Cultural Highlights of the Decade

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, December 29th 2019

MUSIC

Elza Soares, The Woman at the End of the World/A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, Mais Um Discos 2016.

Brazilian music – from bossa nova to Tropicalia and present sounds – has always been a passion of mine. Elza Soares is a Brazilian national treasure and inspiration who was born in poverty in one of Rio’s favelas. She has had huge commercial success and now in her 80s a couple of years ago decided to make a contemporary album.

This is no nostalgic act or even Rick Rubin ‘uncut’ copy. It is a fierce, unapologetic call to arms. She surveys the world and Brazil in particular and embraces resistance, defiance, solidarity and sisterhood. The title track sounds like a mix of trip hop, Brazilian influence, the Pop Group and Gang of Four with her stunning ragged voice, full of power, insight and tenderness in equal measure. In other words – completely unique.

Its themes cover poverty, class, racism, hardship, heartache, men not living up to being men, getting older and the experience and resilience that go alongside. All this is sung in Portuguese – with the album notes providing English translations of everything. In a crowded, hectic music world of streaming and homogenisation, spend a few minutes with this and let it in your heart. It will change your life.

BOOK

The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s 1932-1943, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, Yale University Press 2015.

This breath-taking insider history covers the Soviet Union, the British establishment, Nazi Germany – and the march to, and early years of, World War Two.

Maisky was ideally placed to chronicle this as Soviet ambassador to the UK for over a decade. This is an eyewitness account of some of the critical moments of last century: Maisky minding his back with Stalin who worried that his man in London might go native, alongside intimate accounts of high society and their attitudes and prejudices. We get first hand reflections on pro-Nazi sympathies of many of those with power and privilege while Rippentrop, Nazi ambassador to London, attempted to charm aristocratic society, including having an affair with the Duchess of Windsor.

Maisky reflects on the genius of the British establishment, having the confidence not to crush a naval mutiny in Invergordon with brute force in the way that Mussolini would. The cast of characters is exemplary and beautifully drawn with late night meetings in Downing Street with Churchill and Anthony Eden, as well as senior Labour figures. This is one of the most riveting and unexpected diaries from a pivotal period in British and global history.

FILM/TV

The Crown, Series One-Three, Netflix (2016-2019)

An alternative history of modern Britain ‘The Crown’ is about so much more than it advertises. It throws light on the nexus of networks around the House of Windsor, its wider influence, while the institution contains and even at times imprisons members of the Royal Family, the Queen included.

It tells the changing story of the Royals having to adapt to a country which has witnessed seismic change, and their altered role in it; at one level diminished, and at another, it being more important to keep the show on the road and provide some magic, no matter how illusionary.

It portrays the decline of deference, the rise and fall of organised labour, humiliations such as Suez, humanitarian disasters such as Aberfan, the attempted coup against Harold Wilson in 1968, and the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Ministers. Series One and Two presented some of the most important social history as drama shown in the UK, and Series Three has been compelling but not quite as sure-footed. A word of commendation to the brilliant actors: the two Queens of Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman, and those playing Philip, Charles and Mountbatten. We will be talking about ‘The Crown’ for years.