefty booting. The next, only thirty minutes in length, is puffed out with extensive clips from a film of the author’s best-known book.

And then there is Philip Pullman. He says it right there on camera, Oxford made his life. High Table runs through Dark Materials. The programme works on a daft critical thesis that a spell at school in Harlech must have infected the work.

That estuary corner of Wales is glorious and I would rather sit in Cadwallader’s on a summer day than anywhere else in the world. But the makers’ assertion is that an imaginative world must be rooted in concrete experience. So it might as well be Harlech.



The Sunday Times on television should be read warily, but I’ll raise a glass to this:

There is a list of things I never want to see or listen to again. Dramas about the Mitfords, the Windsors and the Bloomsbury Group. I couldn’t bear another winsome, sentimental bitter-sweet romance set against the first world war; in fact, the war ought to have a dramatic D-notice until after I’m dead. I don’t want any more lost heirs or terrible deeds to repair the roof; I can’t stomach another wise old butler, thieving footman, pregnant scullery maids or suffragette daughters. And not another bloody shooting party.

April also produces the most annoying documentary director of the year. Adam Nicholson is a good writer and The Gentry an interesting subject.

But there is a school of directing that believes every spoken word needs its visual exemplification. The antics and larking-about that the poor presenter is induced to perform reach a new high of visual distraction.  



A few new words and phrases.

Maybe it’s commonplace and maybe it was scripted but Alex, the Welsh one on The Apprenticeship, comes out with ‘about as useful as a chocolate teapot’.

One of literature’s most unappealing similes ever features in Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer. Detective Harry Hole has to make a visit to the coast where he ‘stepped out into a sad, gonorrheal discharge of a Bergen squall’.

The plot also requires the term ‘enucleation’. This is the process whereby an eyeball is removed. A vacuum cleaner is required. For the rest of the procedure see page three hundred and nine.

A remarkable media event occurs on In Our Time 23rd May. The topic is Levi-Strauss and a contributor lucidly explains the arguments in rebuttal of existentialism.

Then she is asked to do the same on Levi-Strauss and phenomonology. Her prompt response is ‘I don’t know anything about that’. In a culture that values assertion over evidence a person who says she doesn’t know – we could do with more of her kind. 



In rebuttal of the monetisation of scraps and the PhD-isation of literature Rick Gekoski in Lost, Stolen or Shredded cites Jeanette Winterson: ‘I burn my work in progress, and I burn my diaries, and I destroy letters. I don’t want to sell my working papers to Texas and I don’t want my personal papers becoming doctoral theses.’                                       

A valuable new word turns up at a conference. ‘Pareidolia’ is ‘the imagined perception of meaning where no such meaning exists.’



One of the least accurate political forecasts ever. ‘She’ll be out by Christmas’. Lord Carrington in 1975 on his new party leader as recorded by Dominic Sandbrook in Seasons for the Sun.

Language being ever-inventive, German has reportedly acquired itself a new noun – ‘Der Shitstorm’.



A new novel that must have the least ever going for it:

Unfortunately, it’s a very bad novel. How is it bad? Let me count the ways. It is badly conceived, badly realised, badly characterised, badly paced and above all badly written. On the plus side, the typeface is nice and I quite liked the front cover art.

Guardian Books reads Susan Greenfield 2121: A Tale From the Next Century.

Julie Burchill is cited in Richard Eyre National Service – ‘Drama is easy. It’s writing without the difficult bits.’



In Prospect Jennifer Szalai ponders Thomas Pynchon: ‘One critic declares the later novels “diffuse paranoia by multiplying plots and suggesting the very notion of conspiracy is too simple”. But it elicits another question: so what?’



Frederick Forsyth in Kill List leads his readers into cutting edge technology:

The records were fed into the computers which scanned them far faster than the human eye could read or the human brain digest.



From Mark Kermode Hatchet Job:

Most online journalists worth their salt despise anonymity as much as their print counterparts, if not more so, because it undermines the very medium in which they are trying to make a name for themselves. And the fact that bloggers en masse seem increasingly to be rejecting such anonymity in favour of honesty and accountability offers the clearest indication yet that the ‘traditional values of proper film criticism’ are alive and well on the web. Whatever the medium, the key questions remain the same: who is saying this? Why are they saying it? And what do they have to lose by saying it? And if the answer to those questions is ‘don’t know’; ‘don’t care’; and ‘nothing’, then proceed with extreme caution.



Many an anniversary is celebrated in 2013 – R S Thomas, Doctor Who, Benjamin Britten, the National Theatre. The least noticed must have been the fiftieth anniversary of the first issue of the Eurobond.

The issuer in 1963 was an Italian motorway operator and the sum a lordly fifteen million dollars.

The scheme was hatched in the City of London, but the bond was issued in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to avoid British stamp duty. The coupons were payable in Luxembourg to avoid British income tax. The company was able to pay interest, in the form of coupons, without deducting Italian tax.

The next fifty years, it’s all there.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis