I am ticking all the expected boxes of my thirties: marriage, house, kids, minor existential crisis. I earn more money than ever before, more than I ever imagined I could be earning, and through a time of increasingly precarious employment at that, and I can confirm that shooting past the median wage does not in itself bring happiness. But I am content most of the time, rarely low for longer than a few days.
Our amazing house needs work. A lot of work. So many people come to help us but still it overwhelms. Meanwhile, my brain fills up with writing ideas waiting for the time to be put down. The kids are growing up so fast. My wife and I do our best to make time to look at one another. In lieu of close friendship, I read books. And I try to stop sometimes to take notice of the world around me. Check out all my privilege, for God’s sake.
Like no other year I can remember, 2020 defies easy summary. It was all so new. I got so accustomed to it being 2020, with all the twisty connotations that number came to represent, that I couldn’t believe it would ever be 2021. And yet, here we are, spinning along the same unfamiliar trajectory. Anyhow, here are 5000 words trying to make sense of what I saw, felt, heard, did.
SARS-CoV-2 spiked its proteins into all of us in some way or another this year. I am one of the lucky billions not to come into contact with it and develop COVID-19, largely because I live in an island nation that took an elimination strategy in fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile, millions died around the world, and as I write this in the days between Christmas and New Year, much of the world’s humans are still not safe to go out.
My most repeated phrase about COVID-19 has been ‘we’re only five minutes into this thing’. With the vaccine rollout commencing in other countries — mostly for rich and important people — I might now admit we are a couple of hours in, albeit with a concerned finger pointed at the new, more infectious mutations and steepling case number rises in certain countries. Say we are all vaccinated or otherwise immune, though, and the spectre of COVID-19 recedes into the past. Do we carry on just like we used to? Arguably the real triumph of New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was the resultant flattening of influenza infections by 99.8%, meaning 500-odd people didn’t die who in any other year would have. So why are sick people still coming to work, sniffling and sneezing and unmasked?
The answer, usually, is they feel like they have to. Their workplace doesn’t have extensive sick leave, or doesn’t allow them to work from home. More broadly, paid work is what our society is oriented around, and the inability to carry it out is a personal failing, not a social failing. So people keep showing up when the obvious choice should be to stay at home. You’d need a lot of resilience and financial backing to fight and change this.
In the middle of the year, I went to the dentist and had a wisdom tooth removed. For a month afterwards, I kept remembering the dull feeling of the machine grinding through numbed tissue and bone to cut it out – especially the sounds, a sharp, whirring ‘screee’ and the gurgle of my blood and saliva being suctioned away. I’d never undergone a procedure like this and was surprised at how it could simultaneously be less taxing than expected and also indelibly violent. That ‘screee’ is my sound of 2020.
It seemed you couldn’t move in this fragmented year without hitting another message about breathing, grounding, centering, practising mindfulness. You’ve got to look after yourself. It’s okay to look after yourself. Everyone was saying it, from the Prime Minister to my favourite podcast hosts. I was saying it myself, writing comms after comms reminding fellow staff this is not normal and we understand how you feel and here are some tips to help you through these unprecedented times. It began to feel hollow after a while. But the alternative, ignoring the struggle, would be worse. In the meantime, I continued to ignore all the advice, doomscrolling first thing and jamming headphones into my ears at every opportunity.
In June or so, I saw a helpful infographic about the places we hold tension in our bodies. My unconscious mind turned it into a how-to guide: in addition to neck, shoulders, and jaw (got those sorted already, thanks) I tensed my abdomen and held air in my lungs, forcing it back out with my eyes darting and unfocused, taking in anything except what was in front of me. I downloaded an app that had a little animation to help you breathe deeply, and halfway through the first minute, I was surprised to feel my eyes welling up, as though this app had unlocked some complex emotion that had been trapped all year.
It seemed to be a year of struggling to breathe for most people I know. And no one I know got COVID. Looking back, it may have been a year of seeing exactly how poorly we were taking care of ourselves, so that we can learn and try new ways. A year of genuine mental health awareness. More likely, that’s just me having my own epiphany, and you all have been there or have it to come.
About two months ago, having spent the entire year and probably the ten before that responding to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m all right’ or ‘I’m okay’ or ‘Not bad’, I started saying ‘Good’, regardless of the mess of home and work tasks clouding my head. Because it is true on many levels. I am here, and my body is able, and my mind is bursting with ideas, and I go home each to day to people I love. By saying ‘Good’, I am making a conscious effort to iron out the petty doubts and worries of the day or week. I am reminding myself that my life can be summed up with the most basic positive. ‘Good’ is an affirmation.
We have been coasting in the era of capital for long enough. Or struggling, more likely. Day to day, week to week, month to month, trying to make it all add up, trying to stay above water. The ruthless few get all the cream and most of the milk, too. The investor class gets their imaginary money in carefully structured bank accounts to work for it while they retreat to the beach in sunglasses. A privileged few scramble their way onto the property ladder and watch their asset grow in imaginary value (hi!), finally safe from the churning wheel of rent and inspections. The Earth slowly burns in an ash cloud of rainforests and boiling seas.
This awful moment brings it all home. We’ve known where the inequity rests, and the various pandemic responses show the value of collective effort and inclusivity in opportunity. We might just have the social and political capital to finally do something about it at the highest level.
So what did we do? What blueprint did our leaders offer, what vision did our democracy of three-year terms lap up with gusto?
A book is a beautiful thing. It’s full of promise before reading, and also pleasant to hold, which it will always be. After reading — if it was any good — simply looking at it brings words, characters, and ideas flooding back. In your mind’s eye, it now represents all it contains. And it retains the promise of hours of possible reading, or re-reading. It doesn’t matter if it’s your book or someone else’s, or if it was borrowed from a library. The book has all the same potential.
I spent quite a few spare moments in early 2020 flitting from one charity shop to another buying piles of secondhand books, especially those on my 2020 reading list. Five-years-ago me would’ve been confused: why gather so many of these objects when you could get almost all of them from the library or the internet? Even current me is a bit confused, for the same reason. But I live in a big house now, with a set of bookshelves just for me, and I want to fill them. I want to look at the spines and sense that potential. I do however resolve in 2021 to focus my buying in books I know and love, lest I end another year with another pile of books I’m never going to read. I have enough of those in my annual reading lists (here’s 2021, if you’re interested).
Here, in reading order, are some books I particularly admired in 2020.
HUNGER by Knut Hamsun (1890)
DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN by Shayne Carter (2019)
NVK by Temple Drake (pseudonym for Rupert Thomson) (2020)
FIERCE BAD RABBITS by Clare Pollard (2019)
HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster (1910)
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis (1950)
ON WRITING by Stephen King (2000)
NOTHING TO SEE by Pip Adam (2020)
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N. K. Jemisin (2010)
RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray (2019)
HELLO MUM by Bernadine Evaristo (2010)
USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks (1990)
MOSHI MOSHI by Banana Yoshimoto (2010)
BEN, IN THE WORLD by Doris Lessing (2000)
UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber (2000)
PRODIGAL SUMMER by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks (2010)
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
OWLY: THE WAY HOME by Andy Runton (2004)
FIRST CONTACT by Soni Somarajan (2020)
CHINAMAN by Shehan Karunatilaka (2010) (re-read)
AKISSI: TALES OF MISCHIEF by Marguerite Abouet & Mathieu Sapin (2014)
My favourite of these was THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE. I’m still so taken with it, and I’ve noticed a cult of fellow readers spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. Those that love it REALLY love it. So here’s my review, initially posted on Goodreads and shared in my monthly email newsletter. I hope one or two of you track it down and read it.
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE
by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
Let’s see if I can do this. The effects of escalating carbon emissions will lead to human catastrophes of extraordinary scale – heat waves, inundations – and when the representatives of affected countries turn up angry to international symposiums and throw their numbers of dead on the table, the world will take notice – but it won’t take action until there is mass financial disobedience, the simple refusal to pay trillions of imaginary dollars owed, at which time the entire financial system will collapse and be reborn under the auspices of central banks trading in currency backed by carbon sequestration. They will only be following the money, true, and money will still rule everything, but the money will now have a sound moral and ethical underpinning. In the meantime, those who hang on to the old ways and power structures — the shipping and airline industries, for example — will be hit by violent acts of highly organised eco-terrorism on a mass scale, some carried out by dark wings of international organisations, whose commitment to a lasting greater good will accept a few million dead if it gets the point across; this in addition to targeted assassinations of the most obscene polluters and pursuers of inequality. Socialism will finally overthrow capitalism in this way, ushering in public ownership of all the basics — home, food, water, job, energy — and a comfortable minimum standard of living mandated through democracy across much of the world. All this but all that carbon has still been burnt, the glaciers are still melting, so some very expensive geological interventions will be necessary: drones to recover the Arctic with sea ice, pumps to draw water up from underneath glaciers and spray it on top so it freezes again, dye sprayed in oceans and over land to reflect more solar rays back into orbit so the sea doesn’t boil so soon. Then there’s the ever-multiplying eco interest groups reforesting and creating larger habitat corridors and generally giving more of the planet back to non-anthropocentric ecosystems, leading to government-backed schemes to buy whole towns out and move their populations to the suburbs and let fauna wander their deserted streets unbothered. A more equitable society is the result, and a more equitable planet, in which humans might endure for longer than they otherwise would have.
So. I found this book utterly compelling, to the point that I need to find some sceptical reviews (edit: found one here) to pick holes in Robinson’s science, which is explained in frequent short chapters and seems sound. These crash courses are so frequent as to comprise about half the book; reading it is like going on a curated Wikipedia tour on climate change economics. There is plot dropped in, often revolving around the titular Ministry and its head but also darting in and out of dozens of other communities across the planet — refugee camps especially — and it is propulsive enough. But it’s the way Robinson constructs his utopia in asides that drew me in so thoroughly. I’ve never read anything like it.
I also published a book in 2020. It’s called ‘Sayip Shock: Three Years in Kerala’. You can buy the ebook for $0.00 or more at Smashwords, or get the Kindle version or physical book on Amazon. Credit to Athul Chathukutty for the amazing cover design and to Tara Dench for the back cover blurb.
As in 2019, I fixated on one album early on and hardly listened to anything else. And as in 2019, it was an album from 2019: ‘Perfumed Earth’ by Purple Pilgrims. They were the third-billed act of three at a big Arts Festival concert I attended the weekend before lockdown, where Weyes Blood (fav artist of the year before) had second billing (you what!) and Aldous Harding was the main act (I left early).
I’d never heard of Purple Pilgrims before. The levels were wrong, the bass drowned them out, they veered occasionally into ethereal floaty pop cliché (billowing tunics and yogic movements), but I’d heard enough to try them in the headphones — and then in the car, and while I was cooking, and while I was washing the dishes. It’s one of those albums with no dud track; I’m Not Saying doesn’t fit with the others so well, but it’s still a really good pop song. Big synths, beautiful and slightly off-kilter guitar and vocal harmonies, killer lyrics that hint at true love and darkness. Ancestors Watching was my most-played track of 2020 (ignoring all the hits from the musicals mentioned in the Movies section below).
Aaron Tokona died in June. I spent two weeks listening to Let It Go and Calling On on repeat. Like thousands of other Kiwis, I imagine, screaming “like I’m suffocating” at the climax as they finished off the dishes.
It was a great year for new music, according to Vulture and Wisconsin Public Radio. I surfaced from under my Purple Pilgrims-shaped rock in about November and blasted through a number of acclaimed releases. Dua Lipa, Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers, BC Camplight, Ariana Grande, Moses Sumney, Rina Sawayama, Fiona Apple, Four Tet, Ital Tek, Laura Marling, Yves Tumor, Beatrice Dillon. Each album tried a couple of times, then left alone. I liked most of these, could’ve loved some of these, but not now.
A few new albums somehow got through to me. EOB’s Earth was catchier and deeper than I initially realised. TENGGER’s Nomad gave me the sense of a pleasant bush walk, with harmonious synths over trickling streams. HAIM’s Women In Music Pt. III brought my favourite new chart pop in years, although it is very much a summer sound, despite the often cynical and self-flagellating lyrics, so it took me until December to actually get into it.
Then there was The Soft Pink Truth’s ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’, named for a Bible verse in which Paul the Apostle is fed up with everyone carrying on as they always have in comfort that their Lord will forgive them. Drew Daniel wanted “to make something that felt socially extended and affirming”, and there are several ecstatic moments that make me feel warm inside. But I hear a rough, hard edge through it all; the shimmering bells of ‘Go’, the horn blasts of ‘Sinning’, the major chord call and minor chord response of ‘That’. Not that any of this matters in isolation. It’s the cumulative effect of the album that gives these moments their power, especially in the context of #2020, where some other power is behind the wheel and you’re not sure where you’re headed. Thankfully, ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’ has a happy ending. I go straight back to the start and go through it all again.
Finally, Ashish Seth’s Firstborn saw the light. It was finished in 2015 and shelved due to the artist’s lack of confidence in the material, then released in 2020 for free, with little fanfare. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure and is layered enough that I’m still noticing new things months later. It’s particularly good to write to. I’ll post my interview with Ashish soon.
A playlist of songs by the artists discussed:
I’m trying something different with music in 2021, following the release calendar more closely and updating a playlist with my favourites each week. Here’s that playlist. Follow along with me?
It’s all online now. I went to the cinema once in 2020 (PARASITE). Our household subscribes to five different film and TV streaming services:
- SKY Go
I have never before had immediate access to so many films I want to watch. I try to make sense of them by dutifully adding preferred titles to my watch list, rather than letting the algorithm decide for me, and I pile up 50-odd titles on each service. Of them, I’ve only comprehensively combed SKY Go for content that interests me; each of the others could have dozens or hundreds more films I might enjoy.
Maybe I should give in and follow the algorithm. I’ve spent far more time researching and adding to my watch lists than I have watching the titles on them. I don’t have a lot of time to myself, true, but when I go, and I open up one of the lists, I’m immediately paralysed by indecision. Invariably, I close the tab and go back to my book.
The nadir of this behaviour was SHOPLIFTERS. Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of my favourite directors, one whose films I make a point of seeing. SHOPLIFTERS appeared on the SKY Go one day in 2020 and I thought, yes! Finally!! I get to see this modern classic, Palme d’Or winner, the film that finally brought Kore-eda to wider recognition! I’ll put it on the watch list.
It disappeared off the platform three weeks later. I had not watched it.
Not that I didn’t watch a lot of movies in 2020. I just watched the same ones, over and over. In March, my wife instituted Movie Night on Tuesdays, which quickly expanded to Saturdays as well during lockdown. The four of us took turns choosing what to watch, and because my children were two years old, we watched the following films several times:
- HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
- THE CAT RETURNS
- COOL RUNNINGS
- THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
- Any of the Julia Donaldson shorts
And I am not complaining. I am in fact incredibly proud of my children for taking to THE CAT RETURNS and COOL RUNNINGS, which are slower-paced than most modern fare (in fact, they seem to respond better to more sedate viewing than flashy, heavily edited films). I’m not even complaining about HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, whose catchy and knowing songs have become central to our household’s shared set of references (see above). Varsity-age me would’ve been appalled I’d gotten into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. To be honest, so would last-year me. But here we are. Never been a better time to let the sunshine in.
And then there’s HAMILTON, which we all took to so quickly. The kids know the words to most of the first act. It’s still our default car music. HAMILTON is an imperfect masterwork, harmed by its absences but gloriously elevated by pretty much everything that’s there. It works on a number of levels for every second of two and a half hours, with great tunes delivered by incredible vocal performers. I didn’t see how a musical about the founding fathers could be anything but cringeworthy — then I watched it, these people of colour claiming the problematic past for themselves, and I got it.
These are the new-to-NZ films and TV series I saw:
PARASITE (good, but enormously overrated)
UNCUT GEMS (Safdies with another bleak, high-tension gift)
DEVS (formally superb, some interesting ideas wasted on a dumb plot)
THE GOOD PLACE: Season 4 (blasted through the entire show in a couple of months, a great initial gimmick built on and sustained to make the defining sitcom of the era)
ONWARD (lesser Pixar but still very enjoyable, and another difficult landing superbly stuck)
HAMILTON (still an obsession several months later)
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (stunning, with two moments of spine-tingling movie magic)
There’s one other film I saw for the first time in 2020 I’d like to mention specifically, and that’s FIRST REFORMED. It’s as bold and brilliant as all the reviews at the time suggested, and dovetails nicely with my favourite book of the year above. Whether or not he gives up in the end, the economy with which director Schrader and star Hawke drag so many of our current social and economic demons to the surface is — as Rev Toller says at the moment of his awakening — exhilarating. In case you’re not getting it, we absolutely must do something about the many ways in which we are destroying our planet. FIRST REFORMED asks: what would you do? How far would you go? And could it ever be enough?
My favourite sporting moment of the year was when Jürgen Klopp, manager of my beloved Liverpool, who won the league at a canter for the first time in decades, conversed with some fans as he entered the stadium.
Traditionally, sports fans have mythical power, especially in football. They’re the reason for it all, the ever-loyal brotherhood (because they are mostly men). Their deification has graduated from sporting custom to the strategic plan — because to alienate them would surely be economic suicide (although the board at Manchester United have made a fine fist of running a football club with only the shareholders in mind). It’s normal, therefore, for coaches and players to show willingness to engage with fans as they enter the stadium; to give them a quick high five as they run down the tunnel, for example.
In mid-March, a week or two before the Premier League was suspended indefinitely, and a couple of weeks before New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown commenced, Klopp was having none of it. As he strode out with his players, he looked up at the faces of the fans stretching their arms out, hoping for brief physical contact with their heroes — including the wunderbar German manager who had delivered the team’s greatest success since the 80s. He did not indulge them. Instead, he bellowed, “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots!”
And that’s why Liverpool won the league. Klopp wasn’t there to muck around. Every detail would be analysed, every drop of effort expended to the most efficient purpose. And when tradition stood in the way, Klopp shoved it aside. None of his players contracted COVID-19 until after the season was over.
During lockdown, I completed 100 keepy-uppies for the first time in my life. I’d break off from the relentless stream of work a few times a day and do two or three attempts, usually getting to about 40, before bounding back inside to the juggling of Word documents. Eventually I got to 80 keepy-uppies, then 90 keepy-uppies, then 100 keepy-uppies. No one was around to see me do it.
I reflected on the wonder of practice; how you can improve a skill simply by repeating it. And I reflected on talent, and ambition; also during lockdown, a friend who plays proper football at club level achieved the ‘around-the-world’ trick, clockwise and anticlockwise. I had as much interest in following suit as I did in perfecting ball tricks when I was in high school, which is zero. My natural talents are to pick the right pass and shoot accurately from distance, not to showboat, and I am content to ply my trade in lunchtime indoor five-a-side every few weeks.
That’s a far cry from the lofty sporting ambitions of my childhood, when I imagined myself a dual international in rugby and cricket. But I’m satisfied I’ve found my level.
Ha ha ha. Well. We managed our usual summer holiday in February, to Hawke’s Bay, during which I got sick and we argued a lot. There were some great moments too: descending the grand staircase in an old convent/school we stayed at for a night in Featherston, days on the beach in Waimārama, and particularly our visit to Splash Planet, which begat a long and pretentious blog post.
You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.
There were also two joyous weekends at holiday houses in Foxton Beach. And an expensive night in Auckland during which I ate one of the best (certainly the most expensive) meals of my life. We in New Zealand were lucky to be able to do all this without fear. I wonder when we’ll be able to rock up to Tokyo or Paris again.
Tara is everything to me. She’s my love, my rock, my inspiration; a source of frustration; my comfort at the wordless end of an exhausting day; my partner in the biggest work of our lives; my favourite cook; my cheerleader; the one who will stare daggers at me or look away in disgust, the one who will look at me with pure openness the way anyone would long to be looked at. I will ignore her sometimes in favour of my phone; other times I follow her around the house like a silly little dog. Long-term intimacy has brought almost everything out of us and I would say we love each other more than ever, even with all the worst parts of ourselves left in. We may never sand those rough edges off. Life is probably more interesting with them.
Whenever anyone asks me how the kids are, I try to talk about the things they are doing, rather than ascribe personality traits that may change next week. But they are getting to the point where the things they do are their personalities, in a way. June builds towers out of anything, but especially blocks, and is quite happy to spend two hours in her room each afternoon stacking Duplo on her desk until she can’t reach any higher. Nora wants to be around people as much of the time as possible, and if she can’t be around people, she’ll hold birthday parties for her toys. Both are generally quite shy but increasingly surprise us by introducing themselves to a shopkeeper with confidence. Both want a lolly, right now. They started kindergarten in 2020 and can now use a potty and a toilet; guess which was the bigger milestone in our view. I ignore them sometimes in favour of my phone, too — sometimes you have to if you want them to get to sleep, or to discover the world in their own way — but as much as possible, I try to be with who they are today.
If and when Tara’s parents move in with us, and if we have another child, the times of our little unit of four will come to an end. I’d miss it, of course, but changes like these would bring at least as many gains. Ask me again a year after it happens.
We had the usual visits from far-flung family generous enough to make it to us because we can’t afford to make it to them right now. My dad and stepmother from Auckland, my brother/sister-in-law/niblings from Dunedin. We spent time occasionally with family who live locally, and I always came away thinking ‘we should do that more often’; same goes for the few friends we saw sporadically. But it was a year of focusing on the family unit, especially during those two months or so between March and May. In the worst times, we felt horribly isolated. In the best times, our days seemed crammed full of joy and wonder. I can’t do any of it justice.
During lockdown, I would stop work through the middle hours of the day — approx 1130-1400 — to play with the kids, have family lunch, and put one of my children down for an early afternoon nap. She’d stretch out in my lap, on her back looking up at me, and smile as I rocked her from side to side with my legs, humming songs from MOANA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and FROZEN. The smile would fade, the long blinks would eventually begin, then she would fall asleep. I can easily imagine looking back at the end of my life and thinking, that was as good as it got.