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On my radar: Jon McGregor’s cultural highlights

Author Jon McGregor
Jon McGregor, author of the Costa-winning novel Reservoir 13. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Born in Bermuda and raised in Norfolk, Jon McGregor wrote his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while working in a vegetarian restaurant. The novel was long-listed for the 2002 Booker prize, making McGregor, then 26, the youngest ever contender. He has written two more novels as well as short fiction. The University of Nottingham gave him an honorary doctorate in 2010, and later appointed him professor of creative writing in its school of English. His fourth novel, Reservoir 13, which last week won the Costa award for best novel of 2017, is out in paperback on 25 January; its “prequel” The Reservoir Tapes, is a series of specially commissioned stories for BBC Radio 4.

1 | Book

Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime by Jeffrey Boakye

Writer Jeffrey Boakye
Writer Jeffrey Boakye. Photograph: Rodolpho Gargaro

I thought grime had passed me by, but one pleasure of Jeffrey Boakye’s excellent collection of essays was the discovery that I knew a lot of the tracks he writes about. Boakye writes affectionately and incisively about the music, lyrics, and the social context of each of the 50 or so tracks featured, tracing their nuanced connections. It’s one of the best music books I’ve read and the YouTube playlist only makes it better. Read it, and you too will start hearing the Amen break everywhere.

2 | Theatre

Minefield, directed by Lola Arias. Royal Court theatre and touring

David Jackson in Minefield at the Royal Court theatre.
David Jackson in Minefield at the Royal Court theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

My favourite theatre performances are the ones that have some level of engagement with the audience, and something raw or unexpected. This show, in which six Falklands veterans from the UK and Argentina discuss and enact their experiences, has that in spades. It’s as much about its own making, and about the purposes and limits of such work, as it is about the actual conflict. Lola Arias, has clearly drawn on a great talent to bring these very different men together and guide them towards telling their stories. It is tremendously warm and funny and heartbreaking, of course. A great vision of what theatre can be.

3 | Podcast

Home of the Brave

Scott Carrier treats the podcast medium with respect
Scott Carrier, who treats the podcast medium with ‘beautiful respect’. Photograph:

I did a lot of thinking about radio this year while working on The Reservoir Tapes. Of all the podcasts I subscribed to, this was the one I kept revisiting. Most of the episodes feature Scott Carrier – a contributor to the renowned National Public Radio show This American Life – travelling the US to talk to people who he often disagrees with. Carrier’s voice, which is several shades more laconic than the word “laconic” implies, creates an intimacy that’s well suited to headphones and long journeys. Too many podcasts confuse the accessibility of the medium with a licence to be slapdash, but Carrier treats the form with a beautiful respect and he knows how to edit, since most episodes roll in at around 15 minutes.

4 | Music

Aldous Harding performing Horizon live at the Whammy Bar

Watch Aldous Harding performing at the Whammy Bar.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a live performance of this song and I’ve been watching it every day. Nick Hornby once wrote (about Nelly Furtado’s I’m Like a Bird) that the best pop songs force you to keep listening to solve their central mystery, and that’s what Aldous Harding does here. What does she mean, “Here is your princess, and here is the horizon”? And why does everything tremble when she sings it? The arrangement of this song gives Harding’s voice the space to do something remarkable indeed.

5 | Exhibition

Sounds Like Her, curated by Christine Eyene at the New Art Exchange

Nottingham’s New Art Exchange
Nottingham’s New Art Exchange. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The New Art Exchange in Nottingham is an excellent gallery near where I live. It puts on shows of ambition and significance and supports emerging artists and under-represented work. Recent highlights include Larissa Sansour and Keith Piper, but this one, a showcase of sound art by women, was of great interest since I’ve recently been fitted with a hearing aid and am hyper‑aware of the role of sound in my life.

6 | Poetry

Leonardo Da Vinci Code by Hera Lindsay Bird

Poet Hera Lindsay Bird strides confidently off the page
Poet Hera Lindsay Bird: ‘strides confidently off the page’. Photograph: Pako Mera / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

I saw Hera Lindsay Bird reading this piece at the Vancouver Writers Fest. It was funny, clever and deadpan and kept me hanging on every line. These are not always the responses that I have when I see poetry performed. Later, I went to buy her book but the festival bookshop had sold out. Her writing has a freshness and straightforwardness that strides confidently off the page.

7 | Coffee

Cartwheel Coffee and the Speciality Coffee Shop, Nottingham

Coffee as a cultural experience
Coffee as a cultural experience. Photograph:

It’s easy to sneer at hipster affectation in the new wave of independent coffee shops, but the best of them serve revelatory coffee at great value and with incredible expertise. Both these shops have changed my thinking about what had always been a simple caffeine delivery system, and turned it into a cultural experience. Each cup comes with new information about terroir, roasting and brewing. A special mention should go to the Colombian espresso that Michaelangelo at Speciality produced last summer: like something dreamed up by Willy Wonka, each sip tasted progressively of walnut, plum and cherry.

This article titled "On my radar: Jon McGregor’s cultural highlights" was written by Jon McGregor, for The Observer on Sunday 7 January 2018 10.00am


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